I know they don’t look red now”, said Jamie, “but you should see them in the fall.”.
She was referring to the Ruby Mountains in Nevada, and we were all ooohing and ahhhing, imagining the colour shift. Jennifer said she had seen Ayer’s Rock in Australia and remembered its flaming orange and sombre purple colours depending on the time of day. Frances piped up, “The Canadian Thanksgiving is always a gorgeous time of year. You should see our trees turn colour!” There were Americans on the trip so with the air of a teacher, Frances added, ”Our Thanksgiving takes place in the fall. I always wondered why yours is only six weeks to Christmas… “She rambled on , questioning why families would want to gather twice in such a short period time, and how even tv shows always seemed to focus on the squabbling , drinking and dozing after too much turkey…
Cam interjected, “Boy, do I have a Thanksgiving story for you.”
We were a small group of fifteen and over four days on a bus trip through Nevada, we had begun to make in-roads at figuring out who we were and why we had been invited to investigate the ghost towns, caverns, cowboys and cultures of the sagebrush state. We were of mixed ages, some from Quebec, others from Alberta, a few from Ontario and the rest from the states. Most had spent their flagrant youth as writers, guides or travel tour owners. Frances confirmed my suspicions that she might have been an educator and she moaned about being recently retired. With some humility, she confided that she had written the odd scholarly article and even a magazine review.
Laughing, she explained she had always wanted to be a writer and on a wild whim had e-mailed the story of at trip to Rio to a local newspaper. Someone was interested in her night at Mab’s place along the Copacabana Beach and the endless stream of gladiolas offered to the sea and the family groups swaying on the beach under a halo of twinkling stars on New Years. She continued that someone had contacted her, politely asking if she was up for a tour to Nevada. At first, she figured that someone was trying to sell her a condo in Vegas.. “I refused out right,” she chortled, some of her teacher qualities evident in the way she spoke, “ but then I actually listened and soon I was on the bus with the rest of you. I am so excited to be with real writers.” She beamed in her searsuckers, honestly pleased and gushing.
Cam was a guide from Texas. He was young, blond, sturdily handsome, had kids, been divorced – and now lived with a girlfriend. If America had decided to replace Uncle Sam as a symbol for America, Cam would have been it. He shared that he had guided groups into the Grand Canyon at least one hundred times. He said that he could fix an overheated Ford engine with duck tape and had saved four old ladies when their car had stalled for three days in the desert. He seemed affable enough and I believed his tales, even marvelling at his acuity with tape.
Jamie, the tour organizer, was strict informing us when we had to board the bus. Many of us hung around at lunch and supper breaks, waiting for the doors to open but when I looked, I almost always noticed that Cam had disappeared.
At a state park, I watched Frances follow Cam’s lead, stepping into his footsteps to avoid tumbleweed and leaning bushes that grabbed at the bottom of her washable, practical pants. She stopped where he stopped and observeded him nibbling on every plant in the park. He kept up a dialogue: partly wise and mindful parent, partly half- knowledgeable geographer, partly charming explorer. He explained about the benefits of a scraggily growth called Mormon Tea and a plant named creosote that apparently holds wondrous powers to refresh the dehydrated and heal wounds. He’d seen it for himself, he confided. He sniffed out mint, breaking off stems and adding it to our containers of water. He said he had once been a boy scout and still carried with him a couple of his badges. I expected them to be embroidered on his sleeves of his tee-shirt, worn, but constantly rubbed as amulets to his expertise.
Frances was obviously in awe of him, nodding, smiling, praising him, encouraging his ramblings and long winded explanations. She made me think of parents’ night when teachers nod and nod, hoping to suck up to the parent of their top achiever.
Cam didn’t apologize for delaying the group when he arrived back late. Jamie’s tart looks did not end his routine of keeping the rest of us a little late, waiting. Frances moved to the empty seat beside him and it appeared that he was tutoring her. I could overhear how the earth’s Tectonic plates shifted and how stalactites were formed by depositing calcium- rich water on limestone rocks. We’d just visited the Great Basin National Park and the Lehman Caves, discovered in 1880 when Absalom Lehman’s horse broke through the earth’s crust. Ranger Katie had shone her flashlight at formations that resembled hanging strips of bacon and frozen steams of water. It was another occasion for us city-folk to oooh and ahhh.
