By Pat Branyan
The last time I drove to Phoenix was over 25 years ago. I was hauling five of my fellow school teachers there to an education conference focusing on proven new theories of teaching. In fact, those same teachers were among the most talented and creative people I’ve ever known and were themselves at the forefront of progressive new approaches to public education. In Texas, they held the seminars.
They, and thousands like them, burned oceans of midnight oil to bring back the light into American classrooms that was dimming from the Eighties backlash, one that continues to darken public schools today. Most of the reforms discussed there in Phoenix, and implemented in many of the nation’s schools, have long been quashed in the rising anti-intellectual fervor of those days which has only grown.
Zombie-like, it continues now with idiotic testing regimes designed to stress and malign our public schools. But, I’ll never forget that brief time when we were sure the country was reversing the stupidity, starting to right itself beginning, appropriately, in the classroom.
After those 25 years I did forget about driving over the Superstition Mountains in the approach to Phoenix from the east. It’s one thing to drive over a mountain pass with a van load of happy teachers in perfect weather. It’s perfectly forgettable. It’s another to white knuckle the same pass in a slashing rainstorm down a steep grade of switchbacks, most under construction with tight, coned off lanes, dragging a heavy RV with an ashen-faced wife ready to jump.
Dahna practically kissed the rocks when we finally got down to Lost Dutchman State Park. It’s tucked in the western foothills of the Superstitions in the Sonoran desert and actually abuts Mesa/Phoenix. I don’t remember much about setting up, probably because of the huge Flatiron formation that rose out of the ground straight up and almost within reach of my hand.
The Flatirons at Lost Dutchman State Park
I remember my mother pointing out the Flatiron Building on Peachtree Street near her home in Depression Era Atlanta. Not limited to that city, flatirons are distinctive, wedge-shaped buildings tucked in the acute angle of sharply intersecting avenues found in several large cities. I imagine the fat cats that perch in the horizontal apexes of these buildings would have nothing to do with with the steep face of the Flatiron of infamous Maricopa County, Arizona.
Brown-headed Cowbird Checking out a Saguaro Blossom
Tom West, my old friend of 50 plus years, stood next to me and looked up at the big rock and was typically unfazed by its challenge. “It kind of makes me wish I’d brought my gear. Maybe give it a try,” he said. The idea of my hiking up to the top of the thing struck me as insane, far beyond the pale, but I figured Tom probably could do it if he really wanted to even though he’s a little older than I am. The park’s pamphlet warned in no uncertain terms that the Flatiron should only be attempted by expert hikers in top shape, but Tom’s a tough old Marine so there’s that.
I didn’t know his first name until 18 years ago even though he’s one of the most important people in my life, and has been through all those years, 33 of them out of touch. I met him in early July, 1967 when I first walked into my “hooch” (squad tent) as a “new guy” in 2nd Platoon, Hotel Company, 2nd Battalion, Seventh Marines located on a firebase atop of Hill 60 just west of Danang, Vietnam. Smitty, my new squad leader, introduced me to a diverse group guys sitting on their “racks” (cots) that included one playing Spades who looked up. “That’s Pineapple,” Smitty said, “Hawaiian.”
Tom’s mom is a native Hawaiian of Polynesian and Japanese ancestry who married a GI after the war and wound up in the midwest. He’s a genetic mutt like the rest of us, but the tag, Pineapple, stuck to him pretty good and always made sense to me. Whatever you want to call him, no other man ever helped me like has. He calls me P.J. because that’s how I was known there, and I doubt he knew my first name until I learned his at a company reunion in June, 2001, right before 9/11.
When I was wounded I left Vietnam behind in body and mind. I tried to adjust over the years to life as an amputee, initially with no particular skills useful to a civilian. Thirty-three years later, Dahna noticed that my company was having a reunion in “Leatherneck,” the Marine Corps magazine, and I told her, absent-mindedly, to see what it was about. She did that, and I immediately got a call from another long-lost squad mate. Gerry was, in fact, organizing that year’s reunion in Des Moines, and I told him I’d come if Pineapple did.
