The Digital Journalist
A Letter From New Orleans:

August 2007

by Jim Gabour

Made what he was by his country … introducing my long-time bud, the Griz. He passed recently, but not before telling me he loved this story -- "the first time anybody ever told me my life was worth rememberin'," he said. Well worth remembering.

He'd phoned twice the week before, and I'd returned the call to his hotel voice mail on both occasions, but we hadn't connected. So when the 350-pound biker widely known across the Deep South as "Grizzly" called me again last Thursday, I was as prepared as could be for another of his semi-annual communications.

He was back home in Baton Rouge.

"Shit fire, Jimbo, I called and called, where the hell were you?" he yelled without preface as I picked up the phone in my office.

"Out of town, Griz, but I got your messages and left a couple for you explaining where I was."

"Bro, my mind can barely handle punching in the 11 numbers it takes to get you from here in BR. No way am I gonna deal with some weird electron woman telling me to 'Press 22 to access your messages' and 'Press 87 to play your messages backwards in non-sequential alphabetic order derived from the various species of cloven-hooved beasts described in the Old Testament.' She ain't even real, and this woman's ordering me around. Don't say 'please' or nothin', so I ain't doin' it, and that's that. So no, I didn't get no messages. Just as well. I was getting a bit crazy. A lot crazy. That's the way my old head rolls when I start focusing too hard on just one thing nowadays."

"What was happening? Your Marine convention again?"

"Yeah, that's it. They wanted to make me president. Then I decided I wanted to be president. Lost by three votes out of a couple thousand. Good damned thing I lost, too. Those sunsabitches would have made me actually BE president. Me, I just wanted to be ELECTED president. There's a difference."

"I know, Griz. There's lots of that going around right now."

* * *

Ed "Grizzly" Smiley was an active member of The Legion, a large group of ex-U.S. Marines, the majority of whom have faced the extreme conditions of war and now communicated and banded together once a year as a nationwide support group. The now-civilian vets in the Southeast also gather for a week once a year in New Orleans to drink beer and try and find order in the universe.

Griz – once an uneducated, extremely poor 17-year-old volunteer soldier known affectionately to the Corps of "Semper Fidelis" as Buck Private Edward P. Riley III -- earned his place in that organization the hard way. He hadn't much going for him when he joined up except his natural country-boy talent as a sharpshooter, but for the Marines that was enough. They fed him three large meals a day, gave him free clean clothing, honed his marksman's eye in Basic and in Advanced Infantry Training, and schooled him on the workings and maintenance of state-of-the-art, high-powered, long-range, single-shot rifles. They promoted him to Private First Class. Edward P. was mighty happy.

Then suddenly, the honeymoon was over. Ten days after completing AIT, he found himself left dangling with a bag of dried and canned food in a hastily constructed blind 70 feet above a jungle floor in Cong-occupied South Vietnam. He had mimeographed orders in the pocket of his "gilly suit" -- a self-assembled camouflage uniform of colored burlap -- telling him to kill and then categorize anything he saw move below him, because there sure as hell weren't any "friendlies" in his assigned neck of the woods. There was a buddy Marine hiding out somewhere down there, a combination spotter and guard who was supposed to be the PFC's safety net. Somewhere down there.

They'd go out in groups of two to five for two days or 10, depending on the mission, and they'd trek way up into boonies infested with VC and NVA regulars, a pretty harrowing experience in itself. But mostly Edward squatted in his elevated nests thinking about life. As ordered, every so often he took one -- a life -- at a distance of over a mile if he had his favorite 300 H&H Magnum, unsilenced. Taking off the silencer made for increased accuracy. "Further away, safer you were, especially with the noise that baby made," he'd told me the drunken night we first met, "that way the Slopes couldn't track back to you. Pretty scary, them walking all around down below, sometimes get caught with them camping right underneath if your spotter was doped up and not watching. You just holds your water and don't eat or hardly breathe 'til they move on."

