Then he said, “Is there anyone here who, if a child or animal fell down a well, wouldn’t rush to pull him out immediately, not asking whether or not it was the Sabbath?”
Hi readers! Quick update: The novel is currently at 16,207 words, or 32% of the way to my goal of at least 50,000 words. Next week I will have a couple days with no updates as I teach in Pateros, but don’t worry, I’ll be back later in the week. Now back to your regularly scheduled No’.
Paul / Friday, July 20, 8:35 am
“Honey, isn’t it about time for you to think about get going?” Carol’s voice floats down the hallway, reaching me as I sit at the breakfast table, sipping coffee and perusing that morning’s Seattle Times. I glance at the ornate ship’s clock mounted above the stove, estimate that I can ignore Carol for another 3.75 minutes before she feels compelled to come in here and pry my butt out of the chair, and take another sip of my coffee. All those years shipboard, I became accustomed to coffee black, none of your fancy creamer or sugar, just a fast slug of caffeine before heading out.
Hmm, looks like the Mariners are about as bad as always. Lost to the Oakland As 7 to 0, and they were even at home. Typical. It doesn’t seem like so many years ago when they were exciting, back when talented players like Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr., and Alex Rodriguez gave fans cause to hope. Now they’re a has-been team, with an ambivalent fan base that dwindles as season after season they offer, at best, mediocre play.
I wouldn’t be surprised to hear the quality has dropped since they started bringing those Japs on the team. When we were stationed in Japan, I never trusted those slit-eyed sneaks; I always thought they were figuring out the top three ways to kill you at any given moment. Quality of the team has definitely dropped since they started letting that kind of rabble onto the field.
“Paul, it’s almost 9:00. You’re going to be late.” Suddenly she’s standing right next to me, hand covering the pathetic Mariners report, a disapproving look on her face. Fortunately, I’ve had 50 years to get used to Carol’s disapproving stares, and they simply aren’t that effective on me anymore. Sometimes I pretend they work, to let Carol feel like she’s influencing me.
“Whoa!” I say, genuinely a bit startled at her sudden appearance. Ever since Korea, I’ve been kind of jumpy about people popping up out of nowhere. Carol knows that, but sometimes she forgets. She’s not as young as she used to be. “Oh, all right,” I accede. She nods sharply, short white hair bobbing in a decisive, no-nonsense motion that says Good, so get going. It always worked on kindergarteners; might as well work on her husband.
“You’re probably going to be late already, you know,” Carol frets as I begin the process of hoisting myself out of my chair.
“I doubt it,” I grunt, struggling a bit. “Besides, the guys can wait if I’m a little late. We’re not on a schedule here.” This isn’t as easy as it used to be. I remember when I was still captaining my own ship, I could go leaping all over the place in a howling gale, getting battered against the narrow walls of the hallways and whacking into protruding pipes without turning a hair.
Now even the act of standing up is a multi-step process that requires infrastructure: I usually need to hold on to something to pull myself up, and my knees and hips creak alarmingly, like the sound of a ship starting to come apart in foul weather, and my back aches if I’ve stayed in one position for very long. When I look at my hands holding the table edge, I don’t recognize them. Whose are those gnarled, veiny, age-spotted hands protruding from my cuffs? It’s not possible that they belong to me. I can’t be much beyond 35 years old; in my head, I don’t feel old. But when I look in the mirror, an old man stares back out at me.
And then there’s the diabetes. I thought diabetes was the province of young kids. That’s the face I always saw on those posters at the grocery store checkout stand, some chubby little kid with a serious expression and big, very sad-looking eyes, needing my hard-earned dollars to help fund diabetes research. When the doc said my being thirsty all the time but at the same time having to pee all the time was because I had diabetes, you could have knocked me over with a feather.
Frankly, I don’t really worry that much about it, even though it drives Carol crazy. I’m 73 years old, too old to give up enjoying those small but essential joys in life, like things that contain sugar. I do love my desserts and breads.
One good thing about being old, though: Retirement. I spent thirty years at sea with the Coast Guard, and it was a good life. But retirement didn’t come too soon. I was tired and ready for some rest by the time I hit retirement age. I gave the Coast Guard the best years of my life, gave my utmost to serve my country, and now I get to enjoy the fruits of those years of labor. Those years were hard years, many days and even weeks away from my family at a time.
I remember one time when I came to the breakfast table, Adrian – he was five at the time – looked at me and asked, “Who are you?” I’m sure Carol put him up to it, but it cut me to the quick. How many times did Carol tell me I was missing my children’s childhood? And it was true. Oh, I made it to their important events as often as I could; I attended every graduation ceremony, and I saw plenty of student plays, listened to recitals, did all those good dad things. But when I look back, I have to wonder if it was worth it.
