Sunday, July 29, 2012

Traveling


I’m traveling this week. Yesterday, it occurred to me that I hadn’t written my blog entry for today. What to do? Time is too short now to wax poetic. I could skip it all together this time. No, a few people might die or something without hearing from me. So, I’m compromising. I will write about the traveling. Next week’s entry is going to be weighty, though. I hope you’ll come back to read a piece near and dear to me.

Anyway, the alarm went off at three in the morning so I could leave by four to catch a five-thirty flight. I remember when we were little and flew from California to Boston on an old prop plane that took ten hours to get there. We wore our best outfits. My mother wore gloves and a hat and stockings with heels. This trip, I wore baggy lime green shorts, a shirt that didn’t match and flip flops. I decided to hold off washing my hair till I got there.
   
Boarding took forever as we waited in the aisle while people stuffed things into the overhead. I mean it was like Cinderella’s step-sisters trying to get their feet into the glass slipper: duffle bags, major suitcases, canvas bags meant for dorm move-in day. One guy had a trunk. A woman stood up on the armrest and grunted and groaned as she worked to get something in that was clearly too big in every dimension. She all but took her foot and gave the thing a shove. Finally, a guy from the back of the line yelled, “Lady, it doesn’t fit.”

My seat was at the window. The guy next to me was too big for his seat, so he just lifted the armrest between us and spilled over into my space. Now that he was rubbing up against me, I noticed he had forgotten his deodorant that morning.

The pilot came over the speaker to tell us they were working on a ‘minor mechanical problem’ but we would be underway in just a few minutes. I’m sorry, when I’m going to wing along at thirty thousand feet, I’d prefer the mechanics give the plane a thorough once over when trouble develops. These quick fix-it jobs just don’t cut it. It wasn’t ten minutes before we pushed off from the gate and headed for the runway. They’d barely had time to get out their screw drivers, but somehow we were good to go.

The flight attendant snapped us all to attention to give her safety spiel. In light of the broken engine, or whatever it was, I paid attention this time. The woman obviously read from a script, but there mustn’t have been any punctuation in it because she didn’t so much as pause—ever—even to suggest the end of one sentence and the beginning of another. She garbled her words as though she had a lozenge (maybe 3 or 4) in her mouth. And because there wasn’t the slightest hint of inflection, we couldn’t gather meaning from emphasis. She said something about some piece of equipment at the window exits. In case of a water landing we were supposed to do one thing and to be very careful not to do this other thing. It sounded important. Did she say step over or into? Roll it out to the left or to the right? I just knew this would be the one piece of information that would save my life, and I’d missed it.

As I looked over at the window exit, I couldn’t help but notice the teenage girl across the aisle texting as we gathered speed for lift-off. What was she thinking? I remember my days as a flight attendant. At the training academy they drilled it into us: plus three, minus eight. The first three minutes of the flight and the last eight are the most dangerous. I imagined the girl’s texts jamming the signals and everything going haywire. The cockpit dashboard would flash nonsense, or maybe nothing at all. Alarms would sound and air masks would drop in front of us. The plane would stall, then nosedive into one of those careening spins straight for the ground. I thought I might brace myself, but then realized something like that calls for sheer terror accompanied by hysterical screaming and no amount of preparation will make a difference.

Somehow we made it to cruising altitude without blowing up, so I relaxed a little. Meanwhile, my seat mate had missed the whole thing. We weren’t off the ground before he’d slumped over in my direction and started snoring. I’m not talking about a little snort now and again. If the guy hadn’t also been drooling, I would have thought he was trying to be funny. It was better than cartoon snoring. It was the kind you can’t imitate without hurting yourself.

A little later, the flight attendant came around with those tiny packs of peanuts that now cost four dollars each. Fortunately, I’d brought my own snacks. My pleasure in eating them was somewhat diminished, though, by the hungry staring of other passengers. It was as if they resented me for having brought good food and, although they could have brought their own food, they’d neglected to do so and all they could think about was that they wanted mine.

I downplayed my goodies and tried to read, but a dog started yapping from a couple rows back. At first, he sounded cute. Fifteen minutes later, the cuteness had given way to a desire to put my hands around his snout. Was it just me, or was this shaping up to be one of the worst travel experiences ever? I still had another two flights to go before I got to Boston. I would have to say it was likely better than bouncing around in the back of a covered wagon with Indians shooting arrows at you but, other than that, it occurred to me that I might be on the flight from Hell.

I stared out the window until we landed in Charlotte at 6:30. The layover would be two hours. I found a little corner and sat down, but couldn’t get comfortable. Pretty soon, I surrendered all manner of pride and stretched out on the floor. There I was, one of those people I usually look at with disdain, all sprawled out in public. I wondered from behind my closed eyes if I had a stupid expression on my face. I didn’t care. Then it occurred to me that someone I know might see me. That almost did it, but by then I was drifting off and just resigned myself to be a laughing stock. There’s a kind of freedom in letting go like that.

