HESPERIA • After serving his country on the battlefield in Vietnam, Marine veteran David William Thompson, 59, died in an empty field in Hesperia earlier this year.
“They found his body near the Mariott hotel, over by the freeway, on 7th,” said Terri Bluth, who befriended Thompson about 15 years ago. “I met him a long time ago, when he lived in a field near Live Oak Park. We’ve been friends ever since.”
Bluth, who lives in a home near I Avenue in Hesperia, said Thompson had been “very ill” leading up to the Christmas holiday and refused medical treatment even after a family member offered to take him to the hospital.
The night before Memorial Day, Bluth visited my church and brought word of Thompson’s death. Though it was terrible news, it also brought bit of closure and relief into my life. After I became friends with Thompson in 2010, my biggest fear was that David would die alone and unrecognized for his service to our country.
“Dave was buried at Riverside National Cemetery and they gave him a 21-gun salute,” Bluth said. “I was so glad that they remembered him that way. David was a kind man and I miss him so much.”
The veteran lived in various open fields between I Avenue and the railroad tracks, but mainly near Live Oak Park. Shade and water were available there in the summer, and he could buy alcohol or food at a nearby liquor store whenever he scrounged up enough money.
With his eyes half-closed, wearing a dirty ball cap and worn out jeans, Thompson first approached me in front of my church and tried to bum some change off me.
“You’re probably going to tell me to go to hell,” Thompson said in a gravely voice as I tried to get out of my vehicle. “Go ahead, say it. I’m ready.”
As I pulled a dollar out of my pocket, I handed it to Thompson and asked him to come inside my church so that he could tell me his story. After that conversation, Thompson would pop into church, sometimes sober and sometimes drunk, to share bits and pieces of his life story.
During those conversations, Thompson revealed that he’d been married and divorced twice, and his path to homelessness came when he turned to “dope and the booze” after going through two surgeries and failing to find a job.
David also told me that he was a sharpshooter in the Marine Corps and that he also had some medical training, a skill that was demonstrated several times when he would care for his friends who lived alongside him.
“Vietnam was nasty and I’ve seen some nasty things during my time,” Thompson said. “I used to do drugs, but I haven’t touched any in 20 years, and that’s the truth. But I am an alcoholic.”
One afternoon, Thompson took me aside and explained what homelessness was like in various parts of the Victor Valley.
Thompson told me that there were “four types of homeless people in the world.” He said a small portion of the people on the streets are homeless families “down on their luck because of the economy.”
Thompson said the other categories of homeless include those with “mental problems” and those suffering with some kind of addiction, like drugs or alcohol.
“I fall into the addiction category, but I’m also part of the fourth class — those who just don’t want to be bothered by anyone,” he said. “I could stay with Terri (Bluth) or with my brother, but when I get drunk I can be a jerk. I like living alone out in the desert. I live in a field and I’ll die in a field.”
Thompson said he appreciated the efforts of so many organizations that offered food, shelter and a way off the street. But even after all the available help, Thompson always believed that “you can’t force people off the street; they just like their independent lifestyle too much.”
Thompson told me about his positive and negative encounters with code enforcement and the police, about the “homeless code on the street” and the homeless “news network” that spread local information like wildfire throughout the homeless community.
Thompson said when Tony Buchanan’s late wife, Theresa, was diagnosed with stage four cervical cancer in 2007, David was already gathering supplies to help the couple who lived near the Mojave River, 10 miles away in Victorville.
And when Calvin Gene Davidson died in an open field in Apple Valley in 2011, Thompson said he knew about it before it went to print, aired on the radio or hit the Internet.
“When you are out here, it’s all about survival so you need to stay informed,” Thompson said. “There are homeless people who are nice people, and then you have the dangerous ones. Just watch your back and get ready to fight.”
In 2011, because of my friendship with Thompson, former Daily Press editor Don Holland asked me if I could give him and his friends a few cameras to shoot a homeless photo essay for the paper.
I remember Thompson crying when I handed him the cameras and gave him instructions on what to shoot and what not to shoot.
“You trust me with these cameras?” Thompson asked. “Do you know how long it’s been since someone trusted me with anything or even gave me a job?”
Two weeks later, David and Bluth handed me back all the cameras. I compensated them for their work, and we celebrated their efforts over Egg McMuffins and a lot of coffee.
Bluth said sometime in 2013, Thompson had an apparent seizure at her home and was told by doctors that he was prone to more seizures.
On Mother’s Day of that year, my family left church and waited for me at a restaurant in Victorville. As I walked to my car, a staggering Thompson asked me for money for food and water. As I went to my car to retrieve some cash, I heard a thud on the other side of my vehicle and found Thompson on the ground.
“I’m OK, I just had one of those seizures,” Thompson said as I picked him up off the hot pavement. “I just need some money.”
After he refused medical treatment and a ride, I went to Jack in the Box and a local store, then loaded Thompson up with food and water that would last him a few days.
After not seeing Thompson for about a month, I was told that he had moved closer to C Avenue and the railroad tracks. I tried to find him on several occasions, but my search always came up empty.
Then in late February, the word at Live Oak Park and around the local liquor store was that Thompson had died. Three months later, Bluth confirmed the news to me
This story is not about who’s to blame for Thompson’s death, or what we should do about the homeless situation in the High Desert, but I do want you to understand that there is a story behind every human being living on the streets of the Victor Valley.
Every time my wife and I would give Thompson a sleeping bag, only for him to lose it or have it stolen, many people would question why we would continue to support such an individual.
My response to them was that no matter how a homeless person arrived at their present condition, I refuse to let a human being freeze to death or starve.
I can’t say that I miss Thompson’s unique odor or him asking me for money, but I do miss our conversations and his laughter. There is something magical about making someone smile and laugh with something as simple as a Big Mac.
Every time I see a homeless person on the streets I always think of my friend David. A man who confessed his failings to me. A man who shared his heart with me and who deserves to be recognized for his humanity and for his service to our country.
A man who died alone in a field.
Rene Ray De La Cruz may be reached at 760-951-6227, RDeLaCruz@VVDailyPress.com or on Twitter@renegadereports.
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