Quelling the Dragon

Written by Richard Drebert

©Good Catch Publishing

I lay stunned for a few seconds listening to grinding and chirping above me. Mud pressed my limbs and shook like J-e-l-l-o when the Huey plowed into the muck beside me.

I flailed in a direction I hoped was “up,” and my mouth broke through the mud. My teeth ground slime, and a flavor of incendiary aluminum filled my lungs.

I unstrapped my pack and slogged away from the chopper that glowed like a contact flare for Viet Cong. I had no idea where my carbine landed.

The Cong were watching the show. Their gunfire had taken out the Huey’s rotor, and they cheered when it spun above the swamp like a crippled dragonfly. As our pilot struggled to regain control, the chopper had heaved over on its side, disgorging me out of the cargo door. I plummeted about 60 feet, into a leech-infested mire.

I glanced at the pancaked chopper several feet from me, where six crewmen burned. Jubilant, screaming Viet Cong jabbed me with rifle barrels, herding me against a green jungle wall. It parted and swallowed us alive.

Inside a bamboo cage at the first Viet Cong encampment, I squatted like an ape, bleeding. My feet were bare, my rucksack pillaged and strewn on the ground.

I had been in Vietnam for nearly two years, my missions: to clandestinely pierce the heart of North Vietnamese strongholds, map positions and lead platoons to rescue downed pilots.

Our targeted Huey gunship had been evacuating me from a grim operation — I had successfully located another downed crew, but too late. They were all dead.

Now, caged by my Vietnamese captors, I stayed busy trying to breathe, rather than prying my bamboo bars apart to escape. At night my cage was submerged in pee-temperature jungle soup, and I floated inside, with my nose barely above the surface. At various swamps, I lost count of my days in captivity. My abductors carried me to their new bivouacs each morning.

I envied a pilot in his own coop nearby. They respected fliers. He rated bigger filthy rice cakes than I, and they stabbed him with bamboo spears with a mite less zeal.

I snatched sleep when I could, between long dousings. In a jungle delirium, my mind floated to places in my past: breathing in an iron lung; vacations at the French Riviera; military school; my father’s scowl; parties hosted by Mother at our villa in Spain.

And my wife, Nikki’s, lovely form seemed always and never near …

***

Dad worked as a chemist with the Texaco Oil Company when I was diagnosed with the scourge of children in the 40s and 50s, before polio vaccines were commonplace. I spent months in an iron lung (a negative pressure ventilator), while we lived in Graham, Texas. Polio had crippled the muscles around my lungs, preventing my body from pumping air in and out. At the hospital, inside a body-length tube, a doctor regulated air pressure around my chest, allowing me to breathe.

I only had a 3 year old’s comprehension of Mom and Dad’s fear that I would be paralyzed or die. How my inflamed nerve cells suddenly reversed deterioration was a mystery to everyone, though not so baffling for me now. (Leaving my steel breathing cell typifies the ongoing salvage operation of my whole reckless life.)

Dad moved us out of Texas, where hardworking kin cluttered graveyards around Dalby Springs. My great-grandpa had been a Baptist preacher; his son’s roots were sunk deep in hot Texas soil, working his ranch. Grandma was a schoolmarm, a singer and pianist. My other grandpa on Dad’s side was a carpenter, living with my grandma in Oklahoma City. I spent summers with both sets of grandparents in my early years.

Advancing at Texaco, Dad took our little family from oil patch to oil patch — north to Illinois, then west to Kansas. We traveled in a ‘51 Ford until Dad left his chemist’s job behind. Our lives abruptly altered when he accepted a position with the Strategic Air Command.

Dad was a stoic, military-trained Air Force officer, serving stateside during WWII. He saw to it that I attended Sunday school as a boy and presumed that his Methodist morality, along with his military work ethic, were deeply entrenched in my soul.

After a stint in Omaha, when I was about 8, we moved to Seville, Spain.

Mom was ecstatic …

Air Force personnel explained, “We have no suitable quarters to fit your position. But we have a residence downtown for your family.”

They gave us a three-story Spanish villa. Chauffeurs, houseboys, maids, cooks — our staff of 10 — filled our needs quite nicely. The U.S. government posted a 24-hour guard at our door, so I knew my father was an important man.

