Tucson Salvage: Veterans of Internal Wars

Scott Fisher (left) his pup Osso, and Frank Capanear.
Scott Fisher (left) his pup Osso, and Frank Capanear.

If you can pull the damn trailer off the RV lot, the man said, you can have it. So, Frank and his running bud Scott hauled off that old '70s traveler and plopped it on a trailer lot near Roger Road and Fairview. Frank had rented the lot for $200 a month on a cul-de-sac surrounded by tin outbuildings, bigger singles and doublewides, jumbles of cars and occasional household items as lawn ornaments. In Frank's eyes, the sad, sun-faded trailer was his new home.

Several months later the trailer startles where it sits, an ornate trash-heap salvation. Like a set piece on some Burbank backlot for a 1940's Robert Mitchum war picture, or a heady carnival attraction you'd half-expect to rise up and twirl around, Frank and Scott the cagey barkers always outside it.

Frank's daily life lately is often consumed with ongoing trailer repair and renovation. His scrim of facial hair, the missing teeth, eyes wrinkled in eternal sun squint, the slight bow-legged movements (a wrestler's sacrifice and crazy injury-prone limbs—we'll get to that), all dead giveaways to life spent mostly outside in forever desert sun and dust. Yet, the dude is pushing 60, but looks more like a guy of 45 with a history of battered roadways. There's youth and vim in his tread, a kid-like nasal to his voice, a honed sense of satire (check his green Ralph Lauren polo cap and ARMY tee), and a face transmitting hard-won benevolence. He's the kind of guy who'll apologize if he swears, drop a King Solomon reference as a sentence sweetener while conversing his protests with Natives over hydraulic mining or riding his bike cross-country or growing weed in the Catalinas as a teenager.

Now Frank painstakingly spray-painted the entire wheeled house in mint greens, jades, yellows and maroons—the potent hues of camo to reflect his support of war veterans, only juxtaposed in weedy floral silhouettes. Tall grass pulled from the yard and alley served as spray-over templates, and plastic fern trees greet visitors at the door.

click to enlarge Frank Capanear: "I'm 'Gilligan's Island,' the more primitive it is, the more I like it." - BRIAN SMITH
Brian Smith
Frank Capanear: "I'm 'Gilligan's Island,' the more primitive it is, the more I like it."

If he sprays angles on the grass just right, the paint takes on joyous lines and shadows of nature, forest landscapes, you could say. It is spangled street art, complicit somehow, a protest silently screaming, "this is the life we choose." It is an external of his internal philosophies, both individual and universal. Yes, home as an evergreen art project, a welcome explosion of color and whimsy to the surroundings. Neighbors don't complain, they appreciate such refreshing detail. For a guy with zero experience in graffiti art, nothing escapes Frank's steady hand, even the propane tanks in and out of the trailer.



In the bright wash of early March sun, Frank steps over to an ordered, waist-high piles of planks and lumber out front, slides thin sheets of maple wood out ("brand new from a Dumpster!") and explains in carpenter confidence how it'll panel and repair the crumbling ceiling where the rain once got in ("no mold!"), he's already layered the roof with sealant. He lifts wooden cabinet doors, another trash-heap conquest, to fashion, after a little refinishing, inside breakfronts.

"It is such a waste," he says of the doors and wood, "I just couldn't see them go to the dump. Everything here," he adds, taking in the organized heaps picked from Tucson tossaways, "is recycled." He hauls it in by bicycle.

"I'm 'Gilligan's Island,'" the father of four grown children laughs, "the more primitive it is, the more I like it."

***

Frank Capanear adores bicycles.

He gifted the last car he owned to one of his sons. Bikes are his transportation and a part of his living—found and cheaply purchased parts are refurbished into bicycles and sold at swap meets. COVID killed the flea-merchant star, so Frank, with the help of another pal, hocks his pieces at online outlets like Craigslist. That is his income, supplemented with occasional construction work with contractor friends.

