Tragedy Down the Mountain

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The Quietness

    The slower pace and quietness of mountain life called out to our family during the 90’s. After the birth of our fourth child we purchased a home in the northwest corner of North Carolina, high enough to see into Virginia and Tennessee, and close enough to the Blue Ridge Parkway we could hike there. Yet the cities lay just an hour drive down the mountain.

Our 3,500 ft. elevation gave us resplendent Indian summers, but before the end of October, bone-cold nights and snow flurries checked in – to stay.

    By late November, Winter fell like the ax on the neck of the Thanksgiving turkey. She hunkered down with diamond-studded frost or snow, and branch-snapping winds. Often, after a solid week of fog, we’d bundle up, hop into the car, and drive “down the mountain” to Charlotte or Winston Salem just for a glimpse of the sun and the more alive smell of fall foliage.

    One such trip took us to a family reunion, making our light-sweater day especially long. Long after dark and everyone’s bedtime, we reluctantly headed home to our mountain paradise. I leaned my head back on the headrest as we accelerated against the incline, around the switchbacks – up and up into cold air. All four kids (two toddlers and two teens) snuggled under their coats and dropped off to sleep. The quietness in the car felt good.

The Event

    About five miles from the summit, my husband spotted what he thought was a deer carcass on the side of the road. A bit lighter in color than the usual deer, it almost glowed in the headlights of a car we thought may have hit it.

Two men stood over it, yet for some reason my husband decided to look closer. I stopped breathing as he made a fast u-turn back to the scene.

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    When we pulled up and got out, my throat tightened and I suddenly felt hot. I saw one of the men sort of kick at it, and in that moment I breathed a thank you to God that our two toddlers stayed asleep. For it wasn’t a deer.

    “You guys stay in the car,” my husband warned. “Try to keep the little ones asleep.”

       I grabbed coats from the older kids, and ran to cover what now was clearly a half-naked woman. She was alive, moaning incoherent, face down, but not visibly injured.

    My husband asked the men what happened.

    “Dunno… got here jis’ a minute ago. She was a-lying here, but we bin drinkin’ an’ well, we gotta go ‘fore the police come. We called 911 anyways and was jes’ fixin’ to take off when yous came.” They couldn’t get away fast enough.

    I noticed a small pile of clothes close to the car but said nothing to my husband who paced, waiting. As night deepened in utter quietness, all I knew to do was pray out loud for this woman. Her nails dug into the grass as I cradled her over the coats.

    In a few minutes the place swarmed with the swirling lights of police cars and men searching, wondering if a perpetrator might still be close. I kept my position over her, praying and consoling her.

   When the ambulance came, the EMTs replaced our coats with their blankets. Rolling her onto her back they yelled, “What is your name?”

    Her response, a loud fear-filled “Aaaaaah!” told that she’d been drinking. That fact and her car’s freshly cut tire provided a rape scenario (or conjecture) which supposedly began at a bar up the mountain. It seemed as though we’d been dropped into a CSI episode. As they prepared to lift her onto the gurney, the men EMTs asked females present to do as much of the steadying as possible. Their utmost concern for her dignity impressed me.

     As I returned to our bewildered teens in the car, I wondered… would this woman be able to tell them what had happened? Would the authorities work hard to find who’d raped her? Would I ever see her again? How will I talk to my teens about this?

The Meeting

    About three weeks later when the phone rang, I happened to pick it up first. The long silence after my hello clued me who had called.

Heart beating fast, I allowed the pause. Be patient. Give her time.

    In an almost inaudible whisper she finally spoke. “You …prayed … I remember your voice…”

    More silence. What do I say? “Are you alright?”

    “Yes, but I had to find you. I asked around. Can we meet?”

    “Yes, of course. Where? When?”

    We met at a local restaurant. The scene felt surreal. In a booth with ordinary lunch banter going on all around us, I sat before a woman in her early forties with pleasant eyes and smooth complexion, talking, or almost talking, about the most horrific thing imaginable. It seemed. As she thanked me for being there, I knew there had to be more.

   “See, my husband beats me. I just wanted a break from it all.”

     She went on to tell me about her clandestine plan to meet “another man” down the mountain. No mention of the bar, or her drink. The car started to act strange, she said. When she pulled over, a car came up behind, and a man came over to offer help. The darkness hid his face. When they walked around to look for the problem, he attacked her, dragged her down the embankment and raped her as she dug her fingernails into the hill. After he sped away, she crawled up the hill to get to her headlights. Temps in the 40’s meant hypothermia, pretty fast.

