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Calendar >  Ramblin’ On To Reno – Thomas Calabrese

Ramblin’ On To Reno – Thomas Calabrese

By   /  September 25, 2021  /  16 Comments


The Walking Marine

Thomas Calabrese –Kirby Cage had more than his share of emotional problems and mental issues. He had been in the Marine Corps for five years and was on his second deployment to Afghanistan. His infantry squad was on Operation Khanjar (Dagger) in July 2009 and were on patrol in the Helmand River valley when they were ambushed by a group of Taliban insurgents.

He was wounded, captured and held for three years in a cave complex in the Hindu Kush mountain range. He was lucky if his captors let him outside for fresh air once a week. He was left for dead when the fortified complex was hit by the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) also known as the ‘Mother of All Bombs’.) It is the most powerful non-nuclear weapon in the American arsenal.

Hundreds of Taliban fighters were killed in the bomb strike, but it also crushed the metal bars that kept Kirby confined in his makeshift cell. The explosion caused him to suffer a (TBI) traumatic brain injury. Crawling and clawing through the rubble and debris, Kirby thought he had exhausted the last remnants of his energy and strength when he saw a patch of blue above him and knew it was the sky. He was found lying unconscious on the ground by a Seal team.

It took Kirby six months to recover from his physical injuries, but mentally and emotionally he remained seriously damaged. He was discharged from Marines, but instead of going home, he ended up on the streets of Oceanside, one of the approximately 12,000 homeless veterans in California.

Rollie Ryerson was a retired Marine Colonel with 26 years of service. He was a widower and living in a two-bedroom condo in a 55 and over community on Misty Lane near the Costco in Vista. He worked part-time for a company that did background investigations on individuals applying for top secret security clearances. During his free time, Rollie volunteered with several veterans outreach programs. He was offering his assistance at the North County Veterans Stand Down at Green Oak Ranch in Vista, when he saw Kirby come in for a haircut, dental work, a hot meal and medical care and recognized the young Marine. Rollie was Kirby’s battalion commander at the time he was captured.

Rollie took a personal interest in helping Kirby and used his investigative skills to find out where his next of kin was residing. Both of the young Marine’s parents were deceased and his only surviving relative was an older sister, Madeline. He called her on the phone and explained the situation.

She responded, “I’m struggling myself, I have two jobs and I’m living paycheck to paycheck. I had a marriage from hell with a man who had conflicting addictions to gambling and alcohol. He didn’t know whether to throw our money away or drink it away. He put me so deeply in debt that I don’t know if I’ll ever get my credit rating above terminal deadbeat,” Madeline’s frustration was increasingly evident in her tone of voice. “I love my brother, but I know how we both are, we’ll be so focused on helping each other that we’ll destroy ourselves. I appreciate the call, and I know you’re trying to help Kirby, which means that you’re probably a good guy, but don’t make me feel more guilty than I already am.  When things gets better, if they ever do, I’ll reconsider my decision. Sorry, but that’s the best I can do.”

Rollie responded, “That’s one of the problems…I don’t know how much time Kirby has.”

He wasn’t going to take no for an answer over the phone, so two days later Rollie drove from Oceanside to Reno to see Madeline’s living situation with his own eyes. His first impression was not favorable.  Madeline was living in a broken down single wide trailer behind a farmhouse with a rusty and dented ten–year-old Nissan Sentra parked in front. It was located in rural Smith Valley, southeast of Reno.

Rollie knocked on the door and Madeline answered it, “I’m Rollie Ryerson, we talked on the phone. I’ve have some experience being around men living on borrowed time…Kirby is one of them. By the time you get around to helping your brother, you might not have one.”

            “You can see for yourself that I wasn’t lying when I told you that I am not in any position to help,” Madeline choked backed her emotions.

Rollie smiled reassuringly, “Sounds like your problem is only financial…nothing else. There’s a way I can help…just give me a chance to prove it. ”

When Rollie got back to Oceanside, he focused on finding Kirby. It took him two days of searching a dozen homeless encampments around the area before he found the former Marine living behind the shopping center located on Oceanside Boulevard near Interstate 5.

Rollie said, “Hey Kirby, I talked to your sister. She sends her love.”

            “Who gave you permission to do that?” Kirby screamed.

            “I just thought she would want to know how you were doing.”

Kirby grumbled, “Look around, I’m doing great, can’t you tell?”

            “Madeline misses you and wants you to come home.”

Kirby was suspicious, “Did she really say that?”

            “Absolutely.. I wouldn’t lie about something like that.”