The next leg took me to Pittsburgh and then another one to Boston. A bus brought me to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, from where I drove with my brother up to Lake Winnipesaukee. It was after five when we pulled into the cove. I’d been traveling for twelve hours by then.

Down on my mother’s dock, I looked out across the lake. The water danced along and lapped against the shore, making that lovely sound lapping water makes. The sun was setting beneath an orange sky that stretched from behind shadowed hills already settling into their evening slumber. A west-blowing breeze rustled against my face as it carried clouds from one place to another with no apparent purpose but to travel a day’s journey, and then to go from there. Behind them was a vast expanse, without shape or definition. It was a space in which everything we dare to dream might exist. It was limitless, like each of us would hope to be. 

While the loons in the cove sang muted melodies from their place in the reeds, my day of petty gripes slipped away. I, too, had traveled a day’s journey and would harvest experiences to treasure, the first of which was mingling with nature at one of its finest moments.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Thunder Dog



Sometimes I wonder why we have pets. My husband and I are dog people. Every so many years some kind of puppy finds us and we just can’t say no. Right away there’s the peeing and pooping in the house, and the whining at night. Then comes the chewing, and then the barking. You always hope you don’t get a humper. You accept that they all roll in dead animals. For some reason, most of them think the furniture has their name on it, but you learn to snap “Get off the couch,” almost before you see them on it, and all that becomes part of the family folklore.

Despite all this, we keep getting them. And it’s not five minutes before they are a part of the family and everyone would be heartbroken if something happened to them. We talk baby talk to them and think it’s adorable when they shake or sit pretty. A ‘high five’ gets them a cookie every time.

Sometimes, there’s a rough edge with one dog or another. Maybe Rover chases cars or Daisy digs holes out back. Every now and again you find yourself with an escape artist. We thought we’d dealt with it all, until we got Chloe. She was a rescue dog. Sweet face. Shy. Pretty. It was eleven years ago that we brought her home. 

Chloe is a medium size dog…weighs about fifty. Gold hair with black saddle back. Hangy-down ears. Outdoors, she acts like she owns the joint, but she’s less assertive inside the house. She is loyal and protective and just figures the couch is there to be camped-out on. She’s pretty good about jumping off just before we walk into the room, so at least there’s the pretense of respect for our authority. All in all, we got us a good one.

The one tiny complaint we might have would be about the Storm Terrors. 

The first storm I remember came up in the middle of the night. I woke to Chloe panting in my face from the side of the bed. It didn’t matter how many times I told her to get down; she wasn’t going anywhere. As the winds increased, she moved further onto the bed. The first clap of thunder and she was up on my pillow, lying on my hair. I was pinned. No amount of scolding or begging convinced her to move.

It went from there. The dogs were out in the yard this one day while we were at work. A thunder storm rose from nowhere. We couldn’t get home to put the dogs in, but they had the carport and their dog houses and they would be fine. Except Chloe felt otherwise.

We have six exterior doors. Each of them has a screen. On that day, Chloe went from one door to the next trying to get into the house. She destroyed each screen from the bottom up. I don’t mean a little tear here and there. I mean ripped to shreds, curled up from the bottom, torn from the frame. We felt terrible that she’d been so afraid and we fixed the screens.

After it happened the third time (that would be eighteen screens), we decided we were tired of the replacement process. We have an Invisible Fence around our property to keep the dogs from taking off. The fence is a buried wire that emits radio waves. The dogs wear receivers on their collars and, if they get too close to the wire, they get zapped. We extended the wire in a loop up close to the house itself so the dogs could no longer get to any door except the one from the kitchen into the carport. As to that door, we got one of those heavy metal guards to cover the screen and figured we were all set.

Another day. Another storm, out of nowhere. We felt the discomfort. Should one of us go home and put her in? No, she’d be okay. And the screens were all protected. Well, not actually. We came home to find Chloe running back and forth in the woods, frantic and dazed. In the carport, the heavy metal guard lay on the ground, twisted and mangled like a bear had come to our house. Needless to say, the screen at the door was no longer intact. We replaced it with glass.

And we started watching the weather. If there was the slightest chance of a storm, we left the dogs in. Yes, it would be a long day for them. They would be much better off running around outside. But, what if there was thunder?

