The following is an excerpt from the novel, The Men of Honor of Unity House, and it is based upon my experiences working with foster care kids in a residential facility. To access all the excepts, click on “Categories” in the column to the right and scroll down to The Men of Honor of Unity House, then click again.
Day One, 12:15 p.m.
Unity House had survived, relatively. Our propane tank and its connections to our stoves and hot water heater had not ruptured, nor our in-ground utility lines. In gratitude, I kissed the light switch in my office. I guess years of watching my wife’s Bube kiss the mezuzah on our front door in LA had left its mark. Frankly, being located in a working class neighborhood close to the public utility plants was a life-saver.
Further, we were built rock-solid, literally, deep into the southeast side of Union Hill to protect it from the wintry winds from the north, as Unity House had been constructed atop the original foundation of one of the buildings of the old McAllister farm, which dated back to 1859. In effect, Unity House was half earth-bermed and it was to prove to be a total life-saver.
But, in its farming heyday the house had a beautiful view of the sloping corn fields to the east and south, and the old-timers say that before the farms of the Eastside filled with triple-deckers – those rickety, wooden working class condos that are Worcester’s architectural signature – they could see Lake Quinsigamond lying beyond the Eastside flats. On a clear autumnal day like our Day One, the apple orchards and dairy farms of Shrewsbury would have been visible fifteen miles further east.
Unity House was built like an “E,” with the three prongs facing eastward away from the blast. The windows on the long, back side of the “E” facing west toward the blast were totally blown-in, but we suffered only a minimal amount of dust blown inside due to their small size and the sheltering effects of the hill.
The rooms along the top and bottom of the “E” – the south and north perimeters – had the most problematic damage because this was where the guys lived, one to a room in accordance with state regulations and clinical prudence. Most of these windows were blown-in or severely cracked, and a coating of dust blanketed beds, clothes and desk tops.
On a second go-round, Terry, Jeannie, and I duct-taped the bejeesus out of the cracked windows, or improvised coverings from cardboard if the glass was gone.
Thank God it’s not winter, I thought. And we’ve got to vacuum this dust up before the guys return.
In the front of the house we had been even more fortunate. Located in the middle of the “E” was a big, bay window of the Commons room and it had multiple cracks, including one long one that ran the entire horizontal length near the top. Nevertheless, it was intact, and I secured it with a grid-like pattern of bed slats and Liquid Nails from my carpentry shop downstairs. As I squeezed the sticky stuff onto the glass, I blessed the expertise of the old-time craftsmen for installing that big pane “right and tight” – fully balanced, plumb and level.
We weren’t sure we had been hit by a nuke like Beijing the year before, but we didn’t want to take any chances. Most of the rooms seemed readily salvageable, so after fixing the windows we removed the dust. Wearing aprons, dust masks and gloves, we swept and vacuumed the rooms to near-perfection, then parked the vacuum and half a dozen filled collection bags on the rear loading dock, far away from life inside the house.
Angie, still lying on the floor, and Gina on a bench in the staff office watched our efforts without saying a word. After another round of showers we propped Angie in one of Terry’s over-stuffed chairs while Gina stayed put. Finally, we gathered around them to discuss our next course of action.
“How’s everybody doing, eh?” Terry asked.
I shrugged and looked at Gina who had gauze-wrapped bandages on her forehead and left cheek, both arms, and left leg and knee. She smiled weakly.
“We made it, Terry,” Gina whispered. “Thank God we made it.”
“Yes, thank God we all made it,” Terry exclaimed. “And thank God all the guys are at school. It gives us a chance to think without them going nuts around us. I sure wish my cell phone worked though, or these land-lines. I’d sure like to know what happened.”
“I agree, and I hope the guys are okay,” I replied. “Sixty teachers at the high school and twelve hundred teenagers, oy vey.”
“Who do you think set off the bomb? Al Queda? Do you really think it was a nuke?” Jeannie asked.
