written by: Jim Bates
The invitation read, Time to celebrate. The pandemic is over and Blue is having her first birthday. Please attend. We’d love to see you!
Damn. Now I had a decision to make. Should I go or not?
There’s no way to sugarcoat this, so I’ll tell it straight: I had my face ripped off twenty-three years ago. You might have read about it in the papers. It was a big deal for a while, the result of me getting between a momma bear and a guy and his son who later turned out to become good friends of mine. My action saved Jack Sorry and his son Ethan but left me in pretty bad shape. When reconstructive surgery was finally over a few years after the attack all I could say to anyone who looked at me weird was, “You shoulda seen the other guy,” making a joke.
But no one asked, and they certainly didn’t laugh, then or now, and I don’t blame them. I’m not the easiest thing to look at. The pandemic helped a lot, though. I wore my Covid mask all the time. Now that it’s over I might even keep wearing it, too. What the heck, go with what works for you right?
But maybe not. That’s where the birthday invitation comes in.
Maybe it’s just me. I used to be okay-looking. I had long hair and a thick beard I kept nicely trimmed. I was a loner, though, that was for sure, and didn’t enjoy being around people all that much. Still don’t, to be honest.
I’d fled to Canada to escape the draft while my best friend Randy enlisted and was killed the next year in 1971 in Vietnam by a tripwire explosion while on patrol supporting Operation Lam Son. I came back into the states in 1977 when President Carter pardoned us draft dodgers. I only got as far as Grand Marias, forty miles south of the border because there was nothing much to come home to; Mom had died and my dad, well, let’s just say my dad and I had our issues.
I got a job working in Nieminen’s Hardware, found a cheap apartment, and began working as a way to support my self-pitying and self-medicating bad habits.
I also started going into the woods outside of town up on the Superior Hiking Trail to talk with my deceased friend Randy. I think that’s what saved me. We were best friends growing up in the idyllic farming community of Willow Creek in central Minnesota. We met in first grade and bonded over our love of riding our Schwinn bicycles and messing around in the surrounding fields and woodlots hunting and trapping and fishing and generally doing anything we could to be away from our parents.
My dad ran the hardware store and Randy’s dad ran the grocery. We each worked for our fathers, saved money, and pooled it to buy a two-tone red and white ’57 Chevy that we used for double dates with the Anderson twins. We weren’t jocks, weren’t all that smart, but we were likable. As I said, it was an idyllic life.
But that all changed after we graduated. In the summer of 1970, the government instituted the 1971 draft. Randy’s number was seventeen and mine was thirty-five. We had no choice; we were going in the next year.
Randy’s family was military all the way, and he chose early enlistment to have a chance to ‘choose my poison,’ as he put it, in other words, have some choice with what the military did with him. My family was military too, but, where Randy cared about what his family thought of him, I didn’t. Plus, I was deathly afraid of being killed. So was Randy, for that matter, but he sucked it up and dealt with it. I didn’t.
The fall of 1970, the day after the train left the station to take him to boot camp in Fort Lee, Virginia, I left home and hitch-hiked on back roads to northern Minnesota. I crossed the border west of International Falls in the back of a pickup driven by an anti-war pulp wood cutter, hidden under a pile of burlap that smelled like wet dogs. I made my way to Toronto and worked in a head shop just north of downtown and was probably stoned out of my mind when I got the letter from my mom in July of 1971 telling me my best friend had been killed.
We buried Randy yesterday, she wrote. The whole town was there. Even the Anderson twins you boys used to date. Their husbands were there, too, along with their kids. Everyone was there, Ray. It was quite emotional. You were even mentioned and not in a good way. I know you’ve thought about maybe coming home, but I wouldn’t recommend it. People are still pretty angry about what you did.
Mom and I stayed close and wrote to each other nearly every week while I was in Canada. Despite her advice, I would have probably come home, but she died in 1975, two years before Carter’s pardon, so I never had the chance. My dad had no desire to see me, nor I him.
So, I made a life for myself in Grand Marais. Antti Nieminen, the owner of the hardware store, sort of adopted me. He was a kind man, a salt-of-the-earth Finlander. I found out years later he’d lost a son to the war, and he put up with a lot from me that was for sure. In those early years, I smoked a lot of weed and drank a lot of whiskey and wasn’t always the most likable person you’d want to have around. Nor the most reliable either when it came to being on time.
Years later Antti told me, “You know, Ray. You were pretty bad. You stunk of alcohol most of the time and had a bad attitude. But if I could keep you focused on stocking the shelves and helping with unloading deliveries, you weren’t too bad. I just had to keep you away from the customers.”
Now it’s different, of course. Around the time of the bear attack, I had my act pretty much together. I’d quit drinking and only smoked weed occasionally. I spent most of my free time up in the woods talking with Randy and enjoying my new hobby of birdwatching.
