All That Lingers
By Justin Murphy News21 / Syracuse University
Even after you get to the swinging front gate — across the gravel bridge over Bolster Creek, half a mile down a rumbling, rutted driveway, cheatgrass stabbing through the car windows and magpies rattling along a barbed wire fence — Jerry Middleton’s house is still out of sight.
In his small, green corner of this vast, patchy valley in northeastern Washington, trees keep things hidden. Poplars and peaches, almonds and apples. Maples, cherries, birches, plums. Shagbark hickories and Korean nut pines. He planted them all.
“These trees saved my life,” he said.
Jerry is 60 years old. He has long muscles, sharp gray eyes and dirt on his hands that will never wash off. He built his two-story cabin himself, selecting the logs from the forest that makes up his backyard.
He has spent a lifetime here healing and learning from a year in Vietnam, and he is not alone. Local outreach workers estimate that several thousand veterans from that conflict are scattered around the northeastern corner of the stae.
The trees are a living moat for Jerry; they keep him sheltered and give him purpose. They provide nourishment in his diet and his spiritual life.
Jerry loves the trees, and he is sure that somehow, they love him back.
“This is my nurturing place,” he said. “My peace on Earth.”
I FELT SORRY FOR THOSE GUYS
His life wasn’t always this way.
Jerry served in the Navy in Vietnam from 1968-69, driving a military taxi for 12-hour shifts. He took grunts and officers from the front lines to the field offices, to the morgue and the whorehouses of Da Nang and Saigon.
“I picked up a lot of guys out there, freaked out, coming out of the jungle, taking them in for skivvy runs,” he said. “I saw the whites of their eyes. I felt sorry for those guys.”
More than 28,000 U.S. soldiers died in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969, the two deadliest years of the war.
Bandits jumped onto his jeep as he drove. Huge rats and wild dogs dashed into the road. Motorbikes laden with entire Vietnamese families whizzed in front of him and at his sides.
He made frequent trips to the morgue, which he described as “a warehouse building the size of Walmart … that you could smell from a mile away.”
“The vastness of it made you want to cry,” he said. “This is the last stop for these guys. Into the airplane and back to their families and back into the ground.”
Only 19 years old, Jerry was overwhelmed by the sensory crush. “It’s hard to describe how insane it is,” he said. “I remember being pretty crazy, and being told I was pretty crazy.”
One night, just a month into his deployment, an ammunition dump exploded a half-mile away, and the boom knocked him on his back. “It went whoosh, and I just went down on the ground,” he said. “It was like one of those Hiroshima things you see in the history books, but it was nighttime. It billowed and billowed and billowed and went up and up.”
After returning from Vietnam in 1970, Jerry spent two years in Brunswick, Maine, on a Navy base before going back to his parents’ home outside Minneapolis. Unmotivated to work and increasingly disillusioned, he spent most of his time drinking beer and drifting around on a boat.
His father, a Navy vet from World War II and Korea, pushed him to get a job and get on with his life. Jerry saw his father — sitting in an easy chair in the suburbs, watching the 5 o’clock news and slowly drinking himself to death — and felt sick to his stomach.
“I couldn’t go back to the American way of life. It was too disgusting, too plastic, and it was all built on war and nastiness,” Jerry said. “I wanted time to think of what I wanted to do. Well, you’re not allowed to do that. You got to jump in there and do what they want you to do. It rubbed me raw.”
Kyle Longley, a professor of history and political science at Arizona State University, has written about the experiences of Vietnam veterans returning home. He said that stories about vets being spit upon and about direct confrontations are often overblown, but soldiers were often slighted in more subtle ways.
"They were ignored, unlike their fathers in World War II, who were treated to parades and monuments," Longley said. "It's like nobody wanted to acknowledge what happened to them."
For Jerry, the days were restless and the nights plagued by nightmares. One evening at his parents’ house, he dreamed he was stuck in a sewer and broke a hole through the ceiling in his sleep. Another time, he was halfway out the second-story window before he woke up.
Distraught and directionless, he saw a VA psychiatrist in 1972.
“I went to that VA, took those tests,” he said. “They said I had PTSD. I talked to the shrink, they said they couldn’t do anything. So when he said, ‘We can’t do nothing for you,’ I said, ‘Well, OK.’”