He knows the two-wheeled agonies too. Like pedaling on mountainous, forbidding roads all the way from Tucson to, say, Jacksonville, Florida. He did such a ride, four times, as a commemorative fundraiser for wounded vets.

It began one day in 2007. The untrained cyclist clipped into a Schwinn Voyager, hardly a prime road machine, and began the slow trudge into gnarly sidewinds on uphill roads that rose unending before him. His legs, back, lungs and heart were not at all prepared for such human suffering. To heighten such sensations, his addiction to cocaine ended the night before the journey began. One last high of shame calcified forever before paying a gnarly penance out on the saddle.

Is the road metaphor located too deep for our sonar to locate, Captain?

He did such a bike trek three more times, in consecutive years, across the busted-up highways on what Kerouac called this "horrible continent," ending in places like Williamsburg, Virginia and Nashville, Tennessee. The "post-apocalyptic Katrina devastation in Louisiana blew my mind," Frank says. The cowboy on pedals averaged 70 miles a day, weighed down with Pannier packs crammed with survival supplies, including a tent, food and water. His body recovered mostly in nighttime roadside tents. Forget the ungodly weather, the rain and heat, even tornados and hurricanes, the day-and-night miseries couldn't stop this dude.

Heroic? Likely. Do heroics demand elements of crazy? Hell, yes.

"I'm not crazy," Frank laughs from his perch atop a camo-colored chair in the shade of his camo-colored trailer. "But I carry crazy with me."

All told, he pedaled thousands of miles through 32 states, after landing a local sponsor to pay his expenses and buy him the Schwinn. He estimates he raised more than $800,000 for veteran-related charities such as the Wounded Warrior Project, and others. He camped with disabled soldiers, befriended Ann Dunwoody, the first woman in U.S. military history to earn a four-star general rank. In Nashville, country-music stirrer Aaron Tippin loaded Frank and his bike on the tour bus for a short run from Nashville to Texas, and brought him on stage during shows as a champ of vets, soliciting donations for his cause. Frank's online road-diary blog, called averagefrank, is still up.

click to enlarge Frank and his road machine. - BRIAN SMITH
Brian Smith
Frank and his road machine.

He found inner-peace in two ways, on long, lonely stretches of road and in vets and folks he met along the way. "I met so many kids who were severely wounded, their moms and dads," he says. "I don't have the words to describe the feeling. They were severely damaged by wars, but it taught me; their resolve was so profound, this will to survive and live with the traumas. It humbled me more than anything else. Whether I believe in a war or not is irrelevant."

His first inspiration for the journey was Ben, one of his three sons, who, as a teen, teared up watching the twin towers fall on television. That night Ben turned to his dad, and said, "I guess I'll have to enlist one day." The kid turned 18 and did. Frank didn't like the idea, was struck with profound worry. "I'm like, 'Dude. Really?'"

Now he says that feeling of watching a son enlist wasn't as difficult as watching a mother he'd met in San Antonio's Brooke Army Medical Center tending to her broken son. "The boy was twitching; his legs had been blown off. I thought, 'This kid sacrificed his legs for me.' I felt so much for him and the hundreds of others I'd met. I could see my son in every one of them." Frank's son Ben is now Special Forces and living in Gulfport, Mississippi, with two children of his own.

Frank didn't crash once on any of his country-wide treks, but afterwards, on a Mother's Day in Tucson, a car plowed into him and his bike. He managed to stumble home, his youngest son Tyler freaked and took him to the hospital. Frank's head was split open, his skull fractured with traumatic swelling of the brain, and it took 65 staples to close it up. His memory was fried for a year, he still struggles with recall. ("I didn't have a helmet on like a dumbass.") He lost many teeth, but took the insurance money and bought a really good bike. "New teeth or a new bike? Decision wasn't hard."

