This is your fault. Well, maybe not yours in particular, but over the years enough people have told me I should write down whatever story I was telling them, I’ve decided to do it. Perhaps I am ill-advised. No matter. Bad advice often leads to interesting stories.
As the congregation finished singing the recessional hymn, I walked down the aisle toward the open sanctuary door and took my place just inside. I smoothed my white robe, adjusted the cincture, and made sure the stole hung evenly around my neck. This was my first Sunday as the associate pastor. I needed to look presentable. Ready, I waited for the last “Amen,” which in every Methodist Church triggers a stampede to coffee hour.
One by one, the parishioners filed past, with words of welcome, hugs, handshakes, and the inevitable sharing of germs.
A finger poked my arm. It poked again. “Miss. Miss.” I turned toward the voice. “Miss, are you that new lady minister?”
Befuddled, I answered, “Yes, my name is Laura. What’s your name?
“Eddie. Eddie Totten.”
I stuck out my hand to shake his. The man next to him shook it instead.
“Her. Herb. Herbie,” he said.
“Nice to meet you, Eddie and Herbie. And your name is?” I turned toward a third man, obviously with the other two. He reached into the pocket of his flannel shirt, retrieved a small notebook, and scribbled in block letters. Then he turned the page toward me. “John. Your name is John.” He nodded and a small sound emanated from his throat. Seeing a line growing impatient behind them, I said, “You know, guys, I hear there’s going to be cake at coffee hour today. How about you head that way so you don’t miss it, and I’ll catch up with you in a few?”
Eddie grinned, and his eyes sparkled. The guys nodded, then headed out the door.
“Those men live in the group home down the street. They’ve come here every Sunday for years,” the next parishioner in line explained.
“They seem sweet.”
“Oh, they are. We all adore them. And it looks like they’ve taken a shine to you already.”
After the last congregant made a beeline for snacks, I headed to my office, removed my clerical garb and wandered to the fellowship hall in search of a much-needed caffeine fix. It took 10 minutes to get near the urn as one person after another pried for personal information.
“Where were you born?
“Brooklyn, but I grew up on Long Island.”
“Just how old are you?”
“27 in two weeks.”
“Any family or significant other around?”
“Excuse me. I promised someone cake.”
Grabbing a large plate, I balanced four slices and my coffee, then headed for my new friends. “Thought you might like a second piece.” I doled out the cake on the plates the guys were still holding.
Eddie, a short, pudgy man in his sixties, spoke with his mouth full. “The fair is coming.”
“A county fair? I’ve never been to one.”
“It, it, it’s fun,” Herbie, the oldest, said, his nose and mustache wiggling as he spoke.
John reached for his notebook. “GO?”
“You want to go to the fair?” All three nodded. “How about I check with the person who runs your home and see if I could take you?”
Of course, she said yes.
The following Sunday, the guys stopped by my office as I was getting ready for the service. Placing a marble in my hand, Eddie said, “For you.” The Sunday after that, they brought me an artificial flower and the next week a tiny plastic puppy. Since their residence was only two doors away across from Sweet’s Funeral Home, I strolled over to see their house mother.
“Herbie, Eddie and John keep bringing me presents. They shouldn’t be doing that.”
Sharon put me straight. “Please don’t ask them to stop. It’s difficult to find things to keep the men entertained. For the last few Saturday mornings, I’ve taken the house-full of them in the van to go yard-sale-ing. All the guys help Eddie figure out what to buy with his nickel, and he brings it to you on Sunday. Just say thank you.”
The shelf behind my desk filled up as we got closer to County Fair week. Finally, the day came. Since they wanted to see the lights at night in the carnival midway, I picked them up at 3 pm. Herbie, the tallest, rode in the front seat. He chatted about what he saw as we drove north. When I checked on Eddie and John in the rear-view mirror, they were sporting enormous grins. “You like to look out the window?”
“The trees are pretty,” Eddie said. He’d been in various institutions all his life and likely had not gone for too many rides. Herbie and John, too. Luckily, they’d been placed in Sharon’s group-home as older adults, where they could live in an actual house.
“I like the river,” Herbie said, “And all them flowers in people’s yards.”
“Look! Look at them rides!” Eddie said as we pulled into the parking lot at the fairgrounds. “Can I ride the bumpy cars?”
“Of course you can,” I said as I parked. “Okay, everybody out. Time to see the fair.” Before going through the gate, I handed each of the guys a slip of paper with my name on it. “Put this in your pocket. If we get separated, give it to a policeman and they will help us find each other.” Each guy dutifully stashed his note. “Okay, what do you want to see first?”
We headed toward a row of barns housing farm animals. We mooed at every cow, petted every horse, and grunted at every pig.
“I want to find the one with the curliest tail,” Herbie said.
John walked over to a pen, wiggled his forefinger and grunted.
“What do you think, guys? Has John found the pig with the curliest tail?”
All three nodded.
Our next stop was a row of pavilions, where businesses showcased their services. We ran our hands over textured roofing tiles, took turns sitting on a riding mower, massaged our palms in hot tub jet spray, sniffed Avon perfumes, and tasted samples of chocolate, jellies and chip dips.
Before we left, we stopped to marvel at a faucet suspended in midair, out of which flowed a constant stream of water. “How do they do that?” Eddie asked.
I shrugged. “Cool, isn’t it?
On the way to the Community building, we stopped to vroom, vroom on the tractors and measure ourselves against the one with tires taller than any of us. Then we joined a circle of folks watching a man juggling while riding a unicycle.
“I wish I could do that,” Eddie said.
“Me, too,” I mumbled. “It looks like fun.”
The Community building housed dioramas about farming made by the local 4H, potted plants and fancy vegetables from the gardening club, displays of handcrafts on tables and homemade quilts on the walls. There was even a gallery of children’s artwork. We explored everything: the biggest pumpkin, the scariest drawing, the most colorful quilt, even the model explaining how to sheer a sheep. Since Eddie thought the wool felt soft, we all had to touch it.
“Pastor Laura. I thought that was you.” The voice came from behind. I turned to find a parishioner, waiting for his wife to finish admiring the quilts. “I’d like to know what you thought of the conversation at the Trustees meeting last Thursday…”
Dutifully, I listened to him drone on about contractor bids for sealing the parking lot until his wife rescued me.
Turning back toward the guys, I said, “You ready to go on some rides?” Herbie and John nodded. “Where’s Eddie?” I did a quick recon of the vast room. “Where’s Eddie? Did either of you see him walk away?” They shook their heads. I walked the guys outside to look.
Over the loudspeaker I heard, “Laura Bender. Laura Bender. Please meet your party at the missing children’s booth.” The guys stayed close as we hurried to find our missing friend.
“I’m Laura Bender,” I said to the security guard standing in the doorway.
“Your guy is in there.” He pointed over his shoulder with his thumb.
I rushed in to find Eddie, sitting on a bench licking a lollipop.
“There you are! I was so worried. Where did you go?”
“You were talking to that man and I smelled something good. Real good. I started sniffing. And I went where I sniffed. And then, I couldn’t find you.” A tear rolled down his cheek. “Am I in trouble?”
“Of course not, Eddie. You did exactly what I asked you to do if we got separated. Come with us. We’re heading to the rides. You want to try the bumpy cars, don’t you?”
Eddie wiped his eyes. After hugs all around, we headed across the fairgrounds, all four of us instinctively holding hands so we wouldn’t get lost. “Who would like some cotton candy before we take rides?”
As if on cue, the neon lights came on in the midway and we spent the next hour admiring them from high atop the Ferris wheel, as we went round and round on the carousel, and not at all while we focused on knocking into each other in the bumper cars. At 10 pm I dropped the guys at their home, then drove to my apartment exhausted and grinning.
The next Sunday, Eddie brought me a golf pencil bearing a roofing company logo and a tiny porcelain bunny looking into a blue basket minus the handle.
“The fair will be back next year,” Herbie said. “You gonna take us?”
John wrote in his notebook, then handed it to me. “You want to be a policeman, John?” He grinned and nodded. “That’s a good idea. That policeman really helped us find Eddie. Maybe we’ll see him at the fair next summer, too.”
Over the following fifty-one weeks, my shelf and then the bottom drawer of the desk filled up with gifts. And every week the guys asked about the fair. Even when they had to trudge through knee deep snow to get to church, they still asked.
“Guess what’s happening this week, guys?” I asked when I saw them approach my office one Sunday in August.
“The, the the Fair?” Herbie asked.
“Yup. I’m picking you up at 3 pm Thursday, if you want to go…” They all hugged me at once. The truth is, I didn’t know who was looking forward to it more, them or me.
For four years in a row, Herbie, Eddie, John and I kept our August fair date. Then the following June, my phone rang early in the morning. It was the church secretary. “I just got word that Herbie Klingsohr died last night. Just wanted to give you a heads-up. You’ve got a funeral.”
I called Sharon to let her know I was coming to see her houseful of guys. When I arrived, they were sitting in a circle in the living room. Eddie slumped in his chair, sniffling.
Sharon introduced me. “This is Reverend Laura from the church down the street. She wants to talk with you about our dear Herbie.”
After expressing condolences, I asked if anyone had ever been to a funeral. Most raised their hands. “We’re going to have a funeral for Herbie on Wednesday. My job is to help us do that well. When someone dies, I always talk with their family members before I prepare. Since you are Herbie’s family, in a minute, I am going to ask you what you liked most about him.” I took out a notebook and pen. “But first, do you have any questions?”
The man directly opposite me raised his hand.
“Can I wear brown shoes?”
“Yes, you can wear brown shoes to the funeral.”
“But I have a blue suit.”
“I’m sure it will look fine with your shoes. Anyone else?”
Another man raised his hand. I nodded to him and he rose from his chair, walked over to the man opposite me and motioned for him to trade seats. Once settled in what became the speaker’s chair, he asked, “Where is Herbie now?”
“Herbie is in heaven with God.”
He scrunched his face. “I thought Herbie was across the street at Sweet’s Funeral Home.”
“Well, um, yes. His body is at Sweets.”
“Is he in the freezer?”
“No, Mr. Sweet is probably giving him a haircut and a shave in his workroom right now.”
One by one, the men traded for the speaker’s chair. After an hour, I had a notebook full of happy thoughts about Herbie and had answered many oddly related questions.
Eddie spoke last. “He was the best roommate ever.” He wiped his nose on his sleeve. “You wanna see our room?” I followed him down a narrow hallway. The small room housed two single beds on opposite walls, separated by two dressers, one with a mirror and the other under a window. Tidy, it held only a few personal items. A small cross sat on Herbie’s dresser.
“Eddie, I know you know the Lord’s prayer. Would you like to lead it at the funeral? Do you think you could do that for Herbie?”
He nodded, then wiped his eyes.
That Wednesday, the church parking lot filled quickly. Parishioners even took off from work to be there. Sharon and her guys sat in the first two rows, the ones reserved for family.
We sang a hymn, read scripture, and then I gave the eulogy, which in Greek means “good word.” There were plenty to offer for Herbie. The guys saw to that. Then it was Eddie’s turn to lead us in the Lord’s prayer. I invited him to come forward and stand next to me. I placed my hand on his shoulder. “Okay, Eddie.”
He took a deep breath. “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Tears flowed from his eyes. “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done…” He gasped, then let out a wail. I hugged him as he wept. Over his crying, I heard sniffles and snorts from the congregation as they, too, lost their composure. When Eddie was ready, we finished the prayer in unison.
John and Eddie rode to the graveyard in my car, sitting in the back as usual. Herbie’s seat remained empty. It was our version of the “missing man formation.” When the hearse arrived, we exited the car and followed the coffin to the grave. The guys held my hands as we walked and remained close as I led the Liturgy of Committal. Then, one by one, the parishioners returned to their cars and drove away. Sharon gathered the rest of Herbie’s housemates into the van and headed home. Only Eddie, John, and I remained.
“Herbie’s gone to his home, guys. Time for us to head to ours.” Eddie and John used the handkerchiefs Sharon had given them to wipe their faces. Then we turned and headed for my car.
John let himself into the backseat. Eddie chose the front passenger seat. Herbie’s seat.
