1968 -- Into the Abyss: The Elite Tunnel Rats

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Tunnel Rats (The Vietnam war)

Not just anybody. She had been dating my best friend for over a year. Larry and I had spent a lot of time together those first delirious months out of high school, double dating and just goofing around.


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We were buddies. To earn college money, we both took summer jobs at the local paper-mill and started the same shift with keg-party hangovers the day after high school graduation. We worked hard at our entry-level jobs, and we played even harder, often skipping sleep after a graveyard shift only to face another grueling eight-hour shift following sixteen hours on the go.

Booze, fast cars and girls supplied the main ingredients to our fun. Neither of us was too keen on starting school in the fall and frankly the only reason we felt obliged to was to beat the draft. So we stayed on at the paper mill that fall and partied on into winter, all the while keeping one precarious step ahead of Uncle Sam. Christine was with Larry more often than not and after while I grew accustomed to having her around. As far as I was concerned she was the prettiest girl in town and the first one I could never see enough of.

Beguiling, quick and adventurous, her easy spirit was as welcome to me as a sunny spring day on the otherwise cloudy Oregon coast. But Christine was the one for me. As it happened in our small constellation, the gravitational center between the three of us shifted eventually toward her and me. In an old love letter from me to her there is mention of a foretelling birthday kiss suspiciously eyed by our respective dates.

After Larry went away to college that same stupid Podunk junior college--one sensible step ahead of me it was by awkward avoidance that I didn't see Christine for a while. Then I began to feel an inescapable longing for a closeness that I had grown accustomed to--along with an over-ridden pang of guilt. There had never been any conscious intentions between Christine and me and for that to happen would have been a statement of some magnitude, and that, in the overwhelming crush of desire, was absolutely inevitable.

The day finally came when we saw each other again and our feelings became as obvious to us as they had been to Larry. It was no big surprise then to him when he came home a few months later and found that everything had changed, but not our friendship we promised each other. But naturally it had. So I quit my menial job at the paper mill and lived off the money I'd saved for college, whiling away my final weeks of freedom like a rich man on a splurge, living for today, hoping tomorrow would never come. Christine and I clung hard to each other and to our faith in enduring love, as if love was something that could be squirreled away like acorns for the long months and years ahead; it had to last.

I visualized the two of us standing on the face of an enormous clock with days instead of numbers marking the precious time being swept away by a relentless hand turning steadily and swiftly toward my day of departure.

Each and every afternoon I picked up Christine after school and we drove off to spend the remainder of the day together, which invariably included some quality smooch time at one of our favorite parking spots—two American kids growing up fast as we could. Regardless of my predicament, I was happy to be alive and thrilled to be with Christine, even at the expense of my freedom.

I never regretted it; she was all I cared about. From that point on, it was us against the world. He was also the mayor of "Sweet little Toledo. No one cared anymore. A half-dozen miles or so from the Pacific Ocean, Toledo nestles snugly into the forested hillsides of an isolated valley in the Oregon Coast Range. It seems larger than it is, owing to the number of angles from which it can be viewed. Laid flat on open ground one might quite easily drive through the whole of it in under a minute. The town proper is a maze of roller-coaster streets, namesakes of the trees that gave birth and sustenance to the busy little community: Alder Way, Beech Street, Cedar, Douglas.

It's the kind of place you must become familiar with before you can find your way around, or your way out. It rains much of the time there, except for a few dreamy weeks of late summer and early fall.

- Into the Abyss - Riley St. James l Author l Ghostwriter l Audio

According to records, the heaviest annual rainfall in North America almost continually soaks the even smaller village of neighboring Valsetz, which earns the distinction over Toledo only because they bother to measure it. In the summer of Toledo was the location site for the movie made from "Sometimes a Great Notion," Ken Keasey's grim novel about a ruggedly individualistic Oregon logging family; it was a logging town.

From the latter part of the nineteenth century through the middle of the twentieth, the industrious Toledo grew in inverse proportion to the dwindling ancient forests. For decades a seemingly endless supply of timber flowed down the many treacherous logging roads that had been cut fatally deep into the magnificent forests. Like great wooden corpuscles they flowed into the heart of town, hauled there by the millions on the backs of roaring, rumbling, Peterbuilt, REO, and Mack log-trucks.

Paul Courbon, Claude Chabert, Peter Bosted, Karen Lindsley. 1989. 376 pp.

The rhythm of the woods and the sawmills pulsed through town with the persistence of the sun and the moon and the tides. It was dangerous work turning forests into lumber, there being as many ways to maim or kill a lumberjack as there were trees in the woods or machines in the sawmills.

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In the clamorous sawmills there were a thousand ways to lose a hand, or an eye, or a life. At night the wigwam burners glowed like ghostly orange teepees through a thick damp blanket of fog. That same dense fog intensified the many distinct sounds of the mills: the steady whine of the saws, a sharp hiss of steam, the metallic clank of machinery and clatter of chains, a thudding tumble of logs, and carried it all up through the empty winding streets of Toledo.

