Michelle McMaster helps connect military veterans in Tuolumne County with the benefits they’ve earned, but when Michael Dayton came to her office on Dec. 7 it was a rare case.
The 66-year-old Vietnam veteran had lost everything the day before when his 24-foot 1975 Beaver motorhome was destroyed by fire on a piece of land he owns along Grizzly Mine Road in Tuolumne that overlooks the North Fork Tuolumne River Canyon.
McMaster, a senior veterans representative for the county Veterans Services Office, said she calls Dayton’s case rare because there’s funding available through certain federal programs to help move homeless veterans into a trailer park or apartment, but they won’t pay for purchasing a new trailer.
“We asked him if he would move into a hotel or trailer park and he said he wanted to stay on his property,” McMaster said. “There was no way we were going to let him be homeless, so what else are you going to do?”
That’s when the community stepped up to help.
McMaster shared Dayton’s story on social media and caught the attention of Lorie Gianelli, owner of Gianelli Vineyards in Jamestown.
Gianelli had a 1985 Alpenlite travel trailer sitting behind her winery since 2006 that hadn’t been used in years and she didn’t know what to do with it, so she called McMaster who forwarded the information to her boss, Mark Orlando, the county veterans services officer.
“I would have done it for anybody, but the fact that he (Dayton) was a vet made it even more heartful,” Gianelli said. “I think anybody that is in the service and fights for our country and our freedom deserves anything, more than a trailer, they gave their life for our country.”
Orlando, who was hired in May, went to Gianelli’s property on Dec. 16 to clean and prepare the old trailer with his wife, Athena, children, Gabriella, 11, Louis Welton, 14, Austin Welton, 16, father, Frank, McMaster, and Air Force veteran and community volunteer Jim Reville, of Jamestown.
The agency that Orlando oversees helped local veterans obtain more than $3 million in benefits last year, but it doesn’t typically provide the type of services that Dayton received.
“We took it on personally rather than utilizing our county positions to help him,” Orlando said. “In retrospect, Michael came to us the day after his trailer burned up because he didn’t know where else to go.”
Transporting the trailer to Dayton’s property proved to be easier said than done due to the steep, rugged canyon road he lives on.
Jim Opie, of Sonora, said he volunteered after hearing that Orlando was looking for someone who could help move the trailer from his friend, Aaron Rasmussen, commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4748 in Tuolumne.
Opie said he helped get the trailer licensed and changed all of the old, rotting tires with some used ones he had lying around, then towed the trailer behind his Dodge Ram pickup on Friday to a spot just up the road from where Dayton’s former motorhome used to sit.
“Every now and then you’ve got to be nice to somebody,” Opie quipped.
Orlando also set up a GoFundMe page to help raise money for Dayton to buy new appliances and other necessities. The campaign has so far raised $1,020 through 13 donations.
The American Red Cross provided Dayton with a $290 card for immediate needs, because he had lost all of his forms of identification, money and credit cards in the blaze.
Dayton, who is known around town by his stepfather’s last name, Rieben, is grateful for the outpouring of support he’s received from the community.
“In a crisis, you see people do almost anything,” Dayton said. “Human beings will help human beings.”
Clad in a white bucket hat, blue long sleeve shirt, dusty white vest, blue jeans, and brown rubber rain boots covering the braces he wears on his ankles, Dayton reenacted what happened the day of the fire while standing among the rubble Thursday.
Dayton said he was going to watch a movie in bed about 3:30 p.m. Dec. 6 when he turned on the propane stove to low as he normally did to heat the motorhome. Though he normally jumps right into bed, he said for some reason he stood staring at the stove for longer than usual.
Suddenly, flames shot up from the stove and caught the ceiling on fire, Dayton said. The flames were quickly moving toward his bed when he opened the door and shouted for his beloved cat, Little Mister, to get out.
Dayton said he rushed for the fire extinguisher that he normally kept next to his bed but couldn’t find it, so he ran out the door with flames licking his back. He went back for keys to his green Ford Explorer that he kept just inside the door, but the flames shot out and singed his hand and face.
“What I want people to know was how fast the fire moves,” Dayton said. “Nothing physical is worth dying for.”
Dayton found spare keys he had hidden under his truck, unlocked the gate and drove up Grizzly Mine Road toward First Avenue. The first person to see him was his neighbor, Jeremy Craddock, who called 911 and provided him with warmer clothing.
After refusing to be taken to the hospital for treatment, Dayton went to stay with a friend for the next couple of weeks. He later spent another couple of the weeks living in the back of his truck with his cat, who he found alive days after the fire.
Dayton is very fond of cats but Little Mister was particularly special because he came to him less than three years ago following the death of his former cat, Pan, who was 20 years old and needed to be carried to water and food because he could no longer move.
“I’ve had so many cats and can say each and every one of them is unique,” Dayton said.
The rough experiences Dayton has endured throughout his life is what makes him prefer living in relative solitude, which includes Dayton being drafted into the U.S. Army in 1969 to serve in Vietnam.
Dayton, who was 17 at the time, said he didn’t feel like he had much of a choice.
“Some of us were running to Canada, but we were told we would have to relinquish our citizenship,” he said. “Or we could go to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, which is hell on earth.”
While training at Fort Ord, a former Army post on Monterey Bay, both of Dayton’s feet and ankles were crushed in a forklift accident. He’s since had more than 400 X-rays on his feet that have deteriorated all of the muscle, making it difficult for him to walk.
Dayton was sent to Vietnam for 14 months after his injuries healed enough, where he worked for 14 months in a warehouse on the Chu Lai Air Base. He said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from enduring daily attacks by rockets and foot soldiers.
“We were always in fear,” he said.
Dayton was able to get an early leave for school, but found a harsh reception upon returning home to Modesto.
While walking from the Modesto Airport to his mother’s house in his uniform and carrying his green Army duffle bag, Dayton said someone driving by called him a “baby killer” and another tried to spit on him. He threw away his medals and gear when he got home.
“I’ve never killed anyone, for one, and I definitely didn’t kill a baby,” Dayton said with anger in his voice. “Today, the veterans are honored, and I’m grateful for that.”
After a two-year mission to New Zealand for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Dayton worked for a time running a body shop before purchasing a wrecking yard on the border of Riverbank and Modesto that he ran for six years in the 1980s.
Dayton’s only son, Mike Rieben, was also born in 1980.
Dayton sold the wrecking yard and moved to Tuolumne County in 1986 after growing tired of thieves stealing from him. For a number of a years he maintained and lived on property off Highway 108 in East Sonora, before purchasing the 13 acres off Grizzly Mine Road for $21,000 in the early 2000s.
“It was peaceful, it was quiet, it was serene,” he said of the land. “For the next five years I had nothing because I had no money, but I got to know the stars.”
Dayton said the area is like “heaven on earth” during the spring, with three shades of green covering the rolling hills of the canyon and blooming flowers adding color to the landscape.
While driving away from the spot where his motorhome burned down a month ago, Dayton looked in the rearview mirror and said he was going to go call it “Tolemac,” which is “Camelot” backwards.
“I want to build a big white castle there overlooking the whole valley,” he said, smiling broadly.
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.