Excerpt: The Factory

Image Credit: Thurleigh– After each mission, the men of the 306th BG would take a candle and smoke the ceiling of the officers’ club with the date and target for the day’s mission. (The 306th Bomb Group Historical Society, Dr. Thurman Shuller collection.)

1st Mission, Jan 6, 1945 Cologne: Koln

A voice sings out in the pitch black. It was something happy, like a dream melting into something else. I thought there was a boy selling peanuts… .

The rude gray light come on all at once, flooding the barracks where we slept nose to nose, close enough that our dreams started to run all together.

0400. It was only the messenger, saying time to go.

“Up an at em’,” Jenkins mumbles, rolling over in his bunk. “Time to warsh.”

The fellas have had a crack at my accent. Seems to keep the nerves down.

Breakfast is ladled out at 0500. You can tell the Americans that skip on the beans and toast. Black coffee warms the belly. They say we can take some with us. It grows cold quick enough in the jeeps, though. It’s a damp, unsettling kind of cold, that makes the fingers ache and burn. It’s about to get much worse.

Briefing says we are headed for Cologne. My stomach gives a little jump and lurch, but I can’t tell if it’s excitement or nerves or both. The jeeps pick us up and ferry us through the dark to the field, where some lackeys are messing around with the Grey Lady, checking all the gubbins for gremlins.

“Why’d Leigh have to go and call her the Grey Lady,” Jenkins observes, “ and not something sweet like Foxy Lady or Minnie Mouse? Gives me the heebie-jeebies.”

We sat and froze some more against the metal cargo hold while we waited another hour to clear. It was mute as a church, but nobody slept. Then we got the ok to head to our positions. Jenkins took his at the tail to make sure we didn’t get rear ended as we made formation for takeoff. We hit our throat radios in succession to say we were in position. My position was to count ammo, then climb back out of the turret, fiddle with cords, and wait some more.

“In position,” I gurgled. That was that, position-wise.

Leigh got the call that said we were clear, and the engines roared, and off we went bumping and clattering down the taxiway.

Death — XIII Part 1

Popular Grim Reaper meme from Cultofweird.com

I kissed a corpse.

That’s what you get for trying to save people. And once something like that happens, it’s going to happen again and again, like a trip to the hospital or going to jail.

She was lying on the kitchen floor at the pink apartments — her house dress, her old lady shoes, the neighbors all standing around in the kitchen slack-jawed, not knowing what to do. The kitchen itself was a coffin, especially with all those bodies gathered around. It was unbearable.

The landlord’s mother. Running feet. My first weekend in the new apartment.

“Anybody know CPR?” They were running past outside. Should have said no. You can always say no.

She was warm. No breath. No heartbeat. This was back when you were supposed to breathe life into people instead of just pumping their chest.

I did the thing. It was like those dead animals you walked by in summer heat on the side of the road at work. Everybody stood there while I gagged. Take a picture, would you?

The EMTs finally arrived and added themselves to the sweating bodies in the kitchen, pushed everybody out of the way. Thank God.

Turns out, she’d been dead all night. Fell out in the kitchen by the hot stove, which kept her warm.

A similar thing happened the very next week at work, but that is more Creepy Cade’s story than mine. I’ll write about him later. He wasn’t so creepy, after all. And then it happened again, and again. I tried to breathe life out and ended up inhaling death.

This isn’t any hero’s journey. From the Fool to the Queen of Hearts, through the Empress and Queen of Swords and back to the Fool again.

Halloween, All Hallow’s Eve, Samhain, All Soul’s Night. It is the death of the year, the final harvest. La Morte. In the traditional deck, he is XIII, a grinning skull in black armor who rides in on a white steed, his scythe ready to reap the wheat of us. Whoever thought he would be THE knight on a white horse, come at last to give you your happy ending?

Endings always come in Fall as the year dies and the trees shrivel from green to brown and shed their leaves, especially for us fire signs who blaze in summer. There are so many deaths in life, changes — career, homes, friendships, loves, marriages. Death is the only thing you can put stock in. He’s a sure bet.

