01 February 2010
Mission City - III - Redemption
My seventeenth year was not a good one. I had more fun, and more excitement than any other time in my life, but I also had my heart broken for the first time. Part of the beauty of that first love was the romantic notion that true love could never be betrayed, so the betrayal which came was all the more treacherous to my heart, my soul, and my perception of the world.
That event was tragedy in that there was no redemption. Three decades would pass before I admitted the obvious: People do terrible things to other people, and love doesn't matter to most people the way it matters to some.
That summer, as I had for the four summers previous, I worked as a YMCA Day Camp Counselor. We had leased a couple of hundred acres on some beautiful land up where the George Bush Turnpike now crosses highway 75. Back then, it was almost completely undeveloped. To give you and idea what life was like in rural Texas just a few miles from Dallas, the McDonald's up in that area had hitching posts, and they were not for decoration.
For that matter, it is with some pride that when I entered first grade in a fine, up-scale, Dallas neighborhood, on my first day of school, I wore cowboy boots and a pearl snap shirt-- the national uniform of Texas in those days.
Anyway, back to the story.
I never owned a horse, but had ridden enough with friends who did to be comfortable on one. I had made friends with a pretty girl a couple of years older than me (I'll call her "Sarah") who kept her horse up at a stables on the corner of the land where the Day Camp was. Once a week, each day camp counselor and his ten or twelve campers would rent trail horses from the stable and explore the 200 acres on horseback. The kids loved it.
One Friday night, at Sarah's invitation, I stayed up at the camp site after all the campers had left by bus or been picked up by their parents to go riding with Sarah and a nice teenage kid a couple of years younger than I, who was hired help at the stable business. I'll call him "Ben."
Sara and Ben had their own horses, and had them saddled and ready to go when I reached the stables. I had walked about a mile or so through trails and crossing creeks to arrive there on time. Sarah had gone back to the stalls where the trail horses were to find one suitable for me while I helped Ben feed the dozen or so horses that were in the corral. The owner of the land was an old retired rodeo rider known by his initials which were not "TJ" although that is what I'll call him here.
TJ said "Howdy" and stopped to chat. His personal horse was a fine paint cutting-horse-- tall lean and agile. Sarah came back around from the stalls and joined us. She explained that the three of wanted to go riding and she was trying to choose a descent horse for me. TJ swung down from his horse, and sized me up.
"We're 'bout the same in the legs, Climb up and let me see how you two get along."
I stepped into the stirrup and pulled myself up.
A one-notch shortening of the stirrups and I was all set.
"Let me see you take her around a bit, and see how she reacts. She's usually pretty good, but some people she just won't let ride her."
Fortunately, I was not one of those people. He called her "Mouse," and so will I. Mouse was bright and eager to please. With the agreement that when we were done that we would put all the tack away and get the three animals tucked in for the night while he headed to town (which meant go get drunk), TJ walked to his house in the trees about a hundred yards away, and we finished up with feeding and off we went.
It was a great typical summer evening. A big ol' moon would rise a bit before the sun would set, temperature around ninety degrees, an occasional breeze, and a clear sky. Three teenagers on horseback playing,chase, follow the leader, "Hey come look at this," and (of course), "Watch me and see if I can..." I remember crossing Duck Creek (I think that was the name) on the concrete encased pipeline. The concrete was about thirty inches across, and about ten feet above the water, maybe forty feet from one side to the other. Mouse and the other horses could not have cared less and crossed their riders this way on a daily basis.
We rode upstream from the other side, above the creek on the limestone edge, and reached the amazing old (but still used) curved railroad bridge. I had some fun and crazy times with moving trains on and near that wooden bridge, but not that evening, and I'm not telling those stories here-- besides, there is an old railroad engineer who would love to find me and throttle me but good for some of my antics even though I never meant to scare him.
As the sun set, we headed across a cotton field to the McDonald's which I mentioned before and then took a slow cool-down ride back the the stables. It must have been about ten-thirty, because the sun had set and no light at all glowed in the west, and the gibbous moon was near straight up. Back at the stalls, I soon found I was more in the way then I was helping, and therefore was excused from helping out. I wandered toward the corral to talk to the horses there and lit a cigarette.