Like gentle music it lulled the townsfolk to sleep. By the time the sixties rolled around, the bounty of the primeval forests, which had once seemed limitless, was being cut a second time and replanted yet once again, transforming the great Coast Range into vast tracts of uniformity--tree farms.

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Eventually only a few scattered stands of the ancient woods remained under tenuous protection from the ravenous chainsaws. Nature had been tamed, and so too the people. All that remained for the loggers were spindly trees, useful only to the new paper mill, which processed them into pulp for paper bags and cardboard boxes and to the last plywood mill that peeled the slender logs down to the core and pressed the knot-holed skins into uniform sheets. The heady aromas of better times blew away in the wind, and were replaced by the acrid stench of sulfur and the sour odor of cooked cabbage, a stink that earned the revitalized town its new nickname, "Toilet Hole.

Now the residents of modern neighborhoods wishfully named Cedar View and Fir Crest looked out upon the endless clear-cut tracts and bragged of the tallest smokestack in the Northwest, referring to its putrid toxic vapors as the "smell of bread and butter. It was an impulsive move that happily settled him there for the rest of his life. He had seen her before with a guitar at one of the taverns, twanging away at a Johnny Cash tune for the hard working, hard drinking hard-hats.

When she swung around and slid a tall stack of buttermilk pancakes with bacon and eggs over easy across the counter, my hungry dad looked up and gazed fatefully into the pale green eyes of a fiery natural redheaded divorcee named Donna Lee the same name that would one day adorn the transom of his fishing boat. She was looking for a good working man for herself and her two little girls.

A year later my little brother Ivan and I ended up there in exile as well; our mom had been losing control of us and wearily gave up the battle. Even though I'd always gotten along with my dad about as well as Mom did, at the pivotal age twelve I was ready to cut loose her apron strings and follow the man whom she'd always regarded as the link between Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon. She viewed herself as others did--supremely modern--one of the first women in America wanting to find herself.

My mother was born thirty years too soon.

She looked good in a fifties housedress as she hung billowing sheets and pillowcases on the backyard clothesline to flutter dry in the afternoon breeze. I beamed. The boy sitting next to me said at recess that she looked like Loretta Young. She was an artist who could draw like Raphael and everyone who knew her understood that she dreamed of a different life—a better one. She knew her way around men too, and they longed to possess her, flocking to her side, one by one, even little boys, but none more than my brother and me.

On the day my brother and I left for Toledo I stood on a stool that made me a little bit taller than my mother and we held each other for a long time.

Linda Heslop. 1996. 50 pp.

After supper one evening our dad wanted to talk to Ivan and me; by this time it was nearing the end of August and getting close to the next school year. I was entering the eighth grade while my brother trailed a year behind me. It had been a fun summer, but now we were itching to get back to Washougal, to be with our mom, our sister, our grandparents, and our friends.

Big Ivan stood in front of my brother and me as we sat nervously next to each other on the plank steps of the front porch of the small bungalow situated close to the road halfway up the hill on Beech Street. He was a tall man and at that moment he looked like a giant to his worried sons. Giving orders was his usual manner with us, except when we were doing something fun like trying to catch fish or shooting guns at tin cans or some unfortunate animal--then we were his little buddies.

Now go get me a god damned box-end wrench. My brother and I sensed the gravity of the moment in the unfamiliar way our dad looked at us. He was referring to the shoplifting of candy-bars, marbles, BBs and such, the vandalizing of an abandoned house, the smoking of cigarettes snitched from Mom, fistfights in vacant lots and other after-school shenanigans. Tears began to stream down my little brother's cheeks, not because he was afraid of punishment, and also not because he was as guilty as I was, but because that unfamiliar look in his father's eyes was one of genuine concern and understanding and it felt strange, scary even, like the end of the world, and in a way for us, it was.

And a beginning. I surreptitiously eased my bony elbow into my little brother's ribs with a "Don't blow it now" nudge, as I tried my damnedest to appear perplexed and innocent. I wondered what the hell he meant by that, at the same time knowing full well what it meant to my little brother and me. An absolute miracle had occurred that evening. Our Dad, for the moment at least, had transformed himself into the veritable embodiment of that wise and caring TV father, Ward Cleaver. And we didn't like it either. But we had no choice. Thus began a new life with a new stepmother, two new stepsisters, a new school, a new blue tick hound, and construction began on a house by a lake in the boonies.

I have two old black and white photographs. Our Mother took both pictures about a year apart. Next to me my little brother had so much Lucky Tiger butch wax smeared in his hair that it could stand up to a plunge into the Washougal River. The second photograph taken in a motel overlooking the beach after living with our Dad and Donna Lee for a while shows us leaning into the camera with neatly trimmed hair and big smiles.

We had narrowly missed becoming juvenile delinquents. We were also extremely happy to see our mother again. Mom spent the next five years ensconced high upon a pedestal well she died up there actually.