DEATH OF AN ECO WARRIOR

LEROY JACKSON TRANSFORMED HIMSELF FROM A PHOENIX STREET WINO INTO A CHARISMATIC NAVAJO ENVIRONMENTALIST. HIS FRIENDS THINK HE WAS MURDERED FOR HIS EFFORTS.

Leroy Jackson lived a Huck Finn storybook childhood in Flagstaff and on the Navajo Reservation. He virtually raised himself, and badly, losing nearly a decade to drunkenness and despair. Then, as his older brother Dave says, "It's like you put a blanket over him, then pulled it off, and he came out talking like a wizard!"

The dates and details of Jackson's life fade in the retelling by his friends and family, though the anecdotes float vividly, as if unstuck in time. Jackson was born in Shiprock, New Mexico. The medical examiner's report stated his age as 47, which means he would have been born in 1946. Jackson's older brother Dave, who lives in Phoenix, however, swears that Jackson was born in 1943, which would make him 50 years old at the time of his death.

His parents separated before Leroy was a year old. His mother drank and couldn't support her three children, and so Leroy and his brothers bounced from grandparents to boarding schools when their mother was down and out.

In Dave Jackson's earliest memory, he and Leroy are 7 and 6 years old, running away from a Navajo boarding school near Shiprock. They had somehow commandeered a horse and rode it out across the high plains toward Kingman, where their grandmother worked in a motel and their grandfather worked on the Santa Fe railroad. They slept under bushes at night, and in two and a half days, made it almost 100 miles to Kayenta. Hungry and thirsty, they stopped at a house to beg for food, and were promptly carted back to Shiprock.

After four escapes, the brothers were thrown out of the school. David went to live with his grandparents in Kingman, while Leroy and their younger half-brother, Ron Frank, followed their mother to Flagstaff and California and various spots on the Navajo Reservation as she fought to make a living. Summers they spent at their grandmother's sheep camp south of Shiprock. Leroy liked to herd sheep. Once it almost killed him. When he was 14, Leroy and a cousin were riding double on a horse, chasing rabbits down at the sheep camp. The horse stepped in a prairie-dog hole and rolled over the two. Leroy was knocked unconscious; the cousin raced home to get help, and they hauled him back to the hogan.

Leroy became more and more ill as the afternoon wore on, and the elders argued over whether or not to take him to the white man's hospital. Finally, says his mother, Jane Popovich, "I put him in this old pickup and I took him to Farmington." He was nearly unconscious again by the time she got there. During emergency surgery, doctors discovered that the brass saddlehorn on his horse's saddle had ruptured Leroy's appendix when the horse rolled over him. Over the next few months, he underwent two more surgeries to correct the damage.

Jane Popovich had sobered up for good in 1964 when she became a newborn Christian and settled in Flagstaff. Leroy finished high school there. He studied hard, ran track, and disappeared into the forest with his friends on weekends. After he graduated, he went to Dallas to study electronics. Then he was drafted.

Jackson signed up for the Green Berets and shipped off to Vietnam. The Army shipped him back with a dishonorable discharge for persistent drunk and disorderly conduct. He came home a drunk, and as his brother Dave says, "He hit the streets." He spent most of the next ten years in and out of jail for public intoxication, and his family despaired of his ever straightening out.

Later in life, Jackson spoke infrequently of his homeless days. All his wife Adella could recall was a funny anecdote her husband told her, in his raconteur's style, of being stranded in Albuquerque in winter and climbing into a Salvation Army drop box to huddle among the clothing and stay warm. Getting out of the box in the morning was another story altogether, because the door sloped inward like a laundry chute. Jackson fought and struggled his way out, only to discover he had an audience on the sidewalk. As he gathered his clothing and his composure about him, he smiled graciously at the onlookers, fixed his hair nonchalantly, and sauntered off.

Troubled times look so much more humorous when they are in the past. Dave Jackson's memories of Leroy's drunk days are much more somber.

The two brothers followed widely divergent paths; Dave was as responsible as Leroy was irresponsible. Dave had gone to business college in Albuquerque, and by the time Leroy came back from Vietnam, Dave held the prestigious job of managing the Navajo Nation Fair in Window Rock. One day, when Leroy would have been about 22, Dave says, "He was just standing at my door with his friend Maynard White Eagle. They were hung over and dirty. I told them to get cleaned up. I got them some clothes and a trailer to live in. Leroy worked for me for about a year and a half."

The streets kept calling him, however, and he'd disappear suddenly. Dave would then drive to Phoenix and search the streets. "I'd hunt him up and haul him home," Dave says. "It didn't seem to help at all. He never had an explanation for what he was doing. I'd talk to him and ask what seems to be the problem. He'd say, 'I don't have any problems; I've just got to be with my friends.'"

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