“Are you still gonna take us to the fair?” Eddie asked.
“I wouldn’t miss it, guys. I love going to the fair with you.”
Eddie’s eyes twinkled. “We have an empty seat now.” In the rearview mirror, I could see John nodding.
“Would you like to choose someone else to go with us? Since we have a vacant seat.”
“We’ll find someone,” Eddie said.
And they did. But that August, we attended our last fair together. The following winter, the bishop assigned me to a different church. It was a tearful goodbye.
In the thirty years since I last saw the guys, I’ve never missed a county fair. I visit every booth, taste test the yummy stuff, search for the pig with the curliest tail and delight at how the lights in the midway brighten the darkness. And every year I pass by the lost children’s booth and remember how one was found by Herbie, Eddie and John.
“Finally, it’s started,” Adriane said to those gathered in a lean-to on the far side of the church building.
“Good, ‘cause I’m freezing,” said Peter. He pulled his long robe tighter.
Over the wind, the sounds of laughter, mingled with the somewhat in-tune singing of Sunday School classes, wafted through the cracked-open back door of the fellowship hall.
Danielle shifted from one cold foot to the other. “It’ll be another forty-five minutes before they bring everyone outside to see our nativity. What do you want to do until then?”
“Hey, quit that,” Adriane said to the goat attached to the leash wrapped twice around her wrist. “Quit humping my leg.”
“He only wants to chew on your sleeve,” Heather said, as she patted a wooly ewe on her head.
“This miniature cow is cute,” Ginny said, but she’s restless. “Do you think we could take these guys for a walk? We have plenty of time.”
“If it’ll get this goat off me, I’ll go,” said Adriane.
Animals in tow, the group set off down the main road, past the church to the grocery store two blocks away. Mary, Joseph, an angel, two shepherds, three kings, a goat, a donkey, two sheep, and a mini cow circled the perimeter of the parking lot. Before heading back to the church, the teens and their menagerie wandered past the store’s large plate-glass window and waved at those inside.
Lesley looked at her watch. “We’d better get back. The Sunday School presentations are gonna end soon.”
The wandering creche returned just in time to take their places around the manger.
Suddenly, the rear fellowship hall door opened. The teens, in biblical garb, posed on cue as overly excited children dragged their weary parents into the night air.
Two members of the chancel choir broke into song and the crowd joined them. “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed.” “Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o’er the plains.”
Parental paparazzi cameras flashed.
During the third hymn, a sixth grader sang “We three kings of orient are, smoking on a rubber cigar.” His father took swift action. “Field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star,” he continued properly.
The trip to the manger ended with the heavenly sounds of Silent Night. All four verses.
The Living Nativity of 1987 was a success.
The next morning, the office phone rang. “You’ve reached the church secretary. How may I help you?”
Without identifying herself, the caller replied, “I think my husband is drinking again. He’s been sober for two years, but last night when he came home from the grocery store, he told me he’d seen an angel leading a cow through the parking lot. Is the pastor available? I need to make an appointment for him.”
“Careful,” Maria said, “or the auctioneer will think you’re bidding.”
“Not on these kids.” Three gangly teenagers holding gardening tools stood on the stage.
“Have hoe, will travel!” announced the auctioneer. “How much will you bid to have your garden tilled and ready for your homegrown tomatoes?”
As hands shot up around the fellowship hall, I glanced toward the front door. I had chosen this seat so I could keep vigil, while being fully supportive of the fundraiser causing my congregation to sell themselves to the highest bidder. Until a few years ago, this event had been called a “Slave Auction for Missions” but had since been renamed a “Time and Talent Auction” to comply with the need to be politically correct. Judging by the long faces of the boys standing on the stage, it was unlikely they had gotten that memo. Just then, from the corner of my eye, I saw my mother, Glo, waving.
“Is that a bid?” called the auctioneer.
Flustered, she shook her head. I pointed out toward the hallway as I rose and headed in that direction.
“How was the drive?” I asked as we met near the door.
“The traffic through Westchester was awful. Some idiot cut me off just as I was getting on the Throgs Neck Bridge, so I flipped him the….”
“Glad you made it okay,” I interrupted, conscious that her word would have made a large blip on my parishioner’s radar. “The Time and Talents auction is almost over,” I explained. “I sold myself to two families.”
“To do what?” she snapped.
“Be the entertainment for their children’s birthday parties.”
Glo rolled her eyes as Maria approached. She leaned over to give my mother a hug.
“Hi Glo, how was the drive?”
“She hit lots of traffic,” I said, and pointed to the restroom. “Bathroom?”
Glo nodded. “Uh huh, and I better check my eye while I’m in there.”
“What’s wrong with your eye?” I sighed as I narrowed mine and peered at hers. Of course, it had to be something. It always was.
“It looks bloodshot,” said Maria.
“I gave myself a perm this morning. I didn’t have time to get one before then and I didn’t want to go to Mexico without having one. So, I did it myself. Louisa May All Catt helped. That’s how I got this scratch.” She stuck out her arm to display the long red mark near her elbow. “She did that just as I was squirting the perm solution and, by accident, it splashed in my eye. She didn’t mean it.”
“Did you flush your eye right away?” I asked, now concerned she may have an actual problem.
“I tried, but the perm stuff was dripping out of my hair as I bent over the sink, so… well… it really burned.”
“I’m sure it did! Did you see a doctor?” I already knew that answer before asking.
“No, I didn’t have time. I still needed to pack and say goodbye to my kitties. But don’t worry. I’m fine. I’ll be okay.”
“Want to stop by the ‘Doc in a Box’ clinic near Kmart? It’s open until nine.”
“No. Now. No. I’m fine. I’ll put a wet paper towel on it for a few minutes while you go back in and talk with your parishioners.” She headed for the ladies room.
No. Now. No. Code words I’d learned in childhood that meant the conversation was over and she’d gotten her way. Butt out. Problem was that my butt was headed to Mexico with her and my friend Maria in less than twelve hours. That she had dismissed me to tend to the congregation meant something really was amiss with her eye and she wanted to work on the problem without my input.
“Well… Maria…” My voice faded, less from a loss of words than from the need to filter them. Just then, the sound of metal chairs scraping floor tiles interrupted my creeping sense of doom. The auction had ended, and the exodus had begun.
“Was that your mother?” a parishioner asked as she walked into the hallway where Maria and I were standing. Before I could answer, Don wandered over. “Traffic in Westchester was bad, again? You know it’s gotten—” Lucille interrupted him. “What’s wrong with her eye? I’ll go check on her.” She headed for the ladies room.
“Radar,” I said under my breath.
Maria laughed. “Lucky you…”
“Lucky us,” I replied as my mother exited the ladies room, with Lucille hot on her heels calling out advice.
“Let’s go. Now!” Glo demanded, as she stared at me with one eye almost closed. “See you at 6 AM, Maria. We’re leaving.”
Having already cleared my desk, I ran to the office just to grab my purse. I lingered a moment in the quiet and took a deep breath. I really needed a break from my pastoral work, but was this going to help?
“Have a great vacation!” a parishioner called as I walked to my car. Near me, my mother was yelling as she backed out of her parking spot. Thankfully, the windows were closed.
“God, I hope so,” I said. I’m sure it was a prayer.
Glo followed me to my small apartment a few miles away. I had already opened up the sleeper sofa so she could get as much shut-eye as possible before our early morning flight.
“Want some tea?” I asked, after we had donned our jammies.
“No. I’m tired. The drive upstate wore me out.”
I padded down the hall to my bedroom. “Goodnight, see you in the morning light,” I called before closing the door.
Just after midnight, my mother knocked. “Come look at my eye.”
I tumbled out of bed, switched on the light, and let her in.
“Your light is on. Why weren’t you sleeping?”
“Let me see your eye,” now redder than before. “I think you need to have this looked at by a doctor.”
“Is that Doctor Box thing still open?”
“Closed at nine. Get dressed. I’ll take you to the emergency room.”
“Isn’t there anywhere else?”
“Not at this hour.”
We headed out to my car. I waved to my downstairs neighbor was just home from work.
“She must be sneaking in to see her boyfriend,” Glo said, smirking.
“She lives here.”
“I bet you see a lot of ‘things’ in an apartment complex.”
“Don’t rub your eye. You’ll make it worse.”
Thankfully, the wait in the emergency room was short. The doctor gave her drops and told her to see the hospital’s ophthalmologist in the morning.
“No. I’m not gonna do that. I’m flying to Mexico in the morning. Just fix it now so I can get out of here.”
The physician took a deep breath. “Ma’am, this is serious. There’s a chance you could lose sight in that eye.”
“Well, then the last thing I’ll see is Mexico.”
I stuck out my hand. “Thank you, doctor. I’ll take her home now.”
“Are you going on vacation with her?” he asked as we shook.
We walked over to the hospital pharmacy to pick up eye drops. “Is there anything else you need while we’re here?” I asked.
“I’m not gonna see a doctor tomorrow. We’re going on vacation.”
“Uh, huh,” too tired to say much else.
We arrived home just after two.
“Remember to put drops in your eye before you go to sleep. The doctor said every four hours.”
“The bottle says to keep my eye covered after using it.”
“Like with an eye patch?”
“I think so. Where do you keep them?”
“What? I don’t have eye patches. I might have gauze, though. Let me look.” I fumbled through the bathroom cabinet, but there was none to be found.
“I thought ‘Miss Always-Prepared’ was ready for anything,” Glo snipped.
Sighing, I continued my search, but all it yielded were sanitary napkins. “Here, see if you can make something out of these. I’m going to bed. I have to drive to Newark Airport in three hours.”
At 5:30, I took a quick shower, donned summer clothes and a raincoat with a removable lining. I slipped a new tape in the answering machine to make space for incoming calls, then dragged my packed suitcase into the hallway. “Vacation, here I come!”
Glo sat in the living room, dressed and ready. A sanitary napkin, cut in half, duct taped across her eye. “What did you say?”
I stared at her. “Do you want me to adjust that patch for you? Maybe trim it a bit?”
“No. Now. No. Let’s get going.”
I said nothing all the way to Maria’s house. The ride to the airport took over an hour. Glo and Maria chatted about the church, an upcoming craft fair, and what they hoped to do in Mexico. Ever tactful, Maria let Glo bring up the eye patch.
“Laura didn’t have any gauze for me to use like the doctor said, so I’m stuck with this. I don’t care. I’ll do what I want,” Glo said.
“Looks like it works,” Maria said, and left it at that.
We parked in the long-term lot and rode the crowded shuttle to the terminal. Every eye turned to Gloria’s eye. After checking in, we got coffee and bagels and took them to the gate. Maria ate hers slowly.
“You okay? You look tired,” I asked.
“Fine. I didn’t sleep well. This is my first time on a plane. I’m a little nervous,” Maria replied.
“I didn’t know you hadn’t flown before. Don’t worry. This will be like sitting in an easy chair with a cool view. And even if you’re anxious, no one will notice you. You’ll be sitting with my mother.”
When we got in line to board, Glo was the center of attention, a position she seemed to enjoy. “People are looking at me. Why do you think that is?”
“It’s not every day you see a woman with a sanitary pad duct taped to her face,” I replied.
“Well, if you had had gauze in your bathroom, I wouldn’t have to walk around like this.”
I bit my lip.
Once we found our seats, we gave the one next to the window to Maria, for her first flight. Then, tired, we settled in for a nap. That lasted until take-off.
Maria’s eyes grew large as the plane’s ascension pressed her against the seat back. I patted her hand. “We’re okay. Just heading skyward. When we reach the proper altitude, we’ll flatten out.”
“My easy chair never did this,” Maria said through clenched teeth.
“And it never gave you a view of New Jersey, either. Look at those fuel storage tanks and that huge traffic jam. Better up here than down there.” As we gazed at the sights below, the plane leveled. “See, all good. Welcome to our vacation!”
Maria stared past me at my mother. “I’m beginning to think this is your father’s vacation.”
“Sure is, every year. Don’t worry, she’s less caustic in an unfamiliar environment.”
Gloria poked my arm. “Who are you two talking about?”
“We’re just watching the traffic on I 95. Go back to sleep. You didn’t get much last night,” I replied.
