Big Tree: His Bite was Worse than His Bark

posted Aug 11, 2020, 3:47 PM by Bruce Rowe   [ updated Aug 11, 2020, 3:59 PM ]

Steve Forrest was a roustabout who bounced around the Gulf of Mexico. After leaving Tupelo, Mississippi as a restless 17-year-old boy in search of adventure, he ended up in New Orleans. After working at several low-paying jobs along Bourbon Street for a few months, he applied for work on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. Steve started off as a roughneck then worked his way up to derrick-hand, motor-hand, and tool-pusher. It was hard work, with 12 to 14 hours days. When Steve and his coworkers were off shift they liked to cut loose.

After 14 days on the rig, he was partying in Las Vegas with a few of them when he met Ellie Blake, a former dealer and casino hostess. After a ten-day, whirlwind romance—when neither one of them was sober—they married at the Graceland Chapel on the Strip. Ellie was a tall, attractive brunette with her own issues, including alcohol, drug use, and a history of failed relationships. Upon the couple’s return to Louisiana, Ellie quickly became bored with her life of being alone while Steve worked in the Gulf. It didn’t take long before she became a regular patron in the clubs on Bourbon Street. When Steve returned after 14 exhausting days on the oil rig, she would be eager to go right back out again. “Let’s go dancing.”

“Let me get a little rest first,” Steve responded through half-mast eyes.

Ellie lied to her husband to make him feel guilty, “I’ve been sitting in this apartment while you’ve been gone and now you want to sleep? This is not the life you promised me.”

Steve sighed. “Give me a few minutes to clean up and then we can go out.”

This routine began to take a toll on him, so he started telling her he was working an extra three days on the rig. But instead of coming back to the apartment, he went to a hotel to rest. As the separations grew longer and more consistent, Ellie returned to Las Vegas and stayed there for weeks at a time, returning to New Orleans for only a few days a month. The Forrest marriage struggled to survive under these circumstances. She was spending her husband’s pay as quickly as he was earning it. He had no other choice but to take drastic measures. He asked his employer to do a direct deposit for half of his wages into a separate checking account that his wife couldn’t access. Then he could pay the rent and other bills.

When Ellie saw the significant reduction in her monthly income, she went back to New Orleans to convince Steve to change it back. She was devious, manipulative, and on her best behavior. After two weeks of being the dutiful and attentive wife, she said, “I’m having trouble paying my expenses with the money I’m getting.”

Steve responded calmly, “I thought it would be easier for you if I paid the bills.”

“I can handle it from now on. I just got a little distracted for a while, but I’m fine now.”

“I like it the way things are. It’s a lot less stressful on me.”

“And the credit cards, what about those?” Ellie asked angrily. “You closed all of them!”

“They were reaching their limits. Have you ever considered that you might have a spending problem?”

“I do not!” She screamed and threw a vase at Steve. Missing his head by less than an inch, it shattered against the wall.

“Things aren’t working between us. They haven’t been good for a while. Maybe we were never right for each other or maybe we just changed somewhere along the line. I don’t want to be married anymore and neither do you. We’re just burning daylight.”

“So you’re just going to throw me out?”

“That’s not my style. I’m giving you money each month already. I’ll add another 500 dollars to help you out. I’ll continue that for one more year and also keep you on my medical insurance. You have that much time to file for divorce. If you don’t, then I will.

When she realized Steve was serious, she quickly calmed down. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m more to blame than you. I’m going to stay at a friend’s place tonight, I have to be at the rig in the morning. Take whatever you want. Good luck Ellie. I hope you find what you’re looking for.”

He grabbed his duffle bag and left. After the door closed behind him, Ellie broke down in tears.

*  *  *

Over the next few months, Steve thought often about his former wife. Like many memories, he was very selective about what he chose to remember; her spontaneity, bright engaging smile, and playfulness. He chose to ignore her irrational behavior, excessiveness, unpredictability, and explosive temper. Seven months after his wife’s departure, Steve received the paperwork from a Las Vegas attorney concerning an uncontested divorce. He went to a notary public, then signed them and dropped the large envelope into the mail slot at the post office. He truly wished his former wife a happy life.

