The alleged creator of the skull with lightening through it logo OR a homeless guy moved into my rental condo and claimed to have named the Grateful Dead

I had been gone for two weeks in June on a vacation. I’ll never forget the greeting I got when I came back.

“Hi. I’m Chuck, your new roommate.”

He was in his mid-fifties, white hair, missing most of his teeth. He had deposited his stuff all over the main areas of the small rented townhouse in Vienna, Virginia where I lived. It was like a yard sale materialized in my house. There were model airplanes in the kitchen that smelled like superglue. There was a toolbox in the TV room. I remember some kind of small kitchen appliance sitting on the front step.

Why was he there? My previous roommate, who always struck me as shifty, invited him to “sublet” his room so he could save a few hundred bucks and move in with his girlfriend. He conveniently did this while my other roommate and I were away. He did not tell either one of us.

In those first few moments standing there, processing the fact that a stranger had moved all his possessions to my place of residence, Chuck launched into the hard-sell. He talked so fast it was like he had downed a Starbucks and a shot of amphetamines.

I learned more about him in five minutes than I learn about most of my coworkers in five months. His dad was in the foreign service and he spent time as a child in Viet Nam. He was a pilot and worked as a contractor. He served two tours of Viet Nam later as a young man. He was adamant that the CIA had staged 911. He had gone to prep school with Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir. He said he was the one who had coined the name “the Grateful Dead” and created the famous skull-with-lightening-through-it logo.

And, oh yeah, the Grateful Dead owed him 12 million dollars. I’m not sure how he settled on this figure. But he was emphatic. The Grateful Dead owed him 12 million dollars. There was such conviction in his voice it was like he already picked out his new Bentley.

Chuck was buttering me up. That night, in my living room, he was going for some kind of paternal bond, selling himself as a fatherly wise older guy who was there to help my roommate and myself cope with our youthful challenges and learn from his sage ways.

Nada. He was homeless and living out of his Chevy Astro van and needed a place to stay. I knew this.

From a legal standpoint, he had no right to be there and he was not on our lease. But we only had three months left in the house. We would all be leaving soon. This guy was a little out there, but he just wanted a warm bed to sleep in and a shower.

Plus he was a veteran. The only thing I did to serve my country was register for the Selective Service and spend two misguided semesters in college shining shoes and trying to keep from laughing while a staff sergeant screamed in my face. I felt I owed Chuck some slack for facing death in the jungles of southeast Asia…some kind of karmic retribution for never having to go to war myself.

Plus, I counted myself a Christian. Maybe this was some kind of test. Maybe when I went to the Great Beyond JC would turn to me and say “that was me back in Vienna who needed a place to stay you big jerk, and you threw me and my model airplanes out into the cold…now go fry in eternal torment.” So I let Chuck stay.

What a mistake.

A week after Chuck moved in my other housemate Bill came back (he had also been on vacation). Bill saw the model airplanes and various clutter and asked me what was going on. I told him that Shifty our roommate had pulled a fast one by subletting and not letting us know.

Bill was an interesting cat. He was an art student with a girlfriend on the other side of the Beltway. He spent his weekends sprawled on the couch watching art movies, eating pizza and leaving the boxes all over the kitchen. He also was huge. Like 6-7 and 400 pounds. But completely soft-spoken and jittery. He kind of reminded me of the old cartoon where the circus elephant gets spooked by the mouse.

Bill also avoided conflict like me. He didn’t want to create a contentious situation to get this guy out of our place…he was willing to wait out the last three months of our lease. But he wasn’t happy.

So we all settled into some kind of uneasy existence.

Chuck came and went to work on construction in the city. Bill went to his art classes. I went to work.

It worked for a couple of weeks. Chuck and I had some pretty interesting conversations.

He was a writer, and a really good one. He showed me a piece he wrote for his prep school magazine (the one he attended with Bob Weir,) about his life, published some 13 years earlier in 1991. He was so happy with it that he was turning it into a book proposal and already had written several dozen pages.