“Did you see that couple who boarded ahead of us? The way she hung on him was disgraceful. I bet they aren’t married.”
“I need a nap. Wake me when the flight attendant comes around with coffee.” I closed my eyes.
When I awoke, I saw Maria staring at the movie playing on the screen in the front of our cabin. “You know you could ask for headphones, right? The movie is probably more interesting with sound.” She didn’t respond.
As the flight attendant poured coffee for the three of us, she turned to my mother. “Do you need help for your eye? We have gauze in our first aid kit. If you need to change the… uh, bandage.”
“No. Now. No. I’m fine. Just sugar. Thank you.”
After coffee, I did a crossword puzzle and took another nap. Lunch arrived over Texas. Maria didn’t each much. Once our trays were cleared, I helped Glo redo the eyedrops and readjust her “patch.”
“This is your captain. We’re approaching Mexico City with several planes ahead of us. I’ll put the seat belt sign on when it’s our turn to land.”
“Coffee in, coffee out,” I said as I unbuckled my seatbelt and slid past my mother. “Doesn’t look like there’s much of a line for the toilet, yet. I’ll be right back. Try to behave while I’m gone.” She smirked.
While washing my hands, the captain made another announcement. “Please return to your seats immediately and fasten your seatbelts. We have a medical emergency onboard. We’ve been taken out of the holding pattern and have been given the green light to land now.”
I slid the latch from “occupied” to “available” and headed back toward my seat. The emergency was, of course, on our side of the plane. A few rows from the bathroom, a flight attendant pushed past with a small oxygen tank and mask in her hand. At least it wasn’t an eye cup. My mother didn’t need any more attention than her medical “accessory” already gave her. Arriving at the emergency, the attendant slipped into a row of seats and when she did, I could see my mother standing in the aisle, facing me.
“Get back here, now,” she shouted as she shook her finger toward the floor.
I walked toward her, ready to tell her to take a seat and butt-out of someone else’s emergency, when I saw Maria. She was having a seizure. The shaking had caused her to slide down in her seat, with the seatbelt now around her chest. An attendant behind her was trying to raise her back into a seated position while the one who had run past me now held the oxygen mask over her mouth and nose.
“Are you with them?” a third attendant asked. I nodded. “We’re about to land. An ambulance will be on the tarmac waiting. We’ll have the other passengers quickly deplane out the back so the EMTs can bring a stretcher onboard.”
“Thank you,” I mumbled.
“One other thing, ma’am. Our flight attendants are required by regulations to be seated during landing. But your friend still needs oxygen. We’ve cleared a place for you to stand behind her so you can keep the mask secure on her face. Would you be willing to do that?”
Wrapping my left arm tightly around the headrest of my former seat, I stood in place with the mask firmly over Maria’s nose and mouth. The plane descended rapidly. It took all my strength to keep her head from whipping forward and me from flipping over the seat. For once, my mother remained silent.
By the time we landed, Maria had regained consciousness. “What happened to me? What’s going on? Why is there blood on my shirt?”
“You bit your tongue, Maria. But you’re safe now. I think you had a seizure. The EMTs will be here in a minute.”
“A seizure? I don’t have seizures… Who is that man?”
I turned to face an EMT talking to my mother, trying to find out how she hurt her eye. “Aqui esta mi amiga Maria. Ella está la única con la problema médico,” I said, pointing to Maria. “La otra es loco en la cabeza, comprende?”* He pointed to her “eye patch” and nodded.
And so began my much-needed week-long vacation in Mexico.
*“Here is my friend Maria. She is the only one with a medical problem. The other is crazy in the head. Understand?”
There is something in my eye. Sand. Always sand. But this feels bigger than the talc-like stuff that blows around us constantly. I reach behind my left hip, pull the canteen out of its casing, and unscrew the top. Since the 5-ton truck I am riding in has stopped, I move to the tailgate, lean sideways over the edge and pour water into my eye to flush it. I blink a few times, shake my head, and pour a few drops more. I have to be careful with my rationed water. We are still waiting for re-supply. I also don’t want to touch my eye. My hands are putrid from rooting around body bags looking for dog tags, and I don’t want that odor anywhere near my face again. It was a problem last night, because I curl up with my hands near my cheek while I sleep, and between the smell and the hard-dusty ground, I got little rest.
1 April 2003
Our journey started in Kuwait, a country that, for those in the invasion force, seemed to have a K at the beginning of its name for no apparent reason. What do you do there? U-wait.
We waited nearly 30 hours for airlift, sitting in rows in the blowing sand with all our gear. Before that, we had waited 48 days, the last few of which had been exhausting with scud alerts requiring us to take refuge in the bunkers every hour and a half. Anxiety was overabundant because of lack of sleep and clear directions. “Get in rows of 24. The helos are here. Belay my last. Go get chow. If you are eating chow, you’re wrong. Bunkers, bunkers! Incoming scud! Why aren’t you in rows of 32?” Given at full volume, the language accompanying these orders got bluer by the hour. It reminded me of an email I had received while still at Camp Lejeune: “Pray the enemy is so confused they can’t fight.” Sitting there, listening to these senior enlisted bark orders, I wondered if it had not been the Iraqis who had sent that message. But still we sat. And sat. Trauma nurses. Psychiatrists. Surgeons and anesthesiologists. A podiatrist, a dentist, a plethora of Hospital Corpsmen and me, their chaplain. On our butts, in the dirt.
2 April 2003
The morning we left for Iraq, black soot from burning oil fields hung heavy on the horizon, a huge contrast to the brightness of the sun as it emerged over the sandy expanse of the desert.
Instead of the helicopters for which we had waited, we flew in two C130s, huge transport planes that usually carry cargo, but could be rigged with web seats for passengers. We flew like cargo, without seats, sitting on top of our gear, legs around the person in front of us. With no other restraints, we relied on our enmeshed bodies, covering every inch of the hold to keep us in place.
One corpsman, the last to enter before the cargo door closed, could only squeeze into a spot by sitting backwards. The only face I could see during the flight, he continually threw up in his helmet. At the time it seemed much less stressful to watch him vomit, than to think about our current situation-flying into a war zone in a plane flanked by four armed Cobras–small, but deadly, two-seat Marine Corps attack helicopters prepared to intercept SAMs–Surface to Air missiles, before they could shoot us. If I had kept focus on that, I would have been filling my helmet.
We landed on a highway. When the cargo door opened, a chief ordered us to don our packs, exit down the ramp, and move to cover. My pack, with all the required personal gear, plus a chaplain’s field kit and other religious supplies, and the “as useful as a paperweight without a place to plug it in” issued laptop, weighed about 90 pounds. At least I’d been able to send all the Bibles, Korans, hymnals and Missalettes ahead in an ambulance driving across the border to meet us.
With all that added weight, I moved as quickly as I could off the blacktop and into the mud. On the other side of the wet ground, an area had been dug out and bordered by a dirt berm as a shield for the EOD or Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit encamped there. Responsible for locating, removing and destroying bombs, they worked tirelessly so the advancing ground forces could pass safely on their way toward Baghdad. Unfortunately for us, those ground forces, located a two-hour drive south, hadn’t gotten this far yet.
“Oops,” nor any of its unsanitized synonyms are words you don’t want to hear in war, because what follows is usually dangerous. I wonder in whose report the phrase “Oops, we dropped a medical unit in an unfriendly area with very little protection and no clue how to get them to where they should have been” needed to be written. But there we sat. In the wrong place. Waiting for someone to make a decision. We had two options: Helicopters or convoy. As long as SAMs remained a threat, we could not travel by air. Although EOD had swept the road for mines, it remained an unsecured corridor, making convoy less than ideal. Eventually, somebody made a decision. “Send the chaplain and her bodyguard with a few people in a truck and see if they can get through. If that works, we’ll send the rest of the medical staff.” At least I got to check one item off my bucket list: Be an unarmed guinea pig…
When the 5–ton truck arrived, I struggled to get myself and my gear into the flatbed higher than my head. Finally settled, I looked at Darrell, the Religious Program Specialist, RP for short, with whom I worked. Wanting to be prepared, he sat up front, readying his weapon. RP3, as I called him, was 6’5’, twenty-two years old, and spoke with a thick West Virginia accent. A pregnant wife and a two-year-old son waited for him at home. RPs often flippantly describe their job as “bullet sponge for the chaplain.” I hated that glib description because I never wanted him to get between me and anything dangerous–in part because he was a questionable marksman. The last time he had been home on leave, he’d gone deer hunting with a few friends and mistakenly shot his neighbor’s horse. That’s the reason I always teasingly brought up when we got to talking about it. The real reason was too horrible to entertain.
A few days before we entered Iraq, he and I had gone to a meeting of chaplains and RPs serving with nearby units. The senior chaplain had given us the commensurate pep talk about what good ministry opportunities lay ahead. “Yeah, with all those people needing Last Rites,” I’d mumbled only loud enough for RP3 to hear. Then the Master Chief called the RPs forward for a chat. “We’ve received intel that the Iraqis are going to use little children as suicide bombers,” the senior chaplain said stoically. “If a child approaches your chaplain, shoot it.” Darrell walked back to sit with me. The color had drained from his face.
“I heard.” Looking into his eyes, I put my hand on his arm. “I promise to stay away from all children. I promise…” My voice trailed off, and we sat in silence. From then on, I had more to worry about than keeping Darrell’s body from harm.
With all eight of us and our gear finally loaded in the 5-ton, we, in the third of four vehicles, started southward. I wondered where the others had come from; possibly another unit nearby? A humvee with a mounted 50-cal took the lead, followed in second and fourth positions by small troop transports. Each of these carried ten Iraqi EPWs (Enemy Prisoners of War), enclosed, so we could not see them. Great, there are more EPWs than us in this convoy. “Hey RP3, what do you think of this? We’ve only been here a few hours and already we’re surrounded,” I joked, pointing at the vehicles in front and behind us. He laughed. On his helmet he had written with a black marker, “Don’t heal, just kill.”
“Look what I wrote,” he said, pointing at his head. I started to say it was inappropriate for the assistant to the chaplain to have that emblazoned on his helmet, but I stopped myself. He was a legitimate combatant. And we were at war. I nodded and said nothing.
As the only combatant in the truck, RP3 alone had an M-16 rifle. It had enough range to be defensive. The others, all medical staff, had 9mm handguns. The rules of engagement dictated they could only shoot in defense of themselves or a patient. I had a camera. Thank God that on this ride, I was the only one that did any shooting.
It took the rest of the afternoon to reach Camp Anderson, a hastily planned encampment that straddled the south to north supply route near An Naminayah. Along the way we passed small farms where we could see families outside, working.
Some paused and stared in our direction; others turned their heads and went about their business. I wondered what it must be like for them to observe us in our heavy military transport truck with all our military gear. Did they feel relieved we were there to protect them (were we?) or angry about us invading their home turf? Was one of them going to shoot at us from behind a wall? Were they afraid of us or apprehensive about what might happen? Did they know how scared we were or how much we wanted to go home unharmed?
As we got further south, we noticed remnants of fighting that had already taken place: a blown-up tank, scorched ground, destroyed buildings, burned cars and what appeared to be a Republican Guard Barracks, bombed beyond usefulness.
Amid this devastation was a surreal sight – a roadside rest stop with inviting picnic tables, untouched.
Closer to our destination, we encountered U.S. Marines.
Some had dug into their fighting holes, others lay exposed on the edge of the blacktop, M-16s pointed toward the horizon. We had to be careful not to run over their legs. About that time, the other three vehicles in our little convoy departed to complete their EPW mission, leaving us to fend for ourselves.
When our truck finally pulled off the road and into a dirt area recently swept for mines, the first thing I noticed was our FRSS or Forward Resuscitative Surgical System, which had been deployed ahead of the rest of our company. I recognized it because we had set it up a few times in the grass near the gazebo outside my office at Camp Lejeune. Our unit, Bravo Surgical Company–the “Devil Docs” as CNN would soon name us in a play on the Marine moniker “Devil Dogs” became the first to use this new treatment concept in war.
