The Wall is White

January 8th, 2017


“It’s a damn shame when you can’t even trust your own woman. My wife, she didn’t want me no more. She started foolin’ round with other men. Then I was foolin’ round with other women. That’s a fast way to break up a home…well, it weren’t much of home by then no how.”


Daniel and I were in the break room of the psych. ward of the VA hospital. We sat across from each other at a table that is a graveyard for old magazines. Daniel was nibbling at some popcorn that we had brought for the patients at the VA. Daniel spilled more than he ate. Daniel talked. I listened.


Daniel is an old black man. Well, he’s my age, so you can decide if that qualifies him as being old. He sat across from me in his green pajamas. He had grey flecks in his hair, and the reddest eyes I have ever seen. He looked tired, and he rambled on about his life. He was born and raised in Tupelo, Mississippi. He served in the Army at Erlangen, West Germany during the mid-seventies. He was divorced, and he was at VA because of some sort of drug abuse. Daniel spoke for a long time about his struggles and misfortunes. He was bitter, but he was also oddly clear minded about how his own actions contributed to his problems. He took some responsibility for his life.


He said, “I had plans. Shit. Didn’t none of them turn out.”


I like going to the VA psych. ward. I go there most Tuesday evenings with a small group of people from the American Legion Post #18. We bring snacks to the people staying there. Sometimes we play cards with them. Sometimes we just sit with them and talk. I usually sit and talk. Every week is different. The VA cycles these guys through quickly. It’s rare to meet the same person there two weeks in a row. The patients spend a few days in the ward, get patched up, and then they go elsewhere.


One reason that I like going to the ward is that there is no pretense. Nobody has anything left to prove. Everybody is equal in their pajamas, bathrobe, and no-slip socks. If there is a pecking order, I have not detected it. Maybe the patients don’t have time to create a hierarchy, or maybe they just don’t function well enough to do so. In any case, there is no rank and there are no titles.


The vets usually talk to me, and they are remarkably open. A few people are reclusive and I respect their wish to be alone. The ones who converse with me generally are totally upfront about why they are in the ward. It’s not rare to have a guy say to me, “I was drinking way too much”, or “Yeah, I am hooked on Percocets.” One guy spent the better part of an hour explaining to me how the doctors were tweaking his meds so that he could deal with the voices inside his head. They tell me these things so matter-of-factly, as if they were telling me, “The wall is white.” These vets have nothing to hide any more. I have found more honesty in the psych. ward than I have ever found anywhere else.


None of these guys are there because they want to be there. They are there because they had plans and “none of them turn out”. They are in the strange position of being in control of nothing and responsible for nothing. Somebody else cares for their needs and somebody else makes their decisions. Suddenly, they don’t have to do anything. Suddenly, they have the chance to just be. I don’t know, but that has to be oddly liberating; like when Paul McCartney sang on Abbey Road, “Oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go…”.  How hard it is to just be. All these patients are on a mandatory Zen retreat. They live in the moment because they have no other options.


The veterans can be very compassionate. I guess that shouldn’t surprise me. They all wear their suffering openly like medals on uniforms. I often tell the vets about my time in the Army, and sometimes I tell them about the struggles that Hans, our oldest son, has had since he came back from the war in Iraq. The vets listen to me closely. Some of them have to leave because the topic cuts too close to their own experiences. I feel badly about that, and I try to apologize to them. They don’t blame me. Some try to comfort me when tell them about my concerns with Hans. More than one has said to me, “It will be all right, Frank. Your boy will be okay.” When they say something like that, they mean it with all their heart. Because they know. They really do know.


There is a movie called “The King of Hearts”. It is a black comedy about World War I. The story is about a French village that is about to be blown up by the Germans. The citizens of the village flee their homes, and the patients in an insane asylum escape and take up the roles of the villagers. The movie ends with the inmates of the asylum returning to their facility because the people fighting the war are too crazy for them.


I think about that movie when I go to the VA.



April 5th, 2017

I sat across from an old man last night. My friends and I had just finished setting up snacks for the patients in the psych. ward, and so I found a chair and started talking with Jerry. He had on the standard maroon pajamas and off-white bathrobe. Jerry had forgotten to fasten a couple of the buttons on his shirt. His white hair was unkempt, and his eyes looked even redder than mine. He was tired, but alert. I’m not entirely sure why he was at the VA hospital, but he didn’t seen at all confused.

