The Dark Light
Twenty-nine years ago, I was a young man, just turning eight-teen and preparing to enjoy the rest of my life. I had a truck, my high school diploma, which few in my home town could brag about, and I had no idea where my life would be heading. In other words, I was the typical teenager. Mike, the closest thing I have ever had to a brother, was at my side through all of it, and I made sure to match that with him. Ever since we were children we had made our plans to move out of Talliville, Oklahoma as soon as our asses were old enough to vote. That was, of course, before he showed up on my doorstep with tears leaking from his eyes and holding a small slip of government paper in one shaking hand.
I haven’t seen him cry since that day all those years ago. Mike was the strong one in our paring. He was tall, stocky built but not fat, and his eyes always wore a smile. Some that did not know him as well as me would sometimes confuse his demeanor as nothing more than goofy, if not simple. Yet if you were able to get past his exterior, you would see a depth that is rare in most cases. His was a mind that was always thinking, unlike my own. He had a methodical way about him. It sometimes made it seem as if he was slow in thought, but I knew that to be a lie. He was detailed, precise, and above all else, patient to a fault.
I on the other hand was prone to rash and less thought out direction. Good ol’ Robby, the dumb-ass that thinks with his feet and never with his head. That’s what people would say about me. I was the one that made the choice to first leave this god forsaken town, I was the one who sold all those government bonds I had saved up to get my shiny knew pickup in order to escape, and it was I who talked Mike into coming with me. That’s why it was so odd that it was Mike’s idea to go to Canada.
I still remember the fear that traveled from his eyes to mine. Up until then I had never seen fear in Mike. This was the guy that went head first off of Rocky Point Cliff into water that we only hoped was deeper than ten feet. This was the guy that worked for the last two years of high school as a bouncer, and did it with a smile. This was the guy that would get me out of every single hairy situation and do it with a smile on his face the whole time. Seeing those tears come out of his eyes, hell, I haven’t seen anything that terrifying since. It was like watching my world crash around me. Here was the most solid part of my own personal universe, and believe me, we all have our own universe. It’s that world we build around ourselves to keep ourselves safe not only from others but from ourselves as well. Here he was, cracked like an over-boiled egg, weeping like a child, and I found myself leaking tears of my own as well.
“They called my numbers,” he said to me, standing there in my doorway. If this was the movies, rain would be pouring down around him, a woman would be standing in my place, and his tears would be replaced by a grimace set in stone. This wasn’t the movies, this was really happening, and when you are a kid just getting old enough to smoke your first legal cigarette and punch the ballot for the first time, romantic ideas can go right out the damned window.
I remember nodding, feeling a cold numbness spread over me from the skin down to my soul. I wasn’t sure how to react. It had only been three weeks since America had gotten involved, and during all that time, all we could think about was where we were going to score our next round of Connely’s shit’tacular home brewed moonshine and which one of Landry’s daughters we could talk into the back of my new pickup for a night under the stars and in their pants. This was supposed to be the summer of innocence, our last round of freedom before hitting the open road to the rest of our lives. Now, Uncle Sam wanted to strap boots on our feet and plant rifles in our arms and ship us out across the damned ocean to shoot at Nazi’s and hope to god their aim is worse than ours.
I stepped aside to let the poor bastard come inside. My folks in the next room over had no idea that my best friend, my brother in all means other than blood, had been conscripted to go to a country he knew next to nothing about other than it was in the middle of Europe and had a shit-head causing all the problems. Mike stood well over a head taller than me and I was a respectable five foot eight. He wasn’t a lanky kid either. The big guy must have weighed at least two hundred and thirty pounds, and only a little of that could be considered baby fat. So seeing a man that size who I had never seen fearful of anything in all my life, sobbing uncontrollably in my doorway left me feeling more than empty inside. For a brief moment, I knew…how I knew I still don’t know to this day…but I knew for a fact that this was the turning point in my life, and that what I thought was to be the beginning of the rest of my life was going to turn into nothing more than a death sentence.
