"I didn't do anything and people want me dead. It's wrong. Why do people do the wrong thing?"
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Theresa has just completed one year at Boston College and married Steve Hartley.
Her eighteenth birthday was on May 8. It is June...............
I preferred to go to a supermarket in a direction away from Framingham because the extra three miles it took to drive along this isolated road more than made up for the waiting in Framingham traffic. It was on this road that three cars ahead of me suddenly drew abreast of each other and stopped. I was forced to stop too. Six men with handguns drawn got out of these cars and surrounded me.
“Get out of the car!” one man ordered.
I got out just as a van pulled up from behind. It was a large van with three bench seats. “Get in!” someone yelled as the door to the middle seat opened. I got in, sat down, and found myself surrounded by men pointing guns at me, three behind me and two more in the front seat.
“Isn’t this overdoing it?” I asked.
“We have our orders.”
The van started moving and I looked around at what might be my last look at familiar surroundings. I’d known for a year that the President was stewing over me and a struggle seemed pointless.
We drove a couple miles to a field where two military helicopters were waiting. “Follow us” said one of the goons. I got out of the van and followed them to the nearest helicopter. It was some kind of VIP transportation helicopter with seats looking forward like in airplanes. It was probably used to haul Generals’ butts around to important military spots like Los Vegas and Disneyworld. I sat in the seat they indicated and was strapped in. The helicopters both took off and headed south. We passed within sight of my car still on the road half a mile below. It was surrounded by dozens of cars and trucks. People were standing around talking about what happened.
Even in the helicopter they kept several guns on me. They must have suspected I had powers I didn’t admit. Well, I did.
We headed south over water at a slight angle to the east. I could see the Massachusetts and Rhode Island coastlines in the distance.
“Where are you taking me?”
“To an aircraft carrier” answered one of the men holding guns on me.
“Am I coming back?”
There it was. The death sentence. This was the last I’d see of Massachusetts.
My face softened and tears gathered in my eyes. But I didn’t cry. I’d had years to consider something like this might happen someday. Besides, I had a solid upbringing. Death wasn’t the end. It was the beginning of a wonderful eternity. Still it was natural to mourn the loss of this world.
Time passed. The helicopters headed south approximately parallel to the East coast. Beaches and cities could be seen on the right. I could no longer recognize them.
“How are you going to do it?”
“You’ll be put in a plane with an atom bomb.”
My eyebrows went up a little. Wouldn’t a bullet save taxpayers a hundred million dollars? But then I realized they wanted to destroy HAL, not me, and everybody said nothing could survive an A-bomb.
“When is this going to happen?”
“Tomorrow afternoon. It’s far away.”
They were becoming more talkative. Apparently they were relieved that I hadn’t put on the hysterical scene they expected. I had a day to think of something, if anything could be done.
“What did they tell you about me?”
“You’re a danger to the security of the United States.”
“They didn’t say. No need to know.”
They didn’t know about HAL. Should I tell them and demonstrate the strength HAL gave me? No. That would definitely convince them I was dangerous and the President knew what he was doing. My chances were better leaving them in the dark. They might chicken out at the last minute and let me go.
I remained quiet after learning of my death sentence while the helicopters continued down the coast. I couldn’t recognize the landscapes. The helicopters landed for refueling at some military airbase next to some nondescript building that might be used for anything. I was allowed to use the restroom with a warning that armed guards had the building surrounded and I couldn’t escape.
The fully fueled helicopters took off again. I let my mind wander aimlessly over the incidents of my short stay on Earth. In retrospect I’d had a charmed life. Nothing had happened to me. No attacks by sex-crazed boys. No illnesses. No traffic accidents. No run ins with the police. Nothing. If I were to write my autobiography now I’d write three lines: “I was born. I had a good time. I was vaporized by a bomb”. The negative incidents I remembered, mostly childhood experiences, were so trivial in nature they wouldn’t be worth telling in a letter. An ill-tempered dog barked and lunged at me but did not touch me. From this I had no love for dogs. When I was twelve and in my mother’s car I saw a traffic accident a short distance in front of us. Everybody drives by hundreds of accidents after they happen, but rare was the person who actually saw one happen. It was a grisly scene, a head-on collision with one driver instantly killed and two other people severely injured. Mom had to be a witness in court. This experience shook me up for a while.