“Who knows,” Terry said. But, it’s got to be a nuke. I can’t imagine what else could have caused such a blast.
“How about some chemical plant in the South Valley? Something really ugly that’s going to get a Congressional inquiry, as if that ever changes anything,” Jeannie continued. “But, if it was a nuclear bomb, it could have been the Army’s. I read in the Gazette last year that the Army stores nuclear devices in urban armories when transporting them across the country.”
“You’re kidding me,” Gina said.
“No, I couldn’t’ believe it either, when I read it,” Jeannie answered.
“That’s a screwed up scenario, Jeannie, if some dumb shit at the Armory blew us up,” I said. “But, maybe you’re right, because why Worcester? If it was a terrorist attack, you’d think they’d go for Boston.”
“You’ve right on that point, Davila,” Terry said, using my diminutive Hebrew nickname that my family uses. “But, I fear for this country regardless of whatever exploded and whoever’s responsible. I hope this doesn’t bring out the crazies, or start another war.”
We all nodded.
“Anyway, who wants coffee?” I asked, laughing, seeing our staff coffee pot still brewing away. “We’re lucky to still have electricity. The hill really saved our butts.”
“Yeah, but we need a phone, or a working radio,” Jeannie countered. “I’ve tried my cell over and over, and I even turned on my boom box, too, to see if anything was coming over the radio. There’s nothing but static, AM or FM.”
“Me, too,” replied Terry. “I’ve gotten nothing.”
We turned on the TV to double-check. The screen came to life but only offered a blur of white snow.
A few minutes later after a round of coffee, we heard a cell phone ring in an adjoining room.
“Now, my cell phone works!” shouted Terry, running into her office to retrieve it from her purse.
“It’s Jim, my husband Jim,” she shouted, seeing the caller ID. “He’s down at Hansom Air Base!” She paused.
“It was a nuke!” she shouted out to us. “They’re going into lock down, but he was able to get this call out. He says the Air Force has officially confirmed it was a nuke.” Terry turned her head back into the semi-privacy of her office.
“Bye, Hon,” she whispered into the phone. “You too … I love you, too.” She clicked it closed and rejoined us.
“Since you have the only phone that seems to be working,” Jeannie asked, “can I borrow it to call home?”
“Me, too,” Gina added.
Angie looked at Terry and slowly raised her hand to signal, ‘me three.’
“Sure, here ya go,” Terry said, passing off the phone.
She then turned to me and motioned with her head to follow her outside. After walking a few steps down the hallway she asked, “Do you have any kids, Dave?”
“No,” I replied.
“Separated. I’m getting a di-…”
”That’s what I thought,” Terry interrupted, not needing to hear that I had decided to get a divorce once I had the money for a lawyer.
I had been on the job for ten months, which made me the newest clinical hire at the Alliance. I had moved back to my family’s roots in Worcester after two lay-offs in LA and another marital debacle, but I had been around long enough to get drunk at the Alliance’s Christmas-Chanukah party. In my inebriation I treated everyone to a “psychotherapist-goes-crazy-in-front-of-his-co-workers-as-his-marriage-goes-in-the-toilet-again” moment, including screaming at a cute social worker who refused to dance with me, and throwing a glass of wine at a Tea Party-loving administrator who wanted us to sing “White Christmas” in support of our troops in the Persian Gulf. It wasn’t pretty, and after a formal reprimand and an apology to all concerned none of my colleagues ever mentioned the incident again.
“Look,” Terry said, “it’s going to be just you and me here, I mean for the boys. Everyone else here has got family. With the crapola hitting the fan they’re all going to leave and I can’t blame them. Their first responsibility is to their own families. Me, it’s just me and Jim, and Jim’ll be down at Hanscom until the Second Coming. So, I can stay. Will you?”
“Yeah, sure,” I said. I didn’t hesitate, and I wondered about that. “What do you think the guys will do?”