We talked for over an hour. One subject led to another. We talked about addiction and rehab. We talked about transitioning from the Army to civilian life. We talked about depression. Jerry told me about his five-year-old grandson, who had died in a car crash. I told him about my two brothers who had died young. We talked about our kids. I told Jerry about Hans and his experiences with the Banditos. Jerry mentioned his quality time with some members of the Mafia.


Jerry told me that he had first come to the VA back in ’78. “Yeah, I was losing everything: my wife was leaving me, I was going to lose my job, and lose my license. I don’t where I would be if it wasn’t for this place.” He stopped, and said, “I’d probably be dead.”


It was getting late, and Jerry smiled and asked me, “So, what are you here for?”


I pointed the tables with the popcorn, fruit, and cookies. “I bring the snacks.”


Jerry looked lost for a moment, and then he said, “Oh, you bring the snacks here. I thought you were a patient. You’re not here for treatment?


“No, not yet.”


Jerry seemed uncomfortable. “I thought you were a vet.”


“I am a vet.”


“Oh, yeah. I know that. I thought you were one of us.”


He paused and rubbed his unshaven cheek. “I meant that as a compliment.”


I took it as such.


Streams of Thought

February 8th, 2017

It is rare to see the same guy in the psych. ward week after week. The third floor of the hospital is where the VA has all the inpatient psychiatric treatment. The ward has a transient population. Most of the vets come in through the emergency room, go up to the third floor, calm down and sober up, get some meds, receive some counseling, and then they go somewhere else. They might go to the “dom” (domicile), or maybe to a halfway house, or maybe home. The psych. ward is a temporary safe place where these men and women can get patched up. They are seldom there for more than a few days. So, I was surprised that Tom was still there.

Tom has white hair and a white goatee. Only his eyebrows are still dark and heavy. He’s heavyset, and he has deep, piercing eyes. He sat down at the table with me in the break room. He likes to stare, so it is difficult to look at him for long. He was talkative, but he wasn’t manic like the last time I saw him. The doctors must have tweaked his meds. It is still hard to hold a conversation with him, but it’s no longer impossible.


“You look tired”, he said to me in a concerned voice. “Are you okay?”


I find it ironic that a patient in the psych. ward needs to ask me if I am all right. I told him that I was in fact tired, but that it wasn’t a problem. Then I asked Tom, “So, how are you doing?”


“Oh, I am just getting used to being in a place where I don’t want to be. I’ve done it before. It was like this when I got drafted. Were you drafted? How old are you?”


I replied, “I’m fifty-eight.”


“Oh, you’re still a youngster. I’m sixty-five already. I was drafted into the Marines. Back in ’68. I was in from ’68 to ’70. Vietnam. It wasn’t what I thought it would be. We took blood to the Purple Heart guys. I took it to them in my veins. No, it wasn’t at all what I thought. I thought there would be more fighting, but we just brought them blood. I would have stayed a Marine longer, but they discharged me. It wasn’t what I figured.”


I thought about asking Tom what exactly he meant, but I decided against it. I’ve had these sorts of conversations before. Questions often only bring up answers that cause more confusion. I didn’t want to go down that rabbit hole.


Tom asked, “So, do you have to drive home after this?”




“Are you driving home tonight?”




“Well, you be careful. But it doesn’t matter how careful you are, because somebody could just pull out in front of you. There are some crazy people out there. I know from when I was a Marine.”




Then I talked to Scott. Actually, he talked to me. He had been there for a couple weeks too. His meds weren’t right, not at all. His mind and mouth were constantly moving, shifting restlessly from one topic to another. He sat down next to me, and started shoveling a bag of chips into his face, while talking continually. Crumbs and words spewed from his lips.


“Are you Charlie or Sally? I forget your name.”




“Oh, okay. Yeah, I used to have these custom vans. Hot rods too. Do you like vans? I like vans.” He dropped a chip on to his faded Grateful Dead t-shirt, and then he brushed it off.


“Maybe I should take a bag of these little marshmallows.”


I told him, “Take what you want.”


“Well, there are six bags. I could take them all.”


