Walking to Goleta
It was one of those deceptive California winter days, the afternoon temperature hovered around sixty-five degrees. Tom sat in the crook of the root of the old oak tree and its trunk looking out over the Pacific. The Santa Barbara morning fog had burned off. A scarf of orange California poppy ran up along the bank toward the two-lane asphalt road above.
Tom sat and thought about the age of the tree he now called his home. The folded up Dear John letter and his military exit DD-214 form were in his otherwise empty wallet. The letter explained that his kid brother had fallen in love, with his sweetheart. They had married before Tom was shipped home from his campaigns in Sicily. When mustered out of the Army he returned to the States but never returned home. He headed west and had gone as far west as the continent would allow. The easiest thing to think about was the age of this tree.
There were orange orchards about a mile south of where he sat, and his friend Damian had gone hunting for the earth’s bounty. Damian needed to be beneath trees that were not exploding from daily German ordinance and walking in fields not secured by enemy crossfire. In the distance, Tom saw a small dot and he thought it might be Damian returning with his jacket pockets bulging with Navel Oranges for their afternoon meal.
The long sprawling branches of the oak provided deep shade and even some protection from the rare rainfall. A canal rushing off to the ocean gave them access to fresh, clean water. This was a quiet place on this earth. Everything seemed quiet after Sicily for Tom and Damian mostly survived the cold hell offered by the Ardennes, but only mostly. There was still the occasional midnight screaming as one of the three veterans woke from a visit from their past.
Donnie had his own way about him. He had sandy blonde hair and a movie star smile. His calm was deceptive. His time at war was spent in the Pacific. Every morning he returned to the beach, he needed to push footsteps of sand atop his Pacific memories. Anytime there was a conversation about his time in the war, he just looked at the ground and shook his head.
Tom had lived under the tree now for going on one year. One day, many months back Damian showed up and tossed Tom two oranges taken from his oversize coat pockets and he never left. Shortly after that Tom and Damian found Donnie drunk on the side of the road just above them on the highway. They each threw one of his arms over their shoulders and dragged him beneath the oak. The toes of his shoes left a trail in the dirt to the oak tree. Twenty-four hours later he woke, said “Hello” and had also never left.
The men bathed in the ocean and rinsed in the fresh water of the stream. Their military experience taught them how to get by and keep clean. If they needed money one or all would walk into the sleepy town and find some day labor. It was an agricultural area and there was plenty. If you were paying attention, you would hear the mission bells toll at noon.
There were wine vineyards just to the east above the mission. Orange and lemon groves were to the south extending miles and there were even some stands of grapefruit trees. The men had laid down their responsibilities of war and determined not to be in a hurry.
Tom watched Damian for a moment then went back to thinking about the tree. He guessed it was planted sometime in the 1600’s. The local history told him the Chumash Indians were in this area then, even before the Spanish. Even before the mission. The fresh salt air slowly did its work to heal him.
Donnie left deep footprints in the sand as he walked away from the Pacific, back up toward the tree. His blonde hair flew in all directions. He wore khaki pants, no belt, pant legs rolled up to his calves. In one hand, he carried a fishing pole that someone had ‘forgotten’ along the beach and in his other hand he held two bonitos and a small sack with mussels. He occasional caught a mackerel, but not today.
Tom grunted as he pushed himself to stand. He gathered up some twigs and began to prepare a fire. They were going to eat well tonight. Damian arrived with a big smile on his face. He dumped a dozen Navel oranges on the ground near the firepit ring of rocks.
Tom picked up the first bonito and gutted it with a small shape knife he wore in a sheath on his belt. In no time, the two fish were frying, covered with orange peel and a dash of lemon. The men took their third of the fish and the oranges. There was only water with this meal. But the men had their fill. The wine would have to wait.
After their meal, Tom cleaned up. He gathered the entrails and tossed them into an empty Bush’s Pork & Beans tin can. Donnie would use it for crab bait along the rough sea wall. When the chores were done he sat back down, he was now cradled safely in the crook of the arm of the old oak and stared out at the full moon that lay on the horizon at the rim of the world. He patted his shirt pocket out of habit for a pack of smokes, but there were none among them.
