Monday, November 14, 2011

Chapter 23

Chapter Twenty-Three

It’s been scary awful around here and it will take some time to explain it all. Unfortunately at the same time it has the feeling of being the new normal so I suppose I should get used to it. We’ve had both good and bad; closer to home we’ve seen some good and bad but the overall picture continues to deteriorate. I’m not a person to stick my head in the sand but there’s been a few times I wanted to pull the covers over my head and tell the world to leave me alone for a little while.

I guess when my parents bought this place they could only take so many things into consideration. I’m sure they weren’t thinking of war or anything approaching it; my father the actuary would probably not have thought it that high of a risk. Wrong.

As the crow flies Dot is less than forty-five minutes from a major military installation - Ft. Campbell Army Base – and that’s if the crow flies real slow. I’m not sure if we are in a flight path, or whatever you call it, or if something has changed. I’ve got reason to go with the “changed” option but there is nothing I can do about it. Do know for a fact that there was a plane crash several days back and that there was a whole lotta military traffic up and down the mining roads for about a week afterwards.

Tony and I walked down to the end of his land (not using the main road from the cabin), both of us making sure we had proof that we had the right to be there on our person just in case someone got snotty. We watched the troops scurry like mice up and down the road for two days before anyone took serious notice of us and only then because one of their vehicles lost a track.

Feeling like I was in an episode of the Twilight Zone I said, “What the heck! They’re using freakin’ tanks.”

Most guys seem to be genetically preprogrammed to a love affair with anything mechanized and Tony was no exception. With an air of superior knowledge he told me, “That’s not a tank Joey.”

Refusing to put up with the fact he was practically drooling I said, “That is a tank; it has those things … tracks … instead of wheels.”

“It’s not a tank; do you see any guns? It’s a cargo carrier called an M548.” I nearly handed him a napkin to wipe his chin with. I would have asked him how he knew this but I wasn’t in the mood to listen to a long explanation interspersed with facts I’d forget as soon as he said them.

“Fine, it’s not a tank … even though it sorta looks like one,” I added quickly under my breath causing him to roll his eyes. “Either way they’re tearing up the road bad with it and it wasn’t in great shape to begin with. And those other ones that are coming and going are even worse. If they’re gonna do that don’t we at least get a chance to know why?”

Tony and I were pulling our “disarm them with normalcy” routine while we were being watched by the guys with the guns. Tony and I were prepared for trouble as well but weren’t carrying the amount of obvious hardware the other guys and gals were. The dudes in the military fatigues weren’t buying our act and we hadn’t really expected them to, on the other hand they knew we were there and so long as we didn’t do anything stupid or get too close they didn’t mind us standing around watching.

We didn’t go near them, didn’t talk to them; didn’t try to get them to talk to us. We were just desperate for information – real information – of what was going on beyond what was parsed out by the mainstream media after it had been sanitized and spun, and if we had to act like a couple half-brained rubber-neckers to do it we’d make the sacrifice. We were learning that pride had its place but it didn’t fill and empty stomach and it didn’t make the answers fall from Heaven. We hadn’t talked to another living soul in almost six weeks and just hearing people talk was something satisfying; even if it was basically just cursing their bad luck.

It was obvious that the cargo carriers were bringing down the debris from the crash … not just bits of broken plane but what was in the plane which appeared to be hauling supplies of some type. We hadn’t seen any bodies but they could have been taken off by any of the helicopters we saw hovering around up that way. Given the way the debris looked – some of it blackened and sooty – I didn’t see how anyone had survived such a crash.

Tony suspected they had to use the tracked vehicles because the plane crashed in a small area that was stripped mined several years ago and it was hard going in and out for regular vehicles much less the heavy equipment they needed to use. He’d figured out where the plane had gone down because he went to the highest elevation on his land and then climbed one of the tallest trees on that section. He could not see the crash itself but the smoke that had risen at the time pretty much gave away the location.

That first day we just watched the comings and goings of the military vehicles from well back in the woods so they couldn’t see us. The second day we let them see us but stayed out of their way. We watched but well back from the sidelines so they wouldn’t mistake us for a threat or get nosey. The next day is when we started the shtick. Everything was fine, cool and copacetic. We saw them, they saw us and judged us harmless, and everyone was … well not happy by any stretch but no one was pointing something that goes bang-bang or ka-pow.

