He was uphill again, part way on the steep incline, where time, circumstance and opportunity had taken him. But time had crumbled, and with it the matter of circumstance. Only opportunity, sometimes a laggard, held on, fate deciding issues as it had decided his. Downhill he could see how difficult the climb could be to anyone determined to go top-side, as jagged rocks appeared, thick clumps of trees turning toward the awed colors of fall, now and then a formidable gorge in the way of quick ascension. At his backside lurked the sense-awakening pain and the phantom ache lingering in his legs, as if archived for history, remnants of another climb, on the real Hill 407, northwest Afghanistan, in the formidable quarter of activity in that distant country.
Now, on this cool October morning, Yancy Ditson, paraplegic, once a Marine but forever at any moment, heard no Gunny’s voice, no lieutenant’s cry, no captain’s shrill command, or the sure breath of a man at his side or behind him. And no wild keening of transient artillery or the near-hidden whoosh of mortars and their high angle deviltry, sounds and signals buried in his memory. In more than one sense, he was transported beyond it all. It had happened time and time gain since his return to New Hampshire. The boy coming home; the whole man left behind.
He trained his telescope down on the lake surface where an awed light, like a signal, called on him bright as a Corpsman’s marker. The telescope, he knew, was addictive, a trade-off, calling on him as early as dawn’s false flash, and often as a hundred times a night before the stars disappeared in the field of the sky, and now and then the lacy ghost of the moon the way Lance Armstrong or some other buddy might have left him a piece of moon for a study or appreciation from a distance.
In his quandary, in one instant, he saw smoke and flame in the vista down below him, in the broad expanse of water, in his beloved heart of New Hampshire. Nothing, out of all possibilities, had called for smoke from the body of the lake in the morning air. It was far away, in a corner of the lake that spread like a tongue down through the maze of green hills lower than his home halfway up on the mountain.
That’s the way his pal Wladkowski had gone, in a ball of fire and smoke, the most severe departure a man could have. Ultimate departure, he’d call it. Conflagration and separation. There was a scent he could never recall, no matter how hard he tried, as if that death was a deprivation. On the trail ahead of Wladkowski, up that other Hill 407, in that scant yet awful memory, he had turned around for no apparent reason, and Wladkowski disappeared from the face of reality.
There was nothing to send home to identify him. Perhaps, if a Corpsman searched, fragments for DNA proof might be found. War, it said, is hell even by the thumbnail.
Burt Wladkowski, warrior, comrade, tight end par excellence and one-time teammate on the Corps team at Lejeune, best friend, went away in the burst of a mortar round on the top of his helmet from some insurgent’s site a quarter mile way. He’d never tell Wladkowski’s folks, not even his Corps brother, even if he got out of Afghanistan in one piece, by himself. He’d not share that secret with the Lord or the Corps commander, whoever asked first. It was a complete death by any measure and one to be left alone. That’s what he could leave for Wladkowski. Pain free. With dignity. A man, a real man, loose in the heavens.
The smoke of the round, the explosion he might never remember and never forget, came back and he trained his telescope downhill, directly onto the fire on the far side of Lake Winnipesaukee, far removed from Afghanistan, firefights, battles, war at its most terrible conviction.
Time again had conviction. And distance. More than a mile of distance.
Beside the flames and the smoke, fracturing the calm of the October lake waiting for the other burst of red and orange and yellow of high-heated leaves, some lone soul was in the water. A boat was afire, the smoke thick and heavy, as if every element of plastic and fiberglass aboard was aflame. In the water what appeared to be the lone survivor, splashed wildly. He felt the impact, the burst of Wladkowski’s death: It was too true to be unreal, even above the ever-long lake he had grown up on, and now looked at with concrete in his legs, never to feel the lake throb beneath them again. A paraplegic, chair-bound, useless except for his unearthly strong arms, he was of no hope for the lone swimmer.
New Hampshire, as far as he could see, ran away to the horizon. On his own mountain, at dawn’s first breath, he had to assume he was the sole witness to the unfolding scene; nothing else moved on the lake … no sail, no speedboat, no wake on the water left by an unseen craft.
