November 2008 Message from Dan
Greetings Readers, Friends, and Other Visitors:
Watching the Presidential Debates in Elm Haven – Part II
The fall of 1960 had been relatively mild in central Illinois, but on this night of Oct. 21 when the five boys in Elm Haven, all members of the former Bike Patrol, gathered to watch the last Kennedy-Nixon debate at Dale’s and Lawrence’s house when their parents were both away for the evening, a cold front coming down from Canada collided with a wet air mass coming up from somewhere in the south and produced the first dramatic storm of autumn.
The kids first noticed something was going on outside when the picture on the Sylvania Halo Light TV began being lashed with static, the droning voices of Kennedy and Nixon occasionally being drowned out. Then a powerful gust of wind hit the old house and slammed the front door open at the same instant thunder crashed and the lights and TV went off.
The boys rushed to the front door to look out through the screen at the approaching storm. With the porchlight out, the whole town looked dark. Then lightning would strike somewhere to the south or west and all the trees surrounding the empty school block across the street would stand out in black silhouette. As the wind gusted again, the air was suddenly filled with leaves that hadn’t yet fallen from the oaks and elms and other huge trees that lined the streets.
“Holy shit,” said Jim Harlen. “I’m definitely not walking home now.”
“Where’s Mom?” asked Lawrence, the youngest. “Bowling should be over by now.”
“She probably went to the Parkside Café with the other ladies,” said his older brother Dale. Or to the tavern next door, Dale thought. Both brothers hated it when their mother had a few beers, either at home with friends or when she went out after bowling. Dale always got a stomach ache when he heard his mother slurring words even the slightest bit. “Lawrence,” he said as the lightning and thunder crashed again, “run back to the kitchen and get the flashlight out of the junk drawer.”
“I’m not going back to that kitchen!” cried Lawrence. “It’s dark!”
The other four boys all laughed.
“Afraid of the mummy?” asked Mike O’Rourke. The previous winter, even before that summer’s terrible events, Dale and Lawrence had been home alone on a snowy Saturday afternoon watching a Boris Karloff mummy movie on Channel 45’s scary “Crossfire” show and when the movie was over, Dale had switched off the TV and Lawrence immediately heard – or said he heard – the slow drag of a mummy’s dead foot across the linoleum of the kitchen. It had been a dim, overcast day and neither boy had volunteered to go to the kitchen to check it out. Instead, they’d thrown up the living room storm window, pushed out the screen, and jumped out into the snowy front yard. Both boys were shoeless, so they’d rushed to the front porch clad only in their jeans, white t-shirts, and now-wet athletic socks. But the front door was locked and they were too afraid to go around to the unlocked backdoor that opened to the kitchen. Their mother had come home from shopping twenty minutes later to find them still there on the porch, huddled and shivering. And Lawrence had been stupid enough to tell their friend Mike what had happened. Within a week, every kid in Elm Haven had laughed at Dale and Larry and the mummy in their kitchen.
“OK,” said Dale, “I’ll go and . . .”
At that second, the entire sky lit up with multiple lightning strikes which backlit the quickly baring trees and seemed to freeze the blizzard of leaves in place as they flew.
In that instant of strobed light, Dale and the other boys’ mouths hung open as they stared in silence at the illuminated mass of Old Central School across the street. The school that had been the source of so much of their terror in the summer just past. The school that had burned down that summer.
“Holy Jesus crap,” whispered Jim Harlen. The boys looked at each other, mouths still open and eyes wide.
The lightning flashed again. The school was no longer there, the center of the wide city block that had once housed the old structure now empty except for its sentinel lines of almost bare elm trees and the forlorn playground equipment on the south side of where Old Central had once risen.
The lights flickered back on, the television blared men’s voices at them, and all five boys squealed like little girls.
They closed and bolted the front door and shakily went back in to the small living room to watch what was left of the debate. Dale trottted to the kitchen, switching lights on in the dining room and hallway as he went, and came back with the flashlight. “Just in case,” he said.
Senator Kennedy was saying, “I really don’t need uh – Mr. Nixon to tell me about what my responsibilities are as a citizen. I’ve served this country for fourteen years in the Congress and before that in the service. I’ve just as high a devotion, just as high an opinion. What I downgrade, Mr. Nixon, is the leadership the country is getting, not the country. Now I didn’t make most of the statements that you said I made. The s -- . . . I believe the Soviet Union is first in outer space. We have – may have made more shots but the size of their rocket thrust and all the rest . . .”
“Quiet, you guys,” said Kevin Grumbacher. “I want to hear this part.”
All the boys were pale. Jim Harlen’s hand shook as he helped himself to another cookie. No one mentioned the school they had all seen exposed by the lightning, the three stories and belfry and dead windows of the thing standing out clearly against the night and bare trees behind it.
Dale looked at his friends and wondered if the other three – he knew his brother did – had the same dreams that he had most nights: dreams of suddenly being in Old Central and having to walk its abandoned, rotting hallways, climb its shadowy stairways, go into its stinking basement and abandoned and trashed rooms. He’d never ask them. Now he shook his head and tried to listen to some of the stupid debate, realizing as he did so that his little brother Lawrence had moved over to sit next to him on the arm of the chair so that their shoulders were touching.
Lawrence (Don’t-Call-Me-Larry) Stewart will take it even harder than Dale will when, seven years after this night, their parents both die of cancer in 1967.
The younger Stewart boy will have just turned 17 when his mother dies after months battling the disease, then his father seven months later. Dale was away at his first year at Kenyon College in Ohio and came home so often during his parents’ illnesses that he had to make up much of that first year, but Lawrence had been home alone with them through all of it. They had no other family in the area.
A week after their father was buried and Dale had returned to college, Lawrence dropped out of high school and went to enlist in the Marines. He wanted to go to Vietnam and fight.
The Marines were willing to accept a distant uncle’s letter of permission allowing the under-age Lawrence to apply for enlistment, but they weren’t ready to accept Lawrence. First of all, he was seriously underweight. Secondly, during the physical exams, they discovered that Lawrence had a serious case of diabetes. This discovery shook the adventurous young man almost as much as had the deaths of his parents. Lawrence tried to enlist in the Army or Navy, but somehow the medical news of his diabetes was shared between the services and he couldn’t even lie his way into the military. So he returned to finish high school and begin the lifelong regimen of insulin shots that would keep him alive.
After graduating from high school – Dale was too busy taking finals at Kenyon to return for Lawrence’s graduation so Lawrence had no one there that day – Lawrence enrolled in the Sociology and Criminal Justice program at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. He wanted to be a police officer or perhaps even a lawyer.
The studies were difficult and Lawrence would be distracted both by his illness – the diabetes was not yet under control and his weight dropped to 97 pounds that freshman year and he was always fatigued – and by a girl named Susan. He spent his summers working construction days but racing go-karts and then other men’s sprint cars at night. He also took up skydiving and rock climbing that year. In the autumn of his sophomore year, he married Susan – the first of five marriages over the next seventeen years, the last one being the one that took – and dropped out of the university with the intention of becoming a Pinkerton agent.
Lawrence enjoyed being a Pinkerton detective for fourteen months, but left that work shortly after he left the marriage with Susan. Lawrence’s and Dale’s father had sold automotive diagnostic testing equipment and for a while Lawrence – who was an excellent mechanic – worked as a salesman there, but he discovered that he enjoyed being a mechanic much more than being a salesman. For a year or two with his second wife, he did a variety of jobs – always finding a car to race in some league in Illinois and Indiana and then in California where they’d moved so that Margaret, his second wife, could become an actress – but eventually he went into auto insurance work as an adjustor. This work he truly loved (their father had once done it before joining Sun Electric Corporation) and while Margaret didn’t care for her husband’s long hours or low pay, he stayed with the work in California after that marriage ended.
By the mid-1980’s, Lawrence had found the perfect wife and home and work: Trudy, who officially owned their adjustors company being the wife, the suburbs of San Diego being the home, and private adjusting and advanced accident investigation being the work. Besides being hired by insurance companies and firms to investigate accidents and accident fraud – a work that Lawrence found totally challenging – he also was in demand as an expert witness in trials related to accidents and lawsuits resulting from accidents. By this time Lawrence had amassed more than three hundred hours of advanced instruction in accident reconstruction and forensics. He continued to race almost every weekend (his wife serving as his only pit crew) and had now taken up piloting sailplanes and Motocross as well. Between the two of them, Lawrence and Trudy owned two company cars, three private cars, two race cars, and three motorcycles – one for Motocross and two huge touring bikes for serious cross-country travel. Both eschewed Harleys as loud, stupid machines.
Lawrence’s politics, always conservative – he loved the military, owned more than a dozen guns, and hated paying taxes since he knew the government wasted most of his money – took an even sharper right turn during the Reagan years.
Part of what formed Lawrence politically was his work. A large part of their job was investigating insurance fraud, from the run-of-the-mill slip-and-fall con artists to men and women who were sueing their employers for many millions of dollars for purely fictional “accidents” and “injuries.” Lawrence spent thousands of hours interviewing professional accident victims and covertly videotaping men and women who were “too injured to walk, much less work” as they went to exercise classes and drove their dune buggies through the desert. Most of these lying parasites, he knew, were already receiving welfare and workman’s comp. It was how they made their livings – sometimes to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.
But it will be the illegal immigration problem that finally will become an obsession with Lawrence (Nobody-Calls-Him-Larry-Now) Stewart.
In his early years in California (with wives two, three, and four) this annoyance at Spanish-speaking illegal immigrants was a minor thing, a common affliction shared with the other few conservative Republicans Lawrence had met. Politics wasn’t important to him; work was. During his years living and working in Los Angeles County, Lawrence was fairly sanguine about the changes in the city, saying to his wife that Los Angeles was now the second foreign city in America (the first being Miami, which had been run for years by industrious Cubans.) But when they moved to their home and business near San Diego in the late 1980’s, the minor irritation of feeling like an outsider in one’s own country grew into a serious pet peeve for Lawrence.
There was the absurdity of the permanent roadblocks on the I-5 – searching for vans full of illegals – and the constant fleet of abandoned vehicles in the parking area nearby where the drivers and riders in those clapped-out old vans had abandoned the vehicles and run away. There was the absurdity of the warning signs along the highways – a silhouette of a running woman tugging a child into the air while other silhouetted children ran behind them. Watch Out for People Crossing the Highway. Watch out for illegals risking their children’s lives as they ran across eight lanes of traffic as they stole into the country was Lawrence’s translation. Every morning when Lawrence drove down his surface street to the freeway from his suburb in the hills, there would be the group of Hispanic men at various turnouts and shopping malls, waiting to be chosen that day for gardening work and other menial labor. None of it seemed right to Lawrence. The way he saw it, if you want to invade a neighboring country, do it with an army, not by sneaking through a damned fence in the middle of the night or by bringing your pregnant wife to a San Diego hospital to have her kid at American taxpayers’ expense or by sending your other kids across the bridge into America every morning to go to an American school.
But it was his work that completely soured him on the immigration wave that was breaking over California and the United States in the 90’s and into the new century.
A large percentage of the insurance fraud “victims” he exposed every week were Hispanics, many of them illegals, but Lawrence understood the reasons for that. By now Lawrence Stewart could have taught a university class (like his pointy-headed intellectual left-wing college professor older brother in Montana!)on the history of insurance fraud in America, and he knew that the enlisting of new immigrants just off the boat (or across the river) into insurance-fraud schemes went back to the 1850’s and earlier. Back then, he knew, it used to be Germans and Italians and Irish fresh from Ellis Island who were brought into criminal insurance fraud claims, now it was mostly Hispanics from Mexico and Guatemala and El Salvador and elsewhere.
But still, the constant parade of illegal immigrants making slip-and-fall claims against stores and motels, endless “something awful was in my food” claims for millions of dollars against fast food restaurants, countless hoax workman’s comp claims against employers, and an increasing number of swoop-and-squat fake highway accident claims began to wear on Lawrence. Then, in the late 1990’s, Lawrence and his chief investigator – a private consultant named Darwin Minor, a former NTSB investigator who’d come to California and accident investigations after his wife and son had died in a plane crash that neither he nor the other NTSB experts could explain – became involved in breaking one of the largest accident-fraud cases in California’s or the United States’s history, all involving Hispanics, most of them illegal.
The case involved a statewide “charitable organization” that began its work in L.A.’s huge and busy County Medical Center and then expanded to hospitals all over the state and then into Arizona and Oregon.
The organization was called Helpers of the Helpless and was set up to provide translation and counseling services to poor non-English-speakers in hospitals. By the mid-1990’s, Helpers of the Helpless were as common as candy-stripers and ministers in California hospitals and seemed almost part of the hospital staffs in their white coats adorned with a capital H on each breast of their white jackets, as well as their other patches showing a red cross, the medical caduceus in gold on a royal blue background, and a round shoulder patch showing an American eagle with an olive branch in its beak (the image, Lawrence learned, taken from the Apollo 11 mission patch.) In every emergency room in California, there would be a Spanish-speaking “volunteer” from Helpers of the Helpless speaking to distraught Hispanic families, hugging Hispanic children, leading weeping parents to the hospital chapel, and generally interceding on the behalf of the homeless and helpless illegal immigrant. By 1997, even the Mexican consulate was referring their illegal immigrants in California to Helpers of the Helpless and that organization’s affiliated health clinics for the poor and non-English speaking.
Except the entire Helpers of the Helpless thing was part of a giant insurance scam. Funded by Colombian drug money and fronted by such stalwart citizens as the Hispanic mayor of a major Los Angeles suburb, the Helpers of the Helpless referred these injured illegal immigrants to specific “clinics” run by the same insurance fraud ring. There the “doctors” sent in fraudulent bills for tens of millions of dollars for surgeries and services never rendered.
Much more disturbing to Lawrence was the fact that many of these illegal immigrants were recruited – many right there in the hospital emergency rooms – to be active participants in highway accident fraud. These frequently involved staging accidents – there were dozens of ways they trained their “victims” to do this, but one of the most common was the “swoop-and-squat” where the auto filled with immigrants would get in front of an expensive-looking car, preferably a top of the line Buick or Lexus with older drivers – a car with a car insurance sticker was a sure target – and a third car driven by another insurance-fraud driver would swoop in front of the immigrants’ car, briefly slam on its brakes, and then accelerate away when the immigrants’ car slammed on its brakes. The Lexus or other target car following wouldn’t have time to brake fully and would slam into the back of the immigrants’ car. Invariably there would be multiple claims of whiplash and other hard-to-diagnose injuries coming out of the immigrants’ rear-ended car and, eight times out of ten, the older Lexus owners preferred a private cash settlement rather than involve their insurance company and raise their rates.