PFC Riley was sent out frequently to wait in trees for the better part of two years. Then he re-upped for another two. It was something he could do, and do well. He was proud to be a part of a truly elite force of over a thousand deadly Marine sharpshooters, a group that was put together when the contract shooters being brought in from outside the services by "Project Phoenix" kept mysteriously disappearing with American weapons which, though not always legal, were certainly lethal.

Edward was good at his job. After the first year, he'd been promoted to corporal. Then, after making two quick kills on the same mission at 608 and 610 yards, using only an M-16 -- an astounding feat -- he received a field promotion to E-5. Buck Sergeant Riley. But at the end of his time in service he was retired as a Corporal, because though the shooters were revered within the Corps, things weren't quite the same on the outside. His superiors were under instructions not to publicize what his job had been, much less that he had done it well and under extreme conditions of duress and danger. Back in their Washington press mills, the Pentagon's community-affairs pundits considered the term "sniper" pejorative. In WWII movies a "sniper" was stereotyped and cast as a despicable, heartless creature only The Enemy employed. The job description remained a negative PR label Stateside, and such a cowardly non-person was considered not acceptable as a civilized tactical weapon. The "police action" was having a hard enough time as it was. Nam was slow at gaining any popular support in the late Sixties, even among the flag-wavers. The generals figured there was no sense telling the macho U.S. public that the Good Guys used "snipers."

Naturally, when the Corporal was returned to civilian life, he was completely out of contact with reality and dangerous as hell to boot. The only steady job he had had in his life was killing people, one at a time and from a distance. The government had trained him, and he had been good at his task. Now after over four years, they had decided that maybe he shouldn't do it any more. They told him to stop and to forget he had ever done it. They "rehabilitated" him and counseled him on temper control. They gave him free training on how to be a mechanic, and the shrinks offered him as many prescription drugs as he could ingest.

Corporal Edward P. Riley III went AWOL from what his doctors called reality, though the heavily sedated soldier was eventually released from governmental care, and certified "no longer a risk to himself or the community." At his exit, the Marine paymaster gave him $3,000 cash in separation and "total disability" bonuses, telling him he'd be receiving a like amount monthly for the rest of his life, or at least as long as he stayed crazy. The doctors had noted in his records that the two periods were likely to coincide.

MPs pushed the discharged and supposedly defused assassin out the gate of the Army processing station where he'd been temporarily detailed for psychiatric evaluation in Fort Lewis, Wash., and told the young Marine where the bus station was located in nearby Seattle. He could walk the dozen or so blocks in no longer than 15 minutes, and there was a bus headed South in just half an hour.

The Corporal was not to make the noon Greyhound. His route took him directly in front of Bob's Harley Shop. He looked in the window, and saw large motorcycles. In particular he spied a used metaflake black Duo-Glide priced at $2,200, walked in the door and plunked down 22 fresh hundred-dollar bills without a word. He counted out an additional $300 for two Harley t-shirts and a thick pair of upper and lower leathers, then walked into the shop's greasy bathroom, removed his Marine Class-A uniform and left the cotton and wool remnant of his military experience in a wad next to a stack of pink urinal cakes. The six-foot-four baby-faced 21-year-old walked onto the bike showroom floor clad in brown-black cow skin. The owner stared and then commented, politely, "Hey man, you look like one of those big honkin' grizzly bears from up North."

So it was Grizzly who kicked the 74 cubic inches of cold steel engine to life. And it was Grizzly who took seven months riding the two-wheeled American icon home to Louisiana, hoping he'd find himself there.

When he arrived, he found his mom and dad had passed away a year or so earlier, and that he was the sole heir of a one-story, two-bedroom brick house with a large garage in Baton Rouge, LA. He hadn't received much mail in his tree.

He parked his bike and took his medication. It didn't help much.

* * *

Griz was calling me from the front room of that house now, 31 years later, to catch up on what had been happening in the few months since our last communication. We'd been riding buddies through most of my graduate school and teaching years in the early Seventies. The Flying Gonads Racing Club had somehow adopted me as a fellow Bad Boy, and Griz was the president of the Gonads. We bonded.

"I ain't ridin' no more, Jimbo. That beautiful big ole Hog is sittin' outside gatherin' dust and rust," he orated into the phone.

