...Jim and I met about four years ago when I was still living on the streets and drinking with my feet and both hands. Our first meeting, or the fragments of it I should say, naturally revolved around half-a-dozen pints of Taaka vodka and two forty-ouncers of beer...cheap beer. I think it was...malt liquor...beer. I'm not sure. All I know for sure is that Jim and I had run into each other that morning on State and by noon we were three-sheets-to-the-wind and dragging our anchors and if you'd have seen us you would have been terribly embarassed for us both. Jim is short, about five-two or three. I am fairly tall, especially alongside him and I'm as skinny as a rake on top of it. Now, it's common-knowledge that two drunks of the same height have a fair chance of keeping each other in a standing position if they are so inclined and further, two matched drunks can even manage a slow, controlled-stumble if God is paying sufficient attention but let two unmatched drunks attempt the same maneuver and they'll be lucky to travel a yard before they go down in a flailing heap. And so it was that Jim and I spent the greater part of a sweltering Santa Barbara afternoon clinging to each other for dear life and drawing quite a few stares and catcalls from passers-by owing to the fact that for most of that time we were laying in the middle of the sidewalk.
Anyhow, as far as I can recall we were somewhere in the vicinity of a liquor-store when our path was abruptly darkened by the arrival of an ominous black-and-white car with the word: "POLICE" painted on the side of it. An officer stepped out of the vehicle and ordered us to stop where we were, which we did, and to unwrap from each other and step to the curb and sit, which we attempted to do in a confused and overly exaggerated manner before giving that up and falling headlong into the street.
Once you have fallen down in front of a cop, and especially if you are so stewed that you fall into the street where you automatically become a "danger-to-yourself", you can begin breaking your infinite supply of freedom down into finite units of about twenty or thirty seconds duration each. I began doing precisely that, and as I counted down the thin, naked moments that stood shivering between me and County jail another police-unit joined the first.
The first cop, to his credit, had rushed to divert traffic and to urge us up and back to the sidewalk and safety but the second cop, out of his car now, was less concerned with our safety and more interested in the fact that we were alcoholically impaired. He watched us with a cynical eye as we staggered this-way-and-that trying to determine in which direction lay the curb and as his co-worker frantically herded us away from traffic and, finally, onto the sidewalk he asked the kind of question that has convinced me over the years that many cops, despite rumors to the contrary, have a finely tuned sense of humour and an almost Sartre-like understanding of the ultimately tragic consequences of all our breathing and weeping and striving in a world that refuses to acknowledge our existence. He asked: "You guys been drinking?"
Because me and this cop obviously read the same books I felt it my duty to answer him in a way that would be a subtle tip-of-the-hat to both his obvious understanding of the deeper meanings that lay beneath the surface of even the most common occurences and his educated and skilled approach to law-enforcement. I answered, "Just a little, a couple," I coughed then and a small quantity of vomit came out of my mouth and nose; I cleaned my face with my sleeve and added, "I don't feel well..."
"Just sit there and shut-up." the cop said, concerned. He then gave Jim, who had dropped onto the curb beside me, a firm kick and told him to slide over a couple feet and to "shut-up," as well. Jim, who hadn't uttered a word since the arrival of the first officer and who had never read Sartre made a show of scooting about an inch-and-a-half and when the officer said, "More." he scooted another inch and then sat drooping as if the effort had drained him of the last of his energy. The officer stepped forward to assist Jim with the tip of his boot again and Jim abruptly turned and said, in a surprisingly clear voice, "Do not kick me again...and tell me why we're being stopped, I know my Constitutional rights."
The first officer joined the second and to me it seemed as if they loomed over us like two gigantic, black, birds; The sun was relentless, it beat on my head like a red-hot caulking-mallet; The sound of traffic passing on the street faded and grew, came close then seemed distant; Voices drifted by, and the sound of a thousand feet shuffled through my head, it was surreal and I felt as if I was going to vomit again. The only thing that seemed to make any sense to me then, the only thing that seemed to offer any hope, any salvation, was Jims words: "Constitutional rights." I sat perfectly still, waiting and listening, allowing whatever power there was left in those words to gather around us. As far as I was concerned, and it truly seemed this way, James had volunteered to act as a conduit of Freedom right here on the curb; Drunk and stinking, unable to stand on his own but willing to stand up for himself, Jim said the appropriate words and the Torch of Freedom had passed down the centuries and into his, the most unlikely of hands. I sat motionless, not wanting to disturb the currents of Liberty that stirred the air, that sang in my ears, I sat and prayed that these two cops were not uneffected by the roles they had been chosen to play in this small, street-side drama.
I was to find out later that Jim was an ex-Marine, that he'd fought in the jungles of South-East Asia and that he'd pulled off a valient stunt or two during his military career. The one I remember best was his foray into Cambodia with a small contingent of Marine Rangers and their desperate struggles to get the hell out after a particularly effective ambush had nearly decimated their ranks. In the end James and one seriously wounded comrade were all that was left and the struggle to escape Cambodia became a struggle for mere survival. James stepped up to the plate.
Avoiding enemy patrols every step of the way James carried his friend on his back for thirty miles through dense jungle. If they had been forced to fight, the battle would have been short-lived, they had no ammunition. Additionally, they had little water to speak of and they had no food except forage. Forage sustained them though, and James propelled them, step-by-step, out of enemy territory and to the drop-site where they were later rescued. Thirty miles lay behind them and before them lay the rest of their lives, lives which James had secured for them both by pure strength-of-will and courage.
James had carried a man thirty grueling miles through the jungle and been rewarded with medals, now, forty years later, he could barely carry himself to the liquor-store and his only reward was another pint of vodka. I have sat by myself since hearing that story and wept. Everytime the government asks for more money for national defense I think of James: Why pay for more bullets when the men who fired them in our defense are so easily forgotten. James is a hero, James is my hero. Not just because of his sacrifices on my behalf, on our behalf, but because of what he did and what he said that day on the curb.
(Next: James gives voice to the spirit of Freedom.)