            “I went up there to visit when I got back from overseas. It wasn’t a good situation,” Kirby was evasive, “Let’s just say it was too complicated for me.”

            “Complicated take a lot of effort,” Rollie smiled, “I’m a point A to point B kind of guy and I rarely take the circular route when I can avoid it. If I could make things simpler for Madeline and you, would you go home? “

            “I don’t know…maybe. Why would you do that?”

            “We’re both former Marines….isn’t that enough?”

Kirby protested, “I don’t like taking charity.”

            “I wasn’t planning on giving any,” Rollie extended his hand and Kirby shook it.

Rollie went to the Veterans Center on Mission Avenue in Oceanside where many military organizations conduct their meetings. He explained Kirby Cage’s situation, and everyone was willing to help in one way or another.  Gary Garrison, Joe Ashcroft and Ron Tuckett of the Veterans Writing Group of North County were especially interested.

            “We’ll put the information on our website if that would help?” Gary offered.

Rollie responded, “Anything would be greatly appreciated.”

Ron added, “We’re always looking for subjects to write about. Maybe you can come in and talk about this Marine.”

            “I can do that too.”

A thought flashed through Joe’s mind, “A walk.”

Rollie asked, “A what?”

            “A walk! Charities routinely have runs, walks and bike rides to raise money. You should do one.”

Rollie grinned, “That’s a great idea!”

With the help of social media and some well-placed advertising, people from over the country started making contributions. Rollie came to realize that the donations were based on the number of miles he would walk and not on a group participation event. The Veterans Writing Group pledged one dollar per mile and there were other donations ranging from a penny to ten dollars per mile.

Gary Garrison asked, “So when do you plan on doing this?”

            “Doing what?” Rollie asked.

            “Walking to Reno,” Ron Tuckett said.

Joe echoed the same sentiment, “That’s what people want. You can’t just walk around a track or up and down the coast. That would be too boring. You need a hook, a beginning, an end…and something going on in the middle…like a story.”

Rollie quipped, “Spoken like a writer.”

The three former veterans helped Rollie figure out the total amount of pledges. Ron was amazed at the total figure, “You’re looking at almost 380,000 dollars. People have really stepped up. You can’t back out now.”

Rollie reassured his companions, “That’s not going to happen.”

            “I’m a travel blogger, been all over this country and most of the world. I haven’t walked it like you’re going to do, but I’d be happy to use my experience to help you set up your itinerary,” Joe offered.

            “Thank you very much, I’ll gladly accept that offer,” Rollie replied.

For lack of a better word, Joe Ashcroft was a maestro when it came to traveling. He orchestrated everything down to the slightest detail. It was agreed that Rollie would walk between 18 and 22 miles per day if all went according to plan. At that rate he would reach his destination in 31 days. As much as Rollie wanted to walk the same distant every day, that could not be done because not every nightly rest stop was equally distant from each other.

Joe also made arrangements for deliveries to the motels a few days before Rollie’s arrival. The products included socks, protein bars and energy drink mixes. Joe was so thorough and efficient that he even researched the menus of various cafes and restaurants along the route so that Rollie would know what meals he wanted, days in advance.

Some of Rollie’s friends and fellow veterans offered to follow along as his support team, but Rollie declined, “No thanks, I might as well enjoy the solitude of this endeavor…I’m only going to do it once.”   

Rollie left Oceanside just after sunrise and walked 20 miles. He could have done more, but wanted to see how his body felt in the morning. He was glad that he didn’t push it because his legs were sorer than he expected. It was a 115 miles to Hesperia and when he got there, he switched from Interstate 15 to Highway 395.  From there, he traveled through Mammoth Lake, Bridgeport and Alpine.

The retired Marine had plenty of time to contemplate how his numerous decisions were like a chain, all connected and leading him to this particular place and time in his life. He had his share of regrets, but on the other hand, he learned more from his mistakes than his accomplishments. Rollie quickly came to realize that seeing things at a slower speed provided an entirely different perspective than driving past them at 70 miles per hour. There were moments that completely overwhelmed him like when he thought about his deceased parents or the Marines that he knew who were killed in combat. Survivor guilt haunted him about why he was here and they weren’t. Rollie was glad that he chose to do this alone, he wouldn’t want anyone to see him this vulnerable and emotional.

At the northern end of the Antelope Valley, where California greets Nevada is Topaz Lake. Rollie was daydreaming, fixated on a billowing cloud formation that reminded him of various animals as it drifted overhead. A car drove up and startled him.