After the disappointment of that first encounter with the VA, Jerry never signed up for his benefits. With no job and little support from his family, he saw little reason to stay in Minnesota.
“I knew I had to find a new world or I was going to pop myself off,” he said. “I thought, ‘If this is what life is about at 23, I’ve seen enough.’”
Paul Sullivan, a Gulf War veteran and executive director of the nonprofit group Veterans for Common Sense, said Vietnam veterans had particular struggles in getting their benefits.
“The VA was not responsive to vets’ health-care needs due to Agent Orange or their mental health needs due to combat stress,” Sullivan said. “As a result, many veterans felt disaffected and did not want to seek health-care benefits.”
Jerry packed a backpack and went looking for rides: to Texas, to California, to Oregon, to Wyoming. Home to Minnesota and back out again.
He learned to dread being stuck in a city with no way out. For the better part of five years, everywhere he landed was one stop away from where he wanted to be. It was a bitter time.
“I was out around the country asking for rides and people are refusing me — the very same people I was supposedly fighting for freedom for,” he said. “I was like, ‘Come on guys, I did a little bit of time and now I want to do something else. I just want a ride.’”
Jerry spent much of the mid-1970s with his thumb in the air, his Navy fatigues picking up dust off the tires of cars shooting by. He learned from it, as he learned from the people who did pick him up.
“It was feeding me stuff I needed to find out,” he said.
Eventually, the road took him to eastern Washington, where Jerry fell in with a group of spiritualists who showed him the different perspective he’d been seeking. He learned about New Age philosophy and natural remedies and opened his eyes to the physical world around him. The closer he got to the earth, the more easily he breathed.
“I realized I could relate to some people,” he said. “I got to understanding the energies of different places, how mountains and rivers made me feel better than flat country. I just needed it — I knew it, felt it, had to do it.”
In 1980, he moved to Chesaw, Wash., near the Canadian border, where a sort of commune was taking root. He joined a group of people who were passionate about taking care of the land, and they taught him more about how to do so himself. For Jerry, the process of building his own house was a deeply meaningful experience.
“When you go in the woods, get your logs, find rocks, dig some sand, make some cement, dig a hole — there’s more there that I can’t explain,” he said. “It doesn’t look like a three-bedroom rambler down in suburbia, but it's home and I love it. Living in that, you feel the vibrations of your own handiwork and creation, and it feeds you back.”
JERRY'S HIS OWN MAN
Jerry has been in Chesaw for 30 years. The commune that originally attracted him to the land dissolved amid personality conflicts and atrophy. The spring ran dry at his first cabin, so he built another one. He’s lived with two women and raised two sons.
Over the course of many hard years, he beat a drinking problem and learned to be alone. There were countless nights passed at the Chesaw Tavern when he stumbled home in the dark, hiking barefoot and drunk up a steep weedy hill.
Now, he has sworn off alcohol, cigarettes and coffee. His beverages of choice are water, ginger ale and homemade kombucha.
His cabin has grown from a one-room bunker to a tight five-room complex that’s warm in the winter and cool in the summer. He remembers the stories of the individual logs in the walls and the time he spent putting them together. His water is diverted from a nearby spring and runs continuously in his kitchen. He counts the sound of it as a blessing.
Outside, he built a sauna with an upside-down satellite dish for a roof. The small crooked door leads over a slippery plank bridge and into a small pool of water. Out of the sauna and splash, into the pond — this is how Jerry bathes, in sunshine, rain, sleet and snow.
Mike Stewart is a fellow Vietnam veteran who lived in a remote cabin a few miles from Jerry until moving to Tonasket in 2008. He recently helped Jerry put together his VA claim.
“Jerry’s his own man,” Stewart said. “I personally would love to see more people as deeply involved with Mother Earth and what the forest has to offer them.”
At age 60, Jerry says he’s in the best health of his life, but the nourishment is not only physical.
He’s planted many, many trees. Some have died, but others have lived. He used to make a living working in forests across the state, removing diseased trees to sell for firewood and creating space and light for saplings.
In June, Jerry received his first VA benefit check, 38 years after he initially asked for help. That money —$376 a month — is his only regular source of income beside food stamps. He plans to use the money for dental work and to buy equipment he needs to work in the forest.