It took him almost an hour to calm down the water works. I still don’t have the faintest how I got him upstairs making all that slobbering crying noise without my parents taking notice. They probably did, but at least had the common decency to pretend as if they didn’t. Parents are funny that way. If the problem has an easy solution (As most problems do) and if you are making an ass out of yourself, they tend to show you just how much of an ass you really are. But sometimes, just sometimes, the problem is a real one, a real shitter…and those few times, a parent knows to keep their distance, if not for at least a short amount of time to let you get your act together.
Just like clockwork, as soon as his breathing returned to normal, and his eyes started to lose that after cry puff, my mother, god rest her soul, walked in with a big old pitcher of lemonade, placed it on the burrow, and walked out with nothing more than a polite smile on her face as if she was saying, Sorry Mike, I really liked you…it’s a shame you’ll probably come home with a bullet in the head or gangrene in the crotch from too much time in the trenches, but take heart, it could be worse, you could end up in this shit-hole town for the rest of your life like all of us.
We sat there in my room, each holding a glass of lemonade, not uttering a single word to each other for at least another hour or so. By then it was nearing eleven o’ clock, and even with the bad news I had heard, a full day of dicking around had left me quite tired. Before I could get my first yawn out, he turned to me and smiled. It was the smile that struck me the hardest. After all those hours of crying and weeping, followed by an hour or so of silence, to be met with that smile jarred my sense. It was like being shaken awake and smacked for good measure.
“At least we will always have Canada,” he said as the smile slowly vanished from his face. As soon as he mentioned the northern country I knew what he was talking about. I didn’t want to even think about that now. This was supposed to be a summer of fun, the kind you see on the movie screens now a days. A summer filled with drunken nights and lazy days. Of course that was a pipe dream now. There would be no more long nights and no more lazy days. One way or another, our childhood, our adolescence had come to an end with the uttering of four simple words.
Even in those days, I knew that mine and Mike’s fate were intertwined. Our plan was to go from point a to point b and everywhere in between. The most important part of that plan of course was that we would be going through it all together. Now we sat in silence for another few moments that seemed to stretch on for untold hours. We knew where point A was. That was Talliville. Oklahoma. It was point B that was starting to become a little to clear. The odd part was thinking that there was more than one point B now. Well big Mike, if we take a left at the fork, we end up in Germany, land of the krauts, beer, and death. Of course if we take a right, that road leads right on up north to the first stop on our great continental adventure!
I looked up at him and for the first time that night felt like we were brothers again. I was ashamed to think that between the time he came to my door to just this moment of my thoughts I was thinking how pissed I was that he had just ruined everything with those four god damned words. Now I understood. We had always stood together, through the good and the bad, and as if he was calling in every favor he had ever done for me (and god knows there were quite a few) I had no choice but to respect him for it.
“Give it a couple weeks,” I told him, “Then lets figure this out…hell for all we know the war could be over by then,” I said with a weak laugh. He returned the laugh and accompanied it with a slightly too hard of a punch to the shoulder.
A week later my number was called.
I think it was the ride up to our new future that I remember the clearest out of the last couple decades of memories. The way the sky seemed so blue and clear and so dark at the same time. If I had known then what I know now, I would have taken that sky for something ominous. Instead I looked at it as the dawning of a new beginning for me. It took us the better part of five days for my nice new dodge to climb its way up north. I spent most of that time keeping to myself, letting my mind wander on the road. It was easier to be scared and excited in silence rather than try to make meaningless conversation and I had a feeling that Mike felt the exact same. I hadn’t heard him utter a single word since we hopped on the main drag leading to the edge of town. It wasn’t a tense silence, it was a solemn one.
