Interstate 5
Interstate 5 to Fort Lewis

by: Forrest Brandt
(© 1999)

Interstate 5, Forrest Brandt
June, 1999. I start a journey up Interstate 5 with my wife, heading back to Fort Lewis, Washington. We leave Martinez, California heading north. The khaki hills of Contra Costa county give way to fields and orchards, bright green trees, waving golden wheat, a brilliant stretch of sunflowers. I grip the wheel and let my mind wander, remembering that first time I made this trip.

It's the twenty-eighth of November, 1967. The sun sits low in the sky trying to pierce the lead gray clouds. The fields lie silent, lifeless, covered by a dull brown stubble, awaiting the rejuvenating rains of winter. Second Lieutenant Mike Rice and I coast along at 70 miles per hour in my black Camaro convertible, drifting in the vagueness of youth, secure in our ignorance, pleased with our innocent sophistication, confident we are going somewhere.
       Mike and I stop to fill up in Redding. The air is a strange brew; gas vapors and the greasy aroma of burgers and fries blend with the pine flavored mountain wind. Every few seconds a clean, chilling blast barges in, stinging our bare faces and fluffing our jackets. We sniff the breeze and shiver. "Snow," says Mike.

       Before we reach the on ramp, the first flake makes its crazy, loopy dance, crossing our path before settling on the berm. Then comes the torrent. Flakes, big and bright as newly minted quarters; floating, falling, pirouetting in the winter storm, landing on the shaggy sides of the pines, dusting them. The sides of the mountains dazzle in the pale light. The snow hides the tangles, the broken limbs, the roadside trash, the unkempt brush. We joke and laugh as we plow head on toward Fort Lewis and ultimately to Vietnam and war.

I return to my current journey. My wife and I reach Redding, where again the need for food and fuel pulls me from the road to the town. We roll past jade green mountain streams and small, clean homes, to an intersection. There a frail man confronts my reverie. His hair and beard fall in irregular strands from beneath a grimy baseball cap, past his dull eyes, past his weathered cheeks. A cardboard sign clasped in his thin fingers proclaims in bold letters, "Why lie? Vietnam Vet. Got the shakes, need a beer. Thanks." His face haunts me now as Kathy and I drive on. I see the same mountains, the same pines, and I think to myself, "Why was he there? What happened to him?"

The snow that made my road to war so beautiful, so deceptive, rests only on the bare top of Shasta's peak. The old trees reach down deep in the rocks to find the water they need. We roll on toward Fort Lewis and I return to that beaten man. "What grace took me to war and brought me back? Why was I spared his torment?" And then my anger rises and I ask myself, "Why did I, why did America, leave him there at an intersection in Redding, lost, alone, without dignity?"

Forrest Brandt


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