Blowing Smoke at the Bravo Hotel

(This story is a work in progress due to the honest truth that some details may need to be sorted out.  None of the names or locations have been changed, but some of the details may have been altered accidentally.)

“You boys sit down and I’ll tell you a true story,” said Robbie to the assembled group of grungy teenagers on that late summer afternoon.

We had just finished up with band practice in Robbie’s basement, the lowest level of their family home which we commonly referred to as the Bravo Hotel.  The four of us were spilling out onto the patio shirtless and soaked with sweat from rehearsing our crappy teenage songs.  The sun was sinking over the wooden fence that afternoon as we found our seats on patio benches in the dull humidity of the Iowa summer.

“This one is really something, and its true,” said Robbie, throwing in an I swear for added validation of genuine intentions.

See, it wasn’t that we wouldn’t believe Robbie, but we had grown accustomed to his fantastical stories over the course of many similar exhibitions the past few months.  We would finish band practice when someone suggested a smoke break, head outside, and Robbie would come over from the shop to regale us with epic stories.

Robbie owned our small town’s music shop and recording studio, a business adjacent to the house where his family lived.  John, his eldest son, was the drummer in our crappy high school band, and their home had become the daily practice space for our raggedy crew.  Day after day we returned to agonizingly work to perfect songs that were imperfect, satisfied with the contentment that comes with camaraderie and honest effort.

Robbie was a musician as well, formerly drumming in a band named Galaxy that opened for Creedence Clearwater Revival on CBS Television once upon a time, at least according to another story that had spilled out on a different lazy afternoon.

The four of us settled in, burning our bare backs on the sun warmed benches as we prepared for another story.  Robbie looked at each of us with wide eyes, making sure were tuned in for what was sure to be an incredible tale.  His curly graying hair tied back in a ponytail, Robbie held a Capri 100 in one hand, a blue can of Bud Light in the other as he began.

“Are you all familiar with the Buddy Holly plane crash?” he asked, looking from face to face around the informal circle we had formed.

The others nodded in acknowledgement as I tried to explain, as dictated by my over explanatory nature, how I was born in a small Iowa town not far from where the plane crashed, so, yes, of course I was familiar.  I have always been a bit of a know-it-all, and in high school this tendency was at its worst.  Robbie just smiled, waiting for me to finish, nodding as I finished my unneeded soliloquy.

For those out there that may be unfamiliar, Buddy Holly was a famous American singer-songwriter who tragically died when a plane crashed on February 3, 1959 into a cornfield between Clear Lake and my native Forest City following a show at the Surf Ballroom.  Don McLean would forever immortalize the event in his classic song, “American Pie,” by dubbing that ‘the day the music died.’

“You know how they blamed the crash on the pilot being untrained and the icy weather and all that?” Robbie asked.

“Well, let me tell you, that isn’t how it went down,” he said.

We all exchanged ‘yeah, right’ looks around the circle as we tried to avoid the glances Robbie was actively shooting in each of our directions to gauge our interest.  Dustin, our sometimes guitarist, sometimes bassist, gave me a wide-eyed look to suggest that he wasn’t necessarily buying it.

“My old man was the insurance claims adjuster for the company that examined the wreckage,” Robbie said in the hopes of establishing better credibility.

“He would always tell me how there was more to the crash than anyone knows, like there was a big cover up or something.”

Again those of us assembled to hear the story exchanged looks, John fumbling to extract another Parliament Light from its hard pack, Fatty raising his eyebrows to suggest that John should bum him another smoke.

“Sheesh, man, these are like seven bucks a pack,” said John disdainfully before eventually handing one over.

“Now boys, focus in,” said Robbie, pulling us back into his story.

“Not all was how it seemed that night.”

“There was some bad blood there or something because it sure wasn’t ice that brought down that plane,” he said.

“My dad swore to me on his honor that there was foul play, but since everyone died there was no way to prove exactly what happened.”

We had all been hooked, eyes fixated on Robbie as he slowly pulled out another Capri 100.

“There was a bullet hole in the ceiling of the plane, and in the wreckage they found a pistol,” he said.