No; I know it was. During my career, the crew and I saved hundreds, probably thousands, of people’s lives, rescued innumerable stranded vessels, protected public safety on the waters. We performed an indispensable service for our nation, and I can never doubt that it was a meaningful and valuable career.
But. Retirement sure feels good. Solid ground underfoot as often as I want; going on RV trips with Carol; spending time with Lisa, who’s turning into a very interesting and precocious little girl; sleeping and waking whenever I want, even if it’s still at 5:00 am.
“What are you doing in there?” Carol’s voice jolts me from my brown study and I realize I’ve been standing, staring into the mirror, toothbrush in hand, for a while now.
“Just brushing my teeth,” I call. At least I still have my teeth, and most of my hair. For a guy who spent all those decades out being battered by the weather, I think I’ve aged all right. Still, looking into the mirror and seeing those sagging jowls, the bags under my eyes, the wrinkles around my eyes and across my forehead, the age spots on my skin, the scrawny flopping of loose skin on my arms, it’s hard to reconcile that with my mental image of a fit, handsome 30-something Lieutenant in the Coast Guard.
Today is a good day for a Hawaiian shirt. The sky is clear and wind calm, although I imagine we’ll get an afternoon wind from the north. Should be perfect for a day on Jerry’s boat out on Lake Washington. It’s not exactly the Pacific Ocean, but we’re not exactly on patrol anymore, either. I pull on a pair of light slacks – even I don’t want to be subjected to a view of my old man’s legs – and don the Hawaiian shirt. Its bright colors please my eye after years of drab uniforms.
Paul / Friday, July 20, 9:05 am
As I eased my carcass into the car’s deep, cushy seat, Carol came banging out into the garage, a huge package of hot dogs and accompanying buns balanced in her arms. “You’re getting old,” she chided as she placed them on the passenger seat next to me. “You forgot the food, and we just bought it yesterday.”
“I didn’t forget,” I lied. “I was just testing you. You’re not exactly a spring chickie yourself, you know.”
She snorted, an unbecoming habit that I hated at first, but now find kind of endearing. “I’m still younger than you.”
“As always,” I agreed.
“Have a good day, dear,” she said and I gave her a peck on the cheek. For all we tweak at each other, we’ve been together far too long to let those kinds of things bother us. It’s really just a way of showing that we love each other. I can’t imagine life without Carol, and I’m sure she feels the same about me.
Now I hate to admit it, but I have to secretly agree that my wife was right: I should have left a long time ago. Traffic going north on I-5 is terrible. It is rush hour. I forget about that, now that I don’t have to drive around at that time – not that I ever did, all that much. There’s no rush hour shipboard, unless it’s a line for the head, and once I became captain, well, captaincy does have some perks.
I figured it’d take about 20 minutes to get from our house near Seward Park to Jerry’s place just across the lake on Mercer Island. Looking out our front window, we can actually see Jerry’s dock on a nice day. Too bad I couldn’t just take a launch across the lake. This driving thing isn’t going nearly as well as I anticipated. Well, the guys will just have to wait. They won’t leave without me, and it’s not as if we’re sailing with the tide.
As we merge onto I-90 for the trip across the floating bridge, traffic starts clearing up. I imagine there was some accident a while ago that got cleared up, and we’re still suffering the aftereffects. Even a driver tapping his brakes can cause a ripple effect that could echo for hours after he’s long gone.
Now things have started moving fairly well as we approach the Mt. Baker tunnel for the quick shot underground and then out to what promises to be a spectacular view across the lake. I’m sure we’ll see Mt. Baker as well as Mt. Rainier and the Cascades, and when I head back home, the Olympics will probably put in an appearance as well.
When we finally settled in the Pacific Northwest, I was leery. Carol’s family is from the area, but I come from good Midwestern farmer stock, and always imagined raising our children with wheat fields all around. But after having been stationed at the Columbia River mouth for so long, we decided we might as well stay on.
Paul / Friday, July 20, 9:09 am
I remember the earthquakes when I was stationed in Japan. However else they were incompetent and untrustworthy, those Japs knew how to build buildings to withstand an earthquake. The floor would buckle and wave, those paper globe lights would bounce around, and then it’d be over, everybody dusted themselves off, and life went on.
When the other cars in the tunnel with me start banging around like pool balls, caroming off each other and the walls as if propelled by some insanely aimed pool cue, I immediately recognize we’re in an earthquake. I’m not afraid: I’ve lived through many frightening things, and I’ve had a long and meaningful life, so even if I don’t survive this – which I expect to – that’s okay, too.