Tom, Damian now dressed in three layers curled up near the trunk of the oak. Donnie went into the tree and found his place, the collar of his old field jacket pulled up around his neck. In the Pacific, he learned to sleep in a tree. Donnie had been with them two months before he had mentioned being on Tarawa.
The flames of the campfire sputtered to a glowing pile of amber. The chatter of the sandpipers drew to a close. The three men slept in safety beneath the centuries-old oak.
The men woke to the sound of the surf, and seabirds which slowly was driving out the sounds of canon. The rays of the sun delivered the citrus scent of dawn. Donnie climbed down from the tree and grabbed the tin of entrails and walked toward the rugged rocks on the edge of the world where he felt most comfortable. It also would provide the men their dinner. The sanderlings greeted him, almost as one of their own. Tom stood and stretched. He promised to do some kitchen duty at the local café and would have to hustle to get an egg and coffee, from the Mexican cook before the duty he started, that of cleaning the pots and pans and mopping the place out before they opened. Damian headed off towards Mrs. Patterson’s place, he often borrowed her boy’s 22 caliber rifle and walked off into the foothills with the understanding that the first rabbit belonged to the Patterson’s pot.
As the sun began to set, Donnie had two eating size crabs, and a halibut that had got himself caught at low tide in the recessed crevices in the rocks. Damian had pockets full of oranges and a nice plump rabbit. Tom brought back a pack of cigarettes, and he was paid two extra eggs for dragging some old crates back up to a farm on the poor side of town.
It was a good day for them all. The fire again moved toward amber and the men sat back and each smoked their cigarette. The rabbit and crab were now just a pleasant memory. Donnie went to the spring and washed out his shirt and returned and hung it to dry. He put on his field jacket and zipped it tight at the neck. He climbed into his place in the tree and fell asleep. The other two men drifted off to sleep in the embrace and safety of moonlight.
Donnie’s feet hit the dirt with the quiet a panther would be proud of as he woke to the sound of a vehicle’s wheels slowly making their way down the path that marked his own arrival. Tom’s eyes opened, he remained completely still, sensing an unspoken danger. The cars headlights arched across the scene. Tom stood in time to see Damian slip away into the brush like a boa constrictor.
The Sheriff’s car stopped about ten yards in front of Tom. With the lights still on, the Sheriff Deputy climbed out of the car and walked to the front of his car. The deputy was about twenty-five years old. “Call your friends out of the bushes,” he called to Tom. “The one that crawled away,” he pointed, “over there somewhere.” He continued, “I saw the burning embers and wanted to make sure the whole town was not in jeopardy.”
Damian hearing this stepped from the shadows just a few feet from where the deputy stood. Donnie followed suit, he cleared his throat causing the deputy to turn to his right to see just who was standing so close to him. The Deputy had spent the war years in and around the Philippines; a man in the shadows was not going to shake him.
A quick survey of the men told the Deputy these were men and men he felt comfortable with. He was familiar with the look in their eyes. That stare that looked past what was in front of them to some horror they had to resolve. He walked towards Tom and reaching him put his hand out. He said, “Philippines.”
Tom replied, “Sicily,” and pointing at Damian he said, “Belgium and Germany,” then pointing at Donnie he said, “Marine on Tarawa. I am Tom; you likely have seen me in town. That is Damian and Donnie.”
“I’m Alfonso, but I am mostly called Deputy.” He turned and walked to the trunk of his car. He reached into a box of food earmarked for charity and grabbed two cans of beans. We walked back towards Tom and handed them to him. “As long as I don’t get any complaints, I don’t have to do anything about you,” he turned, went back to his car and backed up the hill to the highway spreading dust as he went.
The night settled back down. Each man felt they had been put on notice. Tom shifted down in his space and listened to the ocean carry him away. Damian after a day in the foothills fell into a deep sleep and Donnie had just begun to let himself sleep when he heard a car stop on the highway. Then a moment later he heard a car door slam shut and the wheels bit the dust as the car pulled away rapidly.
Donnie silently dropped to the ground. He could hear something up on the highway. The other men slept, his footsteps made no sound as he climbed up the path back to the roadside. It was dark; he pulled a match from his pocket and lit it. In the darkness, it seemed like a flare. His eye caught the movement at the same time the match burnt his finger. He put his finger in his mouth for a second and then lit another. He moved close to what looked like something wrapped in an old piece of blanket. The something moved. He tapped the bundle with the toe of his shoe and the bundle cried. Quickly he bent down and loosened the tucked in swathe.