There he stopped, taking a sip from his beer before lighting his cigarette.  The grating noise made by the metallic wheel of the cheap plastic lighter was the only sound other than cicadas as the four of us sat staring at him in the growing twilight.

“No one really knows what happened, or why they wanted it covered up so bad,” he said in a deflating way that let us know the story had ended.

“But why?” we all asked in unison.

“No one really knows, but someday somebody is going to look into it and find out some things that were left out of that original account,” he said, closing the subject.

At the time we all just let it go as one of Robbie’s timeless stories, so many of which stick in my head today as the best examples of story telling I have ever had the opportunity to hear.  It faded into the back of my mind, growing distorted like memories do through the years as we disbanded, grew apart, and eventually grew out of that small town.

Yesterday afternoon during the dullest part of the work day, a story from the local television station shook the cobwebs from my memory and sent me back to that sun soaked afternoon on the back patio of the Bravo Hotel.  The headline read: “A new look a the Buddy Holly crash?”  I blinked, straining to remember what exactly Robbie had said before the realization creeped over my mind that the four teenagers listening might have been the only ones on that patio blowing smoke.

(Here is the link to the KIMT story:

Dakota Spin

My mind was still bubbling with new ideas from the call I had just taken an hour or so before, somewhere just on the western outskirts of Fargo.  I hadn’t hesitated when the voice on the other end asked if I would take the job, I had just simply accepted, knowing full well that my wife and I had discussed the potential of the situation at dead horse lengths during the first six hours of our drive.

North Dakotans sets their speed a little higher than most, 75 miles per hour is the legal limit, but the going rate for oil-boom truckers in just north of 80.  Even in the January dusk they were still flying by me as I white knuckled the Jeep with two hands, hoping to remain in control as the evening wind pushed loose remnants of snow across I-94.  Internally I chuckled, laughing at my college friend who had chosen to set his Bismarck wedding date for mid-January.

There is no slowing down as you rocket across the plains out there, every hundred miles there is an old railway town, but in between you have to strain your eyes to even pick out farm lights after dark. Starkly wide open spaces, even to a native of another midwestern state.  As darkness continued to settle that night, my wife quietly listened as I continued to expound on the excitement I had over the new job opportunity.  My mind was racing and my mouth was keeping up.

Soon the inky blackness had enveloped us, my dirty headlights attempting to cut through the mildly swirling snow as we made our way through Jamestown.  One of the few bends in the road results when 94 crosses the James River, and as I banked right in the darkness I noticed that my traction wasn’t ideal.  Foot on the break, I took the speed down a few miles per hour, content to ride out the rest of the journey in safety, even if it meant being a little later to meet up with my college buddies at our old hangout, The Elbow Room.

It wasn’t even snowing, simply just windy, loose particles of frozen precipitation moving about in the darkness as we continued due west, accompanied on our quest by oil men flying by in their oversized vehicles.  As an undergraduate I would drive for miles out there in the middle of nowhere without hardly ever seeing another car.  Now, with the oil boom in full swing, 94 is constantly choked both ways with a steady stream of traffic headed to and from the western fracking fields.

In the distance I saw the famed blue lights of a state patrolmen, making sure to carefully switch lanes to provide him with room to assist whatever motorist was stuck out there a solid hour from any tow-truck service.  I edged my foot on the break as I moved back into the right lane, my mouth still spilling random thoughts as I firmly gripped the wheel..

Violently, the Jeep careened in the darkness.  Around we went, caught in that incredible moment where you want to think back and suggest that you had thoughts, but in all reality you know it was just a fractured second of animal instinct. I pulled on the wheel, or perhaps I didn’t, as we rocketed tail-end first into the snow packed median.  Stopping abruptly, but not as as abruptly as I may have feared during the preceding spin,  I stuck to the back of my seat, the laws of motion holding the breath in my chest I reached for my wife’s hand.

