From tunnel rat to hobo tramp

King for a day: Like most celebrities, Larry King looks a lot taller on TV. Bites ran into Larry the other day, squatting on a curb in Midtown. “Stop, stop,” Larry insisted. “I don’t want your money. You wanna drink?” Bites declined the fortified beverage, but only a fool would pass up the chance to talk to the real Larry King, a.k.a. “Shorty,” the homeless Vietnam veteran who sleeps in the alley behind the Sacramento Yoga Center.

Shorty, 57, was a tunnel rat in Vietnam, and like a lot of tunnel rats, he is, to put it mildly, rather shell-shocked. Crawling around on your hands and knees in dark, booby-trapped underground passages tends to fray the nerves. Permanently. So when, say, an automobile roaring down the street suddenly backfires, Shorty springs into action, cocking an imaginary M-16 and screaming, “Lock and load!”

A couple of weeks ago, Shorty and his pals Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks were up in the Roseville rail yards attempting to catch the next freight to Reno when they were accosted by one of the local bulls. However, upon being informed of the magnitude of the trio’s celebrity, said bull escorted them to the train and saw them safely out of town.

Or so says Shorty, whose family ties brought him back to Sacramento after an abbreviated stay in the biggest little city. But not for long. He plans to attend the National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa, August 9-12. Homeless veterans not blessed with Shorty’s wanderlust can call the Sacramento Veterans Resource Center at (916) 393-8387 or the Sacramento County Veterans Service Officer at (916) 874-6811. If you’re lucky, maybe someone will even answer.

Enemy mine: Shorty says he’s down with the tramp life, but Bites has to wonder. Although he’s got a service connected disability rating of 85 percent (and the shrapnel scars to prove it), he says his $1,000 per month check goes directly to care for his common-law wife, languishing in a Sacramento nursing home after a stroke. And he seems to hold a lot of resentment for—get this!—not JFK, not Lyndon Johnson, not Richard Nixon, but, of all people, Jimmy Carter.

“He gave those draft dodgers a free pass while I was over there fighting for their freedom,” he growls, spitting the Nobel Prize-winning Georgia peanut farmer’s name out on the sidewalk.

That’s the kind of anger you’ll find simmering in many a homeless Vietnam vet, and you best get used to it, because we’re currently stewing up a whole new generation of it in the Middle East.

Numbers game: According to the Department of Defense, approximately 25,000 service members have been injured on the battlefield in Iraq since our 2003 invasion; another 10,000 have been hurt in non-combat incidents or have contracted a serious disease or illness. Those figures include 7,500 soldiers who have received traumatic brain injuries.

Furthermore, earlier this year, Time magazine reported that one-third of the more than 100,000 Iraq war veterans who have sought treatment at the Veterans Administration after returning to the United States report suffering from battlefield-linked mental illnesses such as post-traumatic-stress disorder. Keep in mind that since all of these numbers are provided by the government, you may want to double or even triple them to get an accurate picture of the damage that’s taking place—and that’s just on our side.

So far, roughly a score of the 3,500 soldiers who’ve been killed during the occupation of Iraq have come from the Sacramento area; the military doesn’t break down the number of injured soldiers by region, but it’s a safe bet our streets will be teeming with shell-shocked vets well into the foreseeable future. If you’re not doing anything to stop this madness, the least you could do is throw Shorty a dime if you run into him. He’s the one who’s screaming “Lock and load!” The ride to the hobo convention is free, but the guy has to eat.