It had been two weeks since our numbers had been called, and we were expected to report to the army recruitment office over in Oklahoma City. That made our little adventure up north that much easier to accomplish considering everyone figured we were being good ol’ American boys heading over to serve our country in a war we barely even understood. There were old friends in the street waving to us as we passed, old folks sitting on their porches smiling with pride. Most of them had served in the first world war. Lying to them was more difficult than lying to our own parents. At least with our own folks it was easier to bare the looks of fear and sorrow they gave thinking their sons were going off to be killed in the middle of Germany. Knowing that we were going to be safe and sound hunkered down in a cave somewhere past the Yukon made that lie palatable. Of course we tried not to think about what would go through their minds when Uncle Same contacted them about our absence from the recruitment office.
No, it was the eyes of those old retired veterans that struck us the hardest and left us in silence for the first day of our trip. Their smiling bright faces filled with fear, joy, pride, and envy as if they wanted the chance to get back in the fighting, to shoot a riffle at the bad guys one last time. I shuddered at the thought and told myself that this was just another reason I was high tailing it out of this psychotic predicament. I gave Mike one last look before we pulled out of town. If we took a right it would lead us to the dirt highway heading towards the city, if we took a left, our destiny would be northbound instead.
“You sure this is the right thing?” I said to him only half expecting anything more than a sage nod. He was silent and still for a long moment. The road was deserted which made this choice that much easier to make. Having eyes stare down at you as you decide to become a traitor and deserter of your own homeland makes one prone to second guessing, or so I would assume.
“Way I look at it, we have two choices,” he said still looking out the window into the cornfields beyond, “We turn right, we might as well drive this truck off the next corner and smash it into the river.” He spat out the window mulling over the next choice of words. “We turn left, and at least then we have a fighting chance to still have a life after this is all over.” I looked at him, and shivered. The fact that he couldn’t make eye contact with me meant that he was still undecided what the right course of action was. We were in a lose lose situation and he knew damned well that there was no way I was going to go through with this plan without his approval.
“I suppose we better get going then,” I said as I moved the truck over to the left as I made the turn. “Hopefully Canada ain’t as cold as they say it is,” I said with an attempt of humor in my throat that failed horribly.
That first night of driving went by quickly. We had left at two in the afternoon on a Monday and now it was pushing nearly midnight. We made it half way through Kansas before I had to pull over to rest a spell. My eyes were drooping so low that I thought I would drive the truck right off the side of the road. I fell into a deep dreamless sleep that first night. I was grateful later on for that restful night, years later I would pray for a dreamless night like that again. Hell, I still do.
The next day we both woke with the birds as the sun was creeping up over the horizon. Let me tell you, there is something about the Midwestern sunrises. Maybe it’s because the states are so flat, maybe it’s because the air is so much more clearer than in the big cities or on the coast, but when you see that sunrise, it’s like having a mental enema. All thoughts cleared out of my mind as I watched the orange and purple clouds spread out from the horizon as that reddish sun rose slowly over the plains taking on a more golden sheen. I started up the engine as the sky began to lighten from its inky night to its pearly blue day time glow.
We took back to the roads early enough that by the second night we were crossing the border of Nebraska. By the second night and the third day, driving through the Midwest had become something of a zen like experience. Row upon row of corn and wheat and hay stretched out before us. Even a strong willed man would find it hard not to be hypnotized by the monotonous roads. It was in this long stretch of Midwestern farmland that time seemed to slow down to the point of nearing infinity. I once read something about some theory saying the faster you went the slower time went and that if you reach a certain point time itself could stop all together. That’s what we experienced out there. We felt life racing past us faster than we thought was possible. We went from being children to being adults in what seemed like a split second choice. And here we were, in the middle of nowhere watching time slow down.
It was the fourth day that reality finally struck us. I saw Mike looking out onto a small town we stopped in. I can’t even remember the name, something like Marlboro or Marlborough. We stopped for some sandwiches and pop and decided to stretch our legs for a few before heading for the last leg of the trip into the frozen tundra. Halfway through lunch he gave a sigh, not one of defeat or regret but one of acceptance. That was the first time I knew that this choice was final. There was no going back after this point. We were only a few hours away from the Canadian border and Mike had made it all clear with that one muffled grunt that our final destination lay beyond that border.
