(Who Saved Who?)
Thomas Calabrese…Mike Hemmer was a homeless veteran, just one of thousands around the country and after his discharge from the Marine Corps, he returned to his hometown of Longmont, Colorado. He was in the fourth year of a six year enlistment and serving with a Force Reconnaissance unit when the helicopter he was in was shot down while on a mission in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan. Four Marines were killed and six were seriously wounded and while Mike did not sustain any life threatening injuries, he did suffer a compound fracture of his left leg, a severe concussion and three cracked vertebrae. Rather than take a medical discharge, Mike retrained in the military occupational specialty of 0451, Airborne Delivery Specialist. This allowed him to assist his former unit even though he was no longer physically able to go into combat anymore. Mike completed his six years military commitment then used his skills as a parachute rigger to get a job at Mile Hi Skydiving where he was allowed to sleep in the back of the airplane hangar.
Nothing about Mike’s life had been easy; his parents had a bitter divorce when he was eleven years old. He split time between both toxic households with his two brothers until his father remarried a much younger woman who did not like children. He was only able to see his father every other weekend and that eventually changed to monthly which evolved to holidays and birthdays. When he got older, Mike saw no reason to make the effort to see his dad at all. His mother lost her maternal instincts once she began dating again and she quickly relinquished the welfare of her sons to please the emotionally and physically abusive men that became a part of a cycle of her self-destructive behavior that included addiction to prescription drugs and alcohol.
The combination of these negative influences was more than enough motivation for the three young boys to get out of their unstable home environment at the first opportunity. Mike’s older brother Dave moved to the Gulf Coast and found employment as an oil rig laborer and driller while Mike joined the Marine Corps after high school and his younger sibling Dustin dropped out of school as a junior and moved to Texas with his girlfriend who had relatives in the Galveston area. The Hemmer brothers scattered in the wind like discarded trash.
The routine of steady employment and his bouts of depression caused by his combat experience and severe brain injury eventually proved to be an incompatible combination so Mike decided to quit Mile Hi. His mood swings had become more pronounced and he had trouble focusing so instead of medicating himself into drug induced normalcy, Mike thought it was best for all concerned to leave before someone got hurt because of his carelessness. He honestly explained his situation to his boss, a former Army Ranger who realized the seriousness of Mike’s mental issues and strongly encouraged him to get professional help.
He also realized the hopelessness of trying to change the troubled veteran’s mind so he shook Mike’s hand and wished him the best in his further endeavors. Mike packed his minimal personal belongings into his 1999 Toyota Camry and left Longmont with several regrets and no specific destination in mind.
Mike was awarded a fifty per cent disability rating by the Veterans Administration for his injuries which amounted to 840.00 per month. Although not a sufficient amount to live lavishly or even comfortably, it did allow Mike to travel and purchase the bare necessities when he was on the road or supplement his income when he found employment.
His route from Longmont led him through Nebraska, Missouri, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona and finally into California. Mike slept in his car at a rest stop outside El Centro then drove up Highway Five to Oceanside.
This city held some good and bad memories for him; it was the home of Camp Pendleton and when he thought of the Marine Corps and his unit, it reminded him of his injuries, ongoing mental issues and lost comrades, but it also stirred up memories of good friends and serving a useful purpose. Mike turned off Mission Avenue and went to the Veterans Association of North County to check about any jobs in the area and was greeted with a big smile by Ron Rickard, a retired Navy Captain who volunteered at the center when he entered, and “May I help you?”
“I’m a former Marine and I was checking to see if there are any temporary employment opportunities available?”
“When you say temporary, what exactly does that mean?” Ron Rickard asked.
“Sir, I’m just traveling through and I don’t want to deceive someone by telling them I’m looking for a career position then put them in a bind when I have to leave.”
“I appreciate your honesty,” Ron commented, “how do you feel about animals?”
“I liked them better than most people,” Mike smiled.
“I feel the same way, a retired General and his wife recently donated twenty five thousand dollars to the Association because they wanted to help veterans and animals so they worked out an agreement with the local Humane Society that if veterans volunteer then they can get paid 15 dollars per hours with a maximum of 100 hours, is that temporary enough for you?
“Sounds like just what I was looking for,” Mike replied.
“Where are you staying?” Ron asked.
“Haven’t thought that far ahead,” Mike replied.
“There’s a place in the valley that’s pretty reasonable. I’ll write down the person’s name to contact at the Humane Society as well as the motel, they give discounts to veterans. Tell them you were referred by the Veterans’ Center.”
“Thanks,” Mike replied.
Mike went down to the San Diego Humane Society and met with Mona Scott, the volunteer coordinator and signed up for the next orientation class then went over to the San Luis Rey Valley Inn and got a small clean room at the rate of 35 dollars a day.
The work at the Humane Society wasn’t difficult; it consisted mainly of socializing with the animals and taking them out for walks through the area, cleaning their cages and making them as presentable as possible so they could be adopted. One of the animals currently being held was a massive beast that was a cross between a Newfoundland and a wolf, according to the DNA test.
Jet black in color and weighing close to a hundred and seventy five pounds, it was an impressive looking animal, but the bad news was that a dog of that size had a very slim chance of ever being adopted.