Lawrence and Dar would be on the sites of scores of freeway swoop-and-squats – the first tip-off would be the immigrants’ car’s trunk filled with old tires and sandbags to absorb the shock of the collision – but occasionally there were real injuries and deaths. On one call, Lawrence witnessed two Mexican children – whom he’d happened to have seen being consoled by Helpers of the Helpless in a hospital only a few days earlier for the younger boy’s broken arm – slowly crushed to death in the collapsed rear seat of an old sedan. Their parents had been enrolled in the HH scam and had tried a swoop-and-squat, with the children in the back seat, at too high a speed and in front of an elderly man who hadn’t had the reflexes to brake at all.
Lawrence and Dar had testified before Organized Crime insurance-fraud hearings that helped to break up the Helpers of the Helpless scam, but the same accident fraud groups – here run by Vietnamese, there by incoming Russian mafia in the nineties – simply regrouped and reorganized and carried on.
By the time Lawrence turned 50, he was a big man physically as well as in his profession – six foot two, 230 lbs. – who still raced cars most weekends, flew gliders, and jumped out of aircraft with a parachute from time to time, but he suffered not only from his ongoing diabetes but from ulcers, extreme high blood pressure, insomnia, and frequent migraine headaches. “These illegals are driving me nuts,” he told Trudy one day in 2000. It was true that he had to give up the interview part of his business – focusing on the more difficult accident reconstruction work – because he couldn’t stand the broken English of the illegal aliens as they went about their criminal business with the false claims. An Hispanic girl incapable of getting an order right at a fast-food drive-thru would send Lawrence driving away at high speed.
Lawrence was also legally carrying a holstered handgun at all times now, partially because of death threats he’d received from criminals he’d put away through his testimony on car-theft and insurance-fraud rings, but mostly because he believed that Southern California was a more violent place than anywhere else in America.
It had been better when Dar Minor worked with Lawrence and his wife. Dar had a dark sense of humor similar to Lawrence’s – the so-called Darwin Awards celebrating the stupidest way people had created to kill themselves had been largely Dar’s idea in the 80’s – and their joint accident reconstruction leavened with humor helped keep Lawrence stable. But around the millennium, Dar had fallen in love with an ex-FBI agent turned state insurance-fraud investigator named Sydney Olson and immediately after 9-11, both Syd and Dar had headed back east, she to return to the FBI (where she was assigned to a position under her hated special agent ex-husband) and Dar somewhere into the dark folds of Homeland Security. In 2003, Lawrence heard a rumor that Dar – a former physicist, shaped-charge expert, and Marine sniper as well as NTSB investigator – was working with Israeli intelligence on counterterrorism somewhere in the Middle East.
Lawrence’s mood grew darker after 9-11 and Dar Minor’s departure. Lawrence knew his dislike of illegal immigration – and of many of the immigrants he met – wasn’t racism. He was sure of that. Some of his best friends –as they say – were minorities, including African-American troopers working for the CHP and Captain Frank Hernandez of the LAPD. Lawrence just couldn’t stand illegal immigrants.
Then Lawrence became close friends with Captain Hernandez’s brother Rafael, who had been fired from the U.S. Border Patrol in 2005 when the younger Hernandez had fired at a Mexican drug dealer who was retreating across the border after knifing two people near San Diego and aiming a gun at Hernandez and his partner during a pursuit. The shooting incident – the drug dealer had not been hit but he and the Mexican consulate made a huge issue of it – cost Rafael Hernandez his job. Outraged, former Border Patrolman Hernandez joined the newly created Minutemen organization.
Lawrence accompanied Hernandez to Minuteman meetings and was present when a mob of Hispanic and other protesters physically attacked Minuteman Hal Netkin’s car when Netkin arrived to hear Minutemen organizer James Gilchrist speak in Garden Grove to the California Coalition for Immigration Reform at the Garden Grove Women's Club. As Lawrence and Rafael Hernandez watched, Netkin's car was surrounded and a mob of some 300 screaming demonstrators rocked the vehicle and banged on it, some throwing themselves under the front wheels of the car to feign injury.
Lawrence joined the California branch of the Minutemen three months later.
Lawrence had raced his car in Mexico for years as part of the California-Arizona-Mexico racing league he competed in – he had a “Lawrence Stewart fan club” in Tijuana – but now Rafael Hernandez took him across the border to show Lawrence the reasons for illegal immigration. Lawrence witnessed the drug dealings, met corrupt cops and federal police officers, saw how the Mexican army was actively involved with the drug trade, and even traveled to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, with Rafael to see the drug wars firsthand.
Hernandez told Lawrence that more than 1,500 people had been killed in the cartel wars there in the past two years, 900 in the past six months alone,, about the same number as American soldiers killed in Iraq during the same two-year period. Hernandez explained that the two rival drug lords at the center of the turf war are allegedly Osiel Cardenas Guillen and Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Cardenas,who -- Hernandez said -- had been in jail on drug charges in Mexico since 2003, reportedly was overseeing his narco-trafficking organization from prison. His group, often referred to in the mainstream press as the “Gulf cartel,” had controlled the Nuevo Laredo market for years.
Cardenas’ primary enforcers were the Zetas, a group composed of former elite Mexican military commandos who deserted their posts to take up arms as mercenaries in the narco-market. However, in recent years, Guzman had made inroads into the Nuevo Laredo market by waging a bloody street war against the Cardenas organization and the Zetas. Guzman’s operation, referred to in the mainstream press as the “Sinaloa cartel,” had – Rafael explained -- a couple hundred hired guns committed to the battle in the border town of some 500,000 people. The death toll was growing daily and just that year more than 30 Americans had disappeared or been killed in Nuevo Laredo, a few steps away from Laredo, Texas.
“What’s this got to do with illegal immigration?” asked Lawrence.
“You have to understand,” said Rafael Hernandez, “that Mexico has been the United States’s cloaca for a century and more.”
“Cloaca?” said Lawrence Stewart.
“Mexico’s been the repository for everything America wants to shit out,” said Rafael, “but more importantly, Mexico’s been the supplier for everything that Americans have wanted but couldn’t legally get in the States – quickie divorces, abortions, cockfights, laetrile clinics bilking people dying from cancer who couldn’t care less if they’re being bilked as long as it gives them another day’s illusion of surviving, booze, whores, child prostitutes, and drugs. Especially drugs. More than 6,000 trucks carrying 40 percent of all Mexican exports come through Laredo every day. The cartels use the trucks, the warehouses and the interstate to move most of the cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine that reaches the United States. It's a booming business worth $10 million a day. About 92 percent of the cocaine coming into the U.S. comes in through the Southwest border.”
“So?” said Lawrence.
“So Mexico isn’t a country anymore,” said Rafael Hernandez. “It’s a war zone . . . a war between drug cartels and the corrupt cops and military working for the cartels. There’s no middle class here, Lawrence. There are millions of rich people in the cities, terrified that their kids will be kidnapped for ransom money – it’s the fastest growing industry in Mexico – and a hundred times that many poor peasants with no hope for the future. Can you blame the poor bastards for heading north for work?”
“I can blame them for coming in illegally,” Lawrence will say that August day in 2006. "But it’s my country, goddammit, and if they want to come in as citizens, they should do it. Otherwise they should stay here and fix their own damned country.”
“This damned country may not be fixable,” said Rafael Hernandez.
That same year, Rafael’s and Lawrence’s branch of the California Minutemen stopped a program sponsored by Humane Borders and the government of Mexico to supply over 70,000 maps to migrants to aid their illegal entry into the United States. Faced with the knowledge of several Title 8 United States Code section 1324 prosecutions in the United States against such illegal alien support groups as No More Deaths and the fact that thousands of California Minutemen patrolled vast sections of the American border lands around the clock, Humane Borders and the Mexican government decided to suspend the program. A spokesman for Mexico's National Human Rights Commission said "This would be practically like telling the Minutemen where the migrants are going to be" and therefore the Mexican government handing out the maps would have to "rethink this".
Around Christmas of that year, Rafael Hernandez, his lawsuit to be reinstated in the U.S. Border Patrol having been thrown out of court, will tell Lawrence that he’s heading down to Mexico to work as a consultant for eight months with the U.S.-Mexican Anti-drug Smuggling Task Force there. He disappeared in February of 2007. In late March of that year, Rafael’s headless and decomposing body was discovered in a barrio outside of Tijuana.
It will be not long after that when Lawrence Stewart and his wife close their business and sell their house in San Diego and move to a near-ghost town – population 16 in the summer, 5 (including Lawrence and his wife) in the winter – in the high plains of eastern Oregon. For almost thirty years, insurance adjusting and accident investigation have been Lawrence’s life – he and his wife talked about the cases and business constantly even on their racing weekends when they weren’t working – but now they leave it behind, planning to live simply on their savings, perhaps for the rest of their lives.
When Dale Stewart visits his brother in the Oregon ghost town – named Lonerock – during the Christmas of 2007, Lawrence (who has lost weight and looks much healthier) takes him out for a walk down the half-block Main Street of the abandoned town. Pointing to his own 1890’s cottage, Lawrence will say, “Believe it or not, that house was owned and fixed up by an astronaut back in the 1980’s.”
“You’re kidding,” said Dale.
“No, really. A guy from the Apollo program . . . named Dave Muldorff. He walked on the moon. Muldorff and his wife lived in Salem but he used to fly his own private helicopter out to their house here – my house now – for weekends and holidays. The two of them renovated the old house themselves. His funeral was in the old abandoned Methodist Church at the end of the block here sometime back in the mid-eighties and the astronaut’s buried in the old town cemetery right up the hill there.”
“I don’t remember that name,” said Dale, who’d never had much interest in the space program. “What’d he die from?”
“Crashed his jet – a T-38, I think – up near Mount St. Helens in a storm.”
They finished the walk of Main Street Lonerock in under a minute and turned to look at the abandoned church, abandoned gas station, four or five collapsing houses, and Lawrence’s steel-roofed cottage with its picket fence and little board sidewalk out front.
On the hill outside of town rose a tall school that reminded both men a bit of Elm Haven’s terrifying Old Central from their childhood. Neither talked about it, but they both had nightmares about the place. On this winter day a thin layer of snow covered everything. It was very cold. Dale could see how the cliff to the south and west of the ghost town would shut off the daylight by three p.m.
“Are you doing any work?” asked Dale.
“We do some adjusting and reconstruction work – usually over in the Dalles, but sometimes as far away as Portland. We stay there a week or more when we have a case.”
Dale looked around the ghost town. The shadow from the cliff was already creeping closer. “How long do you think you guys will stay here?”
Lawrence shrugged. He was wearing a western-style shirt under a heavy fleece lined rancher’s jacket and Dale had noticed the huge belt buckle. After years of being a Californian, Lawrence was going Wild West. The only car, other than a race car in storage, that the couple owned now was the beefed-up Jeep Wrangler parked out in front of the house here. After a moment of mutual silence, he said, “I guess we’ll stay here ‘til I see the first illegal Mexican moving in down the street.”
Dale didn’t know what to say to that. His brother’s sense of humor had changed over the decades. Finally he said, “I’m surprised you didn’t move to Canada.”
Lawrence laughed then and it was his old, little-brother laugh that Dale remembered. “Canada’s for left-wing pussy liberals like Alec Baldwin, when an election doesn’t go their way. Except they say they’ll go there, but they never do. They just stay around and sulk.”
“This next election will probably go their way,” said Dale.
“Tell me about it. The only guy I like in the race is that guy from Colorado – Tom Tancredo – but he’s not going to last very long.”
“No,” agreed Dale. For several more minutes they stood there as the line of shadow and light moved toward them down the empty, snow-rippled main street of the abandoned little town. Then the shadow – what the dead astronaut who’d lived here might have called the terminator – reached them and it became very cold.
Lights came on in the little cottage and the brothers walked back that way slowly, still not speaking.
The wind had died down and there was static on the TV – and the lights stayed on – but the rain continued to pour down outside, ripping most of the leaves from the trees and pounding them into the cold grass and tarmac.
On the screen, the moderator was saying, “Our second round of questions begins with one from Mr. Edwards for the Vice President.”
“Mr. Nixon, carrying forward this business about a timetable; as you know, the pressures are increasing for a summit conference. Now, both you and Senator Kennedy have said that there are certain conditions which must be met before you would meet with Khrushchev. Will you be more specific about these conditions?”
The five boys were bored, but they could tell Nixon from Kennedy now and watched as Nixon said, “Well, the conditions I laid out in one of our previous television debates, and it’s rather difficult to be much more specific than that. Uh – first of all . . .”
Lawrence said, “Why are we still watching this stupid thing? The Twilight Zone’s probably on already.”
“You never sleep after watching Twilight Zone,” said Dale. “Watch this.”
“It’s not on yet anyway,” said Kevin. “Mr. Garlund’s still on on Channel 31. Twilight Zone’s after that.”
“What the haillll is Mr. Garlund?” said Jim Harlen.
None of the boys knew, even Kev.
“Well, I still don’t know why we’re watching this crud,” said Lawrence. He needed to go to the bathroom but didn’t want to before his mother got home and while there was still any chance of the lights going out again.
“One of these two guys is going to be the new president in a few months,” said his brother Dale.
The other four looked at each other and then, in perfect unison, went, “Wooooooooooooo!” at the top of their lungs.
Mike O’Rourke isn’t very interested in politics in 1960 and he never will be – at least in politics qua politics.
Mike’s interests, which he would never tell the other boys, were more about God and being a good person and sin and prayer.
Mike would also never tell the other boys that his only real interest in the presidential race that year was that Kennedy was a Catholic. His parents had said things such as ‘After Al Smith, I never thought another Catholic would run,” but Mike had no idea what that meant. What Kennedy’s candidacy did mean – to Mike – was more of the stupid comments at school from his friends (and once from his teacher) about the pope running America.