We never made the mistake of becoming involved; there is always risk once you’ve made contact. But things happen and you have to be flexible. You know how something will occur and you just make a split second choice because to do anything else is literally unthinkable? Because there is no way to just turn your back and walk away? That M-thingy, whatever it was that lost its track, was loaded down and running heavy. The repair guys – Tony keeps reminding me to call them Motor Transport Operators – showed up in a duplicate M-whatever you call it, only it was full of what looked like parts and fuel and stuff. The new guys hop out and there is a lot of ribbing and a little sniping at the MTOs that were driving the one that lost its track. The one that had lost its track had been overloaded by its crew.

There was a good bit cursing when they found out they would have to at least partially unload the M-thingy and that there wasn’t another transport available to move it to while the repair was made. The unloading process is where things got hinky. We got “the look” from the new group of MTOs but were eventually brushed off and semi-forgotten about as nothing more than lookie-lou’s. Tony and I are just standing there watching – admittedly grateful we weren’t drafted to help – when we hear from the back of the one being unloaded, “Wait … hey I said wait … wait, wait, stop, it’s tipping!”

They had been unloading from the side of the cargo transport that faced away from us but there had been a few guys in the back moving smaller stuff out and stacking it nearby. All of a sudden a big piece of equipment slides out of the back through the canvas flaps and hits one of those guys in the shoulder knocking him away but landing on the other guy who starts screaming, obviously in pain.

That’s when we didn’t stop to think, both Tony and I just went into motion. We ran over, he goes to help the other guys who are trying to lift the piece of … I still don’t know what it was but it was like a bunch of electronic hardware attached to panels and the guts all exposed. I ran to the guy and tried to grab him to hold him still. Eventually I was crouched behind his head holding his head in a lock with bent knees to keep him from thrashing it around and I’d caught his hands and held on. I talked to him while looking down from above; he would have seen me upside down to him.

“Hey, c’mon, you need to be as still as you can. They’re trying to get a jack to get this thing off of you asap. OK? What’s your name?”

The young guy, as in even younger than me, couldn’t seem to form an answer. One of the female soldiers that wasn’t helping to get the jack in place slid over beside me to take one of the soldier’s hands so we could split the pain of the crushing he was giving us. “His name is Lombardi … Chris Lombardi. Mostly people call him Bard.”

“Hey Chris, you a singer or a story teller? Gotta be one or the other with a nickname like Bard.”

“S … sss … sing,” he finally ground out.

“Choir boy?” I guessed after spotting a St. Michael’s medallion sliding from beneath his t-shirt.

“Y … yyy … yeah.”

Tears were pouring from his eyes but he wasn’t crying. I used my free hand to brush them and the beads of sweat off of his face. “My brothers were too so you watch that twinkle, I know exactly what happens to choir boys when their voices start changing.”

Amazingly he tried to smile but it turned into a grimace of pain and another yelp as they started shifting the debris with the jack. I heard the large and extremely gruff man that had taken charge direct the others to different places to stabilize the piece of equipment as the jack raised everything up. Even with the jack you could see it was taking all of the strength of the men and women involved to keep it from shifting again and totally crushing the guy I was trying to comfort.

That’s when the guy in charge rushed around to us and asked, “Can you two pull him out? We aren’t going to be able to get this much higher.”

I bent down to Chis and said, “Hey Bard listen up. Your friend and I are going to pull you out in just a sec but I need you to let us do all the work and stay as still as possible. It’s gonna hurt so brace yourself. Can you tell me where it hurts the worst right now?”

“L … llll … leg.”

“That all?”

“Uh … uh huh.”

I wasn’t sure whether that was a no or a yes but time had run out. I knew I was strong enough to pull him out on my own but not if he started fighting me. I also worried that we could hurt him worse than he already was if we pulled too hard. I had the other woman stabilize his head and neck as well as she could and told her to pull gently then I got over the top of him a grabbed his belt. On three we started sliding him out at a steady pace but only as far as we needed so that he wasn’t pinned anymore.

The leg was a mess. His pants were torn and bloody but thank the Good Lord that it wasn’t a compound fracture as I’m not sure I have the skill to deal with something like that. Lucia could have. My brothers could have. I need to be able to but that is going to require pulling out the old survival guides that were my brothers and I just haven’t been able to force myself to do it yet.