The next time we got a storm, the dogs were in, so we didn’t worry. Unfortunately, we had left all the bedroom doors upstairs shut to keep the dogs off the beds. And, when the thunder roared, Chloe went looking for comfort. She came to the closed doors. Maybe we were behind them, so she dug and scratched and clawed to get in.  I mean, the bottom couple inches of three of our beautiful, seventy-five-year-old solid wood doors were gone. Ripped and torn and gnawed away. How long must she have worked on them? It’s a wonder she had nails or any teeth left.

In our home, thunder has become a scary word. We know it’s on the way before there are any signs, because Chloe tells us. Suddenly she is there, under our feet as we walk, at our feet as we sit. If it’s nighttime, she is lying on our heads or wherever we will let her stay…but it must be on top of us…panting, drooling, beyond reason and beyond reach. Our reaction is always the same. “Damn. A storm must be coming.”

Our best experience was the day I needed to go to the grocery store. It looked like thunder was brewing so I brought the dogs with me. Naturally, I cracked the windows before I left them in the car. The thunder came. I shuddered. By then, it had become the death knell to me. I was in line to check out. At the counter, writing my check, I felt something soft slip by my leg. I chanced to look down. It was Chloe, in a dead run to nowhere in particular. I left my purse, my checkbook–the whole shooting match–lying wide open on the counter, and chased her down.

Back outside, broken glass littered the parking lot around the front passenger door of my car. The window had been shattered and lay in a thousand pieces inside and out. Apparently, Chloe had heard the thunder and turned into Cujo. All we can figure is she grabbed the top of the cracked window and muscled it until it gave, then she leaped out. By a stroke of luck, she ran toward the store, tripped the automatic door and went in, then happened to turn down the aisle I was standing in.

So now, she’s narrowed our world a bit further. We can never go someplace and leave the dogs in the car if there could be thunder. Chloe might crash through a window and escape. Is there anyone but us who has to worry about that?

We are truly without recourse. We’ve become prisoners of every storm. Each morning, we check the weather and plot what to do if there is a hint of thunder in the forecast. Which one of us can take the dogs with us? Who could run home at a moment’s notice? Of course, there is always the transport kennel; we could lock Chloe in that. But deep in our hearts we know she would find a way to get out. We would come home and the metal door would be askew, or there’d be a hole clawed out of the side, or the bottom would be gone all together, with the mouth of a tunnel showing off to one corner.

We got Storm Terror pills from the vet. They didn’t help. We looked into getting one of those Thunder Jackets that you synch around her so she’ll feel safe and secure. I’m thinking waste of money.

Plain and simple, every time it thunders, Chloe goes nuts. If she isn’t sitting directly under our feet, in our lap, or on our faces in the bed, she will be carving something up to get to safety. Or she will be taking off to the hinterlands, wild-eyed and terrified.

None of this is to say I would trade her in. She’s still our Little Miss. I just hate knowing what that place called Wits’ End feels like. So, has anyone heard of a good remedy for canine Storm Terrors?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Whistle Stop


In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, U.S. Presidents campaigned with the whistle stop speech. The train pulled into town and the President stepped onto the rear platform to address local citizens. I wonder what went into planning that kind of stumping. Did the train just show up, blow its whistle and people came running to see who was there? Maybe a telegram went out to local newspapers, so people knew ahead of time to be down at the depot waiting for the train to arrive.

Friday, President Obama came to our town to give a campaign speech. He gave other speeches in Virginia that day, so I guess it was kind of a modern Whistle Stop Tour, except they flew in and out on Air Force One. I’m pretty sure this one required a little more planning.

On Tuesday before the speech, I got a text, an e-mail and then a phone call telling me I could pick up free tickets starting at five o’clock Wednesday evening. Cecil and I thought, What the heck? We’ve never seen a sitting President stump in person. So, he and a friend headed over to one of the three locations at about three o’clock Wednesday afternoon. There were already 250 people waiting. By the time five o’clock rolled around, the line snaked back and forth through the parking lot, went across the street and then down the sidewalk over there for as far as the eye could see.

Moods were generally pretty good, except for when people would mosey on up to the front of the line, act like they’d been there all along, and just take cuts. Who does that sort of thing? Cecil was having none of it. He marched up to one lady and said “Ma’am, the back of the line is about six blocks that way. Why don’t you go find it?” He looks too sickly for someone to choose off, what with the stem cell transplant and all, so there were no brawls, and we got our tickets.

On Friday, we decided to head downtown to the venue early. We didn’t know how many tickets they’d handed out or how aggressive people were going to be about getting there early. The line was supposed to start moving at five o’clock. Obama would speak at seven-fifteen. We pulled up at noon and the line had already formed to the left. We got lucky, though, when we discovered a separate line for VIPs and the handicapped. Cecil has been disabled due to his transplant, so we headed over to that line. I dare say we fairly milked the situation. Not too proud of it the next morning but, at the time, it seemed we needed to use whatever advantage we could scrape together.

