You understand, Captain, that this mission does not exist, nor will it ever exist.
— "Apocalypse Now"
He was standing with a backpack on the edge of Miller Park, two or three steps away from Friday morning traffic. Drops of the lightest rain fell in his black beard. On the pole above him, the American flag hung quietly.
Six feet tall or maybe more, quiet, with brown eyes, he moved softly. A few steps one way, a few steps back, hoping that drivers in their cars could see the large cardboard sign he held in his hands.
In black, red and blue ink, he'd written: The Taliban Al-Qaeda is here to negotiate peace. Aren't you ready for peace?
It's hard to see such a sign and not talk to the man who holds it. I pulled over. I had nowhere else to be. Neither did he.
Call him Ray. He's 32 and dropped out of Central High. Listening to him was like following a man through a dark and strange wood, one where the footprints behind us vanish, one full of dead ends and sharp-fanged wolves. The stories kept coming, as if his mind had nowhere else to go and no means of finding rest.
"The Taliban is in Chattanooga and has been for a while," Ray said. "They talk to me. They want peace."
It began during the recession. He lost his job driving flatbed trucks.
"That's when people started acting weird," he said.
The CIA started communicating with him through the television. They needed an exit strategy for the Iraq war. Ray offered to help, just as he'd done to negotiate peace between Israel and Palestine.
"It sounds unreal," he said. "But I cannot make this stuff up."
Ray began to call meetings with villagers in Afghanistan; the CIA was there and stubbornly maintained its policy of having to search everyone who came. Villagers objected. Ray calmed them down.
"I told them, 'We're patting you down for your security as well as our own.' That's how my repertoire with the Taliban began," he said. "It's hard to fight that type of warfare."
Ray is fighting his own type of war and he is not winning. The tall buildings in his mind continue to crash down, and no one is there to build them back up. He has no exit strategy.
"I know I'm not crazy," he said.
A few years ago, he found himself at Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute. They told him he was schizophrenic. He started taking medicine. Then he stopped.
"It's poison," he said. "Upon some research, you'll find schizophrenia is not real. There is no such thing as schizophrenia."
He sleeps in a tent hidden downtown. He receives food stamps. Sometimes, they watch him while he eats.
"The CIA has been in the Community Kitchen. The FBI has been in the Community Kitchen. The ATF. I want to say the NSA but they're harder to find," he said.
Since 1999, he's had two dozen encounters with the police: a seat-belt violation, assault, resisting arrest, a car accident where he was following too closely. Some charges were dismissed; other times, he got probation. Then, jail.
That's where he met the Taliban.
"In the county jail," he said. "Face to face. He had lots of tattoos on him."
There are approximately 180 inmates in the Hamilton County Jail currently taking medicine for mental illnesses, says Chief Deputy Allen Branum. That's about 35 percent of the inmate population, which means Ray's story is one of many.
Ray is legion.
"I'm in this pingpong trap. It's a mind control situation," he said.
We shook hands and parted. He reminded me the Taliban wanted peace.
"I'm going to leave you with a quote from them," he said. "We like most of you. We enjoy your company. We want this to have a happy ending."
But how? Who will negotiate it for you, Ray? Who will come to your rescue? How does your war end?
Contact David Cook at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...