***

Frank is a tough son of a bitch, born impoverished of Italian descent, the middle child of nine, raised in a two-bedroom house in Tucson to a father who'd beat him and his brothers. His old man worked in shipping-receiving at a grocery store for 30 years. Mom worked at the local sheet metal union. There is the story of his "made" uncle, a New Jersey mob man who died at Caesars Palace. He'd visit Tucson and give each of the nine kids a $100 bill and they'd go "buy-out" the old Sprouse-Reitz five-and-dime. "Give a 6-year-old a hundred-dollar bill! We ain't seen nothing like it. My dad left New Jersey to get away from that."

Frank, a somewhat diminutive kid with a chip on his shoulder, channeled his dad loathing into wrestling and became a U.S. national wrestling champion. He spent time at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, named at 18 as alternate on the 1980 Olympic wrestling team—the year Jimmy Carter pulled the States from the games over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. To go that far as a teenager, to suffer for sport, you have to live, breathe and eat it, the external familial angers fuel such personal self-punishment, and reward. If ever a sport taught comfort in violence it is wrestling.

He'd find trouble fighting in school, says, "I'm a small dude. I got picked on by seniors as a freshman so in wrestling I whooped everybody's ass." He sips from a cup filled with root beer, adds, "I was arrogant for a long time. I suppose I have those traits, but I learned to keep them in check. The wrestling, the discipline at that level, took the place of my dad. He wasn't proud, never even saw me wrestle."

It is difficult to support oneself, much less a family, with wrestling, nearly impossible (though he did teach wrestling later at Amphi High School), and after the Olympic boycott, Frank lost heart in the sport. He became a professional tile setter, and for sport, rock-climbed, nearly every peak in Southern Arizona, and learned the landscape well. So well, in fact, he supplemented his income schlepping weed over the Mexican border for a few years in the late 1990s and early aughts. He speaks Spanish, so that helped, as did his knowledge of the borderlands. Rich guys ran the show out of Bisbee with connections in Hermosillo and Sinaloa. Frank and 10 or so others would meet south of the Canelo Hills and hike into Mexico, a trail set by migrants for hundreds of years. "We'd walk in and a truck would dump bales of weed, 25-30 pounds each, we'd take three each and walk back across the border. We'd camp out for three nights." They'd drop the load in the desert and head home. A few day later he'd receive cash in a shoebox.

Along the way a tragedy nearly cashed him out. In 1994, he lost his wife (divorce) and four kids temporarily after an accident out near Marana on the I-10 frontage road. He was driving his truck and hit a homeless man riding a bicycle. It was dark, an early January night. Frank didn't see him, driving 55, until the bicyclist smashed through his windshield and flew out. Frank crawled out of his mangled truck to the man on the road, who had a large hole in his skull, blood everywhere. The man died in Frank's arms.

An ongoing theory was a death by suicide. The sheriff said the bicyclist had been warned before not to swerve into the road. No charges filed but Frank was devastated, unable to live with himself. He was badly injured in the crash too, temporally paralyzed on one side for a year and he couldn't work.

His arrogance and meanness soared and the family left him. With the help of trauma counseling, he worked his way back to his family and remarried his wife (they have since divorced again; Frank now has Sandy, a long-term girlfriend). For years he was haunted by recurring nightmares of the guy dying in his lap.

Enter the cocaine. "My children figured out I was doing it. The shame and the guilt was unbearable."

Then jail.

"Which time?" he asks, like it is some personal right-of-passage. "Look, I'm no angel. It's how we live and learn." His record shows a 2014 burglary and stolen moped charge that, he says, was later expunged, after he'd served 11 months because he wouldn't sign a plea. "I won't say I did something I didn't do. They could hold me in jail for the rest of my life." Frank lost everything while jailed, an eviction tossed his life into a Dumpster, including all the memorabilia, the cross-country bike documentation, the press and soldier interviews he did, the TV coverage.

He got popped another time for lifting a credit card. "That I did do," he says. "My girlfriend Sandy and I got desperate in California when I was helping her move out here. We were starving, we bought food and drinks with the card I took from someone's briefcase. I really regret it."

He pauses, sips the root beer, adds, "I'm long done with all that. I had my run of it."