So, there we were, first in line. It was a little before one o’clock. Just six more hours to sit in the hot sun and wait. As bad as that sounds, we were able to make the best of it. We’d brought canvas chairs, a deck of cards and books. The farmers market was around the corner and food trucks pulled up to the street. I think I gained ten pounds trying to fight the boredom. Cecil and I each had on our Panama Hats to shade our faces. We were those people who make everyone else mad because we were all set up, while they just had to stand there and be miserable.

From our vantage point, we could see a lot of what went into putting this little whistle stop together. Streets had been roped off since the day before. Cops stood guard at every possible crack through which people might try to sneak in. At one-thirty, a dozen Secret Service showed up carrying portable security equipment–big pieces, not crappy little scanning wands. I mean this stuff was taller than they were. Then came the sniffing dogs. After the apparatus had been assembled, and the dogs had checked things out, some fifty staff members, followed by another fifty volunteers, were led through security and around the corner to the actual venue.

A few stayed behind to recite the Rules to us over and over, in case we hadn’t been listening the first or second times, or maybe had just forgotten them since the last time they were yelled out over the din of the anxious crowd. There could be no liquids and no food, so Cecil and I started wolfing everything we had left. No chairs could come in. We made peace with having to leave ours behind when the time came. Umbrellas were a no-no, so that would be another loss. Hats were to come off. That meant my sweaty hat-hair would be exposed. Electronics turned on. They spelled the word ‘on’ several times to make sure the incredulous crowd got it…not off, we are saying on. Everything out of the pockets. Remove the jewelry. Bags open. Surprisingly, we got to keep our shoes on our feet.

I’m not one to go gaga over celebrities or politicians. I might feel a little excited if the Second Coming were about to happen, but otherwise I’m not easily impressed by people just because they are famous. I must admit, though, as the day passed, the collective excitement of the crowd started to get to me. When word spread that they were about to open the gates, the dog-eat-dog mentality snuck in amongst us all. Suddenly, our loose and meandering line had become a tight bunch of Johnny-come-latelies who had insinuated themselves up near the front little by some.

Cecil and I started getting protective of our front-of-the line status because, clearly, there were those who would take it from us if we let them. We packed up the chairs and ditched them in the bushes. Soon it became necessary to push back against people who were trying to nudge in a little closer. Finally, Cecil started talking loudly about how he was first in line. I kind of acted like I didn’t know him during these little soliloquies, though I secretly applauded the stand he was taking.

When the gates were opened and the lines started moving through security, it was like a free-for-all. No pushing or shoving–there were too many guns and dogs around for that, but there was a sense of urgency as people hustled around the corner and quickly made their way to find a good spot by the stage. Cecil shuffled along and had them show us to the handicapped section. The volunteer led us to front row seats right next to the stage. We smugly settled in, realizing we were clearly in the hand-shake zone for later.

I looked around. In front of us was the stage with sound equipment and a podium. Behind us were large lifts loaded with stage lighting that went a good twenty feet into the air. Huge banners adorned everything and an American flag stretched a couple stories high at the end of the block that had been cordoned off. Bleachers rose here and there. A dozen porta-potties sat over to the side. Water stations had been set about and several medics were on hand. Secret Service, cops, stage hands, and countless others with matching shirts and pins on their chests milled about. FDR and other whistle-stoppers would have stood in awe.

The crowd filed in and waited anxiously for the next two hours. We chatted with those around us. The woman behind me became my new best friend. A lady came in with an umbrella. Oh how my new friend and I complained and sniped at how special the woman must think she is. When it became apparent she was the signer for the deaf, we stopped bitching. Volunteers brought us water. We started asking for martinis. When it started to rain, our friend offered to share her poncho, but Cecil and I had brought two black trash bags that we whipped out and customized with holes for our heads and arms. We were as stylish a pair as you’d ever want to see in the front row before the President.

A band played a set. They were pretty good and the audience tolerated them, but music was not what we’d come for, so anything past the second or third song was too much.

When snipers appeared on the rooftops, the crowd hushed for a minute, then let out a collective burst of energy. A few minutes later the Presidential helicopter flew over top of us and you’d have thought Santa himself had been spotted. Cheers rang out. Cameras snapped wildly. The looseness around the stage closed up and the poor souls who were standing in the ‘at large’ section could no longer raise their arms or turn around. I’m surprised they could breathe. Any pickpockets in the crowd likely made a killing.

The Campaign teased us with tidbits for a few minutes. The podium’s rain gear was removed. The Presidential seal was hung on its front. Now they were ready. We heard from a candidate for Senate and then from a U.S. Senator and then, at long last, the moment arrived. The excitement outsized the audience.