“You should leave some of them,” I said.


“You said that I could take what I wanted,” and Scott looked at me confusedly.


“Well, yeah, but other people might want marshmallows too.”


“Okay, I’ll just take three. I’ll take some cookies too. Custom vans. I had some of those. I had to get rid of them. I don’t know about this place. They don’t know what they are doing here. Is there any soda left?”


He walked to the table with the soda, and then walked out of the break room. He found an unused wheelchair and sat down in it. He rolled himself down the hallway. He moved with a purpose.


I talked to Russ.


Russ had been quietly sitting near the wall, staring at the television. “Man on Fire” with Denzel Washington was playing loudly on the big screen. I asked him how he was.


“I’m okay”, he said without much conviction. “Do I know you?”, he asked. “Did I see you in an AA meeting?”


“Maybe twenty-five years ago.”


Russ frowned and shook his head. “No, it wasn’t that long ago. You just look familiar.”


I asked him, “So, what do you do?”


Russ kept staring ahead, and said, “I work for a tree trimming service. At least, I think I do. They haven’t fired me yet.”


“How long have you been here?”


“Two nights.”


“Are they taking good care of you?”


“Yeah,” he said softly as he gazed into the distance. “They have to adjust my meds before I can go.”


It occurred to me as I spoke with Russ that maybe he wasn’t watching the movie. He didn’t look at me. He didn’t look at anything. He just stared straight ahead.


“What will you do when you get out of here?”


Russ replied, “I guess I will go back to work, if I still have a job.”


“How long have you been with that company?”


“Twenty-four years.” He never even glanced at me.



Thoughts flow like water. Sometimes they move swiftly and surely. Sometimes they make twists and turns. Sometimes they get dammed up until they overflow and wash away everything else. Sometimes they pool in deep places, and become dark and fetid.


Tom’s thoughts always seem to flow back to a low spot on the other side of the world, to events that happened a half century ago. Something happened to him in Vietnam that changed everything for him. His mind always returns there.


Scott’s thoughts burst forth like a torrent. They rush and roar, and sweep away all order. They can’t find a valley big enough to hold and guide them. They can’t find peace.


Russ’ thoughts follow a straight and narrow channel. They flow constantly toward a point in the distance that only Russ can see. They flow toward an unknown future, a void, a raging sea.


A Dog

January 23rd, 2017

Hans called last night. He had been drinking a bit. I can usually tell. He tends to obsess on a certain topic when he drinks. He doesn’t sound incoherent, but he is relentlessly on topic. He speaks in a matter-of-fact manner, and that makes the conversation somehow much more intense. Last night he talked to me about a dog he had in Iraq.

The conversation went something like this:
“Yeah Dad, I’m thinking of getting another dog once I got a place to stay. I’m thinking of
getting a dog like I had in Iraq. She was like a German shepherd, but some kind of Belgian breed. The dog looked a lot like a German shepherd, but a little smaller. She was smart, and had really big fangs.”
“Sounds like a nice dog.”
“Yeah, she saved my life a couple times.”
“Yeah, one time I was kicking in a door. I was the first one in. There was this Hajji holding a shotgun. She bit his hand, and then she tore his throat out.”
(At this point, I am listening much more closely to Hans’ story).
“Oh, God.”
“Yeah, she saved my life then. It’s weird. This other guy. He trained from a pup, but she wouldn’t stay with him. He couldn’t control her any more, but she would stay with me.”
“You’ve always been good with dogs.”
“Yeah, remember that white dog I brought up from Texas?”
“That was Francis.” (this was at least fifteen years ago).
“Yeah, I called you about him, and you didn’t want the dog, so I hung up on you. Jamie and Mark freaked out because they thought you would come down to Texas and kill me for that. (Hans laughed).”
“Well, I was mean then.”
“You’re mean now.”
“”Okay, but it’s a different kind of mean. It’s an older sort of mean.”
“Yeah. Whatever.”
“Did the dog have a name?”
“Yeah. It was ‘J’.”
“You mean like ‘J-A-Y’?”
“No. Like the letter ‘J’.”
“She used to sleep in the Q with me.”
“Hans, what’s a ‘Q’? I don’t know what it is.”
“That’s a conex with an air conditioner, and only one door. J used to sleep at the end of my bed. When we had incoming rounds (usually at 2200), then she would bite me hard to wake me up. She would grab my machine gun in her mouth, and we would both run to the bunker together. She was one smart dog.”
“Hey, I don ‘t know if I told you about this, but she saved me another time. I was kicking in another door, and I was the first one in. I got in the room and there was a guy holding an AR-15. The gun jammed, so he couldn’t shoot, but he hit me in the face with the butt of his rifle. I went down. I couldn’t reach my M4 (rifle). It was tethered to me, but I couldn’t get at it. I couldn’t reach my M9 either (pistol). I grabbed what was handy. There was a broken piece of PVC pipe. I shoved that up into his groin. J bit his hand. He had cleared just his weapon, and he was ready to shoot. She kept him from shooting, and she went for his throat. She didn’t kill him. I did. The PVC hit his artery and he bled out.”
“Yeah, they wanted me to keep J when we got back from Iraq. She was too wild with everybody else. But I was living in the barracks and I couldn’t take care of her. So, they put her down. She was kind of crazy. She would attack anybody who she thought wanted to hurt me. So, they put her down. I want another dog like her.”
I hope that Hans gets another dog like J.

