Our disintegrating 19th century homestead in the Lithuanian forest is situated at the head of a village made up of five homesteads, a yellow wooden church, and a cemetery. We are thirty kilometers from the nearest town, Anyksciai, where my wife, Simona, grew up before roaming the world when the Iron Curtain fell. I met her in New York, we married, and eventually we came back to her home country to raise our child close to nature. Most early autumn weekdays are quiet; we are the only full-time residents, and potential day-trippers are at work, far away from us. So the urgent banging on the door one September afternoon was especially startling.
My family and I were sitting down to a lunch of beet soup and boiled potatoes when we heard it. I imagined an impatient forest ranger had come to inquire about where I had collected the wood to build my haystack frame. Taking wood or otherwise disturbing the trees is prohibited, but I’d only gathered a few dead pines that hadn’t rotted yet. I’m neither a vandal nor a thief, but a scavenger—that was my justification. I planned to play dumb, pretend I didn’t know the law.
Simona answered the door. There stood an old man, breathless, gripping a ten-gallon bucket half-full of assorted mushrooms. He shouted: “Where am I?”
“This is Inkunai,” Simona said.
“Ah, I thought so,” he said. He told Simona he’d gotten lost around Debeikiai, about ten kilometers away, just off the main road. He’d been foraging with his sister when they were separated on the way back to their car.
In Lithuania, to get lost while picking mushrooms is a common enough occurrence to have its own word: nugrybauti. This man was the first I had met with such a serious case of the condition, though since taking up residence in the woods, I have often been nugrybaves myself. You achieve a state of nugrybauti when the thrill of having spotted choice edibles slides into uneasiness, brought on by the feeling that the forest has changed around you. Your sense of direction scampers off, and you trudge around aimlessly over moss, under branches, and around the skirts of spruces, lost—until, much later, you are back on a familiar path, though not where you thought you’d be.
More commonly, though, nugrybauti describes when someone has lost the thread of a conversation or veered from the plot of a story—gone on a tangent. To overlay the literal experience with the figurative meaning: while relating a tale, one slides into strange territory by following choice clusters of cognitive associations, then becomes struck with panic that the way back is forever lost, only to stumble out somewhere familiar.
Take my father. “Did I ever tell you about Do-or-Die Dan?” he began again one night. I was ten years old. The smoke from his cigarette curled in the air of the candle-lit kitchen in our house in Mastic Beach, New York. He’d finished whatever it was he’d had to drink. I took a seat across from him at the table. Do-or-Die Dan was a classic, and as good a starting point as any into the dark woods of my father’s mind. This story’s path crossed with many others we’d been on before. Who knew where we’d come out of this one, or when?
Dan was a Vietnam veteran, like my father, but my father met him after the war, at work—so I knew that with this story, the chances of my father getting lost in battle memories and falling into silence while I sat still at the table, needing to pee, waiting for him to turn his distant stare to me and let me go, were slimmer than usual. But Do-or-Die Dan took place in the immediate post-war years (around the time Dad was driving home from the overnight shift and killed a reckless biker in a head-on collision, opening the deep well of guilt he’d been sitting on), so there was still a risk he’d get into the war. There was always that risk. Not all paths led to Vietnam, but all paths crossed it.
The Do-or-Die Dan story aimed to amuse. My father always wanted me to know how funny life could be, which was why he’d told me about the time he’d been hiding in elephant grass for the good part of a hellish day at war, when the soldier he was ducking the Vietcong with lost patience, jumping up so his head popped over the tips of the green blades, and said, “We’re over here, motherfuckers!” Bullets ripped through the grass. Dad tackled his partner to the ground. He laughed through the telling, and I laughed along. I was eleven, or maybe twelve, years old. It was the first time I ever heard my father swear.
I never thought to ask what happened next, how they dealt with the continuation of that situation. With all these stories, rather than arriving at a point, my father’s voice would drift off and he’d get the ten-mile stare, the smoke gathering around the still blades of the ceiling fan. I’d wait, needing to pee. He’d light another cigarette.
After his tour in Vietnam, my father started a career as a cockpit mechanic on Grumman’s F-14 Tomcat in Calverton, Long Island. He worked the night shift. A bunch of the guys on the night shift, like the man he’d learn to call Do-or-Die Dan, were also veterans. Dan lived for fun, but work got in the way. Friday nights, when all the good times started, were especially torturous. So Dan got in the habit of working a four-day week. He always had a ready excuse for missing that final shift: He was sick; his car broke down; he had to take his ailing mother to the hospital. Eventually the foreman summoned Dan to his office with a final warning: Miss another Friday shift and Dan was gone. It was terrible timing. There was a huge shindig Dan had to attend; he was vital to the cause. He sulked and fretted all week, but showed up on Friday in good spirits—a complete turn-around. Then, at about 11 pm, Dan came to the foreman cradling his left hand.
“I gotta go to the hospital,” he said. “Goddamn wrench slipped. I think I broke a couple fingers.” That’s not what happened at all: in the bathroom, Dan had run scalding water over his hand to make it appear injured. It burned red, but the pain was worth a good excuse to cut out early.