The new best friend behind me leaped out of her seat to the black draped barricade in front of our section. She stood blocking everyone else. I tapped her on the back and asked her to please sit down. “Not until he’s come out and I’ve gotten a picture,” she snapped. “But the rest of us can’t see,” I explained. She was unmoved. “Sit down,” a man yelled angrily from a few rows back. She never budged, but yelled back “Shut up. I’ll move after I’ve gotten my picture.” “What are the rest of us supposed to get?” The angry man called back. “Shots of the back of your head? Or maybe your fat ass?” A volunteer intervened. The woman grudgingly squatted down at the barricade, but popped back up the instant the volunteer left.

And so it went. We were joined with thousands of strangers in an American event. It was enriching. It was volatile. I wasn’t even sure why I was there.

And then, there he was. The man we had all come to see. He dashed on stage and spoke to the crowd as though he knew each of us well. He flashed that magnetic smile of his and people swooned. When someone yelled ‘I love you, Barack’, he said ‘I love you back’. When he saw someone go down from the heat, he stopped mid-sentence and directed medics to the fallen fan. He measured the crowd and swept it along. He was comfortable. They were infatuated. 

Sometimes it is the message that draws people. Sometimes it is the one who delivers the message. It was clear to me that the aura surrounding President Obama is much more involved than just what he has to say.

I found myself torn between watching him and watching the event. He was captivating; I had to admit. But the captivation itself was just as interesting. When Obama left the stage and worked the ‘rope line’, those of us standing there jockeyed for position, cameras ready. As he came to our section, we reached and clamored and snapped picture after picture. It was a frenzy. He was elegant and warm throughout, moving with the ease of a relaxed man, or a skilled politician, or both. When Obama came to Cecil, he moved past after the handshake, as with everyone else. Then, he stopped and looked back at Cecil. Even in the midst of all the frenzy, it had dawned on him that Cecil is ill. He leaned back in our direction. “Hang in there, Man,” he said, as he smiled directly at Cecil and gave him a thumbs up.

As I watched that exchange, looking right at Obama’s face from about twelve inches away, I felt kindly toward him. He struck me as a nice man. I realized I see him as a bridge between our country’s tragic past and the future we seek. It was going to take just the right person to close the gap created by the racial divide. It wasn’t going to be Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson. Obama was the one: half white, half black; simple yet elegant; humble yet sophisticated. Non-divisive. I say all this regardless of his politics, or mine, or anybody else’s. I’m not talking about politics.

After hours in the sun, coveting our enviable position, sensing excitement I rarely feel and all but gushing like a school girl as he shook my hand, I realized I see Barack Obama as an icon. This country used to openly treat people of color as though they were lesser human beings. Now a black man is President. No matter what he does or doesn’t do for this country in terms of policy, Barack Obama has taken us as a People somewhere we should have gone a long time ago.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Know Thy Enemy


In my last post, I mentioned that I will be launching a website for my writing projects, in particular the book I’ve written about federal prosecution of pain doctors, including my husband, Cecil. I expect the site to go live in August. Meanwhile, I plan to post excerpts from my book every now and then here on TigerBird Sunrise. This week, I am sharing something that happened early-on in the fed’s investigation into Cecil’s medical practice. This incident woke us up to the fact that, when the feds are after you, there is no corner of your life in which to feel safe.

In August of 2001, the feds had begun going after pain docs as a means of curbing the flow of Oxycontin and other narcotics. They had raided Cecil’s medical office and our home a month earlier, so we knew he was under investigation. At that early stage, though, we were thinking they would realize their mistake and back off. We were still na├»ve then. It took the full onslaught, tactic after disturbing tactic, before we would become wise to their ways.  

It was early evening. Cecil and our son, Dru, had taken two neighborhood boys to swim at our local lake. Our daughter, Kirstyn, and I were at the house. One of the boys with Cecil lived next door. I was standing at the stove when the boy’s father came running out his front door and yelled across the fence that Cecil and the kids had been in an accident on the way back from the lake.

I grabbed my keys and yelled for Kirstyn. We jumped into the car and headed for the lake. There was only one route he would have taken.

About half-way there, we came upon a line of traffic. Lights lit up the sky to the right across a field. “That’s them, isn’t it?” Kirstyn spoke, almost in a guttural tone. “Probably,” I mumbled. Our windows were up and there was an eerie silence. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. I drove as close as I could get, then stopped. As Kirstyn and I jumped out, a jolt of noise and chaos hit us. We both started running. Kirstyn streaked ahead. “Dad! Dad!” She screamed into the night.

 Fire trucks and ambulances cluttered the street. Police and rescue vehicles were everywhere. People yelled back and forth, but I couldn’t tell what they were saying. As I got close, I could smell fuel and I saw fire hoses snaking across the ground. Someone tried to stop me, but I just kept going. I was all animal at that point: senses on high alert and very little thinking.

