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by Ronald Wheatley (Nigeria 1963–65)

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WAR BEFORE, war during, war after, war again!

It was August 1971, and I was alone — “a guardian of the forests” watching over the vast carpet of multispecies conifers, primarily White Pine, that covered the Yaak River Valley, a huge drainage area in Northwest Montana.

    I followed you to Texas. I followed you to Utah.
    We didn’t find it there, so we moved on . .

     Dawn, and pewter colored clouds hung low over the treetops. Tammy Wynette and George Jones sang their duet over the portable radio.
     I was standing on the eastern side of a cantilevered platform on Garver Lookout — perfect for viewing the panorama. The lookout was set on stilt-like railroad timbers cambered together like a giant erector set that rose 60 feet above the spine of the highest ridge in a sea of ridges that stretched like waves to the horizon in every direction.
     To the far distant north I could see the snow capped mountains of the Canadian Northwest Territories. I could look down on the top of the highest tree of the forest and see an egret’s nest. At the base of the tower a big block of salt served the bear, moose and deer that came at dawn. Here and there dark patches scarred the earth, mute reminders of the devastation of fires past. But even in those burnt-out areas seedlings were poking out of the charcoal enriched soil.
     I was alone. I was at peace. My war was over.

To a small farm in Nebraska, to a gold mine in Alaska.
We didn’t find it there, so we moved on.

     The portable radio echoed the lament.
     I had worked for the Forest Service all through college in the early ’60s, and now was the back for the summer between my first and second year of law school. At times — as part of that service — I had been on the ground fighting those fires. Big fires had names like “Sleeping Child”; big battles in Vietnam, “Ia Drang Valley.”
     The sound of an airplane engine in the distance caught my attention. Looking south toward the source of the sound a black speck on the horizon rapidly grew larger into a single engine high-wing Cessna 180. The pilot was dangerously low, skimming just above the tree tops that seemed to reach up to grab him, and just below the low ceiling of clouds that, if entered at his altitude, would wrap his windscreen in a deadly white sheet blinding him to the hazards of peaks that penetrated the clouds. The plane was heading directly toward my tower. Suddenly the wing strobe lights flashed bright, like the fire from the sky from the “Spooky Ships.”
     There was competition then between the Forest Service pilots and the Tower Watchers as to who would spot a fire first. The flashing lights were to me a signal of competition, but also of something else — of a “missing man formation” if you will, of Captain Nguyen Van Hung.

    I followed you to Alabam’;
    Things looked good in Birmingham.
    We didn’t find it there so we moved on.

     Earlier I had been thinking of Jimmie — Sergeant James Walton. Jimmie, with his movie star good looks, with whom I had bonded earlier in the summer, and who was trying to set me up with his girl friend’s kid sister. He had promised to drive from Spokane to visit me in my tower.
     Jimmie, whose unit of the First Infantry Division in Vietnam had been ambushed. Jimmie, who had been left for dead, and when he made it back to the other survivors of his unit, they all thought he was a ghost.
      But I wasn’t a ghost. I was just an RPCV.

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