There were no words of wisdom to follow, just a simple nod and a half-assed smile to signify that we were not only done with this small town, but done with the country we were born in. The reality that we might never be welcomed back into our own homes hadn’t sunk in until just then, at least not for me. I wasn’t the one who had any family up north, that was Mike’s department. All my blood was south of the mason Dixon line. Until I got my numbers called out of that damned fishbowl I never dreamed of heading any further north than Tennessee. Mike on the other hand had at least one relative up there. And that was the man we were going to see.
Mike called him Uncle Jean on account that the man was French. I always had the habit of calling him with a more American-Irish accent spurting out Shawn. I remember having fun doing that as kids. It used to bug the shit out of Mike. He used to say it made me sound “uneducated”. I used to tell him he was full of shit. That usually ended with him holding me down and shoving clods of earth in my face until I screamed out Uncle Jee-awn.
Uncle Jean LePierre, owner of one of Canada’s largest coal mines. It was he was to be our savior from the battle field. This was the man who would rescue us from a life with a gun and a knife. Mike had sung praises of this man ever since we were old enough to get into fist fights. Not the kind that you bring on someone you hate, but the variety you bring on someone you love to show them just how much you care.
The week before we left he called up his uncle and worked out some kind of deal.
“Robby, I got this worked out,” he said to me that last weekend we could fully enjoy as free men, “I just need you to trust me.” Of course I trusted him, why wouldn’t I. Mike had never done me wrong, and he had gotten me out of some of the worst situations in my life. It was Mike who managed to save me from going to the prom with Norma Renklin. I might not have been the most popular kid in the class, but what was I thinking when I asked her to go? Ratty hair, greasy skin, one lazy eye, and a limp that made her look like a cripple, yup, that was Norma all right. Maybe it was pity, maybe it was cause I had gotten drink on Grain liquor the night before, but for some reason I had asked that girl to the Prom. Mike pulled me aside and nearly crushed my face in with his meaty fist. Blood poured out of my nose and mouth. That was of course after I spent three hours trying to figure out how the hell to get out of the date. It was the perfect way out. Norma never wanted to go out with me from that day on, and god bless her, that made the sore in my face not ache as much. Funny thing was, she started developing a little schoolyard crush on big Mike shortly after. I remember the matching black eye I got when I tried to hook him up with her a few weeks later.
So why wouldn’t I trust him if he told me we had a way out of this situation. A week later we were in my truck headed towards the border to start our new lives out as coal miners rather than soldiers. I figured it sounded better to be underground than in a trench getting shot at by krouts. Mike seemed to think the same thing. Of course, it wasn’t till we were about to pass through the last few miles of Montana that it really hit home. I was never coming back. It wasn’t like I was leaving behind this great opportunity at life. My family didn’t have the money to send me to some fancy college, nor did I have any particular skills that would have landed me a nice paying job. Sure I had my high school diploma, which was more than most kids my age back in Talliville could say, but it was jack shit out there in farm country.
No, it was the realization that I really had nothing to loose in crossing this border that hit home the hardest. I thought tears would be coming down my face, or that second thoughts would force me to turn us around and turn ourselves in to the first army recruitment station we passed by, but I was wrong. Instead, I felt an emptiness, a vast hole inside of me that I learned later on, would only grow in size as the years wore on. I hid this from Mike for as long as possible, but near the end I think he saw it a lot more clearly than I thought was possible.
Once that border was crossed, it only took us about a days more travel time to get into the town that housed that coal mine. Hell the town itself was the coal mine. As we neared the end of the road I looked up and noticed the sky getting darker. I figured it was just a trick of the imagination. It was still near noon, and just an hour earlier the day seemed to be almost the brightest day I had ever seen. Now, as we neared the gate leading into the closed off town, I could feel an endless night creeping over us. That second thought that had escaped me at the Montana-Canadian border reemerged with a vengeance then.
Now I wish I had listened to it.