I followed the chaos with my eyes and felt a wrenching from the inside out when I saw Cecil’s truck. It was in someone’s front yard, upside down and in three pieces. Two huge evergreens that had been taken out by the truck engulfed its wreckage.

I wasn’t sure where to go first. An ambulance was off to my left. I ran over to it and found Dru and one of the other boys inside, strapped onto stretchers. Dru was wearing a neck brace.

“Oh God,” I said aloud, afraid to go forward, at the same time I was jumping in. “What happened, Baby?” I tried not to scare him. Dru said people had screamed for him to get out of the truck before it blew up. As he scrambled through a window, he looked back at his dad, hanging upside down, trapped by his seatbelt. Dru crawled away from the truck and rescue workers scooped him up. He yelled for Cecil but was whisked away, expecting to hear the explosion any minute.

In the ambulance, Dru was beside himself over his father. I tried to reassure him. “It’s okay, honey, the truck didn’t blow up. I saw it. Are you hurt? Can you move everything?” He wasn’t sure at that point.

My thoughts were all over the place. I wanted to stay with Dru, but I also wanted to find Cecil. I looked out of the ambulance and scanned the scene. I couldn’t see him anywhere, so decided to run out real quick to make sure he was all right. Dru was clutching my hand, but nodded for me to go and let his grip slacken. “Come right back, okay?” He was trying not to cry. I gave him a kiss and promised I’d be gone for just a minute. Then I jumped out, feeling the tug of motherhood trying to pull me back.

I ran around the crash scene looking for Cecil and found him in another ambulance. Medics were working over him. He was dazed and disoriented. His eyes fixed on me as soon as I appeared at the door. He wanted to know about the boys, then he told me to go back and make sure they were okay. I stood frozen. “Donna, go be with Dru,” Cecil insisted. I hoped he knew how hard it was for me to leave.

I made my way back toward Dru and the other boys. Before I could get there, Dru’s ambulance pulled out, threw on its lights and left the scene. “WAIT!” I screamed at the tail lights that were leaving without me. I called Kirstyn’s name and she came from nowhere. We ran down the street to our car, moving in sync, sharing the same frightened heartbeat that pounds in the chest of every person who senses they are on the verge of losing someone they love. Off in the distance, I heard the siren, that horrible sound that tells you someone is in trouble. This time it was my son.

A second ambulance pulled out and I swung my car in behind it. Together we raced down the highway. Lights were on inside and I could see the medic working over the third boy. That left Cecil at the scene. I expected to hear the cry of the ambulance that carried him come from behind at any minute, but it never did.

At the E.R. we ran through some doors and were made to wait with the other families. Another siren arrived. “That’s probably Dad,” Kirstyn said, without moving. I imagined him dying before they could get to him. I prepared myself for raising a son who could no longer walk or move on his own. Every minute was long enough to imagine a lifetime of horrors.

Eventually a nurse came in and told us we could go back and see everyone. The families pushed through the doors and down the hall to where the children were lying in beds. There were no tubes or monitors, no life-saving dramas. After having seen the wreckage, it was difficult to fathom but, apparently, there was no urgency for any of them. The pall of disaster began to drift away. I settled Dru into his bed and asked him what happened.

“A car came from the other direction and Dad moved over to make room and our tires went off into a ditch and Dad turned the wheel real hard to stay on the road and the truck started going crazy. We flew off onto grass and went into trees, and then flipped over. It happened really fast.”

The boys were in a room that formed the dead end of the hall. From their door I could see the entire hallway. While Dru was talking, I looked down the hall at police officers who were scampering about. One of them disappeared with an air of secrecy into a small room. They all seemed up to something.

I left the boys’ room and headed toward the activity. A voice was talking in hushed tones behind the closed door of the small room. It was one side of a conversation; someone was on the telephone. The door opened and an officer came out. He averted his eyes and walked into another room a couple doors down. I followed on his heels and found Cecil standing there.

He seemed basically stable. There was a large bloody area on the left side of his head. Blood vessels had obviously burst in his eyes because they looked like road maps. He was still somewhat dazed, but he had his wits about him. “They want a blood sample,” he said, as I walked in. “They’re charging me with DUI.”

DUI?” I stared at the officer. “He was swimming with the boys at the lake!”

“Dr. Knox,” the officer continued, as though I were not in the room. “Will you consent to a blood test?” It was odd that the guy called him Doctor Knox. Why didn’t he call him Mister like everyone else who doesn’t know him enough to know he’s a doctor?