During our European sojourn, I don’t recall ever tossing another dirty shirt or underwear in a laundry hamper. Someone always did it for me.      Dad seemed preoccupied, even more so than when he was a chemist at Texaco. His job with the Strategic Air Command took him to Great Britain, the Netherlands and Germany. Mom and I traveled with him, while the Cold War chilled Europe.

I’ll never know exactly what logistical support Dad supplied during the Cuban Missile Crisis in the early 60s. But I know my parents entertained men like Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay, USAF, who is credited with modernizing SAC with bombers and ballistic missiles. LeMay also argued with President Kennedy about initiating a first strike on Soviet missile sites in Cuba.

One day, runways at a local Air Force base were jammed with strategic bombers. Mother seemed beside herself, then recovered to entertain a score of “guests.” Our walled gardens of lilacs, gardenias, date palms and pomegranates were suddenly inundated with lolling, smoking officers. Pilots and crew had descended upon our villa, staying until ordered to stand down and return back to the States.

As for me, I loved the excitement of Europe — and I loved Nikki. Diplomats’ children from aristocracy in Great Britain, Germany, Australia and the Netherlands attended my school. And I learned to adapt to their caste system, like Mother adapted to the villa and Dad adapted to his covert logistical tasks. I also learned to despise the imperious attitudes of my peers.

Nikki, whose father was a royal diplomat from Sweden, stood in contrast to the other embassy prima donnas I knew. Winters and summers passed, and we grew closer each new school year. She became a stunning, blond, 6-foot tall, walking Barbie Doll. By the time I reached junior high, I stood nearly 6 feet tall, too, a strapping 180-pound young American buck. I was well-traveled, educated and independent. Nikki was younger, but shapely, mature and versed in several languages. We were made for each other.

One morning, my parents left our villa to attend a seminar in Madrid, while I drove the other direction in Dad’s little blue Austin Healy Sprite. Nikki snuggled beside me, and we found a malleable priest in Malaga, on Spain’s southern coast. We sped carelessly out of Malaga — married! We motored to Monaco, the playground of royalty, and holed up in a hotel — until “secured” by the local gendarme.

Nikki’s father had enlisted the help of the CIA and other agencies to track us down, and it wasn’t hard — a statuesque blonde and a baby-faced student bouncing carelessly all over the French Riviera. We didn’t act like tourists. We owned the Riviera. We had been to all the hotspots with our dads and moms!

Nikki’s dad whisked her off to Sweden and had our marriage annulled. My own father was livid, disgraced. He contacted a southern-based military academy, and I was accepted … at 15 years old. Within eight hours of my arrival back at the villa, I was on a plane to the States. Grandpa met me at the airport and delivered me to the academy.

They shaved my head.

My green jumpsuit was baggy, my tennis shoes out of style. I was issued a metal tray, eating utensils and a footlocker. I bunked with another misfit in a room with high ceilings and stark tile floor. By 16, I was about 6 feet, with auburn hair and 190 pounds of solid muscle. I was a big Buddy Holly-looking ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) “soldier” in uniform, who didn’t need a houseboy or maid to pick up after me anymore.

Sergeants marched or double-timed me with M-1 rifles from one end of campus to the other, seemed like a thousand times. They drilled my privileged “sass” into a man fit to lead a platoon, if I chose. For two years, Dad flew me home for holidays, wherever he was stationed.

Then, the summer after President Kennedy was assassinated, I moved back home with my parents again. Dad was stationed in Omaha, Nebraska, and I started high school there. At 17, I aimed my talents toward football, girls and psychedelic rock n’ roll. The Beatles had nudged the Beach Boys off the music charts, and I started strumming my steel guitar, dressed in bellbottoms and tie-dyed shirts.

I excelled in martial arts, outstripping my peers in physical discipline and stamina. I was buffed inside and out when I entered college at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. I took advice from my father and reluctantly majored in biochemistry. But no sooner had I enrolled in classes, than a lovely, welcome distraction routed my life in a new direction.

Nikki had flown to the States and found me. Blond and beautiful, she was still my first love, and I was hers. She enrolled in college with me, and we romanced as if we had never separated. My grades reflected the time I spent partying with Nikki, and I came close to dropping out of college altogether with a GPA lower than 2.0. This was about when I had a falling out with my dad again. We lost contact when I simply stopped calling home.

***

For money to support Nikki and me, I worked on the “kill line” at an Omaha hog and beef butcher plant, until the government delivered a summons that changed our lives forever.

