First On Scene

Now that I think of it, getting the mail that day was the problem, I should have left it for my wife. The summons from the court in said day’s mail brought it all back, and I very perceptibly began to shudder, an involuntary kind that ran through my body due to a good portion of the last year having been spent repressing the memories of that night, if not being able to totally forget them. Now I was forced to reexamine those emotions and memories again, and no amount of liquid, over the counter addictions were going to put them back into a subconscious state.

If you would ask me about that night, I would tell you it was, well, sticky. June 28, 2012, started out pretty normal, and was on track to end normal, but most assuredly it did not. There is nothing normal about having to peel a man’s shattered face off of the downtown pavement.

What they never told me about vehicle crashes, what they never mention in the movies is the hyper excited state I entered when the crash happened, or rather, upon hearing it happen. I was never told about the scents that come from these crashes. How the sickly sweet scent of motor oil on pavement; the acidic coppery scent of blood, will hang heavy in midsummer’s moist air. They never told me what it would feel like to wash another man’s blood from underneath my fingernails, watching the lazy red runnels swirl about the white porcelain sink or having to stow a crimson stained T-shirt at the bottom of the garbage can, so as not to arouse suspicion from my curious children and inquisitive wife.

I live in a small house, in a quiet neighborhood, on North Grand Avenue, in an older neighborhood of Bozeman, with my beautiful wife and six adorable children. With that many people occupying such a small house, without the convenience of central air conditioning, windows are seemingly always open, fans seemingly always stirring swampy stagnant air from the depths of the basement to circulate some form of cooler air to the sweltering family room, above. These living conditions often lead to bouts of insomnia. Insomnia and open windows can be the devil’s playground, or a gateway to someone’s salvation.

My neighborhood is a quiet one, a historical relic from the original parts of Bozeman. Most of the homes in this area are no less than 60 years old. Like any residential street there is traffic, sometimes at various hours of the night, but for the most part, residents of this neighborhood live in peace. There is a park nearby to our house where my kids can, and often do run. This park is bordered by a softball diamond where we’ve taught each other to hit fly balls and overrun first base. It’s all very mundane in a “Leave it to Beaver” type of way, which is the way I like it. It’s safe.

As far back as I can remember I have been a movie lover, nay fanatic. There are many movies that stand out in my life, for whatever reason, and one of those particular movies is Black Hawk Down. There is a historical context that it points to, a time and place in my life that I cannot get away from. It’s a beautifully choreographed film detailing what many perceive to be a failure, but what was in reality, a success by mission standards. Even the mission code name, Gothic Serpent, has a serious and striking tone, resonating throughout my mind.

In my box of “stuff” in the garage, I know that there is still a copy of Newsweek, which still bears the image of dead special operations soldiers being drug through the filthy streets of Mogadishu, Somalia. This particular magazine issue is important to me, not because of the sadistic horror displayed on its cover, but because this was the issue that I read, cover to cover, over and over again, that helped me to decide that I wanted to be a journalist. At the tender age of 14 I knew what I wanted to do with my life. It was also the first time I realized the fragile state that is life.

I have watched Black Hawk Down quite literally over one hundred times and I have a notorious ability for falling asleep during the movie and then awakening later, still knowing exactly where I am at in the movie, and what’s going on; this much to my wife’s chagrin. It was on this particular sweltering night, at the end of June, sleep deprived and insomniatic that I found myself watching said film, volume turned up so loud that noise from the helicopter’s rotors seemed to pulse and buffet the very walls of my home. I kept checking on my wife and children to ensure that I wasn’t waking them, but they slept right through the movie, and the ensuing drama. I don’t know if they will ever know what a blessing it would be.

As a general rule, police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances are designed to attract attention, and cause people to notice them. When these vehicles began to congregate on my quiet block in the early hours of the morning, I was sure there would be no way to escape the blaring cacophony outside; to have everyone sleep through it, but they did. Everyone, that was, but Annie.

“SON OF A BITCH!” I yelled to the dark street. There, next to the curb, was my wife’s vehicle, now with a gigantic gash in the tire, body damage and destruction scattered across the pavement. Some ass clown had just hit my wife’s vehicle and driven off, leaving me to now have to take photos and file a police report. I don’t even remember bringing my flashlight and cell phone outside with me, but they appear in my hand, as if by their own volition. A ghastly HISSING spat into the air, blatant evidence of the defiled and quickly deflating tire. Traces of shattered plastic litter the pavement from the gaping socket of the gouged out rear tail light. The white, narrow focused beam plays down the length of my wife’s vehicle, showing garish scratches and fresh dents and…

What was that? A tire spinning… Faint red tail light, blinking haphazardly… Him…

The bright beam of my MagLite flashlight played over the body lying in the road, showing the obscene and copious amount of blood pooled around what I was immediately sure was a corpse.

