When little Harper, daughter of Gimp, the naval aviator, looks up at her grandpa and asks what he did when the terrorists attacked, I’ll say I picked up my gun and turned somebody in.
It seemed like the right thing to do, at the time. I was with a crew of hardy volunteers on Sept. 11, 2001, cutting alder stakes for the annual Depoe Bay Salmon Bake when we heard about the attacks on the World Trade Center. We had been armed with brush saws, but pulled out our belly guns to work over a stump in a therapeutic moment before attacking the saplings with new energy.
Later, I called Agent Mary — she doesn’t have a last name — at the F.B.I. in Portland and told her about a story I’d heard a few days before the attack from a reliable source. A Saudi native was running around Newport with an expired student visa, I reported, flashing pictures of himself at parties holding various pieces of military ordnance including Ak-47s and a Jeep-mounted rocket launcher. Denied enlistment by the U.S. Army, he told friends the photos were taken at a “pre-military” training camp in Kentucky where he became “better qualified” to join the U.S. military. My informant, who was horrified to learn that I’d called the feds, wasn’t experienced in these things and couldn’t be blamed for wondering if it all seemed suspicious.
Within hours, the F.B.I. threw a net over Newport, interviewing people at the college, the man’s friends, his landlord and the Army recruiter. But the suspect, a popular guy by all accounts, had already blown town. He was headed east, someone said. The prevailing opinion was that agents picked him up near Pendleton. Nobody has heard from him since.
A dozen years later, in April of 2013, the shoe was on the other foot. Figuring there was nothing quite as good as a forced march along an abandoned logging road to focus our minds in the wake of the Boston Marathon Massacre, my buddy and I set out with long guns and Alice packs jammed with water and extra ammo. We also wore sidearms, the big kind with the extra capacity, pre-ban clips.
The route meandered east, then went south along two ridge lines, skirting a series of clear cuts with fantastic views of the ocean. The backpacks weighed like buckets of sand and made our legs twitch like dead animals during breaks. We switched point to break trail with a machete, a necessary tool in third-generation clear cuts that we foolishly lost in a bog swamp.
At the base of an ancient cedar stump, enraged hornets that poured out of a hole in the ground ambushed us. We ran like wild men in quicksand, tripping on old snags, gasping for air amid crazy laughter. We were already feeling better.
At the pinnacle of the journey — at the edge of the tall timber — we used plastic water bottles to zero our weapons, except for the shotgun, which we emptied on oyster shells we found at a deserted log landing.
We accomplished our mission and became suspects only at the end of our journey.
Caught between the malarial bog swamp and the hornets, we struck a heading down a gentle slope strewn with Indian artifacts before emerging on the highway a quarter mile from our truck.
I knew what would happen if we were caught in the open, and encouraged my companion to quickstep back to the starting point and not look skittish motorists directly in the eye. Like me, they’d be wary in the wake of another terrorist attack.
I learned the next day from the dispatch center reports that a half-dozen motorists promptly called 9-1-1 to report, “Two adult males in camo carrying rifles, walking along the highway. Refusing to make eye contact.”
While it’s America and people have had hundreds of years to get used to the sight of firearms, I felt lucky that I hadn’t disappeared without a trace like the Saudi student. Still, the case could be made that it’s a good idea to march up the road with guns, once in awhile.
At least it keeps other people on their toes, too.