    Next thing she knew, I was praying over her.

    I met her once again a few months later. They had never found the perpetrator. She was fine, she said. “Life goes on.”

The Questions

    My mind reeled. She just wanted me to know that she knew I prayed.

     Of course I hardly knew how to talk to my teens about the event. Even after clipping the brief article from the paper I didn’t know what to say. 

     Do we think there are answers, or some better situation, down the mountain, up
the mountain, or on the other side of the mountain? Or fence? Will we reach out to
others with whom we can hardly relate? How will we do it? When it seems there’s
nothing we can do, will we simply move on in the face of tragedy? Will we pray out
loud when it seems silly to do so?

    Possibly one of the most important questions is:  How do people cope with life’s knock-downs without a real, rock-solid Home to come home to?

    I walked into our warm house on the top of the mountain that last night we met, and realized that prayer is sometimes all we can do. It was my minimum at the time and I must believe it was also my maximum. She knew I prayed.

Molasses Makin’

Romans 15:16  “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” (ESV)

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     I began my teaching career with a “boat” of a car, a ‘66 Pontiac Catalina, v-8 engine. Designed for the smooth roads of civilization, she seemed to rebel against the bumper-jarring ride to Billy’s house. He’d invited me to see the fall sorghum molasses-making, and it seemed a fun outing for after school on Friday. As the bumps and potholes banged our heads against the windows, I thought surely this “boat” would soon dock in some gravel driveway in a little farming area. Surely.

      What had I gotten myself into? What was “City Girl” doing deep in the Kentucky mountains? I mean, other than a job?  In 1971 the universities pumped out way more teachers than jobs in which to place them, and the U.S. presently suffered a glut of baby boomer teachers. I really should be grateful to have snagged one – in a nice public, albeit rural, school. I guess the children were my “other than a job.” One soap-deprived angel arrived on the first day with a little hop in her step.

      “Look, Teacher! Shoes! Ah got shoes!”

       Once, when the electricity went out, my windowless classroom fell into complete darkness. I asked the children if they’d like to sing.

       “Oh, yes, Teacher! Let’s sing ‘The Old Rugged Cross.’” As the students gathered around my feet, I felt something, or someone stroking my leg.  The red-headed lad probably had never felt silky hose before, either on or off a woman’s leg.

    Though the ruddy, freckled faces of the children had won my heart, I constantly worried.

      How in the world will my $5,500 a year salary continue to support me? There’s no way possible to make it through this first year of teaching. No way. Each payday, two hundred forty-five dollars…

     Suddenly my Pontiac ran completely out of road. Now my worry took a different form. No more road? Maybe I shouldn’t have done this. Billy opened the car door and cheerfully directed me out into the woods.

      “ We wawk the rist o’the way, Teacher. The car’ll be jes’ fine.”

     Walk? With nothing but dense woods in front of us, it looked like the beginning of a hike. I could see my panty hose full of holes and runs after this. Half walking, half hobbling, I inwardly fretted. Why didn’t I change clothes and shoes? A branch flipped into my face as if to force me to pay attention. Then, a clearing.

      As my eyes adjusted to the sunlight I abruptly came back to the moment. A dozen yards in front of us, a horse, harnessed to a long bar, trudged around a muddy circle. His strained push crushed stalks of sugarcane while a bucket under the mill slowly filled with juice. I winced at the smells of mud and manure as they mingled with the woodsy aroma of the fire pit nearby. A huge vat on top of the fire held what seemed like a hundred gallons of boiling liquid. I wondered how those ragged men bent over, sweating and stirring, continuously skimming off the greenish foam. The men neither greeted us nor looked up from their work, but Billy pointed to his dad and said they’d keep at it until late into the night, when that batch would be ready to cool and jar.

    Further into the clearing we reached the house. On the outside it looked bigger than I’d expected. Wood siding, a fairly new door. Billy led me to the side entrance where the kitchen greeted us with a chill. Now, away from the fire, I felt the bite of fall. For through the kitchen blew a draft from the unfinished, cavernous house. Studs framed would-be rooms and almost no furniture graced the plywood floors. The barren kitchen housed few utensils, which make me wonder if meals were prepared at all during molasses-making. On the walls, unpainted shelves held jars, some filled, some waiting. Curtains partitioned off bedrooms.