I’ve seen dead bodies before. In the remote town of Havre, Mont., many years ago, I once saw the aftermath of a man who had fallen between two train cars and been cut in half as cleanly as if by a butcher’s blade. Through my folding binoculars, atop the steps of an Amtrak passenger car, he appeared to be so much road kill and the overall effect of the gruesome terror was lost due to the distance between me and the poor soul. I can still, though, see the white picket rails of his ribs as they were newly exposed to chilly evening air.

Most of the bodies that I have seen, though, have been made up as mannequins, lying in silken boxes ready to be inserted back into the earth from which my faith tells me they originally came.

“Nine-One-One. What’s your emergency?” The voice on the phone was far more professional than I was. I was coming unglued by the second, but this voice was cool and calm, clear and professional.

What would I say? That there was a dead guy laying in the road, that he just happened to hit my wife’s vehicle and skid out of control? That when his motorcycle crashed it sent him flying some twenty feet and that he then proceeded to skid another seven feet or so? How would I explain that what was once a man was now so much ground meat on the pavement?

A sound like a vacuum makes when it sucks up water began to emanate from the “corpse.” The previously lifeless body began to writhe in the pool of blood, further abrading an already shredded face, like soft cheese on a grater, against the warm pavement.

How has he not been hit by another vehicle? How had this man not been run over, causing further destruction? Answers to these questions still evade me, but again my faith tells me that there was a higher power watching over that man, and me for that matter, as I knelt in the street next to him.

Words flew out of my mouth incoherently, “…aspirating on blood…possible head injury…motorcycle crash…dying in front of me…” I had no idea if I sounded as lunatic on the phone as I did in my head.

“Hang on sir; we’re dispatching officers to your location.” The voice on the other end of the line was still so cool. Professional.

Had I given them my address? I honestly don’t remember. I know that they could pull it off my cell phone through the GPS, but had they done that so quickly? I really wasn’t sure what I was saying, anymore, because the initial moment of when time stood still, when I first witnessed the body, had all started to unravel and seemed to be rapidly spooling out of control.

I don’t know when Annie showed up but suddenly she was beside me, dressed in a long T-shirt and not much else. My neighbor grabbed my flashlight and immediately began signaling the first cruiser to show up on my quiet little street. And like flies to a bright light, they came, one by one, soon in droves.

Within a matter of minutes the entire street was cordoned off to the intersecting roads at each end. Lights from the cruisers washed over, and played with the corresponding lights from the fire trucks and the ambulances, creating a surrealistic light show that lit neighboring houses in a ghastly glow. Not even the sterile light from nearby arc sodium lights could penetrate the hues that should have been comforting but was somehow still creepy.

What I originally mistook for a corpse was now a groaning, writhing man. Pure survival instinct caused this man’s brain to flood the body with adrenaline, in a mad and desperate effort to extricate itself from the contorted pose in which he now lay.

The white strappy tank top shirt, knee length khaki board shorts and flip flops didn’t do much to protect his body from the impact of the street. My initial, and cursory, examination of this man’s body was far from complete. Lying face down I didn’t know that there was a V-shaped depression where his collar bone used to be. I didn’t know that ribs had been broken, or knees had been shredded to the bone. Somehow, the comforting shadows of the night had kept these particular sights from me, and I wasn’t informed of them until later, when I received the report from the police detective.

I’m not sure how it happened that I was kneeling on him, but there I was, when paramedics arrived, trying to keep this man’s convulsing body under some semblance of control. The raw energy that was now coursing through his body was nothing short of an electric current; a pure, primal rage trying desperately to keep the shattered frame alive. My initial fear was that his brain would cause further injury to his body, that possible head and spinal injuries would either cripple or kill him. So I knelt on his shoulder blades, trying to hold on as a bull rider does, praying to keep him stable. This ride, though, proved to be tougher than any eight seconds a rodeo pro had ever endured.

A paramedic appeared with a straight board and firmly, but gently, removed me from the back of the pained man. “It’s OK, you can get off him now; we’ve got him.” The voice was so soft, so gentle; I wasn’t sure if I was hearing things or if he had actually spoken to me.

