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 Myspace.com 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.”

Honeymooning

We had arrived at the airport early in the morning, bright eyed honeymooners overly eager to begin the long awaited break that was desperately needed after the months of planning and preparation for the big day that had so recently passed.  We removed our shoes, scanned our bags, and waited in the pink glow of the early morning that spilled from the tarmac through the giant plate glass windows.  On that first flight we were able to share a set of two seats, up and down into the air so quickly that the small seat-belt light above the tray tables never flickered off.

Disembarking into a maze of persons with places other to be than an airport in Minneapolis, we checked our watches and stopped for a drink, disregarding that it was still barely mid-morning.  We had a long day ahead of us, classic travelers eagerly crossing trains, planes, and automobiles off our checklist for the day.  As we arrived at our gate we were beckoned forward, no need to wait when the timing had worked out so well.  I smiled at my new bride as I handed her a boarding pass, promising that I would take the middle seat on the way back from the Pacific if she would make the sacrifice on the way out.  I ended up being untrue to my word, but that is perhaps a story for another time.

Our seats had been carefully selected online months prior to the trip, but after the wedding preparation process paying attention to minute details was no longer maniacal.  What we had not been able to prepare for was the drunkard who would join us on our trek to the Pacific Northwest, an apologetic boy with a scraggly goatee who explained his pungent odor as a side-effect of his nerves at flying for the first time.  I did my best to distract my wife, my efforts unsuccessful nature revealed by her whispering about how I would undoubtedly be positioned in the middle seat on the return flight.  The usual preflight rig-a-ma-roll ensued as the pilot introduced himself and the flight attendant went through her choreographed routine.  Wheels up, out of Minnesota and into the atmosphere in a flash.

As we soared above the plains I tried to put my undergraduate coursework in geography to the test by speculating about the true identity of rivers and cities that slipped by soundlessly below.  Every once in a while my musing would catch the attention of our seatmate and he would chime in, offering little in the way expertise but too much conversation.  As the stewardess dropped more mini-bottles on his tray table I could tell both his presence and the day were beginning to wear away the patience of my traveling partner.  We did our best to avoid any confrontation, curtly answering any questions in a way that would have made a more sober person demure and flip through the in-flight magazine quietly.   Mercifully, Mt. Rainier finally appeared above the clouds, signaling our arrival into Seattle while ensuring our approaching freedom from our new acquaintance.

The aircraft dove through the clouds above Puget Sound as we approached SEA-TAC, allowing us our first views of the city which was partially illuminated by a breaking in the clouds to the west.  Thousands of house windows blinked in the early evening twilight as we barreled toward the runway, combining with the reflection off the water to make the entire metro glitter. Tray tables up, wheels down, up the concourse and into the late afternoon sunlight streaming through the windows of the baggage claim we went.  Our bags met us quickly, ensuring that we were not able to fully gain our bearings before embarking out of the airport and toward the train.

SEA-TAC is the end of the line on the Central Link Light Rail, and we clutched our checked bags as the empty train car rumbled off the platform north toward downtown.  The clouds had fully broken, and new passengers streamed in with the sunshine as we passed through Othello Station.  As we inched closer together we sailed past Safeco Filed, home of the Mariners, and plunged into the darkness of the Pioneer Square station.  Our stop had arrived, and we disembarked up the grimy stairs to the humid sea air of south downtown.  Noisily, the wheels on our rolling luggage bumped against our heels as we hastily fought the steep gradient on our way down to the waterfront, bums laughing from a bench beneath a totem pole at the country bumpkins exchanging stressed looks with one another.  One glance at my wife told me she was not pleased.

Finally, we arrived at our hotel.  Exhaling as we tried to shake off the hurry up and wait mindset that always seems to accompany travel, we got our room keys and found our way to the elevator.  The boutique hotel I had chosen as a surprise underwhelmed, but we were grateful for shelter after a day spent shuffling through crowded thoroughfares.  Our fresh faces of the morning had been lined with exhaustion as we quietly changed our clothes and scanned the map of restaurants provided by the clerk at the front desk.  Starved and weary we agreed that we would head the block to the waterfront after participating in the complimentary wine hour provided at the hotel.

Lightly buzzing yet unrefreshed we disembarked from the art-deco lobby and headed for the waterfront.  Boats were milling about the Sound, many of our fellow tourists were quickly getting trapped, and an overwhelming number of vagabonds were begging on nearly every spare bit of pavement.  We stopped at a promising looking restaurant, asked to see a menu, then immediately left without really exchanging a word after eyeing the offerings and price points.  Back into the rapidly fading twilight we went, lost in the confusion and weariness that come with traveling in an unknown city with no agenda.  After a couple more unsuccessful attempts to find a restaurant, a bit of a scare from a disheveled woman who bursted out singing in a scraggly voice behind us on the sidewalk, and a heated exchange about which direction to head we decided to climb back up the hill toward the hotel in the hopes of finding some place or refreshment.  