I exhaled and there was clarity.  She was okay, I was okay, and in that moment nothing else mattered.  We were stuck in snow above the running boards out in that Dakota blackness an hour from the closest wrecker, but as I watched the blue and red lights of the approaching police car play across my wife’s face I was only struck only by her beauty and the beauty present in the simplicity of life revalued after a close call.

Abandoned House off T-14

T-14 is a country blacktop that winds its way north out of my hometown.  Sliding out past the vet clinic, Andrew and I were on a mission.  It was the height of the craze, Facebook still a social media network only open to those with college based email addresses, and we were hell bent on creating a memorable album of photographs.

It was early fall, sometime within those perfect two weeks at the beginning of the season where the leaves have been set ablaze without yet falling from the trees.  We had carefully selected the right sweatshirts, checked to make sure our hair was adequately messy, and plucked a couple of extra AA batteries to ensure the point-and-shoot camera wouldn’t die.

As we descended a hilly curve into the flat bottom of long-plowed under prairie that held the North Skunk River we kept out a keen eye for locations that might be ideal for pictures.  The bridge over the river looked prime, and I banked the Jeep onto the gravel shoulder of the road.  We disembarked, our canvas tennis shoes crunching on top of the crushed limestone shoulder of the highway.  The water beneath the bridge was slowly gurgling by, and we snapped a couple of images a piece before a tractor-trailer came barreling down the hill to force us off the bridge.

Back in the car, I queued up some tunes on the violet jog-proof diskman before pulling back out on to the highway.  We drove a while without any new spots jumping out as locations that would help to improve our stash of profile pictures in order to catapult us into the top eight of some nonexistent female admirers.

Eventually we arrived at the Sully Blacktop, veering right from T-14 without slowing down.  About a quarter mile down the road there was a steep gravel driveway leading behind what appeared to be an abandoned farmstead.  We blew by, but it stuck out as as good of a spot as any so we turned around.  Up the steep grade the tires climbed, overgrown weeds pushing against the bottom of the Jeep.

I pulled well into the yard, parking the Jeep in front of the barn, headlights illuminating a well worn door partially covered by iconic red paint.  I turned off the headlights, pulled the keys from the ignition, and pocketed them after manually locking the door.  As I walked around toward the front of the house I turned, checking to make sure that the Jeep wasn’t clearly visible from the road in the rapidly fading twilight.

“Don’t worry about it, man,” implored Andrew as we snapped a few initial shots of the outside of the house, the barn, the weathervane.

“Alright, I just don’t want to run into any trouble out here,” I replied.

“Stop being so paranoid,” he said.  “We aren’t really doing anything wrong anyway.”

We came around the front of the little white two story house, ambling up rickety half-sunk stairs and through the front door frame.  The door itself was in the middle of the living room, clearly knocked in by some other kids who had left the remnants of a case of Busch Light scattered around the room.  We each took a few more shots, and I took the lead moving over the creaky floors and into the dining room.

Looking up I noticed that a substantial portion of the ceiling was gone, leaving an opening to the second level.  Most of the debris had been pushed to the side, another indicator that we weren’t the only people who frequented this place.  Suddenly, we both froze at the sound of a rustling in the weeds outside of the jagged shards which composed the dining room window.

“Probably just a stray cat or something,” I said as I strode into the kitchen.

“Or a ghost,” mused Andrew softly.

In the kitchen, I opened the ancient iron oven, noticing that there was a healthy reserve of leaves accumulated on the inside.  The refrigerator door hung on one hinge, askew in a way that begged to be photographed.  After snapping the shot, I turned, internally debating if I wanted to venture to an upstairs that had already partially caved in.

“Might as well,” I whispered, largely to myself, beginning the climb up the windowless staircase.

“Why did you leave your lights on,” asked Andrew, “It would suck to get stuck way out here, especially at a place that is probably haunted.”

I felt for keys in my pocket as I put some weight on my left foot to test the landing halfway up the stairs, hearing Andrew’s camera zoom and flash in the kitchen below.

“I didn’t leave my lights on,” I mumbled, not loud enough to garner a response from below.

“Those stairs any good?” asked Andrew as he bounded up the first few steps before thinking better and gingerly climbing the rest of the way to meet me at the top.