Other than that my life had been an amalgam of routines. And this is what made up a life, not the spectacular events that make the news. I’d been satisfied with my quiet life.
After three helicopter flights we finally ended the day’s traveling at some kind of airbase far south. Maybe we were in Florida or somewhere around there. It had been dark for a while and I couldn’t recognize cities from lights alone. The East coast was nearly continuously densely packed residential areas with lights everywhere. Not one person down there knew what was happening to me.
I figured out why we were in helicopters. A chopper could land anywhere such as this quiet part of the airbase while planes had to land at the airstrip with lots of people watching.
They marched me to another one of those nondescript military buildings that only had numbers on them. Building number 39 turned out to be a cafeteria. It was late and no crew was on duty. The government men told me they’d arranged for food to be left out and I could help myself. I grabbed a tray while looking down the line. There was a beverage dispensing cabinet at the end. Hopefully it had plastic bottles. I walked along and picked up two tuna sandwiches, a piece of chocolate cake, an 8 oz carton of milk, and a cup of coffee. Finally, I arrived at the beverage dispenser. It was the size of a refrigerator and had a glass door you could open and grab a drink from a shelf. There were 20 oz bottles of Coke in there. I grabbed twelve bottles and put them on my tray. The men guarding me dismissed this as the irrational behavior of someone who knew she’d die in hours. One could not expect much better.
A few feet beyond the end of the cafeteria line was a garbage can. Leaving my tray on the end of the slide shelf for a moment, I walked to the garbage can to retrieve the garbage bag. It was after hours and the crew had cleaned up and put in a new bag before leaving. I pulled up the plastic bag and returned to my tray to put eleven of the twelve Coke bottles in the bag. Then I sat at the nearest table to eat.
The men watching me, three of them aiming guns at all times, were impressed by my calm. A thousand miles from home and anybody I wanted to see, surrounded by executioners, I ate methodically keeping my eyes down as if I were alone in the room. I glanced at them once in a while. Hardened as they were by a cruel world, their eyes softened at the sight of me. Perhaps they had daughters. How could they justify this?
Building 39 had a cot in a back office. They took me to it.
“Try to get some sleep” I was told. “We leave at four A. M.”
They left me alone. No doubt they had every escape route guarded. I could easily kill all of them by throwing hard objects at them, but where could I go? An army would be sent out looking for me.
I laid down on the cot and slipped the garbage bag of Coke bottles under the blanket so that it couldn’t be removed without disturbing me.
What was I to think about for the next six hours? My first thoughts were of Steve. I smiled as I recalled how awkward he looked when he walked into my dormitory room for the first time. I wore that flimsy little black dress outfit and wondered if he’d attack me or run for his life. He handled it well. Before long people saw how hard we’d fallen for each other. Girls asked if we’d been to bed. That was none of their business, but in fact we did wait for marriage. We knew we had something special and didn’t want to spoil it with regrets.
“Wake up. It’s four o’clock.”
God! I’d fallen asleep! The whole night was wasted.
I was put in a car and driven to a landing strip while it was still dark. We got into a twin turboprop used for short commutes between minor airports. It had fourteen seats in single rows separated by an aisle. It was too small for an enclosed cockpit; in fact I could see over the pilot and co-pilot’s shoulders through the windshield for a spectacular view.
As we headed out to sea the government men finally put away their guns. They weren’t needed. From this point on there was no escape.
I spoke for the first time since they put me in the helicopter.
“I have to know. Exactly when does the bomb go off?”
“When you reach sixty thousand feet.”
“They go that high?”
“They can reach a hundred thousand for a few seconds. Reminds me.” He held up an airman’s jumpsuit, a one piece covering something like the thermal underwear used by Northern outdoor workers in the winter. “You’ll have this if you want it. It gets cold like you won’t believe up there.”
“Thanks. I will.”
It fit in perfectly with my plan. I looked away so they wouldn’t see my interest. This was the last time I spoke to them.
Perhaps it was moving away from land, but for the moment Steve and my parents seemed in another world I had already left. There was nothing they could do for me. I turned to thoughts of my eternity.
