2003 Anne Horton Writing Award
It was a nice day, hot, as summer days should be. I walked around the encampment, staying near the "Big 'Lent" and enjoying the warm sun and total freedom from schoolwork that comes with such beautiful days. It was still early in the morning, and, as usual, I had nothing to do. I looked up at the clear blue sky and wondered where my friends were.
The year was 1993; I was eight years old. The movie Aladdin had just come out, and I had seen pictures of the big blue "Genie" all over the city. My life was as simple and perfect as any child could hope for it to be, but there was one event which had changed me more than I knew at the time. It had happened the night before, and I returned to the scene that morning, drawn irresistibly by a need to resolve the matter.
The encampment, or "camp," as we usually called it, was quite similar to a trailer park, with the exception that we were set up right in the middle of a city in overcrowded Italy. At its center was the "Big Tent," a large blue-and-white striped tent capable of seating over two thousand people. At night, we used the tent for church meetings, but during the day it was generally empty, which made it the ideal spot for my friends and me to play. The calm and quiet that could be found in this enormous tent also made it my secret corner, a place where I could go when the troubles of becoming a young adult were too much to bear. My house, the only other place where I could find tranquility, was thirty yards away from this tent, but my house did not have a comforting appeal today.
The memory that was bothering me, confusing me, was tied to a spot right near my house, and it was there that I had to go to sort things out.
My house was a small trailer, set beneath a street that led into the upper half of the city. Beside the trailer was a very shallow, yellow, swimming pool that we had made using some spare plastic, which no longer had any other use, and poles from our tent. The poles were stacked on top of each other like the logs of a cabin and tied together with rope. We had spread the plastic over the top of them and pushed it down on the inside to form a tub that we could fill with water and play in. The water wasn't deep enough to swim in, but we didn't mind. All we cared about was being able to slide around and splash each other on hot days. We had used the pool a few days before to play games for my little brother's birthday, but today it was empty. Pebble sized pieces of crushed glass filled one end, testifying to the brutality that had, in a few hours, robbed it of its innocence. I walked to the dirt wall behind the swimming pool and looked up to the street. From where I stood, I couldn't really see the road, but I could see the fence that ran along the top of the wall to keep people who were walking on the sidewalk up above from falling over. A large tree had been planted in the middle of this sidewalk, and its leaves shielded me from the sun as I looked up.
I turned to look back at the swimming pool. The small chunks of glass, glittering in the sunlight, seemed to mock me. They were at once both beautiful and terrifying. I bent over to study them more closely and noticed something else. There was another piece of glass, one of a different type, lying nearby. I picked it up carefully and inspected it, hoping against hope that it would provide some clue to the incomplete story that kept repeating itself in my mind. It was a lens from someone's glasses.
I put the lens in my pocket and left the area to return to the Big Tent. There I met
with my friends, who were talking, as young kids do about what had happened.
"My mom went to see two of the guys in the hospital," Jesse was saying, "the
guy's mother, the one that got really hurt, was glad she came."
"My sister found the glasses of the one that died," said James.
"Yeah, they were stuck in the fence, but there was only one glass in them, and it was broken."
"I found the other glass," I said, and then I held it out for them to see. They crowded around me instantly.
"Where was it?"
"I found it near our swimming pool; maybe your mom can give it to them." I looked to Jesse, hopefully, but he didn't seem too eager to take it.
"It's all scratched up, and the glasses are broken anyway."
"They won't care about it; maybe we should just throw it away," said James. "We can't use our swimming pool now," Jesse broke back in.
"Did you see it? It's all full of glass and stuff. My dad said we can't use it anymore," said Sharon.
The lens was no longer interesting, so I put it back in my pocket. We worried about our swimming pool for awhile, but our parents had all made it clear that it was too dangerous to use it. There was nothing else to do, so the conversation soon turned back to what had happened.
"It was scary, wasn't it? I heard the whole thing," said Sharon, whose house was close to mine.
"My parents were the first ones out there. They went as soon as they heard the crash,' Jesse joined back in.
"My sister saw the guys," said lames, "your dad called my dad to help, and she went out to bring a mattress."
"Your parent's let her go?"
"No, they were both outside. My dad was real mad when he saw her, but she's big so they let her help. She told me everything."
"I was sleeping when it happened. I heard the sirens and they woke me up."
"I woke up when my parents ran out. They heard all the screams and they told me to stay inside."
"I was awake for the whole thing. My parents wouldn't let me out either; it was real scary."
"Yeah, all the shouting and stuff is gonna give me nightmares." "I saw the guy," I said, and I had.
It had happened a little after one in the morning. Four guys had swerved off the road and smashed into the tree above my house. They were, as I later learned, heading back from a party to their homes in the upper half of the city. The driver, in a drunken stupor, had crossed into the wrong lane and threw the car onto the sidewalk to avoid an oncoming vehicle. The crash that followed threw the driver out of his window and into the fence and shattered the windshield into the small pieces that showered into our swimming pool. down below.