The boy with cinnamon skin broke into a smile that covered his face. Donnie picked him and the blanket up and walked back toward the oak.
His arrival woke Tom. To himself he wondered how Donnie could get out of the tree without him becoming alert. “What do you have there?” Tom asked with genuine curiosity.
“Another brother.” He handed Tom, the baby.
Tom looked up the hill. He looked at Donnie and asked the obvious question. “Where did you get him?” He wanted to hand him back.
Damian woke and sat up, “What are you guys doing?” He rubbed his eyes and stood up to see what Tom was holding. When he saw, he said, “What are you guys doing with a baby? Are you crazy? Donnie?”
“Someone dumped him on the side of the road. Kind of like us if you think about it.” Donnie offered.
Tom was tired of holding him. “Here, you hold him.” He handed the baby to Damian and went to his duffle bag. He found a cord and took a pair of pants and in no time had made a makeshift hammock that hung close to the ground. He took the baby from Damian and put him in the makeshift swing and gave the bundle a push and let it gently sway. He gave Donnie a look like this was all his fault. Still looking at Donnie, he said, “You have anything like a sweater?”
Damian found a long johns shirt in his kit and handed it to Tom who draped it around the baby who had already fallen asleep. “He’s asleep. Maybe we should get some sleep.”
Donnie lay on the ground near the swaying hammock. They all slept.
Damian was the last one to wake up in the morning. Tom slipped off early into town to find work, and Donnie went to the shore to gather food for dinner. Damian looked over at the still hammock. The baby was still there and smiling. Damian went over and looked at this new addition. “Come on,” he said and picked him up. He walked over to the stream cleaned off his long john shirt and the baby and himself, then walked back. He hung the wet shirt up to dry in the cold morning air and took his last semi-clean undershirt shirt and slipped it over the baby.
He sat down and emptied his kit in front of him. He tossed his finger through his belongings. He was wearing most of what he owned. There were belts and a razor and some clean socks. The baby wore the only clean undershirt he owned. There were a couple of Army issue handkerchiefs. Damian stared. He picked up the bag. It had a shoulder strap, sturdy stitching and a drawstring at the top. He grabbed some sticks from the kindling pile and broke them to the length he thought he would need when he had four of them he flipped the bag over, turned up all the edges put a thick twig on each side and rolled them several times over. He then flipped the bag back over and had a pouch of sorts with a strap. He put the baby in the new cradle. He cut a hole in the bag near the baby’s feet, then slipped a hankie through and tied a loop. He put the strap around his neck and clipped the clasp to the new cloth loop. With his new rig, he walked off towards the orange groves vowing not to be the last one awake in the morning.
Near dusk, Damian and Tom headed back toward the oak. Tom was proud; he found some work and had brought home cans of milk and some cloth taken from the charity stores bins out in front. Donnie had fish stew cooking. Damian had pockets full of walnuts and oranges. Tom took the baby and set him on the ground and rigged the hammock again. Then he put a tin of water on the coals to warm. With some effort, the baby was cleaned and covered enough to keep him comfortable and put back swinging in the hammock.
When Tom returned from cleaning everything the baby touched he found Damian dripping milk into the baby’s mouth from a straw that Tom thought to bring.
“You did good today Tom,” Damian said. “The milk is a perfect idea. Once we open a can, it is not going to be fit to drink for very long.”
“I’ll get some more,” Tom told them.
“We can’t keep him,” Donnie uncharacteristically added his two-cents worth. “We have to think of what to do.”
“We could find the Deputy. He would know something.” Damian pushed dirt with his foot at the thought.
“The kid would end up in some damn institution. I don’t want that for him.” Tom had begun feeling paternal. “Ok, let’s agree to think about the solution. The three of us should be able to take care of him while we do that. You all agree?” It was the first call for a vote in all the time they had been sheltered by the oak.