Some other cultures aren’t always trying to fight his embrace. They live hand in hand with the ancestors, preserve their stories, set out plates and candles for the dead. 

Row, row, row your boat…

I’m sitting there on a hard pew in my black funeral dress. There’s a picture of a girl in a frame up by the pulpit. I never met her, a friend of a friend. The father is so broken up, he mumbles a few things, loses the power of speech, leaves the microphone.

Reminds me of another funeral over a decade ago. The service was over and they are getting ready to put Will’s mother in the ground. Will bears part of the load of the coffin. Watching them throw handfuls of dirt is sickening.

“God, I hated you then,” he said. “I couldn’t see anything except you looking beautiful in that dress.”

But I don’t want to talk about that yet. Maybe ever. 

The mother takes the stage. She gives a very steady and certain account of her daughter’s life. The addictions, the turmoil.

“I prayed for this,” she says. “I knew this day would come, and now I know she has some peace. Now we can all have some peace.”

Cut and dry, honest as the rain.

By the end, everyone is crying. Tears wet my face for this stranger, and for all the others I never shed a tear for.

The Arcadis contract was a decent gig. Most of it was I-295 on the Northside within a couple miles of my house, but the office was in a nice building downtown on the river. The FDOT mandated four-person crews, and what we were doing was all pre-construction, just locating the monumentation up and down the highway.

Sometimes we switched off people on the crews, but mainly it was us four. Steve was the crew leader, a gentle giant. I was second-in-command and rode shotgun in the hierarchy. There was Mike, a young guy with a wealthy family from Belize who was studying engineering. He was cool, spoke Creole on the phone with his family. And Troy, a strange little troll of a man. Troy had a bluetooth piece he kept in his ear all day. His wife called periodically to nag him, and he would suddenly yell “What?” in the truck and make us all jump. He was always darting in front of traffic to run across the road, and I just knew he was going to get creamed one day. That, and when he called off the markings on the monuments over the radio he did it military style, Alpha, Beta, Cappa and all that, and still got everything wrong. I guess he meant well. He picked up all these flea market finds on weekends, and would give presents to us. I had a knife in a holster from him. That day, I had a brand new harmonica.

Troy had taken off that day, and our fourth man was my old buddy Scott, who trained me in the Arcadis way. So it promised to be a little more peaceful. We met the other crew at the Gate station to fuel up, as every morning, and did our daily trivia from the newspaper.

The crews took off and we set up our equipment on the highway. The setup for my instrument was in a sketchy northbound curve that I didn’t particularly like. My station was too close to the road, and where the highway veered off it made all the traffic come straight at you before the cars curved away. There was one of those little memorials with a white cross and flowers off in the grass. The other crew leader, Mark, was working this stretch the year before and watched a car do a roll off the road on this curve.

So I set up my tripod and balanced it out. Or maybe Mike did. He was learning. The cars were coming at me, but once I started looking through the lens, at least I wouldn’t see them coming. It was Fall, and too bright. Not a cloud in the sky. Typical for Jacksonville in autumn. Too hot to feel like Fall, but someone was burning leaves.

Steve and Scott left Mike and I on the side of the road to drive to the exit and go around this back neighborhood to get a shot on the monument behind the fence. Typical pain in the ass. Mike was learning the instrument and data collector, so we went through the process of setting up the program for the first round of shots. He shot the backsight and foresight prisms. Then, there was nothing to do but wait for the guys on the radio. Mike got on the phone with his papa or mama or the girlfriend back on La Isla Bonita. I wandered away from the road edge, pulled the harmonica out of my pocket and tried to blow out a tune.

The high-pitched squeal of wheels and the smell of burning rubber cut through a strange lull in the noise of traffic. I looked up from the harmonica. A fog of tire smoke clouded the southbound side of 295. At the end of that smoke trail was a car mid-skid to the far left. The vehicle spun into a wide 180 and, facing the wrong direction, seemed to jump in slow motion sideways off the steep shoulder and into the trees on the far side of the road, landed in the trees with a pop and a huff. Everything stopped.