The two occupants of the vehicle were a young man and woman. The young man leaned over, “Excuse me, sir, are you alright?”

Rollie stammered for a moment as he came back to reality, then replied, “Yeah, I’m fine.”

            “Do you need a ride?” The young woman asked.

            “No thank you, but I appreciate the offer. Thanks for taking the time to stop and check on me,”   Rollie smiled, “Where are you headed?”

The young woman smiled proudly, “My husband is a Marine, and we’re on our way to Camp Pendleton.”

            “Left Camp Lejeune three weeks ago, thought we’d see a little bit of the country on the way.” The young Marine repeated the offer, “You sure you don’t want a ride?”

            “No thanks, but thank you for your service and Semper fi.”

Rollie watched the car disappear around the bend and kept walking. Seven hours later, he saw the Topaz Lake Inn, his stop for the night in the distance. He was only 71 miles away from his destination. Rollie heard yelling as he got closer and saw the young Marine in a heated discussion with several men in the parking lot. The young Marine was very unsteady and slurring his words, “Where’s my wife!”

A man tried to calm him down, “We haven’t seen your wife; you came here alone.” 

Rollie saw two men standing off to the side, watching with more than a casual interest.

The man suggested to the young Marine, “Why don’t you go back to your room and rest. If you don’t feel better, I’ll call the paramedics for you.” The man turned to one of them men who was watching, “Why don’t you help this gentleman back to his room.

Rollie checked in at the front desk and the desk clerk said, “We have a package for you, Mr. Ryerson.”

Rollie took his key and the package. He walked passed an open door and saw the young Marine pacing back and forth and mumbling to himself

After night fell, Rollie left his room and discreetly made his way to the young Marine’s room and knocked on the door. The Young Marine opened the door, still visibly upset, confused and very disoriented. He didn’t even recognize Rollie. “Yeah.”

Rollie answered, “We met along the road…you and your wife offered me a ride…remember?”

            “You saw my wife?”

Rollie smiled, “Back there on the highway, but not since then.”

            “I thought I was going crazy…I’ve got the worst headache.”

Rollie asked, “When you got here, did you eat or drink anything?”

The young Marine tried to remember, then it finally came to him, “Yeah, some guy came to our room and gave us a two for one coupon for a diner down the road. He said it had great food. I remember going there and we ordered the barbecue platter for two. It had chicken, steak, hamburger, fish, French fries and salad. After finishing the meal I remember some guy coming up and welcoming us to Topaz Lake. He offered to buy us drinks and I ordered a beer and Robin got a glass of wine.

Rollie guessed, “Let me guess, you both started feeling very tired and thought it was the drive and the big meal…right?”

The young Marine replied, “Yeah, that’s exactly what happened!”

By the time you got back to your room, you could barely keep your eyes open. You and your wife laid down and when you awakened she was gone and you felt like hell.”

            “How did you know?”

Rollie responded, “One of the oldest tricks in the book, you were drugged. Probably a combination of a hallucinogenic and sedative.”

            “So what I do next?” The young Marine asked.

            “What’s your name?”

            ‘Danny Miller, my wife’s name is Robin,” The young Marine answered.

            “I’m Rollie Ryerson…Danny, I know you’re in a hurry to get your wife back, I want to get her back too, but we need to do this wisely.”

            “What’s that mean?”

Rollie explained, “We don’t who we’re dealing with yet. I’m pretty sure that whoever took Robin has got eyes on you to see what you’re going to do.”

            “We should call the FBI then.” Danny blurted out.

            “There’s no way to know how long it will take the FBI agents to get up to speed. You’ll be their primary suspect, so they’ll have to eliminate you first before moving on to other possibilities. To be honest, right now you look very suspicious. In your current mental state you can’t be sure of anything and that’s going be a major red flag to the agents,” Rollie reminded Danny. “Right now we’ve got a small window of opportunity and I don’t want it closing on us.”

            “What are you…some kind of cop?”

Rollie answered, “More like an investigator. I need you to be clear-headed, so drink as much water as you can to flush out your system and get some rest. What’s your cellphone number?”


Rollie put the number into his phone and gave clear instructions, “In the morning, I’m going to call you, so make sure that you charge your phone tonight. At that time I’ll tell you where we’ll meet. Under no circumstances tell anyone that we know each other or that we’re working together. We want the kidnappers to believe that you’re confused and have given up.”

            “While I’m trying to rest and charging my phone, what are you going to do?” Danny asked.

            “Make some calls and come up with a strategy,” Rollie answered.

Danny asked, “Why are you doing this?