“I don’t know a time I feel higher or closer to God than when I’m out there planting trees image #2 image #3 image #3,” he said. “You get out there in the world and get spun around and it’s hard to find God in all that technology and war and machinery and chaos. Craziness. So I had to get to a place where I didn’t have that. This is my sanity-seeking place.”
Up in the pine forest on a breezy June day, Jerry walked with a stick he found along the path. Flowers and herbs whisked his ankles: knitbone and ninebark, prairie smoke and false Solomon’s seal. The robins and wrens sang out of sight as his wiry dogs tramped noisily through the undergrowth.
He peered through round lenses into the spruce and tamarack branches for signs of disease. “Here’s some mistletoe,” he said with a grimace. “That’s not what a tree is supposed to look like. It clusters up and pretty soon it turns into this huge ball and ends up killing the tree.”
Jerry passes long days tending to the forest, his trees and his vegetable garden: girdling for mistletoe, yanking out knapweed and waging war on gophers.
A life apart from mainstream society does not shield him from daily pressures and problems, and he still struggles with pent-up frustration from his military days. He broods over conflicts with his neighbors, whom he says should be helping him in the forest. He gets aggravated with his son, whose work ethic he questions.
“Trying to undo anger is tough on you,” he said. “I’m still stumbling around, working with it. I know I have anger still, but I know the answer is forgive, forgive, forgive.”
He has a deep concern for soldiers returning from what he calls the “oil wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan. Men and women returning home from four or five tours, he said, will require a special compassion from the government and society.
“If they’re going to send people off to war and make them deal with the stuff in their minds — the crises, the emotions — they ought to teach them how to come back and disconnect,” he said. “They need to be able to unwind their stuff, whatever they accumulated.”
After three decades of mostly solitary living, Jerry’s world is slowly repopulating. His adult son built a cabin up the hill a few years ago, and his cousin, Don Gabel, recently moved in from the Seattle area to kick his drug addictions. The three of them are working on building another cabin for Jerry’s sister, who may be coming soon from Minnesota.
Gabel, 51, said leaving the coast to live with Jerry has given him peace of mind.
“In the city, I was always trying to move up one step farther than the other guy,” Gabel said. “It’s completely different thinking now. What matters most is your own well-being and being with nature. … I can tell that everything about my body is healthier. I can hike up a hill, climb cliffs, get out there and work all day.”
“There’s a lot of drugs in the world,” he said. “It’s not just cocaine and meth and alcohol. City is a drug. … How are you going to know anything when you can’t sit by yourself and be at one with yourself and not fidgety and want to turn on the frickin’ radio?”
IT'S A GREAT THRILL TO LISTEN TO BIRDS
At the hot day’s end recently, Jerry retreated under the shade of a mighty peach tree with a plate full of food: buffalo burgers, quinoa and a carrot-squash medley, with spinach and horseradish from his garden.
A birdhouse hangs off the branch of a nearby golden willow, and a mad flutter of evening grosbeaks and red-winged blackbirds competed for spots on the ledge. Would-be usurpers chirped their claims and set the branches bobbing as they dismounted and landed again.
Jerry has birds in his yard all 12 months of the year. They come for the same reason he first came, more than 30 years ago: because the land has what they need.
“This was all bare ground, pretty much weeds, but as it evolved, birds came,” he said. “It’s a great thrill of mine to be able to listen to birds.”
Jerry left the Navy in 1972 as an angry and disillusioned 22-year-old, attempting to cope with the fallout from 12 months in a combat zone. He felt turmoil and reached blindly for calm; he felt isolation and sought companionship. Even now, 38 years later, he wishes he had someone to share his days with.
He has gained much, though: the patience to watch his trees grow, and the wisdom to look back on his experience in war and extract what can help him. He sleeps well, listens closely and laughs easily.
“For some reason I had to go to Vietnam and do all that for whatever lessons came out of it,” he said. “If I didn’t go to Vietnam, I could be stumbling around, a drunk and a druggie or whatever else out there in America, living in suburbia, a whole different life. I’m glad I didn’t do that.”
A few years ago, Jerry planted a butternut tree on the rising land to the east of his house, where purple lupines sprout among rhubarb and snowberries. Butternuts take a long time to mature, but he’s not in a hurry.
“It’ll be 20 years before I get some nuts, but I got time,” he said. “I’m going to live here until I’m over 100 years old and watch my trees grow and eat walnuts and such.”