"This part of your born-again rules?" I asked. Griz had found Jesus a few years earlier when the local Veteran's Administration Hospital had upped his already-stratospheric medication levels with a new potent hormone-leveler.

"Naw, man, I'm kinda off that too, though I found there's something bigger. At least bigger than most of the religion marketing biz. Like a groove, you know, the sort of groove a real blues man finds in those middle-of-the-night jams with nobody in the house but the band. Getting' to that high place where it only matters to yourself, you know, and you're doin' it all by yourself, without any of that artificial bullshit."

"Without drugs, Griz?"

"That's it, man. No nuthin'. Though I'd be lying if I said I even remembered what that was like. At least until about a month ago. That's when it happened."

"You've got something important to tell me."

"Yep. I figure you're the one'll understand. Rest of the gang long gone, most of 'em dead, Weird Harold, he don't even know what day it is most of the time. I couldn't tell the Marines -- well, I did, but it was just a biker story to them, nothing bigger."

"Lemme hear," I said, wedging the phone between my ear and shoulder, and preparing to continue my work while filtering out most of the Griz narrative. This had happened before, these long narratives made of Valium and Lithium and Melaril and Thorazine and whatever else the Veterans' Hospital had in a quantity sufficient to sedate a moderate-sized Tyrannosaurus Rex. I like the guy, though, and am normally willing to listen if it will help him sort through the pharmaceutical haze. Usually the tale was disjointed, unrevealing, and without surprise.

Not this time.

"Since the boys elected me president of the Leathernecks, I keep having to do these public-service things to show regular folks we bikers ain't all hoodlums and outlaws. I been mighty depressed this last year, and to try and get out of it I had let myself get into another of these damned Fearless Leader gigs. I was more messed up than usual, and gagging back half a dozen 'scripts twice a day. All I wanted to do was sleep, which helped, but the pillow was getting boring as hell.

"One of the things everybody thought I should do is ride in this 'Toys for Toddlers' caravan. Couple thousand bikers get together over in Cajun territory and ride 150 miles into New Orleans, and for every mile each biker rides, a sponsor donates a buck to this toy fund for needy kids. Even the damned Republican governor of this state rides. Lotta national PR involved here. Network news coverage and the like.

"So I get this call from the Pagans bike club up in New Jersey, saying they would sponsor me if I would ride one of their bikes, a seriously chromed and customized set of wheels with their club name painted all over it. They said they'd even ship it down on the train for free, just as long as it got seen by as many people as possible.

"Well, I couldn't refuse that, not and save any face at all, even though I wasn't really excited about riding someone else's colors, especially in a big crowd with a lot of rookies. So I said yes, and a few days later this big crate arrived. It held one of the most elaborately tooled Harleys I ever did see, and I've seen a lot of 'em. 'Pagans' in big script letters on both sides with little red horns on the 'P.'

"Comes the morning of the ride, I wake up before sunrise to travel the 45 miles west to the rallying point in Lafayette, and before my ass is out of bed I know the day is bad news. Thunder is shaking the house like there's an artillery battalion stoked on crystal meth outside. Rounds dropping all over the place. Rain, lightning, bimbamBOOM here it comes, over and over. But I said I'd ride and I'm a man of my word. You know that, hunh, Jimbo?"

"Uh, yup, yes, sure, Griz, always," I mumbled, caught off-guard.

"So I put on my yellow plastic rain suit, duct tape all the seams tight over my boots and gloves, hop on that big mother of a bike, cut on the lights, and I head out through the rain.

"About half-way, in that elevated part of I-10 that crosses the Henderson Swamp, the storm really gets to cranking, the wind pushing even me and that heavy bike side to side and the lightning just exploding all around, reflecting up off the wet concrete and into my face. That's when it happened.

"One minute I'm sitting on this Harley, and the next I'm naked, sitting in a brightly lit room on a plastic chair that's sticking to my butt, looking around. I'm waiting for the bus, I know, but I don't know which bus, so I just wait. Out of the Marines, waiting for that bus South. It all seemed so perfectly natural, like sure enough, I had planned to be there and this was the right thing to do.