            “You offered me a ride when you thought I needed it. Now I ‘m offering my help when you need it…it’s not that complicated. Do like I say and we’ll get Robin back.”

That night, Rollie called his friend, Ben Torres, whose first question was an obvious one, “How’s your walk going? You should be getting close by now.”

Rollie replied, “About seventy-five miles to go. I need a favor, I ran into a problem, actually somebody I know has a very serious problem. Do you still have your contacts with the FBI?”

            “Yeah, what can I do for you?” Ben replied, “Just name it.”

Rollie explained, “I’m at Topaz Lake. I need to know if there has been any disappearances, kidnapping or murders in this area in the last few years.”

            “It sounds bad, do you want me to come out there?” Ben offered.

Rollie declined the offer, “No thanks. Expedite this request, the more Intel I have the better. ”

            “As soon as I get off the phone with you, I’ll be right back on it with someone else.”

            “I’ll see you when I get back,” Rollie promised.

            “Watch your six, I know how you like helping people. Remember, you’re retired, not bulletproof.” Ben reminded his friend.

            “Roger that.”

As the same time, about four miles away in a farmhouse, five men were sitting at a table. The leader of the group said, “If the guy leaves, then he’ll have to explain what happened to his wife.

Another man questioned, “If he doesn’t?”

The leader responded, “If he decides to stay and cause trouble, we’ll kill him and take his body to Lake Tahoe. We’ll make it look like a carjacking gone bad.”

In a room with bars on the window, Robin Miller sat on the floor with three other captive women.

A third man asked, “What about the women…how long are we going to keep them?”

The leader responded, “Four more days before we take ‘em to San Francisco to meet the ship. We’ll get our money at that time then keep a low profile for a couple months before its back to business as usual.”  

Rollie called Madeline and explained the situation. She quickly volunteered to help in any way she could.

            “It could be dangerous,” Rollie warned.

Madeline replied, “I would hope that if I was taken, somebody would make the effort to come after me. I’ll see you in the morning…text me your location.”

When daylight came, Danny Miller made it a point to let people see him leave. The kidnappers watched him depart. One commented with an evil glint in his eye, “I’d almost want to be there when he tries to explain what happened to his wife.”

Rollie watched from his room, then walked over to the desk clerk who was standing outside the office, “I’ll be checking out in a few minutes.”

The desk clerk replied, “Yes sir.”

Just as he was filling his pack with his energy bars and electrolyte drinks, Rollie’s phone rang. It was Ben Torres, “Here’s the numbers, six women have disappeared over a hundred mile radius and four men, who were either their boyfriends or husbands were found dead. Cause of their deaths, was either homicide or suicide.  This has all happened within a 39 month time period. Whoever is behind this is efficient and deadly. You sure you don’t want some back-up.”

Rollie replied, “I’ve got back-up, I just needed to know my rules of engagement. Thanks, Ben.”

Madeline was waiting at the designated location when the two men drove up. Rollie made quick introductions and they went over their plan. Madeline opened the trunk of her car and pulled out two 9mm pistols and several loaded magazines, “These were my father’s. I thought they might come in handy.”

            “Most definitely,” Rollie smiled.

When Madeline arrived at the Topaz Lake Inn, she immediately vented to the desk clerk while she was checking in. She wanted to make sure that he knew that she was a target of opportunity that was too good to pass up. “I didn’t tell anybody I was leaving or where I was going. I just disappeared into thin air. I’m going to just keep driving until I find a place to start the next chapter of my life. Wish me luck.”

The desk clerk replied, “Good luck, here’s the key to your room. If there is anything you need, you let me know.”

Rollie and Danny watched Madeline walked to her room from their concealed position. She nodded in their direction to let them know that the plan was proceeding as designed.

The desk clerk made a call, “We got one that we can’t afford to pass up.”

Two hours later, four men entered Madeline’s cabin by using a pass key. They exited with one of them carrying a large laundry bag over his shoulder.

Rollie reminded Danny, “Don’t lose them.”

            “Not a chance,” Danny vowed.

The kidnappers and the desk clerk were sitting at the table inside the house when the front door burst open. Rollie and Danny stepped in with their guns drawn. Two men reached for their weapons and Rollie shot both of them. A third one attempted to escape and Danny shot him the leg.  The others raised their hands to surrender.

Danny rushed to the back of the house and kicked in the door with the padlock on it. His wife rushed into his arms. Madeline walked over to Rollie and sighed in relief, “I was sure that you would come for me,” and gave him an affectionate hug.