I had forgotten how loud an earthquake is, or maybe this sounds exceptionally loud because it’s underground, and there are all these other noises, of metal rending as cars smash into each other; crumbling and crashing of cement; some kind of groaning that I can only imagine is the earth of the tunnel itself being wrenched from its long-established position. It sounds agonized.
I immediately put on my brakes, not slamming them on but trying to steer away from the other cars as drivers skid all over the road, trying desperately to avoid the walls, the falling ceiling tiles, and each other. I’m just attempting to move towards the wall, which may collapse but may also provide some kind of protection—
—And that’s the wall, with a much harder impact than I expected, but heck, I didn’t need the passenger side of the car anyway. As long as I don’t want to drive anywhere any time soon, I don’t need that engine, either.
Good thing I didn’t carpool with anybody, because the wall collapsing there seems to have flattened that side of my car. My goodness, I don’t fit in this little space so well anymore. My right shoulder has taken some of the impact from car roof’s collapse, but at least my airbag pushed me out of the way by and large.
The air is filling with dust, so much so that visibility is increasingly compromised, and I’m going to have to find a way to filter my air or I’ll eventually drown in that dust as it clogs my lungs.
Lights are going out – now they’re all out. I can make out the scattered lights from car head- and tail-lights, but with the dust, the light’s just diffuse and almost makes it harder to see, like trying to navigate through pea-soup fog.
The ground seems to be done shaking, although I won’t be surprised if we start feeling some aftershocks shortly. The silence is bizarre, profound, a little hair-raising, and I don’t think it’s just my hearing aid.
Now that everything has settled for the moment, I need to get out of here. The car’s not safe, half-smashed as it is; I think I’ll be better off low down, protected from additional falling debris by the cars around me. There could be risk of fumes from cars that are still running down at that level, but I guess I’ll have to take that risk – I’ll survive that longer than a falling chunk of cement.
Time to gather some essentials and get in gear. Civilians are going to need help. What have I got that might be useful?
Item one: Insulin. Can I reach it, in the back seat? Oh, goodness, my back really doesn’t want to contort that way, and my right shoulder definitely seems to have sustained some damage in the crash. But here’s the insulin. Drat, that’s just another thing Carol was right about. She always makes me carry insulin around, “just in case.”
Item two: Food and water. Let’s see, are those hot dogs still viable…? Well, they’re squished, and raw hot dogs don’t sound real appealing at the moment, but if getting out of here takes as long as I’m guessing it will, those hot dogs will be nectar of the gods before long.
If only I had more water. That’s going to be a real problem, very soon. This half-bottle in my cupholder is amazingly intact and unspilled, but it won’t last very long. Even with my diabetes under control, I need a lot more water than your average Joe.
OK, ongoing item, then: Obtain water supply.
Item three: Clothes. I have my lightweight jacket on already, and this handkerchief will serve for a face mask for a while at least, assuming I can get it around my head… Another thing Carol did right, she always made me use the largest hankies available, “for my big mouth.” Ah, and I have that little Maglight on my keychain, not exactly the high-powered search light I might wish for in these circumstances, but better than nothing.
I hope Carol is all right. Life wouldn’t be right without her.
Can’t think about that now, though; I can’t help her. Have to secure my own safety and that of the people around me.
That being the case, next step: Egress from the vehicle. The frame structure seems to have sustained significant damage, so the door won’t open easily. The windows and windshield shattered. I’m not as skinny or limber as I once was, but maybe I can get through the windshield. Better zip up the coat and try to protect my hands as much as possible; slithering around belly-first on that glass, even if it’s safety glass, doesn’t sound like a comfortable proposition.
Paul / Friday, July 20, 9:44 am
That wasn’t the worst thing I’ve had to do in my life, but it wasn’t an experience I’d repeat, either. I definitely left a good amount of skin back there on the hood of my car, and my hands and face and belly are all sliced up, bleeding, covered in dust and now gasoline.
Some vehicle nearby is leaking gasoline onto the ground, and I’ve landed right in a puddle of the stuff. My hands are stinging like the dickens, but at least I probably won’t get any infection. I bet the gasoline is killing any bacteria. Now I’m soaked in gasoline, though, which really won’t be good long-term, especially near any open flames or sparks. I can’t do anything about that, either, though, so it’s time to move on.
Where would be the safest location to move towards?
The more I think about it, the more I’m concerned about additional tunnel collapse. I remember when they put this tunnel on the National Register of Historic Places, they made a big deal about how it was dug through dirt, not bedrock, and that’s why it was so exceptional. Not good, now that we’re down here. Things are much less stable than they could and should be.