It was not something I did often, but as my white t-shirt was damp, I pulled it off and tucked it into my jeans in the front and then strolled over to a horse that had come over to a trough to drink. I stood between two of the troughs where the soil was dry, and pet the horse when he finished drinking. A couple of other horses came over to get their share of attention which amused me, and I pet away, talking quietly to them for company.
I should mention, here, that playing with the horses had taken me maybe twenty yards away from TJ's house-- and nearer the woods which went on forever. I didn't know it then, but would learn the next day, that horse-rustling had become a serious problem in the area over the last few months, and TJ had lost a couple already that summer, and that he kept his thirty-ought-six loaded and by the door just in case they came back. I also didn't know it at the time, but TJ had come back from a successful outing to get drunk.
Remember that big ol' moon? Remember that white t-shirt I had just taken off? My Mom says I could get a tan standing in front of an open refrigerator door, and I was always dark brown well before summer started since I virtually lived in our backyard pool. Remember that I had just moved twenty yards away from a drunk man with a 30-06?
I heard a commotion back in the stalls. I turned my head in that direction just in time to see Ben and Sarah riding double and bareback on a horse at full gallop, coming out of the paddock and turning in my direction. Both were yelling. Ben's eyes were huge, and recognizing fear when I saw it, I was a few strides into a sprint when I made out the words being yelled, "Run, Crews, Run!"
They past me in a thunder of overladen hoofs, and I was trying to come up with some idea of what they were running from that could pursue-- but I heard nothing on the run behind me. I had started, I think, with an idea that maybe there was a fire, but it didn't make sense to run from a fire like that. I was up at full kick, in boots, passing the last of the water toughs along that side of the corral and about to turn the corner at the last fencepost when two things happened simultaneously.
My friends were galloping out of sight into the woods headed for the creek bed when my right foot held to the ground like it had been instantly welded there. I was cruising over twenty miles an hour, so the soles of my boots were barely touching the ground with each stride. I was not so much planting a foot for each stride as I was stroking the ground with it to maintain my speed. Still, that toe of that boot stuck to the ground and did not let loose until I was doomed to plant my face on the ground. At that same instant I heard the double crack of a gunshot and the shock wave of a bullet.
My foot was free from whatever mysteriously had held it. Now that I at least knew why I was running, I scrambled up and, wanting to stay low to the ground, bear-crawled towards a large oak tree about twenty feet further out from the middle of the end of the corral. I pretty much dove the last six feet or so, feeling like I was pushing my luck being in the open. That last few feet had some underbrush, and so, even still exposed, I was pretty much hidden. I rolled behind the big oak tree, sat up and turned myself so that by back was against the tree.
A second shot was fired at that instant, and I heard the leaves rustle above my head either because of a bullet or because of the shock wave. A twig with one green scrub oak leaf dropped in front of me.
I tried to listen for voices or footsteps on the rnn, but my breathing was so hard that despite attempts to hold my breath, I was making far too much noise to hear much else. I twisted so that I could lay on my stomach and peer back the way I came through that low brush. Nothing was moving except the twitching ears of the frightened horses in the corral. They are all bunched up against the fence closest to me.
I remember feeling a fondness for them at that moment. I wondered if they had tried to get as close to me as possible because to them, I meant safety. It also occurred to me that perhaps they felt protective, and were intentionally screening me from harm. Then it struck me: Instinct! The horses were searching for the sound of the threat, and their ears were directed to whatever sound they heard. They were watching me, but listening back the direction from which I had come.
I looked at all the ears, and most of them were turned that direction. I got control of my breathing, waited, watching not just the ears, but the feet of the horses. I was sure they would move away if the sound was moving closer. If someone told me an hour had passed, I could believe them; and if someone told me thirty seconds had passed, I could believe that too. It was probably just about two minutes that I sat there at the base of the tree. My heart rate and breathing were good enough that I was ready to resume a sprint if I needed to. I tried to imagine a straight line from where I had been between the troughs when my friends rode by yelling warning, and which line would pass through were I was now and then continue into the woods. That line represented the direction I wanted to go if the shooter had not moved.