On the Phone

June 4th, 2017

“Certain kinds of intimacy emerge on a phone call that might never occur if you were sitting right next to the person.” – Errol Morris


During the course of our four week road trip, we sometimes heard from our children, usually in the form of texts. Hannah wrote to me about a money issue. I told her that we would handle it when I got home. All conversations with Hannah are like scenes from The Godfather; everything is strictly business. Stefan would text us occasionally. Mostly, he was responding to how we described our travels. He would send short messages that said, “Cool” or “Fun” or “Some of us have to work for a living”.  He would also assure us that the house had not burned down, and that the dogs were still alive. Good to know.

Hans liked to call us, and he liked to talk at length. Sometimes, it was about work. Some, he spoke about his Harley. Sometimes, he just rambled on. Hans never called to have a conversation. He called in order to have a monologue. It was pure flow of consciousness; no regulator valve between the brain and the mouth.  Hans just loved to talk.

He called one time while we were in California. I told him where we were and what we were doing. It was quiet on his end, and then he asked,

“So, how long has it been since you left my place in Texas?”

“I don’t know. A week or so,” I replied.

“And you’re still not home yet?”

“No, we’re not.”

“This doesn’t sound like the Dad that I know.”

“Well, I changed. We are taking our time.”

There was a pause. Then Hans asked, “Who are you, and what have you done with the real Frank?”

“Just shut the fuck up.”


Then Hans said, “Well, it does sound pretty cool. I would like to take a trip like that on my bike.”

“Well, then, go do it.”

Hans said, “What I really want to do is take a ride like those two guys in that old hippie movie.”

“You mean Easy Rider?”

“Yeah. That one. You know, it had those two guys on choppers. What were their names?”

“Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper?”

“Yeah! Those guys. And there was the guy who played the lawyer…”

“Jack Nicholson.”

“Yeah! Him! That would be cool. Well, except for the part about getting murdered by hillbillies.”

“Yes, that would be unfortunate.”

Hans laughed. “I’m a redneck, so I would shoot back. They wouldn’t expect that shit.”

“I would expect not.”

“Hey, I’m getting another call. I got to go.”

“Okay. Love ya.”

“Love you too.”

Cars and Trucks

May 22nd, 2017

“If you own a home with wheels on it and several cars without, you just might be a redneck.” – Jeff Foxworthy

That Tuesday night Karin met up with Shawn and some other girls for a meeting of The Pontifical Biblical Institute of the Holy Hippie Sisterhood. They were going to catch up on old times, and maybe even talk about religion. Karin and I waited in the Harvest Café for the other women to arrive. When the first one showed up, I took my leave.

Hans was working a long shift that day for Capitol Concrete. We didn’t know quite when he would be done. Karin and I knew that he wouldn’t have the time or energy to make himself any supper, so I planned on getting us all a big pizza from Mr. G’s, and then taking it back with to Hans’ trailer, once he was off of work. In the meantime, Karin would have coffee with her friends and I would find something to do.