At the top of the stairs were two doorways: one to the right that served as the dining room skylight, one to the left with an intact floor.  Cautiously, we stepped into the room to the left.  There was debris and graffiti throughout the room.  Eerily painted in brush strokes on the south wall were giant block letters urging us to “GET OUT NOW!”  A few drips had run down the bottom of each letter, adding to the chilling effect.

“Maybe we should,” said Andrew, smirking as he pointed out the scrawling on the wall.

“Did you hear that?” I asked, straining to listen for the remnants of a whooshing sound I had heard outside.

“It was probably just a truck out on the road,” replied Andrew. “Quit letting this place creep you out, get my picture over by this writing.”

Stepping over a pile of debris, I moved to the west window, briefly illuminating the room with the flash from the small, black square of a digital camera I had purchased with my birthday money that summer.  Turning to the window, I looked outside to make sure that I had in fact turned the lights of the Jeep off.  There she sat, nose pointing due west away from the house, headlamps dark in that inky early night right after sundown.

Another rustling noise from below, and we both stopped, turned, chills rippling up and down our spines.  Goosebumps stood out on my hands, and I suddenly had that empty, haunted feeling in the pit of my stomach.  I remember being told once about how a chilled feeling will come over you when you inadvertently walk into a ghost, their invisible form temporarily draining the warmth from one’s earthly body and soul.

“That sounded too big to be a cat,” said Andrew, clearly no longer carefree.

“Yeah, I think we should get the hell out of here,” I whispered back.

Gingerly, we picked our way through the debris and down the stairs, moving into a full sprint as soon as we hit the kitchen floor, ambling through cobwebs and down the rickety front steps.  Around the house we flew as I fumbled for my keys, inserting them clumsily in the door lock, diving in across the seat to pull the pin to unlock the passenger door.  We slammed the doors, I turned over the ignition, and we were back down the hill and headed toward town.

“We scared ourselves pretty good back there,” I mused after a few minutes had gotten us off the Sully Blacktop and back toward the safety of town.

“Speak for yourself,” Andrew replied.

“You were pretty eager for me to get that door unlocked, it looked like to me,” I said, laughing.

“Yeah, I wonder if any of the pictures will turn out,” he said.

We slipped back out of conversation as Taking Back Sunday’s “Cute Without the ‘E”, Cut from the Team,” streamed out of the stereo speakers, both of us getting lost in thought as to what had made those noises back at the house.

“Probabley just a coyote,” I thought as I turned into Andrew’s driveway.

We ambled down to the basement, making a beeline for that old Compaq Presario desktop, hoping we had some quality pics in the cameras that would make all the internet ladies swoon.  As Andrew began the slow process of uploding the pictures from the camera I flipped on the television, sinking into the well worn couch, still not convinced that what had chilled us out there was just our imaginations.

“Holy hell,” whispered Andrew in a tone that refreshed the chill in my spinal cord.

I stood, wandering over to lean over his shoulder.

On the screen were two pictures side by side: the first taken in the kitchen by Andrew while I climbed the stairs, the second of the upstairs bedroom.  Both images were facing west, but in the first the Jeep was facing the house, headlights ablaze.  In the second it was where I parked it, headlights off, facing away from the house.

“Holy hell is right,” I stammered.

Newspaper Smile

Lugging my overloaded shoulder bag up the stairs toward the student newspaper office, I dug out a scrap of paper with a list of names hastily scrawled in blue ink.

“News & Feature Staff: Second Semester,” I mumbled to myself.

It was the first Thursday of the Spring semester, .  I glanced up and down the list, scanning for familiar names.  Being a community college, most of my staff had turned over from the previous semester, leaving me with a couple holdovers, but mostly new recruits.  Of the new names scribbled on the list, one stuck out.

“Good grief,” I thought outloud.  “That girl is good friends with Kacie, pretty sure this won’t work out well.”