“We need to get married, Nikki, or I’ll end up in Vietnam!” I handed her the letter from Selective Service, and my hippie girl handled it like poison ivy.

We lost no time in getting a marriage license. I hit a circuit of officials to confirm my exemption from military service, until I realized that I was too late. Rules had changed. If I had children, I would be placed far down on the lottery list, but there was no way I could “hurry” procreation any faster! My draft status was considered 1-A. I was a prime candidate for cannon fodder.

“Son, don’t give it a thought. You’re a married man. You have a pregnant Swedish wife. You speak German — sign up for the Marines, and you’ll serve on embassy duty in Germany, guaranteed!”

“You’re sure?” I looked at the recruiter, relieved. When I lived in Europe, my French friends had spoken fearfully of their bloody Indochina War. Their fathers had lost limbs and sanity in Vietnam, and I wanted no part of any war.

“Just sign here, and show up for swearing in. We’ll get you squared away. I’ll set you up for guard duty in Heidelberg.” I signed …

I surprised Nikki with the great news. “Heidelberg! Wonderful!” She drew me close, and our passions carried us away. We were on our way back to Europe!

Soon afterward, I completed my Basic Training with honors and was about to receive my duty station, when an unfriendly Marine sergeant surprised me. He issued me a choice: “You can go to Vietnam now, or you can sign up for Special Forces school and go to Vietnam later. But you ARE going to Vietnam.”

I tried to talk my way out of the draft “trap,” but he just laughed at me.

To stall my entry in President Johnson’s jungle war as long as possible, I chose to attend Special Forces school. My first son was born before I boarded a transport to DaNang. And I had another one on the way.

It was obvious to me that God had deserted Vietnam to the devil. Viet Cong and American soldiers alike seemed possessed. My combat training reduced me to working like a butcher again. I had slaughtered hundreds of hogs on the Omaha kill line. After a year of killing Charlie (enemy Vietnamese), I felt as indifferent to taking lives as when I zapped hogs with a high-voltage wand.

I led young college-aged men, raw and untried, into the jungles on reconnaissance missions. The average life span of a newbie was about two weeks. I could not explain to anyone why I was in Vietnam — even to myself. Duty as a U.S. Marine sergeant drained morality from my conscience, and I learned to hate North Vietnamese regular soldiers and especially the Viet Cong guerillas for their savagery.

Showing compassion to the indigenous South Vietnamese allies seemed almost as cruel as murdering them in their beds. In one village, our medics had immunized dozens of children for happy parents — but word got back to the Viet Cong. Charlie told the villagers that we had injected our evil culture into their veins. They amputated the vaccinated arm of every child in the village.

In Vietnam, the enemy and the ally looked the same. A child or woman in a picturesque rice paddy might plant a bullet in your spine after waving with a smile.

In our firefights, everyone died. No matter the age. No matter the gender. No matter the dishonor. After two years, my mind felt thin, whittled away by shame. Nikki and my two babies back home became my lifeline to reality, yet seldom could I bring myself to write to them. As for my mom and dad, they had no idea I was even in Vietnam.

***

After weeks in a bamboo cage, I wondered where Nikki was, and if she knew about me …

Then, one late evening, helicopter gunships swooped low above our heads, scattering the Cong into the jungle like frightened rodents. Suddenly the pilot and I were alone with a few torn Vietnamese bodies. Marines half-carried me to a waiting chopper.

Semper Fidelis. “Always faithful,” our Marine Corps bond of brotherhood.

Although weak, I wasn’t injured, except for the parasites I had ingested. My mind had come further unhinged, but the officers at base camp ignored it. They needed me. The colonel was about to put me back on the “kill line,” again with a dozen wispy, whiskered boys, but I refused to hold it together anymore.

I told him what I thought about his war and what he could do with his direct orders. I barely escaped court martial, and after one final hand-to-hand skirmish with a Viet Cong, the Marines shipped me home to Letterman Army Hospital, a Section 8 (mentally unfit for military duty) with a shot-up thumb. I guess they figured I was as dangerous to our side as to the enemy’s.

At Letterman, I had plenty of time to revisit my Methodist roots. Stories and images of Jesus stuck fast to the felt board of my heart, but I was angry! Why did God let atrocities happen to innocent children? If this was God, I didn’t need him.