From the outside, the FRSS didn’t look like much – just two tents connected by a covered passageway. One tent housed surgery and the other pre/post-op. The entire unit, including tents, equipment, generators, fuel and water, weighed just under 7,000 pounds and could be delivered by large helicopter or small truck as close to the fighting as possible. Designed to be set up and ready to provide treatment in less than one hour by its eight-person medical team, which included surgeons, an anesthesiologist, critical-care nurses and corpsmen, made it a game-changer. According to the medical staff, the ability to provide appropriate intervention to critically injured patients in the first hour (the “golden hour”) after they are wounded improves the chance of saving both limb and life. By the time we arrived, the FRSS had been functioning in place for three days, the first 36 hours of which had been under fire.
“Don’t go across the road,” warned the Marine who met us as we disembarked. “There are 300 dead Iraqis rolled into the dirt berm over there. They were killed by their own leaders because they wouldn’t fight us. They are still in uniform with their hands tied and bullets in their heads.” As I tried to wrap my mind around this new reality, he continued. “There are 38 more of them in that other pile. Those are the ones we killed. Don’t cry for them, they executed the 300 others. Oh, yeah, and we have one in the freezer. He wasn’t dead yet, and we tried to save him, so now we have to keep him until we can return his body. Welcome to Camp Anderson.” Noticing me, he said, “Hey Chaps, nice to see you.”
Just then an anti-tank mine exploded very close to our cleared space. It had been activated by pressure from the rotors of one of the helos delivering the rest of the “Devil Docs.” The deafening noise and strong concussion got everyone’s attention. Because of that, no one needed to have the order “stay inside the dirt berm where the ground’s been swept” explained when it was given to us later.
“Why didn’t everyone else drive here like we did?” I asked a nurse.
“They determined the roadway wasn’t safe enough. Nice to see you made it, though.”
As it was almost dark, word got passed, “find a spot and get some sleep.” More than ready to comply, I unrolled my sleeping bag and isomat, the inch-thick foam rubber that would be my mattress for too long. Then, with urgency this time, word was passed again.
“There are approximately fifty Republican Guard in the tree-line across the field. Get below the level of the berm and maintain light restriction.” I shut off my flashlight. RP3 was next to me in an instant.
“Against the berm, ma’am,” he said, suddenly very serious. We dragged my gear toward the long pile of dirt. As he dug partway into it, I unrolled my bed and slid it up toward the hole. He crawled away for a few moments. When he returned he said, “You’ve got company.” Two of his Marine friends were dragging their gear in my direction. One set up on my right, the other across my feet. RP3 took position on my left on his stomach with his M-16 ready. Overhead, a long-range missile whizzed to a distant target. A bright spot appeared on the horizon. We waited. A few more lit up the sky on the other side of the berm, reminding me of the line from the National Anthem: And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air…
“No talking,” said a stern voice in the darkness. A female voice replied, “But I have to pee.”
“There is no peeing tonight, ma’am,” the voice responded. And that was that.
I suppose I should have been frightened, lying on the ground in a battle zone with no weapon to defend myself. Instead, I felt humbled and grateful that two United States Marines and my RP who knew me so well had positioned themselves to defend me with their lives. Under their protection, I soon fell asleep and slept soundly, which proved to be a real blessing considering the work that lay ahead. The last thing I remembered as I closed my eyes was how incredibly beautiful the night sky appeared under light restriction.
3 April 2003
I awakened to the “blue” sounds emanating from chiefs demanding that work came before food, ablutions, even toileting. The Marines had “taken care” of last night’s threat from the fifty Iraqis and the hospital had to be erected now, Now, NOW!
The first surgery RP3 and I attended was performed in the FRSS while the hospital was still under construction. I had been invited as the good luck charm for the surgeons who felt uncomfortable working on such a horrifically wounded two-year-old. The boy had been shot by Marines, and although Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon and CNN medical correspondent, imbedded with our unit for two weeks, took the lead on the surgery, the child did not live. It must have been devastating for the Marines who had opened fire on that vehicle, knowing there were children in it, but their action saved five lives. In the front seat were two male would-be suicide bombers. In the back were both men’s wives and a female neighbor. Each had a toddler on their lap. In the trunk was an incendiary device. The women and children were forced to ride in the vehicle in hopes that the Marines would be too tenderhearted to stop the men who wanted to blow up the checkpoint. The men were killed, the child was collateral damage. That child’s mother was wounded, but alive. The others were, at least visibly, unharmed.
When Dr. Gupta cut into the brain of this child whose hand had also been traumatically amputated, RP3’s face turned ashen and he began to sway. Seeing his distress, I suggested he could protect me better outside the tent watching for bad guys. He departed in an instant. That concept was reinforced later when he wandered into another tent and found me standing next to the boy’s mother as her intestines were being pulled outside her body so that the surgeons could search for shrapnel. “Just lettin’ ya know I got your back, ma’am,” he said, as he quickly exited. “More than just our backs need protecting, Darrell,” I mumbled, as I wondered who we’d all be when this was over.
It took several hours to set up the tents for the echelon 2 field hospital, which included triage, ward, surgery, admin and dental.
Our purpose was to receive patients directly from the battlefield and stabilize them for transport, ideally within four hours, to higher echelon facilities. From there, they would either be deemed healed and returned to the fight, or declared wounded, ill or injured and sent home. I had just finished blessing the Operating Room, with its canvas walls and dirt floor, when the first patients arrived.
“Choppers in the compound. Incoming wounded.” The person making that announcement obviously was a fan of M.A.S.H. On the way toward the helos, I heard several people humming the theme song.
On the way back with full litters, things had changed. No longer were corpsman faced with moulaged patients in a pretend scenario like they had rehearsed countless times at Camp Lejeune. These people were real, they were gravely wounded, and most were young–the same age as many of the corpsmen carrying the litters from ambulance or helo to triage. A sudden soberness came over these young Sailors, many of whom had never seen such wounds. Even the senior surgeons were, at times, overwhelmed, not so much by the level of the wounds but by the sheer volume of wounded. RP3 and I took our places near the entrance to the triage tent as the initial three patients, all Marines, arrived. The first had shrapnel in his arm and wrist and the second, a bullet in his shoulder.
“I don’t know what you want to do with him, but we were told he’s yours,” two corpsmen said as they deposited a body bag enclosing the third at my feet. “Bullet in the stomach and in the leg. He bled out. Oh, and he pushed his friend out of the way. I was told to tell you the friend doesn’t know he is dead. When they finish with his shoulder, you gotta tell him.” They hurried away. I gazed at the black bag labeled “Human remains, one each.” Kneeling, RP3 and I found the zipper and opened the bag. Dog tags. Catholic. Taking out the laminated card containing faith-group specific prayers for the dead and dying, I read the Act of Contrition. “Dear God, please let this Protestant’s words suffice for this brave young man,” I prayed. When I arose, I noticed the two corpsmen had returned.
“We’ll put him in the freezer for you, ma’am,” one said.
Before I could check on the friend, two more Marines arrived. One shot in the elbow, another in the knee. When I approached the second one, he started to cry. “Must be painful,” I said.
“No, I can’t feel that. They numbed it before I got here.”
“You look upset.”
“That’s because of yesterday.”
“What happened yesterday?” I asked gently, as tears ran down his boyish face.
“I didn’t want to do it. They were coming at us fast. These two men. They were behind a pile of dirt. They came around it shooting, AK47s they had. I killed them all.”
“Weren’t they shooting at you?”
“Yes, but one was holding a 5-year-old in front of him and the other had a 12-year-old. Girls. Young girls. I shot them all.”
“We are going to sedate him now,” the nurse said. As he drifted off, I said, “The men who introduced these girls as shields on the battlefield killed them. You protected your Marines.” I hope he heard me.
Needing a break, I went over to sit on my isomat by the berm. The required heavy charcoal-lined jacket and pants over my uniform and flak jacket, worn in case of contact with chemical or biological agents, was unbearable in the 105-degree heat. I rummaged in my pack for a small bag of peanuts and a tangerine I had taken from the chow hall in Kuwait, my first food of the day. While I ate, the psychiatrist walked over to give me the news.
“I just came from the meeting you missed. Here’s the skinny: The unit providing our food, water and security has had to move forward. From now on, we have to fend for ourselves. Nice, since they said we now have Republican Guard units on all four sides. Water is rationed. No washing. One, maybe two canteens a day. One MRE or less per day, until we run out. Tonight, we’ll set a perimeter and put corpsmen on rotation as guards. I know, don’t laugh. They want us to leave as soon as our ward is empty. If you had a weapon, I’d ask you to shoot the messenger and put me out of my misery.”
I could always count on Gary for a laugh.
“Oh, I almost forgot. There will be a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing at 2000 for all those present during the baby’s brain surgery.”
After he left, I trudged back to triage for round two. During a lull in arrivals, I wandered into the ward. Several unrestrained EPWS lay on cots across from Marines. Seeing the potential for disaster, I went in search of the Commanding Officer. Like me, he was a lieutenant, only much younger. I liked him and felt bad that he had been put in such a difficult position. As a Medical Service Corps officer, he had virtually no tactical training and should have had more support.
“Mark, I just visited the ward. The EPWs are not restrained. Several are ambulatory. They are allowed to communicate with each other and none of us can understand them. Please fix this. It isn’t safe in there.”
“Chaplain, those guys are injured. They’re not going to hurt anyone. I can’t believe you’d want them restrained. That isn’t nice.”
“Before they arrived here, they were trying to kill our Marines. Not restraining them puts your personnel at risk. In my last assignment, I worked in the fleet hospital in Guantanamo Bay, where the Al Queda detainees received medical care. I fully understand the requirements for restraint, if you need guidance.”
“Please stay in your own lane. Go find someone who needs prayer.”
“Fine, but it won’t be in the ward. I don’t want one of your guests disarming my RP and shooting up the place.” I stomped out and headed back to triage, where a robust Republican Guardsman with multiple gunshot wounds was being readied for surgery. Although he, like most of our patients, was naked, I had quickly learned the difference between RGs and the mostly conscripted Regular Iraqi Army. Weight. RGs ate well.
Ten minutes into the 2000 CISM Debrief, I was called back to triage. Sixteen patients. Transport rammed by an Iraqi civilian vehicle. They had been driving for 24 hours under light restriction when struck in the dark. Multiple injuries, some severe, and the corpsmen had left me a body bag containing the driver where they had left the earlier one. Upon hearing that news, I nodded at RP3 and excused us from the meeting. “They found us another body,” I whispered. This one didn’t have dog tags, nor was he known to his passengers. Searching through his personal effects, I found a diary with his name written on it. “Start with this,” I said to the corpsmen who carried him to the freezer.
Just then, a small blue light pulsed out beyond our berm. 3 short flashes, 3 long, 3 short. A pause, and then the pattern repeated. SOS. “Do you see that?” I asked Darrell.
“Yes, ma’am. It is probably the perimeter guard the CO sent out earlier. He is supposed to watch the field and radio back any problems. Oh, and they gave him one of the Marine’s M-16s.”
“Then why the SOS? Something must be wrong. I’m going to find the CO.” On the way, I checked with a few more people to see if they were seeing what I was seeing. They were.
“Mark, a blue light is signaling SOS outside our berm. Have you seen it? I think our guard needs help.” Mark turned his gaze over the berm as it flashed again.
“Now, don’t panic, Chaplain. Whatever is going on, there is nothing we can do about it. If there really is a problem, the watch should radio it in or take care of it himself.” Then he walked away.
Slowly, the light came closer until the lone corpsman appeared around the edge of the berm.
“Why have you abandoned your post?” a chief boomed.
“I’m sorry, Chief. The radio battery went dead and without it, my post is useless. I tried to get help, but nobody came. Didn’t anybody see my SOS?”
I could feel my New York attitude shoving its way toward my lips. “RP3, it’s time we got some rest.”
“You’re about to go all New Yorker on them, aren’t you, ma’am?”
4 April 2003
“They took my weapon,” RP3 said with tears forming in his brown eyes. “I promised Michigan I’d protect you and now I can’t.” Michigan was his name for my sweetie back home.
