Still fighting a nameless war, with pride

  • Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A.M. Sheehan/Journal Scene Joe McAlister trudges along Route 78 toward home Sunday. He is a familiar sight along that road.


Most who have traveled down Route 78 toward North Charleston have seen him.

He is either riding or walking his bike, with a large basket on the front, decorated lavishly with flags, neckties, stuffed animals and other detritus of life.

The basket contains crushed beer cans.

Friendly and happy to talk, 64-year-old Joe McAlister, a Vietnam veteran, opens his home with a welcoming smile and wave.

His home is made of pieces of cardboard, a double mattress that functions as a wind-proof wall, plastic garbage bags taped over gaps and a bright blue tarp that is the roof. It is decorated with wind chimes, what appears to be a wig of black hair, an American flag and odd pieces of particleboard and plywood.

“I went in in ’67 and got out in ’71,” he says of fighting in Vietnam. He served two tours. “I lost my hearing in that war, got shot here and here,” indicating his neck and thigh. “I’m disabled and they put me on temporary disability but then they cut me off.”

It’s difficult to communicate with Joe partly because of his hearing difficulties, partly because of his loss of teeth, which makes certain letters and sounds come out completely foreign and, partly, because the beer he is drinking is probably not his first of the day.

“I’m an alcoholic,” he says gesturing with his large can of Icehouse.

He has stopped at the gas station across the street on the way home to get the single can of beer.

He spends a lot of time walking, he says, to keep in shape.

“I was getting food stamps but got cut off from that too…they just help people who don’t need no help.” He shakes his head.

He says he has to go back to the Social Security Administration on Feb. 26 but he’s not sure what today’s date is or when the 26th is.

He says it is a daily struggle to get any official help.

“How do you eat?”

“People drop stuff off,” he responds, pointing to a loaf of bread sitting on top of a container that looks like it might be a pie of some sort or perhaps a ready-made meal, tucked at the corner of his “house.”

There is no sign of a campfire suggesting he doesn’t get to eat hot food.

“I take my life one day at a time.”

What is so remarkable about McAlister’s home is that it is meticulously “landscaped,” clean and obviously cared for.

A “walkway” has been created, with long pieces of tree branches, carefully raked, and decorated with some hubcaps, a colander, a spatula, a dustpan and brush. A trophy sits at a joint in the walkway. He has a “patio” paved with cardboard beer cases, overlapped. On top are a few carpet swatches.

There are two comfortable lawn chairs and one rattan-seated high kitchen bar chair.

He is pleased to have visitors and he enjoys company but doesn’t get much and it gets lonely.

Behind the structure are neatly stacked piles of garbage, carefully contained in plastic trash bags.

“What do you do about a bathroom?”

He motions towards the woods, then points to a bucket in which, he says, he does what doesn’t belong in the bushes, and then he buries it and cleans out the bucket.

The area smells fresh, and Joe leans over and removes two errant leaves that have had the temerity to drift onto his “patio.”

“I work hard on this place.” And it shows. There is pride in his decoration of both his bike and his home.

“I used to be a landscaper, ya know.”

Joe says he’s originally from Greenville but questions about getting veteran’s benefits fizzle away with a lack of understanding on both sides.

He would, he says, like a propane heater. “I about froze in there!” he points to his house, referring to the recent storm, “I just got a blanket.”

Joe goes back behind his house and pulls out a garden rake. He begins to rake the pristine walkway and tidy up around him, before sitting down and enjoying the rest of his beer.

He waves farewell.

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