A fork in the woods

"I'm out. Ain't got much for neighbors."
Gary LaShelle

There is a fork in a dirt road near Lost Lake on the way to Chesaw. Both paths lead to secluded Vietnam vets with decided opinions about their service and the current state of the nation.

Take a right and you’ll get to Frank Walaczek, a barrel-chested man with bristly white hair and a deep furrow between his eyes. After completing three reconnaisance tours in Vietnam, Frank said he came back and spent 17 years as a deep-sea diver in the oil industry, then went to Central America to train guerrilla soldiers. “I liked the excitement of hunting and being hunted,” he said. “Knowing someone is hunting you is the greatest rush in the world.”

Frank, who’s lived alone for nine years in a home he built himself, gets no benefits from the VA and doesn’t want any. “Those vets hospitals are the scariest places in the world,” he said. “I wouldn’t go there if I was dying.” He spoke disdainfully about the government and explained what he’d do if he were president—declare martial law and carpet-bomb the Arab world.

“You talk about genocide, they’d call me the Smiling Reaper,” he said. “I’d kill them all.”

A left at the fork leads to Frank’s neighbor, Gary LaShelle. His driveway leads past three increasingly threatening caution signs (“Beware of Owner”) and a shoulder-height pile of flattened beer cans. Juliette and I counted five guns in plain sight in his trailer, one of them holstered on Gary’s hip. A box of ammunition and a plastic jar full of Reese’s peanut butter cups sat side by side on a bookshelf.

Gary’s prosthetic leg was hidden beneath a dusty pair of camouflage pants; he lost it either in the war (Gary’s story) or on a bender back home (according to Ed Bush, our guide). After pouring out a dose of whiskey from a bottle lying on the matted orange-and-green carpeting, Gary held forth on his kids (“a pain in the ass”), the government (“If this was the old days, 90 percent of Congress would be stood up and shot”) and his wife of, he guesses, at least 30 years, whom he sees two or three times a week (“She stays down there with her face in the computer all day and it suits me fine—it leaves me alone”).

Two turns at a fork in the road, two different stories about veterans and the consequences of their military service.

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