Story of the Swamp Rat

by | Jan 25, 2019

Photo Credit: Valley News

By Bruce Mastracchio

Another bad period of time for losses as two former teammates, fellow coaches, friends and members from somewhere in my circle have left us. Fifteen in last month or so. I went to a wake the other night for one person and when I got there another person I knew was also being waked. I won’t say the obvious, but I will say. Pray for your loved ones. Love the people you love and those who love you and don’t be afraid to show it. I know I am not good at it and it seems, sometimes, when I do try, it is so awkward, I don’t want to try again. But, as I told you in a couple of stories, in 29 years, I never hugged my best pal, Picks. Now, I wish I had. He left and he isn’t coming back.

Enough of the somber stuff! I have a treat for you today. I am sitting at the computer and am doing a new story! Right from scratch! I have the tunes on and I am going to write about one of our town characters here in old East Greenwich, Swamp Rat Jackson (name changed).

I think you will like it. I hope that you like it. Shoot! I know you will like it! Who could make this stuff up? Not me. Though there is a some “stretch” in the tale. (Read the backstory here.)

Swamp Rat Jackson

We had a lot of characters here in Old East Greenwich. There was Cracker, Grumpy, White Rat, Stinky, Plum, Tiny and Drop the Gun to name a few. Oh, and don’t forget, The Baltimore Sport (more on him in another story ).

But, one of the most memorable characters in my mind was a townie named Swamp Rat Jackson.

I don’t know a whole heck of a lot about Swamper’s early childhood. Like most EG kids he most likely attended Eldredge School and later East Greenwich High. I do know he wasn’t much of a student, as those words came from his own mouth.

He dropped out of school and went into the service. Rumor had it that he was a tunnel rat in Viet Nam. That was one hairy, scary job and the smallest, skinniest, most wiry Marines or Army troops were picked for it. They put a rope around you and you crawled into a tunnel dug by the Viet Cong. There was no room to turn around. You went in head first and backed out feet first.

Once in there you were confronted by s-turns, pipe drops, spiders, creepy crawly things and possible booby traps, one of which consisted of putting a poisonous viper into a bamboo pipe and capping it. Then they attached a line to the top of the cap and set it across the tunnel.  When the unsuspecting tunnel rat hit the line and pulled the cap off, a thoroughly pissed off viper came out striking like crazy at anything in its path. The VC also did this with grenades and pungi stakes. They were ingenious.

Anyway, eventually the Swamper’s tour of duty was over and he came home to good, old East G., a haven for many of us. A good place to come home to. He seemed a little addled and always seemed to have a beer or a bottle of wine within arm’s reach.  He set up his ” home ” at the side of the road leading to the town dump.

It was a simple dwelling made up of two packing crates that had held some type of large appliance. His living room was in the front section and his bedroom was in the back. Out front on the dirt porch he had a grill with no legs, steadied by bricks where he cooked whatever fare he could come by.

Swamper scavenged most everything he had from clothes to food to drink. He did some quahaugging,some panhandling, some gambling, some swapping and some stealing. He got a small check from the government I guess. Maybe for whatever ills he came home with from Nam.

What about winters you say? Right. Other than the grill or a small fire there was no real heat in the packing crates. Swamp Rat had a simple solution for that. Every fall when the weather would start to get cold, Old Mr. Jackson would break into a local home. Then he would call the police to report the crime and wait patiently for the local gendarmes to come and arrest him.

He would go before the judge, plead guilty to breaking and entering and be given the standard sentence of six months at the ACI. There Mr. Jackson got three squares a day, a nice bed, a shower and someone to talk to besides the local youth who used to gather at the packing crate “home” to listen to his far out tales.

Swamp Rat was even at the ACI when the East Greenwich Townies semi-pro football team went up there to play the prison squad, a bunch of hard-hitting dudes if there ever were any.

He even yelled down from the third tire pointing out who the cops were on the Townie team to his prison buddies on the striped shirt gridiron squad.

That was the game where one prisoner yelled down asking for the time and Townie end Gino Garibaldi yelled back :

“What do you want to know the time for? You ain’t going nowhere!”