No one had seen it. The car was wedged in the trees. There was a rare break in traffic. Now the herd came again, cars whizzing by unsuspecting. Mike looked over at me, still holding his phone.

“Oh, shit,” he said.

No cars stopped. They didn’t see the accident. They just drove through the tire smoke.

“Call 911. I’m going over.”

He punched at his phone. “I’ll be right behind you.”

I waited for another break. Crossed the lanes running north and south. Walked down into the gulley. The car was upright, still facing the wrong direction, and seemed to be against a pine. I couldn’t see inside, except closer up I could see the empty passenger seat. There was no movement, and I hesitated. What if the person inside was whacked out on something? Likely they had a gun.

On the passenger seat was a fan of cds. A pair of legs on the driver’s side, a man’s brownish hand resting on the right leg, a pack of smokes in his lap. The hand didn’t move.

“Sir?” I knocked on the window. Peered in.

This whole time I thought, no big deal. Let’s see if he’s stuck, injured, unconscious, whatever. There was no imminent danger. Just wait on the ambulance.

It was a big deal.

I pulled the passenger door open. He was alive. In spasms, choking on things that were supposed to stay inside. Fuck. Fuck.

Mike was behind me.

“Oh, shit,” he said again.

I reached in and touched the man’s hand. Told him someone was coming. Said it again. No one came. Time stopped.

I called 911 again. The fire trucks and cops and EMTs showed up after what seemed like hours. Mike had radioed the crew. Steve and Scott were there, and Steve had to report to the project manager, so he pulled up. Walked over to the ordeal. Came back and reported they had revived the man.

“We have to fill out an incident report,” project manager says. “Let’s get you guys out of here.”

He bought lunch. No one could eat and I didn’t even bother trying, just wandered around outside.

“I’m taking the guys back to work,” PM says. “You should go home.”

“Why? I can work.”

“You’re coming with me. We have to fill out some stuff anyway.”

He drove me to the office.

“Can you just check, if he lived?”

PM looks up stuff on his phone. “It’s listed as a fatality.”

We fill out forms online. He’s on the phone. None of this has anything to do with me, but of course death has paperwork.

“They are going to use this in safety training, even though you weren’t involved,” he says. Whatever.

“Hey. The company offers free counseling for stuff like this. Here’s the hotline number.”

Corporate counseling?

“Thanks. I have a bottle of Captain Morgan at home.”

I drove home uncomfortably. The whole next week it looked like there were accidents waiting to happen everywhere, and how people went about their business looking down at their phones…

That day I sat on the back porch and smelled the burning leaves. Probably the same leaf pile I smelled on the highway in the morning. What was he doing? Rifling through his music? Reaching for a cigarette?

It was obvious he lost control on the curve and overcorrected. Tomorrow he would be yesterday’s news. I looked up the news report, got his name. As if finding out more about the guy would help me understand. He lived right down the street from me, probably didn’t even make it a mile. 

I became even more obsessed with death than usual. The funeral was going to be held a week later, not far away. I debated on whether to send flowers. It seemed stupid. Instead, like an insane person, I drove to the funeral home after work. The funeral people were setting up flowers and stuff. I left my number in the office. Figured that was the end of it.

His sister called a week or so later. Hispanic accent. Said she lived in Miami.

“I don’t even know why I thought you would want to talk to me, but I was there when he passed away. I thought, I don’t know what I thought.”

“What happened?” she said on the line, and burst into tears. “I don’t understand. He was a good driver.”

“I don’t know.”

She tells me the man had custody of his 12-year-old son, about the same age as mine, who was living with him. Now the boy was going to live with her in Miami.

“So you were there? Did he say anything?”

She is freaking out. I shouldn’t have done it. But if I was her, I would want to know. I was her at one time, and never knew anything.

“No, ma’am. He was unconscious.”

“Oh, my God. Maybe you were his guardian angel.”

I don’t think I could feel much worse. Right. More like, angel of death. If I were someone else, I wouldn’t want me to come near with a 49 and a half foot pole.

I didn’t hear from her again. His story, at least on this plane, was over. And had yet to make sense.