I looked around, bewildered, not sure of what was going on, but there, on my camo fleece pajama pants that I wore was a sticky maroon oval from this man’s blood. The policeman who was near me gently escorted me back to the curb in front of my house as we spoke about what had happened. He was joined, soon thereafter, by another female officer. Both asked me questions, intensely interviewing me for what I had seen and and what I had heard. Under other circumstances, it could have easily been viewed as an interrogation.

“Did you see what happened?”

“Is this your vehicle?”

“Do you live here?”

“Did you call 9-1-1?”

“Do you know this man?”

“Tell me what happened.”

“Were you the first on scene?”

Officers in uniform surround me with their digital recorders in my face, asking questions like paparazzi questioning Hollywood’s newest starlet. The questions seem to be coming from every direction. I know that what they want is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but I feel like Tom Cruise, I CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!

The truth of the matter is that a bloodied and mangled man has been loaded into the back of a waiting ambulance. There are probably 30 different men and women, in varying uniforms, milling around snapping photos and taking various forms of measurement. Spray paint marks the gashes on the pavement, tape measures run the length of the street, notes are scratched on yellow legal tablets.

I want to scream at them, “Why aren’t you doing your job?! Why are you just standing there?! Why didn’t that ambulance move a bit faster? Where are the lights, the sirens, and the flashers…?”

It hits me that there is no need to rush because the poor mangled body gave up, the fight has left that poor man and his soul has departed. After all of that, the battle to keep him safe and still, he died anyway. There is quite literally another man’s blood on my hands, and I’m pretty sure that if I look hard enough, I can still see it staining my skin.

The three o’clock hour has come and gone and I’m still wide awake. Blood that was tacky at the onset of this little adventure has now dried to a macabre Halloween makeup on my hands, arms, and knees. A tow truck a few houses down, operated by a bleary eyed driver, manhandles the wreckage of the crashed motorcycle onto its flatbed with all the care a butcher shows a particular cut of meat.

Metal grinds on metal and the very sound is making my skin crawl because I can see that man’s broken body, the image burned into my psyche, and even though my mind processes the image as a motorcycle my imagination cannot help but superimpose the broken man’s body into the scene.

In the year of our Lord, One Thousand Nine Hundred and Ninety Nine, I attended a funeral for a girl, barely a woman, whom I think I was very much in love with. She was killed by a drunk driver who tore into her car at 85 miles per hour; the force of the impact literally decapitating her. It was a closed casket funeral on a cold winter February afternoon. The sound that the tow truck made hauling that mangled bike onto the flatbed was damn near the sound the backhoe made carving into the frozen earth of the windswept prairie. Death, as the phrase goes, does not become me.

Finally, finally… The flashing lights go. The tow truck leaves with its not so precious cargo. Without a further word of contact police officers mount their vehicles and depart. As quickly as the street became a surreal nightmare, it is once again quiet. Like a graveyard, it seems. Fitting, I suppose.

What they didn’t tell me is that even adrenaline has a limit to the lengths it can sustain a body. What they didn’t tell me was that after an event such as this, when I was as unprepared as I was, I was very likely to be left sobbing on the linoleum floor of my bathroom, covered in another man’s blood, while tears ran hot and salty down my cheeks and my chest heaved and hitched. It’s not very manly. It’s not how a hero should react, but then again, I’m no hero.

What I didn’t know was that stashing that T-shirt at the bottom of the garbage was harder than any other act I have ever committed in my life. An act of betrayal so thorough because how do I tell my wife why I haven’t been in the bed for the last three or so hours? How do I tell her that, as far as I know, a man died in my arms tonight? How do I tell her that I saw our neighbor, a devoted wife and mother, in her night clothes and that it bothered me more than that man’s blood because I felt as if I had betrayed a trust with her husband, a man I call a friend.

So, I scrubbed my fingers raw, and scraped the underside of my fingernails to get the last bits of flesh and blood out from under them, supporting my body weight on the edge of my tiny bathroom’s meager counter. I quietly crept down the creaky wooden stairs and dug through the laundry baskets to find a clean white undershirt to wear to bed; changed from my pajama pants into nylon gym shorts praying I would be able to rinse the blood out of the pants before anyone noticed. Can they smell the blood in the basement? No matter how much I scrub myself down, I swear I can feel the stench on me. I don’t know if it’s my memory playing tricks on me, but I swear I can still see the faint outlines of blood on those pajamas. Why I don’t throw them away, I have no idea…

Crawling into bed, “Where have you been?” Her sleepy voice implies that she has no idea what has transpired. Why am I angry with her? For the love of God, she was just spared a horror that I cannot even begin to at that moment describe to her, but have taken great care and length to detail, now.

