Robert Hardin usually has a big smile on his face, especially when he talks about the sky. The Army veteran, who lives in a camp with several other vets, has three telescopes, reads "Star Trek" novels as he sits beside the fire pit, and dreams of a day when he'll have "a nice little apartment with a view of the stars." His eyes twinkled as he looked at Gazette photographer Jerilee Bennett's long camera lenses; "I'd really like those, think what I could see with them! Wanta leave them here?"
His father was a 29-year military man, he said, who ridiculed him for serving a measly three-year tour. Instead, Hardin went into high tech where "there were layoffs and changes and I went from the clean room to the fork lift. It was bull shit." For a time he worked maintenance at a college on the Western Slope where he felt needed because he could fix anything.
After his dad was killed in a car wreck, his mother told him to come back to Colorado Springs but now she wants him to stay away because of his drinking, he said. He tried Alcoholics Anonymous, thing but is stuck on Step 3 of the 12 steps. "I'll be straight up. I am an alcoholic," Hardin said, looking at the "hooch fire" manned by Vietnam vet Kenny, the camp's self-proclaimed "mayor."
Near the centerpiece of their camp, a large wooden cross -- or, if you're so inclined, "a lower case t" -- Hardin and Kenny listened to Rush Limbaugh on the radio. "He's like the enemy," Hardin said, "and you have to be intelligent enough to know your enemies."
Some days the guys go to the Marian House for lunch, to check for mail or receive messages, and then head over to Ecumenical Social Ministries for showers, shaves and haircuts.
Other times young women from a northwest Bible college or some friends with "a place" let them "S.S.S.: s---, shower and shave." The first S is a little easier now that "some dude showed up with a porta potty."
"The VA helps," he said, by checking in with them bringing in food and the paperwork to get veterans benefits. "And the VA wants me to get off the sauce."
An idyllic life sitting beside the stream? Hardin turned away, his eyes sad, his head pounding from the night -- or maybe just minutes -- before. "See that mess over there? The fellow in that tent accidentally set it on fire. There are some crazy nuts running around. They attack. This big stick is my new dummy stick, to protect myself against those dummies."
He's a little sorry to see his media visitors leave, he admits. He liked the company and the conversation. He hesitates before shaking hands goodbye. "My hands are dirty," he says apologetically.