Nonfiction by Mary Zelinka
Nowadays, we would say he was suffering from PTSD. But in 1967, the summer I was nineteen, nobody I knew had those words to describe Vietnam vets. Too many of us had a childhood playmate, a brother, a boyfriend come home in a body bag. If a vet made it back alive and in one piece, we thought he was lucky.
Summer term had just started when I first saw him. I had barely squeaked through my sophomore year, but decided that going through the motions of being a student was easier than returning home. My parents would expect me to be myself – hanging out with my old high school boyfriend, shopping for clothes, running up the phone bill talking to my college friends. But I wasn’t myself anymore and hadn’t been since my freshman year. Now I was too tired to keep trying. Just a month before, when my roommate had gone home for the weekend, I took a handful of her tranquilizers. It’s not that I wanted to kill myself exactly, I just wanted to stop being, which I guess was the same thing.
I had seen him around town, whizzing down the streets on a beat-up camouflaged bicycle. There was an intensity about him, like he was on some perilous mission. Even without the bicycle, he was hard to miss. Not tall so much as big and stocky – hard, like he could lift a lot of weights at one time. He wore camouflaged army fatigues, with a camouflaged cap pulled down low over his forehead.
The first day of classes, I was surprised when he sauntered into my World Geography class. He slid into the seat next to mine in the last row and stretched his camouflaged legs out in front of him. He peered at me from under the brim of his cap and nodded. He was older than I would have guessed him to be. There were creases around his eyes and he looked as if he had seen enough to decide he couldn’t count on anybody.
Though I would come to know that he didn’t seek out the company of another person on purpose, it was probably no accident that in an otherwise empty row, he sat in the seat next to mine. I wouldn’t have understood or even believed it at the time, but now I wonder if we each recognized that something had been broken in the other and found a kind of solace. Whatever it was, when we made eye contact that day, I felt a curious kinship.
As had been happening with increasing frequency the past year, my mind clamped shut as soon as the professor started droning. In my notebook, I made a little tick mark each time the professor said, “Do you see what I mean?”
After class he walked out next to me. “So what do you think of Dr. Do-you-see-what-I-mean Webber?”
“He said it seventeen times!” I said, shaking my head.
“I only got eleven, but I didn’t start counting until he had been at it a while. I’m Bill.” He stuck out his hand for me to shake.
I told him I was Mary.
He retrieved his bike from where he had stashed it behind some bushes and we walked across campus towards the dorms. Other students eyed us curiously and gave us a wide berth as they passed. He stopped suddenly in front of a small building marked “Campus Police.”
“Wait. This will just take a minute.” He tried the door handle, but it was locked. He ripped a piece of paper out of his notebook, scribbled something with his pencil, folded the paper in half and then rubber-banded it to the handle. “I’m in the middle of this thing with the campus police,” he whispered as though someone might overhear him.
I had never heard of anyone in a “thing” with the campus police before. They had always seemed sort of benign to me.
We didn’t speak again until we got to my dorm. Then he ducked his head at me and said, “Later, Kid,” and took off on his bike.
Summer was the shortest quarter of the year and everything seemed speeded up. By the end of the first week, routines were set. After our class, Bill walked me back to the dorms, and if our paths crossed at other times, he’d hop off his bike and walk with me. By the second week, after class we’d go to the elderly woman’s house a few blocks away where he rented a room in the basement. He’d fix us baloney sandwiches in her kitchen and we’d sit on the back steps and eat. He didn’t talk much; he never told me where he was from or why he was back in college. Mostly we were just quiet. He knew I was against the war in Vietnam, but he wouldn’t talk about it. He just said it was crazy over there, but a lot easier than all of this, waving his arms around vaguely. “You either get blown up all to hell or you don’t.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Pretty basic.”
Only fourteen undergraduates, all girls, lived on campus that summer. Some of us sunbathed together in the courtyard in the afternoons, and a group of graduate men usually joined us. Nights, we’d go drinking. Bartenders who had steadfastly refused to serve us during the regular school year knew we were the reason anybody came in at all during those quiet summer months and didn’t check IDs.
After those nights, I’d walk over to Bill’s. Sometimes he’d be outside in his camouflaged tent, stretched out in his camouflaged sleeping bag. There might be stripes charcoaled on his face. “Skin is real glaring at night. If a flashlight catches you, you’re dead meat.”
There was a second camouflaged sleeping bag for me if I wanted to stay. Frequently I did. He’d crawl out of his bag, light his lantern, and gently draw charcoal stripes diagonally across my face. After he inspected his work, he’d smile and say, “Goodnight, Little Buddy,” and scrunch back into his bag. Those were the only nights in a long, long time that I fell instantly asleep and stayed that way until the sun came up.