But didn’t they do some kind of expensive tunnel enhancements a few years back, at the taxpayers’ expense? Have to hope that included some form of escape tunnel or stairway, because we’ve got to get out of here before things deteriorate any more.
I don’t think I was that far from the Lake Washington side of the tunnel. If there’s any way out through there, I’d better try to find it. It’s so hard to see through the thick dust, which will make it much more difficult to find my way through the chaos.
Before I get much farther I should check the cars around me.
“Hello?” I call, coughing. My voice is muffled by the dust and my face mask, and sounds feeble even in my own ears. I try again: “HELLO? DOES ANYBODY NEED HELP?” That’s better. I’m remembering that way of projecting that always served me so well on deck over the battering of wind and waves.
Silence. No replies that I can make out. Most likely nobody could hear me. The dust and uneven surfaces will muffle the sound dramatically. And then, too, I suppose many people could have been knocked unconscious, or – yes, better face it, it’s very possible that most of the other people in the tunnel have died. I cannot believe my good fortune already, actually walking away – scratch that, crawling away from a massive car pileup caused by what has to be The Big One seismologists have been predicting for the Seattle area for so long.
Even so, there are surely other survivors, and it’s my first responsibility to see to their welfare. I think I will rest here for a minute, lean against the car, take a sip of water, close my eyes for just a moment. This is going to be an ordeal, and I’m not as young as I used to be.
Jon / Friday, July 20, 9:49 am
When I open my eyes, everything is exactly the same as when I closed them. For a second I’m not even certain I have opened my eyes, it’s so hard to make anything out; but then the feeling of grit in them makes me realize that yes, they’re open, and if I blink enough, maybe I can make something out.
Time has gone by, but I don’t know how much. I still can’t move my legs. My arms seem to be trapped in dirt – it’s definitely some kind of clayey soil, and it feels as solid as rock around my arms, chest, and lower body. I have to piss, and if this situation doesn’t magically get fixed, this’ll be the first time I’ve pissed my pants since I was about 3 years old.
More coughing. It’s getting harder to draw in breaths, and I’m afraid I’m getting more dust in my lungs with every inhalation, but I can’t stop breathing in, and I can’t do anything to cover my face, so it’s breathing and coughing for me.
Is that a voice? I thought I heard somebody calling, some really faint call. If only I could suck in a good deep breath, I’d call back. Maybe get somebody to help dig me out. That is an inspirational thought, being able to move at all.
I take the deepest breath I can and before I can start coughing, try to call out, “Help!”
Even more coughing, courtesy of trying to actually make any noise. And that “help” was fucking pathetic. I sound like a pussy, and it’s still the best I could do.
I try again, closing my mouth and sucking air in through my nose, then shouting as loudly as I can, “HELP!” My voice sounds flat, the way it does in our media room, with all that fancy sound baffling on the walls. Maybe it will have done some kind of good. Gotta hope.
Can’t count on it, though. If only I could even just use one arm.
I still haven’t figured out what the hell is going on, but every time I try to come up with some plausible explanation, I’m baffled. What would bury me in dirt when I’m innocently driving along?
Yeah, it was in a tunnel, but they don’t build tunnels through dirt, do they? I don’t know a fucking thing about tunnels. But even if it was the tunnel collapsing, what the hell makes a tunnel collapse totally out of the blue? It doesn’t make any sense.
But that doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that I’m buried chest-deep in this dirt, and I’m starting to choke on dust, and I can’t even move my fucking arms, let alone my legs. Gotta get my arms free.
OK, that’s a goal. I can kind of wiggle around –
Holy shit, that hurt! I’ve never felt anything like that, a million knives stabbing into my back and up my spine when I tried to move. Oh god, what if I’m paralyzed? What if I just paralyzed myself by trying to move? But I have to move. I can’t stay here.
Now I’m starting to get afraid. If I can’t feel my legs, and when I tried to wiggle around at all in my seat it hurt like nothing I’ve ever felt before… oh god, will I ever get out of here? Will I ever see Austin or Mackenzie again? Tell Jean I still love her? Did I say “I love you” before I went shooting out the door in a rush as always?
What if I die down here?
Oh god, please, no. No. I couldn’t – can’t – can’t think about – I don’t want to die. Not here, not now, without ever saying goodbye…
Tears running down my cheeks clear my eyes and rinse my face. It’s something. But oh, god, if I do get out of here, the first thing I’m doing is telling Jean I love her, and then spending more time with my kids. I’m ditching the damn midlife crisis Porsche and driving to soccer games in our minivan with the rest of the family.
Oh, Jean, are you and the kids OK? Will I ever see you again?