I struggled to remember some remnants of criminal law and asked if they’d offered Cecil a breathalyzer, like they're supposed to. No, they hadn’t. They wanted a blood sample now and, if I didn’t mind, would I please step back. Yes, I did mind. In fact, since they were about to place Cecil under arrest, I would now be acting as his attorney and they were not to speak directly to him again.  

I asked the basis of their professed belief that Cecil had been drinking. The officer seemed to squirm the slightest bit. He wasn’t at liberty to discuss that with me at this time. They just wanted a blood sample.

It’s common for different law enforcement agencies to work together. Badges and vests from a number of agencies had come through the door when they’d raided Cecil’s office and our house. Now, these guys were asking for blood. Visions of agents switching vials–or infusing Cecil’s–crept into my mind. I asked about the chain of custody of the sample. More squirming. He wasn’t at liberty to discuss that, either.

“Then Dr. Knox is not prepared to give you a blood sample. I’d like a few minutes with my husband, please.” The officer and the nurse left the room. I turned to Cecil. “If you refuse a sample they’ll suspend your driver’s license for a year. But I don’t trust them. I think they’re talking to the feds in that room. The feds would love to come up with a report that says you’ve got drugs in your system. What do you want to do?” Cecil insisted he hadn’t been drinking and that he wasn’t concerned about his blood alcohol level.

I was still suspicious. Once they had his blood we would lose control of the situation. What if they just flat-out falsified the report? They’d shown up at our door with a battering ram and rifled through crawl spaces in the basement. They’d threatened patients who didn't want to cooperate in setting Cecil up. I had no idea what these guys were capable of doing and they were refusing to tell me who would take custody of the blood sample.

Cecil sat and stared off for a few seconds. “Okay. Tell ‘em no blood.” I opened the door to talk to the police officer and he all but fell into the room, standing just a little too close. “There will be no sample, officer.”

On October 25th Cecil was tried on a DUI charge, as well as his refusal to consent to a blood alcohol test. Reckless driving had been thrown in for good measure. All of this generated publicity, something we would later have to get used to. To no one’s surprise, sitting in the back of the courtroom were the feds’ lead investigator and his side kick, notebooks in hand, ready to take it all down.

The prosecutor put a police officer on the witness stand, then offered the Implied Consent Form into evidence. This was the document that showed Cecil had refused to give a blood sample. The judge took the form. “This is a copy, Counselor. Where is the original?”

The prosecutor didn’t spend much time looking through his file. “I’m sorry, Your Honor, but I don’t have the original.”

“If you don’t have the original, I am dismissing the Refusal. You can’t prosecute on a copy.” It was a technicality, an evidentiary ruling. The judge seemed irritated. He had a “You know this as well as I do” tone in his voice. In the end, the judge dismissed the DUI and the Refusal, and took the Reckless Driving under advisement. He ordered Cecil into VASAP, which is an alcohol education program. It was an affront, but better than losing his license for a year.

As we left the courtroom, I saw that the agents had disappeared. Cecil looked at their empty seats and took my hand. “I’ll bet I know who has the original.”

I understood at that moment what, and who, we were dealing with. And deal with them we did, for the next five years.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Howling Winds


Friday night, something blew through town. I don’t know if it was a tornado or just a monster storm, but it brought 75 mile-an-hour winds with it. The winds took down several of our huge forest trees. The trees, of course, had to land on, and crush, our split rail fence. They also ripped Cecil’s car up a good bit and showered our entire three acres with branches, leaves and debris. The front drive is completely blocked. Our power is out. All of this makes for a very nice showing when your house is on the market for sale. ‘Till now, I’ve stopped in the middle of a work day and worried I might have left my toothbrush on the sink. Now the whole place looks like a war zone.

It was supposed to have been such a lovely weekend – Cecil’s first time home in the three months since he began his stem cell transplant. I thought maybe things were getting off to a bad start when we found the dogs fighting over a dead possum, bloated from the heat with worms snaking their way out from the belly. Cecil and I jostled over which role we each had to play. I thought I’d won when he agreed to shovel the thing up. But, then I had to hold the bag and, probably by accident, the possum’s protruding butt hole touched my hand on the way in and, suddenly, I was thinking I’d gotten the raw end of that deal.

So, after a bunch of gagging and some very serious hand washing, we were just retiring upstairs when the chaos erupted. I mean, it came from nowhere and it came with a vengeance. We heard the winds rumbling through our woods on their way to the house before they got here. Books along the window sill came flinging off to the floor before we could react. I tried to get to the window, but actually had to fight the force. It was like in a cartoon where the character is pushing into a wind storm and his skin is blown back behind his face.