I knew there was something not quite right about Bill so I didn’t tell anyone about him. That summer seemed to launch a downward spiral that had been brewing for a long time. It was like I had no control anymore and life was just pushing me around. I couldn’t even muster up enough curiosity to wonder what was going to happen next. Bill made as much sense as anything. And he didn’t expect anything from me.
Right before midterms, Bill dropped all his classes. “I’ve got to bring this thing with the Campus Police to a close. School takes up way too much time.”
I told him I didn’t get what this “thing” was with the Campus Police.
He squinted his eyes at me. Then he took a long deep breath.
“I’ve been laying traps for them over in the woods off 16th Street.” I knew the woods he was talking about, near the new student union. A dirt road meandered through them, and kids would park there to make out.
He grabbed his notebook and drew a wavy line. “This is the road. I’ve got trenches here, here, here.” He made x’s all over the page. “They’re expecting those, now. So I’ve been giving them what they expect and working on the Big One.” His pencil tapped a point about half-way down the road.
The trenches he had been digging with his fold-up army shovel went clear across the road and were of varying depths. He camouflaged them with netting and leaves.
Part of me wondered why I wasn’t telling him how crazy this sounded. But at the same time, I thought it was probably harmless – just the Campus Police over-reacting to some pranks.
“It’s a risk because you haven’t done time in the jungle, but do you want to come along when it’s ready?”
“Come on, I’ll show you what I’ve been doing.” He tossed some camouflaged clothes at me and jabbed his head towards the bathroom. “Go put these on. You’re going to be doing some crawling around.” The pant legs and shirtsleeves had to be rolled up before I could see my feet or hands. I notched Bill’s belt all the way over to hold up the pants.
The afternoon sun filtering through the trees cast a golden light in the woods. I hadn’t been there since my freshman year. Now the woods seemed friendly. Woodsy smells filled the air and, other than the occasional bird, the crunching of Bill’s boots and my Keds was the only sound.
Bill pointed out each trench as we walked. Some were more than a foot deep and at least two feet wide. They were so well camouflaged there is no way a car could spot them.
After about ten minutes in, Bill stopped.
Everything looked the same as the rest of the road. Then Bill started pointing out his work: a series of shallow trenches. “Just random enough make the car swerve a little. And then this.” He gestured to the tree overhead.
A heavy tree limb loomed high over the road. Balanced on top were sticks and branches. And a log. The log was about the thickness of a telephone pole and probably eight feet long.
“How did you ever get it up there?” I asked in wonder.
“Levers. Pulleys. You know, that stuff you learn in school when you’re a kid.”
I could not remember ever having learned about levers and pulleys.
“How it will work is this,” Bill was more animated than I had ever seen him. “Campus Police will be driving fast, maybe 20, 25 miles an hour. They’ll hit the series of shallow trenches and be concentrating on keeping the car steady. Their headlights will make contact with a cable I will string across the road early that evening. And then blam!” He punched his fist hard into his hand. “The log and branches will crash down. The log is the main thing. The branches are just to add some confusion.”
It still seemed like some kind of game. Not quite believable.
We spent the rest of the afternoon with me practicing belly crawling – laying belly flat on the ground, forearms and knees propelling me forward. Like swimming on dry land.
On the way back to his apartment, he pulled a camouflaged net out of his pocket. “This is your friend,” he said handing it to me. “Underneath this, you will look exactly like a bush.” I raised my eyebrows. “Seriously. They can shine a flashlight right on you and all they will see is a bush.”
Two nights later Bill was ready. “They have been notified that something big is happening tonight. I expect they will be out in full force.” I was dressed in Bill’s fatigues and he was charcoaling stripes on my face and hands. “No matter how close one of them gets to you, stay absolutely still.” He pulled one of his camouflaged caps over my head and smiled. “There. You look like a real soldier.”
When we got to the site of the Big One, Bill rigged his cable system. Then we hunkered under our camouflaged nets a few feet from the road. It was perfectly quiet.
The woods didn’t seem so friendly anymore. They were more like what I remembered. In the moonlight, the trees looked like Halloween trees, the brush dark and sinister.
Finally the sound of a car engine. “We’re on,” Bill whispered.
The whomp whomp whomp of the car hitting the trenches, the headlights bouncing crazily through the trees. Then Blam! the car hit the last trench, dove hard into Bill’s cable, jerked to a stop. The log and tree limbs thundered down. The log smacked the car with such force, the roof caved in, shattering the windshield. Branches and sticks pelted down wildly after it.
