A thousand people in Boonville is fifty thousand in San Francisco, and there were more than a thousand people in Boonville by five o'clock last Thursday waiting for Sgt. Jesse Slotte to come home.
Boonville has never seen anything like it, not even at fair time when the town swells to several thousand visitors, most of them dispersed throughout the Fairground's 20 acres. Last Thursday, there were people everywhere until there were so many people on both sides of the highway between the Fairgrounds office and the Live Oak Building that the road seemed to narrow, seemed to become almost tunnel-like.
"This is amazing," said Harold Hulbert, born and raised in Boonville. "People are clear down to Mountain View Road, all kinds of people, and they're still coming."
In the opposite direction, people were strung out along both sides of the highway well past the Fairgrounds parking lot. They, too, were "all kinds of people," from wine moguls to immigrant Mexicans, to hippies, to young couples with children, to loggers, to store clerks, to heavy equipment operators, to teachers, to the elderly, among them Willis Tucker, World War Two veteran, great grandfather of the young man we'd all come to see, Sgt. Jesse Slotte.
Eddie Slotte, the sergeant's father, looked stunned.<!--sell price="25" recurring="1Y" group="101"-->
"I can't believe it. We knew some people would come out, but we never expected anything like this. Yes, it is a lump-in-the-throat event, definitely."
Eddie's wife, Candy, stood nearby. She was smiling. She smiles a lot, a nice smile, a big smile. As always, she was a picture of graciousness.
The Slottes were two more people in a large, amiable, expectant gathering, all of us occasionally looking south, looking down the road, waiting to see the unusual young man who'd caused us to be here — brought us together, one might say, as we've never been together before, for a rare unity in a fractious time.
"He's supposed to be here by five," Gary Bates said, "but you know the Army; hurry up and wait."
An American Legionnaire passed out little American flags. There were people in the crowd who hadn't had an American flag in their hands since they were children, and there were people in the crowd who'd never held a celebratory American flag, people who would ordinarily sneer at the very idea of a celebratory flag. But there they were, waving the flags, too.
We were surprised there were so many of us, surprised at who was there, surprised to see that it was literally the entire population of the Anderson Valley, too many of us to be described merely as a "cross-section," so improbably large and diverse that we were amazed at finding each other in such close proximity for a single purpose, which was to let a local kid know that whatever we might think of this war we were behind him all the way.
We were anticipating Sgt. Slotte not knowing how we'd find him after what he'd been through, thinking maybe that he'd be only semi-ambulatory, half-expecting him to be frail, maybe even shattered. After all, he had been shattered, literally shattered by a roadside bomb in ancient Mesopotamia, a place as remote from a crisp early summer afternoon in Boonville, California, as it is possible to get on this globe.
Sgt. Slotte and his wife Maricela were driving to Boonville from Fort Lewis, Washington. They'd flown from San Antonio to Fort Lewis so Sgt. Slotte could greet his old unit as they returned from a long combat tour in Iraq. Sgt. Slotte hadn't seen his fellow soldiers since the morning last November he'd set off with them on a patrol. The next thing the Sgt. knew he was waking up from a medically induced coma two continents away two months later.
When Sgt. Slotte woke up in San Antonio he began a grueling series of surgeries, almost fifty of them, and he's still waiting for his left leg to re-attach itself to its foot which it's doing, and his doctors say the kid is already a walking medical miracle. Some of his doctors hadn't expected him to live.
So, we all waited for Sgt. Slotte on Thursday's perfect summer afternoon, looking down the road for him, listening for the sirens of the fire trucks that would announce his arrival.
There'd been some organizational worrying. Who would meet him, who would speak, how about a welcoming committee? What would happen when Sgt. Slotte arrived and people were just milling around? How would he know that he'd been awarded a lifetime membership in the American Legion? Who the heck would be in charge?
Then we heard the sirens, and a rumble of motorcycles. A helicopter dipped out of the sky in a welcoming bow. A bagpiper began to play, and the high school band broke into a marching song. A human wave of people appeared from within the Fairgrounds. They'd been attending a meeting of the Mendocino County Planning Commission. "We couldn't help it," a woman explained. "When we heard the bagpipes we all just ran outside."
A beaming young highway patrolman drove through, and behind him came a screaming queue of fire trucks in between which were mixed phalanxes of motorcycles including our very own Molochs in full colors. The parade drove on in beneath the banner stretched across the highway that said, "Welcome Home, Sgt. Jesse Slotte."
But no Sgt. Slotte. Where was he in this raucous cavalcade?
Suddenly there was a meticulous new pick-up truck at the curb in front of the Fairgrounds office, and a grinning young man in a white t-shirt, baseball cap, dark glasses, and cut-offs was shaking hands with Deputy Squires, and from Deputy Squires the young man moved to shake hands with another man, then he hugged his mother, and recognizing a young woman in the high school band, Sgt. Slotte pointed a greeting to her, and he and the young woman laughed, clearly delighted to see each other again.
There was no need for a welcoming committee or speakers or politicians or anybody beyond Sgt. Slotte and the crowd, and for the next thirty minutes the vivid young warrior greeted everyone and anyone who wanted to shake his hand or hug him, and since everyone was there to do just that that's what Sgt. Slotte did, and as he walked from one handshake and hug to the next, ripples of applause met him coming and going.
Of course this guy would know what to do. You don't get to be a 21-year-old combat leader because you don't know what to do. The crowd was here to meet him so he met them. There was no need for anybody to say anything official, no need for speeches. And there he was, moving through the crowd like he'd done it a thousand times before, stopping before every person who'd come out to see him whether he knew the person or not, moving with the presence, as our grandmothers called natural aplomb, of a movie star.
If the brace-like metal device fastened to the lower part of his left leg hadn't been so clearly visible, and if we didn't know that his doctors had been doubtful he'd survive his wounds, we could not have guessed that this kid had been through an unimaginable ordeal because he never stopped smiling. Sgt. Slotte really was happy to see everyone, happy to be home, and all of us were just as happy to see him. If there's ever been this much concentrated fellow feeling in the Anderson Valley, it's not been recorded.
We overheard Sgt. Slotte tell Christina Aanestad, KZYX's enterprising young reporter, "Thanks to everybody. I wasn't expecting anything like this. I know everyone's been keeping up with me. It's quite a blessing to see all these people. I'm thrilled. It's a memory I'll keep all my life."
Then the Molochs revved their big Harley engines, Sgt. Slotte got back in his truck with his lovely young wife and they were gone, and we stood there clapping for a while, then we talked about what we'd just experienced, trying to get it into words, but there weren't words for it because none of us had ever experienced anything quite like it, so we said, "Wasn't that amazing? Have you ever seen anything like it? In Boonville?"