I made a bee line for the CO. “Mark, are you carrying a weapon for your own protection?” My tone made him a little nervous, and he put his hand on his 9 mil. “I see you are. Well, RP3 is my protection and now neither he nor I are armed. Why is that?”
“Well, Chaplain, we have only five people with M-16’s in the camp–four Marines and your RP. Putting his gun out on the perimeter is a way of protecting you.”
“Then put him out there with it. Your corpsmen aren’t trained on that weapon.”
“Sorry, Chaplain. Not your decision.”
“If it were, it wouldn’t be this stupid,” I mumbled as I stomped away.
Starving, I returned to my isomat to search my pack for food. Last night’s dinner of 6 crackers had not been filling and my stomach was letting me know. Pulling out my prized packet of MRE spaghetti, I ate it cold. By this time, a guard had been placed on our camp’s food and water supply since we were nearly out. It would have been sufficient if we had been able to move forward in a day, but Camp Chesty, 37 miles south of Baghdad, which would be our next place to set up, had not matured as quickly as planned, so we had to stay put. Starve and dehydrate here or get shot at Chesty? Hard to choose. I poured a drop of water on my toothbrush, cleaned my teeth, took a swig from my canteen and swallowed.
Triage was full. A Marine who didn’t look old enough to be there lay on a litter to my left. His hand was wrapped and two nurses were about to remove the bandage. One of them stared at me, then eyeballed his hand. As they removed the gauze, I asked him his full name. Calling him by his given name, I told him to look at me and not turn around. As I asked friendly questions about home and high school, out of his line of vision I could see them debriding the remains of his hand. Please don’t tell me you play piano, I thought as I looked into his blue eyes.
The morning continued to be busy. One Marine arrived complaining of an excruciating headache, but when examined, the staff could find no visible cause–until someone picked up his helmet to move it. There, lodged in the Kevlar, was a bullet. It had entered sideways in the very top of the helmet and the lump could be felt both inside and out, but it had never penetrated the young man’s skull.
Another had been the driver of an ambushed Humvee. As he explained it, as soon as they started hearing the pings of bullets hitting their vehicle, he felt a sharp pain in one of his fingers. Looking at his hand as he continued to grip the steering wheel, he saw blood. A bullet had hit the end joint of his ring finger and traumatically amputated it. When the shooting stopped and other Marines came to remove the wounded from his Humvee, he let go of the wheel and there in his hand, caught by reflex reaction, was the bullet that had cut off his finger.
Two miracles in one day.
“Chaplain, you have company,” Mark called into triage. With him was a chaplain with whom I had attended Chaplain School. Depositing him with me, Mark departed.
“I’m with the Seabee unit across the road,” he said. “We’ve stopped for a few hours, and I thought I’d like to see a field hospital in action. I didn’t know you were here.”
“Well, here we are in action,” I said and took him for a walk through our tented facilities. It did not take long for his face to turn an abnormal shade.
As he tried to look away from the gruesome sights in our ward and fix his gaze elsewhere, he asked, “Why is that person at the edge of your encampment wearing sunglasses, a poncho with the hood up over all their gear, and squatting in the sand?” he asked.
Seeing the figure straddling a slit trench, I replied, “They are trying to be invisible.”
That afternoon, a third miracle happened. Bragging, I must say that my effort in this matter of procurement stands out as the most appreciated service I ever provided to a unit with whom I’ve served. A vehicle in the never-ending northbound convoy that bordered our camp paused, creating a gap across the roadway. Through it appeared a Seabee driving a forklift carrying a plywood box with three holes cut in the upper surface. Over the top of the box was a cube-shaped wooden frame with a plastic tarp wrapped around it for privacy. The forklift wound its way between two helos as they were landing to deliver more casualties and headed for the far edge of our camp. Instinctively, a parade formed behind the “shitter” as marchers fiddled in their pockets to find paper. It was a proud moment.
Shortly after what became our most prized possession arrived, there was a commotion in the ward. An EPW had gotten out of his sickbed and become loudly belligerent with the staff. When he refused to be quiet and return to his cot, a chief slipped behind him, put the nozzle of his gun against the man’s head and chambered a round. Perfect time for me to stay in my own lane.
“Chaplain, someone is here for you,” a voice called. Thinking the Seabee chaplain had returned to see if our gift had arrived, I walked toward triage. Near the entrance was another body bag. A Humvee occupant from another ambush with a bullet in his neck. It had entered near his spine. As I zipped the bag closed, I could not take my eyes off his entry wound. It was so small and so near the nape. Why couldn’t he have sneezed? Coughed? Reached forward for something on the dashboard? The bullet would have missed him, and he might still be alive. Because of less than one-inch lack of movement, his family would soon get a visit that would change their lives forever. I finished zipping the bag, and two corpsmen carried him away.
Needing a break, I headed back toward my pack to see what else I could find to eat. Suddenly I smelled something cooking. Barbeque? Yum. Wait. That can’t be right… I must be hallucinating. I walked toward the smell. It was our burn pit. We were ridding ourselves of amputated parts.
That afternoon a six-year-old boy arrived in triage. His face had been partially blown away by shrapnel. It had entered under his chin and exited through what had once been his upper lip, nose and left eye. He was conscious and crying for his mother while they worked on him. Several of the staff became overwhelmed and had to leave the tent, including one of the surgeons. I followed him outside to comfort him. When I placed a hand on his shoulder, tears ran down his cheeks. “My son is his age,” he stammered. In silence, we stood together until he stopped shaking.
“We are one deep in your specialty. Are you ready to go back in now? That boy needs you.” I took his hand, said a quick prayer for strength, and we both returned to our duty.
That night, a Marine in his late thirties arrived with the back of his head blown off. Our surgeons consulted with Dr. Gupta, and determined the man only had brain-stem function remaining and would never recover from his wounds. He was categorized as an expectant-one whose wounds are such that they will not survive being transported to receive more extensive care, would have no benefit from that care, or whose level of need would overwhelm the personnel and material resources of the field hospital. Medical staff, trained to use every means possible to save a life, have great difficulty with the thought of letting someone die by doing nothing. Therefore, expectants, like the already-dead, are the chaplain’s responsibility.
It took this strong Marine seven hours to die. The corpsmen placed him in the dental tent for privacy. Reading his dog tags, I saw he was a Baptist. I pulled a small Bible out of my cargo pocket. Since the dying lose their sense of hearing last, I read aloud the 23rd Psalm, the passage from John’s gospel where Jesus promises He is preparing a place for us in Heaven and several other scriptures this Marine might find comforting. After a while, I switched to quietly singing old hymns and holding his hand so he would not feel alone.
“That’s him,” a voice behind me said. “I’ll be back in a minute.” When she returned, she was not alone. “Most of us know him, Chaplain. We did a short humanitarian deployment together last year, and he provided security. I’m shocked to see him here, let alone to have to let him die.” Tears rolled down her cheeks and dripped onto her dusty uniform, leaving tiny mud puddles. Over the next six hours, one by one, his former colleagues arrived to pay their respects. That night, we held a wake where the deceased was not quite yet.
5 April 2003
Although we were still receiving wounded, our focus was on medevac’ing the patients in our ward and packing up the hospital so we could head to Camp Chesty, 68 miles away. With fighting still occurring and the road not secure, it could be a harrowing trip, but they needed us closer to Baghdad.
Early in the morning, after watching me root around another body bag looking for where the field medic had placed the dog tags, Sanjay Gupta asked me if he could interview me live. “As long as you can assure me this isn’t smell-a-vision,” I joked, aware that 105-degree heat in MOP gear and armor had made all of us quite odoriferous.
I suppose I should have been more prepared for the question he asked me, the “how do you feel” about what you are doing question. It just hit me in a place I wasn’t ready to visit. Suddenly aware that my words might connect back to the loved ones of our dead and wounded, I stammered something about how they were all young enough to be my children and how heroic they had been in their duties. Not one of my better moments, but given what I was doing there, not one of my worst.
By evening, we had packed most of our gear and sent our patients to follow-on care. The next morning, before it was light, we loaded the trucks as they arrived.
We treated 107 critically injured patients at Camp Anderson including U.S. Marines, Republican Guard, Fedayeen Saddam, Iraqi Regular Army, a high-level Al Queda, two Sudanese mercenaries, one of Saddam’s cousins and several civilians, including children. We felt extremely proud that all had been triaged according to level of wound and not political affiliation as required by the Geneva Conventions. We rendered treatment in tents with dirt floors, our staff working with unwashed hands because the water supply had been cut. We sterilized medical equipment in a plastic dishpan on a metal crate in the open air.
Patients in the ward lay on dusty cots under a tarp, awaiting transportation. Medical staff slept on the ground outside if there was time. We ate too few MREs, sweated constantly and smelled worse every day. And the sand blew constantly–into our faces, our mouths, our eyes. We were at Camp Anderson less than four full days before we packed up the hospital and got on the road.
After flushing the sand from my eye, I close it and raise a dusty sleeve to daub the excess liquid. The last thing I want is more dirt dripping in and repeating the problem. We are near the end of a long line of trucks, each carrying ten “Devil Docs.” Like us, they sit on wooden benches that fold down from the side walls of the truck’s open bed, covered by a canopy that both blocks sunlight and reduces their visibility as individual targets. A few vehicles behind us is a flatbed, the end of the line, literally, because it carries our portable morgue–the refrigeration unit in which we store “guests” awaiting transport.
Next to that unit, on the back end of the flatbed, sits our most prized possession–the wooden three-seat shitter. Tied to one of the posts holding up the privacy curtain stands a tall pole, at the top of which a huge American flag flutters in the breeze. Afraid we might look like a conquering force, someone up the command chain, likely someone nowhere near here, ordered us to refrain from flying our flag anywhere “in country.” It’s nice to see that somebody had the cojones to disobey that order, so we might continue to serve under our own flag.
Something isn’t right. Too much time has passed, and we are not moving. Soon word is shouted down the line. “There is a group of POV’s coming up behind us and we are trying to decide if we should let these locals pass.”
A paranoid New Yorker, I have an immediate opinion. “Make the cars wait. If those people drive past, they can take notes about everything they see in our convoy and pass it on to God knows who up ahead. It’s too dangerous.”
They let them pass. I think about the town through which we have just driven: Mud-brick buildings surrounded by a mud wall; a few boys hawking cigarettes on the side of the road; a three-sided shack with a palm branch roof in which a man and a boy sat sprawled on the ground. Waiting for a bus? Collecting information?
It seemed normal until a boy ran up beside us yelling “gas, gas, gas,” a phrase used to indicate an airborne poison. That made the hair on the back of my neck stand up, and it stayed up when a teenager ran by waving a Marine’s helmet. Marines do not give up their gear, especially their helmet. It gave me shivers to think of the rest of that story.
I look across the field. On the other side is a road parallel to ours. Why didn’t the cars behind us just detour over one block? I see a pickup truck with a covered bed reduce its speed. A man slips off the tailgate and disappears into the field. A few hundred feet further along the road, another man does the same.
“Did anybody see those men exit that truck?” I ask the XO as he walks by to eyeball the convoy.
“Stay in your own lane, Chaplain. We’ve got people whose job it is to see those things.”
We wait. We wait a long time. Not much talk passes between us in our truck. It is getting dark. Ahead of us on the road we see flashes of light. Ordnance exploding. A battle has started.
Word is passed down the line of vehicles. “Everyone, go to condition one, outboard.” That means point your weapon outside the truck and put a round in the chamber. Since I don’t have a gun, I eye everyone in the truck as they fumble with theirs. One guy pulls his firearm out of the holster and dangles it by its butt between his thumb and forefinger. His hand is shaking. Wonderful, I’m going to get shot by a dentist whose only training was to fire a 9 mil once for familiarization and never again. I slip off the bench and on to the floor to make room for the shooters. Then I slide down even further to keep from being a target.
About that time, RP3 sticks his head in the vehicle. Since he is one of five shooters with a longer-range weapon, he has gotten out to select a better defensive position by the side of the road. “Oh good, you’re on the floor. Stay there until I come back,” he orders. We are all silent.
Word is passed again. “Stow your weapons and get on the floor of the vehicle. If the Republican Guard gets past the unit ahead, they will hit us next.”