What do I say to her? Do I lie? Do I tell her that a bout of insomnia has kept me awake for these last hours? No, in a moment of weakness I tell her everything. Her confusion is rational as she tries to wake herself up, to fully comprehend the details of the story that regurgitate from my mouth in a torrential flood. I still don’t tell her about the shirt at the bottom of the garbage can, though. That detail will go with me a bit further, and until this moment I thought, to the grave.

Old addictions really do die hard. Nine years of sobriety were very near at the teetering point, ready to be pushed off the edge. Suddenly things that I was so very close to being able to put behind me came back, so quick; so damn quick. They say that nicotine is harder to quit than heroin. I’ll believe that, I’ve been under the heels of both of those devils. But suddenly cigarette brands I hadn’t seen in years were now near at hand. I found myself standing in the beer and wine aisles of grocery stores with no cognitive memory of how I got there. I stared into the eyes of many a cashier girl as I realized that nine years was too good a track record to break and so I would walk off, leaving a six pack of imported beer at the register, refusing to pay or succumb to that malignant evil ever again.

Willpower doesn’t always win out, though. The occasional insomnia grew into frequent bouts. The frequent bouts grew into stretches of a few days where I would sit in front of the TV, no idea what was going on, what time it was, or really who I was. I was buying two packs of over the counter sleep aid liquid to the point that I’m sure the people at the store thought I was starting a meth lab. Discarding the measuring caps from those bottles and taking long swigs from those bottles is generally the first sign of trouble, and it was then that I realized I was in deep.

In less than a month I had gone from a loving father and husband to a husk, devoid of cognitive thought. I didn’t know what I was doing. It took a phone call to a friend of mine, who had spent some time in Iraq, to ask her, basically plead with her, to tell my story to someone who would listen. Someone who had seen death and carnage, first hand and up close, she was well aware of the pungent smell of blood mixed with sweat. She knew what scorched and torn bodies looked like, felt like and smelled like.

Of all of the senses, the olfactory sense is the one most haunting; the way that I can walk past a random person and pick up a random scent of perfume and immediately be transported to another time with different people. Why does the sense of smell haunt me so? With vision I can fool myself into thinking I saw something else, and my hearing isn’t all that good, so I can generally trick myself into thinking that I didn’t heard what I thought I heard.

But the sense of smell. It’s that powerful. And as long as I live I will always have that cloying scent hanging heavy in the back of my throat. No matter what medication I spoon into my throat, no matter what beverage I imbibe, there will always be that thickly heavy scent of blood and motor oil hanging like a caustic ball of mucus at the back of my throat.

It’s called survivor’s guilt, a form of PTSD. My mind had somehow convinced me that it was me who should have perished. Apparently, it’s more common than the public is led to believe. The mind can’t rationalize the death and destruction it sees, so it attempts to associate with the image. Thus, if the mind sees death, it wants to become death.

Now, over a year later, the summons in my hand was being crumpled under the pressure of my fist, the official and legal blue coversheet drenched in sweat that poured from my skin, causing it turn from a regal shade of legal blue to a pale shade of dead blue.

What could I tell a courtroom full of people? What could they possibly know, or want to know, that wasn’t already known through stacks of interviews and official police reports?

I was at work, stumbling through the days when my cell phone rang; not knowing the number I let it go to voicemail. I gave that phone call no second thought and went about my day. I would like to be able to say that I was cruising through my day but the over the counter addiction was fast numbing my body, and it was no small miracle that I was even able to move at all.

Getting home that evening I made my way to the back yard and found myself sitting on the lazy yard swing my wife had purchased for herself. It’s quiet in the backyard and in that corner, where the lawn always seems a bit overgrown because the mower won’t fit and the corded trimmer just won’t reach. I sat in that corner, while the faded red paint of the wooden fence chipped and flew in the slight breeze as the swing bumped against the old wood, making a noise that was slightly comforting and slightly nauseating in the very same motion.

Musing through voicemails I skipped some, deleted others, saved most as I told myself the lie that I would come back to them and give them their due diligence but knowing full well that after about ten days my phone would automatically delete them because it knew better. It knew that I wasn’t going to ever think twice about those voicemails and that for all intents and purposes…

“Patrick this is Duane, we met a few weeks ago, in front of your house…”

The voice on the other end of the message. I had heard it before, although at that particular time it had sounded as if it were a vacuum trying to work underwater. Or, through a mouthful of blood.

