I am a superstitious man. When I chance upon a tarnished penny on the ground my fate hangs in the balance. If the coin is heads up, I pocket it and thank God for the good luck. If the coin is heads down, I flip it to heads and pass along the good luck to the next person. To do otherwise is to invite chaos into my universe.
In this admittedly irrational universe, any material object can possess a force or essence that remains hidden to the base senses. Such is the case with the black felt cowboy hat my brother found beside the road outside Shingletown. He gave it to me last December. Even though I don’t have a cowboy bone in my body, I started wearing it and after a couple of weeks, I realized it was a magic hat.
People seemed to treat me with more respect when I wore the hat, as if it radiated goodwill and self-confidence.
I had a figurative showdown with a rude person at the VA Outpatient Clinic in Redding, gunning him down with a hail of sharp words instead of hot lead, just like Gary Cooper in High Noon. Normally, I wouldn’t have said a thing. I wrote a story about the experience, “The Road Hat,” which was published last month on A News Cafe. I didn’t provide too many identifying details about the hat, on the odd chance the owner might read the story, recognize the hat and want it back.
As it turns out the odd chance isn’t so odd after all.
The wife of the hat’s owner is a regular reader of A News Cafe and immediately recognized it in the photograph used to illustrate the story. She contacted my editor (they are childhood chums) and said the hat belonged to her husband, a Vietnam veteran who lost the hat two years ago, near their home in Shingletown, shortly before passing away from a long illness. She said her husband would be pleased to know a fellow veteran was now wearing the hat.
Everything matched up except the time. My brother gave me the hat in December. I checked with him, and sure enough, he’d found the hat two years before he’d given it to me. There was no question, the hat belonged to Jennifer Ruhberg’s late husband. His name was Robert. My name is Robert. He was a veteran. I am a veteran.
For a moment, I was overwhelmed by the interconnectedness of all things.
Then I realized with no small amount of sadness that I’d have to give the magic hat back, because it was the right thing to do.
Heaven’s Waiting Room
Shasta Forest Village is a quiet hamlet of 300 or so people hidden behind the pines that line Highway 44 just west of Shingletown. Many of the residents are retirees and Jennifer Ruhberg tells me they jokingly refer to their neighborhood as “Heaven’s Waiting Room.” It does have a peaceful quality to it, and there’s just the faintest hint of sorrow in her voice.
I’d done quite a bit of handwringing before finally visiting her. The first thing I did upon learning the hat belonged to her late husband, Bob, was look up the brand name, Dorfman Pacific, on the Internet. There are hundreds of hats in the company’s current catalog, but none of them resembled Bob’s hat. I ordered the one that looked the closest and it arrived via UPS two days later. What appeared to be a cowboy hat online turned out to be something more like Indiana Jones or perhaps a bootlegger might wear.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s a nice hat. I wear it when I cut brush. But it ain’t magic.
I debated with myself about how to best present Bob’s hat to Jennifer upon its return. Obviously, wearing it was out of the question. I considered placing it in a nice box and just handing her the box. Ultimately, I never did make up my mind and awkwardly attempted to hand her the hat as she invited me into the modest, comfortably furnished home she shared with Bob.
She looked at the hat, nodded in recognition, but shied away from actually touching it. I silently cursed myself for bringing this reminder of loss to her doorstep. I now know that wasn’t the case at all.
I set the hat on the back of the sofa, sat down at the kitchen table, and Jennifer poured me a cup of her husband’s favorite drink, coffee, black. That’s just the way I take it, one of many connections I’d discover between myself and Bob, beginning with our first names.
Like me, Bob came from a small town, in his case St. Charles, Minnesota, the “Gladiolus Capitol of the World,” current population 3,735, perhaps double what it was when Bob was born back in 1945. It’s farm country, and he grew up wearing Levi’s with a white hankie tucked in a back pocket, already committed to the family ethic of “working till you drop dead in the field” he’d follow his entire life.
“It was really hard to ever get him to take a day off,” Jennifer says.
Bob was Operations Director at the North Tahoe Public Utility District; my father (whose name is also Bob) was a power plant operator for the United States Bureau of Reclamation. Bob, who has two daughters from a previous marriage, met Jennifer in 1986, while attending a water conference in Redding, where Jennifer was born and raised. She was 16 years his junior. He wooed her with a song, Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called To Say I Love You,” and they were soon hitched.
Another connection: I’m a rabid stock car racing fan; Bob and Jennifer actually raced stock cars. Before Bob got sick, he and Jennifer spent a good 20 years sliding around dirt tracks in limited sportsman and IMCA modified cars on the Nevada racing circuit. As a couple, they served as director and scorekeeper for Reno-Fernley Raceway.
They’re so well-known in Nevada racing circles that when Las Vegas Motor Speedway installed its Earnhardt Terrace, a special seat was added for Bob, complete with a cup holder for his ever-present coffee.
But the tie that binds Bob and me together tightest is military service. Once you’re a veteran, you’re always a veteran. It doesn’t matter whether you served in the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines. Unless you were on the wrong end of an extremely dishonorable discharge, we’re all in the same club and for the most part have each other’s backs.
“Bob always said you can’t leave another veteran behind,” Jennifer says, and it’s the absolute truth.
Under The Rainbow
Like me, Bob entered the military shortly after graduating from high school. In my case, it was the Navy, signing up was voluntary and the only war going on was cold. Bob was drafted into the Army in 1965 and after boot camp was shipped straight to the heart of the action, the Nghia Binh province in South Vietnam. It was early days, before the Viet Cong turned the tide, our soldiers began dying in the thousands and Americans soured on the conflict. Bob did a two-year hitch, returning to the states in 1967.