There is an Irish pub just down the block from Harvest. I went inside and asked the bartender to cut me a slice of Guinness Stout and put in a glass for me. Then I found a quiet booth and started reading some more in Joseba’s book, That Old Bilbao Moon. Joseba is a Basque and he teaches at UN-Reno. I met him at Creech AFB in Nevada. The book is about Joseba’s experiences with Bilbao and the boys in the ETA. I love the book, mostly because much of it is so alien to me. Some of the stories are pretty wild, but clearly authentic.

Eventually, the beer was gone and it was time to pick up the pizza. I put it into the car, and went into Harvest to alert Karin that we needed to move on. I knew the women in the coffee shop. They seemed glad to see me. Shawna shouted out, “Look at Frank! You can tell he’s retired. He’s positively glowing!” It was true. It’s hard to hide that sort of thing.

We met Hans back at the trailer. He had his pickup truck parked out back. It’s an ’88 Chevy diesel with a blown engine. Hans had the truck bed full of bags of garbage, mostly because the dumpster at the Shell station was already full of trash.

We started to eat the pizza. Hans looked at it with suspicion.

“Why did you get a pizza with all this weird stuff on it?”

“Like what?”

Hans sniffed at a slice. “These are mushrooms. I hate mushrooms. And I think this is an olive.”

“It’s all good for you.”

“Yeah, whatever.”

Hans chewed on the pizza, and looked out the door at the Toyota.

“Why didn’t you get a cool car? Aren’t you going through a mid-life crisis? Was the BMW the only cool car you were ever going to buy?”

I replied, “Yeah, the Beemer was it.”

Hans said wistfully, “I wish you still had the BMW. Then you could give it to me.

“That’s strange. Your brother says the same thing. He thinks that he should have had the BMW.”

“What?! I’m the eldest son. I should have gotten the BMW!”

“Really? Are we going to stand here and argue about a car that doesn’t even exist anymore?”

Hans smirked and said, “Yes.”

I sighed.

Hans said, “You should get a truck. But you can’t get one like mine. It’s hard to find a truck like mine. It’s a collector’s item.”

I replied, “It shouldn’t be that hard to collect, seeing as it doesn’t move.”

“What?! You hush now! Enough of this foolish talk!”

Hans ate more of the pizza that he didn’t like. Then he asked, “Do you know what pisses me off?”

“I can’t imagine.”

“Those young, college kids that talk shit about veterans. They even do that at A&M.”

“Really? At Texas A&M?”

Hans nodded, “No place is safe. Bunch of liberal punks.”

I shook my head and said, “Yeah…those goddamn liberals.”

Hans gave me a stone cold stare. “You know what I mean.”

“Do I?” I smiled.

Hans rolled his eyes. “You’re a liberal, but you’re a Vietnam-era, hippie kind of liberal. I can deal with that.”

“That’s comforting.”

“These young guys. They go to school with their daddy’s money and their nice cars. They don’t know what work is. They got to have their ‘safe zones’ where nobody will talk mean to them.” Hans’ voice was full of disgust.

Then Hans said, “They don’t respect their elders.”

I raised an eyebrow at that comment.

He went on: “I got into it with one of those guys.”

“Oh, how so?”

“Well, one of these guys was talking shit to me, so I pulled back the edge of my jacket a bit so he could see my knife.”

Big knife?”

Hans shrugged, “Just standard military issue. K-bar.”

“And then what?”

Hans continued, “The guy started backing up. I didn’t threaten him or anything. I never said a word to him. I just showed him my knife hanging off of my belt. The guy was still talking shit even as he was moving away from me.”

We finished the pizza.



Travel Trailer

May 21st, 2017

“A bachelor’s life is no life for a single man.” – Samuel Goldwyn

Karin and I spent five nights with Hans in his travel trailer. It was old and rundown. It was small and cramped. However, it was his. Hans had been couch-surfing for almost one and a half years (ever since the house fire), and now he finally had a place that he could call home. Yeah, he was renting this thing, and it wasn’t in a prime location, but Hans wasn’t homeless any more.

Hans gave us his bedroom, and he slept on the couch in the kitchen/living room/everything else room. We asked Hans about bed linen.

Hans said, “Well, I have a sheet.”

“You mean one sheet.”

“Yeah, well, I was going to go to Walmart, but I didn’t have time to do that, you know, with work and all.”