Eleven months later. he was almost through his regular 14-day shift on the Thunder Horse oil platform when a pressure regulator malfunctioned. Eight workers, including Steve, were blown off the 75-foot platform into the Gulf of Mexico. Six of the workers were seriously injured.

When Steve arrived at his small blue and yellow house with the white shutters in the Marigny Triangle neighborhood of New Orleans, he limped to the front door from his driveway. His next door neighbor, Martha Robichaux approached him. “How was work?”

“The usual. Thanks for asking. How about you?”

“Good. All the appointments have been completed and there’s no problems. The receipts and your mail are in the usual place. I’ll stop by later.”

Martha Robichaux was a 42-year-old divorced woman who operated a day care center out of her home. She often had children throughout the day and sometimes into the night, depending on the parents’ work schedule. Good-hearted and hard-working, Steve was paying Martha 500 dollars per month to look after his house and handle things in his absence. It was well worth the price. In fact, he intended to double the amount once he stopped paying his former wife.

“Oh, by the way, a young woman came by a couple of days ago looking for you,” Martha said.

“Did she say what she wanted?”

“No. I told her what day you’d be back and she said she’d return.”

Steve went into the kitchen and got himself two cold bottles of beer, he guzzled one right down to quench his thirst. He went into the bathroom, turned on the Jacuzzi tub, and when it was filled, slowly slipped into the water. From neck to ankles, his body was bruised from the impact of the fall. He turned on some Christopher Tin music and sipped on the other beer. Later that night, he was sitting on the couch when he heard a tap at the back screen door. He looked over and saw Martha. “C’mon in.”

Martha walked in, carrying a large plate of food, “I thought you might be hungry. I’ve got roast turkey, gravy, mash potatoes, broccoli, and pecan pie.”

Steve’s face broke out in a big smile. ”You’re too good to me!” Martha set the tray down on the coffee table. He asked, “You don’t have any kids tonight?”

“I’ve got a three-hour break. One of my clients is working the night shift, she’s going to drop off her daughter about eleven.” Martha noticed the bruising on Steve’s legs and arms. “Are you alright?”

“I slipped on some oil,” he lied. “Want to keep me company for a while?”

“Don’t mind if I do,” Martha plopped down in the overstuffed recliner and sighed in relief. “I love this chair. What are you watching?”

“The Andy Griffith Show. My friend Greg Nielsen tells me I remind him a lot of Barney Fife.”

Steve was a thickly muscled six-foot-three. After years of hard manual labor, he bore no resemblance to the wiry actor, Don Knotts, who played Fife. she took a closer look at the television screen and joked, “I can see a vague resemblance, but you’re more frail- looking and accident prone.”

While Steve ate his dinner, Martha dozed in the chair. There was a knock at the front door. When he opened it, a young woman holding a baby stood before him.

“Can I help you?”

The woman was visibly nervous and took a few seconds to compose herself. “I’m Ellie’s sister, my name is Kristin. I came by a couple days ago.”

“Please come in.”

Martha awakened and stood up. “Good to see you again.”

“This is Ellie’s sister, Kristin.”

“I’m Martha Robichaux. I’m sure you two have things to discuss. I’ll talk to you later, Steve.”

“Don’t go,” Steve blurted out.

“It might be better if you stayed,” Kristen said.

“Why don’t you sit here?” he gestured to the couch. Kristin sat down, laying the baby next to her.

Steve and Martha sat down, waiting patiently for Kristin to speak. She cleared her throat then began, her voice barely above a whisper.

“I’ve rehearsed what I was going to say a bunch of times on the flight down here. If you would be kind enough to let me get through it before you ask any questions, I’d appreciate it.”

“Yes ma’am,” he answered.

“Ellie passed away six weeks ago.”