A week had passed. Tom would go into town each morning. He began to notice tinsel and pine wreaths. Signs of Christmas appeared with strings of light and bells. He had grown up with real winters on the east coast. Here you had to be reminded that it was winter. He began to learn each shopkeepers name as he found work, sweeping or painting or repairing. That evening he brought back food for the baby and something warm.
Damian did most of the watching out for the baby during the day. Tom found a long woolen scarf that made a better sling for the baby to ride in as Damian roamed the orchards and fields. When Damian wanted to hunt, Donnie watched the baby as the crying alerted the rabbits.
Each night the men talked about the solutions to a home for the baby but had not come up with anything agreeable. Until Saturday night after dinner Damian announced he wanted the other two to go with him in the morning. He wanted to show them something.
In the morning with no explanation, the men followed Damian. It was a long walk through the orchards at first, and then Damian led them to a cemetery. Donnie and Tom exchanged glances. Damian saw them but did not say anything. He walked through some rows and then stopped. He pointed to a stone marker that read: Baby Hernandez, December 25, 1945, 8 a.m. to midnight.
“Do you think we can find the parents?” Tom asked.
Donnie was all ears.
“I found them. The Patterson’s know the family, and Mrs. Patterson told me where they are. They don’t live too far from here at the edge of Goleta,” Damian said to his friends.
“Can I hold him?” Donnie asked realizing what was happening.
Damian lifted the sling over his head and handed the bundle to Donnie. Donnie put the knot behind his neck, and the baby rested against his chest. The three men turned and walked toward the sunset back to the oak.
“When should we do it?” Tom asked. “We are going to have to go into town and gather some things first.”
“What things?” Damian asked.
“A basket and some clean clothes and maybe a box of food and a new blanket. I have done so much work this week that I have the money,” Tom offered.
“Christmas is in two days. I think we should drop him off on Christmas Eve.” Damian was feeling pride.
“If we are going to eat tonight, we had better get busy.” Donnie turned, made an adjustment to the sling and began back.
"Maybe we can walk through town and start picking up some things,” Tom suggested.
Two days before Christmas and the town lit up. Red and green tinsel everywhere. The smell of fresh pine wreaths was comforting. The smell of spice apple pie filled the air. Tom suggested that they stop in and indulge in a slice of apple pie at the local café.
The men entered and ordered pie and coffee. The waitress was so curious but said nothing to the men. They ate and paid their bill and left. It was then that the waitress called for the Deputy. She could not help herself but to report these three coarse looking men and one was carrying a baby.
Tom, Damian, and Donnie found a reed basket at the charity shop and a colorful blanket. They went to the grocers and bought canned milk and two jars of baby food. The men had not thought about the war for days.
Deputy Alfonso was unhappy at the complaint about three rough looking men with an infant. It could be three different men just passing through, but he would have to check. He knew what these men had gone through like so many others. He thought of how easily he could have become one of them. He drove to the Oak where he knew they lived and found the place empty but not deserted so he left.
As the men reached the camp, it was Donnie who said, “Someone has been here. Those are fresh tire tracks.”
“As far as I know only that Sheriff knows we were here,” Tom told him.
“We don’t dare stay here,” Damian said. “It would be that Deputy’s duty to take the boy from us.”
Donnie grabbed the things that were hanging to dry and stuffed them in his bag. He took his fishing pole and planned to return it near where he found it. He intended to make sure the areas he fished and hunted crab were back to where no one would ever know he was there.
Tom packed his kit and waited. Damian did not have much of a kit. Just pockets full of oranges. In an hour, the men stood and looked over the area under the safety of the oak that had been home for this part of their lives. Tom would miss the place the most. He had been here the longest.
Tom with the baby suspended from his neck and his duffle bag over his shoulder walked up the steep path to the highway. Damian hoisted his bag over his shoulder and the box of food under his arm and followed. Donnie with his change of clothes tied in a bundle in one hand and the basket in the other looked around one last time and walked as quiet as a panther up the slope. At the highway, Damian and Donnie each took a side of Tom and they walked in the darkness towards Goleta. They spent the night and the day in the foothills and waited.
Now, it was the 24th of December. They waited in the foothills along this stretch out of sight of the highway and waited for nightfall. They did not light a fire. Damian pulled oranges from his deep coat pockets, and also tossed each of the men some walnuts. They planned to wait until the Hernandez household quieted down and the lights were turned off to do their delivery. The men took turns holding the baby and saying their goodbyes.
