‘Doug Craig’, from “Memories of a Rotten Childhood”, Chapter 6

spring garden 4

Note:  I’ve posted this once before and women I don’t know or remember have come out of the woodwork to ask for information and addresses, phone numbers, emails of people from that time. Some of them have proved to be very aggressive.  Understand I will not   put you in contact with any of these men from the past.  They deserve their privacy.  Even the dead.

Jane Kohut-Bartels

 

We met one fall, now years ago, when we were no longer young.  I was running from a mean early marriage.  Doug was just running.

It was 3 years since the end of the Vietnam War, and Doug had plenty of ghosts to run from.  He was to be shipped out, and the night before his platoon, company, whatever it was called….was attacked.  Doug woke up to gunfire in his tent, and got shrapnel in his torso, mainly his stomach if I remember right.

Doug was a kid I grew up with in the wilds of New Jersey back in the 60’s.  His father was the large animal vet in Princeton.  It was always a chancy issue to open the two refrigerators in their 1740’s house on Stockton Road.  One held food, and the other specimens.  It was a fearful thing for a child unaware of which door held which.  I can still here the booming voice of this Scottish man yelling at all of us.  We lived in terror of his voice, but he was one of the kindest and gentlest men we knew.  Clearly a case of his bark worse that his bite.

Doug’s mother was the picture of elegance:  two shelties on two matching settees in the sitting room, a glowering portrait of some infamous relative over the fireplace, and his mother warm and welcoming.  We all loved this family.  Doug came from good stock.  Too bad he was so crazy.

We had a bluegrass band back then, called Marrowbone Creek Vagrants, made up of neighborhood kids.  I believe this band, in some form…with different name changes, still is viable.  Sort of like a vampires convention when the kids come back to the stomping grounds of the New Jersey countryside.

Music wasn’t the only thing we had in common.  Motorcycles, and the attendant accidents, horrible, property destroying stunts,  and basically goofing off.  But music was the river that ran through us.  Today for many of these guys and gals…it still is.

I came home that fall day with two shotguns.  One a 20 gauge Mossberg, and the other one a 12 gauge Ithaca.  My father gave me a weird look when he picked me up from the airport.  He was a pacifist and wouldn’t have a gun on the property, except for a Benjamin Franklin air pistol, which shot rivets.  That he kept for shooting walnuts out of the crooks of walnut trees.  He was a marksman during WW11 and besides a bow, he would not have weapons near him.  Perhaps being in a B-24 for most of the war was deadly enough.

Doug and I decided to go hunting.  I just wanted a chance to shoot off those shotguns.  Living in urban Atlanta didn’t give me many chances.  And the woods where it was legal to shoot off guns were miles away.

We ‘hunted’ all over the back of my parent’s property.  Mostly cut down soybean fields, and what we were looking to kill, I didn’t really know.  I DID know that I was a failure when it came to birds.  We have those big pheasants up in New Jersey, the ones who come up low in front of you, and wheel into the sun so you can’t see or follow them well.  And I had the problem of automatically flipping the safety on the gun after every shot.  I never could break myself of this, and don’t know where it came from.

But hunted we did.  I should have realized Doug ‘hunted’ differently than any other person I knew. He crouched down, held the gun low and crept through the underbrush.  I didn’t realize then what I was looking at was a man who had just come back from the wars.  Apparently Doug was trained, now irreversibly, as a soldier.

He was a very brave man.  He hunted with me, a real nincompoop when it came to hunting.  We scared up a young rabbit, and I kept shooting at it as it jagged away.  Unfortunately, I was mostly shooting at Doug’s boots, and it is still a wonder that I didn’t add to his shrapnel wounds.  Doug got the rabbit.

Then we decided our luck would turn better if we trespassed on Old Man Staats land.  Full of woods, and we were bound to find something.  Doug found a pheasant there, and bagged it on one shot.

Then we got stupid and decided to go ask  Staats if we could hunt on his land.  He thought about it a moment, and said ‘no’.  Fine with us, we had bagged that pheasant on his turf, stowed it behind a tree, and besides, we were tired of hunting.  It was turning colder, and we were hungry.

We went home, Doug to his house on River Road.  He was living with other varmints and it was an old farm house, looking none the better for Doug living there.

I remember skinning the rabbit.  I had read something about this, so at least I knew what to do. Mostly.  I do remember cutting off the rabbit head, and throwing it out over the ravine.  It slowly revolved in the air, looking at me reproachfully, with every revolution.   Thirty some years later and I still remember that stare.

I cooked the rabbit for my father.  My mother wouldn’t have a thing to do with my rabbit stew.  My father said he hadn’t had rabbit in thirty years, and pronounced it ‘good’.  The pheasant was another issue.  I plucked the feathers, saving the tail for some future decoration, and draped bacon over the back of it.  Problem was this:  pheasant was full of birdshot and dried up quickly.  Eating it was a problem, so I threw it into the ravine for the raccoons.

I threw the rabbit pelt up on the copper kitchen roof.  Why, I don’t know.  I do know that my mother bitched about it for about a year until my father or someone retrieved it.  Should have been well cured by then.

Doug and I didn’t see each other again until my father lay in the hospital with a stroke twelve years later.  Doug would take me late at night to visit him, and spent hours just talking.  I was there for a week, but it took my father nine months of recovery to die.

Doug was a good friend.  We both were running from ghosts, many kinds of ghosts.  He had an old Seth Thomas clock I bought from him.  He carefully packed it up and shipped it months later.  Doug was also a very fine Kentucky rifle maker.  He was going to make me a gun. Doug, once he focused his scattered and fried, mind could excel in anything.

Two years after my father died, Doug died on the streets of Philly one night.  He was mugged and lay in the morgue until identification was possible and Dr. Craig was contacted.

I think Doug was our first childhood friend to die.  Perhaps there were others claimed by the war.  But I don’t remember.  I do remember that all of us were in shock: Doug, though living and behaving always on the edge, seemed invincible.  Didn’t he survive Vietnam?  How could something like this take him?

If it could take him, it could take the rest of us.  Life has no guarantees, obviously.

I think all of us have a Doug Craig in our lives, somewhere.  They are the people we miss the most because they have lived the fullest of lives.  We know that they are part crazy, but that was also part of the times, and some of their charm.

We live through them at times because they are braver than us.

 

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2017

“Memories of a Rotten Childhood” is an on-going memoir.  It is a work in progress, and as I age, I find I remember more stories.  Some of them tragic, some funny, some poignant, some downright disturbing. Sort of like life.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

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