He came with his wife Karen, a lovely Finn originally from the far north country of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We spent a little time catching up the lost years, but mostly we went back to the old ambushes and firefights, the details of which we’ve now spent years trying in vain to accurately reconstruct. It’s an ongoing mystery to us how those vivid moments live like phantoms in our shared memory. It’s something like two old chess players trying to recreate the most exciting and bewildering game they ever played together, no rules in a heightened, near hallucinatory state. One far beyond simple recollection.
In the years since we met up again, Tom has helped me in a number of ways, notably in the unbelievably generous donation of several months of his vacation time helping me build my house. I told him it was his house too, and he understands that in the sense that home really is where the heart is.
There are lots of reasons we stopped near Phoenix, and Tom and Karen are all of them. In the beginning though, Pineapple and I would stand together on Hill 60 watching the155 mm howitzer blast out its big shells in random “harassment and interdiction,” or H & I fire. Or later, from Hill 190, we would look out over Thuy Tu where Cisco got his third Purple Heart and got to go home, back in “the World.” Or, at Dai Loc during Tet where we’d look out over famous Liberty Bridge at the barren and abandoned firebase, Phu Loc 6 on the other side. That’s where snipers shot at me twice, once causing me to knock over a can of chicken noodle soup I was heating up with a little blob of C-4 plastic explosive. It’s much better than Sterno if you light it carefully. No fumes.
Tom and I stood together time and again looking out at that beautiful but blood-soaked land, and we talked until we became close. He didn’t know it until a few weeks ago, but I drew a lot of strength from those little talks. His innate optimism and good sense steadied my nerves and helped give me the confidence I needed to function well in spite of my fear. That’s why when the shooting stopped he was the first one I looked for, and that’s ultimately why I stopped in Phoenix.
Well, this is a travelogue, and this piece might seem like a bit of a detour. I suppose it is, but when you travel like that for Uncle Sam your whole life takes a detour. It’s still traveling even if it’s not always good or right. War is hell as any sane combat Marine will tell you, evil and beyond stupid in every way. It’s also true that you might not meet a man like Pineapple any other way. Maybe that’s why our best writers keep writing about it.
On day two, we had a fine visit with Karen cooking for us in the pretty condo they own for the winter months. In Spring they head back to their home in Ft. Wayne saying goodbye to their son, Michael, and stopping by to see their two daughters in Bend, OR or another one over in Michigan. That plus a large number of friends and other family along the way. Sacha, the little floozie, fell in love with their neighbor who just might have thought about kidnapping her. Who could blame them?
The day before we left Arizona, Tom and Karen drove us up in the mountains to Tortilla Flat, a private town consisting of a restaurant, and a little museum detailing its role as the last stage stop during the construction of Lake (Teddy) Roosevelt around 1910 or so. Oh yeah, it has an ice cream parlor. I had Sacha on a leash and therefore declined an ice cream cone with the others. Dahna got a single scoop of some chocolate/coffee gelato and gave me a bite. Best damn bite of ice cream I ever had. Add that to all the reasons to go back to Phoenix.
Tortilla Flat on the Old Apache Trail
That night we took them to a pretty good Mexican restaurant where after another fattening meal, we said another “So long ’til next time.” We were leaving the next day for Yucaipa, CA close to Joshua Tree National Park. One day after that, Tom and Karen left for Bend.
If the Flatiron and Tortilla Flat’s unrivaled ice cream isn’t enough of a draw to bring you to the Sonoran Desert area of Apache Junction, maybe the tale of the Lost Dutchman Mine is. Apparently, there is a fortune in lost gold somewhere up in the Superstition Mountains. Over the years a lot of people have gone in there looking for it. Some of them, even recently, never came out. There are old maps and lots of clues to work over if you have the heart for it, but be careful. Speaking as one newly reacquainted with those mountains, it might be a good idea to talk it over with Pineapple before you go in.
I’ve got his number if you need it.
Phoenix Reunion with Tom and Karen West