“It doesn’t look so bad,” the foreman said.
“Well let me get it checked out and see what a doctor says. I can’t work with a hand that might be broke.”
“You shouldn’t drive with a broken hand, either,” the foreman said. “I’ll take you in my car.” He walked Dan out to the parking lot, then left him there a moment while he went back to the hangar for his wallet.
It turned out Dan had three mangled fingers, a cracked knuckle and a fractured wrist. No one could explain it. Benny had seen Dan scalding his hand in the bathroom that night. Dan had told Carl his plan. The busted hand was a mystery.
After an absence, Dan came back to work with a story. “I’m scared shitless,” he told his coworkers on a smoke break outside the hangar. “There I was, caught in a lie. So what am I gonna do? I follow the boss to the car. He’s gonna see for himself it ain’t broken. Sure as shit I’m caught. But then he says he forgot his wallet in the hangar. He turns to go back, so I say to him, I say, ‘At least unlock the car so I can sit. I’m getting dizzy from the pain.’ Asshole laughs at me, but he unlocks the car and tells me to wait. In he goes, and it’s just me and the car. Just the car door and my hand. ‘This is it,’ I go, and then: Bam!”
“In the door?”
“Hurt like a motherfucker.”
“Now I’m sitting in the car, real fucking tears, and my hand’s a pulp. The boss gets in and takes one look and says, ‘Holy shit! What the hell happened?’ ‘Broke my fucking hand,’ I said, ‘like I told you. Now it’s all swollen.’ He got me to the hospital quick.”
Joe, the new custodian, asked Dan how he’d had the nerve to bust his own hand like that. Unlike most of the other men on the night shift, Joe had not served in Vietnam.
“It was a do-or-die situation, kid,” Dan said. “Situation like that, you just do what you gotta do.”
Sitting at my own kitchen table in the forest late one night, where I was revising a story about a son haunted by his father’s war trauma, my son interrupted to ask about the documents spread before me. There were the mundane letters my father had sent home to family; his citations and awards; the transcript from when he was court-martialed for going AWOL after his tour; and his juvenile record from the Freeport Police Department, typewritten on an index card. It detailed three offenses, starting with “suspicious children” in 1963 and ending with “auto theft” in 1965, when he was sixteen years old—the offense that ultimately landed him in the US Marines as, at his father’s urging, he made a deal with a county judge to sign up in exchange for having the criminal charges dropped. I explained all this history to Oskar. He is fascinated by the life of his grandfather, who died two years before his birth. I tell what I know in neat stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. The stories link together like chapters covering my father’s fifty-four years.
I tell my son the stories my father tried to tell me. Do-or-Die Dan—with the tangents edited out, embellished with details—is a favorite we return to often. We apply Dan’s principles to imaginary scenarios: often slapstick, sometimes apocalyptic. But when we talk about my father, we inevitably cross into the dark terrain of his service in Vietnam, the defining event of his biography. This is where we lose him. What horrors was he witness to? Did he kill? How many? And how did it feel to live with this experience lurking at the center of his being? As he told his stories, I could only quietly hold my bladder and wait for him to come through the other side of his silence. Only once, when I was in my twenties, did I ask him a direct question: “What was the worst thing about the war?”
“Waiting,” he said. He stared at me, beyond me, through the wall. We sat with his answer until our cigarettes burned down. I imagined him hunkered in the wet heat of noon, amid sharp blades of towering grass in a foreign land, his head baking in his helmet, the rot crawling up his legs. Then it’s my father jumping up. Motherfucker, just kill me already.
Driving the old man and his bucket of mushrooms out of the forest, the man tells me the reason he had separated from his sister in the first place: They’d had a fight and he’d stormed off to forage on his own, and when he came back he saw she’d left with the car. He had intended to pick his way back home, but the mushrooms led him astray. My son, ten years old at the time, translated from the backseat. Like Simona, Oskar is fluent in both languages, while my Lithuanian is limited to asking for basic directions and the price of cabbage. We dropped the man off on the side of the highway near a bus station, thus concluding his odyssey of being lost in the middle of the Lithuanian forest and being rescued by an American.
“I think that guy was drunk,” Oskar said when we pulled away.
“Anyone can get lost in there. It’s a big forest. You don’t need to be drunk.”
“Yeah, but he smelled like beer.”
“What would Do-or-Die Dan do if he couldn’t find his way out of the woods?”
After running through a few scenarios, we decided Dan would most likely climb the tallest tree he could find, in his attempt to gain an eagle’s-eye view of the terrain. He’d fall out of the tree and make a splint with the branch that took the journey down with him.
“And then what would he do?”
I thought about my father, wounded in his own way, lost in a tangle of unfinished tales that circled around the forest of his past—nugrybaujant and drunk at the kitchen table at two in the morning, trying to find the way out of the darkness.
“I guess eventually he’d build his home in there,” I said. “He’d do whatever it took to survive.”