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When I think of Jimmy Gammon now, I remember the way he was before the war: a redheaded, freckled-faced kid with a body like a greyhound, all arms and legs, with a jutting rib cage he'd gotten running up and down the hills of midcoast Maine.
Jimmy had just graduated from Dartmouth, the alma mater of his father, James Sr., and, like his father, he was planning to make a career in the law and politics. The elder Gammon had been decorated for bravery as an infantry lieutenant in Vietnam and belonged to a generation that believed military service was a necessary prerequisite to holding higher office. Maybe it still was. In a state with the highest percentage of Afghanistan war veterans in the nation, having worn a uniform overseas carried an undeniable political advantage.
On his father's advice, Jimmy had joined the Maine Army National Guard. He chose the 488th Military Police Company, which I find odd, considering what I came to know about his gentle temperament. I was the new game warden in the district, less than six months on the job, and I met the father and son one autumn day in the field. The Gammons were hunting for grouse and woodcock in a pocket of woods outside their estate and both had bagged their limits when I came upon them. We spent a few minutes comparing notes. I marveled at their handmade European shotguns and the sleek springer spaniel that James Sr. had brought over from the UK: honestly the best-trained hunting dog I'd ever seen.
Their estate occupied something like a hundred acres of rolling fields and broadleaf forests in the Camden Hills. There were birch groves and fast-flowing streams, apple orchards and hard granite ridges like the fossilized spines of dinosaurs protruding through the turf. From the hilltop above the Gammons' palatial farmhouse, you could watch the sun rise over the ink blue waters of Penobscot Bay.
To his credit, Jimmy knew how wealthy his family was. You might even say he possessed an overdeveloped sense of noblesse oblige, or he never would have volunteered to go to Afghanistan as an E4 enlisted man. He could have avoided the conflict entirely, the way most men of my generation had. As I myself had done.
In college, I had decided that the best way for me to serve my country, given my own interests and abilities, was by becoming a cop. More precisely, I chose to become a game warden, which in the state of Maine is pretty much the same thing.
Game wardens here are full law-enforcement officers, with all the powers of state troopers. They are the "off-road police," in the language the service uses to market itself to new recruits. This special status comes as news to many urban and suburban people who mistakenly equate the job with that of a forest or park ranger. While wardens are charged primarily with enforcing hunting and fishing laws, the rural nature of the state means that a warden is often the nearest officer to any given crime scene. Call a cop in Maine, and you just might get a game warden.
It was just as well that I'd steered clear of the military. In the years since I'd joined the Warden Service I'd learned a number of uncomfortable truths about myself, the first of which was that I am a malcontent by nature. I was certain I would have been a troublemaker as a soldier, even more than I was as a warden, and it was unlikely I would have had as forgiving a field training officer as Sgt. Kathy Frost to save me from the stockade.
I admired Jimmy Gammon for his readiness to put himself at risk for the good of the country, though.
My last memory of him was shortly before he shipped out for six months of basic and police corps training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. The Gammons had invited me to the private pheasant club they'd helped create on some scrubland over near Sebago Lake. Consisting of twenty acres of trails and coverts, it was a place designed to hold birds whose sole purpose in life was to be spooked into the sky and shot with twenty-gauge shotgun pellets.
On the hunt, Jimmy let me borrow his over-and-under. He told me that a British gun maker had handcrafted it out of walnut and steel. I had never handled such an exquisite firearm. I was hesitant to hold the gun after Jimmy told me the price his father had paid for it—more than three times my yearly salary—but when the springer flushed a pheasant out of the alders, instinct took over. I brought the butt up to my shoulder, squeezed the first trigger, and watched as the bird fell, limp and lifeless, from the air.
"Great shot!" said Jimmy in a high voice that would intimidate none of the Taliban or al-Qaeda prisoners being held at the Bagram prison.
As a prospective military policeman, he viewed me as a colleague of sorts, a fellow officer only a little older than himself—and potentially a friend. It was a time in my life when I wasn't making friends, and so I was willing to put in the effort, although I had my doubts about the Gammons.
"You should join our pheasant club, Mike," he said.