“The ones at the high school will be back, you can count on it. What are the teachers supposed to do? They’ll try to keep the kids at school until someone gives them the authority to release them, but our guys’ll just jump out a window and get back here – no one will stop them. This is their home, their only one, even though they bitch about it every five minutes.”
Unity’s young men were all from foster care, part of the nearly one-million of America’s uncared for, or unwanted children. Most didn’t have a mother, or if they did she was in a state institution: psychiatric, rehabilitative, or correctional. And in all my time with these kids I never saw a dad.
Ten minutes later, Willy, 16, and Trey, 17, proved Terry prophetic.
“Yo, folks we got nuked, but we made it,” shouted Trey, low-fiving with Willy as they walked in the door, both of them juking, jiving and enjoying the latest adventure of their lives, nuclear war.
“Yo, Terr-ie, what IS for lunch, eh?” sang Willy. “We’s keeping to the daily schedule right, lunch at 12-noon? Remember how important Dave says schedules are? We gotta keep our lives structured, especially in times of stress. Right, Dave?”
They loved to throw my clinical jargon back in my face, and they beamed. I smiled back. I was proud of them being able to give me crap in a nice kind of way.
“As soon as Angie is off the phone, she’ll open up the kitchen,” said Terry.
“Yo, Terr-ie, why can’t you open up the kitchen?” teased Trey. “You got the keys. You got the keys to everything except the keys to my heart. Oooh…”
Trey and Willy made a great pair of buds. They could go either way together: jail or making a life, like graduating from high school and getting a job, or going on to Worcester Technical, maybe even Clark.
“No. As you have just reminded me,” Terry replied, “schedules are important in times of stress and it’s Angie’s job to supervise lunch. So, in the interest of my stress reduction and yours, we’ll wait for Angie.” Terry turned to leave. Pivoting, she brushed Trey on the arm with the back of her hand, saying sotto voce, “You just wish I had the keys to your heart.”
“Oh, yo, mamma. No-No-No. You are toooooo old for me. I am just such a young studly one, and I gotta find myself a young fox,” Trey cooed.
Smiling, he and Willy sauntered down the south hallway to their rooms to wait for the call from Angie.
“Wait,” I said. “Guys, you gotta take showers and wash your clothes. The dust is radioactive. Put fresh clothes on.”
“Ah, man, I took a shower already this morning,” Trey argued.
“No. You take a shower, now. You’re radioactive and I don’t want you dropping contaminated dust all over the house.”
“”You gonna make us?” challenged Willy, still in total smirky, smart-ass mode.
“Two points off for every minute you delay. Yes, I’m gonna make you. My life is at stake here, too. I don’t want to breathe your radioactive dust. And I won’t.”
“Two points? That’ll drop me off alpha. It should be only one point,” demanded Willy.
“Two points starting once I count to three. One… Two… I don’t see anybody moving to take a shower. If I get to three, you both lose two points…”
I took a breath and was about to utter, “Three,” when they turned just in time.
“Jeez, two points,” Trey said, walking down the hallway, loud enough for me to hear clearly. “That’s not fair. I hate this place. Rules, rules, rules. I can’t breathe here, even if it’s NOT RADIOACTIVE.”
I gave you a break, buster. Angie would have taken three points away and not have counted to three. You’re still getting full privileges because of me, thank-you-very-much.
Seeing them track dust down the hallway, I made a mental note to lay down strips of newspaper as carpet runners that we could roll up and discard, keeping the dust to a minimum.
Terry was back in the office talking with the staff. I knew she was discussing the question of whether they would stay or go, and when. First, we had to know if it was safe to be out in the fallout, and if not, when. A powdery mist was still falling, and the clear, blue sky of our October morning had turned a hazy, grayish-brown.
I started to walk toward them when I heard pounding on the outer kitchen door.
I went over and unlocked the door to find our SYSCO driver, Bill. He was sweaty, bloody and covered in dust. He was also in shock and spoke in torrents.