"Then somebody said somethin' to me and zip I'm on my couch at home, sitting there nice and still-like. I can feel a smile on my face. Feel it. Local news is on the box and the old lady is asking me if I want tea with dinner. I ask out loud where I been, and she comes into the room, looks at me, says 'Grizzly?' real scared-like. I says, 'What?' and she says, 'You sure don't remember, do you? And now you're back,' Then she cries to beat all hell for the better part of half an hour before she tells me what she meant.

"The driver in the semi behind me saw the whole thing, saved me from getting killed, and I still don't know his name. Told the cops that the lightning bolt hit me dead on top of my head, and that the whole bike glowed right down to the ground, even though the lights blew out and glass was flying out behind me.

"Must have killed the engine right then, but I had a pretty good head of steam and the bike rolled about a mile before it came to a halt. Driver said I was letting off yellow smoke from my rain suit, black smoke from the bike engine and white from my beard, which was smoldering pretty good. Amazing sight, my trail. Made it easy for him to follow me. He told 'em I had control all the way, even tried to put the kickstand down before I fell over. Didn't fall off, though. My gloves were fused onto the rubber handlebar grips and my boots onto the foot rests. My beard was filled with melted yellow rubber.

"I didn't remember my name, but they got my license, called the old lady to tell her that the paramedics had checked me out, and I didn't seem to have any physical damage, even if what they had been told was true about the lightning, which they couldn't prove. But more importantly they were disturbed that I was carrying lots of drugs, even though they were legal and in my name, and that I was completely disoriented. 

"I love Wanda. She come pronto with a truck for me and the bike, and I was home barely two hours after the strike. She shipped the totaled bike back to New Jersey, and when it arrived the Pagans called her to say they hoped I was dead. She told them that not to fret, that for all practical purposes I was.

"I sat on the couch for a few weeks, and she said I seemed pretty happy, other than not knowing who I was or remembering anything for more than 10 minutes.

"Then I woke up. I left the waiting room. And I took up right where I left off. Went to the Legion convention the next week like nothing ever happened. Got a little hyped and confused. Called you, but couldn't find you. Took a few Valium and made it through the knot. Decided that being an officer in things is not really what I want to do. The Marine years weren't exactly the most pleasant in my life, but it was the time that has most affected who I am and what I did afterwards.

"Until this happens.

"Now here I sit, bored as hell again, and starting to think about the future for maybe the first time in my whole damned life, but I don't feel so bad about what's happened, I'm only taking half my 'scripts at most, and I think I need to be doing something constructive. Getting back out there with people who do things, rather than just think about the past and sort it all out.

"So, I'm calling you again. S'way it is, bro. You need a bodyguard or a stagehand?"

"We're happening, Griz," I said without thinking. Then started thinking. Can I really stand the distraction?

I told him I had a few gigs coming up where I could use a strong arm to change stage sets quickly. And of course I'd always liked having him around. He vowed he'd be here on a moment's notice.

I thought again about our linked pasts, felt a bit ashamed, and said: "Sure. Why not? I'll call you with the dates."

Before he hung up, Edward P. Riley III said he'd travel the Interstate on the bus this time around.

© Jim Gabour

Jim Gabour is an award-winning producer and director, whose work focuses primarily on music and the diversity of cultures, such as directing a four-hour worldwide BBC broadcast live via satellites from the carnivals in Rio, Trinidad and New Orleans. Twice named the featured director of the year at the International Broadcasters' Conference in Amsterdam, Gabour produced and directed Norah Jones' multi-platinum DVD concert, and counts subjects as varied as Jamaican hip hop duo Floetry, famed Memphis soul singer Al Green, and recently a concert celebrating the post-Katrina return of traditional Creole jazz families to New Orleans. Gabour received a 2007 Grammy nomination for his film on composer Terence Blanchard, and is currently scripting a feature documentary film on the history of New Orleans music. He serves as Artist-in-Residence and Professor of Music Technology at Loyola University.