The telescope he had saved for, a superior instrument he had dreamed about as a boy, sat in a tripod on his morning porch. Until that moment the view had been not only ecstatic, but essential for his salvation. He had dreamed this place on the mountain, a site with an unparalleled view of his lovely lake.
He looked at a map. Lined up the place of boat fire on the map, marked the fire and smoke and the floundering swimmer and behind all them a boathouse on the shore, in an inlet, with three stars and stripe flags flying and three doors with three boats under cover. He could not make out the names on the boats. He found a true direction, looked at a map, realized again he alone was the savior in the mess.
He knew it was Meredith, New Hampshire and dialed the number of the police station. He found what he thought was the road … Veasey Shore Road, saw the most valid landmark in the telescope, the boathouse with three doors, the middle one taller than the others.
He dialed the Meredith Police Department.
“Officer Clandon here. Your call will be recorded. How may I help you?”
“I shit you none, Clandon. I’m on a goddamned mountain across the lake from Veasey Shore Road. A boat is on fire on the lake and somebody’s in the water. I can’t get there. You can’t get there.”
“All I can tell you is the nearest thing I can identify is a boathouse below a small ranch house with three doors with three boats under cover. Do you know the place? Is it a year-rounder or a vacationer who’s gone home?”
“You sure? I don’t recognize it. Are you sure? I don’t know who the hell you are. Who are you?”
“I shit you none, man. Someone’s in the water. Maybe could die. If the guy in the boathouse house got on his way now, he could save him.”
“Who are you?”
“Lance Corporal Yancy Ditson, once of the 5th Marines, out of country.”
“Hell, yes. Never mind that shit. Move on it. Do you know the place? Whoever lives there may be the only chance for the swimmer.”
“Hang on. I’ll dial the chief. He knows everybody this end of the lake. Stay on the line.”
Dial tone. Ringing. “Hello.”
“Chief. Don’t talk. Listen. We have a swimmer off a boat on the lake. The caller says it’s not far off Veasey Shore Road. A boathouse below a small cape, three boats under cover. Do you recognize it? Fast, chief. You got to be fast. “
“Yeh, Harold Pinchon has a three-boater.”
“Is he a year-rounder or a vacationer?”
“He lives year round.”
“Call him. Ask him to at least look out the window. This guy can save who’s ever in the water. Be fast.”
Across the lake, high on his own Hill 407, Yancy Ditson, his telescope trained on the scene, saw a small and speedy boat whip out of the three-door boathouse on Veasey Shore Road, swing around a rock in the cove, and arrive in a matter of minutes at the site on the lake. Arms lifted a person aboard the small speedboat.
“Clandon,” Yancy Ditson said, “That guy’s picked up the swimmer. I think he’s hot-licking it for the town dock. Maybe the nearest hospital. Maybe the one in Plymouth. I’ve been there.”
“Gotcha, Ditson. I’ll take care of it. We can both say our prayers.”
“And our thanks all at once.”
“Maybe we can get together some time.”
“Things hold me here.”
“You a statistic?”
“Yeh. The legs.”
“I was in the 2nd Brigade, in-country too. Give me your address. I’ll take care of the details.”
A week later Yancy Ditson, on his chilly porch with autumn wrapped round him as far as he could see, heard the grinding of a Jeep engine climbing the hill. A broad-shouldered driver with a crew cut was accompanied by a pretty blonde girl. Something in him identified both of them.
Maybe the blonde girl liked astronomy or early mornings above the lake.
He thought one star was as good as another, from where he sat, halfway up his own Hill 407, with a new twist in the trail.
Image by Marcus Sammet from Pixabay
3 thoughts on “Hill 407 Reboot by Tom Sheehan”
I’ve honestly ran out of plaudits.
The best I can come up with is this is to your usual standard!!
Hope you are well my fine friend.
I thought it was going to be sad but it lifted and took off, which I was glad to see. 200 looms nearer. Top line as always.
As others have said, top notch writing. There is an honesty and truth about your style I really like – not heavy on adjectives or adverbs – and yet the reader gets such a strong sense of place. Your dialogue is very natural also. Masterful stuff.