“That’s okay. Do you have any bath towels, if we want to take a shower?’

“Well, I have a towel.”

It became obvious that Hans was lacking certain basic, household items. We decided to go to Walmart after Mass on Sunday and pick up a few things. We got Hans sheets, pillowcases, and a comforter. We bought towels, a rug for his tiny bathroom, knives (Hans had forks and spoons, but no knives). We got a small plastic trash container. A broom. A lighter for his stove. A coffee maker. I don’t remember what else we picked up. We didn’t buy anything extravagant; just the sort of things that a single guy really should have available.

Hans gave us a short tour of his home. He had a small table with benches around it.

Hans told us, ”Don’t move that cap there on the bench by the door.”


Hans lifted up the cap and there was “The Judge” underneath it. The Judge is a five shot revolver that takes .410 bore shot shells or a .45 Colt cartridge. I knew it was loaded. The Judge will probably put a hole through a cinder block.

“Yeah, nice.”

Hans looked at me, and said, “You don’t know who might be knockin’ on this door. We got some druggies around here.”

Hans had a dresser next to the door of the trailer. In one of the drawers he had his 1911 .45 semi-automatic.

“Is that one loaded too?’

Hans squinted at me through his glasses, and said, “I don’t want to take a chance of wasting time trying to reload the Judge.

You can never be too careful.

We also realized that Hans had no clean clothes. None. Nada. He had been working mega-hours at the concrete company, and he had completely run through every piece of clothing that he owned. Karin and I asked him if we should take his stuff to a laundromat on Monday morning.

Hans said, “You don’t need to do that. It’s just that it’s been hard for me to get clothes washed, with the hours I’ve been working, and I only got the Harley running right now.”

“It’s okay. We have to wash our clothes too. We’ve been on the road for a while. It would be no big deal for us to take your things along with us.”

“Well, if you’re sure…

“Hans, it’s fine.”

Hans sighed, “Oookay.”

Hans had a drawer full of loose change. Hans believes in cash. He just throws extra questers, dimes, and nickels into the drawer. The quarters came in handy for the laundromat.

We packed up baskets and bags of Hans’ clothes into the back of the Corolla early on Monday morning. We drove him to work. It was a bad morning to be on a Harley. The rain poured down. I could barely see the road. It was a Noah’s Ark kind of rain; just nasty, and windy as hell. Hans figured that they wouldn’t be going out on a job with the weather being so bad, and that he would probably only be doing vehicle maintenance that morning. So we told him that we would pick him up whenever he was done with his shift.

Karin and I went to the Village Coffee Shop for breakfast, and then we found a laundry on Texas Avenue. We dragged in all of the clothes, and a nice Latina showed us how to use the machines. We filled up three of the big, heavy duty, industrial-sized washers with Hans’ things. First we had to dig through all of his pockets. He had lighters, cigarette butts, and fifty bucks in cash in his pockets. We didn’t find all of the cash prior to washing. Some of his money was a lot cleaner, and a little damp, by the time we were finished. We stayed at the laundromat all morning. We used two monster dryers; the kind that would fit a queen-size mattress inside of them. Several hours and many quarters later, we got a text from Hans, and we drove to the concrete company to pick him up.

We parked out front of the shop. A big, heavy-set guy walked up to our car. He had a wide smile and he introduced himself as Jeromy.

“Y’all Hans’ folks?” he grinned as he spoke.


“Glad to meet y’all!”

“We’re happy to meet you too.”

Jeromy hollered back toward the shop, “Oh Haaaaaans! You’re Mommy and Daddy are here to pick you up! They’re here waiting on their little boy! They don’t want you getting wet in the rain!”

I could faintly hear an indistinct, but obviously obscene, response from the back of the shop.

Jeromy laughed loudly. He asked, “Did y’all do Hans’ laundry for him? Hans said that he only had one load of clothes. Is that true?”

I replied, “Well, if one load means that all his shit fit into the car, yeah, then he only had one load of clothes.”

Jeromy roared with laughter. About that time Hans walked up to the car.

Jeromy looked at Hans and said, “You stay dry now. I don’t want you catching a cold.”

Hans smiled and gave Jeromy that “fuck you” look.

They both laughed.