There were enough Catholics in Elm Haven and the surrounding farm areas to keep little St. Malachy’s on the north side of town (near where Harlen lived) going with a full-time priest, and for the Calvary Cemetery out near Duane McBride’s and Dale’s Uncle Henry’s and Aunt Lena’s farms to be the largest and most nicely kept cemetery in the county, but Mike had still felt the sting of being a minority all his life. (The mother of a friend where he was sleeping over on a Friday night – “What do you mean you can’t eat a hot dog today? That’s nuts!”)
Twice a year, on Christmas Day and Easter, Mike’s father, John O’Rourke, an overweight and undereducated worker at Peoria’s huge Budweiser Brewery on the river, took the whole family to services at the beautiful St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria. The Elm Haven priests hated it when that happened – Mike was the oldest and most dependable altar boy the succession of priests had and they depended on him – but Mike loved worshiping in the huge cathedral. It was what he thought a church should be. And even during the High Mass, which droned on for hours, he lost himself in a vertical mural above the smaller altar to the right side of the main altar – a mural in which doves, one of them surely the Holy Spirit, nested in and flew among spiraling and intertwining branches of what he finally realized must be an olive tree.
Mike’s secret goal – something he would never tell the other boys, not even Dale (whom he considered his best friend) – was to be a priest.
His other secret goal, even though he’d been flunked in fourth grade and thus was a full year behind the other guys his age, was to graduate from high school in the same year as his friends his age. This, through summer school in junior high and high school and an amazing amount of work to succeed despite what he would later learn was his dyslexia, he succeeded in doing, graduating in December of 1966. His friends Kevin and Dale (and presumably Harlen, although Jim had moved to Chicago before this) had graduated in May of the same year.
Kevin and Dale and some of Mike’s other friends went to college somewhere, but Mike’s parents had told him years before that they couldn’t afford even the most modest college (and the principle of never going into debt had been so well drummed into Mike by the age of eighteen that he never once considered taking out a college loan himself.) So five months after Dale heads off to his fancy college in Ohio, Mike O’Rourke will enlist in the army.
Mike loved playing soldier and watching old war movies as much as the next kid, but he’d never had dreams of becoming a soldier. Truth be told, Mike hated violence. It wasn’t fear that ruled him (it would have shocked him and made him blush to hear it, but all of the other boys in Elm Haven who knew Mike O’Rourke knew that he was the bravest of them.) He didn’t really want to go into the army – and the country hadn’t yet gone to the draft lottery based on birthdays to fill its quotas – but the United States was at war and Mike fully agreed with his dad that he should enlist to fight. (Thus Mike O’Rourke became the only boy in the old Bike Patrol – except for Gerry Singer, who was killed there – to fight in Vietnam.)
Mike did very well in training and arrived in Vietnam in July of 1967 as a rifleman in Alpha Company of the 4th Battalion of the 123rd Infantry of the 101st Airborne Division. The 101st had not yet, quite, been officially labeled as Airmobile, but they would be before Mike left Vietnam three years later as a high-priority casualty in a C-130 Hercules flight
In July of 1967, Michael O’Rourke was a grunt.
Mike hated the war and the strange, hot, sweaty country and the constant fear – none of which was a surprise to him – but he found he loved being a soldier. This surprised him a lot.
Even in 1967, a new soldier arriving in Vietnam didn’t rush out into the jungle and start shooting on his first day. Everybody in the 101st had gone through AIT, but once in-country you had SERTS. (AIT, Mike knew as he quickly absorbed the endless acronyms as all of his generation of soldiers did, was Advanced Infantry Training in the States; SERTS was Screaming Eagle Replacement Training School at Camp Howard about thirty klicks north of Phu Bai on Highway One.) Beyond the 101st’s temporary Camp Howard was the Marines’ Camp Evans – named after the first Marine to be killed there the year before – and beyond Camp Evans, as second-tour Ralph Bazella told Mike his first week there, “Are only about six million dinks, dicks, slopes, gooks, and a few REMF’s who live only to kill your lame, stupid, useless cherry ass.” (REMF’s, Mike soon learned, were Americans – rear echelon motherfuckers. Much more hated than the dinks, dicks, slopes and gooks.)
On his first tour, Mike was assigned to Alpha Company’s 2nd Platoon 3rd squad as an RTO (Radio-Telephone Operator) tasked to haul the squad’s PRC-25 (a bulky radio called, without affection, the Prick-25.) Since Mike was almost six feet tall but still thin and light and the Prick-25 was considered a real anvil-heavy serious ass-kicker, and since RTO’s with their visible whip antennae were often among the first in a platoon to be shot in a VC or NVA ambush, it should have been a shit job, but Mike enjoyed it as well. He found he was good at map coordinates and when he was promoted to hauling the Monster – an even larger and heavier PRC-77 radio that included a kryptographer that scrambled their transmissions on what they called securnet for identifying their own and the enemy’s locations --several times he had to correct the young LT or a Shake and Bake sergeant as he was calling in fire missions that would have brought the ordnance down on A Company’s head rather than on the enemy’s.
Partially because of those quiet, life-saving corrections, Mike was relieved of his Prick-25 after four months in-country and given the job of tunnel rat.
This was unusual because usually the grunts designated to be tunnel rats (which was technically a volunteer situation anyway) were tee-tee – little guys, like Mike’s buddy and the squad leader of 1st Platoon’s 1st squad, Ralph Bazella. But it worked out all right because Mike, although taller than most tunnel rats, was thin and extremely flexible – something that helped him in sports as a kid and which now helped keep him alive.
South Vietnam was laced with tunnels dug by the Cong and NVA – some of them extending for hundreds of meters, having several levels, and including extensive living areas and even underground hospitals – and when they found these tunnels in the field, even if they might seem abandoned, the platoon’s tunnel rats had to strip off their shirts and crawl into the damned things carrying only a flashlight and a .45 automatic.
It was not a job for anyone who was claustrophobic, afraid of the dark, or afraid of sudden hand-to-hand combat. Mike was all three of these things, but he surprised everyone, himself most of all, by being an excellent tunnel rat. He seemed to have a sixth sense as he wriggled his way through collapsing dirt and roots and VC or NVA dried shit and past rotting corpses and tripwires and claymores and punji stakes and more elaborate boobytraps down there in the black, sightless, grave-smelling earth.
Mike also discovered, to his surprise, that unlike most other grunts in the 101st Airborne (soon to be Airmobile), he actually enjoyed being in the air. After training, he never parachuted into anyplace, of course – that was a different war – but they were moved around by Slicks – the UH-1 Huey helicopters that later became the symbol of the Vietnam War. Every grunt knew how dangerous the fucking things were (even the Army warrant officers who flew and manned them said they were deathtraps), but Mike O’Rourke loved the insertions and (more rare, unless you’d been seriously injured) extractions by Slick. He loved being up there above the jungle canopy or in the bright sunlight over rice paddies reflecting the sun in a thousand places and even over or inside the clouds of what seemed to be steam that were always rising from the jungle.
Mike actually became friends with a Huey pilot named Chico Weltner there – Chico’s brother Kink was a helicopter crew chief mechanic at Da Nang – and between flying O’Rourke and his squadmates deep into the hated A Shau Valley to be shot at, Chico admitted that he loved flying, too.
A combat tour in Vietnam was 364 days and a wake-up, and that’s how grunts counted down the time they had left until they got out of that ball-sweating, gut-twisting, lice-ridden, shithole of a place – 39 days and a wake-up. And so forth.
Mike had extraordinarily good luck in his first combat tour in Vietnam. Returning after volunteering for his second tour (after more advanced training) in late 1968, he had even better luck. Many of his friends died around him that year. Except for one shrapnel nick that got infected and meant a brief forced return to a rear echelon hospital just long enough for Mike to miss a firefight that killed five of the seven men in his squad, Mike went untouched during his second tour.
His luck ran out seven months into his third tour.
The rule crawling through those miles of black, stinking tunnels was – touch nothing. At least touch nothing that – like enemy maps or journals or things important to intelligence, you’re planning to bring up and back. This day (it was night in the tunnel, of course), Mike had been squeezing past decomposing bodies of NVA regulars who’d been killed by Charlie Company that had come through and cleared out the place two days earlier. But Mike’s Alpha Company had been taking sniper fire, so he was sent down – he volunteered to go down – with his flashlight and .45-caliber automatic pistol.
He’d been able to wiggle around a dozen NVA corpses in the dark, seeing that they had no courier pouches or journals on their rotting, almost naked bodies, but the thirteenth corpse was so bloated that it all but closed the tunnel. Trying to hold his breath, Mike got his head and shoulders past the bloated, gas-emitting thing, but then the tunnel curved abruptly upward, he had to scramble to get handholds and footholds to keep moving, and his left foot, just out of sight beneath him now, inadvertently joggled the corpse.
The enemy had hollowed the guts out of their own dead officer, packed his belly and empty abdominal cavity with stolen American C-4 explosives, and rigged the corpse with trip wires.
The explosion took Mike O’Rourke’s left leg off at the knee. If his upper body and right leg hadn’t already been squeezed into the upward-curving part of the tunnel, he would have been killed instantly. As it was, his flashlight was blown out of his hand and destroyed and Mike had to rig a tourniquet from his web belt and laces from his shredded right boot and then crawl up and through absolute darkness for another twelve minutes, leaving most of his blood behind as he did so, retracing his path through the maze.
A buddy of his, another tunnel rat, went down into the tunnel to fetch what was left of Mike’s left lower leg and foot, just in case it could be reattached and even though the platoon medics didn’t expect him to survive.
Mike survived. As he later told a friend – “I’d long ago resigned myself to getting killed by the enemy in Vietnam, but I’d be damned if I’d let a dead enemy soldier kill me.”
O’Rourke was sent for surgery, prosthetics fitting, and initial rehabilitation therapy to a VA hospital in Palo Alto, California.
For the first two weeks Mike was too drugged and in pain to wonder why he couldn’t have been sent to a VA hospital in Illinois, closer to home, where his folks and family could visit him (they certainly had no money to travel to California), but when he did finally face the question, he assumed the army knew best. He also had other worries at the time, since for weeks after his arrival back Stateside, it seemed probable that his other leg – the right one – would also have to come off, due to shrapnel and other wounds from the explosion. Mike had been secreting away 8 out of 10 of his oral painkillers to take at once in case they did decide on such surgery. This bothered him, even through the nightmare of pain and the other surgeries, because he knew that suicide was a mortal sin and that he’d spend an eternity of pain in Hell – the pain, he presumed, exactly like that he was suffering now – but in the end, he just didn’t care. He refused to go through life legless.
They managed to save the leg.
During his many months in Palo Alto and then living in cheap barracks nearby, Mike was amazed the first time he was visited by Chico Weltner, the army Huey pilot he’d known during his first and second tours in Vietnam. Chico and his crew-chief brother Kink had opened a private helicopter service at a field near Palo Alto. “Come on out when they get the plastic on your stump,” said Chico, “and I’ll teach you how to fly one of those things.”
Mike O’Rourke at first thought that this was an especially cruel joke – certainly they wouldn’t let a one-legged man fly helicopters, even if it was possible to do so – but it turned out that Chico was serious. So between those agonizing weeks and then months of physical therapy, Mike headed to the field on the weekends and went up with Chico (and also with Kink, who could – he said – fly choppers better than his brother could, but who preferred fixing them to flying them), first in a variety of the kind of H-23 Hiller trainer that the army had used to train Chico, and then – eventually -- (Mike stayed in the area for four months after the end of his VA time just for the lessons) in a real, war-surplus Huey and finally in a beautiful Bell Ranger that Chico used to ferry executives around.
“The names of the controls in a helicopter refer to the effect on the rotating wings and the tail rotor,” Chico said very early on through their shared microphone circuit in the cockpit. “The disk formed by the rotor blades is what really flies. The rest of the fuselage simply follows along suspended from the disk by the mast.”
One of those controls was the cyclic control stick that rose, in the H-23, between Mike’s legs. It increased (or feathered) the pitch of the rotors and caused the machine to bank or dive or climb in the direction he shifted the stick. In his left hand would be the collective – a stick that controlled the pitch angle of the main rotor blades in a way that caused the helicopter to rise or descend. The twist grip that controlled the throttle was on the collective. Unusual even for fixed-wing pilots, Chico said. Mike O’Rourke had no problem, even from the first, with coordinating the use of the collective and cyclic at the same time. This was, said Chico, what washed out most would-be chopper pilots early on.
Torque, it turned out, was the force that was always trying to fling the helicopter into a deadly counterspin to the rotors. Torque was controlled by the antitorque rotor – the all-important tail rotor – and that was done by the two pedals: pressure on the left pedal increased tail rotor pitch, moving the nose to the left; pressure on the right pedal reduced tail rotor pitch, swinging the nose to the right.
This is what almost washed Mike out – still in severe pain from his first (crude) plastic prosthetic leg fitted just beneath the knee – the lack of pressure feedback from the left pedal. “It’s like trying to handle a car’s clutch pedal with a broomstick,” Mike told Chico after he, Mike, had almost put their little H-23 into a death spin.
“Well, then,” said Chico as he brought them back up to altitude, “you’ll just have to learn to drive – and fly this thing – with a broomstick on the end of your knee. Let’s do it again, without the death-spiral this time.”
Eventually, Mike did. He soloed in three kinds of helicopters that summer – it was a thrill to him to handle the huge Huey that he’d flown in so many times, although he realized his adrenaline-level was higher when alone at the controls than when he’d been in the process of being ferried into combat – and he was even more nervous alone at the controls of the beautiful Bell Ranger, since crashing that would have meant destroying Chico’s and Kink’s livelihood.
Chico urged him to apply for a license, but Mike thought that was absurd. Who was going to hire a one-legged helicopter pilot?
Instead, in the spring of 1970, during all the dust and noise of the Cambodian invasion, the Kent State shootings, and a nationwide student strike on college campuses – and a month before old friends such as Dale Stewart were to graduate from their undergraduate colleges – Mike O’Rourke went back to Illinois to start college on the GI Bill. He’d chosen Bradley University in Peoria so that he could visit his family on weekends, although it made him feel strange to go back to Elm Haven, even if just for a Sunday-afternoon dinner. He never had nightmares about the corpses in the tunnel in Vietnam, he realized, but every week he awoke sweating from yet another nightmare about the rotting rooms, hallways, stairways, and tunnels of Old Central School.