To us, the squealing tires, grinding metal, and shattering windows were all one sound. My parents jumped out of their bed, threw on their jackets and shoes and ran out, warning me to stay in.
"Just stay in. Caleb. Don't look out the window, don't look out the window!" I stayed in my bed, sitting on my knees in anticipation. Already, I could hear voices outside, people's boots slapping against the pavement as they ran up the road. "Angelo!" a lady screamed hopelessly.
"Angelo?" I could hear tears in her throat.
I wondered who had died. Angelo was the name of a man in our camp. Was it him? I looked at my curtains, as they swayed in the cold night air. My window faced the wall. All I had to do was lift the curtain to see what was happening. I had to look outside. I had to make sure Angelo was okay.
"Don't look outside Caleb, just don't look outside!" I heard my mother's warning over and over.
"Don't look outside," I told myself. "Don't look outside."
But she didn't know it was someone from the camp," I told myself, "I have to look outside and make sure they're okay."
"Get some mattresses, quick," I heard someone saying. "Did anyone call an ambulance?"
I heard more shoes slapping against the pavement; one pair sounded like flip flops. 1 could hear people murmuring. Choked sobs came from the desperate woman. I looked at the curtains; they moved open lightly with the breeze, but I couldn't see anything.
"Angelo," I heard the woman say again between sobs. Her voice was cracked and drowned with saliva. A cold shiver moved up through my body. Ghastly thoughts started to clog my reasoning. I couldn't sec the curtains well anymore. I had to look outside. I leaned over towards the window; it wasn't far from my bed.
"Don't look outside!" I heard my mother's warning again. I could hear my parents out there now. Were they okay? I opened the curtain slightly, and my eyes moved up the wall toward the fence. There was the car, its nose smashed against a tree and a bag hanging between the driver's window and the fence. I dropped the curtain and jumped back in my bed. I could still hear voices outside. Faintly, I could make out a siren coming from somewhere. I thought about the bag. What was it doing there? Were my parents all right? I started to realize that maybe it wasn't a bag. I had to look out again. My mother's voice was still playing through my head, punishing me for having looked out the first time, but I had to be certain. Was Angelo dead? Why couldn't I hear my dad's voice anymore? I opened the curtain. I could make out the driver's body now. His torso sagged out of the window, and his hair seemed to be caught on something, holding his head up against the fence. Once again, I dropped the curtains and jumped back, shaking and cold. I could see the flashing blue of the ambulance light through my curtain. The door opened and my mom came back in.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
"Yeah," I said, mustering all the courage that was in me.
"It's okay. The ambulance is here and they're being taken care of," she reassured me.
"Where's dad'?" I asked.
"He went to get some water for the others." She had come to my door now, and I could see that she was tired. "Let's pray," she said, and we prayed for the guys who had gotten in the accident and for their parents, who were out there crying. I calmed down, and, after my dad came back in to reassure us, I went to sleep. My little brother and sister had slept through the whole thing.
That was what happened that night. I had seen the guy. His limp body still hangs in my mind, his glasses still caught in the fence, and his neck still bent out of shape. Now I had the lens from his glasses in my pocket, telling me that a man was dead. I felt the gentle bulge of the lens, the smooth feel of this carefully shaped object, and the rough edge where it had been chipped. The grainy feel of glass powder in that roughened edge held my interest for awhile. I moved the tip of my finger across it feeling the powder, feeling what had happened. My friends were still talking, their voices were very distant now. I was back in my room looking at the man.
I had little experience with death, but I knew that it made people sad. I felt sorry for those guys who had been in the crash, but at the same time I knew it was their fault. I didn't want to think about that. The guy was dead. Two of his friends were in the hospital, and the third was at home somewhere crying. I scolded myself for trying to solve the mess of events in my head instead of thinking of someone else who was hurt. The question remained. Why had these things happened'? The pain, the horror, they were one with the fact that something wicked had happened. I felt the rough edge of the glass again, but everything was solved in my mind. The rough edge of that lens was a consequence. A consequence of actions that I had become determined to avoid.
I was not going to hang helplessly between a car window and a fence as a little boy looked up at me from his bedroom window. I would not get caught in the downward spiral that had brought about that accident. In Jesus, there was a way to avoid that trap. My parents had taught me to turn to God when I needed help, and that is what I did at that moment. I begged God to never let me ruin another person's life like that. I thought about the dead guy's friends again. About his family who had lost him for good.
They had been a part of my life for only a few hours. I had never even seen their faces, but I had shared with them a moment of pain and tenor that would bum in each of our minds forever. Even though I was in bed, the accident had affected me as much as it did them. However, I had been changed for the better, and now that the events held a clear meaning for me, I was able to talk about the others who had to deal with them. I didn't need the lens anymore.
"I'm gonna give my morn the glass," I said, "maybe his mother will want it."