The FBI arrived the next morning and arrested the surviving kidnappers and took Rollie and Danny’s statements. After a one day delay of answering more questions, Rollie continued on his walk and finished what he started. With the money that was pledged and the reward money for the kidnapped women, Rollie was able to give Madeline and Kirby Cage 626,000 dollars to get their lives back together.

Madeline only agreed to take the money on one condition, “I know where I can get a piece of property to build a place for Kirby and me, with a small guest cottage. That guest cottage is yours and unless you promise to visit, I won’t accept a penny.”

Rollie smiled, “I’ll take that deal in a heartbeat.”

Two weeks later, Rollie Ryerson was on Camp Pendleton with 1st Reconnaissance Battalion Commander, Lt Colonel. Steve Curtis. A group of Marines were training and Lt. Col. Curtis called out, “Sergeant Miller!”

Danny ran over and was confused to see Rollie standing there. “Yes sir.”

Lt. Col. Curtis said, “Colonel Ryerson wanted to tell me personally how you handled yourself with honor, courage and professionalism despite the emotional turmoil you were going through.”

            “I didn’t do anything that any other Marine wouldn’t have done if they were in the same situation,” Danny said humbly and turned to Rollie, “Sir, you should have told me that you were a Marine.”

Rollie smiled, “It’s not what we say we are that matters, it’s what we do that defines us. Give my regards to your wife,” and turned to walk away.

            “Can’t do that, sir.”

Rollie looked back, slightly confused, “Why is that?”

            “Because you’ll have to do that yourself when you come over for dinner,” Sergeant Miller smiled.

The retired Marine’s friends affectionately nicknamed him, The Walking Marine after his latest adventure. Rollie just shrugged it off and replied that he was just Ramblin’ On to Reno, when he heard the familiar call of duty echoing through the canyons and along the backroads of his memories. This was a call that Colonel Rollie Ryerson always answered.   

The End

Work of fiction. Names, characters, business, events and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance

The Veterans Writing Group of San Diego County invites all writers to join us at our monthly meetings. Veterans and Non-Veterans are equally welcome. For more information go to our website: www.veteranswritinggroup.org


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  1. Clyde says:

    This was a good story about family, the brotherhood in the military and the biological family and how they look out for each other. It was well developed and very interesting.

  2. David says:

    Good morning Tom,
    Every time I read a story or hear about MOAB I always smile. I don’t know who named it, but I think that was around the time of Bush. Mother of all bombs .I love reading military stuff basically I have a background in guns, silencers ,grenades etc. I just wanted to tell you I enjoy reading your articles. It’s better than getting some piece of garbage newspaper that tells lies.

  3. Bill says:

    Great story Tom, I ramble out of Reno everyday to the the quietnesses of VC Highlands.

  4. Bill says:

    Great story Tom, I ramble out of Reno everyday to the quietness of VC Highlands.

  5. wolf says:

    Another good story by Tom. The way the story was progressing I did not anticipate the kidnapping.

    The charity walks and runs are a great way to raise $$ for veteran causes.

    DAV 5k, Memorial DAY 5K, VETERANS 5k, USO 5K,HEROES IN RECOVERY 6K, EOD WARRIORS 5K are a few of the local area fund raising events.
    Unfortunately Covid has put many of these events on hold

  6. johnsmichels says:

    Interesting story with plenty of twists

  7. Tony says:

    Great story by Mr. Calabrese, the need for humanity and helping each other rather then just giving someone a few dollars and sending them on their way. This Marine went the extra mile and that is important in life he was able to save a human being that needed a hand up and not really a hand out.
    Justice was served in MR. Calabrese’ story and good prevailed over the evil. Not always easy but doable. Thank you for a interesting story that plagues our society today. I for one wish these problems could be addressed and resolved in a quick and efficient manner.

  8. Robert says:

    Another enjoyable Sunday morning story. Thanks for excluding me, always enjoy your stories.

  9. Tom says:

    Another home run, Tom. Very nicely done, my friend!

  10. Bart says:

    Another good one.

  11. Cary says:

    I really enjoyed the story…well put together.

  12. Elaine says:

    Ugh, Topaz Lake! MOSQUITO CAPITAL of the WORLD if you’re there at the wrong time of year. Good story.

  13. Jeremy says:

    I’m a regular Sunday reader and this latest story did not disappoint.

  14. Steve says:

    I enjoyed the story…thanks.

  15. Janet says:

    Thanks for another good story.

  16. Joe says:

    A truly enjoyable story, and thanks for acknowledging the North County Stand Down and the Veterans Writing Group. Keep it up.

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