I was sitting in the airport in Billings, Montana. As usual, whenever I was in public, I was wearing a baseball cap pulled as low on my face as I could, with a hoodie drawn tightly around my face.
What remained of my face, anyway.
I could still remember ... vividly ... would always remember my then-wife’s (now I am sure, ex-wife’s) reaction when she saw me for the first time at Walter Reed hospital in Washington.
I heard the gasp, looked up in time to see the look of absolute horror on her face before she burst into tears and ran from the room.
After that, I requested the doctors change my visitation allowance to NO VISITORS!
I understand Melodie came back every day for a couple of weeks, begging to be allowed in to see me.
No thanks ... once was enough.
I knew then I would never see her again. Would never allow her to see me.
And that also meant I would never see the little baby girl she was carrying inside her.
In a few weeks my discharge papers came though and the Marines gave me a couple of medals for what happened in Iraq.
I suppose I should thank the Veterans Administration for granting me a 100 percent disability. Seems little enough for having been turned into a monster.
No, those were not just words. A few weeks later I was at Wal-Mart. Because of the baseball cap I didn’t notice the low hanging display and it knocked my cap off and pushed the hoodie off my face.
I heard a cry and looked over to see a little girl, I would guess she was about 10, screaming and yelling “Monster, Monster!”
I opened a new checking account, where the disability payment, along with some other payments, could be sent. I also arranged for over half that combined amount to be sent to my ex-wife to help her with the baby.
I might look like a monster, but it didn’t mean I had to act like one.
We were so happy when we found out Melodie was pregnant and even happier when we found out we were going to have a daughter.
We had discussed several names but hadn’t really finalized on any one name. Now, I suppose I will never know my daughter’s name.
So what does a monster, someone people can’t stand to look at, do? I knew no place would hire me. Well, perhaps I could get a job at a Halloween horror house. One of those places people go to be scared.
Heck, I wouldn’t even need any makeup!
I kept thinking back to one of my final conversations with my best friend in Iraq. He was from Alaska and was always talking about how, when he got out, he was going to go gold prospecting.
“There is this river, called the Kuskokwim River,” he was always saying, “and I know, I just know there is gold along there.”
During our final conversation about the river, he even told me where.
“You have to take a boat because it’s not accessible any other way,” he said, “but after you travel a little ways there will be a smaller river entering on your right. About a quarter mile past that, there is a second river on the right.
“You travel along that river for a while and you will see three tall peaks. At the base of the third peak, I have found gold ... and I know there is a lot more there.”
Several times he invited me to go gold prospecting with him, but soon I was going to be a father and could only think about that.
Then the vehicle I was riding in hit an IED (Improvised Explosive Device). I managed to pull some of my buddies out, but before I could get to my best friend ... the vehicle exploded.
And I became a monster.
It took a year to make my way to Alaska. I had a fair amount of money in the form of back pay due me and used that to buy provisions.
The Kuskokwim River is such an unusual name I had no trouble remembering it.
My friend said you travel that river “a little way,” until you come to the first secondary river and then the smaller river I was looking for was about a quarter mile past that.
He didn’t tell me “a little way” was actually almost 250 miles upriver.
With the limited time available before winter sets in each year, it took me three years to find those two secondary rivers.
He also failed to mention that when he said you “travel along that river for a while,” that in this case, a “while” was over 100 miles.
Took two more years to find the three peaks.
As I was traveling along those rivers I was also panning for gold each night when I stopped and tied up to shore. Actually found a lot of flakes and even the occasional nugget. Sometimes I would spend a few days or even a week or two prospecting before moving on upriver.
With the price of gold I estimated I was actually making about $50,000 a year. And probably spending about $55,000 a year.
After arriving at the third of the three peaks, I found out why my friend had been so excited. There was gold there! During the short summers I was probably finding close to $75,000 in gold.
Not bad, but still only about $20,000 more than I was spending.
Until I struck the bonanza gold.
The largest gold nugget ever found in Alaska is called the Alaska Centennial Nugget and weighed an astonishing 294 Troy ounces, or slightly over 20 pounds. That nugget had been found in 1998.
At least that HAD been the largest gold nugget ever found.
Mine was almost twice that size and worth, literally, millions. Millions and millions of dollars.
I also had my bank send my ex a large check for several hundred thousand dollars – for my daughter.
I continued in Alaska for another year, but how do you top that?
By now I had been gone almost nine years.
I used a small part of my riches to purchase several hundred acres in Montana. A place so far off the grid I thought no one could ever find me. A place so far off the grid ... no one would ever have to look at me. And that was true for over a year.
I had not counted on the desperation of a dying woman.
When Melodie’s letter reached me, she told me she had been searching for me for years. To try to apologize for her reaction in the hospital.
“No apology will ever excuse how I reacted,” she wrote me, “but I do want you to know that I have never stopped loving you.”
She also told me she had never filed for divorce.
At the end of the letter were her final words.
“I may be dead by the time this letter reaches you,” she wrote. “The cancer spread so fast they told me I only had weeks, maybe two months at the most.
“I know you probably hate me for the way I reacted,” she continued, “but your daughter needs you. She is incredibly smart, has your uncanny ability to learn foreign languages and a sense of humor just like you.
“My parents were killed in a car wreck a couple of years ago and the only other living relative I have is my grandmother who is too old to take care of a 10 year old.
“I have told Karen ALL about you and she can’t wait until she can meet the father she has loved for so long.”
Melodie had used the money I had sent her to hire several private detectives to track me down.
While living in Alaska, I was virtually untrackable. Now that I was in Montana, as a registered property owner, it was only a matter of time before they found me.
All I could think about was that other, near 10 year old, who had taken one look at me and screamed, “Monster.”
Nevertheless, I called Melodie’s grandmother and purchased an airplane ticket for Karen.
Now I was sitting at the airport and more scared than I had ever been in my life. “Monster,” “Monster,” “Monster,” were the words that were echoing through my brain.
I didn’t even realize I was crying until I heard a voice saying, “Sir, Sir! Are you all right?”
I looked up to see a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy staring at me. I immediately noticed his Chaplain’s Insignia. Why would a LtCdr in the Navy be in Montana, a completely land locked state?
Waiting to catch a flight back to San Diego, he said.
“Is there something wrong, something I can help you with,” he offered.
Slowly ... slowly ... I began to explain that I was waiting for the plane carrying my 10 year old daughter.
“I ... I have never seen her,” I said, “and (pointing to my face) she has never seen me.”
I couldn’t believe I was soon telling him about that other little girl, the one who had called me, “Monster!”
“What if ... what if ... the first time she sees me ... sees this face ... she does the same?”
Again, I broke down into tears.
“Well, young man,” he said, “see this insignia on my collar?” he asked, pointing to the chaplain’s cross.
“That means I have a direct line into heaven and I just know everything is going to be all right.”
That broke the tension and we both laughed a little.
“I notice the Marine cap you have on,” he offered, “do you want to talk about what happened?”
I never spoke about that with anyone, but to my amazement I began telling him some of what happened in Iraq 10 years earlier.