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Triumph over Tragedy - Chapter 10

The second week of August the Skogstad’s left for their summer camping vacation in northern Wisconsin, the seven of them somehow fitting into the paneled Ford station wagon for the six hour trip. It was a sad departure, Liz and I staying up until midnight to watch Friday Night Horror Movies on channel 8, a quick kiss and her long hug the only thing to get me through the separation.

I had hazy memories of Wilson family vacations from years past – a sandy beach and cold water; another with an open campground and smelly outhouses; the third a Wild West themed park complete with a jail, livery stable, and a stream where Ashley and I panned for gold. Those times were fun. But Alice’s birth and dad’s drinking probably ending those adventures.

Fortunately, we had something to look forward to. Mom, Alice, and I were going to Des Moines on Saturday morning to visit Ashley!

Dad and uncle Jack had a 4-day fishing excursion on Lake Okoboji, the rest of us grateful we weren’t invited. None of us said goodbye when Jack picked him up Friday morning, everyone sighing in relief. At supper that evening mom mentioned she wanted me to drive to Des Moines. Yahoo! I was so excited. I had a permit and was driving with mom throughout the summer, but I’d never driven on the highway. Should I see if I could get the Impala up to eighty? Maybe not. Mom might yell at me.

When I climbed into the driver’s seat Saturday morning I was puzzled when she told me to stop at the hospital. What? When I cleaned the beer cans out of the car Friday evening I just assumed she was coming with us. Now I was confused. At breakfast she spoke vaguely of a small operation for some “woman thing,” unwilling to go into any depth. I just assumed it was another weekend.

We pulled into the hospital entrance and I put the car in park, mom sighing before she kissed Alice and then reached over for a hug before she got out, sticking her head through the passenger window with an odd look on her face, sending us on our way with her love to Ashley. What in the hell? Alice and I watched her walk through the doors with her head down, a handkerchief going to her eyes.

I hesitated in the parking lot, uncertain what to do. Did she forget that I only had a permit – that I was just fifteen? I smiled at Alice and took a deep breath, stepping on the brake as I put the gearshift in drive, easing down Market Street towards the interstate. Des Moines was two hours away.

By the time we got to the halfway point at Grinnell my nervousness had almost vanished, finally comfortable enough to glance across the seat towards Alice while we talked. She held tightly onto the directions to Shelly’s house as the miles melted away, anxious to be reunited with her sister. We hadn’t seen Ashley in two months.

Alice pointed out the windshield at her sister sitting on the front porch steps and jumped out of the car when I pulled to a stop, Ashley rushing across the lawn to great us. It was shocking to see her transformation, the stressed look from last May replaced with a real smile and a confidence I hadn’t seen in years. The change of scenery obviously did her good.

She lifted Alice off the ground and they spun in a circle, Ashley planting kisses all over my sister’s face as they hugged. Alice loved it. I didn’t know how to greet her, unable to recall a hug in our family. Especially my sister. She set Alice down and turned to me, wrapping arms tightly around my body and laying her cheek on my chest. Tears rolled down her face as she held the hug for an extra beat, quickly wiping them away and grabbing hands so we could meet our hosts, her face radiant with joy as she introduced us.

That weekend we crammed forty-eight hours into thirty, doing all the things we had never done before – renting a paddleboat on Gray’s Lake, laying on the floor at the State Capitol staring up at the American Flag high above, Ashley and Shelly taking us to the Dairy Queen where they worked – making two of the biggest banana splits I had ever seen. Or eaten.

On Sunday at the Iowa State Fair, Alice gawked at the massive butter cow in the display, holding pink cotton candy in her hand, smiling at us as she absorbed the reality of the life-sized yellow bovine inside the glass refrigerator. Later that afternoon she petted goats and rabbits in the pens, the three of us getting our picture taken behind a pumpkin weighing 760 lbs.

The girls cried and I was teary eyed when we had to part at 4pm. Alice slept all the way back to Iowa City with the new outfit Ashley bought for her tucked tightly to her chest, the polaroid picture of her siblings clutched in the other hand. I wasn’t as nervous on the trip back to Iowa City.

When we pulled into the alley and slid the car into the garage, I grabbed the sack of empty beer cans from the garage workbench, tossing them on the back seat floor, knowing a clean car would look suspicious when dad returned. Mom called just before supper to tell us she wouldn’t be back home until tomorrow morning, asking me to let our next door neighbor to keep an eye on us. She sounded so tired. It left me a bit worried. I didn’t have a clue if the news was good or bad.

School started the day after Labor Day, Alice walking five blocks for her last year at Horace Mann Elementary while Steve, Liz, and I took the bus to East High. I was excited to begin my sophomore year, especially thrilled that Liz would be joining me every morning on the ride. We were officially a couple.

Coach Raffensperger moved Steve and me up after the initial meet because our margin of victory in the frosh-soph race was almost sixty seconds, our performance fast enough that we would have easily won the varsity race. Even though we were now on the upper-class squad we continued to train alone, the juniors and seniors unable to challenge us in most aspects of the workouts. The summer work had paid off.

Although the juniors and seniors treated us well, we felt like outsiders rather than teammates, trying to feel each other out, and locate common ground. But after the incident at the West Liberty meet they embraced us whole-heartedly.