It was also the game that Quakers Littell, who was, incidentally, a cop at the time, ripped off a touchdown run and ran into the granite prison wall knocking himself out while Brian McCormack had perhaps his best game in a Townie uniform with three interceptions, returning them all for TD’s and having them all called back because of penalties.

When spring came, Swamp Rat was usually released from prison to head back to his haunts in EG. Leaving, like coming, was almost like a farewell party. Swamp rat was on a first name basis with the guards, the warden, the cops, the Staties. Most likely, even the judges, who, after a while had to be a party to putting the old veteran away for just the right six months.

You could almost set your clock and calendar on it. The time when Swamp Rat would be back in town. Usually around the first of April. It was no joke though and he came back to his pack rat abode and went right back to business as usual.

But time and the years wait for no one.

Ask yourself a question. Ask it deep down in the depths of your soul where the life you’re living rubs against the dreams you had for yourself. What could you have done? What have you done? Are you where you want to be as the clock ticks and the chances dance a ghostly arm away.

We used to imagine what dreams Swamp Rat may have had for himself. Maybe he was quite a dude in his younger day. Maybe he cut quite a figure in his Army duds. He wore the remnants of his Army gear til the day he died. The fatigue jacket in particular. And the boots. Those same boots, most likely, that pushed his scrawny, skinny body down into those Vietnamese tunnels.

But who really knew. Did we really know the man? Do we really know any man? We kids saw a broken down human being. Who looked terrible and smelled worse, spouting out his booze filled dreams and crazy philosophy on life. He was the butt of jokes and pranks and prattle. It was done because that was what was done. There was no look beyond the façade of the stubbly faced, crazy eyed man who told stories that seemed to come from the moon.

Then there was the day Swamp Rat died. Not any kind of significant day. Just like the man. Not significant.

He died in his beloved package crate home. His heart just stopped.

Someone going to the dump noticed him lying still in his “living room” and called the rescue. The fire boys showed up as did the police. Swamp Rat lay there with a Narragansett bottle leaking liquid inches from his outstretched hand. The Swamper was dead as a doornail.

After Mr. Jackson was carted off the police started to take down the “home” and putting the tangible stuff to one side in case any family showed. The junk and old blankets and stuff they threw off to the side.

Way in the back, in Swamp Rat’s “bedroom” under a corner of the blankets that made up his mattress, they found a box. A one-by-two-foot wooden box.

Curious they opened it up. Here is what they found:

A citation that read:

The President of the United States of America hereby presents to Leonard Samuel Jackson, private, United States Army, The Distinguished Service Cross for Gallantry in Combat …

This was followed by a host of other good words. Next in the box was a  red velvet piece of cloth. When that was lifted the officer found a Silver Star; a Bronze Star; and a Purple Heart.

Who knew? Who knows? God rest ye Swamp Rat. We never even knew your real name (typical East Greenwich). We hope you found good lodging up there. You won’t have to worry about the time. Or cops. Or winter.

Ever again!

Editor’s Note: So there you have it. Basically, a true story from old East Greenwich. The name was changed and I “stretched” a couple of things. But, you get the idea. You never know do you? You never know.

I wrote this story on 6/11/15 in about two hours from scratch. With just the name Swamp Rat Jackson, who I knew by another name, in my head. Put the tunes on. Thought of Old EG and the words just flowed.

Guess I still have “the magic”!

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3 Comments

  1. Mayli-Anne Waterbury

    This was a fabulous read. Keep writin’…

    Reply
  2. Judy Stenberg

    What is the short story equivalent of “poet laureate”? That’s you, Bruce. Keep up the good work of telling us about growing up in East Greenwich before route 95.

    Reply
  3. Karen Kane

    Great story but it makes me feel so sad. He must have been a very brave man. I visited the tunnels in Vietnam about 8 years ago and at the time knew that I would never have been able to do what he did even if I were a lot skinnier. It is incomprehensible to me that someone could go down into those tunnels and not know what they were going to find at the end and do it in so narrow a space. So many medals but nothing to commemorate what a hero this man was who lived unnoticed by most of East Greenwich. Is there any plaque anywhere in town telling a bit of his story?

    Reply

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