I would have started crawling along that imaginary line right away except that the movement of the brush would give away my movement and position. I rolled on my back and carefully moved so I could see anything by looking out from the other side of the tree. I didn't want to keep poking my head around the same spot. I wanted to be on my back because a head bent back and sideways would not be as immediately identifiable as a face coming our from around the tree. I also had placed my hand over my eyes, so that I could see between my fingers but make it hard for some determined shooter to see the whites of my eyes.
I have no idea how those tactics came to my mind, but they did. It turns out, there was no one in sight. Because the awkward position had a better view of the path I had just taken, and because I now had one ear aimed down the same direction as the horses had been listening, I lay still and let myself relax and think. I would roll back behind the tree, identify a path parallel to the trail my friends had rode down toward the creek, and barring any further developments, would sprint for the creek.
As I was laying there thinking about this, the horses, bless them, also calmed down and one-by-one began to graze. Their ears were directed at each other, and to me-- and that meant there was probably no longer any threat. I carefully rolled back behind the tree, stood and ran.
I fully expected a third shot, and the closer I got the creek bed, the more certain I was that the shot was overdue. With the moon, it was easy to see the path-- going through the woods at night was something I was very good at doing. In this part of Texas, the soil is black in sunlight. By starlight it is dark gray against black vegetation. By moonlight it is light gray against dark green vegetation. If you let your eyes adjust, you can move faster without a flashlight than with one. You can, and I did, run at full speed and see well enough to plant your feet on solid and twig-free dirt. I hauled tail and made no sound.
As with all creeks which run over limestone "bedrock", they have cut several feet down below the surrounding area, usually with little limestone cliffs one each side. This creek had cut just about six feet down below grade. Just by pure luck (that is all it was, right?) I happened to reach the cut at a place where the ground angled down to the creek and then angled back up the other side.
I slowed, expecting the little cliff, but upon seeing the forty-five degree slope, jumped and skidded down to the water, where I dropped to my belly. No shot, no pursuing horse or human foot falls. Just in case, I went upstream a bit, until I found a way to scale the far side with speed and ease. There was barbed wire running parallel to the creek, and I could see that what had looked like a thicket was only the trees and brush growing too close to the wire to be cut down. I ducked through the wire, and stood at the very corner of the cotton field. In the far distance at the opposite corner, i could see the McDonald's, and half way between, was one horse, one horseman, and one standing girl silhouetted against the stripped field-- watching for me.
This was not a vision or a dream. This was real life. Why it is included here, is because of something I realized just about two years ago.
I had a vision dream which will be described in another post. Like all vision dreams, I "saw" it through my own eyes. Unlike the others when my own senses reflected my taking part, I was distanced in some intangible way (emotionally?) from the viewer. At any rate, that yet-to-be addition to this blog was quite profound. I wanted to explore the hints my mind picked up on in the details. It reminded me of this real-life instance I just described in this post.
The content of the one yet to be posted was profound, meaningful and tragic; so much so, that when I tried to compare and contrast the two, it occurred to me that they could possibly be joined and be an interesting work of fiction which I might use to serve to tell another story several people have told me must be published.
I don't mind a story which ends in tragedy, but I cannot accept tragedy as meaningful unless there is some form of redemption. I called out on frustration, one night, "I need redemption in this story!"
The next morning, I read the outline of that night when TJ took a couple of shots at me. Here is what I realized had been there all along:
A benevolent Other had inspired me to minimize myself as a target.
I began the journey as I stood between two waters (troughs = Moses, Baptism)
I was inexplicably placed out of danger (angelic help when my boot got stuck on solid flat ground)
I found safety (salvation) at the base of a tree (foot of the Cross, Tree of Life)
I passed from the Tree to the depths (six feet below ground!).
I came back up on the other side (the Resurrections)
And found "those who had passed on before" waiting for me.
That evening, dramatic as it was to experience, was indeed a story of Redemption.
At the Seder, when the Jews gather at table for the feast, many rehearse something like this:
A son (the foolish one) is asked why they feast on that night. That son answers, "Because on this night, we remember what God did for our people, taking them out of bondage."
Then another son is asked the same question, this time the wise son, who answers like this, "Because, on this night, we remember what God did for us, taking us out of bondage."