About this time of year, decades ago, my brothers and I -- little kids -- were in southern Oregon, where my cousins lived on family ranches. The highlight of the entire visit was going up through the uncut forest to see one of Steve Solovich’s caches. Solovich was a WWII captive who refused to believe that the war was over, so he lived as a fugitive in the dripping forest, making himself little shelters under half-downed logs or in tangles of debris. They were very hard to find and usually contained little more than metal drums of deer meat, salted or dried, his reserves in case hunting went bad. Ukrainian or Polish, he had had enough experience in “wilderness” to take care of himself.
Two quirks made people uneasy. One was a taste for milk. He would sometimes slip into a cow barn to help himself direct from the cow. The other was that he was fascinated by television. Sometimes at night one would get an eerie feeling and realize that Steve was outside watching over your shoulder through the window. No one worried about his rifle, but when he decided it was too hard to clear his summer bean patches with tools alone and began to steal sticks of dynamite, the authorities determined to go bring him in. In that country there are lots of hounds and varmint-hunters, so it wasn’t too hard.
Sorting through papers, I came across the packet of newspaper clips my aunt sent me in the Fifties with the thought that I would write them into a story, which I never did. But the tale has a sharper edge for me now. In the eighties, as an adult teaching college classes, my brother took a bad fall and landed on his forehead. When he regained consciousness, he did not seek medical help but went to my mother’s where he remained until 1998 when she died. He said he couldn’t work, though he seemed unhurt. His mind was different. He could not grasp that he couldn’t go on living in the house because we sold it in order to split the estate three ways.
His third paid rent for a few years. Then he tried living in his truck. In the town where he was, he said a community of Vietnam-era veterans parked together at night in a gravel pit -- for community and protection. The law left them alone unless they drank and/or fought. Finally he went to my aunt’s ranch where one slightly younger cousin was taking care of his aging parents. When the parents died, the cousin who was the main inheritor ordered my brother off. He went back to living in his truck but didn’t keep in touch, had no mailing address. By this time he was in his late fifties and I had moved to Montana again. My small house and tiny budget could not accommodate a second person and, anyway, he hates cold.
Now it comes out that he’d begun to think like Steve Solovich: we are at war, we cannot trust the government, one must stay hidden at all times. He surfaced just before Christmas in an emergency ward ICU with a major heart attack. Transferred to a VA hospital (he was a Marine for three years but was not in combat), he discharged himself. He did not complete the recommended testing, took only a small amount of meds with him, and left a bogus forwarding address. He’s old enough for Social Security, qualifies for both disability and VA help, but never completes any interview. If pressed, he spins a tale about being a sort of American James Bond undercover and is so convincing that he leaves the interviewer -- usually a young woman -- gape-jawed. When I make contact and try to supply facts, my other brother objects -- what if his stories are true? Can I prove they’re not?
The VA is used to this -- they have hundreds of people on the street, unwilling to say where they’re from, who should be contacted in the event of a crisis, or where they can be reached. The Iraq/Iran conflicts mean many of them are quite a lot younger. They don’t take their meds, so mental confusion is common, and the relatives who try to find them are now stymied by the recent medical privacy laws. They mix with illegal immigrants, whose ethic is secrecy and avoidance but protection of the hurt and elderly. And they are accepted by the counterculture, who live under the IRS radar. Many Vietnam vets found refuge on Indian reservations where people don’t ask, “Where do you live?” but rather “where do you stay?” All these groups and more are united by distrust of government bureaucracy.
I myself am refusing help with my gas bill because in order to qualify for help I would have to surrender to some mysterious body my bank statements for a year, my medical records, all evidence of investments or other income, etc. This information would be useful to certain people in this county, either politically or from a financially predatory point of view. There is no wall between county officials and private businesses.
Someone remarked to me, probably a rancher struggling with government regulations and restrictions, “It’s a helluva note when you can’t trust your own government.” A ninety-year-old Basque rancher from eastern Montana said on the radio last night that he sure wished we could go back to the old days when a man’s word was his bond. He knew it was a lost world and worked mostly because people stayed in one place, survived by being trustworthy within the community, and agreed on goals anyway. Family was still strong.
All this about my brother wouldn’t bite so hard if my own strategy hadn’t been to keep a low profile, maintain a modest lifestyle, and retire early to write. I was beginning to worry that I’d put off writing until I wouldn’t have enough mental grip, but now I find that the problem is not me -- it is that the publishing industry is in major trouble, reconfiguring and simply evaporating on all sides in ways no one expected. It would be nearly impossible to get writing published the old-fashioned way. (But it is an absolute snap for me to publish on this blog or even to create Print-on-Demand books.)
These days Steve Solovich couldn’t live in the forest because it is cut. The parts that are far enough away from ranches are full of drug dealers, marijuana growers and meth labs. One must be careful of illegal immigrant mushroom gatherers. “Wilderness” is globalized and the bears are replaced by human predators.
Solovich ended his days confined in a VA hospital. It did not please him, in spite of all the milk and television. I have no idea whether any family was ever located -- they may have been dead. I have no idea where my brother is. But at least I know he was alive this Christmas.