He is close with his siblings now. Tells of a time in 2010 when he was bow hunting with his brother who suddenly collapsed and died of a heart attack. "I was doing CPR on him, I begged him not to go. That was the most painful event in my life." Frank hasn't hunted since.

***

Frank steps into the tiny trailer to detail each rehab, pride easily detectable in his kid-enthusiasm. Two's a crowd inside, the in-between space of a person's private world, which seems to cradle him. Smell of fresh spray paint dominates the lair, all hyped in the exterior's colors, only more precise in artful aspects. The fitted refrigerator door is almost 3D in upward movement in Frank's layered spray art, and rectangle mirrors on one wall next to the made bed give the place a bigger feel. Green plastic vines and ferns rise up and overhead from corners, the illusion of sleeping outdoors, and there is no running water because the plumbing still needs fixing. The tiny bathroom in repair features painterly touches that show the same obsessiveness of his unyielding support of war vets. A fitted propane stove occupies the other end, and found keepsakes decorate shelves. He lifts from one a little plastic toy pig, movement-activated so it comes alive if you move in front of it. A child-like laugh rises, "One of those abstract things I can't seem to throw away. When my grandson visits, he loves this stuff." The toy triggers his own childhood, some joy in how "we learned as kids to take what you do have and make the best of it. That kind of forced self-entertainment developed a sense of humor. It was a survival mechanism. We didn't realize we were poor and I wouldn't trade it for anything. Look, I can't stand seeing stuff thrown away, at least the useable stuff. I can't stand seeing people thrown away. It's so easy to be tossed aside if you are different, to guess at someone's shortcomings, it just means we are different."

click to enlarge For a guy with zero experience in graffiti art, nothing escapes Frank's steady hand. - BRIAN SMITH
Brian Smith
For a guy with zero experience in graffiti art, nothing escapes Frank's steady hand.

He finishes the trailer tour with a story. Not long ago he was homeless by choice, lived platonically in a wash with a woman who had been beaten, drugged and raped by her stalker boyfriend. He couldn't keep her in his place at the time, the asshole would find them, so the wash it was, until she was safe.

***

Frank's pal Scott is another tough motherfucker. Like Frank, he conveys stories in such a way that tragic near-death experiences are no more or no less import than a conversation about his baby Doberman Osso. That Frank and Scott's head scars match needn't surprise; they live in the current moment, part hippie, part furrowed survivalists, full Zen-ass.

Scott takes a seat on a cooler out front and offers a cup of root beer. He's strangely soft-spoken and expressive, the handsome rugged face of one who busted hearts growing up in the 1980s, whose appeal involves life-threatening risks involving boats, motorcycles, racing cars and boxing matches. (Dad pulled him from the sport, because of the beatings.)

Scott's old man was a Golden Gloves champ who worked 46 years as a lab tech in La Crosse, Wisconsin, an inventor in plastics. Dad is dead now but Scott talks to his mother once a week, a big love there.

He has endured 51 surgeries in his life, multiple skull fractures (and a titanium plate) borne of the accidents and daredevil stunts. He'd get dumbass DUIs back in Wisconsin on go-carts, boats and snowmobiles, did jail time for them. (Did a short stint in Arizona for possession.) He busted his back in several places, even surgery in his eye where his brother got him with a dart as a kid. Married once, with two children, which he lost in a court battle, an experience too painful for Scott to broach. The ordeal kickstarted a spiral that found Scott living off the land in the Colorado mountains for months. The head injuries left him with a disabled diagnosis. He wound up in Tucson, far away from Wisconsin.

"He lost his kids and it broke his heart," Frank says. "That began his downward spiraling. What happened to him is hard. If you can't have compassion for someone than what is the point? Ain't none of us are perfect. Society is lucky to have Scott, he helps so many people."

About eight years ago, Scott saved high-school-age twins after their car careened off an overpass in an ice-storm in Minnesota. He heard a crash while camping, raced to the scene and pulled the teens to freedom. He'd stayed in touch with them for years after.