The idea was ridiculous. As a rookie warden, I was hard-pressed to pay my college loans and the rent on the ramshackle house I was sharing with my girlfriend at the time. "It's a little rich for me."
"What if I told you we have a special rate for law-enforcement officers, Warden Bowditch?" said his father, studying me through yellow shooting glasses.
I found James Sr. to be an imposing presence. He was a lobbyist now but had served in two Republican administrations in mysterious positions that seemed to come with basement offices in the Pentagon. He had the bushiest red eyebrows I had ever seen and a foxlike grin that suggested he could read my thoughts at will.
"We're serious, Mike," Jimmy said.
"I'll save my pennies for when you get home."
"Jimmy's going to Harvard Law after his deployment," James Sr. pronounced, as if his son's admission was a foregone conclusion, which it was probably was.
"You're going to have lots of stories to tell there," I said.
"He certainly will," said his father.
The truth was, I was worried about Jimmy Gammon. It wasn't just his voice, a boyish tenor that seemed ill-suited to breaking up riots in a war zone; it was his absolute inability to gain muscle no matter how many barbells he lifted. His resemblance to Howdy Doody didn't help matters, either. I had just gotten to know the family, but I'd already begun wondering if joining the MPs had been the father's idea of toughening him up for a future in bare-knuckle politics.
That evening, Jimmy and I exchanged e-mail addresses over glasses of Macallan on the south-facing porch of their home back in Camden. We watched his mother train a Morgan horse in the darkening field below. When the sun had finally set behind Bald Mountain, we went inside to eat the pheasants we had shot, prepared by a woman the Gammons hired to cook for special occasions.
Jimmy later sent me a few messages from Bagram. I still have one of his first e-mails, telling me that he had been stationed at Camp Sabalu-Harrison and his duties were different from what he'd imagined:
Thirty days in-country and I haven't set foot in the prison! I figured I'd be guarding terrorists. To be honest I'm glad I'm not.
I'm part of a Quick Reaction Force, or QRF. We're in charge of perimeter security around the prison. There are three of us in the M-ATV. Donato is the CO, Smith is the gunner, and I'm the driver. The truck weighs 40,000 pounds! It makes a Humvee look like a frigging Matchbox toy. Some days it's like driving an eighteen-wheeler through a maze with all the T-walls and Jersey barriers, and there's basically nothing between us and the Afghans.
The guys in my truck are all first-class. Donato is a correctional officer at the Maine State Prison. Smith is a potato farmer up in The County. The guy's the size of André the Giant. Our interpreter calls him "Monster." He's an E4 like me.
We just had a missile attack, and I'm kind of on edge. Also, my back is all fucked-up from the weight of my kit. Helmet, Kevlar vest, plus ceramic plates, M4, full combat rounds (210), Beretta M9 with three clips, boots, etc., etc. Even with all the armor, you feel exposed out there. There's this garbage pile across from one of our battle positions. Every day we have to go out there and break up a riot because the people fight over whatever we throw out. Not just food, but bits of plastic—anything they can use.
The best part of the day is the time we get to spend with the dogs. We use them at the entry-control posts and sometimes for crowd control. I envy the dog handlers, wish I could be one, but they're all contractors. The Afghans are terrified of dogs, for some reason. My favorite is Lucille. She's a Belgian Malinois.
Playing with the dogs is the only "normal" thing we do here at the camp.
I miss all the normal stuff.
You don't know what you've got till it's gone, right?
Take care, bro.
I remember thinking that it was meaningful that he'd signed his name "Jim" instead of "Jimmy." The war was already turning him into a different person.
I wrote him back a few times, telling him about the ten-point buck I had shot on my day off, the five night hunters I'd arrested in a single evening, the lost child whose body we searched for but were unable to find because we believed the abusive father had expertly dismembered and hidden it. My then girlfriend, Sarah Harris, encouraged me to keep sending Jimmy messages "to keep his spirits up." But they failed to have the desired effect. His e-mails in reply became shorter and edgier—laced with profanity he had never used in my presence—and then, finally, he stopped responding altogether.
We lost touch six months after he deployed, and I never heard about the explosion that left him without a nose, scarred across his face and shoulders, and half-blind in one eye.
Copyright © 2014 by Paul Doiron