“That was a big deal back then, all the kids going off to war,” Jennifer says.
As a water specialist for the 589th Engineer Battalion stationed in the city of Quinn Yan, one of Bob’s primary duties was to secure and maintain a safe water supply for the troops in the battle zone. Chlorine was used to kill harmful bacteria and microbes in the water. It’s toxic in concentrated amounts and handling the barrels it’s stored in can be hazardous to your health. In Bob’s case those barrels contained an additional danger that that was unknown at the time: They had previously been used to store the infamous herbicide, Agent Orange.
Between 1962 and 1971, the U.S. military aerially sprayed more than 20 million gallons of the lethal substance on Vietnam and its inhabitants, including our own soldiers, in an effort to eradicate the Viet Cong’s food supply and cover foliage. In addition to Agent Orange, the military used Agents Pink, Purple, White, Blue and “Unknown,” all of which contained highly carcinogenic dioxin, the active killing agent in the compounds. For many of those who were directly exposed to the poison, including Bob, the only thing waiting at the end of the dioxin rainbow was disease and death.
Bob had the first of his six heart attacks in 2002. Doctors took one look at the diseased condition of his heart and lungs and informed him they couldn’t operate. The prognosis was not good. He was a smoker and asked the doctors if quitting would help. They told him probably not. Jennifer says he chose to keep smoking because besides coffee it was the only thing he had left.
Eventually, he was diagnosed with Ischemic Heart Disease. Today, it’s one of the conditions that automatically qualifies veterans for service-connected disability if they can prove they were under the rainbow. But 10 years ago, Bob and Jennifer had to fight tooth and claw for VA benefits for his Agent Orange-related illnesses. Since her husband remained at heart a self-reliant country boy not inclined to ask others for help, she did most of the fighting.
“It was a fight, me a little more than him,” she says. “There were some good points about dealing with the VA, but there were some not so good points. I learned to fight for him and his rights, or you get lost in the red tape. It’s still hard to get a claim.”
Thank You For Your Service
In 2004, Bob was put on oxygen at night. In 2006, he began using oxygen in the daytime as well. Disease slowed him down, but it didn’t stop him and Jennifer from traveling the country between California and Minnesota in their enormous Winnebago Ultimate Advantage motorhome. One of their favorite destinations was Deer Creek Speedway, 35 miles from Bob’s boyhood home in St. Charles.
Carved out of a cornfield more than a decade ago, Deer Creek has gone on to become one of the most popular dirt track racing venues in the Midwest. Few sports are more family orientated than stock car racing at the local level, and Jennifer enjoyed traveling the country, visiting with Bob’s family and friends, meeting up with their racing buddies and dropping in on reptile gardens, aquariums and other roadside attractions. They were at Custer State Park in South Dakota when Bob found the hat in a local store.
“It was the only one like it,” Jennifer recalls. “He put it on and it fit. I believe he even said it was ‘magical.’ He had to have it.”
Bob wore the hat outdoors all the time after that. He could no longer build race cars, so he bought an old golf cart and customized that, adding an AM-FM radio, a jeep-like front end with head lights, diamond plate floor boards and, of course, a cup holder. They towed it behind the motor home and even got it licensed for road use.
Eventually, Bob’s lungs got so bad he could hardly go outside at all. So he stayed inside and built a model railroad in the garage, featuring details as intricate as handmade miniature stained glass windows in the town church.
When Bob no longer had the stamina for woodworking, he and Jennifer joined Pawz for a Cause, caring for rescued animals until they could be adopted out to new homes.
Bob never talked to her much about his experiences in Vietnam. He was able to track down some of this Army buddies through the Internet. He eventually determined that out of all his friends from St. Charles who’d gone to Vietnam, there was only one other survivor left. He was more confused than bitter about his failing health.
“Why did I survive ‘nam only to have this happen?” he’d say.
One day, Jennifer’s parents came up to visit from Redding. The four of them went for a drive, and when Bob got in the car, he forgot his hat was on the roof. It blew off the when they pulled onto Highway 44. By the time Bob remembered it and they turned around to go back, the hat was gone. Perhaps it had already been swooped up by my sharp-eyed brother as he was driving through Shingletown.
Bob passed away in his sleep not long after that, on the morning of Super Bowl Sunday, 2013. One more thing Bob and I share, a love for football. Jennifer imagines he watched the game in heaven, coffee cup in hand.
“I was truly blessed just knowing the man,” she says, eyes welling up slightly.
There’s a pet peeve some veterans have, Bob and myself included. Most of us don’t go around bragging about our service, but occasionally the subject comes up in public and folks will say, “Thank you for your service.”
Sometimes, this gratitude is genuine. More often, it is expressed by people who are very pro-war but would never dream of putting their own lives on the line for God and country. We are highly attuned to this sort of insincerity and Bob’s stock reply is classic:
“It’s a little too late for thanks.”
I’ll be carrying that expression on from here, along with Bob’s — I mean my — magic hat. I was wrong in thinking Jennifer would want it back. We both seem to understand that God works in mysterious ways, even though you could say there’s nothing really all that mysterious about finding a couple of veterans who love NASCAR and football hanging out in the northern California foothills.
You could say that. Meanwhile, I’m going to say, thank you for your service, Robert Ruhberg.
And thank you for the hat.