All my correspondence to Nikki boomeranged right back to me. The government had issued an MIA (Missing In Action) report, and Nikki and my two little ones had moved back to Sweden, believing I was dead. I was dead: dead broke and dead in my soul. Nikki’s parents skillfully erected an imperial wall of luxury and intercepted all my communications. They made certain that I remained (to Nikki) DEAD.

So I wandered. In the grip of the sexual and cultural revolution of the late 60s, I found like-minded women and men disillusioned and angry. I joined a far-left student activists’ society; some among them were known to the FBI as “domestic terrorists.”

In a yellow VW microbus, I hit the college circuit, preaching my enraged message of peace and love, waiting for enough people like me to shove Uncle Sam over a political cliff. Hippie communes sprung up like toadstools after a warm rain.

Drugs, sex and hatred for the “establishment” bound us in a distorted loyalty. New Mexico, Texas, California, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania — the free-love circuit never stopped. “Make Love, Not War” was my code, and Woodstock symbolized the future that I believed my generation would bring.

Eventually I fell in love with Nikki’s close friend, a woman named Darlene, and married her. We had a baby boy, and he traveled with us. As for Nikki, she had utterly vanished from my life. I had no idea if she knew I was even alive. Darlene’s philosophy on life matched my own, and she accepted me as broken as I was: unrepentant and full of rage.

We loved our peace rallies and drove to Fort Worth, Texas, to march and demonstrate there, against war and our warmonger government. Ten thousand activists gathered at a sprawling park, along with Darlene, my baby and me. We were sitting on the Levy Bridge, playing guitars and hollering with the crowds, when I noticed a striking, very tall and shapely woman, her blond hair streaming like silk in the hot Texas breeze. She was walking toward us along the top of the levy, her gypsy skirt billowing with every step. She stopped dead as our eyes locked.

My Nikki stood like an apparition, shaking like a leaf. I froze, too, and suddenly we were in each other’s arms. Darlene, Nikki’s best friend, joined in, and the three of us cried, embraced and wondered.

Moments after our brief reunion, I felt the happy ambience begin to sour.

“Uh, Nikki, I … I’m married to Darlene.”

Silence.

Tears filled Nikki’s eyes for an instant. “But you are also married to me … yes?”

I took a deep breath, glancing at Darlene. “Yes,” I said.

Darlene grabbed Nikki’s hands. “Let us talk it over,” she said, and I backed away, with my toddler son in tow. It didn’t take long before they came to my grassy knoll.

“We decided it’s okay with us.”

What’s okay?”

“We are both married to you.”

“No, no. That’s illegal, Nikki.”

Darlene laughed. “Most of what we do is illegal, Allen.” She patted her hip pocket, where she hid our baggie of weed.

I suddenly lived with two wives: Nikki, “wife” number one, introduced me to my 4- and 5-year-old sons. “Wife” number two, Darlene, was pregnant and still nursed another. We piled into my VW van, my careless life taking on twisted dimensions, as I led my unorthodox “family” toward untold heartache.

***

Mexico!

The seven of us (each woman now had two children) had tired of travel and marching for peace. On a trip to the University of Yucatan at Merida, we met a professor who owned land on the peninsula. At the time, the incomparable white sandy beaches drew tourists from all over the world. Mayan ruins lay within a few miles of his facilities, and the Yucatan sea waters were touted by Jacques Cousteau as the most pristine in the world.

We met other “free spirits” studying archaeology at the university, and I offered the professor a proposition.

“Let us move to your parcel and open up a European-style youth hostel. We’ll offer hammocks, toilets, mosquito netting and tours to the Mayan ruins. And the real money is in diving to where cities are submerged …”

We added a dive shop to our venture, and our lives became a picture postcard of sandy beaches and paradise. Years later, American and European developers would establish a resort on the peninsula. In time, a multi-million-dollar tourist playground known as Cancun was built very near our first little hostelry.

Four years into my capitalistic venture, I lay in a hammock sipping licuados, watching my four children climbing coconut trees like little monkeys. It dawned upon me that they were growing up like wild things. Would they end up hustling tourists for tips here in “paradise”? I doted on my boys, especially Nikki’s, since they seemed somehow connected to all the “firsts” in my life.

We moved back to Texas, bought a ranch on a cliff and planned to live a “normal” life, happily ever after. Darlene and Nikki maintained our aerie, and I took courses in nursing. After graduating, I landed a job at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. My new work defined me, for the first time. I had studied pediatrics, and saving children became my passion.