Mike settled into his routine without difficulty after joining Planet Fitness an inexpensive and well maintained fitness center on Oceanside Boulevard. He would arrive at the shelter in the morning and stay until it closed then go through a quick exercise routine before returning to his room at the motel. He enjoyed being around the animals so much that he decided to only apply for financial reimbursement for two days even though he was there seven days a week. Mike would have preferred if he didn’t have to put in for any money except for the fact that he couldn’t pay the motel, eat and put gas in his vehicle without a little help.
After a few weeks of doing volunteer work, Ron Rickard showed up at the animal shelter to see Mike socializing with the big dog in the exercise yard and walked up to the fence, “When I called to check on you, they told me that you are here seven days a week. Why are you only asking to get paid for two?”
Mike turned around, “I was enjoying myself so much that it only seemed right to ask for what I absolutely needed. You can use the money to help some other veteran.”
“What’s this big fella’s name?” Ron asked.
“I call him Candy, I know that the name doesn’t fit, but once you get to know him,” Mike gave the big canine a hug, “he’s as sweet as…
Ron guessed what was coming next, “Sweet as candy, I suppose you decided to stick around a little longer than you expected?”
“I have a schedule that is subject to change at a moment’s notice,” Mike smiled.
One of the other volunteers walked up, “Mike, they want to see you in the office.”
“Thanks,” then turned to Ron, “I’ll be back.”
After Mike walked away, the volunteer turned to Ron, “He’s not going to be happy.”
“Why is that?”
“The shelter decided to put Candy down, he’s been here too long.”
Ron was sitting at on a bench when a distraught Mike Hemmer returned, then commented, “I have a friend who owns a storage lot where they keep boats, trailers and recreational vehicles. He’s been looking for someone to stay there at night to deter vandalism and theft and if someone had a guard dog then it would be even better. Have any ideas on who might be looking for a job like that and has a dog?”
“And this job opening suddenly became available when?” Mike asked.
“I would have mentioned it to you earlier, but you haven’t been in touch and as you can also see, I’m an elderly gentleman with memories issues,” Ron Rickard shrugged.
“I wished my mind worked as well as yours,” Mike smiled.
The Golden Bear storage facility was located two blocks west of South Coast Highway on Michigan Avenue. Harold Taggart was a retired Marine in his late eighties and owned the storage facility as well as several other properties in the area. There was a small and well maintained Airstream trailer that was abandoned several years earlier that Harold offered to Mike and his newly adopted pet Candy, “The place opens at zero seven hundred and closes at twenty hundred hours,” Harold explained, “If you can be here at closing time and stay until it opens in the morning then I’ll pay you two hundred dollars a week besides giving you the use of the trailer.”
“I can do that,” Mike replied.
It was a good deal for Mike who had no interest in staying out late and as for the security part of the agreement, Candy was the ultimate deterrent to any criminal activity. Mike kept the door of the trailer open and set a blanket on the floor where the big dog had an unobstructed view of the facility. It was three am in the morning and Mike had only been staying in the trailer three weeks when two petty crooks decided that the storage lot looked like an easy score, but they couldn’t have been more wrong.
They were about halfway up the ten foot fence when Candy hit the chain link barrier with such force that the two men were propelled backward five feet and landed on their backs. Candy let out a ferocious growl and bared his massive fangs and the two crooks took off in a terror stricken sprint and didn’t stop running until they reached the Ocean.
“Good job,” Mike smiled as he embraced his soulmate.
It was February 14th, Valentine’s Day’s and Mike continued to volunteer his services at the Humane Society and was walking a small cocker spaniel on a leash through the industrial area while Candy followed a few paces behind. When he turned around to check on Candy, Mike saw a yellow piece of paper stuck to his right paw so Mike pulled it off and looked at it. It had the date and time on it; 2, 14, 13, 11 20 on it and without thinking Mike looked at his wristwatch and saw that it was exactly 11: 20 am then slipped the paper in his pocket. He kept walking and when he passed a small convenience store near Mission Avenue, he turned to Candy, “I’m going to get a juice,” then handed the leash to Candy who took it in his mouth, I’ll get you something.”
Mike entered the store, got an apple juice for himself and a large beef jerky for Candy and the cocker spaniel. He was standing at the counter waiting to pay when a nervous acting man came up behind him and pulled out a revolver and pointed it at the clerk, “GIVE ME THE MONEY…NOW…I’LL SHOOT THE FIRST PERSON WHO MOVES…DON’T TEST ME!!”
The clerk quickly complied, opened the cash register and was ready to hand the money to the robber when suddenly Candy came out of nowhere and knocked the man to the floor and the gun went flying.
Three minutes later and the Oceanside Police were there to make the arrest when Sergeant Clay Lewis turned to Mike, “Good job, we’ve been trying to catch this guy for months…he’s been hitting stores all over North County.”
“Don’t thank me…thank him,” Mike pointed to Candy who was sitting patiently with the cocker spaniel.
“That’s one hell of a big dog,” Sergeant Lewis commented.
“Being big is just a small part of why he’s a hell of a dog.”