When pushed to the brink someone can panic, or despair, or hope. I had always believed. Some people said they had doubts about God. I pitied them. How could they have doubts? Simple reasoning told me the universe could not be in the form it was without design. It might be a chaos, but the beautiful way it was ordered against a trillion to one odds of elements just happening to have exactly the properties needed to sustain life could only be somebody’s design. Besides that, people’s intellects could not be material alone and could not be hardwired to understand any concept presented to it. And my BC philosophy professor said the mistake that Kant, Voltaire, Locke, Fitche, Hume, Hegel, and many others made was assuming the human soul could operate on its own. It couldn’t. It needed God’s help moving thoughts and wishes along. But most of all, the goodness of my mother, father, and Steve was not something that could exist in animals. God made them above nature.
When Socrates was in prison waiting to be executed, his friend Crito urged him to escape and go to another country. Socrates said he enjoyed living in Athens all his life and owed everything to Athens. If he escaped it would be betraying the Athens people's decision even if their decision was wrong in his case. If we want this life God gives us, we must accept the bad along with the good. This is a life well-spent.
I recited a prayer in my mind as best I could remember it. It was not a standard Church prayer but was fitting for the end.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie in green pastures; he leadeth me to still waters. Though I walk through the valley of death I will fear no evil for thou art with me. Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
The flight lasted for hours. I’d grown tired of thinking hard and let my mind wander through simple memories. My time had run out. The important issues were settled. My name was written in the book. There was nothing left to do.
I saw an aircraft carrier and its half dozen support ships many miles in the distance. So this was the end. But strangely I was not afraid. I was past that.
“This is a refueling stop” said the nearest government man. “Our destination is further on.”
He got up and moved closer to me.
“When we land the plane stops with a jolt. It can break your neck. We have to get you ready.”
He and his partner got to work. They buckled the seat belt across my hips. They stuffed large pillows in front of my legs until they were packed in so tightly they couldn’t slip a hand in.
“Raise your arms” I was told. I did and they unrolled a long belt, wrapped it around the seat and my armpits, and secured it high on my chest.
“Put your hands on your forehead.” I did. “When we approach the deck close your eyes and push back on your forehead hard or you could break your neck. Can you remember that?”
We descended and slowed down. It was somewhat dramatic to watch the approach to the carrier deck. Few people had experienced this.
“Sixty seconds” said the pilot over the intercom. Groups of sailors could be seen on the edge of the deck furthest from the landing strip. “Thirty seconds.” The sailors disappeared over the deck’s edge although they could keep their heads up to watch the landing. “Fifteen seconds.” I put my hands to my forehead. “Five seconds.” I closed my eyes.
The wheels hit the deck and squealed. The tail hook snared a cable and the plane decelerated from 110 m.p.h. to zero in a second. The G-forces were incredible. It felt like a giant was trying to rip my arms out of their sockets. My head floated around a bit because I was dizzy.
“You did well” said one of them.
He came over to remove my chest harness and the pillows packed in front of my legs.
A vehicle that looked like a small tanker truck rolled out and the plane was refueled. Then the plane taxied up to the catapult cable. The catapult was a large piston and cylinder hidden under the deck that was powered by steam. When it was actuated steam pushed the piston down the long cylinder and the piston pulled a cable attached to a hook at the front of the plane.
The cable was attached. The engines were revved up to the max and we took off from zero to 120 m.p.h. in three and a half seconds. I was crushed back in my seat. No wonder the pilots liked the thrill of their job.
“That was nothing” said the man to my left. “Wait ’til the jet takeoff.”
I rolled my eyes to Heaven. These guys had to be crazy. Did they think I was enjoying this adventure? I was getting tired of it. It seemed like a week since they forced me out of the car. I just wanted to get this business done.
I checked my watch. Three o’clock. It was another long, boring flight which left my tired mind nearly blank. I’d almost forgotten what the trip was for. Through blurry eyes I saw the second carrier in the distance.
The procedure was the same. Pillows were tightly packed in front of my legs. The chest harness was secured. I was reminded about closing my eyes and pushing back on my head. We landed with the same instant stop. This was the end of the line.
They removed the pillows and belts and handed me the jumpsuit. I stepped in the aisle to put it on. I picked up the garbage bag of Coke bottles and followed the goons out the door.