Every day babies and youths were rolled in on gurneys — their lives hanging by a thread. I actually looked forward to my rotation into the ER, where I could save patients. It became my reason for living. I despised losing even one.

One evening I kissed Nikki goodbye in our car and hugged my two boys before taking my hospital shift at the ER. I checked in and started treating patients immediately. About 30 minutes later, word came to prepare for trauma victims.

“How many?”

“Three — a mother and two male children. Head traumas. A car accident …”

Two ambulances roared into position, and the doors flew open. I prepped with latex gloves, waiting. The first gurney rolled in, and my knees buckled. It was Nikki. My two sons followed their mother to the ICU with nurses and doctors swarming.

Everyone was alerted as to the identities of the trauma patients, and my supervisor escorted me to the staff lounge. I sat alone in stunned silence. Hours passed, and one by one, my children and my beloved Nikki left me.

A drunk driver had killed them.

What possessed me to leave paradise? God? What have you done to me?

Darlene fell apart when I told her. After funeral services, I tried to continue working, but my wife began drinking heavily to cope. My kids suffered neglect, and I needed to move them closer to town.

No decisions came easily to me anymore. I had the keys to the hospital pharmacy, so I helped myself to the medications to ease my anguish. Darlene needed the drugs, too, and one day my own mental lapses caught up with me.

“I have to let you go, Allen. You just can’t handle the stress. Better get some help …” My supervisor knew I popped downers after most of my shifts.

Darlene moved to Fort Worth to her parents’ home. I stayed in Galveston at a drug treatment center for 30 days, trying to get clean. By the time I hit the streets, Darlene had begun divorce proceedings. My wife absconded with my 5- and 10-year-old sons. (In the ensuing years, my boys would surface just long enough for me to hear where they were, and then they’d vanish again. This heart-rending game of hide-and-seek continued for 15 years before I finally established contact.)

I moved to California with a new friend — an addict who was as disturbed as I was. Memories of Vietnam invaded my mind. My family and vocation as a “savior” nurse had compensated for the murderous lifestyle I had lived, but now the dragon in the basement of my soul suddenly felt awake at times. I had tried to recover virtue in my life by saving the lives of children, but it ate at me like cancer that I was helpless to save my own.

***

By 1990, I owned a vintage white Cadillac, which I parked in front of my classy upscale home in the suburbs. My new “significant other,” Melissa, and my 3-year-old sunbathed in the backyard while I worked at a San Francisco hospital. My little daughter, Mandy, was the apple of my eye, and I finally felt like I was putting the past behind me. At the hospital, I worked in pediatrics, monitoring preemies and infants. My vocation salved the exposed nerves in my psyche, and I had kicked my drug problem, at least for a time. Nurse Allen had started over, recreating a new family.

I was in my late 40s when I held my second baby girl in my arms, by all accounts, a successful husband and father.

My dragon in the basement slumbered, undetectable — until my 3-month-old newborn baby died of crib death.

Her passing scraped my psyche raw again, and my survival faculties shut down every emotion, except a seething rage.

I keep losing my children!

Melissa drank hard to cover her own grief. Labels of whiskey bottles wallpapered our garage. I slammed the door of our baby’s pink and purple room, with me inside. It became my home of heartache for two months. I never went back to work.

The dragon in the basement came alive when I left my dead baby’s room for good. I had things to say.

“God! You are so cruel and heartless. Completely worthless. You abandoned me and my family. I want nothing to do with you, and I don’t want you in any part of my life. I DO NOT BELIEVE IN YOU, YOUR SON OR YOUR GHOST!”

In the following years, I kicked the door to hell open with both feet. I became an activist again, this time marching against God’s kingdom.

Melissa took my Mandy away with her. She obtained custody, because I appeared so dysfunctional. In the months before the bank foreclosed on my home, I hosted parties with lowlife drug abusers, dealers and prostitutes. After I trashed and lost my home, I lived in my cramped, plush Cadillac.

I made it my new job to map out where crack houses were, in case I needed one for a night. I grew familiar with meth addicts on the San Francisco streets, but never really crossed the line to become a total bottom feeder. I never shot up or smoked the heavy-duty drugs.

Then one evening, an event set my boots on a faster track to street life.

“My god! Ray’s crawling in the street. He fell off his bike!”