Silence. Frantic static of police radio. Motorcycles in the distance. More cars. A cop staggered out of the wrecked car, a city police car. The Campus Police must have called them in for help.
My heart pounded into my throat. “I didn’t know it was going to happen like that.”
“Me neither. I was sure nobody would walk away from it.”
My insides lurched like I was about to fall.
By now I couldn’t count the police cars and motorcycles; all the lights and motors made it seem like a lot. The first cop held on to his shoulder like it was hurt.
Bill leaned into me. “I’m going to throw some rocks over the road to make them think I’ve gone off in that direction. They’ll figure out I didn’t pretty quick, but it will give us time to get out. Can you find your way if you stay off the road?”
“Yes,” I whispered back.
“As soon as they take off after the rocks, you head towards the entrance. Don’t move in a straight line. I’ll keep them away from you. It may be a while before I make it back to the tent. If you get lost, stay under the net and I’ll come find you.”
When Bill threw his rocks, everyone turned towards the sound. The motorcycles revved their engines and crashed through the brush, with the cops racing after them on foot. The one cop still gripped his shoulder.
“Go!” Bill whispered and he took off in the opposite direction.
I dropped to my belly and crawled.
My shoulders and thighs ached as I pulled my way over logs and rocks, through bushes, around tree trunks. Sticks scraped my face. I fell into a shallow hole, probably one of Bill’s traps. I hunkered down to rest for a minute, covering myself with the net. If I had to spend the night out here, this would be a good spot. Motorcycles whined in the distance.
In the quiet of the hole, my mind rushed with images of the cop holding his shoulder. Of Bill’s disappointment it wasn’t worse.
Suddenly, the time I had had to claw my way out of these woods before flashed before me. Every pore in my body jerked awake and I started shaking.
My date had pulled in next to the cars already parked in the turn-around. After some kissing, his grip around my arms tightened. He shoved me down hard on the seat. I had been raped a few months before and I knew what was coming. “Stop!” He pinned my arms and chest underneath his arm and fumbled with his belt. Jeers from the other cars, “Hey man, she just doesn’t like you!” Laughter. Every laugh made him push harder. Finally, I twisted out from under him and got the car door open. I tumbled out on the ground and, with my underwear clutched in my fist, took off running through the woods.
My heart racing, I jumped out of the hole, the camouflage net tangling around my knees. I dropped to my belly and started crawling as fast as I could.
Throughout the night, motorcycle headlights crisscrossed the woods. Once a bike stopped just a couple of feet away. I could have touched the front wheel. He shined his light right at me. Then rode on. Bill was right – all he saw was a bush.
The sky had barely begun to lighten by the time I made it to the tent. I climbed into my sleeping bag where it was safe, still shaking.
When I heard someone outside I bolted upright. “Bill?”
He ducked inside and plopped down in the middle of his sleeping bag. “What a night!”
Sudden tears rolled down my face. They tasted like charcoal. “I was scared.” It felt like a confession.
Bill’s face furrowed with concern. “That’s okay, Little Buddy,” he reassured me. “The jungle is a scary place. Everybody is scared in the jungle.”
I shook my head. “From before,” I whispered. “I was there before.”
Something like recognition flickered through his eyes. He came closer and gently cradled my head between his hands. His charcoal-smeared face just inches from mine, he peered into my eyes.
“Listen to me.” He spoke softly, his words slow and even. “You’re safe now. Whatever happened, whatever you had to do or couldn’t do – you made it out. That’s all that matters. You are a warrior.”
I slept through my World Geography mid-term that day and had to lie about being sick so the professor would let me take it later. It didn’t much matter, though, because I dropped the class before I had to take it.
A few days later, Bill packed up his camouflage gear and left. Time to move on, he said. It didn’t really surprise me. After that night, I realized that the war Bill waged was far too big for this little college town.
For the next year, until I was expelled for drinking, every couple of weeks I’d get a postcard from him. Denver, Chicago, Atlanta, a different city each time. He scrawled “Hey, Little Buddy” on the first ones. Later, they were blank.
Mary Zelinka has been involved in the movement to end violence against women since 1980. She works at the Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence in Corvallis, Oregon, where she witnesses the remarkable strength and resiliency of survivors of sexual and domestic violence every day. In addition to VoiceCatcher volumes II and V, her writing has appeared in CALYX, The Sun Magazine, and The Journey of Healing: Wisdom From Survivors of Sexual Abuse.