We wait. Again, word is passed. This time from the CO. “Tell the chaplain to pray. That’s all we’ve got.”
Great. Scare the crap out of everyone by pointing out how unable we are to defend ourselves. Since I cannot get out of the truck, I pray, briefly, with those around me. Choppers. The sound of the rotors grows as they near us. Low to the ground, they sweep to the flag end of our convoy. Then they turn around and fly straight toward the fight. They are well-armed. Someone asks quietly, “What happens if we get hit? There is no hospital to take care of us.”
We wait. It’s dark. The young man next to me on the floor whispers, “Chaplain, what day is today?”
“Sunday.” The command canceled church service because we were too busy.
“No, I mean the date. What is today’s date?”
“The 6th of April.”
“I think my baby was born today.”
“Congratulations.” Smiling in the darkness, I move an inch closer to him. God wouldn’t let a new dad die on the day his child is born, would He?
We wait, collectively holding our breaths. It is so dark we cannot see each other. Lying on the hard metal floor of the truck, I put my hands over my face. Whatever is going to get us, I don’t want to see it coming. “Dear God, thank you for my life. Watch over my family and friends. I wish I could have lived to marry Ken.” A hymn floats into my head. It is not my favorite, just one I know. Now thank we all our God with hearts and hands and voices; Who wondrous things hath done in Whom this world rejoices; Who from our mother’s arms has led us on our way, with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today. In the darkness, I fall asleep. When I awaken, we are inching forward.
Word is passed. “We will drive through the battle zone. Look or don’t look. The choice is yours.”
There is something in my eye. It will never go away.
This brief tutorial is dedicated to my former neighbor and longtime adversary Spike who was a particularly foul duck. A water fowl with a broad blunt bill, short legs, webbed feet and a waddling gate. A female duck is a hen. A male duck is a drake. A duck has waterproof feathers. A tiny gland near the tail produces oil which the duck uses to coat it’s feathers. Ducks in the water are referred to as rafts or paddlings. Ducks in flight are skeins or teams. Ducks on the ground are waddlings or flocks. By way of introduction I am Cdr. Laura Benders cousin Barbara Flock and yes that is my real name. Thanks for reading my first ever blog post.
The commute to Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune was short, but once inside, I had five miles of live ordinance range to cross to French Creek, home of the 2nd Medical Battalion. Along the way I passed the gas chamber, where twice a year we donned masks in a toxic environment to ensure readiness. When I parked in my designated space, my car sat nose to nose with an armored personnel carrier captured during the Gulf War, now displayed in front of our headquarters building. Every part of my daily journey provided a reminder we were in the warfighting business.
As chaplain, my job was to ensure the warfighters were ready to do their jobs. In early January 2003, amid rumors of war, I visited the Commanding Officer for guidance. A straight talking, honorable man with a great sense of humor, he got right to the point.
“If the Iraqis deploy a chemical or biological agent anywhere in theater, our unit will provide medical care for the Marines exposed to it, thereby contaminating us.” He looked right in my eyes. “Anyone exposed to such an agent could not return to the US if doing so would jeopardize the health of those back home. Chaplain, I am telling you this because it will be your job to help our personnel understand and cope with this reality should it occur.”
“So, Sir, we would stay in theater until we are no longer contagious, or we’re dead?”
“Yes. I don’t know how one gets prepared for that, but just do it. Oh, and here, I made you some foo-foo coffee. What do you think of this flavor?”
“It’s better than your tasking, Sir.”
With the holiday leave behind us, and an uncertain timeframe for deployment, our unit got right to work. Every shop in 2nd Medical BN, from admin to transportation, prepared their area of responsibility to go mobile. For the Command Religious program, this meant filling our allotted containers with the items on the inspectable packing list: Bibles, Missalettes, kippahs, Korans, altar cloths—all the things necessary to supply a variety of faith groups for worship. We also packed board games and cards.
After work each day, I focused on getting myself ready. A natural list maker, I started there. Personal items to pack, mail, bills, important papers, funeral, close up the house – I tried to think of everything. I began with what, as a clergywoman, I knew best, funeral planning. I gathered my dress blues, white alb and woven stole and drove to the dry cleaners.
“Special occasion, Chaplain?”
“I’m deploying soon. To Iraq. For the war.”
The dry cleaner took my uniform and robe, tagged them, and walked to the back. When she returned, I handed her my stole. “You didn’t get this one.”
“Looks like you’ve worn that a lot. The woven pattern is beautiful.”
“It’s my favorite.”
“Lots of parishioners hugged you on the way out of church while you wore it, didn’t they?”
I took a deep breath. “Yes, many.”
“If this is what you are choosing for your burial, how about we not clean it? Let’s leave all those hugs right where they are.”
I took it home and hung it in the closet, where I would soon hang my cleaned burial clothes. Then I attached a bag to the hanger. In it, I placed a list of the hymns and scripture readings for the service and a copy of my resume to help whoever would officiate. I also enclosed a handful of photos to display in case it needed to be a closed casket.
At the end of the week, my boyfriend, Ken, arrived from Michigan to help.
“Where’s your gear list? I’ll get started on that.” A Naval reservist, he knew the drill.
I showed him the pile of stuff I had been issued. “If it isn’t here, they didn’t have any more. I don’t know what to do about that.”
“I’ll check military surplus stores while you’re at work.” He picked up a pair of pants. “Men’s XL. These won’t fit you.”
“That’s all they had left at supply.”
“Go try them on, and tomorrow I’ll take them in for you.”
We spent the next two weeks alternating between dating and preparing for war.
“It should be me going, not you. What kind of country sends a middle-aged woman to fight the enemy?”
“I’m a New Yorker. I have an attitude and I know how to use it.”
“Have you ever fired a gun?”
“I’m a non-combatant. I’m not permitted to use a gun.”
“This weekend I’m taking you to the range. You need to be familiar with a weapon, if for no other reason than to know how to unload one. Or if things get ugly and you decide to forgo your non-combatant status, you could.”
The following week, I went for my pre-deployment medical screening. I failed it. The lump on my breast that medical had been monitoring for two years had gotten larger. The doctor said based on the quick growth; it was probably cancerous. In his opinion, I needed to address the issue immediately. I told him the medical unit needed a chaplain. Against his advice, I presented the findings to my CO. “If we are likely to die from chemical or biological agents, what difference would it make if I have breast cancer?”
With a promise to see the doctor as soon as I was back in the US, the CO signed off on my screening. Then he made us coffee.
“How you doing with all of this?” He leaned back in his chair and took a sip.
“About as good as you are.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
A few days later I came home from work with news. “15 February.”
“I have news, too. My reserve unit is being activated that same week. Sigonella, Italy.”
“Can you stay until I leave?”
“It’ll be tight, but yes.”
At 0300 the day after Valentine’s Day, Ken made breakfast while I got ready. For a few minutes, we shared a meal like people who could do this together every morning. Then I took a slow walk through my house, looking not at my belongings, but at who I was and wondering who I would be if I returned. Don’t think. Just do. Don’t think. The words propelled me back toward the front door.
“I’ll stop back here after you leave and make sure everything is closed up correctly. Don’t worry. I’ve got this.” Ken opened the door for me and I walked out into the darkness.
Before the sun rose, we were on the base. Soon, others from my unit arrived. Most formed tight circles of family and friends on the parade field. Near us, a young mother buried her tear-streaked face into the soft yellow blanket wrapped around her infant as she wept. Her young husband’s eyes were wet as he stared. He would soon care for their child alone. Across the way, siblings teased their deploying brother as proud but worried parents tried to look cheerful. Several couples stood locked in embraces, swaying as if to music. My assistant kissed his wife’s pregnant belly. He swept his toddler into his arms to hold him close.
A few people had no one to lament their departure. One, a Chief, walked by on his way to check on the buses.
“Are you here by yourself, Chief?”
“Don’t worry about me, Chaplain. I said my goodbyes at home. I hate these public spectacles.”
Ken shook his head. “He’s lying. He looked down when he answered. Sad, he has no one to see him off.”
“If it weren’t for you, I’d be alone, too.”
“But you’re not.” He held me. For a moment, I closed my eyes to capture his embrace. Then I looked into his eyes.
“Will we ever see each other again? I’m going to Iraq. You’re going to Sigonella. We don’t even have each other’s deployment address.”
“You have my Leatherman. Don’t worry. I’ll find you. I want it back.” Ken paused. “The buses are here.”
The chief gave the fifteen-minute warning. Around us, the small circles got smaller as families said last goodbyes. Too soon, the order came for our unit to muster in rows and for family and friends to cross to the other side of the street. I could hardly breathe as I complied. Among the crowd of faces trying to be remembered smiling, I found Ken, and he found me. Suddenly, a little girl broke away and ran for her father in the formation.
“Daddy, don’t go.”
If we weren’t crying before, we all were now. Once the cherub was back with her mother, we marched to the buses.
As we did, the crowd sobbing at the curb raised flags and signs in a final salute. The last people we saw as we pulled away were a mother and her two sons running alongside, waving all the way to the intersection. I passed a box of tissues around the bus. On the way to the armory, our driver started a movie. I don’t think anyone actually saw it.
The stop at the armory lasted several hours. Then a bus broke down. At 1215, with bag lunches on our laps, we finally exited Camp Lejeune for the drive along Freedom Way. Familiar, now unreachable, sights passed like a dream: The K-Mart that never carried what I needed, the place I bought my blue couch, China Garden with their great fish soup, the Swansboro Historic District, home to the Elvis-themed café, and Flying Bridge Restaurant where just last night Ken and I ate lots of oysters. We arrived at Cherry Point for our flight in less than an hour and lined up to pass seabags and ALICE packs from the buses to the loading area. We sat for two hours on the hangar floor, waiting for scales to arrive. I weighed in at 152 lbs. without gear and 244 lbs. wearing it.
At 1800, I gathered those who wanted to share in worship for a short devotional service. Soon after, a two-story 747 arrived, and we boarded. The flight crew had decorated the cabins with red, white and blue crepe paper, small flags and handmade patriotic posters wishing us well. Once over the Atlantic, they tenderly served us a good, hot meal, cheesecake and decaf. As the trays were cleared, a flight attendant made an announcement: She would be coming through the cabins with paper, envelopes and pens for us to write a letter home, in case we thought of what we should have said after we left or just had one more thing to say. She would collect them in the morning and would be pleased to mail them at her expense back in the US.
Just before we nodded off for a much-needed rest, the pilot addressed his passengers: “You might have noticed a bit of special treatment from the flight attendants. Unlike civilian flights for which our crew is scheduled, flying you to war is a job for volunteers only. Everyone working this flight is here because we want to be. We know the job you are about to do will be difficult, and this is our way of thanking and honoring you for your service and your commitment. Me? I volunteered to be your pilot because I took this same flight in 1968, only mine landed in Vietnam. So, get some sleep. You’ll need it.”
Settling into my seat to take the pilot’s advice, his words filled my drowsy mind. The same flight. I guess that’s right. The journey between home and war is the same flight, no matter the destination or the generation. Its way is marked by endless preparation, the kindness of strangers, the care and help of friends, the sacrifice of naivete and the myriad losses of relationships and opportunities. We say goodbye to all we know, wondering if we will return, wondering, if we do, who we might be then.
At 0615 I stood facing the open gym door at the University of Windsor, Ontario. The affixed sign announced in bright red marker “Moving One Step Beyond Your Fear.” I took a deep breath and propelled myself toward the group of people nervously chatting in the center of the large room.
The Annual Phoenix Performing Arts Ministry Conference attracted a lot of eccentric people with myriad talents. Most worked in youth ministry or at parochial schools across the nation. Priests, monks, nuns, rabbis, ministers and lay educators made up the bulk of attendees. For one relaxing week each year, away from the judgmental eyes of our congregations, we explored the arts under the guise of “enhancing our skills for youth ministry.” Classes included storytelling, clowning, puppetry, dance, magic, group building games, juggling, music and anything else that seemed fun. I taught the tightrope class. But all that paled compared to the one about to begin.