“I’ve got your contact info…the detectives will probably will want to interview you.”
“No problem,” Mike answered.
The clerk came out with a plate full of chicken breasts and hamburger paddies, “I’d like to thank your dog, is it alright to give him these?”
“Absolutely, I’m sure he would appreciate it.” Mike answered.
The clerk gingerly approached the massive animal, looking fearful and apprehensive as Candy lifted his paw in a sign of friendship. The clerk held out a hamburger patty and Candy gently took in his powerful jaws then held it for the cocker spaniel that grabbed and gobbled it down. Just as they got ready to leave, Mike reached in his pocket without thinking and pulled out the sheet of paper with the numbers on it then looked at the lottery sign and thought, oh what the hell then marked the number; 2,14,13,11 and 20 on the form and handed it and a one dollar bill to the clerk.
After leaving the Humane Society at four o’clock in the afternoon, Mike and Candy went to the Oceanside Jetty on their way back to the storage facility. Mike was enjoying the scenery and sounds of the large waves crashing to shore and guessed that a storm was bringing the high surf to Southern California. He found a rock that was a safe distance from the water and sat down while Candy stood next to him.
At the edge of the jetty, two young women watched the waves hitting a couple of feet below them, oblivious to the potential danger. Mike was daydreaming when he casually looked to his right and saw a large rogue wave rolling in and instinctively stood up and was already moving toward the edge of the jetty when the massive wall of water crashed down and swept one of the women into the ocean. The other woman screamed out, “HELP!”
Candy took off in a full sprint and when he got to the edge of the jetty, he leaped and his powerful legs propelled him over the rocks and into the water with Mike ten steps behind him. The young woman panicked and began flailing and struggling against the powerful rip current that was pulling her out to sea. She had almost exhausted herself and was barely able to keep her above water as Candy used his brute strength and webbed paws to power through the turbulent surf. He reached the woman a few seconds before she went under and she reached out with her remaining strength and grabbed on. The powerful animal pulled her back to shore where Mike and the other woman were waiting. She was cut, and bruised from bouncing over the rocks, but sustained no serious injuries.
Later, Mike found out that the two women were the twin daughters of Marine Corps Major General Nicolas Cooper who was stationed on Camp Pendleton. Their names were Leilani and Melia and they were born on Kaneohe Marine Corps Air Station base in Hawaii when their father was stationed there and named after flowers in the region. They were currently in the nursing program at Cal State San Marcos. Over the next year, Mike developed feelings for Leilani, the sister who had not been swept out to sea and got to know her family in the process.
To most men this would have been a good situation, but not to Mike who had no concept of what a loving family was. He was not only homeless, but had little to offer Leilani and even though she repeatedly reminded him that it wasn’t what he had, but who he was that mattered to her, that was not enough. Mike’s world had expanded dramatically since his arrival in Oceanside. He wanted to help veterans like Ron Rickard had helped him and Candy and the other animals at the Humane Society had touched a part of his heart and soul that he didn’t know existed . Mike kept going over various ideas in his mind on how to get his life headed in a different direction. Candy patiently listened to his master’s ramblings, almost as if he actually understood what he was saying.
The months passed and Mike was cleaning out his car one evening while he was at the storage facility. He came across the lottery ticket in the back of his glove compartment that he had purchased almost a year ago and was prepared to throw it away when Candy barked at him.
The next morning Mike stopped in to see Bill, the clerk whom he had become friends with since the attempted robbery while on his usual dog walking route “Good morning, do you think that you can check this ticket for me before I throw it away?” Bill’s eyes opened as wide as saucers when he put the ticket in the machine.
After taxes, Mike received over two hundred million dollars when he became the third highest paid recipient for a single winner of a lottery jackpot in California. Two years later and the first step of the massive construction project was to install a large sign over the road that lead to the seventy five acre parcel of land at the far northeastern part of Oceanside. The sign read; BIG CANDY SANCTUARY.
With the help of numerous animal rescue groups in the area and the wise advice of Ron Rickard and his father-in-law retired Major General Nicholas Cooper as well as local veterans organizations, a state of the art facility costing in excess of forty million dollars was designed. Construction was moving quickly on the kennels, barns, corrals, exercise areas and state of the art veterinary clinic. There would also be offices and meeting rooms for non- profits groups and a large dormitory for veterans and volunteers to live on site and work with the animals. Long winding trails would intertwine throughout the landscaped property and pass by ponds, waterfalls and picnic areas where people could take the animals or just go to be alone with their thoughts. The Big Candy Sanctuary would not only be a place for animals, but a refuge for veterans trying to find their place in world.
It was February 12th, 2017 and in his two days it would be the anniversary of when this unlikely journey began. Mike looked to his left and saw his trusty companion Candy lying peacefully in the tall grass and without this unique animal, none of this would have happened. He felt the loving and reassuring hand of his wife Leilani, his own beautiful flower, on his right shoulder and reached up to touch it.
What would this tormented and restless man have replied if you said to him a few years earlier that he would find love, contentment and reconnect with his long lost brothers while passing through Oceanside? Mike Hemmer would have shrugged and told you that happy endings only happen in fairy tales and Valentine’s Day stories.