Kacie was a girl, who happened to be the section editor for the arts and entertainment section of the paper, that I had briefly dated during the first semester.  Things had not ended well, a foregone conclusion when mismatched personalities that share the same course load get together for a shot at collegiate romance.  It had been a quick two weeks for me, however, she had dragged out the drama for a good while longer.  Although I suffered less emotional pain from the happenings, she made sure my reputation among the female population of that rural community college took a hit.  I had managed to recover in most sectors, and we had established at least a somewhat peaceable truce as the autumn faded into winter.

“Speak of the devil,” I thought, waving to Kacie as she exited the elevator next to the office door.

I held the door open for her, still a gentleman despite our past history.  She smiled, faintly, going in and sitting next to the young woman who had been assigned to my section.  They both looked over at me, Kacie smirking, fully revealing the nature of their quaint conversation.  Attempting to appear unaffected, I found a seat on the opposite end of the office between two other co-eds, starting a mirthfully petty conversation of my own, making sure to look in Kacie’s direction while laughing heartily.

The regular beginning of semester activities ensued: circular introductions by all present, a go-get-em speech from the student editor in chief, and the same old reminder from the faculty newspaper sponsor to make sure all the stories we worked on tied back to the school in some way.  Next on the agenda were our individual section meetings, and I quickly barked out the names before leading my people to the adjacent conference room.

I distinctly remember not sitting at the head of the table, in fact, the young lady reassigned to my section was sitting there, staring into the distance with a far-away look on her face.  It seems amusing now to think back on what she may have been thinking, although there was no way she could have seen how her life trajectory was about to change as she absentmindedly stared out onto the mezzanine.  In hindsight, I bet she was thinking about how terrible her luck was that she got stuck working under some thoughtless jerk.

Avoiding eye contact, I looked around the room, quickly making small talk with a couple of the holdovers, highfiving one who had walked in later than the others.  As the conversations around the room about Christmas break fizzled out, a general hush overcame the group.

Panning back to the girl at the head of the table, I tried to think of something clever to say, hoping against hope that I could somehow persuade her that I wasn’t the terrible person she surely had been convinced that I was.

“I know you probably hate my guts,” I stammered, “but if you give me a chance I think we might get along pretty well.”

She smiled, and it was one of the most beautiful smiles I have ever seen, right up there with the one she would give me a few years later on our wedding day.

Fortune Teller

A mother called me this afternoon.  I was sitting in Voss Hall, tending to a few things in my office, when the ringer erupted to shatter the otherwise quiet of the meandering midday hours.  As I am required to do, I answered, grabbing a pen to record a few notes as I visited with this concerned mother with a thousand questions about her son’s’ future.  Only some of them I could answer.

I settled in to answer the barrage of questions: “yes, I truly believe your son could fit in well here.”

“Scholarships, yeah we have those available.”

“No, he cannot bring his dog to college with him, unless, of course, if its a service animal.”

Most of these furrow browed mothers want assurance that their child will be okay.  I do my best to promise them the things I know are true: a nurturing environment filled with personal attention and an opportunity to be successful.  With genial parting salutations, I hung up the phone, stood up from my desk, and stretched my legs as I walked down the hallway.

“I’m no fortune teller,” I thought as I opened the door to the creepy back staircase connecting Voss and Thorson.

As I climbed, I was confronted by a ghost that confirms my musing, or perhaps just a thought that has lingered in the reluctant shadows of that stairwell for a good long while.

That’s the funny thing about thoughts: when they leave our heads do they simply dissipate, or do they float like spectres, hanging in the air until another suitable head comes along?  In that darkened staircase I am often reminded that it is perhaps the latter.

The thought came to me as I treaded up the same stairs once walked by my father several decades ago.  He was also working his first job out of graduate school, his office located at the top of those very stairs in Thorson Hall.  When I was hired on here he was happily filled with nostalgic sentiment, but made sure to give me a few words of advice: “Don’t try to be a fortuneteller.”

I wonder if he eventually came to that conclusion walking up those very same creepy back stairs, the thought floating out of his head and lingering in the atmosphere until this afternoon when it falsely recognized me as him.  We look kind of the same, or so I’m told by those too friendly older ladies at the grocery store who have been around long enough to remember.  Or perhaps there is a more tangible ghoul, the still lingering memory of someone else who once walked these halls, albeit briefly, during the same time as my father.