I did know how to splint and immobilize a leg. When everyone just stood there looking I said, “I need two straight pieces of something stiff and … and duct tape if you have it or wire off this junk or something that is strong and won’t slip when tied.”

They brought me two pieces of pipe and a few of the guys gave up their belts which turned out to be better than wire or tape.

One of the men called, “Can’t land a chopper … too many trees … but a medic team is already on the way. Be here in five from the site.”

I did what I could to keep Bard from going into shock and remain conscious while everyone else got on with what they had been doing but with only one eye as they all watched him. Apparently he is a popular team member, everyone’s kid brother. Turned out he was a year old than my own brothers’ age and it knocked the scab off of something inside me that had been trying to heal.

Looking around I saw the guy in charge was talking to Tony. Looked a little like an interrogation but not a nasty one. I figured the guy was just doing his job. After what seemed like years the medic team finally pulled up and thankfully I was no longer needed though Bard wouldn’t turn loose of my hand until he was on the back board and being moved to the makeshift ambulance. I looked over at Tony and his nod told me to come on over.

“Joey, I’d like to introduce the man in charge, Master Sergeant McManus.” Tony seemed comfortable with the man so I relaxed as much as my nerves would let me.

“How do you do sir?” I asked at my most polite.

Giving me a hard, but not intentionally intimidating look he said in a deep southern drawl, “Y’all live up here?”

“In my parent’s … my … cabin.”

“Mr. MacGregor said your folks were killed on the road to meet you here.”

I nodded slowly, “Look … I’d … rather not get into details but yeah, they died during an attack on evacuees. So did my little brothers, which reminds me … Bard is kinda young to be around all this stuff isn’t he? He wasn’t much older than … than my brothers.”

A cynical twist of the man’s lips stated plainly that I was being too much of a girl. Ignoring my question he said, “Be surprised what young men his age can get up to.”

Giving him look for look I told him, “Oh no I wouldn’t and if you had known my brothers you’d know why.” I stepped even closer to Tony. Sometimes memories hurt as bad as an actual wound. I still wanted to remember them but I didn’t necessarily want to do it in front of a stranger. Needing strength I grabbed Tony’s hand and held it. For his part he switched sides so that instead of holding my hand his arm pulled me close. Even still, I noted it was his firing arm that remained free in case he needed it. I also noted that he’d put himself a little in front of me to further insulate me I suppose.

Tony looked at the sergeant and asked, “If you’re finished we’ll get out of your way.”

Tony wasn’t belligerent but I could hear him getting protective. “Sure … but look, you two seem all right … especially coming to help Bard and not asking anything for it.” With a snort he added, “You’re just nosey and I don’t suppose under the circumstances there is anything wrong with that. But if you know what’s good for you you’ll play least in sight for a while. There’s gonna be a crew of feds coming through here starting tonight to make an inspection and unless you want ‘em crawling up your … er … just get lost and stay lost for the next 24 to 48.”

We were turning to leave but before we did I turned and asked, “About Bard … you think he’s going to be OK?”

“Medic just reported. He’s gonna be on desk duty but getting him out as quick as we did and then splinting him looks like we kept him from any permanent damage.”

My relief was ridiculous. I didn’t know that kid from no one and I doubt I’ll ever see him again in my life but for some reason it was important to me that he pull through. Tony gave me a knowing look as we hiked back to the house the long way around. “The kid did look a little like them.”

In a voice that said I didn’t want to talk about it I said, “Yeah. Look, when we get back to the house I need to get more grapes picked and in the steam juicer.”

“Joey …” He stopped when he realized there wasn’t anything that could be said. He ran his hand through my hair and then a knuckled down my cheek. “OK Ragazza,” said quietly. Then trying to think of a way to talk of something else he asked, “But this time will I get any of the fruit to try and make wine with?”

He was poking at me in a little bit of fun because I told him that wine was not an edible and came at the bottom of the priority list. His smart aleck comment was, “Your Italian ancestors are rolling in their graves Ragazza.”

It was the fruit so much as it was the amount of sugar he wanted to use for the experiment. We had most of a fifty-five gallon drum of the stuff – plus other sweeteners – but he wanted eight quarts of fruit, eight pounds of sugar, and a package of my bread yeast. The yeast was the item in shortest supply but I could work around the yeast issue, I couldn’t around sugar when I needed it for preserving.

Feeling bad because I’d thrown a wrench in the only real project he had planned from beginning to end I told him, “Tony, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to seem like a miser doling out the resources.”