In true artsy fashion, the 0630 class began at 0640. Father Bob Kloos of the Cleveland Diocese gathered us in a horseshoe. He stood at the opening. Near his feet was a lit candle. He picked up a barbeque-tool-sized metal rod by its wooden handle and checked the other end to make sure the white gauze ball wrapped around it remained secure. Then he slipped the ball end into a metal can with a narrow opening, pulled it out slowly and flicked the rod behind him to remove excess moisture. No one spoke as he moved the rod toward the candle. In an instant, the ball ignited, sending a flame almost two feet into the air. As he held the rod straight up in his right hand, he reached into the fire with the fingers of his left. He wiggled them for us to see the flames clinging to the tips, then made a fist. The flames disappeared. Next, he held out his left hand. Gently, he did a touch and go on his palm with the ball. Fire danced for a moment on its surface before he rolled his fingers one by one to cover it. Then he turned his hand over to make sure it was out. Father Bob smiled as we stood awestruck. Bracing his feet fore and aft, he leaned his head back, held his breath, stuck out his tongue and repeated the touch and go there. A small flame flickered until he retracted his tongue to extinguish it. Then, for effect, he swung the flaming implement in an arc behind him. The swoosh of fire cut through the air. In one motion he pulled it forward and up, then turning the torch downward, plunged the ball into his open mouth and closed his lips around it, careful not to touch the heated metal rod. In a moment, the flame disappeared and a whiff of smoke curled through his smile as he removed the torch and raised his head.
“That’s how you do it. And by the end of the week, if you choose to, you’ll do it, too.”
Several people around me headed for the door.
“See you folks at breakfast,” he called after them.
Father Bob divided those remaining into groups of six. A few experienced fire-eaters stepped forward to claim their half dozen, each taking a spot in a different corner of the room. I ended up in the priest’s group.
“Eating fire is really cool, but that is not the sole purpose of our class. We are also here to learn to address the things that frighten us. You just watched me go through fire tricks of increasing difficulty. If I handed you the torch and told you to eat the fireball right now, who would do it?”
No one volunteered.
“The things we fear are like that. If we focus only on the end game, the most difficult part, it will overwhelm us to the point of inaction. But if we break the challenge into manageable steps, we will probably meet it.” Father Bob wet the torch and touched it to the candle. He reached inside the flame, squeezed the ball with his fingers and displayed the flickering tips. “Who wants to be first?”
Two days later, on my 28th birthday, I swallowed the torch. The second-degree burn on the roof of my mouth didn’t hurt until I drank orange juice later that morning. Father Bob called the burn a badge of courage.
“Will I get a burn every time I eat fire?”
“You think I’m a masochist? Of course not. Bumps, bruises, or in this case, burns happen when you do anything difficult for the first time. You are unsure, so you hesitate. You are inexperienced, so your technique is less than optimal. With practice, you will learn to do it well and safely. Then that badge of courage turns into something else.”
“A badge of stupidity, because you knew better, but chose not to do it.”
By week’s end, I mastered Dragon’s Breath, a trick in which one sets one’s entire mouth on fire and lights another torch from the flame. And I no longer got burned.
My next trick was to let my congregation know what I had learned without getting a different type of burn. Since they had approved the conference for continuing education purposes and had no experience with a fire-eating pastor, they responded with amusement.
“Pastor Laura, you will be the entertainment for the senior citizen luncheon next Wednesday, so get your torches ready. We want to see this.”
For a first performance, it went well. Except for the fire alarm, which went off soon after I lit the torch.
“Better do your thing before the fire department arrives,” an octogenarian advised. Since the station was only a block away, three guys in turnout gear caught the finale.
It did not take long for word to get out on the youth ministry circuit about the local fire-eater. I performed for retreats, youth gatherings, even the district conference. The local Sweet Adaline Choral group even convinced me to perform for their circus themed spring concert, although the bright red tights trimmed in silver put me way out of my comfort zone.
“We are in costume. You must be, too,” the parishioner who volunteered me said. She neglected to divulge that she had invited half the congregation. The teasing continued for a week.
When I interviewed a few years later to be the senior pastor of a church twelve miles away, they already knew about my “hobby.” They also didn’t care about the tightrope I rigged in the front yard of the parsonage. We had the best youth group in the area and that brought many new members to the church.
One afternoon I received a phone call from one of those new members. “My daughter is in 2nd grade. She told her class, ‘My minister eats fire, and yours doesn’t.’ The kids didn’t believe her and she came home crying. Would you be willing to do it for her class?” The following week a group of 2nd graders and their families filed into our sanctuary for the field trip to see Emmy’s minister eat fire.
In 1994, the bishop sent me to a church in Connecticut to grow it like I had done in Wappingers Falls. I don’t think he knew what that meant. Shortly after I arrived, a reporter from the New Haven Register contacted me to do the obligatory “new pastor” interview that gets used as fill for the middle of Section 2, next to the worship service announcements. During our meeting, he asked if I had any hobbies. He called the next day to say his editor wanted him to return to take a picture of the “fire eating minister.”
I agreed. If it accompanied the article, maybe people would read about our church and the opportunities for worship and fellowship we provided. He posed me in front of a print of Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ. In order to get a better shot, I had to hold the pose longer than I knew I should, and I got a badge of stupidity for my effort.
The next morning, the phone interrupted me as I dressed.
“Is this the fire-eating minister?”
“Spike, you are not funny. I am getting ready for a funeral. What do you want?” Spike was the chair of my personnel committee. He also had a wicked sense of humor.
“This is not Spike, whoever that is. This is W___ and you are on the air.”
“Whoever you are, how do you know I eat fire?”
The announce continued, “Folks, this is great. She doesn’t know yet. Pastor Bender, you are on the cover of the New Haven Register; you and Jesus, and a tall flame coming out of your mouth.”
On the way to the funeral, I stopped at a gas station to buy a paper. There, above the fold, was the photograph with the caption “Holy Smoke.”
“Holy shit!” I got back in the car with several copies in my hand. At the funeral home, I could see another one sitting under the deceased’s son’s chair.
When the service concluded, he came up to me with the newspaper. “Will you please sign this? My Dad would think it really cool to have been eulogized by a fire-eating minister.”
The Associated Press picked up the story. The next morning my phone began ringing and didn’t stop for two weeks. Radio stations across the country called for interviews, a few immediately. Others made appointments to call back for specific times. MSNBC was one of those. They made an appointment, but called back a few hours later to ask if I would mind switching times.
“Fine with me.” This was an odd amusement. I didn’t care.
“Good, because your slot was the only one Frank Sinatra could make. He’ll be glad you were willing to change.” Amusement took a turn for the surreal.
A parishioner on a business trip in Korea called his wife. “What is going on at church? Armed Forces Radio announced that the new minister of Great Hill Church in Connecticut ends every service by blowing fire over the heads of her parishioners.”
She couldn’t wait to tell me and could barely control her laughter as she did. “I told him not to believe everything he hears.”
The local Episcopal priest called next. “Paul Harvey talked about you on today’s broadcast.”
“What did he say?”
“You probably don’t want to know.” I agreed and thanked him for the heads-up.
A few radio stations wanted me to eat fire on the air. That’s like mime on the radio. I refused those silly requests. One station in California pulled it off in jest, though, and it was funny. It aired on the San Francisco “Drive by the Bay” morning show. A friend who lived in the area recorded it for me.
One morning I received a call from an administrator at Yale Divinity School. “We at Yale have been trying to get Jesus on the cover of the newspaper since 1701 and you’ve accomplished it. Brava!”
Another call came from the Activity Director of a nursing home. “My seniors saw your photo in the paper and have been bugging me all week to call you. They want me to invite you here so they can see a young woman eat fire.”
“I’m not that young.”
“They are all in their nineties.”
“Okay, I’m young and I’m game. When do you want me there?”
The first thing I noticed when I entered the lounge area where the seniors were waiting was the sprinkler system. “I’m not sure I should do this. If I set off the sprinkler, you’ll get wet.”
The Director shrugged her shoulders.
A gentleman sitting in a wheelchair to my left spoke on behalf of the group. “Listen, honey, we didn’t get to be this old by worrying about a little water. Just do the trick.”
As I set up my gear, he spoke again. “We ain’t gonna be able to see it done from that high up. Can you do it on your knees?”
Although I had never tried that, I agreed. At least I would be farther from the sprinklers. Around me, twenty wheelchairs formed a tight circle as their occupants leaned forward to peer down my throat. Thankfully, the only thing that doused the fire was my spit.
A woman who hosted a television show at a Hartford, CT contacted me. Would I give an interview and then eat fire on her program? I agreed, but on the drive north from my church, I had misgivings. If she wasn’t as nice as she seemed, she could make me look quite foolish, and this interview was local enough for my parishioners to see.
For forty-five minutes, the interviewer, who turned out to be a devout Jew asked me questions: What are the educational requirements for United Methodist Clergy? What college and seminary did you attend? Tell me about the ordination process. How are clergy assigned to their churches? Tell me about your current congregation. All the questions presented me as an educated professional. She ended with, “I understand you have a unique hobby which has served you well, especially in youth ministry. Would you mind showing our audience?” The interview made my parishioners proud.
* * *
Shortly before I turned forty, I left parish ministry and join the Navy. Report time was 1700 at Naval Base Newport, Rhode Island. At 1630 I stood in front of the open door of King Hall. Inside I could see a group of clergy nervously chatting. First step: walk through the door. Second step: Introduce yourself. Third step: Follow the directions given to you. Don’t think about the enormity of this life decision. That would be overwhelming. Just take the next step.
In true Marine fashion, Gunnery Sergeant Johnson arrived at 1645. At exactly 1700 he shouted, “I am a United States Marine. My job is to kill people. Your job is to take care of me. If that bothers you, now is the time to leave.”
No one moved. “Alrighty, let’s get you signed in.”
A few weeks later, the Course Director at the Chaplains School stopped me in the passageway. “I hear you are a fire-eater. I’ve arranged for you to do it for a gathering of the Naval Academy Prep School students on Sunday. You have your gear with you?”
“My torches are in the trunk of my car so I don’t have to explain them to Gunny during room inspection.”
“Good planning. You just might make in the Navy.”
Note to self: Never tell a secret to another chaplain.
A few years later, as I was checking in to my second duty-station, my sponsor informed me our CO required all his officers to give him a bio, including both personal and professional details, for his review. Since the CO was about to retire, I figured this was a formality. He would never read it. So, before I hit print, I added “Hobbies: Genealogy, fire-eating and cross stitch.”
Early the next morning I stood in front of the CO’s desk explaining what this “fire-eating thing” was.
When I finished, he smiled. “My grandchildren would love to see this. Would you do it at my retirement party?”
Every officer in our command attended the shindig at the CO’s house. Many senior officers from around the base attended, as well. When it was time, they pressed into one side of the living room to give me space to “entertain the children.” After lighting my torch for the first trick, a voice from the crowd called, “Hey Laura, what fuel do you use?”
I gave my standard answer. “Fire-eating is dangerous. I don’t want you to try this on your own. If I told you what fuel I use, I’d have to kill you.” Hearing no other comment, I completed my routine.
Afterward, General Mike Lehnert came over to tell me how cool he thought it was. “Sorry I asked about the fuel in front of the kids. So, what do you use?”
“Sir, I can’t tell you. The real danger is not burning yourself but setting your lungs on fire. Without training, you could kill yourself. I promised my instructor I’d never to tell anyone.”
“Good on you, chaplain.”
And that is how I survived threatening to kill a Marine Brigadier General.
It would have been fine if the issue stopped there, but it didn’t. My new CO called me into his office. “I was at a meeting with General Lehnert. He recognized me as your CO. Then he told this story:
Chaplain Bender was in Guantanamo Bay when I was Commander of the Joint Task Force in charge of the terrorist detention camp. If I had known then she was a fire-eater, I would have asked her to meet every plane full of detainees and eat fire in front of them. Then I could have said, ‘This is what my female chaplain can do. You still want to take on my Marines?’”
My CO could barely control his laughter as he spoke. I couldn’t control my grin. I’d been playing with fire for years, but really, it had been playing with me. In a career filled with helping others through sadness, pain and difficulty, it had been the rare amusement that had helped me move one step beyond it all and connect with my quirky side. Some days that is enough.