It was the fall, a little earlier in the season than it is now, and Forest City was ablaze with the oranges, yellows, and crimsons that characterize the autumn.  My father was coaching basketball, or perhaps pretending not to on that particular evening, as he lingered high above the floor of the Hanson Field House watching the players below participate in voluntary preseason workouts from a hallway window.  The rules prevented him from physically being in the gym at that time of year, but as an eager young coach he wanted to see what how his new recruits were coming along.

He had spent the previous year gathering a group of players he thought could be very special, sitting in living rooms across the Midwest with eager mothers and fathers, much like the ones I try to reassure now.  He had foretold of the great success their sons would have on the hardwood and in the classroom, and even eventually in life, if only they would come to this tucked away collegiate campus at the intersection of highways 9 and 69.

When he tells the story he often pauses here, waiting a moment while gathering thoughts that I am not still sure have all been taken from those dark places like the back stairs of Thorson Hall.

As he has described it to me on occasion, he was looking away from the court as the players raucously practiced below, visiting with his assistant coaches about the grand things about to unfold for their program when all of his favorite sounds in the world stopped.

Silence hung in the air.

No bouncing balls.

No squeaking sneakers.

Just quiet, unbroken for a second that must have seemed to stretch into eternity while he turned his head, looked down, and took in the source of the pervading stillness.  Theron Anderson, one of the young men whose parents’ living room he had sat in just last spring, had crumbled to the floor.

The momentary quiet was shattered as he sprinted down the stairs, racing to half court where he knelt, holding this young man whose future had been so bright when foretold on that living room couch just months before.

I wonder what thoughts may still be hanging around those dusty rafters in Hanson that escaped from my father’s head in that moment of panic.  As I think about myself now, of similar experience and age, and how overwhelming that moment must have been, how his thoughts must have splintered until there was only the particles of a million tiny sentiments remaining.  The sinking sensation, all too real, when he realized that the outcome would inevitably be tragic.  A young life taken too soon, one that he had foretold of becoming great.

After the medics were gone and the team dismissed, I wonder if my father lingered on campus.  Making the brisk early evening walk up the hill on I St. his thoughts must have been a muddled collection at best.  I bet he thought about his own children, a son and a daughter, and a third child well on the way, and how he would feel to get the phone call he had just himself made to the parents of the too recently departed.  With heavy heart, I am sure he wondered what his role had been in the young man’s death, although the autopsy report would uncover a previously unreported heart ailment as the culprit.

As he arrived on main campus, I am sure his head was swirling with questions and doubts. Perhaps he walked up those back stairs, regretting the bright future he had foretold to that child’s parents, letting a thought escape through his ears and into the inky, cob webbed darkness.  Unintentionally leaving a thought to find me, a ghost concealed in the shadows until I now walk in his footsteps echoing those long gone thoughts: “don’t try to be a fortuneteller.”

Crossed Phone Lines, Mixed Messages

“How could you do this to me?” I whined into the receiver, fighting to keep my adolescent voice from cracking as saline tears rolled down my cheekbones.

“I thought we could really have something, you know?  I just was always trying to be nice to you, to care about you, and I thought we could really have something that was, uh, special, you know?” I squeaked into the receiver, fumbling that navy blue Nokia brick of a cell phone from one clumsy adolescent hand to another.

Slowly, I could feel the anger welling up inside of me as I moved from pleading with the invisible voice silently breathing on the other end of the telephone line toward outright scorn.  We had never even dated, but her best friend had dated my best friend so we were thrust into a small-town Iowa paradox of awkward nudging from each of our comrades to take an interest in one another.

“What do I have to do to convince you that I’m worthy?” I hissed through clenched teeth, hell bent on avoiding any tangible measure of logic as hormones coursed through my pubescent brain.  I inhaled deeply, trying to regain some measure of composure, trying to calm myself down to a point where the conversation might eventually be salvaged.