1970-71 was a hard time for anyone to be a combat veteran returned to the States, but even harder for a 22-year-old man who had lost a leg. Mixed with the contempt and indifference of most of the population who’d turned against the war (Mike was never spat on in public, but he was avoided on campus by many who knew he’d fought in Vietnam but who didn’t know why he had a slight limp), there was also the awkwardness of having given up a limb for a war and cause that fewer and fewer Americans now supported.
More to the point, Mike soon realized that he’d missed a powerful (if weird) social and generational change while he was off in Vietnam. There were the drugs on campus and everywhere now, of course (although Mike had seen enough of them even in Vietnam, especially during his third and final tour), but Mike had also missed the Summer of Love, the common sight of long hair on men, the love beads, the Peace signs, the student protests and sit-ins, much of the music – everything that seemed important to almost all of his fellow undergraduates.
Mike, at age 22, realized that he was an old man compared to the children all around him. Peace was fine, but he didn’t really believe –as his new peers seemed to – that one could achieve it by chanting.. Love he would have welcomed in the form of almost any pretty girl. Rock and roll he enjoyed (although an earlier, more primitive sort than his dorm-mates blasted all night long). But Mike O’Rourke had other things on his mind.
He graduated in three years – a year ahead of his fellow freshmen – with a BA in History. Mike loved history, enjoyed learning about it – the reading was still difficult for him, but sometimes he felt that he was the only student in the large lecture halls or small seminars actually paying attention, much less being thrilled by what he was hearing – and thought that he’d be happy being a high-school history teacher somewhere. But by the time he graduated, Mike knew that he wasn’t going to teach history.
In 1973, Mike will be accepted into and enter the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago (he didn’t want to be that far from home, but there were no good seminaries outside Chicago in his state.) The CTU was new – it had been founded in 1968, just five years earlier – but already it was producing a large number of priests. The CTU’s instructors included Protestant and Jewish scholars as well as Catholics, as the mission of the Theological Union was to form priests in the spirit of Vatican II.
Mike, although he was still not certain that he believed in God (what he had always considered a terminal affliction for someone wanting to be a priest but which he now discovered to be the condition for the majority of young men around him going in the seminary) found his two and a half years at CTU intellectually rewarding, socially satisfying, and spiritually exciting.
He emerged in late 1975 with a Master of Divinity degree and as a member of the Society of Jesus. Mike O’Rourke was a Jesuit priest.
His first effort – being a parish priest in his old hometown of Elm Haven (where priests, for one reason or the other, rarely stayed long) – was a disaster. He couldn’t live in Elm Haven without constant wandering-through-Old-Central-hallways nightmares and he was a flat-out disaster at being a parish priest. Flying large helicopters while handling the pedal with a plastic leg was child’s play compared to the nuances and impossibilities of basic pastoral work in a small town where Catholics were an aging minority. Mike failed miserably.
Mike was ready to leave the priesthood but was recalled to Chicago to work in the offices of the Archdiocese there and a new young priest there who was exactly Mike’s age – an energetic young black man named Joe Perry (who was then on his way to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee but who would later become the Auxillary Bishop of Chicago) – convinced Mike to give the priesthood another chance. He also introduced Mike to his boss, the sixth archishop of the diocese of Chicago John Patrick Cardinal Cody.
Cody was a cardinal of the old sort – gruff, dogmatic,autocratic, and little interested in the reforms and psychology of Vatican II – and Cardinal Cody was also in constant controversy, ranging from his unorthodox financial practices through his support of Catholic inner-city schools for black kids (and his insistence on bussing some of those kids to Catholic schools in the all-white suburbs) to persistent rumors that Cardinal Cody had a mistress. The cardinal’s old-style authoritarian Catholic attitudes and practices were completely antithetical to the Vatican II, participatory-democracy, new theology that his youngest assistant had just experienced in his 2 ½ years at the Catholic Theological Union.
Mike and the cantankerous 68-year-old cardinal became close friends that year.
One late night the next winter, when Father O’Rourke was the only assistant bringing files to a very late-working Cardinal Cody, the older man began pressing the younger one on Mike’s obvious sadness. Mike finally told his boss that he was on the verge of leaving the priesthood, despite help from his confessor and some of his peers. “Close the door,” said Cardinal Cody. When Mike did so and returned, the cardinal had poured two glasses of Scotch.
“I agree that you’d probably be a pee-poor parish priest, Michael,” said Cody. “But there’s no shame in that . . . no more shame than admitting you’d be a pee-poor husband. Some men just aren’t cut out for those miserable chores. There’s still work as an intellectual – a theologian – or with the business of the Church, or in the Vatican near His Holiness, or in education – you have a degree in history, you told me – or in the mission fields. You’re a Jesuit, man! You’re one of Our Saviour’s shock troops!”
Mike had smiled at that. He rarely drank alcohol because of what he still thought of as his father’s drinking problem, and this was the first time he’d ever tasted Scotch.
“What would you most like to do, son?” said John Patrick Cardinal Cody. “How could you best serve Our Lord Jesus Christ if you keep the collar on?”
“I’d like to help kids,” said Mike. “Not just – you know – teach them, but – save them. Save them from hunger and from orphanages and from people who hurt them.” Mike had never expressed this thought even to himself before and he was astounded when he heard himself say it. Perhaps, he thought, it was the damned Scotch.
Seventy-two hours later, Father Michael O’Rourke, Society of Jesus, was on an airplane flying to a country that Mike had vaguely known as the Belgian Congo until he was in sixth grade, then the Republic of the Congo, and now, evidently, was called Zaire. He knew nothing about the country, the population, the climate, or the Catholic orphanages there he was supposed to serve. All the old missionary priest who drove him to O’Hare that morning said was, “Watch out for Mobuto.”
Mike didn’t know whether Mobuto was a person, a place, or a dangerous animal. (He turned out to be a bit of all three.)
For the next 15 years, Father Michael O’Rourke became one of the Church’s preeminent troubleshooters when it came to helping children in environments that were actively hostile to the health and well-being of children. He cut through red tape for Catholic-sponsored (and non-Catholic-sponsored) orphanages and relief agencies in Zaire, South Africa, Nigeria, Angola, and Rhodesia.
That was his training ground. In Central and South America in the 1980’s, Mike spent more time in the jungle than he ever had as a grunt in Vietnam. The fad for socially committed priests there was Liberation Theology, but – while he liked and respected some of its adherents – Mike totally rejected it as an answer that was eight parts politics and one part intellectual masturbation to one part faith, as well as one that would just generate more murders in the long run.
Within five years south of the border, Mike had death warrants on his head from governments in El Salvador and Nicaragua, more death warrants from drug cartels in Mexico and Colombia, and a slightly less urgent persona non grata designation from the CIA. (This last he received after “borrowing” an unmarked, rusted CIA Huey helicopter, used for running guns for drugs and drugs for guns (all for a worthy cause), in order to fly eleven starved, pursued children and two brutalized nuns out of a jungle war zone. That was the beginning – but not the end – of Father O’Rourke’s dossiers at Langley and at the J. Edgar Hoover building in Washington.)
One thing that surprised Mike during these years was the ease with which he mastered (to varying degrees, but always enough to be understood in loud and chaotic circumstances) a number of languages – almost a dozen African dialects, Spanish, Portugese, some Arabic, the good parts of French, and more German than his original “Nicht Schiessen!” His early dyslexia, he discovered in the field, did not apply to learning what he could hear – and Mike had what one old missionary called “a linguist’s ear for nuance.”
The work was rewarding but never fully successful. Children continued to be abandoned by parents, murdered by idiots with guns, brutalized by governments and orphanages, and let down by people in positions to feed and help and educate them. Father Michael O’Rourke grew increasingly melancholy as the 1980’s ground to their bloody close.
Early in 1989, Mike went to Romania because of the orphanage situation there. He was still there in the city of Târgovişte on December, 25, 1989 when the Romanians’ ultimate leader, Nicolae Ceauşescu, and his wife Elena were lined up against a wall and shot. The execution was carried out in such haste that the video cameras brought to record the happy event didn’t have time to be turned on. The Western press called the events of that December a “revolution,” but Father O’Rourke reported via Vatican diplomatic pouch to his new boss, Chicago’s Archbishop Francis Bible Shulte, that it was a fake revolution, in reality more of a generals’ coup decapitating the idiot-dictator while leaving the old Communist players in the same positions of power.
The war on children in Romania went back much further than the so-called revolution. In the mid-60’s, the Communist president Ceauşescu had outlawed abortion, discontinued the import of oral contraceptives and IUDs, and announced that it was a woman’s obligation to have many children. On top of that, the government offered “birth premiums” and reduced taxes to families who obeyed the government’s call for increased births. Couples who had fewer than five children were not only heavily taxed but were actively fined. Between 1966 and 1976, there had been a 40% increase in the number of babies born as well as, because of the primitive health care system, a corresponding spike in infant mortality.
This policy should have pleased an “all life is sacred” Jesuit priest and Catholic Church, but both Mike O’Rourke and the church knew that the vast majority of these peasant families, after having their five and six and seven children, didn't have the money to feed or support them. The Vatican’s own intelligence agency (to which O’Rourke contributed information when he could) estimated that more than 600,000 infants and young children had been put into airless, lightless, heatless warehouse-“orphanages” around Romania in the 1980’s. They were left there to die.
The majority of these babies and non-walking, listless toddlers – Mike had seen warehouses with 500 and 600 rusted iron “cribs” filling a huge, freezing space – had HIV AIDS or hepatitis. They hadn’t come to the orphanages that way. Using a medical theory that had been disproven in the 1800’s, Romanian doctors injected these children with “strong, healthy, adult blood – make baby strong!” as one orphanage doctor explained to Mike.
Most of this blood had been obtained from street donors in Bucharest and other major cities. In other words, from needle addicts and prostitutes. The children in Romania’s orphanages were dying by the tens and hundreds of thousands.
This is what Mike had come to fight between 1989 and 1991. And then – four months after Father Michael O’Rourke, Society of Jesus, had informed Archbishop Archbishop Francis Bible Shulte (a friend, but not in the way the dinosaur John Patrick Cardinal Cody had been) that he would be leaving the priesthood for good as soon as his work was done in Romania, Mike O’Rourke met . . . a woman.
He’d met other women he’d been attracted to in his years as a priest (his favorite joke-prayer, he told other Jesuits, was St. Augustine’s – “Lord grant me chastity . . . but not quite yet!”) but never one he'd fallen in love with.
In 1990, in the cold and filth and grit and cynicism of post- Ceauşescu Romania, Mike O’Rourke fell in love with this woman.
Her name was Kate Neuman and she was a doctor – a hematologist and immunologist from the Boulder regional center for the Centers for Disease Control, to be precise. She was there to get information on (not to try to stop) the plague of hepatitis and HIV in the orphanages that could not be stopped at this point at any rate. (The Romanian nurses were still injecting addicts’ and prostitutes’ blood into the babies when she arrived and left, but there were fewer babies each month now.)
Kate had found an anomalous survivor in one of the worst orphanages – an abandoned, nameless nine-month-old who could not have survived the multiple problems and diseases which ravaged him, but who had – and she went through the incredible red tape of adopting the infant. Father O’Rourke helped her cut through the last of the American red tape (which, incredibly, was worse than the Romanian red tape) by personally calling an old friend of his, a certain Senator Jim Harlen (in his last full year in office). After that phone call, Kate and the baby – whom she had named Joshua – were able to get out of the country.
But one of the oldest (and most evil) families in Romania then decided that the abandoned baby now named Joshua belonged to them. They went to America and reclaimed him, leaving two people closest to Dr. Kate Neuman dead. Kate contacted Mike O’Rourke – then officially in the process of leaving the priesthood (although he did not tell her that) – and he agreed to help her sneak back into Romania and try to get the baby back.
They succeeded. (Mike’s ability to fly a helicopter once again came in handy.)
In 1992, Father Mike O’Rourke became, again, Mr. Mike O’Rourke. He and Kate were married the next month.
They were happy together – happier than most couples. Three years later, they had a second child, a girl they named Julia. Two years after that, they had another, a boy they named John, after Mike’s father (who, incredibly, still worked at Pabst, despite a mandatory retirement age there.) Mike loved the idea of a large family and would have welcomed more kids, but Kate – Dr. Neuman – was still working as a hematologist (in California at the time) and immunology researcher, putting in long hours in Class V containment labs, and Mike knew when to quit. (“Actually,” Kate joked one night, “if you’d known when to quit, we’d just have Josh.”)
Right after the adoption, Kate had high hopes that something in Joshua’s DNA and blood – something that had helped him survive his impossible first months in that orphanage – might lead to incredible breakthroughs in AIDS research, possibly cancer research, and possibly – just possibly – into the problem of aging itself.
But it didn’t. Whatever miracle cellular structure that had saved Josh (and continued to keep the growing boy from getting so much as a head cold), wasn’t easily findable or replicable, despite Kate’s and the CDC’s and Maryland’s Fort Detrick’s (where she did some of her most hazardous work) expertise and efforts. Finally, she realized, her four-year-old son could continue being a part-time guinea pig looking at a lifetime of needles and MRIs and blood draws and more esoteric and invasive procedures, or he could be a kid.
She chose kid.
Josh O’Rourke wasn’t the happiest kid – not even the happiest in the family, by a long shot – and he had long phases of moodiness, over-assertiveness, and even occasional bouts of violence as he approached his teenage years.
But he also had a former army tunnel-rat and Jesuit kick-ass missionary as a father and a take-no-prisoners epidemiologist for a mother. Josh was never allowed to cross the behavior or attitude line so far that he and his parents or siblings were permanently estranged from one another, and by the time he was sixteen, Josh began to mellow while his teenaged friends got weirder and weirder.
Mike received a teaching certification and did teach high-school history for a while, found that he enjoyed teaching at a local junior college even more, and spent his summers flying helicopters (he finally did get his full pilot’s license, amazed that California would license a one-legged man, however sophisticated his prosthetic leg was those days) for Chico’s now very successful air-transport and medical-flight company (Chico’s brother Kink had dropped out and retired to a tiny town somewhere.) The O'Rourkes' income was solid and they liked their jobs.
The problem that faced Mike and Kate wasn’t the kids or usual family-work dynamics; the problem was that the ancient Romanian family that decided it wanted to lay claim to Joshua had reasserted that claim.
