David Cheney: The Medicine Man
I picked up Cheney on my way out of Haines heading north back towards Anchorage. I figured I could use a bit of company, and I expected a bit of entertainment.
Cheney introduced himself as Cheney The Medicine Man. He had half a dozen necklaces with dangling wire wrapped claws, talons, and teeth. He clashed a stiff and weathered leather jacket with black sweat pants, and he had a single silver ring on each of his eight fingers. His santa clause beard was not quite snow white, and the bits of his face that it didn’t cover were sunburnt. After heaving himself into my car he took off his Alaska Coast Guard hat and re-adjusted the bandana underneath it. He had a low grumbling voice, standard for someone who had long enjoyed his fair share of alcohol and all its accompanying vices. It didn’t take much to get him started down a story, and he was happy to talk for most of our drive. He fell into character.
Cheney has lived in Alaska for the last 38 years, spending some of those winters in Hawaii or Arizona. He originally came for pipeline construction work, then he did road construction, then he was a crab fisherman for 10 years. Now he is loosely involved with painting in-home murals and seasonal masonry work down in Tuscon AZ, but he insisted that his work as a medicine man is his primary focus.
From what I could tell, he’s mostly a salty vagrant who is well recognized (at least according to him) around Alaska. Because of that he doesn’t have too tough of a time hitching rides and finding bread. His main occupation as a medicine man is giving non-denominational eulogies, and convincing people of the healing power of medicine men. Which is where his most important prop comes in.
Cheney carries a walking cane which over the years has been adorned with 25 lbs of small trinkets and mementos. Each of these unique, key-chain-sized curiosities was given to him by someone he met. Small flags, stuffed animals, necklaces, lanyards, a feather, a headlamp, a bell, a spork, and of course more claws, talons, and teeth – just about anything that can be attached, has been attached. All of them were offered by people who wanted to be part of the medicine man’s journey.
I dropped him off Kasilof, and as I helped him unload his duffle he flipped around his cardboard sign so that I could read it – “VIETNAM VET” in permanent marker.
“That’s the one thing we didn’t talk about.“
[ After five minutes of driving I knew I was going to be writing about Cheney. I had him walk me through as much of his life as possible, and I kept herding his stories back to usable material. On the one hand I felt a bit like I was using him, but on the other hand, clearly this man had a story to tell and I had let him know I was a writer up front. Also, I have always been interested in how homeless people get to where they are, and I did my best to flesh out another data point ]
After reading his sign I began with my knee-jerk reaction to learning anyone is a Veteran, and I started to thank him for his service – but he interrupted.
“I lit boys on fire.” He muttered.
[ Remember, Cheney has a gruff voice, and the things that he said, even when he said them clearly, didn’t always add up. So when he said “I lit boys on fire” I didn’t quite hear it as easily as you read it. ]
I took a second to process, and the first thing my mind jumped to was imagining him as a drill sergeant, cranking out diligent and dedicated young men whose hearts burned with American patriotism. But Cheney was not one to speak in metaphor.
“[I] worked the flame thrower… spray people, they catch on fire… ya know?”
I don’t know exactly how to explain it, but it was a kind of like having the last 1/8 inch of a key fall into a stubborn lock. I knew flamethrowers were used in Vietnam. I knew that many of the men on both sides were young. I knew that if you kill a person by lighting them on fire they would not die cleanly and they would not die quickly. But I now know what that can do to the man who was asked to squeeze the trigger.
The Medicine Man persona must have been an evolution for Cheney. By performing eulogies he does his best to usher people gently and meaningfully into death. And I think he has found this to be the most effective way to grapple with the fact that at one point in time he literally brought hell down on our enemies.
He commented on how flamethrowers have been removed from the United States arsenal.
“Of course, they don’t let ya use those now…” then he looked away “which is good.”
The hopeful grimace he mustered while saying that will stick with me.