“Don’t you remember all the fun times we have had over break?”  I mumbled to the unresponsive presence on the other end of the line.

She had tagged along with my friend’s girlfriend to high school baseball games that summer, always sitting just beyond the third base line dugout on an unfolded picnic blanket with a gaggle of other girls who had taken an interest in those of us participating in America’s pastime out on the manicured field.  After the games she would linger, always extending her hand to me for a high-five before wandering down the long path of cracking asphalt to our waiting jalopies in the parking lot.  The other couples would hold hands, we would just keep our eyes down as we wandered through a minefield of conversational obstacles.

“I just can’t believe you would do this to me!” my voice escalated, cracking again.  My cheeks burning crimson as I rapidly paced across the worn carpet in my parents’ basement.

“Do you even know how stupid and selfish you are being!” I stammered, reaching a point of no return in the conversation I had been hoping to avoid, from which I knew there was no longer any hope of recovery.

For a split second, through the escalating rage, I remembered all of those lazy, open-window spring afternoons in the sun soaked French classroom on the west side of the high school.  She had chosen me as her partner, not the other way around.  She had smiled at me, her jade eyes bubbling with refracted sunlight, giggling as I stumbled through the flashcards I had intentionally failed to study before hand in the hopes that she would have to help me prepare for the exam.

“Do you even care about me at all!?!” I barked into the receiver, failing to realize that I was pushing the conversation beyond its logical endpoint, hell bent on proving my devotion, even if the cost was my dignity.

“I just can’t believe you would lead me on like this!  For months I have been playing along, not realizing I was the one being played!” I stammered, losing all tangible grasp of reality as my disjointed thoughts failed to form coherent sentences.

“Is there someone else?  It’s Nate!  I knew you had a thing for that loser ever since you danced with him during the last song at Spring Fling!  What a joke!  You would pick that dumpy bastard over me!” I continued as I barreled down a hill of poor conversational judgement that was clearly headed for a trainwreck.

I could see the end in sight as my Irish temper paired with hormonal rage to mix a volatile cocktail of chemical impairment within my brain.

“I never want to see you ever again!  Don’t you even have anything to say for yourself!?  I said I never want to see you again!” I thought about hanging up, tracing my thumb over the little red receiver shape stenciled into a button on the phone, lingering in the delusional hope that my tirade had somehow made her reconsider.

A deep exhale came from the other end of the phone, as if someone was about to speak.  Little did I know that my cheeks were about to instantly change shades of red as a voice finally emerged from the other end since the onset of the conversation.

“This is Rachel’s mom, she’s not home right now, and I am not quite sure how to put that all in a message, but I’m fairly certain that you might not be exactly the type of boy we have in mind for our daughter.”

My thumb pushed the button it had been circling as I withered into the couch. Defeated, embarrassed, and wiser for the lesson learned.

13 Years Ago, I Was 13: September 11, 2001

Trapper-Keeper in hand, I bounced down the hall toward second period study hall in Mr. Dole’s classroom.  As I turned the corner I glanced, as was already customary by that point in the fall of 7th grade, over a dividing wall at the television in the Gifted and Talented classroom adjacent to where I was heading.  I remember that I saw the footage, an airplane barreling into the side of the World Trade Center, and thinking: “that looks like a pretty cool movie.  I wonder when it comes out.”  I walked into class, said hello to the study hall monitor, who also happened to be my mother, and found the way to my seat.  For a few minutes everything remained normal: I made fun of the girl who I had a crush on seated in front of me, talked with dread about football practice that afternoon with the classmate beside me.

I recall in the 4th grade Mrs. Harvey talking about the shock she felt when JFK was assassinated.  She explained how the whole nation forgot politics and mourned as a group, students bursting into tears after the principal had come into the classroom to explain what had happened.  On that fateful Tuesday, Mrs. Knight came over from the adjacent classroom that had the television turned on, eyes rimmed with tears as she explained what had happened.  As prepubescent middle schoolers the gravity of the situation swirled well over our heads, the somber mood of the teachers rippling through the students to create a great feeling of unease, but no tears from what I recall.