Steve was dumfounded but did not speak. Kristin continued. “When she found out she was pregnant, she realized she couldn’t just live for herself anymore and swore to be the best mother she could be. Ellie wanted to prove to everybody, especially you, that she was capable. Unfortunately that didn’t happen.”

Kristin spoke for ten minutes, breaking down in tears along the way and telling Steve and Martha that Ellie’s cause of death was from an amniotic fluid embolism. “My father and mother said we should put the baby up for adoption and not even tell you about him. I disagreed. I thought I owed Ellie that much and figured you deserved the right to know.”

“I wasn’t much of a husband and can’t imagine myself being a decent father.”

“That’s all I needed to know,” Kristin replied and got up to leave.

“Whoa! I know this is none of my business, but I need to say something,” Martha said.

“Yeah, go ahead,” Steve said.

“I know Steve appreciates you coming down here.”

“I definitely do.”

“But this is not a decision that should be made in minutes. To find out that your former wife died and you’re a father all within a few minutes is a lot for anybody to take in.”

“Maybe I should have done things differently. I don’t know,” Kristin snapped back. “I thought you would want to see your son instead of me just calling you on the phone! I’ve got a part-time job and am trying to go to school. I used my savings for the flight, hotel, and rent a car. I just can’t stay in New Orleans any longer!”

Martha put a consoling hand on Kristin’s shoulder. “You shouldn’t have to bear the financial burden as well as the emotional one of losing your sister. Steve?”

“Yeah.”

“You need to step up and pay for her expenses. Kristin?”

“Yes.”

“You need to go to the hotel, get your stuff and move in here. There’s a nice guest room with a private bathroom and I’m right next door if either one of you need anything. Steve, you’ve got about two weeks before you go back out.” She turned to Kristin. “Can you stay that long?”

“I haven’t thought that far ahead, but I guess I could if I don’t have any expenses.”

“Since we’re all in agreement, let’s get rolling!”

Steve looked at Kristin and smiled, “When it comes to kids and being organized, there is nobody better than Martha Robichaux.”

“You can leave the…what’s the baby’s name?”

“His name is Chad.”

Steve was caught off-guard once again. “That was my older brother’s name. He was killed serving in the Marine Corps.”

“That’s what Ellie said, she knew how much you loved him and knew you would approve of the name.”

“Excuse me, I need to use the bathroom,” Steve rushed off, closed the door behind him and broke down in tears.

Over the next seven days, Martha noticed how much Kristin liked children when she visited her day care center. While eating dinner one night, Steve made a comment, “I never hear that baby cry. Is that normal?”

“It is kind of unusual.”

“He just makes a few gurgles to let you know that he’s hungry or needs his diaper changed.”

“Do you have much to go back to in Idaho?”

“Some family,” Kristin replied.

“I can tell you’ve got a gift with kids. I was going to ask if you wanted to work with me. I can expand my business, take in a few more clients and also get a little more rest.”

“You can stay here rent free and I’ll even pay you to help me raise Chad,” Steve said without even thinking what he was saying.

“Does that mean you’re going to take him?”

“If you’re staying, it does.”

Martha interjected, “Two salaries and no expenses…sounds like a pretty good deal to me.”

Steve doubled what he was paying Martha and also gave Kristin a thousand dollars a month. It was never about the money with him. When he was off work, he was content to stay home with Chad, Kristin, and Martha. What Steve didn’t realize was that the first step in being a good father was to be a good man, and he definitely qualified in that category. Over the next three years Steve was promoted twice and was now a drilling supervisor making an excellent salary. He tripled his life insurance and made Chad, Martha, and Kristin equal beneficiaries. He also made Martha the trustee of his estate in case something happened to him. He’d never thought about any of this stuff before, but now he was more concerned for those around him than for himself.