He looked at my face and then once again stopped us on the trail. “Joey … Joey … I was only playin’. You know that right?”

I shrugged. “Sure I know it but it doesn’t mean that isn’t how I’ve been actin’. I’m just … I’m just worried Tony. I don’t feel like I’m making much headway in the plans to get things fixed up.”

We started walking again but more slowly so that we could talk. “Hey you, we’ll get there. You told me yourself that we still have the long storage apples to harvest starting next month and the persimmons. And I found that book on local wild foods and already found some of those greens.”

While true it only put my mind at ease a little bit. As soon as we got back to the house I spent the remainder of the day preserving fruit. I was getting almost twenty quarts of juice per bushel of grapes which wasn’t bad at all. Plus I was making raisins, spiced grapes, grape butter, and on and on. Then there were the apples which believe it or not I was close to being sick of seeing. The pawpaws had arrived and it had been hilarious to try and convince Tony to eat one but after he had he guarded them jealously and had become quite the connoisseur of which ones would taste the best. The quinces, well I’d never tasted any so sweet or that smelled half so good; they perfumed the whole house when I brought them in and put them on the counter.

The peelings and leftover bits from the fruit were split between the chicken yard and Mom’s small compost pile that Tony had located after looking for a place to create a trash dump for all of the empty cans we were accumulating. If the fruit didn’t all get eaten during the day it attracted flies (resulting in maggots) and the chickens loved the extra protein in their diets. In fact the chickens seemed like they were doing better than we were in that respect. We still hadn’t gotten around to going hunting but we both knew it would have to be done sooner rather than later. It just seemed hard to find the time when there were so many other things that needed doing first.

Our good fortune did raise my spirits some but a feeling of gloom continued hung over everything. Increasingly I felt cut off from things and I knew for Tony the feeling was even worse. I was also beginning to feel like some outlaw in hiding.

Stories of hunger and riots, of neighbors turning on neighbors, neighborhoods turning on other neighborhoods, of militarized cities as ethnic, religious, and political animosities boiled over made me feel trapped by the ideal Tony and I were living. The guilt of having so much when others had so little was getting to me.

Upset with my musings Tony said, “Enough. Our good fortune has not come at the expense of anyone else. The food in our mouths is not coming from someone else’s garden or storehouse. We are not taking from others, we are creating our own.”

“Yeah, but …”

Not angry at me but after obviously thinking about it himself he said, “No. No ‘yeah, but’ Joey. I refuse to feel guilty about this. There are things in my life I am guilty of but this is not one of them.”

“But Tony …”

“No Ragazza,” he said firmly.

Shaking my head I told him, “I just don’t see how you can be so unaffected.”

“Easily. But if you need an example then recall those two news reports we heard last night. The first was all about increasing food costs, how people were angry, how getting food stamps didn’t help between the cost and the lack of availability. Fewer store owners accept EBTs now because they would rather have the cash right there then have to wait for the reimbursement from the government. The very next story was on crops rotting in the fields because farmers couldn’t find enough harvesters. Ragazza, people claim to be hungry and starving yet they are still too lazy to even do a job guaranteed to put food in their mouths if they consider it beneath their station. Wait until they are truly hungry this winter and then they’ll find out you can’t eat dignity. Better dirty and sweaty doing honest work than digging through the dumpster behind a restaurant praying for a half eaten hamburger or a few pickles to fill the holes in their children’s bellies.”

Tony’s hard childhood and brief life on the street had given him a cynical opinion of most people. He had no patience for those he considered whiners or lazy. Tony may have worn a suit and tie all of his adult life but he wasn’t all that removed from the animal skins worn by ancient man and with attitudes to match. I had no doubt he would rather do anything than go back to picking over other people’s garbage again. Working with me in the orchard and around the cabin was to him preferable to standing in line waiting for someone to simply give him something.

I wanted to shed my guilt over having so much but it was hard to let it go. I dreamed of Lucia and the rest of the family incessantly and had been waking up even more tired than when I went to bed. I don’t consider my dreams prophetic you’d simply have to be totally blind to what is going on in the world and in our country to not see the endless possibilities leading towards catastrophe.

And a pregnancy scare hadn’t helped my nerves either. I was two weeks late and then it hit hard and mean as it sometimes did. When I had come out of the worst of the PMS I had to soothe Tony and explain to him how it was for me a couple times of the year.

