At the opposite end of the clearing from where the Jolly Swag nestled, the orange-domed tent was surrounded by dozens of plastic containers. A white aging station wagon was parked close by. The man who occupied the site seemed to spend most of his time in the driver’s seat of the car. He moved the car frequently to stay under the umbrella of pine shadows.
The morning following my visit with Bullwinkle, I walked over to the station wagon, where a man was in the car absorbed in a book. He did not notice me until I was but a few feet away.
“I’m going into town soon. Can I bring back anything for you?” I asked.
“Already been,” he said and looked back to his book.
I turned and walked back to the Jolly Swag. I noted several piles of wild birdseed on sandy patches nearby.
I went into town and spent a few hours in the local library during the heat of the day and mainlined my Internet fix. I returned, driving slowly on the six miles of paved road and throttled down to less than 15 mph on the last three miles on the white packed-sand washboard.
I spotted Bullwinkle sitting in a lawn chair by his motorhome. I took a can of cold beer for him and a Coke for me from my fridge and walked over. He put his book aside and we exchanged a few minutes’ of toss-away pleasantry before I slipped into quiz mode.
“What’s the whistle for?” I asked.
“Bears.” he said.
“How’s your health holding up after 15 years on the road?” I asked.
“I’m OK. I get into the VA hospital in Tallahassee when I need something.”
“How long were you a POW?”
“Three years, two months, and seventeen days.”
“How did you get released?”
“I released myself,” he said. “I escaped. I got four other guys out with me.”
“How did you escape?”
“I befriended a guard. Then I killed him. Strangled him. Didn’t make any noise.”
“Are you in touch with any of the four you got out with?”
“They’re all gone. Two were captured and probably killed. The two that got out with me are dead. They didn’t have much of a life after ‘Nam. They may have taken their own lives.”
“Do you know our neighbor over there in the tent?”
“He is a nice enough guy, Bullwinkle said. “Keeps to himself.”
“You know his name?”
“Bob, . . . I think. He’s been there a couple of months.”
“How many people are living in the forest like you and Bob?”
“Maybe ten. It varies with the season. Most of us leave during hunting season.”
“What do you do with your time, Bull?”
“I read a lot, sometimes until three in the morning. Sometimes I carve.”
I felt that Bullwinkle’s sharing of his POW experience hinted at a growing comfort with my ever more intrusive questions.
“So what’s the story with you and your kids?”
“They blame me for their mother’s death.” He stared into my face and closed his fist around his chin and a handful of beard and did a long slow stroke. Then another, never taking his eyes off me, and at last he went on.
“And they’re not completely wrong. We were driving in our car and were hit by a drunk driver. She was killed and I was not. I was drunk, too. I don’t know if I could have avoided the crash if I was sober. Anyway, the kids believed that alcohol killed their mother, and in their grief, they were not able to separate the drunkenness of the other driver from my own.
“At this point,” he said, “nobody wants to try to fix it. Me included.”
He became still and yesterday’s thousand-yard stare came across his face. I left the silence in place for several elastic minutes before breaking it.
“You going to live the rest of your life in the forest, Bull?”
“Yes, I am going to have the greenest death you can have. I have a deal with Dave, a friend of mine who likes to stay in one of the other camps. If either one of us finds the other dead, we’ll drag the body deep into the forest and let the animals and Nature take care of business.
“If I get sick and the VA can’t fix me, I have two friends I plan to call on—Smith and Wesson.”