Frances’ looks of admiration suggested that Cam was an awesome teacher as he kept providing her with multiple metaphors and analogies so that she might better understand the earth’s eruptions and melding she had obviously missed as an elementary school student. He drew pictures, gesturing with his hands, but not making a lot of eye contact. He almost seemed to be talking to himself, needing but oblivious to Frances’ congratulatory comments on how smart he was and how deficient she was in her own knowledge.
There was something about Cam. Maybe it was his too loud voice or the voices of minorities that suddenly emerged every now and then from nowhere in the bus. I’ld turn around to look and only see Cam pushing buttons on his cellphone. In spite of his monologues with Frances, there was something about his being an odd duck who leads but does not fit in with the pack. I put aside any judgments, and was impressed by someone with the patience to discuss rudimentary geology with an old teacher.
Yet soon, as Cam veered from travel facts to a personal story, I realized that there was something strange about him. Frances’ comments on Thanksgiving prompted Cam to tell a story that so flawlessly performed, it must have been reiterated many, many times.
“My dad once ate six Thanksgiving dinners”, Cam boasted, pausing dramatically to gather our reactions. We laughed and Frances said that his dad must be a glutton and he probably never wanted to eat turkey and stuffing again. I figured that Cam’s dad practiced honing his eating skills at those eating contests where the participants in overalls pack themselves full of hot dogs and cherry pies at county fairs like the one I’d seen at Martha’s Vineyard in the 90’s. I imagined a rotund man dabbing at his rosy face with a checkered handkerchief as he paused between heaping plates of greasy corn dogs and overly-plump dressed sausages slathered in mustard and relish en route to gobbling up turkey dinners with all the fixings.
Cam quietly responded, “No.”
I assumed his listeners generally reacted this way, wanting to know more. Always the writer, I considered that Cam was structuring his tale, inciting interest with a rhetorical device like the hyperbole he had just used, building his crescendo to the climax and eventually providing the satisfying ending. Much like the sturdy base of Legos needed to support children’s wavering towers, Frances pushed him on with her encouraging manner, big thin-lipped smile.
“ My dad rarely spoke about Viet Nam” Cam began .
Maybe Cam had inherited his pensive demeanour from his dad, needing factual questions to draw him out to demonstrate his command of a situation. We turned subdued now, realizing that the story might not be the antics of a family Thanksgiving where some family members watch tv, snooze on the couch or gossip in the kitchen. Cam’s story was likely a war story, and maybe we had been duped into entering territory that we might not like navigating, but we had all ready given him permission to press on .
Straightening himself up military style ( I could almost imagine that peaked hat appearing), this time solemn, Cam began, “ Dad rarely spoke about his time in Viet Nam. Dad said that when he returned home, the vets were not welcomed as heroes.”
Frances interrupted, “ I’ve recently become more sympathetic towards veterans because my neighbours’ daughter is a social worker in Baltimore and she works with vets returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. She said they suffer from PTSS, or Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, and they really need safe transitions from one culture to another back home. Even their kids need help and understanding…She says there’s this one lost soul who keeps coming back to the Centre, just to talk to about friendly fire…” I figured Frances had identified quite a number of lost souls in her former line of work.
There was palpable tension between Frances’ words and Cam’s jiggling of his pocket knife between his fingers. Now uncomfortable, we wondered what Cam’s revelation might have to do with eating turkeys on Thanksgiving .The leap from falling leaves to exploding landmines was pretty far, but we had already consented to this introspective man’s foray through brush and bravado. Like his instruction to Frances, he was enjoying the focused attention, but was twitchy to get on with his narrative.