The piece recounted his childhood in Viet Nam as the son of a diplomat, then later as a Special Forces officer in the Phu Bon province. I still have a copy of the magazine — he gave it to me. In the piece he writes he knew the whole time that the Viet Nam war would be a colossal mistake, a misguided conflict that was more about American hubris and paranoia than fighting communism. He writes:

…my father predicted…we would be drawn into a war here, and the way things were shaping up, unless a miracle occurred, we would eventually lose it. It would be me, my brother, and our generation who would fight it. With these words, a portion of my youth drew to a close. I felt a peculiar pain behind my breastbone…I thought of my friends back in America who, in a few years, would be cannon fodder.

Despite passages like these, the writing is upbeat, almost mystical. Chuck spends more time talking about his adventures as a kid in 1958 in Southeast Asia than his later time in the jungle as a soldier. The epilogue from the piece talks about his “Pacific Rim fine leather products import/export business,” shows him standing on the porch of a cozy-looking colonial style house with an attractive Asian woman on his arm (his former wife), and says he was a “candidate for the U.S. Congress.”

The guy living out of his car who believed the Grateful Dead owed him 12 million dollars was a candidate for Congress. Well, considering what some of them are like I guess it’s not far off.

It was the mother of three next door who looked like the mom from the “Wonder Years” that pointed out to me that Chuck was a textbook case of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“He needs help,” she said. “You can tell he thinks people are after him.”

She said on one occasion she was riding in the car with her 14-year old son, who had just gotten his driver’s permit. He came into the parking space in front of their townhouse a little too fast and hit one their empty metal trash cans with a loud bang.

Chuck was outside smoking. She said he jumped about four feet in the air.

Nice lady next door would know something about PTSD. Her husband was an Army Colonel who served in first Gulf War. And her last comment as she turned to run back into her house got me a little scared.

“I’ve told my kids to be nice but keep their distance.”

We had one month on our lease when things came apart.

Chuck knocked on the locked door to my basement apartment. His tone was measured, but his eyes were wide.

“Someone broke my computer,” he said.

“I didn’t break your computer,” I responded.

He took me up to his room and pointed at his laptop. There was a crack about 3 inches long in the screen, and you could see the plasma starting to seep out onto the plastic. This would not be an easy fix.

His look was so intense I know he believed I broke it.

“Chuck. I’ve never been in your room,” I said.

“Well, then it must have been Bill,” he said. “Bill broke it.”

This was bad…given that Bill was already terrified of this guy and spending most of his time at his girlfriend’s, I knew that any kind of accusation could give the guy a heart attack.

“Let me talk to Bill about it,” I said. “But I’m sure he didn’t break it. Maybe you knocked it when you weren’t looking?”

Reasoning would not work at all. Chuck was convinced of sabotage. I could only hope that he didn’t reciprocate like Martin Sheen taking out  Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now.

I wasn’t there when Chuck confronted Bill. Bill responded by calling the cops. I came home from work one day to find two county police officers on my stoop. Chuck was gone…along with his model airplanes, kitchen appliances and tools.

Bill was shaken up but relieved. He said when he told Chuck the cops were coming to arrest him for trespassing, and that he had a copy of the lease that didn’t have his name on it, that Chuck peacefully backed down…that he retreated to his room and started running his possessions down to his Astro Van. He was gone in minutes.

A few weeks later I got an email from Chuck. There was no mention of the events that transpired to make him leave, and no mention of his computer. He asked me if I wanted to have dinner. I didn’t respond. Not from malice, I just didn’t want to open the channel.

I think about the guy every now and then. I picture him off in some public camping ground, chatting people up about the book he’s writing, telling them about the 12 million dollars the Grateful Dead owes him, smiling his toothless smile.

I wonder how many others are out there like him, who go to war and then come back to slip through the cracks of society. Guys who do what is asked of them by shipping off to some geopolitical situation, only to came back and have their lives turned upside down because they cannot reenter the world.

“War is hell,” said a Civil War general. Maybe so is coming back.


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