“The bomb flipped me over just as I was coming up Shannon to make a delivery at St. Vincent’s. I got rolled down into the ravine next to ya. My radio’s still working and dispatch says to get off the roads and stay indoors. I think I might have been conked-out, too, for a bit, because I’ve been in the truck for a while. But, they say on the radio that it was a nuke and the dust is radioactive. Can I come in? I know I’m not due here until tomorrow but I figured you might need what I got on the truck. There’s no telling what’s gonna happen but we’re all gonna get hungry and I’ve got the food and you got the kitchen and a bed downstairs if I gotta spend the night. ‘Any port in a storm,’ my father used to say and you’re my port even if you got all those wacky kids.”
“Take a breath, will you, Bill. Please,” I pleaded. “And come in, but first shake off all that dust, and Bill you’re bleeding.” On his upper lip a big blotch of blood had dried, and a wound on the side of his head still dripped onto his shoulder.
“Bill,” I said as I looked at his head wound. “You might have a concussion. You feel okay? Nauseous?”
“Yeah…no…sure…I mean…” Bill stomped his feet and shook off his dust, but he wasn’t making sense. Once inside however, his speech cleared. “I banged my head I guess, when I rolled. And bloodied my nose, but I was wearing my seat belt.” Putting his hand to his head and ear he felt his blood.
“Oooh, ouch, yeah, it hurts when I touch it. I guess I cut myself… must have passed out for a bit, too….Got any band-aids or something? What time is it?”
“Sure, Bill right here, but how about a glass of water, first” I said, motioning to the sink and then our first aid kit mounted on the kitchen wall. I gave my arm to Bill who grabbed it and steadied himself as we took a couple steps into the kitchen.
“Jeez, it was big. Do ya think it was a nuke? Hunh? Whaddaya think?”
“I do. Terry’s husband is in the Air Force and he called us to say it was a nuke. The shock waves sure felt like it was a nuke. You sure you’re okay? Is your vision okay? Dizzy?”
”No, yeah, I can see okay. My head’s just a little tender here on the side, and my nose ain’t broken or nothin’. Dizzy? Well, I sure don’t feel like dancin’, but I’m okay. How’d your guys make out here? The kids all right? How’s Terry? Angie?”
Bill wasn’t one-hundred percent, but he seemed to have avoided any broken limbs, internal injuries or serious head trauma. I hoped his pressured speech was a combination of shock, laceration and anxiety – and not serious brain injury. One thing was certain, he sure wanted to talk and I took that as a good sign.
“We’re pretty good here, Bill.”
“Me and my good ol’ International made it through a nuke. Cool, eh? Even rolling down a hill. It’s in the ravine just next to your building. On its side.” He laughed, and that continued to reassure me.
“I’m really glad you made it Bill, and I’m doubly glad you’re here,” I said. I poured him a glass of water, and then as he drank I pushed aside the hair above his left ear and applied the first of three extra-large band aids even if they stuck to his thinning hair.
“Oooh. Take it easy, doc, will ya?” He laughed again. I felt more reassured by the minute. The cut didn’t look too bad, more long than deep, and the bruising was minimal. That confirmed for me that Bill didn’t have a serious head injury.
“I’m sure we’ll need all the food you’ve got,” I continued. “Our pantry’s got food for about two weeks usually, but you never know how long we’re gonna be holed-up here. You got a wife, kids?”
“Yeah, I got one kid; six.”
“You gonna try to make it home?”
“Yeah, as soon as I can. But, dispatch said it’s pretty dangerous outside. They said it won’t be safe for awhile, a day or so at least, and even then you can’t go out for more than a coupla minutes.”
“Jeez, I had no idea it was that serious. I just went though a tiff with two of my guys about washing the dust off. But days? I thought you had to be in a straight line of exposure to get really deadly radiation. Ya know, like being right in the line of fire. I thought the fallout was more like a long-term thing, like contaminating cow’s milk, y’know, through the grass that gets dusted, or leaving the dust on you and getting cancer.”