When Tom guessed it was about 9 p.m. he stood up. The three walked to the Hernandez house, just a small square of a place with dirt for a yard and a low fence made from twigs and branches and an arched entry. They made a sad silhouette.
Tom took the sling from around his neck and handed the baby to Donnie. Donnie had found the baby and the men thought it fair that he leave the baby. Tom took his last two cigarettes from the package and tore the paper, on the inside non-printed side he wrote the words, ‘Baby Hernandez’ and tucked the printed words in the blanket with the baby.
Donnie took the sling and untied the knot. He made a pad and stuffed it into the basket and put the baby into it. He put the new blanket over him and tucked it in. Donnie with the basket and Damian with the box of food walked to the front door and put their packages down. Damian ran back to the shadows and when he saw both men were clear, he knocked on the door and ran toward the archway.
The three men thought they were wise, but eight-year-old Margareta was keeping a sharp eye out for Santa Claus and saw their silhouettes.
Mr. Hernandez turned on the porch light, opened the door and looked down at the basket. He was bending over to pick the basket up when his wife arrived at the door wearing her nightgown. She saw the baby and had him in her arms before her husband who then lifted the small box of food. He looked around, but saw nothing and closed the door behind him.
In a moment, all the lights in the house were on. Santa Claus had arrived early.
Donnie could hear the woman crying. It reminded him of his mother and tears formed in his eyes. The first tears he allowed himself in five years.
The men walked back to the highway. There were miles to go before reaching Goleta where they hoped they could catch a bus. The North Star visible in the sky above them, helped to light the way. They were a mile away from the Hernandez house when the Sheriff Deputy’s car pulled up behind them on the highway lights flashing.
Deputy Alfonso parked as far off the road as possible and got out. “I heard one of you had a baby. Any truth to that?”
“Officer, we don’t have a baby. We just thought we would try someplace new.” Tom was the spokesperson.
“Can I check your bags?” Deputy Alfonso asked.
Tom and Damian unslung their bags and tossed them on the ground. Donnie threw his change of close wrapped in his extra shirt on the ground. Deputy Alfonso did not make a move for them, none of these men would throw a baby on the ground, he was sure of that.
“Where’re you fellows going at this hour?” Alfonso asked.
“We are hoping there is a bus station in Goleta,” Tom told him. He liked Alfonso.
“That’s four miles. If you want, you can hop in the back and I’ll give you a lift.”
The men climbed in, no sense walking four miles if you can ride.
Deputy Alfonso dropped them at the door of the station. He told them it was likely closed until the day after Christmas, but the buses still came and if you could pay the driver, they would let you on. The men thanked him and said goodbye.
An hour later a bus came heading south toward Los Angeles. Tom paid the fare for Donnie who said he had heard of a place called Malibu and that is where he was heading to make a new life.
Around two a.m. a bus slowed and asked where they were headed. Damian was heading north. He talked to someone once that told him about a place called Moss Landing an artist colony and he thought he would fit in there. Tom paid his fare and shook his hand and watched the bus until it disappeared into the darkness.
He sat on his duffle bag. He pulled the wallet out of his pocket that held the DD-214, the Dear John letter, and three twenty dollar bills. He opened the letter and read it one more time. He stared at it a long time then tore it into little pieces and let the pieces be tumbled away by the breeze.
The next bus came by on Christmas morning. It slowed and stopped, a young pregnant couple in love got off smiling. “Where you headed?” called the driver. He looked at Tom’s eyes and said, “I’m William, North Africa.”
“Tom, Sicily.” Tom smiled and said, “East. I am going home.”
“All the eastbound buses leave out of Los Angeles, climb on, I’ll get you as far as Ventura.”
Tom climbed aboard and started to hand the driver money, but was waved off; he took a seat. In just a few miles, they were driving through Santa Barbara and passed the centuries-old oak. Tom leaned back and sunk into the seat; the bus rolled along through Montecito, and Summerland and Carpentaria; as the sun rose higher he began to wonder just who had saved who. He stared out the window as the panorama of La Conchita and Mussel Shoals receded into the past. Tom - Sicily closed his eyes the bells of his missions silenced.