It’s hard to describe him. Brad Willett was like a school mascot. Beloved by all at East High. He participated in cross country, wrestling, and track, cheering at every football and basketball game like black and gold coursed through his veins. There wasn’t an athlete on the cross country team he could have beaten, yet Brad had an infectious enthusiasm, a heart no one could match. At 5’6” and ninety-seven pounds the junior was not your usual three-sport athlete but he had the respect and support of everyone at the school, each student glad to call him a friend.

He was typically the last one to finish in the junior varsity races so our captains began a team tradition of spreading out along the final hundred yards to cheer him into the line. To let him know we appreciated his efforts. That Thursday Steve and I were ones the farthest out when the West Liberty varsity squad jogged by us, their team purposely cutting in front of Brad and making him stop and dodge around them as they yelled snide insults at our teammate.

When I heard their words it was as if I was jolted by electricity, anger erupting from me like a volcano. I snapped, disregarding any thought for my safety, rushing over to grab their captain by the wrist and knee him in the balls, his face puckering like he bit into a lemon as he collapsed to the ground, his body curled like a tight fist. His teammates just stared, shocked at my action. I stood over his prone body with my fist hovering.

“If you EVER do that again I’m going to beat the shit out of you.” Steve glared at the other five, daring them to do anything. The Comet captain was rocking back and forth, moaning with hands over his groin. My faced was filled with fury, the same anger I felt when I thought of my father.

“Did you hear me?” He didn’t respond. “I said, DID YOU HEAR ME?” He nodded with eyes closed, his body still curled in a fetal position. I looked at the other five.

“All of you are going to apologize to Brad before we leave today or I swear to God I’m going to come back and beat the shit out every one of you.” There was no question they believed me.

We had wildest bus ride home, laughter and shouts erupting from every row, cheers ricocheting off the windows in a steady stream, Steve and I celebrated like honorary kings. Brad called it “The Comet Stomping – one less star in the sky.” We all roared at his pronouncement.

I got suspended from practice for a week, but Brad got his apology.

The following Monday afternoon after my solo run I could hear sobbing from Alice’s room, tapping softly on the door with the five beats, my heart sinking as I sat alongside and asked what was wrong. I put an arm around her shoulders. Please don’t say it’s dad. Please. I beg you.

“Jeff Jones has been making fun of me at school. He ripped the cover off my book and threw it in the wastebasket. Now all the boys are laughing at me.” It was as if someone lit a fire in my belly. “I don’t want to go to school tomorrow.” I wiped her tears with my thumb and kissed the top of her head.

“Is he Jimmy Jones little brother?” She nodded as tears continued to drop in her lap. “OK, here’s what I’m going to do...”

The next day I ran to Horace Mann after school before I did the rest of my miles, following the three boys as they strutted out the side door, cockiness oozing from their pores as they jumped on bikes and headed over to the A&P kitty-corner from the school, dodging in front of a car and fingering the driver as they rolled across the lot.

Watching from the front window it was easy to tell each one stuck something in a pocket from the candy aisle, knocking over bags of potato chips and displays as they headed for the exit. I sat on a pallet of grass seed, waiting by their bikes. They didn’t notice me until they were ten feet away. I pointed at one of the kids.

“Are you Jeff Jones?” He looked just like his older brother.

He ignored me and went to get on his bike, the two sidekicks eyeballing me as I lunged and grabbed the handlebars of his Stingray.

“We need to talk.” I stood in front of his bike, daring him to make me move. “Now!”

The edge in my voice caught his attention, just like the buzz of a wasp does before it stings you. He tried to pull the bike back but I yanked it from him with a glare.

“Do you want me to take you back in the store and show them what you stole?” They eyeballed each other, a little bit of the cockiness disappearing. “Follow me.” He fell in stride behind as I rolled his bike around the side of the store, the partners reluctantly trailing.

“Do you know who I am?” He just stared at me with a smirk on his face. I grabbed a fistful of his shirt and shoved him hard against the wall, the sudden pressure from my knuckles on his sternum making him cringe. Now I had his complete attention. All I saw was the fear. The respect. I liked the feeling of this power, leaning in close to his face, our noses inches apart.

“I’m Alice Wilson’s brother. We’re going to get this straight right now and then we won’t have to worry about it again. I’m coming back to school tomorrow to walk Alice home. If she gets so much as a weird glance or hears a snide word from ANYONE at school,” I glanced at his partners, waiting for them to meet my eyes. “I’m going to beat the shit out of each one of you.” I paused to let it sink in. “Is that clear?” Jeff was so scared he couldn’t speak. “I’m sorry. I can’t hear you.”

“Ya…ya…yes.” He stuttered.

“Yes, what?”

“Yes sir.” I turned to the other two, my grip tightening on Jeff, nodding at the bigger one. “What’s your name?”

“Bob Zimmerman.”

“You live over on Linn and Church.” I looked his partner.

“Da…Dave Butler.”

“And you live on Gilbert and Bloomington.” I glared at Dave, the intensity of my eyes making him study his shoes. I sneered and released my grip.

“Well boys, see you around. Nice talking. And if I ever see you shoplift again I’ll turn you in.

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