“Why don’t you go down to the bathroom in the south hallway,” I continued, “and take a shower. I’ll go down to the basement and get some sweat suits for you, whatever looks like it’ll fit ya.”
I introduced Bill to everyone, then he left to wash and I went down to look for more adult-sized clothes.
Radiation? How serious is it? Willy and Trey must have run the entire distance to get here as fast as they did. How much did they breathe in? If they get radiation sickness how can we tell? How can we help them…?
In the bathroom I threw Bill his new clothes and asked him to join us in the staff office when he finished. Central to the whole house, our office had a direct view of the hallways, kitchen, dining room, and the big Commons room. It also had a heavy oak table that felt rock solid and conveyed stability as we leaned our elbows on it to chart an uncertain future.
“I’d like Bill, the SYSCO guy, to stay with us,” I announced, “if that’s okay with you all. He said his dispatch radio was telling everyone to seek shelter and get off the roads because the radiation is too strong. You can’t even think of venturing out in it for a day or so.”
“Really?” said Jeannie. “I was going to head home. I’ve got three young kids and I don’t know if they’re okay. I couldn’t reach them on Terry’s cell phone. It’s not working again, nor any of the others, even land-line phones.”
“Me, too,” Angie added. “I got two kids. I gotta check on them,”
“We’ve been talking, Dave,” said Terry, “and I told them that you and I have spoken and that we’re going to stay here since we don’t have any family responsibilities. They do, and they’ve got to get out of here as soon as possible, regardless of what is happening with our guys.”
“I agree, absolutely,” I said. “Gina, Jeannie, Angie, go as soon as you can but it looks like you’ll be here for at least the rest of the day.”
“I can’t do that, Dave,” Jeannie said. “I have to get home and make sure my children are okay. I’ve got three young kids, two in day care. God knows what’s going on with them. We don’t know what’s going on out in the world; it could be pandemonium, the gangs could be taking over in this mess. Who knows for sure things won’t get worse before they get better, you? Even if there are dangers now it might still be our best, maybe our only time to leave. So, I’m taking off as soon as things are squared away here. I’m not even official Unity House staff. I just…”
Jeannie stopped, not wanting to cause friction by stating the obvious, that she only had her office in Unity House and wasn’t really “one of us.” But the issue had been put in the air and the hairs on the back of my neck rose up.
Calm down, Dave, I said to myself, this isn’t a contest to see who’s smarter or right. It’s a mother wanting to do the best for her kids.
“Well, my boys are teenagers at North High,” mused Angie, breaking the tension. “So, Trey and Willy can give me a better idea of what is going on with my kids. I guess I can stay for a while.”
“One of mine is home with my husband, she’s four,” Gina countered. “My husband, Allie, has MS and he’s okay, but he can’t drive and my oldest is ten and at school. I know I’m a little banged-up, but I’m really okay. I don’t know….” Her voiced trailed off.
Bill came in at that moment. “What did you hear on your radio?” the ladies clamored in one voice. “Terry’s cell phone doesn’t work anymore. – We can’t reach the Air Force or the police. – We’re just getting white noise. – The TV is just total static. – What’s happening out there? – What should we do?”
“Stay off the roads is all I got,” replied Bill. “It was scratchy, but I got it. Dispatch is in Springfield, so maybe they have less static out there since it looks like the cloud is moving north and east. But really, I don’t know how they got the information.”
Abruptly though, our deliberation was cut short by the sound of a motorcycle screaming into Unity’s parking lot. We rushed out of the office and over to the bay window. In horror we watched two laughing, shouting, cursing teenage boys wheelie to our front door and dump their bike, a vintage 750 cc BMW. Slithering through the dust and debris, they smiled and walked inside.
Two more of our guys were home.
© Bruce A. Smith 2011