Sunday, November 25, 2007

They're burning the camp

"They're burning out the camp" said the young man. "Oh no" I replied, and asked if anyone had phoned the police, and did he want to use my phone to do so. He stared at me a moment and then said gently, "The cops are there. They're helping."

And yes, looking to the north and up into the hills I could see the plumes of smoke. My friend, who works at a local shop and is quick to make certain the coffee is on when I stop by in the morning with my mermaid cup, ready for the first jolt of caffeine, told me that the guy who'd led the police in on the "cleanup" was last seen throwing kerosene pretty wildly through the forest, making certain the damp woods, the sleeping bags, the blankets, the clothing, the papers and the piles of whatever was there caught a good steady flame.

My friend had to come down to work. He'd brought his puppy with him--a four month yellow and brindle mix of some unlikely dimensions and great size, with curling hair and a puppy's smile. Tank, the pup, was tied up outside, safe.

Later that evening, while the fires burnt on and on, I got more reports. Seemed the good citizens and their police friends had in fact missed a couple of the more remote homes, including that of my friend, his girl friend, and their pup. "I know better than to camp where I can be seen. You got to work and pant a bit to get to my place". And I was glad for that. I asked what remained of the burnt out sites; had anyone saved the sleeping gear or the tents. No, didn't seem so.

So I sat and thought about it, and tried to calm my heart, and began getting new blankets and warm coats ready.

That was the day that Kenny died. He'd lived in that camp at one time, and in another hidey hole down by the river. He was a striking dude when he first sauntered into my bookstore to check me out, a low to the ground, stout black dog named Digger at his heels, a battered cowboy hat on his head. His hair was black and grew to his waist. His eyes were shrewd and green, and I heard tell later that he'd been quite the ladies' man in his prime. He himself told stories of his 4 or 5 wives. Beautiful women, he said, were his weakness. And he'd peer at me significantly, trying to charm the bookstore lady as he'd charmed many a barstool companion.
He did charm my animals. The cats would sit on his lap and the dogs cluster at his feet. When Champ the pitbull joined the crew it was Kenny who told me stories of Champ's past. Like many of his stories they may simply have been good yarns, but they had the ring of truth. "Ah, you've tamed the beast, you have" he'd say. "That dog, trust me, he was a killer, and now look at him, meek as a lamb." Champ would wiggle with joy and smile.

Kenny was a drunk and an addict. In the years I knew him--ten or more years--I saw him grow thinner, more unsteady, more befuddled. He suffered head injuries dating from his time as a veteran, and more from beatings, falls, accidents. He did jail time. He went to rehab. He got sick, and sicker, and sicker still.

I was his address and his link to bureaucracies. Some of them helped, some didn't. Everyone tried.

I was also his bard, for early on, as he told me his adventures and as I learned of his situations when he wasn't around--in jail, in the hospital--I wrote a few columns about him for the county paper.

He loved being the hero of printed stories. After the first he'd announce himself with "I've come with another episode in the Saga of Kenny" and settle in his chair. Yes, he had a designated chair at the bookstore.

There was the time he asked for me to clean his injured head and give him a bandaid. The skull looked broken, and I made him go to the doctor, though he protested mightily. 17 stitches, and his head was never quite the same after that.

So, as I say, he died the day of the burning. I didn't know it. I learned about it later, after Thanksgiving.

And I sat down and cried and cried. Well, he loved my old yellow dog, Buddy, and old Digger is also dead. So I can imagine, with sentimental foolishness, that Kenny is hale and hearty and wandering some fine forest land, with a low black dog and a cheerful yellow one bounding ahead into joy.

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Blogger Lori Witzel said...

It's the charming rascals who break your heart when they finally break down.

Sending you way-too-early-morn, sleepless-night smiles. I hope the tears have dried, and your heart stays open.

3:01 AM, November 26, 2007  
Blogger am said...

"So I sat and thought about it, and tried to calm my heart, and began getting new blankets and warm coats ready."

Thank you so much, jarvenpa. Your story, Kenny's story, the whole story that needs to be told. Your words made me think of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin and countless friends and relations from the beginning of time joyfully walking side-by-side with Kenny and the dogs in the forest lands. Your words give me hope that my "Kenny" has a friend like you.

8:21 AM, November 28, 2007  
Blogger LiVEwiRe said...

I suppose I simply can't comprehend the burning of a safe haven. That those you trust think so little of what is yours. Then again, that's me. I've been labeled an idealist as well as called knowingly niave. Perhaps there are things I just will never understand. But you see through that in order to lend your support. To be there and recall an ongoing relationship that was cut short. To remember fondly what some may never have taken the time to make a part of their lives. I think Kenny has a place now. And there he is keeping the eyes of two very special dogs wide with his friendship and tales.

8:37 PM, November 30, 2007  
Blogger David said...

Considering the recent news about fires in California, I am astonished that police would be involved in setting a fire! Well, I guess if the woods are damp then the risk of a forest fire is low. Still, this sounds like arson to me. Are these woods public or private land?

I'm sorry to hear of the passing of your friend Kenny. It sounds like he never really got the help that he needed. I have heard a lot of stories about head injured veterans of the Iraq war who are not getting the care they need either. These men and women all volunteered to serve their country. The war was always wrong, but these men and women deserve all the care they need if they are seriously wounded or permanently disabled. There is just no excuse for disabled veterans being turned loose to fend for themselves!

11:21 AM, December 03, 2007  
Anonymous Marly said...

I've been down, down with the flu, but missed your bookstore characters. Alive or dead, they seem very much alive.

9:06 AM, December 06, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmm... your story brought back memories of living in Isla Vista, when there were many homeless folks (and so-called "hippies") living in teepees and wooden shacks, all over Santa Barbara County. The Sheriff's Department drove out most of the squatters and back-to-landers-- it was illegal to sleep in your car (at one time, I stayed in my brother's VW van-- imagine the racket, when the cops banged on my window, at 3 am!). Later, I worked for the welfare department and Caltrans, where I met quite a few of these characters... every story different, but mostly, alcohol and drug addiction, leading to homelessness. Now, sitting in my warm home, up here in the mountains, those old days of yore seem far away. Thank you for your compassionate depiction of your friends. Regards, Jeff

1:19 PM, December 13, 2007  

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