Without even being aware, I broke down in tears. All of the pent up emotions that I had tried to hold back were now flooding out of me. My wife was standing next to me, not knowing what was going on, only that her husband was staring at the digital screen of his phone, crying his eyes out; sobbing.

The missed call was his. I immediately hit REDIAL. I prayed he would pick up before I lost my nerve and simultaneously prayed he wouldn’t so I wouldn’t have to hear that voice again.

“Hello…?” The gravel voice trembled. Such a meek voice.

“Duane, we met a few weeks ago. Do you remember?”

No voice. The horrible wet sucking sound again. He was trying not to cry into the phone, and failing. So was I. It didn’t matter.

In the next 45 minutes he related to me stories he had been told by his family members. How we had been driven to the hospital with no sense of urgency because the EMTs weren’t sure he was even technically alive anymore. How the courageous staff at the Bozeman hospital had done all they could, short of giving him his last rights before sending him via air ambulance to Billings. How the staff at the Billings hospital had done all they could short of giving him his last rights.

Like Doubting Thomas of Biblical fame I allowed his voice to let my hands trace his wounds; the steel bar that was now his rib. The scars on his head from where his skull had been fractured and repaired. The wiring in his jaw that held it together, now a permanent addition. I saw all of this, and none of this, because I had no point of reference as to what kind of man he was before we met. All I could conjure now was a stylized movie robot. A twisted six million dollar man. A malformed creation of a mad scientist. A scarred face that still belonged to a loving daughter who wasn’t yet old enough to know why her daddy had been away for a while.

But when the conversation ended there was a spark back in my heart. Just a tiny spark. And like the greedy hoarder and poetic warrior, Reverand, I held that flame close for fear of letting it get blown out…

I wonder how, now so many months later, will I tell my children about that night. They have seen the scars that the street still bears, the scars that I still bear. They have yet to meet Duane. Would it be easier to show them clips of The Airborne Toxic Event’s video “Sometime Around Midnight” or Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” and hope that they catch the inferred meaning?

Bottles of over the counter elixir are still close at hand, but the desire is not so strong. I can walk through an aisle of beer and wine and not be tempted, not as much, now. The urge to stare into the black abyss of the gun cabinet is gone. It has taken a lot of friends, many whose privilege I wore out crying on their shoulder, but the demon doesn’t haunt me anymore, well not that much.

As for the blue paper? It’s still there. It will always be there, but this time the story won’t contort me, force me into grotesque shapes of mental torridness. The courts will have their address from me and then I will wash my hands of this story, for once and for all. The demon that stares back at me, from the dimly lit corners of my living room will no longer hold sway. Not anymore.

Was it all worth it? The pain, the agony, the stress and suffering, both his and mine? Was it all worth it? Time will be the judge on that account.