Another thing completely caught him off guard; he was falling in love with Kristin. Being so close to her without being romantically involved gave him a chance to learn about his sister-in-law without any pressure or expectations. By the time Chad entered grade school, Steve was hopelessly in love with her. He did his best not to show it, but couldn’t hide it from Martha or his son.

“How long are you going to do this?” Martha asked impatiently.

“Do what?” Steve shrugged.

“Not tell her that you love her.” Martha stormed out of the room.

*  *  *

It was a quiet night at the Forrest home. Steve sat in the living room, sipping on a beer. Kristin walked in, sat across from him, and started eating a sandwich. Maybe it was the way the afternoon sunlight framed her face or the angle from which he looked at her, but Kristin never looked more beautiful. To Steve, it was a mesmerizing, breathtaking sight. He finally had to say what was in his heart. “I’m in love with you.”

For a moment, Kristin kept eating as if she didn’t hear the words. Finally finished, she casually got up, walked over to where Steve was sitting, sat down on his lap, and passionately kissed him on the lips. Chad was watching from the hallway and smiled. “Finally.”

A year later, they were married. Building their life together, one of their first discussions was Steve’s future with the oil company.

“I’ve been giving some thought to getting off the drilling crew,” he said.

“Is that what you want?”

“The company is offering a training program for men with my experience to become safety inspectors. It’s a raise in pay and less time away. I’ll need to work on my writing skills, but I’d like to give it a shot.”

“I’m kind of a good writer. Maybe I could help you.”

He smiled back at his new bride. “I sure would appreciate it.”

*  *  *

Chad was undersized for his age. After a thorough examination of the young boy, the doctor discussed the results with Steve and Kristin.

“Chad is completely healthy. Sometimes height skips a generation. It’s also possible that he’ll get a growth spurt during his adolescent years.” 

Steve also began to notice how coordinated and athletic his son was. He could tumble and do back flips and front flips by the time he was four. As a six-year-old, he could jump to the top of the picnic table in the backyard and follow it up with a handstand. Pull-ups were a cinch and he climbed trees like a cat, swinging from limb to limb.

Chad retained the same temperament he had as a baby; very easy-going and content to entertain himself with a variety of activities. During his freshman year in high school, he began competing against and beating upperclassmen in all sorts of pick-up games. As a sophomore, he started at running back on the football team, with rare quickness and elusiveness. He could run at full speed, stop on a dime, do a 360 degree turn then continue on without missing a step. As a basketball point guard, he made unbelievable passes from anywhere on the court to his teammates, and drove past defenders on the court like they were standing still. And though he stood only 5-foot-5, he could dunk the ball.

He was the leadoff hitter and starting shortstop for the baseball team. He would work a walk, then steal second, third, and home. His play on defensive left the opposition in dismay. He also was a wrestler and state champion in the 100-yard dash.

Chad enjoyed the competition—even the process of getting better and honing his skills—and was at his best during the most crucial times. What he didn’t care for were the accolades and awards. When the competition was over, it was over. Win or lose (which wasn’t that often) he left it on the field. Steve and Chad were more than just father and son. They were best friends who enjoyed each other’s company.

In his new job as chief inspector, Steve moved up quickly with the Shell Corporation and was now making a high six-figure income. Despite his success, he never forgot what Martha did for him when he was just a struggling roughneck. Despite her initial objections, Steve convinced her to let him pay to have her home completely renovated. He also increased her monthly stipend so she could retire and enjoy life. Martha began dating a retired Homeland Security Official and they traveled extensively. Kristin wasn’t one to sit at home and not do her part, so she volunteered three days a weeks at the Veterans Center, helping former military personnel fill out paperwork for their benefits. Steve got Chad a summer job at the Shell equipment storage lot. He told his son, although he knew he didn’t have to, “I got you the job, it’s up to you to keep it.”

“Yes sir.”

Chad approached his assigned duties with the same focus and determination as his athletic endeavors. When Robert Duleson, the superintendent of the storage lot saw Steve at the regional office, he rushed over.

“Chad is one hell of a worker…wouldn’t mind having a few dozen like him!”