Cecil and I, with both dogs, huddled in the bed, except it was too hot to stay that way for long. The power went out immediately and there we were with no AC and no fans. What was it, maybe 105 that night? It felt like much more. We lay, actually moaning out loud about the heat, sweat dripping, in the literal sense, onto the sheets. The dogs were banished to the floor, but their panting haunted us all night long. We fluctuated between worrying they would die of heat stroke, and actually snapping at them from time to time to be quiet.

As I tossed and turned, more awake than ever sleeping, I thought I felt a tick burrowed into my stomach. Anyone who’s ever had a tick knows the drill. You stop, mid-action. Is that a tick? Once you’ve confirmed that it is, there is nothing in the world more important than getting the tick out. Except we had no power and it was pitch dark. I grabbed some tweezers, a mirror and a flashlight and set myself up. Every second was a nightmare. Surely the thing was already making its way into my bloodstream. You haven’t really roughed it until you have yanked a tick out by flashlight in the middle of a tornado, or whatever that was.

We woke up yesterday morning, exhausted from our night’s ‘sleep’ and laughed about the winds. Little did we suspect the horrors that awaited us outside. We surveyed the damage – it wasn‘t pretty. As Cecil shuffled about, so weak and so deserving something other than this, I barked out orders. We needed to call the insurance company. And the electric company, in case by some stretch of unfathomable coincidence, we were the only ones without power. Tree haulers needed to get to the property immediately. What if a potential buyer wanted to stop by? I was clearly delusional by then. After several calls, it became clear that what had fallen in our woods was too large for ordinary people to handle. We needed to bring in lumberjacks or someone else with red plaid shirts, a big-ass chain saw and a crane. 

After an hour on the phone with the insurance claims people, I realized I needed pictures. So, next I found myself out in the woods, no doubt communing with the mother lode of all ticks, not to mention a fair amount of poison ivy. It was out there, in the heat, that I realized we would lose everything in the refrigerator.

So, I jumped in the car to go get ice. It was 8:00 AM. What had I been doing all morning long? By then, every grocery store, CVS, and piss-ant mini-mart in the region was out of ice, batteries and candles. As I dragged myself toward home, resigned to losing the $300 in groceries I’d just packed into the fridge, I saw a woman pushing a cart of ice out front of a nameless corner market. You’d have thought she had gold in her buggy. I peeled into the lot, paid her twenty bucks on the spot and loaded the ice into the trunk.

I might mention, in passing, that the streets of Roanoke were no longer a safe place to find yourself. Intersections had no traffic lights and there was, essentially, a free-for-all going on at every corner. Road rage erupted without a whole lot of provocation. A significant number of ‘fingers’ were given, not to mention the obscenities that made their way out a number of windows.  

Once Cecil and I had moved the food into ice-packed coolers, it dawned on me that my cell phone and laptop batteries would soon die and I had no way to charge them. Losing trees and going without food were slight inconveniences compared to the notion of being unplugged. I crossed over long ago and freely admit I am neurotic about being connected. So, I jumped back into the car and charged the phone on my ride to Books a Million, where I sat casually sipping tea (as if I had nothing else to do) so my computer could charge. This morning, I am decadently draining that charge to write this blog post. Needless to say, I am banging it out and the writing will stink a little.

The only thing left was what to do about night fall. We couldn’t just sit there in the dark. I remembered our old-timey hurricane lanterns, so I left the book store and headed off to find some fuel. After practically elbowing people out of the way at five different stores, only to come upon barren shelves, I struck pay dirt in my store of last resort. I’d gotten down on my knees to look in the way back of the bottom shelf where it seemed the oil would be. There, lying on its side behind a bunch of other stuff that had not become popular survival items, was a lone bottle of lamp oil. I gave the now proverbial Yes – complete, as I remember it, with the downward thrust of the clenched fist, for emphasis. We would have light. In fact, when I got home, we found some sheets of beeswax in the cupboard and rolled candles, so, as the sun set and the rooms dimmed, we were actually lookin’ pretty good.     

 We hear it’ll be days before power can be restored. It’ll be weeks before our yard is back together. This is definitely not what Cecil and I had envisioned for his first visit home in three months. But, stuff happens. This was just one more reminder that you have to be flexible. As always, we tried to put a positive spin on the situation. Pickings were slim, but we came up with 1) At least the weekend wasn’t boring, and 2) Cecil won’t be as sad to head back up to Charlottesville on Monday to continue his recuperation regimen. That’s about the best we can do. Oh, and the roof didn’t blow off the house, and none of us died. 

I will close by saying I look forward to launching my new web site in August, after my son, Dru, gets back from Asia and builds it for me. The site will be devoted to life and writing about it, with a particular focus on my book Came the Hunter, a manuscript I am currently shopping to agents. But that’s another whole story.

Here’s hoping this coming week will be a little less eventful.