I attribute my transformation (if that’s what you want to call it) to Randy. In those early years, while I was in the woods, I spent a lot of time talking to him. I began to refer to those conversations as counseling sessions. I apologized to him for leaving him to die in Vietnam while I fled to Canada. Against all logic, he forgave me. The more I apologized, the more he forgave until finally, he said, “Look, buddy, you’ve beaten yourself up enough over this. It’s time to move on. Make something of your life.” That’s what I tried to do.
My time for redemption happened when I came upon Jack and Ethan and made the fateful decision to step between the momma bear and the father and son. I did it because I was in some weird way doing what I told myself I would have done if I had been in Vietnam with Randy; I would have tried to save him from that fatal enemy tripwire.
My spontaneous action on that trail changed my life, for better or for worse, and to this day I still don’t regret it. I made two lifelong friends in Jack and Ethan, but my face, man, let me tell you, it’s not pretty.
These days, I refer to myself as looking like a soccer ball. There’s a hole for a mouth about the size of a silver dollar. I have no chin, no lips, no nose really, just a slit so I can breathe, hardly any facial definition at all. I do have my eyes though. I don’t know what I’d have done if I’d have lost my sight. I have one ear. No hair. My left hand was amputated soon after the attack, and I have to use a cane to get around.
But other than that, I’m good!
Do you think it’s weird I can joke about it? Well, what can I do? I’ve learned to like my life. At my age, I’m slowing down a little, but I can work part-time at the hardware store. I have some friends. I have my hobbies of birdwatching and walking in the woods (actually, gimping is a closer description, if you want to quibble.) And if things get too tough, I have Randy to talk to.
I have to say, though, this pandemic, as horrible as it has been, has not been all that bad for me. I like wearing my Covid mask. My face is covered. You can see my eyes and that’s okay, they’re fine. I wear a baseball cap. So, it’s good.
Jack Sorry died ten years ago, and his son Ethan and I have become very close. He’s a game warden and lives in the hills above Duluth with his wife Clare who is a nurse, and their young daughter Blue. They are the best part of my life now, and they are the ones who sent the birthday invitation.
Blue is one of those Covid Kids, children born in the first year of lockdown. Kids who have grown up around mask-wearing people their entire lives. I love little Blue. We Zoom. Me! A seventy-year-old anti-social loner, Zooming with a little girl. It’s fun. She thinks of me as Uncle Ray and can almost say my name, which is very sweet.
But I wear my mask. Ethan gives me a hard time. “Blue won’t care, Ray. Believe me. She knows you. She likes you. Just show her your face. She’ll be fine.”
Maybe. But then again, maybe not. I don’t want to risk it. I like the little kid too much to terrify her even though Ethan says I won’t. I don’t want to take a chance. So, I send her little jumpers and stuffed animals, and we Zoom while Ethan and Clare and Blue open what I send and I watch from my apartment in Grand Marias. I love seeing the little girl smile, but I leave my mask on. What would happen if I took it off and Blue freaked out and never wanted to see me again? I don’t know what I’d do.
I’ve talked to Randy about it and he thinks I’m being an idiot. “Just do it, for Pete’s sake, Ray,” he’s told me time and time again. “The pandemic’s over and it’s time to move on. Take your mask off and let the little kid see you. She won’t care. Hells bells, it shouldn’t be any big deal.”
Well, I like Randy and I trust his judgment most of the time, but on this issue, I’m going to have to disagree. I don’t want to take a chance, so I’m leaving it on.
Which leaves one final burning question. What am I going to do with this birthday invitation? Should I go or not? The right thing to do is what Randy and even Ethan want me to do, and that’s to go, see the little girl who calls me Uncle Ray and take off my mask. Show little Blue the real me, if you will. Now, that’s a scary thought. If you could see me, you’d know what I’m talking about.
But the reality is that this is Blue’s first birthday since the pandemic ended. Ethan and Clare are having a small gathering and I’ve been invited. The more I think about it, honestly, I’m leaning toward going. These are my friends, after all. Will I take my mask off? I don’t want to, but maybe I will. Like Randy tells me, “Don’t be an idiot. Who cares?”
Well, I do. I care a lot. I know what’s behind the mask.
But then I think about what Ethan told me recently, “Ray, our daughter loves you for who you are, not what you look like. Please come. She’d love it.”
You know, maybe he’s right. Maybe I will go, and if I do, I’ll go maskless. After all, you only live once, right? But I’ll tell you this, I’ll bring my Covid mask along anyway. That way I can put it on and cover-up if I need to. After all, it’s Blue’s birthday and she’s turning one. It’s a big day for her. So, yeah, I’ll keep that mask handy just in case. Just to be on the safe side. After all, I wouldn’t want to spoil the party.
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