© 2013 p.hill

The Most Special Christmas Present

     Not 30 miles south of Bismarck, the capital of North Dakota, just off of a blacktopped two lane Highway 6, sits an old farmhouse. Originally built in the early portion of the 1900s this particular farmhouse has sat on two separate foundations, has been added to, subtracted from, resided from its original wood frame to its now yellow fiberboard siding. Its bright coloring make it an easy mark to spot, even from down the highway.
      Windswept and eroded green and brown hills gently rise from prairie grasses that in summer time wave under incessant breezes, but on this December day sit mute and dampened under grey skies and white snow. Fields that in other seasons bear the fruits of golden wheat and green timothy hay sit empty and brown; ragged scars that refuse to heal up, even under majestic white snowfall.
      Various farmsteads sit nestled in clumps of trees, near natural irrigation ditches carved into the landscape by the glacial past. It’s the one with the yellow siding that is sought at this special time. Surrounding farms sport new tractors and grain silos, fancy ranch vehicles and state of the art buildings. This particular farmstead has slowly faded into the history of retirement, the empty chicken coop now but a memory of summer days, catching the fattest chicken to butcher for that night’s dinner. Sagging roof panels are the hallmark of the red pole barn and decayed wooden gates serve to pen in the nonexistent hogs. A few cattle still mill about but these past years the main source of income has been water pumped out of the nearby slough and paid for by the highway department as widening and resurfacing of Highway 6 turned in from little more than a glorified gravel road to a proper roadway.
      Christmas Day, the ultimate day of gift giving and receiving, is all but upon the land. Presents shall abound and be strewn through mountains and tunnels of foiled wrapping paper, fancy cut ribbons and bags of bows collected for someone’s mother. 8:15 p.m. The countdown is T-36 hours until that magical moment arrives. For the moment, anticipation is the name of the game.
     Slowly relatives have begun to arrive from all corners of the state, and the country. Vehicles of all shapes and sizes are stacked bumper to bumper, in the gravel driveway and dooryard of this tiny farm; one of the many that dot this prairie landscape. License plates tacked to these vehicles speak of roads traveled and miles added for these joyous if all too brief occasions. Cousins reunite and hug as if no time has passed at all since their last meeting. Aunts pinch the cheeks of their nieces and nephews, commenting on how big they have gotten since they last saw each other, even if it was only last Monday.
     Smells of hot chocolate with mini marshmallows and spiced apple cider with cinnamon hang heavy in the humid air of the kitchen as the ham slowly roasts itself to golden perfection in the old white oven, not too far from the watchful eye of a dutiful kitchen taskmaster (Mom, Dad, Grandma, and Grandpa have all taken their turn in this capacity). Mashed potatoes and stuffing slowly hiss at each other from cast iron pans and pots, as if they too are savoring the moment when they will be drenched in a bath of homemade gravy, made from meat drippings and corn starch. Relish trays of baby carrots, celery, pickles and black olives (there are never enough black olives) sit in the center of the “Adult’s Table.” Spiced pumpkin plachendla, meant to be one of the many desserts, is slowly picked apart handful by handful by adults and kids alike who pass the table, earning a not so subtle HARUMPH of distaste from Grandma. Soon the ancient pie tin bears not much more than a few scraps of the homemade crust.
     Dutifully, the “Kids’ Table” is set in the corner of the living room, adjacent to the dining room, across from the tree, but where parents can still keep an eye on the gleeful youngsters. Cousins of all age gather around this folding card table because there are no looks of disapproval when mashed potato mountains erupt with gravy lava all over the disposable plastic table cloth. The fine linen table cloths are reserved for the adults table.
     Pies that were placed into that very same white oven, earlier in the day, are now slowly cooling on the back steps; old concrete steps that have a metal pipe handrail bolted to the house’s siding to provide traction when they become iced over. Tubs of frozen whipped cream sit next to the pies, sweating from the temperature difference.
     Even though temperatures are dipping into the low 20s, the back door is cracked open, to keep the readout on the thermometer in this tiny, humid kitchen bearable, allowing the mournful whistle of a frigid December wind to mix and mash the savory aromas from said kitchen and deliver them to the waiting guests who are congregating and gabbing and laughing, in and around the living room.
     New age tunes from the Trans Siberian Orchestra song “Ornament” are spilling from the speakers of a nearby CD player. This is a stark contrast to the traditional sounds of Bing Crosby that is usually played on a battered, wooden record player which takes up one entire corner of the tiny living room, competing for space on the far wall with an equally ancient and battered piano. Grandkids are growing up and suddenly they have a voice in what music will be heard this Christmas season, creating an out of sync, yet still harmonious rhythm.      Christmas music, no matter what decade of origin, will always find a way to come together.
      Adults mill about the living room, conversing in hushed tones so that the music can still be heard, while sipping cups of coffee that have been discreetly laced with shots of Kahlua. Others are in the basement, smoking unfiltered Lucky Strike cigarettes because it’s too cold to smoke outside, and Grandma won’t allow them to smoke upstairs where the kids are. Briefly someone attempts to play a harmonica in tune with Trans Siberian Orchestra, but as quickly as it starts, it ends. A haunting melody…
     There is no formal dress code for this event, as turtle neck sweaters, faded blue jeans are a standard affair.
     Children have pilfered, and continue to do so, handfuls of Grandma’s homemade caramels and have been stuffing their cheeks full of them, not minding the occasional bit of foil that gets stuck between their teeth. Tin foil wrappers become instant wads of valuable silver to be hidden by cousins and then later “discovered” by other cousins, who hoard those wads as if they were indeed precious metals.
      Trails of air popped corn litter the scarred linoleum floor of the kitchen and the dining room as these very same children sneak handful after handful to the back bedroom where games of Chinese checkers, Scrabble and UNO are scattered between Lincoln log forts where GI Joes and Lego characters do battle.
      Here in the back bedroom children can be as loud as they want because they are far enough away from the adults for anyone to mind. Down the hall, on the opposite end of the house, is Grandma and Grandpa’s bedroom. Identical twin beds with hand stitched identical orange comforters and a dresser with a mounted mirror are the only furnishings. Children don’t dare play in this room, but still they steal peeks into the room, admiring those orange comforters because of the intriguing way two simple blankets can so brightly light a tiny room.