At a crack house, I joined a group of woozy meth heads at a streaky window, my own head still clear before toking a little weed. I rushed outside, and my ER trauma training took over. Ray was in his 50s, dressed in leathers and struggling to breathe.

Diagnosis: pneumothorax. One of his lungs had collapsed, and air in his chest cavity needed discharging so he could breathe and re-inflate it.

“Duuuude …”

The group gasped as I opened my Schrader. I flipped Ray on his back and stabbed a tiny hole in the side of his fleshy chest. I disassembled a fountain pen and inserted it into the hole, waiting for a slow release of air to travel through the tube.

An ambulance rolled up, and paramedics loaded Ray inside. “What’s yer name?” Ray rasped, just before the doors closed. I told him and watched the ambulance drive away.

It felt good to save a life again. I glanced at the people standing around me. Their prognoses didn’t look good: meth heads, potheads, heroin addicts. Some showed signs of hepatitis, others full-blown AIDS.

As for me, I felt wasted, too. I followed the crew of addicts and whores into the crack house where a heavy thrum of rock n’ roll seemed to be the only heartbeat keeping me alive. I thought of my little Mandy, growing up without me. She was the last trace of virtue left in my life, and I longed to see her again.

***

“If you ever need anything, let us know.” A burly biker on a chopped Harley Davidson leaned on my Cadillac window where I had pulled over. I was hemmed in by chrome and black steel. “You saved Ray. He’s a friend of ours. Remember what I said. We’re here if you need us.”

The roar of four Harleys seemed downright pleasant to my ears. The bikers grew smaller in the distance.

So, Ray’s got biker pals. Imagine that…

When Melissa offered me custody of Mandy, I scrambled to clean up my trashy existence. For a time Mandy and I lived in a commune near Orinda, at a former nudist colony. We traveled in a van loaded with all of Mandy’s belongings piled inside, and I got busted at an auto supply store, trying to buy parts to repair our van. The cops refused to believe that I was Mandy’s father. While I spent days in jail, she entered foster care, before her mother took her back home.

Authorities kicked me loose with an apology — they had mixed me up with another seedier offender. But I had lost custody of Mandy again. Despondent, I searched for my van, stolen while I was in the downtown lockup. One day I found it being “chopped” (dismantled for parts) in a local repair shop, and I called in my favor.

Within an hour several bikers roared up, and Slim, the owner of the garage, stood like a chicken at a chopping block, eyes wide.

“That van belongs to me, man. I want it back, and I want it better than it was.”

“I’m sooo sorry. I mean, I had no idea. I had no idea that …” Slim glanced at my backup. “Look, I’ll make this right with you, okay? I don’t want no trouble.”

I read an honest fear in Slim’s eyes and waved off my platoon.

“Got it under control,” I said.

The bikers thundered off, looking bored.

Slim was a real piece of work: running a ring of thieving meth addicts who burglarized homes and stored their booty at the garage. They chopped cars, too, dealing drugs on the side. Slim really did try to make it up to me. He let me stay in a trailer out back of his shop and repaired my van like new.

“How ‘bout you work for me, Allen? We got lots in common.” He was a “family man,” too. I declined his offer, but it wasn’t long before a biker I knew pounded on my trailer door.

“We need a guy to help us with collecting some stuff. You game?”

I had nothing to lose, and I wasn’t cut out to be a thief.

“What do I have to do?”

That day my dragon broke out of the basement, ugly and brazen.

The next year of my life is smeared with blood and funky houses where I holed up for safety. I bought a black duster and cowboy hat. I carried a sawed-off shotgun to collect debts and holstered a .44 on my belt, concealed.

Sometimes street thugs needed to feel pain to know I wasn’t playing games.

Within the first week on the job, a dealer tested my resolve, and I shot him in the foot to send a message. It worked like a charm. Suddenly, if my old Ford pickup hauled up to your curb, you knew that “Doc” had come with a mandate for you to pay or pray.

On the flip side of my personality, my alter ego sewed up street folk who needed a doctor “off the books.” Often I warned hookers and addicts to get off the streets, sometimes helping them to check into rehab. The street people called me Doc. It was my new persona; I identified with Doc Holliday, the conflicted western physician — and killer at the OK Corral.

Street scum used county jail as their R and R, a place to get treatment for hepatitis and eat three squares a day. They got free TV and rested out of the war zone. I understood their minds. I had felt the same way in Vietnam after weeks in the jungle.