Maybe to distance or prepare herself for sites of carnage and chaos that were likely to arise, Frances, like a teacher who wants to distract a rowdy student and change the course of class conversation, interrupted again, nervously beginning a discourse on Viet Nam movies. “Does anyone remember Coming Home where Jane Fonda rides on the back of Viet Nam vet Jon Voight’s wheelchair on Santa Monica Beach? What about Born on the Fourth of July? With Tom Cruise? When he was younger, of course. Before he married Katie Holmes…”
We stared out at the mountains whizzing by, but we could still hear her.
She tried to move towards a political discussion and recounted that recently she had heard the Lyndon Johnson tapes as he conferred with all of his chiefs of staff, agonising about sending more troops or bringing them home from Viet Nam. She said that in spite of Johnson’s domestic successes during the Civil Rights Movement, she had always associated him with the inappropriate showing of his appendix scar, a second rater next to her generation’s affair with John Kennedy and the dreams of Camelot. She contributed ,”Lady Bird was down right dowdy and Johnson seemed a Texas buffoon… ”
I could see Cam was bristling, opening and closing the little knife more and more quickly.
But Frances went on saying that the Viet Nam war was a scar that would not heal, a wound that had festered way too long and that there had been kids from her days at university who had been draft dodgers and she, herself, had participated in marches where she screamed slogans about using Napalm on innocent people. Trying now to portray herself as balanced, she rattled “I knew that protesters often departed the protests if the weather were bad, but police sometimes got violent at those giddy, innocent faces that chanted and challenged them non-stop.” She couldn’t help herself, tipping towards her anti-war sentiments by creating an image of that scene in Washington where hippies had shoved flowers into police guns.
When Frances took a sip of water, Cam slid effortlessly into the silent space, continuing that except for his Thanksgiving story, his father had spoken little about those days.
“My dad was given his papers at 6 a.m. He had lived in the jungle for two solid years with only his dog, Kane, as his companion. He was in the K-nine unit. He was sad to leave Kane…”
“Why couldn’t he bring Kane stateside?” Frances interjected, hoping to prolong but avoid a bloody conclusion to the story. In her world of carefully chosen stories with happy endings and lessons for her students, she was conjuring Kane as man’s best friend and a docile animal who would retrieve Cam’s father’s slippers and fetch the newspaper once stateside.
A robotic voice, staccato-clipped , “Kane was trained to protect my dad- to kill – by tearing out the jugular or ripping open the veins of the enemy.”
Cam paused again and smirked, likely at Frances’ ignorance of specially trained war dogs and her dropped mouth.
Another voice now, almost leering, “ You know they smell differently… “
At first, we thought he meant the dogs, but it became obvious that was not at all what he meant. “ The army couldn’t risk it so dad knew Kane would be put down. That was hard because Kane would often munch on the enemy and soften them up before dad questioned them. Kane was dad’s best and only friend in the jungle for those two years.”
Waves of silent horror rolled over Frances’ face as she must have reflected on how easily Cam had used the words “ munch” and “smell” ,and “them” as if it was the most ordinary thing in the world to munch on someone to soften them up.
He seemed to relish her naiveté, speaking in an official way that not only sanctioned his words, it dismissed any thought that there was something terribly wrong about his story. His calculated pauses had nothing to do with a moral shift or war is hell or maybe this was a ghost story to bring out the shivers.
He continued, “Well, someone came and told dad that it was time to leave. It was Thanksgiving. So, he had to leave.
On the plane from Phen Rang, he ate turkey dinner.
On the flight to Saigon, he ate turkey dinner.
On the flight to Japan, he ate turkey dinner.
On the flight to Alaska, he ate turkey dinner.
And finally, on the flight to San Francisco, he ate turkey dinner.
At home that night at 7 p.m, guess what he had for dinner?”
He was still, smiled boldly into our faces, calmed to have commanded our total attention.
“Yup, you guessed it, turkey dinner.”
Cam was quiet. He made a funny noise in his throat to break the eerie silence, to indicate he was finished. The little knives now lay like small steel puddles in his relaxed palms.
We didn’t know what to say so we turned and gazed at the Ruby Mountains and imagined them in the springtime, covered with flowers. No one looked at Frances.