      Piles of soaked mittens, boots, caps, snow pants and coats are strewn about the basement; a damp reminder of the earlier afternoon’s outdoor activities. The pungent aroma of woolen socks drying out over heater vents rises up to do battle with the aromas from the kitchen. Occasionally an adult coming down the steps, to retrieve a jar of chokecherry jam will trip over an article of clothing, muttering under their breath, but there is no harm or ill intent. Children coming in from outside are never mindful where the wet clothes fall when there is a promise of hot chocolate with tiny marshmallows.
Sleds that went rocketing down the frozen slopes of Flintstone Hill, behind the house, are now stacked haphazardly by the pies, on those same frozen concrete steps. Multiple treks up the slope, through the shelter belt of trees that the grandkids have dubbed “The Enchanted Forest,” past the cow fence, and the frozen slough, to the very top where, in the summer time, children of all ages have dug into the soft, sand coated earth, building forts of all shapes and sizes, have left child and adult alike exhausted and out of breath; that is until the next rocket ride down the hill.
     Through the mayhem a child wanders towards the centerpiece of the festivities this evening. A beautiful green tree stands in the corner of the living room, compliments and adorations are thrown in regards to the beautiful, if mismatched ornaments that decorate the tree in the truly haphazard way that only the small fingers of a dedicated child artist could master. Construction paper rings frame wallet sized school portraits of bucktoothed grandkids smiling their toothiest grin that only grandparents could love, threaded with colored yard hang from the short needles of the Douglas fir purchased from The Green Thumb; an ancient looking windowless greenhouse composed of soot grey cinder block that is a permanent fixture on North Interstate Avenue, in Bismarck.  In all respects a relic left over from when Bismarck was an up and coming town and the north side was nothing more than prairie. Smells of freshly cut pine sawdust hang heavy in the cool air as prospective buyers wind up and down aisles, stepping over piles of orange bailing twine and green metal tree stands, looking for that one perfect tree, ready to haggle over price with all the enthusiasm of a Middle Eastern market dweller. Each year alternates between long needle and short needle trees, just to make sure everyone was happy.
     Colored glass globes with wire hooks that always seem to disappear between holidays mingle with toy soldier and locomotive decorations purchased from the Hallmark store in Kirkwood Mall, on South 3rd. Ancient, fat bulbs with their colored paint chipping off from decades of stringing that were most surely a fire hazard looped through the sagging branches of the fir, sagging under the weight of decades’ worth of ornaments, marking milestones gone long out of memory. Topped with a ragged silver star that should light up, but often doesn’t due to its age, the tree has become the iconic celebratory decoration of the season. No longer a simple tree, but a beacon for eyes young and old alike, drawing gazes and the occasional guess as to what bounty lay wrapped in bright paper and perfect bows and ribbons.
     Hand created and decorated stockings frame the tree in a postcard, picturesque setting. Names stitched into the fabric ensure no one will awake confused as to what trinkets Santa has provided for whom. Tacked to the sun faded wallpaper with colored pushpins they are no more matched than the ornaments.
     Having been nudged away and silently shushed from asking about presents on several previous occasions the child peers out the weather frosted windows. For just a moment winter’s howling wind dies down and there is a break in the flying snowflakes; the light of one lone star shines down to light the face of the child.
      He can see the chicken coop with the tattered hexagonal wire fencing, across the snow covered gravel driveway, the horse barn with the hayloft that is too dangerous to climb up to anymore, and abandoned pig shed. The minimal traffic of the highway seems so far away; insubstantial.
      With just the briefest moment of courage, and hope in the child’s heart, he steals his father’s attention, for just an instant. In that instant he asks, with longing in his eyes, could he open just one present? Just this once? Just a little bit early? There are no other kids around and no one would even notice.
     Dressed in faded work jeans and a flannel shirt, the father smiles down at the child, his unshaven face bearing a full day’s bearded stubble with years of sun wrinkles and creases at the corners of his lips from laughing, reassuring him that it will only be a little while longer before the presents are unwrapped. They aren’t going anywhere. In the back of his mind, the father briefly thinks about giving in and letting the young child open a small gift. But, that wouldn’t be fair to everyone else, would it?
     With the tiniest of sighs the child silently walks away. Not in anger, but with longing. For in that instant when all the world is right; lit in the glow of a turned down lamp in the opposite corner and the electric hues of the bright bulbs on the tree that have to be unplugged at night lest they catch the dried branches of the fir on fire. Longing for that instant when it’s OK, for just for a moment, to spill your cider on the living room rug because the mounds of wrapping paper will hide the mess and when it dries, it will be just one more stain in a long history on that ancient orange shag, indistinguishable from previous markings. Longing for that instant when it will be OK to stay up past bedtime because there is no school tomorrow and the excitement of the presents will keep him awake, anyway.
     What the child doesn’t know, as his tiny hands are grasping at the fingers of his father’s rough hand is that there was one present that was already opened. The father chokes back his own sigh as he realizes he was given the present of such a beautiful wife, and such wonderful children. Beautiful friends and generous and loving family grace his world in a way that cannot be measured by any amount of money or wealth. And while it is not always apparent to those around him, the father would give all that he had to live in that one instant for all of eternity. Others cannot see or feel the joy in the father’s heart as he grips his son’s tiny hand, so smooth, not yet calloused by work and the world around him.
     The father has been given a present that only the wisdom of time can open. And while it’s sometimes time consuming and often bitter to learn how to properly untie that knot on the bow of that special present it’s a skill that can only be mastered through trial and error, lest the beauty of the gift be tarnished through the rushing and careless act of negligence.
     And so while the snow swirls down, around and amid the cold currents of December air, the house with the orange shag carpet, hand crocheted sofa covers and strings of fat, colored bulbs from the 1960s adorning the tree and windows, lit by the warm orange glow of an arc sodium light, standing watch over the entire yard; that house has become the center of all that is right and good in the world.
     The father watches his son wander through the mix of people, silently grateful, tears brimming in his eyes, as he takes a sip of his coffee. No toy or bauble or scarf or gizmo from a magazine could compare to this moment. The father is not embarrassed by the tear on his cheek.

