I hadn’t seen old Pepto for a few days. Working in the public sector kept me in the streets on a regular basis and I knew pretty much every homeless person in town. Before my retirement I worked for the water department installing water mains. I loved the job; it paid well, with good benefits, and I was outside in the sunshine most of the time.
Pepto got his name by accident. None of us knew his real name. Very few people, take the time to ask homeless people their names, after all, it’s their fault they’re homeless isn’t it?
He stopped by our job one day looking for a few cents for some coffee as he often did.
“Any you guys spare a dollar?” he asked with this sad look on his face.
Pepto had visited our job sights a few times and always asked questions about the job. We didn’t always give money as it tended to get around and half the homeless in town spent their day trying to find out where we were working. But a couple of us reached in our pockets and handed him a dollar or two, enough for him to get breakfast.
“What’s up, man?” I asked him. “You seem a bit down today.” I immediately reminded myself that he’s a homeless man, not exactly an uplifting situation to be in.
“Man this shit is fucked up,” he answered.
“What shit’s that?” I replied, kicking myself again for asking such a stupid question.
“Damn Vietnam. I keep thinking about that Vietnam shit.”
One of the guys on the crew made some sarcastic remark about every guy begging for money by the side of the freeway claims they are a Vietnam Vet and that some of them earn $500 a week. He was the only guy on the crew I didn’t like. He always blamed the poor for their condition and his criticisms were always tainted with a bit of racism. Like most people with that mentally he was also lazy.
Pepto ignored him. “I had to kill a man once. But he woulda killed me if he could. That damn Nam was bismal.” We understood he meant abysmal. The foreman told him with a chuckle that Pepto Bismol was a medicine for upset stomach.
“Well this shit gives me an upset stomach alright. I could sure do with that Pepto stuff.”
Our homeless friend finally had a name. But as I reflect on those days, I should have asked him what his name was.
A few more days passed and Pepto still hadn’t come around. Knowing him made me think more about the homeless. Where do they sleep? There’s way more animal shelters in this country than homeless shelters or shelters for battered women. Many of them are mentally ill. People thrown out of institutions and on to the streets during the Reagan era. Many of them are women who also suffered the added horror of sexual abuse once out of the care of the state. I discovered that a third of the homeless were Vietnam Vets.
“I think I would go nuts if I were homeless for an extended period” I told some of my co-workers.
It must have been three weeks before I found out Pepto’s whereabouts. I was reading my local small town paper one morning and there was a little piece in it about a homeless man being found dead in an office building under construction. He had died form an overdose, the paper said.
I felt real sad as the report revealed his real name. He was called Fred McHenry. He was described as a local homeless man with drug and alcohol problems. He was also a Vietnam Vet and had a Purple Heart.
The next day I went to the Veteran’s building and asked about him. They suggested I call the VA and I could find out more information from them. The VA was very helpful as was the author of the piece in the paper. I eventually got a hold of his mother’s phone number and got in contact with her.
She was clearly saddened by her son’s death but she was not really interested in talking with me. I wanted to find out more about him and how he ended up where he did. She obviously had a hard time with him due to his drug abuse. But drug abuse was rampant among the troops in Vietnam. I thought of all the flag waving and talk from politicians about the bravery of “our boys” when they want to send young men, other people’s sons and daughters in to some fruitless war. How they always tell the public that “our boys” are making the greatest sacrifice.
Killing a human being in real life is not like Hollywood. Unless you’re a psychopath it’s going to have a devastating effect on you as a human being; it could drive you to homelessness and drugs, just like it did to Fred McHenry.