Steve responded with pride, “He’s one of a kind…I sure got lucky with him.” 

A group of Shell Oil executives including Steve were heading to East Africa for a series of meetings and inspections of the company’s oil rigs in the Indian Ocean. Since they were going to be in Mombasa, Kenya for two weeks, the company allowed them to bring their families. The company booked 40 suites and the conference room at the Voyager Beach Resort. Steve contacted Emily Garner, the travel secretary of Shell Corporation.

“Do you think you can get me a good deal on another suite.”

“Another family member?” Emily asked.

“A very close friend who’s like family, and her companion. I’ve already got permission from the regional director for them to travel on the company jet.”

“The Voyager is giving us the corporate rate. They always break down the charges by room. I’ll book an extra suite and when we get the bill, you can reimburse us.”

“Thanks, I appreciate it.”

*  *  *

The Shell company jet landed in Mombasa, the second largest city in Kenya and famous for its beaches and world-class resorts. When they arrived at the Voyager, Chad was the first to speak up. “This is really nice. Thanks for bringing me, dad.”

“You’re welcome. I’ve got work to do while I’m here, but I want everybody to enjoy themselves. I’ll join you every chance I get.”

The oil company scheduled many of their business functions in the mornings so that everyone could have afternoons and evenings to spend with their families.

But on their fifth day in the country, Steve and seven of his co-workers were coming back by boat from one of the oil platforms when they were intercepted by three vessels occupied by armed terrorists. Arriving at a small island, they were kept under guard. The ransom demand was $10 million and the release of 100 political prisoners. If the time limit was not met, the terrorists would begin executing hostages.

Kenyan and American authorities disputed jurisdiction and how to handle the situation. Rather than wait for a resolution, Shell engaged a secret paramilitary agency.

The terrorists could see anyone approaching from the water and were prepared for a helicopter assault. What the terrorists weren’t ready for was a high-altitude insertion. A stealth helicopter hovered 1500 feet above the island, undetected in the early morning hours. Twenty highly trained operatives fast-roped the entire distance to the ground. Their only weapons were CO2 air pistols with three-inch darts and knives of choice. Wearing jet black outfits and dark face paint, they moved among the terrorists like a deadly plague. By the time sunlight hit the island, every terrorist was dead.

Back at Voyager Resort, the conference room turned command center held families and employees. Along with Kenyan and American officials, they waited impatiently for any word on an upcoming rescue. Chad turned to his mother and Martha, “I’m going to take a walk. I won’t be long.”

While walking through the grounds, he came upon an open field. Looking up, he saw a helicopter descending so he backed away and watched it touch ground. A group of men in camouflaged uniforms stepped out, followed by the hostages, including Steve Forrest. The hostages shook hands with their rescuers, expressing their gratitude. As Chad walked up, the leader of the operatives reached into his uniform, pulled out a folded piece of cloth, and handed it to him. The operatives boarded the helicopters and disappeared into the East African skies.

Chad embraced his father, ecstatic at his safe return. Steve asked, “What did he give you?”

Chad unfolded the cloth and found it was a small flag with an image of a jousting knight in the center. Above it in large letters was the word Galahad and at the bottom in smaller print was the motto, To Go Where Others Won’t Or Can’t.

*  *  *

Fifteen years later, Chad was a seasoned military veteran after completing four combat tours as a Force Recon Marine. During his enlistment, he continued to hear stories about the mysterious paramilitary group. After his discharge, he made discreet inquiries on how to join. He received a call one night, “If you’re interested in Galahad, then write this down…”

Chad grabbed a pen and a pad. “Go.”

“48910 Murrieta Hot Springs Road, Murrieta, California. Be at that location one week from today at 0900. A pre-paid ticket is waiting for you at American Airlines, reservations are in your name at Avis rent-a-car and Pechanga Resort and Casino. Bring gear for a workout. If you’re late, don’t come at all.”

“Roger that,” Chad said.