© 2013 p.hill

Remember, Remember… Our 11th of September…

11 Sept 01. It’s been 12 years, an eternity, an instant. The events still don’t seem real, and in very much a fashion, they aren’t. In an instant my generation had a moment akin to 22 Nov 63. There are people who can tell you where they were, what they were doing, who they were with, etc. How will my children understand this? Will my children understand the impact? My oldest daughter was barely a month old and not even aware of the world outside her tiny view. My other children have never set foot in a world where there existed “the Twin Towers” outside of history books.

Terrorists, in a very real sense, sought to dismantle an American way of life and in doing so slaughtered thousands of people. In the years since, the best men and women this country could muster up went to war and some came home, some did not. All over this globe there are small patches of earth that are distinctly American because a soldier with the stars and stripes on their shoulder fell there. This is not a new concept, or a new thought process. War has been war since the dawn of time.

What is different, now, is that it is people I know, people I have loved, people whose faces are now imprinted on my mind, hiding in the dark recesses of my mind, whose ghosts come to see me at night. These are the people who are paying the price for war.

What I would say, though, to the terrorists that purport to their ability to destroy America is this: You can’t. You won’t. Because in all of the pain, intolerance, resistance that you have caused the American people; all the new laws, rules and hassles that abound, you will never be able to see inside the heart of the American spirit.

What you terrorists don’t see is that the blood of my fellow citizens flows freely and while our society has been torn up and rent inside and out, we will make it bigger, better, stronger. We are resistant to change, but physics tell me that most things are. But we can adapt, we can grow. Where you see only hate, we see opportunity. Where you see hatred, we see an opportunity for love. Where you see an enemy I see a person to not judge.

What the terrorists of 11 Sept 01 did was bring a country together, even if only for a brief amount of time, and remind them what great things they can be capable of. As the WBC did so recently in my city, the terrorists unified its members for the forces of good. So while you terrorists seek to destroy and maim what we know is good, we will always rebuild and go on. My children will grow in a world that knows about you but they will also know about the love and the greatness that this nation has to offer.

To the terrorists: you failed. You tried to break the American spirit and you couldn’t. Each time you bloodied us, we got up. Each time you jabbed at us, we punched back. Each time you insulted us, we smiled and said, “Thank you, sir. May I have another?” You taught me not to hate, but rather to take all life for the precious gift it is. You have shown me that there is still good left in my society, because when you came to our door, my brothers and sisters of this nation answered.

God / Allah / Heavenly Father, whatever name you attach to a supreme being, or don’t, is a being of love and benevolence, and it saddens me that you will never be able to realize that gift. These last 12 years have taught me to never forget that lesson.

To the thousands who have perished in this nation’s quest for peace, your names will ring loud in Heaven and on this day, remember those who were lost. Share the stories so that our children never forget and that they always remember the gift we do have.

© 2013 p.hill