Up several flights of scraggly wood steps appeared to be a cafe, so we started to climb, recessing from the touristy waterfront.  Disappointment prevailed as we turned the final landing only to realize that what we had been climbing toward was only a coffee shop, one of the dozens located throughout downtown Seattle.  A few more steps and another left turn found us in the bowels of the Pike Place Market.  The vendors had all packed and went home for day, leaving the stalls ghastly and empty as the sun slipped the last few inches into the Sound.  We paused for a moment, both out of breath from the climb, numb from exhaustion, and on the edge of breakdown from hunger.  Both of our eyes were filled with hopeless desperation as we struggled to even push forward up Pike Place further into the city.

Emotions ran high as we glanced down a side street only to not see any viable options, another block and we were both on the verge of tears.  An unlikely savior blazed neon in the evening, the sign for a familiar burrito chain that had been a staple of my undergraduate days.  I pointed, but was curtly shot down by my spouse who insisted on finding something, anything, we couldn’t get back on our familiar Great Plains.  I was on the verge of complete meltdown when we finally turned a corner and saw an open-front bistro with patrons crowded around the bar.  Without thoroughly reading the sign beyond, “Bruno’s Italian” we entered, quickly ushered by an old Hispanic woman to a table in a small room at the back of the place.

Happy to have a seat and the promise of a cold beer in the near future, we both scanned the menu, surprised by the offerings.  Paying closer attention now, I finished reading the name of the place: “Bruno’s Italian and Mexican Restaurant.”  Not quite sure exactly what was to be expected we waited for someone to take our order.  Exhaustion and hunger had pushed us both past common courtesy, just two weary travelers lost in a foreign time zone.  Finally, the same Hispanic woman who had seated us, wandered over to see if we would like to order.  Beer and a calzone for me, fajitas for the lady.

Under the artificial ivy lined trellis, two portly women dressed up in costumes that I surmise were some type of animated characters shuffled in.  The beers arrived and I sank back into the damp, unairconditoned heat of the backroom and took a sip as I eagerly waited for our food to arrive.  After a time my bride’s entree showed up, and I continued to stew in the uncharacteristic heat of the early September evening.  Ten more minutes went by, each adding to the malice that hunger had poured into my veins until at last an old Italian man turned the corner with a plate in his hand.  My eyes surely grew wide as he meandered past the table to place the dish in front of one of the cartoon characters a couple tables away.  As he exited back to another part of the restaurant the percolating frustration inside of me finally boiled over.

In hushed tones I unleashed a rant of surely epic proportions on the disinterested ears of my new wife, her still only a single bite into the fajitas she had ordered, looking down with the knowledge that at this point it was the fault of circumstance that we had arrived at such a sour note on the first night of our honeymoon.  I cannot recall what was said, only that after awhile the old man, Bruno, I assume, arrived again in the backroom to inquire as to what I had ordered.  As he scurried back to the kitchen to “checka the progress” it was evident that the order had been misplaced, and my wife looked at me with a fearful gaze.  

A few minutes later my food arrived with a side of apologies from the man, and my frustration dissolved now that an end to my hunger was below my nose.  With a smile he shuffled off, and I apologized to my bride both for my unpleasant behavior as well as her having to wait to eat her food.  She just shook her head, and I assumed that I had damaged the mood of the evening beyond repair.  However, her face broke into the fainest of smiles as she continued to look at me across the table in the glow of the year-round colorful Christmas lights that illuminated the table.

“What?” I asked.

“They used tomato sauce from the Italian food as fajita sauce,” she replied, shaking her weary head as I chuckled.

In a normal situation we may have sent the food back, but in our exhausted state she just decided to pick at the entree before declining a carryout box.  We were grateful to have had a little sustenance, a place down the street to sleep after our long journey, and the company of one another.  We paid our tab and wandered back out into the bustling downtown district, stopping at a corner grocery to buy a case of beers before our tired steps led us past numerous dining options that had been only a block in another direction on the way back back to the hotel lobby.  We had weathered our first meltdown as a married couple, our night playing out so different than I had imagined when booking flights and hotel rooms months before, much like the experience of marriage would unfold in unimaginable ways in the weeks that would follow.  In both that moment and the months after we were happy to simply have each other, no matter the circumstance.  Leaving the elevator we trudged the final few steps to our room, both collapsing on the bed as the door shut, falling asleep with the unopened case of beers next to the bed.