The carrier had thousands of sailors but they were all below except for a few men needed to handle the planes. There was a group of a dozen officers some distance away. The goons and I walked to them.
The officers seemed shocked to see me. I guessed they had not been told the person being executed was an eighteen year old girl. That’s why everybody else was below deck. I could have caused a mutiny.
We arrived at the group of officers and waited while the jet plane was prepared. The oldest looking officer said, “They didn’t tell me you were a girl.” I was right. They hadn’t known. Would it have made a difference? Probably not.
There were three female officers in this group. The Captain probably thought the condemned man deserved a last look at females.
One of the women asked my goons, “What did she do?”
“We don’t know, ma’am.”
“How long were you with her?”
“Since yesterday morning. She hasn’t said fifty words.”
This triggered something in the young woman’s brain. She thought I should have the opportunity to say something in my defense. Nobody had been given a protocol so this young woman pulled a cellphone from her pants pocket and boldly walked around the government men until she was almost in front of me. She held up the cellphone and activated the video mode.
“Do you have anything to say?” she asked.
I was nervous, but at this point I was more disgusted than nervous.
“This is the most stupid thing ever done. I’m glad I won’t be here to see what happens.”
She sounded disappointed. “Is that all you have to say?”
My face softened. Yes, that was the wrong way to leave my family hanging.
I once read a famous quote by the Shawnee Indian Chief Tecumseh about singing a death song and going out like a hero. I had rewritten it for more universal use, never dreaming that I’d use it myself so soon.
“If people grieve your passing rejoice in the good you did and die like a hero going home.”
She was more than satisfied with that. She was thrilled. Surely nothing better could be said.
One of the goons said, “Time to go”. Everybody advanced to the jet.
I climbed a ladder and awkwardly got into the cockpit still carrying the garbage bag of Coke bottles. A seaman on another ladder on the other side of the plane reached into the cockpit to get an oxygen mask attached to a long plastic tube. He put it on to make sure it was working. “This is oxygen. You’ll need it up there” he explained and put the mask over my nose and mouth. An elastic strap around my head secured it in place. He waited a moment. “Are you getting oxygen?” I nodded.
An X shaped seat belt was attached to my seat near my shoulders and by my hips. This was two belts stitched together over my chest. Given my small size and this device’s tight fit, besides its impracticality for escaping the plane quickly, I guessed they’d designed it just for me.
The canopy was mounted on a heavy frame. The crewman lowered it like a closing clamshell and moved it forward. Something slid into place to lock the canopy.
While all this was being done, the catapult cable was put on the bow hook. Everything was ready. The crewman climbed down and the ladders were removed.
The officers disappeared into the conning tower to watch the show. A couple minutes later the jet engine of my plane started up. In thirty seconds engine thrust reached a stable speed. They had to be checking it for problems by remote control sensors. The plane was freed and the catapult engaged. I was accelerated from zero to 165 m.p.h. in two seconds. The pressure on my back was unbelievable. The man had not exaggerated.
The plane climbed steadily. There was no time to lose. I went to work immediately.
First, the seat belt harness had to go. I felt around the belt attachments next to my hips for release buttons. I couldn’t find any. The belts seemed to disappear into metal slots. It was the same at my shoulders. There was no time to waste looking for the release mechanism. I reached my right hand down to grasp the belt at my left hip. I pulled and pulled with ever increasing force. The belt stretched and grew thinner until it snapped with a dull pop. I repeated the procedure on the belt next to my right hip with my left hand. I did the same with the belt attachments at my shoulders, pulling forward with both hands, my back pressing against the seat to provide a counterforce. The harness was free. It was much simpler to pull the stitched X in the middle apart. This gave me two belts. I tied two ends together to give me one. Finally, I wrapped it around my waist and tied the other two ends together. This would keep the Coke bottles from moving below my waist. I wanted them to stay up around my chest. The jumpsuit had a zipper from the collar to the crotch. I unzipped it down to the makeshift belt.
I checked the instrument panel. The important mechanical altimeter was easy to find. 11,320 feet. Two miles. All right. I was doing well. I had time to do some of the bottles.