They did so not through the courts, but by sending kidnappers and killers in the night. The first time this happened, Mike was lucky. Caught completely offguard (except for old instincts from his priest-in-the-jungle as well as Vietnam days), Mike somehow managed to hear, intercept, and overcome the two men – both armed – who had entered his California home in the middle of the night. He turned the men over to the Santa Barbara police but they were released on bail and disappeared.
Two months later, four men tried to snatch Josh from the middle school he was attending. Josh himself foiled that attempt by running, hiding in backyards and strangers’ garages while the four men searched frantically, a black van roaring up and down suburban streets and alleys, but the boy used his cell phone to call not the police but his father. Mike was there in eight minutes. He killed two of the men – one with the K-bar knife he’d used in tunnels in Vietnam, the other one with the .45 automatic given to him after the war by his fellow tunnel rat, the one who’d gone back down to find the shredded remnants of Mike’s leg.
The investigation and legal problems resulting from this “double murder” lasted four months for Mike, and during the time he was fighting the system to clear himself – luckily, teachers, a school principal, and several local people had seen the rough attempted kidnapping at the middle school and the van had been found with ropes, gags, masks, and syringes of a sedative in it – Kate took the kids and just disappeared. She knew how to hide.
When Mike was free of the legal mess (important people, including two Archbishops and a cardinal, had intervened on Mike’s behalf), he and Kate and the kids disappeared from California for good. It was as if they’d gone into a Witness Protection Program, but one of their own devising.
Their new life was on the remote part of the island of Maui, as far as the Hana Highway could go and then further, to a tiny non-place called Kipahulu. The kids went to school in Hana. Kate worked at Science City far up on the dormant volcano of Haleakala. There were well-publicized astronomical and meteorological science compounds up near the rim of the crater and one high-security, fenced and guard-protected Air Force installation where (word was), there were special telescopes and cameras that could read the fine print not only on the wings of the American shuttle in orbit but on a Russian satellite 6,000 miles up. And a small and totally unheralded part of that high-security Air Force compound was a government Class VII immunology lab where Kate worked.
Mike now worked part-time for the Air Force and Science City, ferrying scientists and cargo up 11,000 feet above sea level when needed (and his wife most mornings just after breakfast) in a beautiful Bell Ranger that he owned, and almost full-time as a history teacher at the Hana High School right next to the new elementary school. He was never further than three minutes from his kids.
There were no more attempts.
Mike and Kate missed the mainland (and what was left of his family there) but loved Hawaii. Even Josh, who would be headed for UCLA after he graduated from high school in 2007, loved the Islands.
Not long after they’d moved to Hana in 1999, Mike took the whole family on a special helicopter ride. He’d practiced it two dozen times with a veteran pilot of a thousand tourist flights.
Both Kilauea and Mauna Loa volcanoes on the Big Island were very active that year – an unusual situation, for Kilauea frequently had lava flows but Mauna Loa seemed more quiescent each year – and Mike now showed the spectacle to his family at night. He approached the Big Island at 7,000 feet, sweeping around the curve of the larger Mauna Lea just after dusk, revealing the lava flows from both cones running south to the southernmost cost of the island and to the sea.
The view and effect were amazing. Rivers of throbbing, pulsing red lava twenty miles long. Steam, from where the lava pulsed and flowed over the new coastal lava crust edge into the sea, rising to 30,000 feet. Ten thousand cracks in the solidifying lava on either side of the full flow giving peeks down into the fire beneath. Then, rising quickly, hands steady and busy on both cyclic and collective, real foot and plastic foot both busy on the pedals, Mike took the pressurizable helicopter up to 4,000, then 6,000, then, pressurized, to 10,000 feet and then 13,600 feet (the height of Mauna Lo), allowing his passengers to peer down into the actual cones and craters and calderas of both erupting volcanoes.
“Creation,” he’d said softly.
No one else was able to say anything. But that was the day – night – when young Josh O’Rourke decided to become a volcanologist.
The flight had seemed dangerous and to some degree, Mike and Kate knew, any helicopter flight was dangerous, but the seeming danger of hovering high over the rivers of lava – the most incredible part – was part illusion. The veteran pilot had shown Mike exactly how to approach the active lava areas, exactly what altitude to hold at each second, and exactly where to autorotate down to solid and relatively smooth rope lava to the side of the flowing lava if the Bell’s engines were to quit. Helicopters could not glide like a winged aircraft – they had the aerodynamic lift of a brick – but with the rotors spinning freely, even without the motor working, they offered enough lift for autoration and a relatively rough, but not disastrous, landing. All chopper pilots practiced autoration frequently and Mike practiced it more than most. Even in the dark, several thousand feet seemingly (but not really) directly above a river of flowing lava, he knew exactly where the best autorotation landing field of smooth lava was. He’d even practiced it several times before he took his family on the flight.
It seemed worth the slight risk afterward. Julia and John loved Hawaii more than ever and begged their parents to go to Volcano National Park – by plane from Maui to the Big Island and then car after that first wonderful night – every chance they could. Julia got a female-power thing going with the volcano goddess Pele.
And Josh’s determination to become a volcanologist – a volcano expert – spending his life traveling to odd parts of the world just as his father and mother had, only investigating volcanoes rather than viruses or orphanages, became not only his plan but his passion. He left for UCLA in August of 2007.
Mike and Kate were nervous, but they had close friends in Los Angeles – four of them ex- or current-military – who offered to keep an eye on their son. They told themselves that no threat had come from Romania for almost ten years and none would come now.
And none did. Josh’s e-mails and phonecalls home were filled with assurance and delight at his freshman studies. And he had a roommate – a boy from Israel from named Charles Ari Ben-Ze'ev – whom he thought the world of. Charlie was a dreamy poet to Josh’s incipient scientist and the combination, Josh reported, was wonderfully effective with the girls.
During Christmas break 2007, Josh brought Charlie home. The Israeli boy, bright-eyed, intense, funny, quick with a smile, loved Kipahulu, loved nearby Hana (especially the outdoor jacuzzi and spa and pool at the small, quiet, but ultra-luxurious Hotel Hana Maui) and loved everything about Hawaii.
Josh had one request for Christmas Eve – a second night flight over Kilauea and Mauna Loa, both of which were erupting again the most dramatically since 2000 when they’d first seen it from the air. Mike agreed, brought his Ranger in for a full check-up, and practiced the route, altitudes, and autorotation safety procedures a dozen times on his own.
They arrived just after dusk again. The other children had stayed behind this time – they were with friends for this early part of Christmas Eve – but Kate rode in the copilot’s seat as always and Josh and Charlie were in the backseat (but the modern Bell Jet Ranger had wonderful windows, including panels at Mike’s and Kate’s feet under the instrument console, a view that could be seen by the backseat passengers.) Charlie took it all in – even every step of the elaborate pre-flight inspection at the tiny Hana Airport – and his smile kept getting bigger and bigger. By the time Mike banked the Jet Ranger around the southeast slopes of Mauna Loa so that the rivers of lava on the south faces of the volcanoes came fully into view for the first time, Charlie was making little gasping noises of delight and awe.
The steam from the sea receiving the red-orange lava rose up six miles and more in the darkening twilight (they still had hours before it was time to pick up John and Julia on the short ride from the Hana Airport and go home to finish wrapping and – according to family tradition – letting the kids open just one present.)
The glow from the calderas and lava flows as they hovered 2,000 feet above them was brighter than the glow from the lowered instrument lights. An old pro at this, Josh slid open both of the Jet Ranger’s side windows. “You can smell it,” he whispered to Charlie. “You can hear it. It’s Creation, Charlie. Creation. The Earth is building itself anew down there.”
“Yes,” said Charlie. “Did I ever tell you, Joshua O’Rourke, what my surname, Ben-Ze'ev, means?”
Josh smiled and glanced at his father as if to say I told you he was weird, Dad. “No,” said Josh. “What does it mean, Charlie?”
“It means Son of the Wolf,” said the wildly grinning boy. “In Romanian it would be Lupulea or Lupula, just as Dracula means “son of the dragon.” And Charley pricked his finger with a black needle he’d been holding. His eyes closed and he slumped back unconscious into the rear seat cushions.
Before Mike or Kate could do anything but look at each other, there was a crump from above and the console erupted with two dozen red warning lights and screaming recorded alarms. None of the three O’Rourkes screamed.
Mike fought pedals and cyclic and collective all at once, doing exactly what he needed to do for best autorotation, but none of the controls except the pedals controlling the tail rotor responded. The engine hadn’t quit or even exploded. Something – somehow – some small shaped charge put on after the inspection, it had to be – had blown the rotor and rotor assembly clean off the machine.
A helicopter cannot glide, nor can it autorotate if its rotors are not spinning. These rotors were gone. The machine, now just a metal box, began spinning as it dropped vertically.
Mike had time to shout “I love you!” and to grab his wife and son. They hugged each other in the seconds it took to fall the final 1,000 feet.
The temperature of the lava at the center of the flow was just above 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit – not quite hot enough to melt any steel in the helicopter, but more than enough not only to melt but to volatize the majority of the machine’s constituent materials of aluminum, plastic, rubber, Plexiglas, and fabric. And, of course, flesh and bone.
There were not even ashes left inside what was left of the slagged, slumped, shrunken, and misshapen hull of the Jet Ranger when it was recovered two days later.
On the TV, the reporter-guy named Mr. Howe was saying, “Under the rules, gentlemen, we’ve exhausted the time for questions. Each candidate will now have four minutes and thirty seconds for his closing statement. Senator Kennedy will make the first closing statement.”
Kennedy flashes a big grin, looks more serious, and says, “I – uh – said – uh – that I’ve – ah – served this country for fourteen years. I served it – uh – in the war. I’m – ah – devoted to it . . .”
“Jesus,” says Jim Harlen, lolling back in Dale’s father’s big chair and putting his hands over his eyes.
All five of the boys are tired now. Lawrence’s eyes look the heaviest since this is seriously past his usual bedtime. Mike rubs his face to come more alert – he’d been up before five that morning, as he was every weekday, doing his paper route before the cold sun came up and then serving as altar boy at St. Malachy’s seven a.m. Mass before heading off to sixth grade on the Oak Hill school bus. Kevin looks as slightly detached from everything as he usually does, but he’s saying less and less as the other boys’ banter dies.
“I wish Mom would get home,” Lawrence says sleepily.
“Me, too,” says Harlen, his hands still over his eyes as Kennedy’s voice lumbers on in that weird accent. “I wanna go home.”
“She’ll be home any minute,” says Dale. “The Parkside Café closes at ten.” But not the tavern next door, he thinks.
“We shoulda watched Twilight Zone,” says Harlen, still hiding his eyes. “It coulda been a rerun of that one last year about this time, where that little weasely guy – Beemis, I think his name was – and he worked in a bank and was like Dale and his old buddy Duane, I mean he’s like them ‘cause he wants to do nothing but read books all the time . . .”
“Yeah! Yeah!” Lawrence says excitedly. “And the guy gets accidentally locked in a whatchamacallit, a bank safe or vault or whatever, and there’s this nucular war outside but he’s safe an’ . . .”
“Nuclear,” says Dale.
“What?” says Lawrence, blinking away the images from last year’s Twilight Zone episode.
“Nuh –CLEE – ar,” repeated Dale.
“That’s what I said.”
“Uh-uh,” said Dale. “You said Nuh-KU-lar. Only dummies say it that way.”
“Screw you,” Lawrence said to his older brother. Then the youngest boy blushed at his own language. He was just beginning to experiment with bad words, but he couldn’t so easily. Not yet. (He never would fully get the hang of it.)
“Anwayyyy,” said Harlen. “This Beemis guy is the only one who survives the nu-KU-lar war . . . you’re a dope, Larry . . . but when he comes out into the ruins and finds a library still standing, the dipshit drops and breaks his glasses, the last ones with his prescription in the whole world probably, so he’s got all the books and he’s got all the time, but he can’t read ‘em.”
Suddenly Kevin stands up. The other boys look at him, wondering if he’s headed home next door even though his mother had given him permission to stay out until the end of the debate (where Kennedy was still droning on.) Kevin clears his throat and says, in a perfect, deep Rod Serling rumble –
“Witness Mr. Henry Bemis, a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers. A bookish little man whose passion is the printed page but who is conspired against by a bank president and a wife and a world full of tongue-cluckers and the unrelenting hands of a clock. But in just a moment Mr. Bemis will enter a world without bank presidents or wives or clocks or anything else. He'll have a world all to himself, without anyone.”
Kevin sits down and drinks the last of his now-flat Pepsi.
“Wow!” cries Mike. “How did you do that, Kev?”
Kevin Grumbacher shrugs. His protruding ears are a little red.
“Yeah,” says Harlen. “I thought that fat-ass Duane was the only one we knew who could memorize tons of useless crap like that.
Silence washes across the conversation like a rogue wave. Kennedy is still talking on the TV. Outside, the cold October rain continues to fall.
Dale Stewart will mourn and look up to Duane McBride – always comparing himself, the adult Dale with the PhD and several books to his credit, unfavorably, to a boy who died at age 11 – for forty years. Then Dale, filled with a dark and rising madness, will come back to Illinois from Montana and spend part of a winter living and trying to write in Duane’s old farm house, the place the overweight young genius had called The Jolly Corner.
What Dale will really be trying to do in that awful winter of 1999-2000, of course, is to find and confront Duane McBride’s ghost, since it’s haunted Dale for 40 years by then.
And he will succeed in terrible ways he never could have imagined.
Dale’s life beyond this point in the autumn of 1960 will be more a series of intellectual milestones than actual events. The death from cancer of both of his parents in 1967 will be real enough – he spent far more time home from college that spring and the following fall than his younger brother Lawrence will ever remember or acknowledge – but those awful final months of his parents will, in truth, be overlaid in Dale’s memory with the academic excitement of his freshman and sophomore years when he still had hopes of turning into the real intellectual that he always thought Duane had been and that he should become.
Vietnam was not a problem; Dale’s birthday lottery number drawn in 1969 was high enough that he’d never be called up unless there were an invasion of the continental United States, but he never told his friends, girlfriends, or fellow intellectuals at Kenyon that. With them, he pondered going to Canada or becoming a Conscientious Objector and working in Stateside hospitals. With them, he protested the war and helped to shut down the college for a week in the spring of 1970 (but the faculty and administration at Kenyon were, if anything, more anti-war than the students and reveled in being shut down.)