People I associated with were dying in waves, sharing dirty needles, slicing each other with knives and blasting rivals in drive-bys. Notches lined my own pistol grip, too, signaling too many close calls. It was a matter of time before I faced the God who I had so thoroughly cursed.

“You don’t belong here, Allen. I got no skills, but you’re educated. You got a future. What are you doin’ on the streets, anyway?” Slim asked me this over and over. I had no answer. Any virtue in my soul had drained away years ago — in the rice paddies of Vietnam; at the ER watching my babies and Nikki die; losing track of my children; losing my daughter to crib death; and finally losing custody of Mandy, the light of my life. I had no power over my future. The dragon was in control, and deep down, I was afraid to confront him.

***

The nine meth heads inside the old house had shorted me a payment. They didn’t owe much, but I had warned them: Pay in full, or I’d be back, and I wouldn’t leave witnesses.

From a window I marked my targets inside. My truck sat rumbling at the curb, and I reloaded my 12-gauge, chambering a shell. I clicked the safety on and trotted up the steps.

My hands shook like they always did before a firefight. My nerves would “settle in” after the first blast; every threat in buckshot range would be eliminated. I was a professional, trained by the U.S. Marines.

I slammed the pistol grip against the door, while a voice in my head growled over and over, “You’ve got to kill everyone inside!”

But a split second before crashing through the door, I stopped dead.

I glimpsed a one-way mirror in the door, about head height — and the face staring back wasn’t the one I had shaved that morning.

I shifted angles to find my hazel-colored eyes, but the sockets were empty. My mouth was twisted in a toothy grimace, working, like I was screaming.

So this demon is who I have become …

A voice from over my shoulder spoke clearly. “So, you’re going in and kill nine people because they shorted you 10 bucks? That’s about what? $1.10 apiece? You’ve fought so hard to save lives in the past — now you’ll commit cold-blooded murder for $1.10 each?”

I tore myself away from the leathery visage mirroring my soul and threw my shotgun off the porch.

Freaked.

I pointed my old Ford toward the mountains, scared out of my mind that demons rode with me. Was I going insane?

I felt no relief, easing into hairpins and climbing switchbacks at Ebbetts Pass, high in the Sierra Nevadas. I was running away. I couldn’t go back to my old life. I was looking for the end of the road. If there was a God, I would meet him in the mountains, one way or the other.

After driving about four hours, I parked my truck on an old logging trail and took stock of scanty provisions I had with me: a bag of rice, a bag of beans and a sleeping bag. The bite in the air meant snow, and I reverted to Marine wilderness training. Trying to survive here diverted my fear of demons for a while, as I secured a suitable overhang and rocky cleft and built a windbreak. I outfitted my bivouac for a lengthy stay — or a place to breathe my last.

Ebbetts Pass is still known as one of the least traveled passes in the Sierras. Roads close down in winter, and it is rarely used for commercial traffic, even in summer. I lay wrapped in my arctic bag beside a smoldering fire as winter closed in. My only company was squirrels, rodents, snowbirds and unnatural creatures who kept me awake in nightmares.

Days turned to weeks as snow smothered the mountain. Grubs, mice on a stick, nuts, bark and other bitter edibles kept me alive. I dropped pounds, scabbed over patches of frostbite and, in my solitude, THE DRAGON FLED.

I entered a cycle of deep reflection, alone with the squirrels, sparrows — and Jesus. Had I ever thanked God for anything in my life? I remembered periods of happiness in childhood, with my family and in my work as a nurse. I sensed that God had been present when I helped revive babies and in my own miraculous rescue from a bamboo cage. But I never chose to thank God for any good thing. I believed that I steered my destiny.

How utterly asinine.

I realized in my frozen solitude that the dragon had owned me most of my life.

For days after this revelation, a foreign, yet peaceful, sense of gratitude fell with the snow, piling up inside my soul. Throughout my life, God had blessed me, despite my arrogance. I had blamed him for tragedies that were “man-made,” often caused by my own selfish decisions. Never had I consulted Jesus about anything or given him credit for his help.

And I shouldn’t be alive.

“Forgive me. I give up, Lord.”

It was dark when I said it, but light filled my heart.

Could Jesus gather up the shreds of purpose that I had carelessly strewn from one continent to the other, for nearly 40 years?