Once he understood he was relieved to know it wasn’t something going wrong between us. It was also obvious he thought he was being comforting when he told me, “When you get pregnant you won’t have to deal with this.”

I honestly hadn’t given getting pregnant a whole lot of thought but apparently Tony had. It turns out he’s thought about it for a couple of years now which was one of the reasons he was able to keep his hands to himself despite what he called “the temptation” of being around me. But he’s also loony as a Canadian dollar. He’s got some idealized vision of me as a Madonna and some lame brained notion that because I’m female I must have the entire list of how to’s all nailed down. And what pray tell does he think comes after the manger and swaddling clothes? I don’t know if he’d even imagined anything beyond The Birth as he spoke of it. I’d had no idea that Tony was so ready and eager to start a family. It was just more for me to think about, especially the “soon” part of the equation that he seemed so enamored with. Of course there aren’t going to be any babies if Tony doesn’t stop taking what I consider to be lunatic chances.

I was all for following Sgt. McManus’ suggestion. In fact the last thing I wanted to do was go anywhere near a federal agent, investigator, or whatever they call themselves. I worried that they would find our place and mark it for “redistribution of resources.” My guilt didn’t extend as far as actually volunteering for them to come in and clean out shelves of everything. I thought Tony was of the same mind. You know what they say about assuming anything.

I hadn’t thought much of it when he said he was going to walk his land and look for more forageable food. He had the plant identification books from the library in a pack he slung on his shoulder and I fixed him some food and water to take with him. I knew he got itchy to do something besides hold my apron strings and also knew it was good for him to go work off that energy before it turned into something nasty. He was also surveying the land for water sources and other useful features. But when he didn’t come home for dinner and then didn’t come in before darkness fell I became frantic. I didn’t know whether to go looking for him in the dark or to wait until first light.

It was approaching midnight and I still hadn’t made up my mind about what to do when I heard a grunt and something bang around on the porch. I thought it was a bear at first but even graduated from public school I learned that bears didn’t curse in Italian. I wrenched open the door and threw myself at Tony nearly knocking us both over the railing to the ground below.

I kissed him and hugged him, checked him for injuries and then finding none I grabbed what was nearest at hand – the outdoor broom that had been leaning against the wall – and raised it like a war club prepared to damage him but good. “Are you crazy?!! Where have you been?! I’ve been worried sick!! It’s not only dark but it’s tomorrow and not a word from you!! You could have been lying in a ditch some place and …!!”

Tony just laughed, and after finally getting the broom away from me asked, “Worried about me were you?”

I was incoherent with unspent anger. I didn’t know whether I was grateful he wasn’t hurt or furious because he wasn’t and was just standing there not begging my forgiveness for causing me to worry. “You … you … you … !! ARGH!!!”

That’s when I heard the snickering. My breath caught in my throat and I turned slowly in the direction I had heard it come from. I knew that sound like I knew my own voice. We’d gotten into enough trouble in school not being able to control when we’d get the giggles.

The only light was moonlight and I nearly broke my neck getting down the stairs but finally we were hugging. Lucia wasn’t snickering anymore; her laughter had turned into tears and then she dissolved into a howling cry. I knew that grief, had experienced it myself first hand. I looked around, afraid of what I would see – or what I wouldn’t – but it was too dark to make anything, or anyone, out.

Tony wrapped us both in a hug and kissed Lucia’s head where it rested on my shoulder. I was the only thing holding her up. Quietly he said, “Let’s get them inside.”

Then Bennie was there and so close he made me jump. “Can you manage Lucia and the girls? I need to help Thomas with the goats and other animals.”

I wanted to ask questions but Lucia was shivering. The nights had become chillier and that night there was also a cruel dampness to the air. I called out softly, “Girls?”

Ana and Lindsey stumbled out of the darkness wearing identical looks of shock and exhaustion. Surprisingly Lucia pulled herself together and pushed the girls ahead of her, up the stairs and into the dim light of the kitchen. Turning to look at me she said as we entered, “I know you’ve got a million questions but let me get the girls to bed first and then I’ll start explaining.”

It was very unlike the girls not to take immediate exception to being treated like children but they were docile … too docile. It made my teeth hurt to see their total lack of spirit. “There’s some hot water left if they …”

Lucia shook her head, “Sleep first. They can primp tomorrow.”

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