Before that, in the spring of 1968, part of his mind and heart still reeling from the family deaths of the previous year, Dale worked on the Eugene McCarthy presidential campaign, not just in Ohio but in the actual primary states of New Hampshire and onward. His professors, except for one right-wing old fart who taught Contemporary Civilization and advanced history courses (specializing on the Greeks and their warfare), gave Dale full hours of credit for going off with the McCarthy campaign.
It was in Indiana – which McCarthy didn’t come close to carrying – that Dale went to Indianapolis on April 4 and was there at a Bobby Kennedy rally (Dale despised RFK for being the carpetbagger and cynical latecomer on Clean Gene’s anti-war territory that he was) where Kennedy stood in the rain, before a mostly black audience in an Indianapolis (his Indiana friend there called it ‘Naptown’) ghetto, and announced to the crowd that Martin Luther King had been shot and killed in Memphis.
Dale was struck at that moment by Bobby Kennedy’s demeanor (the senator was standing in the rain in his dead brother Jack’s old raincoat, quoting Aeschylus) more than he’d been affected by any politician anywhere, for anything. But after the speech, returning to the McCarthy campaign headquarters, he shook off the brief bout of . . . hero worship? . . . and got back to his business of getting Gene McCarthy elected so he could end the obscene war.
Dale was still with what was left of the McCarthy campaign that summer at the convention in Chicago, and when he saw the riots outside the hotel in the park – and when cops in riot gear actually rushed into the McCarthy strategy headquarters on the sixteenth floor of the hotel and started clubbing young men and women there – Dale Stewart (after getting the five stitches in his scalp from volunteer interns at a makeshift medical center in a nearby room) swore that he would vote Democratic as long as he lived.
Back at Kenyon his junior year, Dale makes a conscious decision to devote his life to literature – producing it as well as teaching it. Prose is his medium of choice (to be honest, he can’t produce poetry of enough quality to share) and before he graduates in 1970 with his B.A. in English, Dale has placed his short work in the Kenyon Review and several other “Little Magazines” around the country. His politics at this stage had gone beyond Marx to Marcuse and then detoured back through Gramsci by way of Silone (and thus back to Engels!) But politics was entertainment; literature was life. (Or so he convinced himself there on his wooded hill near Gambier, Ohio.)
Dale had been having a run of luck since his high draft number, and after his first year that required a heavy student loan he continued coasting on that luck (like the German car riding on the road made from Jewish headstones in the last shot of “Schindler’s List” Dale later thought, here in the form of grants and scholarships), but in 1970 his good fortune reached its life’s apogee shortly before his graduation when – based primarily on his few pieces of published work in the Review – Dale was offered a Wallace Stegner fellowship to the famous and exclusive graduate-level writing program at Stanford University.
Dale loved northern California and Palo Alto (where, less than ten miles away, unbeknownst to Dale, his friend Mike O’Rourke had just left for Bradley University after receiving his first prosthetic leg at a VA hospital), and Dale loved “the Farm” (as everyone at Stanford called it), and he loved the Jones Room in the Stanford Library in which the fellowship creative-writing group (three writers of prose other than Dale and two poets) met, and he loved (and feared) Wallace Stegner, but he’d never felt so provincial and inadequate. He had good reason to feel that way.
Beginning writers who’d come through this fellowship in the twenty-five years that Stegner had been teaching it included Peter S. Beagle, the black writer Ernest J. Gaines (when there were only four other blacks on the entire Stanford campus),and Hannah Greene (author of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, a woman whom Dale met and whose real name, he learned was Joanne Greenberg – she’d written her seminal autobiography of life and treatment as a schizophrenic under a pseudonym so her mother would not be embarrassed.) Others who’d sat at this table in the Jones Room where Dale now sat each day of the week included Wendell Berry, Ken Kesey, Robert Stone, Scott Turow, Eugene Burdick, Tom McGuane, Edward Abbey, Larry McMurtry, Tillie Olsen, Al Young, and dozens of other novelists and short story writers, some of whom were just beginning to make their bones.
Poets who had sat in the chair where Dale now sat included Philip Levine, Thom Gunn, Robert Pinsky, Donald Justice, Robert Hass, and N. Scott Momaday.
Compared to the work of most of these prose writers or poets, compared to Wallace Stegner’s writing – hell, compared to the work he was seeing each week from the three other prose writers in the current fellowship – his own work, Dale knew, was posturing crap.
This wasn’t modesty, Dale knew in his heart and guts, just a fact. At Kenyon he’d written unselfconsciously of his life as a boy in Elm Haven – of the friendships and fights and loyalties and crushing disappointments of his youth –– of the summer sunsets in Illinois with the red circle of the sun hanging in the hazy atmosphere just above the cornfields like a tethered crimson balloon – and of the so-frequently overlooked but always central secrets and silences of childhood.
He’d written easily and fluently about this world in the rush and confusion and politics and sex and drugs and adrenaline of his last two years at Kenyon, but now that world was – inexplicably but irretrievably – closed to him forever. He was sure of that.
Dale knew that Professor Stegner knew this. The white-haired instructor never completely said as much, but Dale could hear the disappointment in the professor-writer’s voice when Dale’s work was being critiqued and discussed. Dale was – as are, he learned, 99.9999999999899% of all young, would-be writers – pretending to be a writer while imitating others who had done it better. He was, to borrow a phrase that Duane McBride had used when Dale had shown him a detective story he’d written in his notebook and had been proud of in fifth grade, trying to “write something from the outside in that needed to be written from the inside out.”
Dale hadn’t understood the damning phrase when he was in fifth grade. Now, as he sat in the Jones Room on the Farm, being patiently helped and evaluated by one of America’s finest teachers of writing that first long year of ’70-71, Dale understood it all too well.
He didn’t belong there. His attempts at fiction were a total failure – both of nerve and honesty.
Stegner didn’t seem to care. He seemed tired – he’d been teaching the same program for a full 25 years now, starting right after the war – and indeed, he’d finally leave Stanford in 1971. (Those students who continued to come and benefit from Stegner’s fellowship program shortly after Stegner left it included newcomers Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver, Allan Gurganus, Harriet Doerr, and William Kittredge. Dale knew when he was outgunned, outclassed, and outwritten.)
So Stegner left in 1971 but for reasons even Dale did not understand – he suspected it had to do with masochism and in having to fully confront the fact that he couldn’t write fiction for sour owl poop – Dale stayed on in the Jones Room at the Farm and took his humiliation like daily peltings of stones for another year before moving on to the University of Colorado in Boulder to finish his PhD program. (He loved American literature, especially 19th Century American writers, above all others, but in the usual complex ways of dissertations and advisors – and because the swampy fields around his favorite, Mark Twain, were so thoroughly trod and plowed – Dale ended up doing his dissertation on Wilkie Collins, a sometimes collaborator and friend of Charles Dickens and one of the early “sensationalist” English authors. Ten months into his obsessive and exhausting research and reading into the author of The Woman in White and The Moonstone, Dale decided – coolly, with much regret but little real animosity – that Wilkie Collins was a talentless, opium-addicted, clueless hack and that someone should have scattered the stupid sod’s bones in the marsh before he wrote all of his mewling mid- and late-Victorian twaddle. But the dissertation – Wilkie Collins and Narrative Technique in the Early English Sensationalist Novels – did its job and earned Dale his doctorate.
By this point, Dale had surrendered any plans of becoming a writer himself. He just wanted to teach at a decent university somewhere in the American West, haul in enough salary to buy himself a Volvo and find himself a bride, get tenure before the wolves closed their circle, and generally find a nice, long slide and grease it.
In later years, Dale was to remember one comment that Professor Stegner tossed out, almost offhandedly, when the student-writers around the table were discussing (with terrible, terminal, deadly earnestness) the sickness of American politics in 1971 and the writer’s duty – that was the term they used in their ignorance, “duty” – to make a political statement in his or her work that might help cure that sickness.
“The sickness of our times,” Stegner had said softly that spring afternoon, “is not a political sickness but a soul sickness.”
The earnest young writers took no note of this naïve comment and went on with their earnest arguments.
One other thing Dale often remembered in later years, especially when trying to teach Keats or Milton or even the most basics of poetry to first-year students (he was no longer allowed to call them by the sexist term ‘freshmen’) at the University of Montana in Missoula. In the midst of one critique session, an obviously bored Wallace Stegner had stood and scribbled on the blackboard (this was pre-whiteboard days) –
There once was a blonde from Hahant
Whose panties were silken and scant
Her boy was diminutive
And split his infinitive
You finish the damned thing, I can’t.
In his own boredom in scores of seminars and lecture halls in the decades to come, Dr. Dale Stewart would spend many happy hours trying – and failing – to complete that little limerick in a satisfying way. As metaphors for life go, it wasn’t bad.
Dale had married Anne Kelly Mahan in 1973, not too long after he’d come to Colorado from Stanford and started working in the doctorate program at CU. It had been a brief but passionate romance. Anne, two years older than Dale, had followed a boyfriend to Boulder three years before, discarded him (or vice versa, Dale was never sure), but kept her teaching job at CU. An eastern girl – born and raised in Providence -- she’d picked up an Art History doctorate at Boston University, but liked the mountains and skies of the Rocky Mountain West.
Dale taught for a while at CU after completing his doctorate there, but he knew he’d never have a chance for tenure there – the ‘70’s and early ‘80’s were awash with young academics from the ‘60’s seeking permanent posts in a constant game of tenured musical chairs – so thus began the delicate dance of husband-and-wife college instructors trying to find one university that would hire them both.
They found it at the University of Montana in Missoula and found a nice home there as well and – eventually – a ranch (purchased primarily with money “given to them by their secret friend Jack Galt” – a joke to be explained later.) Their first girl, Mab (Margaret Beth) was born in 1980; Katie followed in 1983.
Many of the writers who’d come through Stegner’s fellowship were considered (whether they wished to be or not) to be “regional writers” – especially some of the more successful ones like Wendell Berry and Tom McGuane – and while Dale was still thinking he might try to write again, he considered returning to his own “region,” the Midwest of the long, red-orb sunsets, but despite the 54 world-class small liberal arts colleges he and Anne knew of in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, there simply weren’t teaching jobs for them back there then. So Missoula it was.
Dale discovered that he loved Montana, even the brutal winters. But living in Montana at the end of the 20th Century (or even at the beginning of that century, as he discovered when reading A River Runs Through It and other books), wasn’t like living on the far side of the moon. Anne’s family brought them back to Boston and Providence regularly; their work took them to separate-but-equal (their phrase) academic conferences in Denver, Chicago, San Francisco, L.A., New York, and elsewhere; and, even with the expenses and distraction of two growing girls, Dale and Anne hopped on planes to visit old friends in Colorado and elsewhere.
Two of those old friends were the Colorado poet, Shakespeare and Jamesian scholar, and fellow professor Titus Merwyn and his first wife then, also named Anne. Dale’s Anne was an even more ardent Democrat than Dale – she had worked hard for Ted Kennedy during the senator’s insurrection against President Jimmy Carter in 1980, even though both Titus and Dale had shown her that Kennedy had no idea in the world why he was running for president other than it was his turn – and over the years, even when Titus had moved to the mountains to live with that much younger (and more volatile) woman named Leah – they would have spasms of enjoyable political frenzy together.
The older Titus, they discovered, had not only known Bobby Kennedy well in the 1960’s but had been one of the senator’s primary speech writers (along with, he said, an unknown kid named Jeff Greenfield) during the 1968 campaign that ended in RFK’s assassination.
Thus it was that Dale and Anne perked up and listened in February of 1983 when Titus phoned, very excited (for such a phlegmatic old poet), to tell them that Colorado’s second-term senator Gary Hart was quite possibly the next real thing – meaning, the Drs. Stewarts knew, possibly the next Robert F. Kennedy for Titus – and that they’d better join him (Titus) in getting this guy elected.
They tried. Even with Anne pregnant with Katie and with the 3-yr.-old Queen Mab (she was the crazy one) demanding their attention, it happened to be a sabbatical year for Anne and a light teaching year for Dale (he was expanding a well-received published paper of his into a small university-press book on theory called PRE-READING PROTOCOLS IN GENRE FICTION and the university had given him a light load that semester) so they went east to work for Hart and celebrated hard with Titus when their handsome, intelligent young candidate pulled a huge upset by beating the presumed nominee Walter Mondale by 10 points in the New Hampshire Primary.
One of the perqs for Dale, Anne, and Titus (Leah stayed home)that spring was meeting and working with the horror author Stephen King and his wife Tabitha, both of whom agreed with Titus that Gary Hart could be the next real thing. The crowds in New Hampshire would gather for Stephen King, but stay to hear Gary Hart.
Walter Mondale, the plodding Party Establishment’s candidate, won the nomination at the national convention in San Francisco in July – one of the few times the race had gone all the way to the convention – and Mondale showed the dubious height of his wit (although the public and press thought it a great zinger) when, during a debate that Gary Hart had been winning to that point, Mondale smirked and quoted the Wendy’s commercial with “Where’s the beef?” Titus and Dale were still excitedly debating whether Hart should accept the vice-presidential slot when Mondale chose Geraldine Ferraro, a lady – it turned out – who came with more baggage than anyone expected.
Reagan buried Mondale in a landslide and Dale, Anne, and – most of all – Titus Merwyn expected their boy from Colorado to be the next party favorite in 1988, when whomever the Democrats chose wouldn’t have to worry about running against that vote-producing old enigma named Ronald Reagan. All three professors were onboard in April of 1987 when that proverbial train left the metaphorical station, Titus now in the inner campaign circle and writing good speeches for Hart, but the problem this time around were the rumors – that reporters were asking about the day that Gary Hart announced his candidacy – suggesting that the senator had been carrying on an extramarital affair.
Hart met that problem head-on by calling a press conference and announcing, “"Follow me around. I don't care. I'm serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They'll be very bored."
The Miami Herald did just that . . . and on the same day that Hart had made his challenge public, they published news that a bimbo named Donna Rice had been seen, by their reporter hiding in the bushes, sneaking in and out of the candidate’s apartment. Hart had his people claim that a reporter couldn’t even see the front door of his apartment building from those particular bushes. (“Not the best rebuttal to adultery charges ever put forward,” Titus said dryly to Dale and Anne that night.) Two days later, the Miami Herald broke the story of Hart on the chartered yacht Monkey Business – a boat that lived up to its name – and the story included a photo of Hart, a drink glass in his hand, wearing a Monkey Business t-shirt, and with sexy Donna Rice on his lap.