A group of special operatives interviewed Chad, followed by an extremely difficult physical fitness test and obstacle course that took two days to complete. He was accepted into the ultra-elite agency on a six-month probation. Once that was finished, he became a regular team member.

Galahad fell under the umbrella of the Mighty Sequoia charitable foundation whose mission was to help struggling veterans reintegrate back into civilian life. It offered a variety of recovery programs to our nation’s warriors. Both organizations were generously funded by three multibillionaire American patriots who swore that the debacle of Benghazi, when Americans were left to die because of bureaucracy and incompetency, would never be repeated under their watch. After distinguishing himself in action, Chad—call sign “Big Tree”—Forrest was given command of his own team called the “Branches.”

A church group was doing charity work in East Africa when a dozen of them were kidnapped. He had been in South America, Asia, and Europe on various missions, but this would be the first time since he was a teenager that he would be returning to Kenya. One of his unbreakable rules was to never go on a mission without the flag given to him on that fateful day when his father was safely returned. That moment shaped Chad’s life and set him on this chosen path.

Standing with his team on a metal platform, they were lifted from the deck of the freighter and lowered to the Indian Ocean by a large crane. They entered the water with buoyancy packs holding tactical gear, weapons, and explosives. The ten men began swimming, pulling their gear behind them. When the Branches got within 300 yards of shore, they decreased the air in the packs so they sank just below the surface and could not be seen by shore. When they touched shore, Chad radioed, “Big Tree and Branches on shore…proceeding to objective.”

Every man pulled out a battlefield display unit from his pack and attached it to his forearm with Velcro. The 2- by 4-inch screen allowed each man to view surveillance in real time. Changing into their tactical gear, they moved out. As they approached their objective, they planted explosive devices along their path.

When they reached a three-story building, two team members neutralized the guards with accurate shots. Chad looped a long rope over his neck and began climbing up the side of the structure using special adhesive gloves. When he reached the patio, he quietly stepped over the railing and shot two guards using his M9 pistol with a noise suppressor. 

With no time to explain anything to the hostages, he stated simply, “We’re getting out of here.” Chad slipped a harness over a hostage, pulled it snug, looped his rope through the belay plate, and connected it to the harness. One by one he lowered them to his team below. He was about ready to rappel to the ground when he heard a door open. When a guard entered, he put his hand over the man’s mouth and drove a nine inch ice pick into his heart. While he was in the structure, his team set detonation charges around the building. It took Chad only two leaps to touch ground once he went over the railing. “Let’s go.”

The team and hostages had only gone a couple hundred yards when an alarm sounded. He ordered his second in command, “Get the hostages out!”

“Roger that,” the man replied and left with half the team and the hostages.

Chad and the others stayed behind to slow down the pursuit. Once the hostages were on the beach, each one was fitted with a small nylon vest with a locking carabiner built into it. A helicopter came swooping in, ten feet off the ground with matching carabiners on dangling ropes beneath it. The team snapped the carabiners together and waved off the pilot. In less than a minute the task was complete and the hostages were gone. When Chad saw the helicopter, he knew it was time to escape. Everybody began popping smoke grenades to obscure visibility. Once the team hit the water, Chad called out, “Let’s swim!”

The team swam a hundred yards offshore. Chad stopped and began treading water. He pulled out the detonator and blew the area to smithereens with two dozen powerful explosions. Reaching the freighter after their long swim, the support team had energy drinks and protein bars waiting for them. Ten minutes later, the team and hostages were on the helicopter and headed to shore.

Touching down, the team exited the chopper first and shook hands with the hostages. One young boy rushed up to his father and embraced him. Before Chad got back on the helicopter, he handed a Galahad flag to him. The helicopter ascended, heading for the airport and the team’s return to California.

Chad Forrest was born and bred to stand strong, tall, and righteous. Those who use their power for nefarious purposes have every reason to tremble in fear, because when the Big Tree comes for them, his bite will be worse than his bark.

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