Somewhere inside the thousand mirages of time the delicate membrane tore exposing its transparent layers to children much too young. If an image is an incantation then on that day the dirge began its deep, pulsing lament and the flashback I carry is so charged with grief that even now, a sudden trigger instantly hurls me to the old front stoop of a hot sunny morning. It was June 29th, 1955. I was ten. Our family lived in a tiny house on a dead-end street with lots of kids and fathers in blue collars who worked in factories. There were no fences and all the neighbors looked out for us. Summer reverberated with sublime spontaneity as we frolicked in yards, in the surrounding fields and woods, on St. Michael’s playground and yes, even in the street.
I was running from Kathy’s yard across to our own when Mr. Wolf, our milkman, and I simultaneously heard the scream. Mr. Wolf slammed on his brakes and leapt from the huge refrigerated truck. I stopped short and cringed in horror. A phantom, earth-shattering wail gushed from somewhere deep within the bowels of the earth, drowning my whole world in its deluge. The left rear tire of the milk truck had crushed a small blue bundle. It could have been a rag doll but somehow I knew better.
The driver vaulted back up into his seat, sobbing uncontrollably,as the neighbors debated whether it would be better to back up or pull forward. Either action, regardless of how precise, would cause more damage,so Mr. Wolf again plummeted to the cobblestones, braced his spine against the bottom edge of the enormous vehicle and began lifting. Tears and sweat streamed down his swollen face as moans sporadically escaped his lungs. Even the boiling air around him seemed to strain as he put more and more force behind each attempt to raise the massive vise. It was in those few seconds as the bulbous veins in the man’s neck prepared to burst that recognition dawned. Jimmy! Jimmy Fa’ get! (fa-jay’)
Our neighborhood instantly deployed like a well-coordinated unit. Their heartbreak didn’t mitigate their ability to act, as little Jimmy lay prostrate, running out of life. My aunt Laura, a former WAC, surged to the scene with towels and a sheet while my Great-Aunt Angela approached the tiny house she rented to Jimmy’s family. My mom and Shirley attempted to corral the kids into our backyard so we couldn’t see. We pretended to do as we were told. At some point as I continued to dart back and forth between houses, my body implodingwith gut-wrenching heaves as I heard Mrs. Fa’get’s first screams. Her shrieks pierced the late morning as she ran frantically back into her house,crying for her husband’s shotgun.
Two minutes later the impossible happened! The truck rose. It rose! It had lifted just enough to allow Laura to slide the tiny lifeless body toward her, quickly swaddling him in towels. The ambulance was still on its way, but the car was ready. Miner’s Hospital was only two blocks away,so Angela gently guided Mrs. Fa’get into the back seat of her Buick and Laura, holding Jimmy, got quickly in beside her. They sped to the emergency room while we all stood in their wake, crushed into a nauseous, deadening silence.
Drenched by a dark wave, afraid and confused, I bolted forward racing toward that bloody vehicle, following, as they turned right onto First Street. I couldn’t keep up and stopped my pursuit in the alley behind The Hotel Gunter,gasping for air and sobbing uncontrollably, thinking of moms and dads and of pain, a pernicious, permeating plague of pain. I couldn’t imagine Mrs. Fa’get as seconds ticked and terror escalated. I pictured her holding her blood-soaked son, unable to see his head, praying for a miracle, longing for her own demise if her pleas went unheeded.
Some fluid lingered behind. It pooled between the cobblestones right in front of our house along with pieces of a saltine cracker, the one my mom had given a gorgeous little boy in a sky blue jump suit a few minutes earlier. He had apparently dropped the cracker under the truck and had crawled under to get it just as Mr. Wolf was pulling away from the curb. Of course, this Super-Human fractured his back, collapsed onto the road in a fit of agony and soon went by ambulance to the same hospital.
A few years later when we heard of his death, the heaviness that had plagued my heart began to lift. What a gentleman! What a gentle man! He had suffered through a series of nervous breakdowns before his heart finally gave out. He had become a hero to me along with Jimmy’s mom and dad who chose to keep on living.
I have a black-and-white of Jimmy, standing by our front stoop wearing a cowboy hat. I don’t need a picture of the courageous man in uniform nor of all the scarlet liquid that created a permanent stain long after it had been washed away by the fire department. We found no trace of the saltine cracker though I searched every day for months. Mom was just being kind as she always was. She was our neighborhood’s greatest blessing, my greatest gift. I prayed with grave intensity that she wouldn’t blame herself. Seeing her cry had opened me to a universe that wasn’t as simple or secure as I had thought. Worlds within worlds had surfaced revealing an underbelly unstable in its grounding.
The Fa’gets moved on soon after. They had another child in another town,though I never saw them again. I felt that everyone responded exactly as they were meant to respond. I was proud of my mom and my aunts and of all my Welsh Street neighbors. Their courage and calmness gave me a new respect for grown-ups. I knew I would never have been able to react with such precision, with such dignity. I was allowed to fall apart. I never told the adults how much we had all needed them that day, how much I had needed them.
I’m sure my playmates were marked for life just as I have been, though we spoke very little about it afterwards. I imagine a shared torment, frightening visions of our own inescapable, indefatigable defeat. It’s astonishing to me that some of our deepest wounds, our most grievous tragedies don’t syphon off our blood supply or leave physical scars, yet they are permanently branded along with the sound of crushed bone against cobblestone and the horrific grunts of a human being lifting a two ton death trap. And I realized in my own immature way that thatepochof total emotional lassitude was neither the beginning nor the end, but had been experienced by humanity since the beginning of time. It was part of being alive, something we shared in common.
I scooted over on our small front stoop then, making room for a mother and her lost son, a husband who received the dreaded phone call, an unborn child who had a brother he or she would never know but would always know and especially for a kind-hearted man who was broken in two by an unearthly strength to save what couldn’t be saved.