Scott's big boxing hands are skilled too, he spent years as a union carpenter in his home state, and today he's preparing to drop and fix the motor of his gray Chevrolet truck, which recently died. He learned from Frank how to build and repair bicycles to help resell.

The night before the pair were on their bikes until the wee hours carting produce procured from grocery-store throwaways. "We were feeding friends living under bridges and in the desert," the concerned gestures of rueful men who've paid prices. Scott's mission in life now, he says, is to help others in need. Period. "Kindness is the only thing that works," he says.

There's a sadness and resignation about Scott, an unseen orientation to the bleak way of the universe, which is instantly upended by joy when he talks of things he's building. Scott can get angry and lose his top too, needs to stay busy to avoid the deep depression, he says. He sleeps in the flimsy shed next to the trailer, which is fed from an extension cord running from a neighbor's place. Frank nods to his buddy's sleeper hut, and says, "That way my friend doesn't have to sleep in the wash." Scott was homeless when he met Frank a few years ago.

***

One day a couple years back, Frank was "mapping" underground drainage tunnels in Tucson, because, well, that's the kind of shit he does. He got lost so he wrenched a 200-pound manhole cover up a few inches to see where he was. Within seconds a speeding car on Campbell Avenue split the iron lid into pieces and Frank fell back.

"It sounded like a grenade went off," he says. Chunks of that manhole cover shot down the stinking hole and struck his ankle, about severing off his foot. Either bleed out there or move frantically. In ridiculous agony, the foot dangling by his Achilles tendon, he hopped out of the tunnel into a wash, climbed the dirt bank and spotted a Trader Joe's. It was before 8 a.m., luckily a few employees were working.

"She about passed out when she saw me," Frank says.

A doctor at Banner Health said the foot had to go. Frank pleaded with the doc to save it, told him the story of his cross-country bike treks for the veterans. Doc sympathized, agreed to try and save the foot. A seven-hour surgery ensued and Frank spent the next six months in a wheelchair.

"I was told I was never going to run again. I don't need to be told that shit," Frank laughs. "I did therapy on my own, on my bike. I have a lot of love for that doctor, he saved my foot. Even he was amazed." The ankle scar makes it look like he's been shackled for years.

Most recently he contracted hepatitis A from human feces after cleaning a homeless camp under a bridge. Spent a week in the hospital, and he only just fully recovered.

Frank grins, says, "I've seen some painful times, but I ain't complainin' about none of it. It all happens for a reason."

He adds, "If I was a millionaire it wouldn't change me one bit. I'd just give it to people who needed it. I try to help as many people as I can in any way I can. And I try to spend as much time with my grandson—my daughter wasn't supposed to have kids. Well, she had a miracle kid, six years old. I guess I'm a little kid too. So I have to be forgiving. I have done a lot of things that need forgiving. You have to give it to receive it."

Though a plan involved hauling the trailer to a remote acre Frank still owns in Southern Arizona's Galiuro mountains, they may never leave this cul-de-sac. Scott says he'll complete a porch for the trailer soon, he just added an outside shower using two-by-fours, a small open water tank supplied by a garden hose, and a black plastic sheet for privacy. Their worry is their place might become "a little too redneck" for in town, and, yet, somehow, they've mastered a gag of inconspicuousness, despite the show, like their world adheres to some internal logic.

In a neighbor's yard behind the trailer, a little girl of about 4 stands at the chainlink with a sad curious stare, the two dogs beside her bark. Osso sprints off in their direction in a cloud of dust and Scott hollers him back. The day moves along like that and the buddies engage in task, a surplus of time doesn't end in boredom, the fixed and the unfixed, the painted and the unpainted, grocery throwaways as manna for hungry others, uneasy binaries with which to fortify a day.

Brian Smith's collection of essays and stories, Tucson Salvage: Tales and Recollections of La Frontera, based on this column, is available now on Eyewear Press UK. Buy the collection in Tucson at Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave.

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