     Then finally, the big reveal. Billy’s bed. A separate, walled room held the beginnings of a bathroom, and as he showed me he beamed with pride. The glory of the room was his bed, the white clawfoot bathtub. Here he slept, he said, away from the noise and the chilled air in the rest of the house. I stood amazed at what I saw, from the production outside to the provision inside. I saw hope. Hope thrived in Billy’s heart because he had a place to sleep – and his daddy was making molasses!

    My fretful thoughts now shamed me. I had a warm apartment in town. I slept in a nice bed. I drove where I needed to go. How could I worry about my salary?

      As my huge boat of a Catalina drove home so many years ago, I asked the Lord to make me thankful for that day, for that tour of molasses-making. I asked Him to keep me thankful for His care, and for a lasting hope that always lay right in my lap.

Dear Father, Thank you for stopping me in my complaint! You are my hope today and always!

First Love

 

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I remember his last name. But I will just call him Danny. We lived in South Dakota and I assume he had been around all along in the 4th and 5th grades. But we didn’t talk until 6th grade when during the first week of school he commented on my handwriting. I said I liked having nice handwriting- and he said he did too, but guys weren’t supposed to be into that sort of thing.

He noticed my handwriting! He had me. From then on my thoughts strayed to Danny. As a student first, and a girl second, my thoughts stayed on his character– his good grades and wrinkled brow when writing so neatly. But especially I noticed his books with machine-stitched cloth covers. Book covers no red-blooded boy would carry.

But did I say my thoughts “stayed” in the realm of character? That wouldn’t be completely true. As a girl, I noticed the curls around his ears, the smell of Tide as he walked by my desk, and the tightness of his chin when he spoke. All of that created a funny feeling in my stomach. But it only lasted a few seconds.

Three “Danny” events from the 6th grade stand out. First, he confessed on a walk home from school one spring day that my valentine had been the only one with a sucker in it. I guess I needed to know that.

Second, he asked if I’d stop by his house with an armload of his cloth-covered books, while he stayed after for sports. Only a block or so from the school, this caused no anxiety in me at all. He just asked me to do a small favor and I would do it. That I would meet his mother and see inside the front door did interest me some.

When I rang the doorbell, she came, all smiles. I couldn’t help my blurt. “Hi, Mrs. ‘Smith.’ I really like the book covers you made for Danny. They are nice.”

“Thank, you, Dear. I am amazed he carries them, being such a boy boy. You are a sweet girl. Thanks for bringing his books.

Oh, boy. That was cool. His house smelled clean, like him. On the way home I pondered. Would I marry Danny? Or would I marry someone handsome and charming and smart like him? Next year we would be in junior high. Would he even remember me?

The third incident happened the first week of summer vacation. He rode over on his bike and found me in the yard. “How about a bike ride?”he asked.

“Okay.”

Now you may wonder if I went inside to either ask permission or tell my mom the plan. To that I can only say, life was so different in 1961. During summer, parents saw their children at meals. In between existed a whole world of exploring and play. If a child didn’t return for the next meal, or couldn’t be found with a little help from neighbors in an hour, then concern might make its entrance. But summer independence had long been familiar territory by 6th grade. We felt safe because, except for the rare freak occurrence, we were.

To get back to Danny, little kid cartwheels, adolescent fireworks, and grownup picket-fence images jumbled around in my head. Was this a date? Was this a date!?

On the bike ride we saw parts of the town unfamiliar. In a more country area the chain came off my bike. Laying his down, he put it back on expertly and wiped his greasy hands on the grass. There it was, that jaw thing again. He seemed to clench his teeth when in thought or stress. Could he be sorry he did this?

He led, I followed. Almost no talk.

After about an hour I found myself back in my front yard. He threw up his hand and away he rode. As I got off my bike, a bit breathless from trying to keep up and riding for so long, I felt a mixture of emotions. Pride that just possibly this had been my first date, and confusion about what he might be thinking right now. What did all this mean? Had I acted stupid on our ride? (How could ten words be construed as stupid?) Had he crushed himself with remorse over his nerve to do this? Had he stirred up feelings in both of us that neither could do anything about? Or did these emotions bring us up short? Get real. This is the summer after 6th grade.

In a month, my dad brought news that we were moving to a new state. I would begin junior high in a faraway school.

Danny had just become history. Funny, I still remember his last name.

Do you recall the whole name of a special boy in your past?

Safe, summer independence for kids has been gone a long time.

When did it go?