The offices of the World Trade Center Tribute Center occupied an upper floor in a building across from Ground Zero. When I arrived, Lee and Jen met me at the door. A retired career firefighter, Lee lost one of his two firefighter sons in the towers on 9/11. Jen, a local resident, had volunteered soon after, assisting those awaiting news of their loved ones’ fate. A well-organized and gracious force-for-good, her work blossomed into the 9/11 Families Association, and together with Lee, they founded Tribute. After exchanging hugs, we walked to the conference room to chat.
“Come see the progress made on the site since you were last here.” Lee moved to the large window overlooking Ground Zero and pointed toward the vast construction area. I joined him, fascinated by the view below. “They’ve been building on the west side consistently; the foundation is finally above ground level. Closer to us on the east side, there are still a few damaged structures to raze. Once those are removed, construction can begin there, too.”
“That backhoe is enormous; it should be able to remove those sections of building easily.”
“Yes, but they have to dig cautiously. We are still finding human remains.”
“From eight years ago?”
“Yes, and when we find them, we take them to a repository at Arthur Kill on Staten Island for DNA sampling and relative notification.”
Jen leaned toward the window and pointed. “That muddy area is giving up more than just remains. In order to stabilize it, they’ve had to dig deeper than for the initial construction in the 70s. A few weeks ago they found the wooden sewer pipes built by the Dutch in the early 1700s. More recently they found a sailing ship that sank before the land had been extended beyond the original shoreline. Analysis of the wood showed that it had been built in the mid-1700s near Philadelphia.”
“A ship? Under the towers? That piece of earth has incredible stories to tell, from every generation that called this place home.”
“That reminds me. I have something for you.” Lee scooted over to his office and back. “Put out your hand.”
I did as he asked, and Lee placed a smooth stone in my palm.
“This is from the stream running under the towers. They found it while excavating. It’s likely been running there since your ancestors lived in New Amsterdam. I thought you might like it.”
I rubbed it. “I would never have expected a stream of living water to be flowing underground in that place. Just think what this stone has witnessed. Thank you, Lee.”
“That reminds me what I need to ask you,” Jen said as she motioned for us to sit. “The steel from the towers has become a treasured item. I know we got a large piece to cut up for the crew’s plank-owner plaques, but is there anything else you would like for the ship that could be made from the steel? It’s being regulated now to keep it from becoming an eBay hot-sell item, so we’d have to get it for you.”
“Is it possible to make religious symbols for the ship’s chapel? I’d love to see a cross, a Star of David and a crescent hanging on the bulkhead, so when the crew came to worship, they would have a tangible reminder of what matters, a silent memorial of all for which they sacrifice and serve.”
Jen looked over at Lee. He nodded. “We can do that.”
On my next visit to New York City, the symbols were ready. Lee unpacked them one by one and laid them on the table. “A Muslim artist forged the Star of David and the crescent, and one of our fire fighters made the cross. Think these will work?”
“They are perfect.” I reached for the Star. “And very heavy. It will be fun getting them back on a commercial flight.”
“You’ve got muscles, you can do it.” Jen laughed.
“I don’t think the carrying part will be the biggest problem. TSA is going to love this challenge.”
Lee and Jen both laughed.
“Don’t worry. All will go well.” I could always count on Jen for a positive word.
I arrived at LaGuardia Airport well ahead of my flight. After the ticket counter, my next stop was the baggage inspection area.
“You can just leave that here.” The TSA agent must have said that phrase thousands of times each shift.
“Thank you, but I think I should stay.”
The agent lifted my small but heavy bag onto the conveyor. When it reached the x-ray, the belt stopped, reversed, and then moved forward before stopping again. The woman running the machine called over the man loading the bags. After a quick conversation, they pulled mine out and motioned for me to meet them in the inspection area.
“We have to look inside your bag. Is there anything you want to tell us about the contents? You’ve got some oddly shaped, very dense metal in there. What is that?”
“It’s steel from the World Trade Center.”
“Wait, a minute.” Soon three other agents appeared around the table.
I pulled out my military ID. “I am the chaplain on that new ship, USS New York.”
“The one they are building with steel from the towers?”
“Yes. 7 ½ tons of it is in the bow stem. And there is more in my bag. When you open it, you will see religious symbols forged from the steel. They are for the chapel.”
The agent carefully unzipped the suitcase. Inside were three heavy paper bags, each holding a piece of steel. She lifted out the first and removed it from its cover. Finding a cross, she gently placed it on the table. For a moment, we stood in silence.
“May we see the others?”
She unwrapped the Star of David, followed by the crescent, and placed them on the table next to the cross.
One of the three agents, who had walked over to support the inspection, cleared his throat. “Isn’t that a Muslim symbol? Why would you put this on the ship?”
“Because some of those murdered in the World Trade Center were Muslims.”
“You mean Muslims killed their own people?”
“Yes, they did. Our ship’s motto is ‘Never Forget’ and these three symbols will help us remember.”
One by one, the agents placed their hands on the steel, a sacred moment for all.
“You are carrying precious cargo. I’ll mark it special handling so it gets to its destination safely.” The agent wrapped up the symbols, placed them into the suitcase, and after zipping it closed, she attached a sticker to its surface. Jen was right. All did go well, all the way to the ship.
* * * *
In November 2009, USS New York arrived in Manhattan and docked at Pier 88, a cruise ship terminal across from the Intrepid. The next morning, we began providing ship tours for the thousands of New Yorkers lined up for blocks along West Side Highway.
“Chaplain, we have a problem. We are only two hours into the tours and already we are finding memorial stuff being hidden around the ship. These people are slipping funeral cards, fire department patches, and God knows what else into crevices and behind pipes.” The bosun shifted from foot to foot, waiting for me to help.
“Why are you telling me?
“You’re the commissioning coordinator and a New Yorker. You have to know what to do with these people.”
“Ah, a miracle. Aye. I’ll get right on that.”
“And we have another problem.”
“Oh, two miracles. If I can pull off both, maybe the Catholics will make me a saint. What’s the other one?”
“People are getting testy because they thought they would be able to touch the steel in the ship, but the only way to do that is to float them in a small boat to the bow so they can place their hands on the stem. We can’t do that.”
“Okay, give me a minute, I’ll see what I can do.” I wandered off to find RP1 Eddie Garrett, my talented assistant.
“You up for some miracle work?”
RP1 and I spent the next half hour setting up the portable altar at the entrance to the Marine Corps’ static displays of weapons, vehicles and gear. Over the plastic altar’s surface, we placed a white cloth and on it, the three religious symbols which, in predictable Navy fashion, had not yet been affixed to the bulkhead in the chapel. Within minutes, a crowd formed.
“Is this WTC steel?” a woman asked? I nodded. She placed her hand on the cross for a moment, closed her eyes and blessed herself. Seeing her, others did the same. Several others confidently touched the star, but only a few made contact with the crescent, and those mostly with just a fingertip. It was as if they were wrestling with its presence on a ship that memorialized the events of September 11th.
When the display seemed to manage itself, RP1 and I headed to the chow hall for lunch. Upon our return, we found our symbols had collected a few companions. A fire department had left steel in the shape of the firefighter’s Maltese cross, with two bars representing the towers. Another framed bar, with police shields pinned around it, had been left by the Midtown South Detective Squad.
Throughout the afternoon, other items joined the steel: Prayer cards with names of the dead, personal notes and patches from Police, Fire, Port Authority and EMS. People left photos, poppies, books, and even a red, white and blue live flower arrangement. Covers, pins, collar devices and other items belonging to or symbolizing the deceased were also placed on the altar.
By day two, it was obvious the First Responders and 9/11 Families had passed word things could be left on the ship, because items arrived that required more planning: Framed photos and artwork, small statues, articles of unit clothing that had belonged to the deceased, even two six-foot-wide displays of patches representing all the fire companies. We set up a second table, then a third.
One afternoon a firetruck double-parked on West Side Highway. Its occupants ran into the ship’s vehicle deck in turnout gear, stood in front of the altar in a circle with their arms around each other’s shoulders, and cried together for ten minutes. Then they retrieved their truck and went back to work.
Another afternoon, three fire fighters stopped by to present a statue on behalf of the SSGT Chris Engeldrum FDNY VFW Post #12033. That post is unique because its members must not only be current military or veterans but also active or veteran New York City fire fighters. Since they had called ahead, RP1 Garrett and I met them on the pier in front of the bow stem as they had requested so they could take a photo with the ship. Two gentlemen held the heavy statute while the other removed the velvet bag they had placed over it.
The statue’s base was wooden, and each of its four sides had engraved plates bearing the names of members of their VFW who had lost their lives in combat. Instead of giving their military ranks, they were listed simply as FF and their name. Fire Fighter. Above the names on the front side, the VFW had inscribed these words: To the Crew of USS NEW YORK (LPD 21) In Glorious Memory Of The NEW YORK CITY FIREFIGHTERS Who Have Made The Ultimate Sacrifice While In Defense Of Our Great Nation. Extending upwards from the base was an expertly cut and etched piece of WTC steel in the form of a battle cross with the rifle pointing downward and an FDNY helmet on the top. Where the rifle barrel met the base, four items had been affixed.
“What are these pieces at the foot of the cross?” I leaned in to see better.
“This is a piece of cement. That might seem a common thing, but most of the cement was pulverized. This is one of the bigger pieces we found.” It was only 4 inches wide. “This piece is a bolt that held the steel girders together. And you see the one that looks melted? That’s from a firetruck. One of our guys was driving south toward the Trade Center along West Side Highway. As he neared the towers, it got too smokey to see, so he radioed dispatch to help him find his way. Dispatch asked him where he thought he was and he told her, ‘On West Side.’ She responded, ‘You can’t be there. That section is gone. The tower just fell on it.’ No one heard from him again. The truck was found 100 days later, 60 feet below ground where it had melted because of the fire raging under the surface. This is a piece of the truck.”I placed my hand on it gently. “I’m sorry about your friend.” We stood in silence for a moment. Then I moved my hand to the last piece. “What is this one with the rivets?”
“A piece of one of the planes.”
The hair stood up on the back of my neck. I lifted my hand like I had just been bitten. “Isn’t this evidence?”
“Nah, they got lots of it. It was just lying around in bits and chunks.”
“How about I find the Commanding Officer so you can present this to him properly?”
“That would be good.” They followed me into the ship carrying with them the most disconcerting thing ever brought onboard.
On the last day for tours, a man entered the ship with his three young sons. He stood near the large shrine that had formed over the week, shifting from foot to foot. He had something in a bag under his arm.
“He doesn’t look right.” RP1 Garrett, who had done combat tours in Al Nasiriya, Fallujah and hotspots in Afghanistan, always kept a keen watch for anything suspicious. He walked directly to the man. “Can I help you with something?”
“I, um, I have this thing I found in the rubble at Ground Zero. I didn’t know what to do with it, so it’s been in my locker at the fire station for, um, eight years. I think I’d like to leave it here.”
Praying it was not a body part, I moved closer to the man. “Are these your boys?”
“Yes. I want them to see the ship, but maybe I want them to see what I brought, too.”
“What have you got there?”
He reached in the bag to pull out a triangularly folded piece of cloth. “I found this in part of a file cabinet that must have blown out a window. It was folded then, and I’ve never undone it.”
“A flag is a wonderful thing to show your boys. Would you like me to help you?”
“It still smells like Ground Zero.”
“That’s okay. If we open it and let fresh air touch it, that will slowly clear away.”
I held the loose end as the man turned it again and again. Soon we had a length of cloth between us.
“I think this is a New York State flag. Look boys, look what your dad found.” As we continued to unfold it, his sons took hold, too. We stretched it up and out like a flag should hang. The man took a long look and breathed deeply. “It’s all here. It’s complete. It survived.”
Around the gentleman and his three sons, born post-9/11, a crowd formed. Cameras caught the moment, then together we refolded the flag. The children placed it on the altar, then taking their dad’s hands, pulled him toward all the cool stuff the Marines had on display.
During USS New York’s visit to New York City, 80,000 people toured our ship.
They came to remember and honor those they lost on September 11th, 2001.
They came to see and honor who they had become in the aftermath.