The campaign’s own New Hampshire polls showed Hart’s support dropping from a healthy early 32% to 17%. Their candidate had become a laughing stock and a symbol of hypocrisy. “It’s hanging around with that goddamned Warren Beatty that did it,” Titus said to Dale on May 6, the day the photo appeared in what Titus and Dale called The National Perspirer. “Gary started thinking that he was Warren Beatty – that he could do or say anything or screw anyone without there being any consequences.”
Hart dropped out of the race, his political career essentially finished, on May 8, 1987. Anne’s primary job that last week they spent in New England was keeping Tabby King from killing the senator from Colorado. “I’m going to castrate him first and then I’ll kill the stupid shit,” Tabby had shouted. Steve had whispered to Dale, “Don’t make the mistake of thinking she doesn’t mean it. Keep that zipless putz away from her.”
Hart added insult to the injury to his staffers by returning to the race in December, his wife at his side, with a new slogan – “Let’s let the people decide!” The people did decide. Hart received fewer than 5,000 votes in New Hampshire, about 4%. He dropped out a second time in March. By that time, Dale and Anne – both busy teaching and child-rearing in Missoula – weren’t even reading the papers any longer. They’d dutifully vote for Dukakis the following November, but they’d be damned if they’d read about the campaign.
It will be the summer after his candidate’s Zippergate scandal that Dale will write his first novel. As most good things do, it will happen largely by accident.
After the thorough rebuke of his time as a Wallace Stegner fellow, Dale Stewart had abandoned all thought of writing fiction, but he found that Montana – the oppressed Native Americans there (as a professor and liberal he had to think of Indians in those terms), the landscape, the Custer Battlefield (soon to be renamed with a more politically correct term) at Little Bighorn, the skies, the history – all combined to make him want to write something about the place and its history.
Since he was a kid, Dale had been fascinated by tales of America’s mountain men – those strange, seemingly last-absolutely-free men in the 1830’s and thereabouts who had wandered the West when Indians still ruled there, who trapped beaver in the mountains and took their furs to Rendezvous in the summer, who thought nothing of trapping in Montana or Idaho or the Colorado Rockies all summer and wandering down to Santa Fe (Old Mexico then) to winter in style – and he’d idly begun gathering research on them. That summer of 1989, Dale had used his time to dash off a novel about mountainman Jim Bridger and his palls – the book was all Vardis Fisher mountain-man dialect (although, or course, he could not follow Fisher’s and A.B Guthrie’s lead of having the mountain men say things like “This nigger thinks . . .”) and big skies and pelts and Indian maidens married by mistake and muskets versus bows and arrows and hairy men shouting their defiance to the mountains and Montana skies.
He wrote the thing between June and the end of August that summer and – under the ironic pseudonym of Jack Galt and through a New York agent acquaintance – submitted it to Bantam Books without telling Anne or the girls. Bantam not only published the book (as a paperback original) but made Dale an offer he couldn’t refuse: they wanted a series of Jack Galt-written Jim Bridger- Mountain Man novels, about one new one every two years (deadlines easy to meet on Dale’s tenured professor schedule, especially if he did nothing else in the summers) and in return he would receive a salary as well as a good cut of the royalties.
In other words, it was a work-for-hire thing with Bantam owning the titles and series itself, the lowest thing a writer could do (this side of agreeing to do a novelization of a movie script.) Dale loved the idea and accepted at once.
It was this “Jack Galt” money from the Jim-Bridger series that allowed Dale and Anne to start building their savings in earnest and, in the early 1990’s, buy the ranch in the mountains for weekends and to have as a place where the girls could ride their horses.
And then some goddamned French critic “discovered” the third book in Dale’s – Jack Galt’s – hack mountain-man series, the book mostly about the Blackfeet and Lakota Sioux and Crow that Dale had titled The Free Living Human Beings after the Lakota’s name for themselves. (It wasn’t an unusual name, Dale knew. As his good friend, the writer James Welch (and only incidentally writer-of-Blackfeet-heritage and eventual author of Killing Custer) explained, almost all North American Indian tribes, as well as other ‘primitive’ tribes and clans around the world, call themselves by the name ‘the human beings.’ “This,” suggested Jim (who was to die far too young and too early in 2003), “suggests what each group thought of the other guy’s tribe.”)
But it was too late. French critics (and publishers) had “discovered’ Jim Bridger and the Last Free Human Beings and Dale’s nice, anonymous work-for-hire life with Bantam was over. The French, it turned out, were ga-ga on “indigenous peoples’ native writings and cries for liberty” and had entire wings of their publishing houses dedicated to “indigenous peoples’ authors.” Somehow Dale and his paperback-original Jim Bridger-mountain man series had been chosen for that intellectual elite.
The upshot was that Dale’s work was being worshiped in France and his cover was blown in the United States. Now even his publisher – hell, even his wife – expected him to write a major novel, a serious novel, almost certainly one about the Plains Indians indigenous peoples’ struggle – under his own name.
All the fun suddenly had gone out of writing and being published. To add to that confusion, Dale turned 50 in 1998.
Instead of using his Jack Galt fuck-you money to buy a red sportscar, Dale took the other most banal avenue to fighting the midlife male blues – he had an affair with one of his 22-year-old female graduate students..
It was no excuse that the woman was unusual – beautiful, smarter than Dale, the daughter of the famous Native American (but European-dwelling) opera diva Mona Two Hearts. Dale first knew the girl – woman – he literally fell for as a student named Clare Hart who was just dropping in to audit some of his classes. When he discovered, by accident, who her mother was and that her real name was Clare Two Hearts, he should have let the name alone warn him from his folly. Instead, he embraced his folly.
Later that year, when Clare Two Hearts dumped Dale – it had never been serious on her part – and after Anne had discovered the adultery and been crushed by it, and after his daughters (one in college, the other still home) had also learned about it and rightly taken their mother’s side, and after Dale had moved out of the house to the weekend ranch and promptly and totally botched a suicide attempt, he did what seemed to be the obvious thing to do at the time . . .
. . . he asked for a sabbatical and returned to Elm Haven, Illinois, where he'd grown up, to spend the winter in the abandoned farm that had once belonged to his smarter- and murdered-friend Duane McBride.
Duane had called the farm The Jolly Corner and while Dale had long since learned the Jamesian source of that name, during the winter of 1999-2000 he was to appreciate the full depths of the irony of it.
As is true of most people who go somewhere seeking ghosts, Dale found his. He managed to survive the winter (although The Jolly Corner did not.) He had planned to write his “serious novel” – a book about his and his friends’ summer of 1960 – while at the Jolly Corner that terrible winter, and in truth he emerged from the experience having written something, but nothing he would ever publish.
After the interlude of literal madness back in Illinois, Dale returned to Montana and created a sort of half-life there for himself – his wife and family lost to him forever after the divorce Anne pursued, but at least he was on speaking terms with Anne and the girls. It was, he decided, better than madness and death.
Titus Merwyn drove his old pickup up to Montana to drink with Dale and to listen to him several times in the summer of 2000 and then the summer of 2001. Titus was a friend, and spoke as one.
“What the fuck part of the Monkey Business shit didn’t you understand, Dale?”
“Well,” said Dale between beers, “you left your Anne for Leah.”
“Actually, I was just messing around with Leah when my Anne left me, dipshit, which meant I lost Tom as well. I miss Tom. I was a good dad and I pissed that whole life away. And then, if you remember, Leah left me. Story-ending-wise, a total pooch-screw.”
“I love listening to poets talk,” said Dale.
“Yeah, me too,” said Titus. “Another round?”
“You know it.”
In the spring of 2002, it was Dale’s turn to drive south to Colorado to see Titus. It turned out that Titus’s grown son Thomas, whom Titus loved more than anyone on earth, had been a casualty at the World Trade Center on 9-11.
What drove Titus close to madness was the fact that Tom had nothing to do with New York or the WTC – his life, law firm, wife, and children were in Atlanta and no one there knew why, on September 10, 2001, Tom had secretly flown to New York and been up in the Windows on the World restaurant when the first plane hit the tower. It made no sense at all. But the DNA did not lie and the New York police helicopter had even shot video of a man that Titus had been able to identify as his son, leaping to his death from a shattered window a thousand feet up in the burning building, shortly before the building fell.
Titus had resigned from CU and retreated to his cabin near Long’s Peak south of Rocky Mountain National Park. He discussed the mystery of his son’s death with Dale – and Titus’s inability to find even a clue as to why Tom was there that morning – and then they just went on a walk through the snow and discussed other things.
But it was long conversations with Titus that finally gave Dale Stewart the idea, years later as 2008 approached, for his first book to be published under his own name.
Titus hadn’t minded when Dale had taken notes during their many discussions about Titus’s times with Robert F. Kennedy in the 1960’s and Dale began wondering if he might possibly interview other such former acquaintances of Bobby Kennedy and write a book about the man. He had a title for it – THE EDUCATION OF ROBERT KENNEDY – and the theme would be not just the awakening of a charismatic politician, but the transformation of a politician who had been harsh, selfish, and overly ambitious, who – through suffering – became a man of some real insight, empathy, and compassion.
Dale was still amassing interviews and information, but still dithering about the project, when, in the early fall of 2007, completely by accident, he’d discovered the whereabouts of his childhood friend Mike O’Rourke and arranged to travel to Maui to meet with Mike.
Dale found his old friend very much changed yet very much the same, and he loved Mike’s wife Kate and their son and daughter. (Their oldest son, an adopted boy, had just left for college in California.) On his third and final evening there, Dale told Mike about the book he was considering writing and Mike’s response was – “Why wouldn’t you write it if it excites you and if the writing of the thing might not bring some clarity, a momentary stay against confusion?”
“What’s that last thing?” asked Dale, puzzled.
Fifty-nine year-old Mike O’Rourke had actually blushed. “Hey, Dale, you’re the professor and writer, I’m just a high school teacher and occasional chopper pilot. I was just referring to that thing everyone knows about that Robert Frost said.”
Dale, it turned out, had not heard that thing that Robert Frost had said. He waited while Mike dug a tattered paperback off a bookshelf.
“Here it is,” said Mike. “It’s in Frost’s essay ‘The Figure a Poem Makes.’ –
It begins in delight and ends in wisdom. The figure is the same as for
love. No one can really hold that the ecstasy should be static and stand
still in one place. It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes
direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and
ends in a clarification of life – not necessarily a great clarification, such as
sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against
“Holy shit,” Dale had said after a long silence broken only by the sound of the Pacific Ocean rolling in at the edge of Mike’s backyard. “I’ve had a doctorate and been teaching this stuff and trying to write prose for more than twenty-five years . . . and you just explained to me what it’s all about.”
“Uh uh,” Mike had laughed, shaking his head. “Robert Frost did. And do you know who you just reminded me of with that ‘Holy shit”?
“Who?” said Dale.
“Jim Harlen,” said Mike and the two began laughing again.
Mike flew him via his own private helicopter around Maui to the airport on Kahului and they made solid plans to spend a few weeks together in the summer of 2008 – Dale bringing his two daughters, Mike with his whole family – right there in Maui.
When Dale learned on New Year’s Day 2008 of O’Rourke’s and his wife’s and son’s death – through a phonecall from Kevin Grumbacher, whom he hadn’t spoken to in many years – Dale began writing THE EDUCATION OF ROBERT KENNEDY.
This was part of his opening chapter –
“Actually it had not been the newly elected junior Senator from New York who’d made Titus – twenty-five, fifteen years younger than RFK at the time – jump at the chance to fly to Canada and climb the remote and previously unnamed and never-summited peak christened Mount Kennedy by the Canadian government after the 1963 assassination. Shepherding Robert Kennedy up the mountain were world-class climbers Jim Whittaker – still fresh from his triumph as first American to summit Mt. Everest two years earlier in 1963 – and his Everest climbing partner Barry Prather.
Titus had just finished up his Ph.D dissertation at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 1965 – the evolution of the late style of Henry James – when a Boulder-based climbing partner of his, Dave Walters (son of the famous climatologist Robert Rowe Walters), was invited by Jim Whittaker to be part of the Mt. Kennedy climbing team. Walters told him that there was room for a ninth and final member on the team and Titus immediately said yes to the opportunity of climbing with Prather, Whittaker and the other mountaineers, even though he knew that he and Walters and four of the others would be acting as Sherpas to the three principles – establishing base camps for them on the glacier prior to their arrival, scouting routes through crevasse fields, and schlepping gear up to their high camps. The fact that they were escorting Senator Robert F. Kennedy to the summit held little interest for Titus at the time.
Six of the nine men flew in to the remote Canadian mountain on a ski-rigged bush plane that also ferried their food, climbing gear, and all the tents. By the time Kennedy, Whittaker, and Prather arrived at the high base camp by helicopter the next day, Dave Walters, Titus, and the other four support climbers had set up four tents to make a base camp 8,700 feet high on the glacier and had already mapped a way through the crevasses and forced some of the route up the shoulder toward the summit ridge, marking the trail through the crevasses with bamboo wands and rigging a few fixed ropes on the lower portions of the climbing route.
The current senator and former attorney general might never have noticed Titus if Kennedy hadn’t forced a conversation about courage that first evening they were all together around the tiny propane-stone campfire on the spot Titus and the other temporary Sherpas had leveled by stamping out snow on the glacier. There was no wind, so they gathered outside in a huddle for dinner around the propane or white-gas stoves. Their camping area was safe from avalanches from the shoulders or face of the mountain, but it was very chilly in the shadow of the ridge. Everyone huddled around hissing stoves and bubbling pots in their full goosedown-layered gear while evening sunlight painted the mountain orange-gold above them. The sky dimmed slowly with the long northern late-spring twilight; they’d all be in their sleeping bags by nine p.m. since they had to be dressed, cramponed, and climbing before four a.m..
Serious climbers – like professional race drivers, soldiers, test pilots, and other members of professions whose practitioners tend to die young should they suffer any lack of focus or skill – are obsessed with the topic of courage. In truth they were obsessed with the topic of their courage or lack of it, Titus had known even then, but he also knew they didn’t like to talk about it. Bobby Kennedy didn’t pick up on this and persisted on asking questions, even after Whittaker and Prather had deflected his queries with jokes several times.