As 2nd period dismissed the halls were electric with rumor.  “The White House is on Fire!” one red headed student claimed, running down the halls to sound the alarm.  “My Dad is at the Sears Tower right now, I hope it isn’t next,” confided one girl to another.  The rampant speculation resultant from the juxtaposition of national tragedy meeting 7th grade imagination created a firestorm of misinformation.  Our classes were largely interrupted throughout the day, television sets tuned to Fox News or CNN, clearly delineating the political leanings held by the head of each class.  Time progressed, details became more clear, and our youthful resiliency helped to move us into the future.

However, it wasn’t quite that simple.  From educators, church leaders, and parents there was a chorus of, ‘this is a day you will remember for the rest of your lives.’  For our middle school minds it was just an event in a far off place, the gravity of the situation escaping comprehension.  With shame I remember waiting for parent pickup outside after-school church choir practice the following afternoon, jokes flying from one misunderstanding middle school mind to another about those trapped in the rubble ordering delivery pizza.  Maybe we were innocent, perhaps we were cruel.  However, that particular joke still stands out in my mind as having gone too far, even in that circle of immaturity.  We couldn’t grasp the enormity of the moment, already desensitized to the violence through years of media sabotage.

The airspace above North America had been closed, leaving the wide-open blue skies of September on the Great Plains unbroken by trails of exhaust.  Vividly, I recall laying on the ground in football pads, legs elevated to strain my abdominal muscles as the coach counted, peering up at that unbroken sky through a football face-mask.  Then, suddenly, a silver plane trailed across the sky: Air Force One carrying the President eastward over the flyover states.  In our small-town way we had seen the President, breathlessly explaining this to parents who just smiled and shook their heads.  Things were moving back toward normal, even if it was a slightly altered version of traditional Midwestern life.

In the mind of a 13-year-old boy one thing helped to provide scope and scale of the tragedy: Commissioner Bud Selig postponed baseball for six whole days in the middle of the pennant races.  If baseball could be halted, I thought, this must be as big of an event as everyone is making it out to be.  The following Monday, however, games resumed with the President seated next to the Yankees dugout after tossing the first pitch over home plate and toward normalcy.  The nation, or at least one prepubescent boy in the heartland, rejoiced at the return of America’s Pastime.  According to the news reports life had been filled with drastic changes, but in the middle of Iowa life moved on relatively unchanged.  The dreaded reality of middle school football practice still haunted the end of each day, there were still girls in class to have crushes on.

As I grew older that day lingered.  Not just in the sentimental and emotional ways that had been promised by elders from the outset of the tragedy, but in more concrete ways.  The political and economic climate of my adolescence and teenage years were constantly shaded by international conflict: passionate debates in government class about the mounting casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq, eager minds pretending to fully grasp geopolitical intricacies of long-seeded conflicts in a distant land.  Some of us became hard-line detractors of war, and, as it dragged on into our formative years, some others even ended up in those faraway places, fighting a war we were young enough to joke about during those cataclysmic moments after the towers fell.

In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, the official reports indicated that 2,977 total casualties had occurred.  As the War on Terror unfolded in Afghanistan and Iraq, 6,802 members of the United States military would fall, giving the ultimate sacrifice to a sometimes grateful nation.  On the other side, the numbers are more hard to come by, but the generally accepted number of civilian casualties resultant from the United States military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan since that fateful day sat around 174,000 as of April 2014.  We went, we toppled regimes, and even now we train the sites of our bombers on targets determined to be creating terror in those far off lands.  Perhaps a mother is looking up at sky, observing an American warplane high in the atmosphere, eyes filled with terror as she holds onto her child.  Terror aimed at the terrorists by the terrified.

There are no easy solutions to complex problems, a presumption built on coming of age in the post-9/11 United States of utterly polarized politics.  We can debate, threaten, and argue until we are red in the face, but the truth of the matter is that until we, as humanity, quit chasing our own tail out of fear we will never have peace of mind.  I will leave you with the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from a speech delivered in 1958: “Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness.  We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love.”