I grabbed the garbage bag of Coke bottles and put it in my lap. I uncapped a bottle, poured its contents on the floor, tore off a small piece of garbage bag, wrapped it over the opening of the empty bottle, and screwed the cap over the plastic covered neck. That should make a water tight seal. The bottle went inside the jumpsuit under my left armpit. I did the same procedure with a second bottle which went under my right armpit. And a third bottle went on my left side. A fourth bottle went on the right.
The altimeter read 22,190 feet. I was doing great.
More bottles were emptied, sealed with plastic and capped, and jammed into my jumpsuit. Eleven bottles would provide enough buoyancy to keep my head well above water.
The altimeter read 47,520 feet. I watched it carefully. It was nearly over.
I thought once more of Steve, of the good times, of the funny moments, of the private hours. I now understood his purpose. He helped me walk over the unsteady ground to home. In him, I had a foretaste of the Father.
The altimeter read 54,140 feet. It was time to go home. As a believer, I was sure I was immortal and that gave me courage. I pulled off the oxygen mask and said a silent prayer in my mind.
Father, forgive me for all my sins. Take me into your house forever.
I stood up on the seat and turned around to face the rear of the plane. The canopy was a few inches above my head. I pushed my hands up against it hard. It didn’t budge. I increased the pressure and kept increasing it. Still it didn’t move. How much pressure could I exert? I didn’t know. There was never a reason to find out but it must be enormous.
The canopy was moving! Something somewhere was distorting. Metal or something was being stretched, torn, destroyed………
The canopy suddenly flew off. I instantly covered my face with my arms as my body was sucked out of the plane. I somersaulted rapidly head over heels.
I was very afraid because leaving the plane guaranteed my death. But I was nowhere near panicking. I knew there was a better world after this one.
The first thing I noticed was the complete silence. The scream of the jet had lasted only a few seconds. As the plane moved away it quickly went silent. Except for my breathing which sent throat sounds through bone to my ear there was absolutely no sound. On the ground there was always some background sound even if a person wasn’t aware of it. Up here there was nothing.
The second thing I noticed was the extreme cold. My fingers went numb in seconds. Without the jumpsuit I might already be dead.
The bomb went off miles away. The light was so intense I could see it through the flesh of my arms.
As I fell the air temperature climbed rapidly. A minute after leaving the plane it was no longer cold enough the suck the heat right through my jumpsuit. I was keeping some of the heat.
I still somersaulted wildly. I took my arms off my face but kept my eyes shut. Films of skydivers showed them stretching their arms and legs out with knees slightly bent and arms back past the plane of the torso. This had the effect of a badminton shuttlecock to keep the body falling true. I stretched out my arms and legs. Momentum from the somersaulting kept my body turning over in all kinds of angles, but the turning was slowing down. Finally, I stopped turning over. My body was in a stable face down position.
The air temperature had passed into tolerable territory. I opened my eyes slightly, just enough to see something. The clouds were still far below. I closed my eyes for a while.
I opened my eyes again and saw the cotton ball clouds just below. It appeared I was going to pass between two of them somewhat close to one. I reached the top of the cloud layer, fell between the half mile thick clouds, and finally I was below them.
I’d been falling for minutes. Choppy waves in the thousands were visible on the ocean’s surface. The strong wind that buffeted my hair on the carrier deck stirred the water. I was glad to see the waves. They’d make it possible to know exactly when I’d hit the water.
The waves appeared larger every second. Their approach seemed to speed up and I knew there were only seconds left. Once again I covered my face with my arms. My body made a hard belly flop. I was knocked out.
The waves brushing my face were stimulating. I regained consciousness. It was the South Atlantic far below the equator, and for the Southern Hemisphere June was like December in the North. The water was ice cold. My feet and ankles hurt but there was no escaping it. I started whimpering. The cold sank deeper into my bones. I yelled and thrashed the water. It got worse and worse. Now I was close to panic and screamed. Dying was bad enough. How painful would this get?
In a couple of minutes my lower legs went numb. The skin all over my body was losing nervous sensation. My screaming stopped to be replaced by intermittent whimpering and groans.
It was nearly over now. I quieted down.
It was time. All accounts were settled. All debts were paid. I had no more use for this world.
I passed out.