Titus had noticed that the senator had brought his reading material for the four-day expedition. Although Titus had never been to the Himalayas and had climbed in Alaska only twice, it had been his experience that serious climbers often brought books along for those days when they would be snowed into their tents, but always paperbacks – usually thick thrillers or mysteries, sometimes esoteric writings, but rarely anything of substance. It’s hard to think above 3,000 meters and the altitude usually gives a climbers headaches enough without adding difficult prose to the mix. To further conserve weight, they often tore the paperback into sections and swapped those fragments, with some of the men beginning the book half or two-thirds the way through. It didn’t matter. The words were just ways to pass time while listening to the wind howl or the snow fall and waiting for the reality of climbing.
Titus had noticed immediately that Robert F. Kennedy had brought a heavy hardcover with him. It was Their Finest Hour, the second volume of Winston Churchill’s massive five-volume history of World War II.
Perhaps prompted by that – or more likely by the whiskey one of the support climbers had brought and all of them had sampled with dinner – Titus suddenly said into the silence left by one of the senator’s unanswered questions, “Churchill said that courage was . . . I think I remember the phrase . . . ‘rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all the others.’ Or something like that.”
The silence following this contribution was far deeper than the one that had preceded it. Whittaker and Prather stared at Titus as if he’d let loose with a string of farts. Even Titus’s friend Dave Walters cleared his throat in embarrassment.
But Kennedy stared at Titus Merwyn with those shockingly sad yet somehow aggressive eyes. “Do you . . . ah . . . believe that?” he asked.
Embarrassed now, Titus had shrugged.
“What about retreat?” said Kennedy. “Can a man of courage ever do that in good conscience?”
“Retreat?” repeated Jim Whittaker. “You mean as in turning back from a climb? Of course you can . . . being stupid doesn’t equate with being brave. There are all sorts of objective dangers that can cancel a climb. They could still cancel this climb. ” The two lead climbers went on to explain the definition of objective dangers – crevasse, rockfall, avalanche, weather, embolism or illness of a member of the party – as opposed to the calculated dangers of climb route, exposure, climbing without rope when necessary, the penultimate risk of leaving gear, sleeping bags, and shelter behind on a summit push, or choosing to summit late when you knew your descent to high camp would be in the dark. Whittaker and Prather had made all these decisions on Everest.
Kennedy had nodded but then turned back to Titus. “How about you, Mr. Merwyn, do you think courage is compatible with retreat?”
Realizing that he’d already put his foot into it with the better climbers, his superiors, Titus figured What the hell? “As long as you retreat in the manner of a lion,” he said.
Several of the men guffawed at that, trying to turn Titus’s embarrassingly pedantic comment into another climber’s joke, but the junior senator, his gaze never relenting, said, “A retreat in the manner of a lion? Explain please.”
“You know,” said Titus, suspecting that they did not know, “the way Homer described Ajax’s retreat – and then Menelaus’ retreat when he had to give up Patroclus’ body to the better man, in the Iliad. Menelaus knows he can’t beat Hector in a fair fight, so he thinks – ‘Whenever a man is prepared to go against divine will and fight a man who is honored by a god, then disaster rolls fast on him. So no Danaan will think the worse of me if he sees me backing away from Hektor, as Hektor is fighting with a god’s support.”
Kennedy had smiled in what Titus felt was a grim, sad way. “So it’s not cowardice to know when not to oppose the gods,” he said softly. “But where does the lion come in?”
“Oh, you may remember that’s the simile Homer used for Ajax’s and Menelaus’ and the other heroes’ retreat,” said Titus. “Menelaus retreated like . . . this is just approximate . . .like a ‘great bearded lion driven from a farmstead by dogs and herdsmen with spears and shouting: his bold heart within him is chilled with fury, forced against his will to leave the cattleyard. So it was that fair-haired Menelaos moved back from Patroklos.’”
By this point, Titus was getting used to the continued stares and semi-embarrassed silence from the other climbers and wasn’t so deeply bothered by it, but he was surprised, almost startled, by Senator Kennedy’s huge and sudden grin.
In the morning they began crossing the glacier, weaving through crevasses on the bamboo-wand-marked trail that Titus and the others had scouted. The senator stayed carefully and constantly roped between Whittaker and Prather, and on the second day, as they began climbing the ridge toward the cone of the mountain, Titus, roped with Dave Walters on a second team, overheard enough of the conversation ahead of them to understand some of the reason for Kennedy’s questions the first night. The senator was afraid of heights.
“How did you prepare for this climb, Bobby?” asked Whittaker. “What did you do to get in shape?”
Without smiling, the senator said, “I ran up and down the stairs in my house yelling ‘Help!’”
Mt. Kennedy was not a great technical challenge – it was only 13,900 feet high, slightly lower than Long’s Peak and Mount Meeker, both across the road from where Titus lived now in the Colorado Rockies – and they were following the ridges, not the more challenging face, and it was all snow and ice on their route, no rockband challenges. But those snow and ice fields were very steep and exposed, especially to someone who had never climbed before.
After an hour and a half of slow climbing on the slope of the shoulder on the second day, never fully relying on the few fixed ropes Titus and his team had left, the lead party paused and Barry Prather asked Kennedy, “What do you think of the view?”
Resting twenty meters below them, Titus and Dave had been enjoying the beauty of jagged Canadian peaks as the sun rose. The weather was as serene as it had been the previous two days and they could see high peaks and glaciers in every direction for a 150-mile radius.
Panting slightly in the thin air above 10,000 feet, Kennedy said, “I don’t want to look at anything. I just want to stay right here.”
He didn’t quit.
When the three climbing parties reached the summit crest late that afternoon – Whittaker, Kennedy, and Prather about thirty meters in the lead – the two climbers let out about sixty meters of the extra rope Titus and the others had hauled up for them, playing it out so the senator could walk the last two hundred feet alone to the summit. This had been understood from the beginning of the expedition – that Kennedy would be the first to summit. Indeed, Titus and Dave and the other support climbers were not supposed to summit at all. Whittaker was a good man, but he was ambitious and fiercely competitive, as all good climbers are, and he wanted the record books to show just Robert F. Kennedy, James Whittaker, and Barry Prather as having completed the first ascent of Mt. Kennedy.
The wind was coming up a bit as Titus stood resting on his ice axe about a hundred feet below the summit and watched Kennedy as he placed some momentos on the summit crown – a plaque of President Kennedy’s Inaugural Medallion, Titus learned later, and one of the PT-109 tie clasps that had been such a coveted item for insiders during JFK’s thousand days in office, a few other small things. Titus saw Kennedy cross himself and pray silently for a minute there before Whittaker and Prather closed the distance and gathered up the extra climbing rope.
Titus hadn’t especially liked the theatrical elements of Kennedy going on alone for the summit, or the praying, or the trinkets. In his experience with first climbs, all the climbers often joined arms and walked together to the summit if the final yards of the ridge and the summit itself were large enough and solid enough to allow it. In truth, Robert Kennedy might as well have been a bag of laundry hauled to the top for all the contributions he made to the climb. Other than being the brother of the man they’d named the mountain after, what right did he have to set foot first on the top?
And then they’d all gone down, six of the nine climbers having never touched the summit.
About midnight that night, with the wind coming up in earnest and shoving at their three tents in high camp where they were pitched and tied down on a leveled area less than fourteen hundred feet below the summit, inches from a near-vertical slope that fell three-thousand feet straight down to the glacier, Dave Walters had whispered, “Fuck this” and started struggling into his outer gear, boots, and crampons.
Titus had fully agreed.
They reached the summit by headlamps and starlight before three a.m., the half-moon rising coldly above star-whitened peaks and snowfields all around them, the only sound the ragged rush of their breathing and the crunch of crampons on ice, and they were back at camp before the others rose. Whittaker and Prather certainly knew that their hired men had broken the rules, but they never said anything about it. Neither did Senator Kennedy, who seemed more elated by their return to the helicopter pickup point the next day than he’d been on the mountain.
But six months later, Titus had not been totally surprised to get a phonecall from Kennedy.
Dale had written that in one long afternoon and evening on January 1, 2008. When he was finished with that first draft, he pulled on his parka and went for a walk under the stars.
Dale’s current home was a former bunkhouse he leased, for almost nothing, from a rich couple he knew who spent the rough Montana winter in Florida. His job was to check on the main house – a beautiful modern structure on a hill above Missoula -- from time to time. The bunkhouse shared the same incredible view as did the $3 million home and, on the whole, Dale preferred the ambience of the bunkhouse.
This night he walked, exhausted and shaky, in the brittle cold, the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon and the stars burning cold and bright, and he spoke to Duane McBride. This was something he did from time to time since his winter of 1999-2000 in Duane’s farm home. The odd thing was that since that winter, Duane often spoke back.
“I’m going to dream about those damned hallways and empty rooms and tunnels again tonight,” Dale says.
“I know you will,” says Duane, who is almost visible in the starlight.
“I think all of us had those dreams. Why are those of five of us – four of us now -- who survived that summer so long ago so fucked up?” asks Dale.
The almost-visible form in the starlight shrugs and pushes the glasses back up on its nose. “We all saw the face of something we shouldn’t have that summer, Dale. Real evil. Something close to absolute evil. Most people get through an entire lifetime without having to see that. We thought then that life is something we were going to make for ourselves. Instead it arrived as it usually does – as something from the outside – politics, war, hatred from somewhere else, fear from somewhere else, history for want of a better word – that seeped into our lives and poisoned us. It is always thus.”
“It’s 2008 . . . another election year,” says Dale.
“This book you started today may save you from total cynicism,” says Duane.
Dale has no response to this. After a moment he says, “Mike spent much of his life trying to help kids.”
“But he died . . . the way he died.”
“How do you explain this?”
The shape in the starlight laughs. “You know I don’t have an explanation. Neither do you.”
“But you were the genius,”says Dale.
“Bullshit,” says the wind. “You made me into one after the fact. I was just a fat, lonely kid who read a lot and who shook in his corduroys every time his Old Man came home drunk, praying that his Old Man wouldn’t slap the crap out of him again.”
Dale crunches his way to the rise that looks out and down over the lights of Missoula. “So we were all afraid. And some of us stayed that way for most of the rest of our lives.”
Duane says nothing.
“I wish to hell I could go back and talk to those guys – just once,” says Dale.
“Why don’t you? Go ahead and do it.”
“It’s not possible,” says Dale. His breath hangs before him in the cold air, more solid than the hint of outline of the ghost he pretends to see out of the corner of his eye.
“Not possible for you, maybe,” says Duane and is gone with the slight breeze that blows from the west and makes Dale pull his fleece lined collar higher.
There is a sound in the kitchen.
“The mummy!” yells Harlen.
“No, it’s Mom!” cries Lawrence.
On the screen of the Sylvania Halo Light TV, Kennedy is finishing up his closing statement – “ . . . the United States and the defenders of freedom; and to do that, we must give this country leadership and we must get America moving again.”
“Now, Vice President Nixon,” says the Howe guy, “your closing statement.”
“Hi, Mom!” yells Lawrence and, ignoring the fact that all the guys are there and that he’s ten years old, rushes to hug her.
Dale looks at his mother in absolute wonder and the feeling that rises in him brings tears to his eyes and closes his throat like a vice. The thought that fills his mind, besides pure joy, is – She’s so young.
“Who won the debate, boys?” she asks, smiling. She hasn’t had any beers.
Mike laughs and says, “You mean someone can win it, Mrs. Stewart? We didn’t know that! We’ve just been sitting here staring at it . . . if we’d known it was a contest, it would’ve been a lot more fun.”
Dale watches his mother laugh and ignores the tears that are streaking down his cheeks. No one else notices them.
“James,“ his mom says to Harlen, “are you ready for your ride home?”
“You bet, Mrs. S,” says Harlen.
“It’s dark out back on the drive,” she says. “You go out the front way and I’ll bring the car around.”
Dale wants to shout at her ‘Don’t leave!’ as his mother walks back through the dark kitchen toward the back door. On the TV, Nixon is saying – “And let’s set the record straight right now by looking at the record, as Al Smith used to say . . .”
All five boys go out onto the front porch. The porch light casts a yellow light on the porch and their faces. His hands and legs shaking, Dale hears the ’48 Buick – built the year he was born – start up on the dark gravel driveway and hears the wide wheels crunch gravel as it backs out.
“Well, see you guys next week on Halloween,” says Harlen as he jumps down to the porch step. “Shall we meet here?”
“Yeah,” says Kevin, “let’s meet here on Dale’s porch before heading out together.”
“Are we going to tip over the O’Rourke outhouse again?” Lawrence asks.
“No,” says Mike. “My dad’s going to be sitting in there with a shotgun loaded with rock salt this year. Bad idea.” He jumps down next to Jim and prepares to start walking the dark block south to his house. Kevin is ready to run to his new-looking house next door. Dale’s mom pulls the Buick up to the grass in front of their house, the headlights on, motor purring, and portholes on the side of the black car clearly visible.
“Wait a minute!” shouts Dale.
The other four freeze.
“What?” says Harlen.
“I just want to tell you . . .” says Dale, looking at each of the four young faces, his throat constricting again. “I just want to tell you guys . . . I really love you.”
“Ewwww!” yells Lawrence.
Harlen jumps backward off the step, his face slack with horror. “Jesus, Stewart,” he hisses so Dale’s mom won’t hear. “You are a homo. Who knew?” He turns and runs down the walk and around the front of the Buick and gets in the front passenger side. The car makes a U-turn on the empty asphalt where the two streets intersect here by the schoolgrounds and rumbles away to the north.
“You’re weird, Dale,” says Kevin and jumps down and runs toward his house. “See your boobies next week, Larry!” he cries from the darkness.
Mike stays where he is for a minute, peering into Dale’s face. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m okay,” says Dale, glad that the harsh shadows out here hide his tears.
“See you tomorrow then.”
“See you tomorrow, Mike.”
Dale and Lawrence go back into the house. The presidential debate is over and the local news from Peoria is coming on.
Lawrence is squinting suspiciously at his older brother but says, “Can we not go upstairs and get into our pj’s until after Mom comes back? I want to see Mom and wish her goodnight down here before we go up.”
Dale smiles and puts his arm around his squirming-to-get-free little brother. “Yeah, I want to see her, too, Lawrence. I really want to see her. We’ll wait here for her with the lights on until she gets home.”