“You still have a daughter who loves you and needs you, Allen.” I knew this voice was God’s.

The thought of seeing Mandy again sent an avalanche of hope hurtling through my brain. My heart poured out tears, and I prayed on cold, wet knees. “God, please show me how to change my life and honor you. I don’t know how …”

A reel of Sunday school lessons played in my head as I waited for the snows to harden enough to hike out. I had constructed snowshoes made of woven branches and strips of cloth.

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” crowned my memories as I shivered closer to decision.

I grew to recognize God’s touch as he gave me mice or showed me a squirrel’s cache of nuts — enough food for each day. Then after two full months alone, gaunt and weary, I decided it was time to try for civilization. I had reconnoitered often, testing snow texture at various hours of the day and night. Winds might sap my strength, but it also helped create hard glaze on the surface of the snow that supported my snowshoes a little.

I plotted a course out of the valley at about 3 a.m., celebrating the frozen crust on the top of the snow. While I had good strength, I plunged ahead quickly, atop 10-foot drifts. In time, the snow softened, becoming nearly impassable, and in the morning light, I shoved snow like a plow, all the while wishing I could lie down and give up.

But God told me to “Push on.”

For a day and a half, I kept up a running conversation with Jesus. “Lord, to finish this whole experience, I need you to supply a miracle. I can’t do this on my own …”

Up, up to the top of a mountain rise, then stop with heaving lungs. Then plunge, fall and roll down the mountainside. Catch my breath and climb again. I lost track of how many ridges I summitted or how far I walked each day.

And when I truly believed I was at the end of my resolve, God showed me a single blink of light, still miles away. It was a convenience store, not so “convenient” to reach. It took several more hours to arrive, and the store attendant looked terrified when I stumbled inside. I appeared deranged, ragged, smelling like death. I grabbed food and ate a little before I paid him, all the while praising God aloud. I produced some bills, and the manager watched me leave with relief. I don’t recall how much I ate, or if I overpaid, or if I paid the man enough for his chips, crackers and tolerance.

***

I have not been saved to serve the dragon.

Immediately God nudged me to “fit” into decent society again. The raging hippie and diabolical enforcer had died in the cleft of a rock in the Sierra Nevadas. I felt like a man “reborn” to find my purpose in life, and God led me to Alcoholics Anonymous to help drive a stake in the heart of my addictions. I reconnected with my daughter and reestablished visitations. In the following years, I stayed mobile as possible, to be close to Mandy wherever her mother moved her.

It was tough for me to attend church, where I might have to open my heart to other Christians. But my daughter needed to go to Sunday school, and I knew I needed to hear God’s word. At a little church near Sonora, Mandy and I found a gentle mentor.

Beth was a woman who seemed too cultured, too beautiful, too proper to give me a second glance. She was fashionably dressed in flowing skirts and conservative blazers. I was a rough-cut cowboy, who sat in the last row in the back of the church. She helped lead worship service on Sunday mornings.

One day, we were seated at the same table at a banquet, and “fellowshipping” got a whole lot more interesting.

Beth mentored Mandy and me, drawing us into the love of God among his people. And very shortly, we understood that the Lady and the Cowboy were meant to be together as man and wife.

I still felt a commission to save lives and went to work in pediatrics again. My determined helpmate, Beth, taught me to restructure my life, and a merciful God has allowed me to play a role as “Dad” in Mandy’s growing up years.

***

We moved to Texas, back to my old stomping grounds, shortly after our marriage. More than a decade of grand adventures, miracles and trials passed, when Beth and I began praying for a church that didn’t need CPR. One day a wonderful pastor we knew recommended Oasis Church, and we both sensed a true hunger for God in the people who greeted us. Through these believers, God has infused spiritual strength in us, despite a few physical setbacks.

At 23 years old, my daughter knows the man I am and very little about the man who served the dragon. Through Beth, my adoring wife of 13 years, I have learned to trust again and find true Christian friendships. I have buried my old life and only recall it to show how Jesus can miraculously rebuild a wasted future.

Nearly a score of years ago, a dragon in the mirror revealed the state of my ugly soul. Now, every mirror I pass shows the new man I have become, joyful and truly fulfilled by Jesus.

I feel glorious inside and out.

One thought on “Quelling the Dragon

  1. Pingback: Closet Without Clutter « Richard Drebert (pentracker.com)

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