By Bruce A. Smith
The Men of Honor if Unity House is a novel based upon my experiences as a therapist at a foster care facility for young men coping with sexual assault charges. In 2001, during the Anthrax scare that followed 9-11, my agency’s director and I mapped out a plan for how we would deal with our men, aged 12-18, if we had to go into lockdown in the event of a local terrorist attack. The following pages are based upon those discussions.
The plot so far: A 2-kiloton suitcase nuke explodes in Worcester, Massachusetts, and the staff of Unity House from the Men of Honor Society for two purposes: One, keep the twelve teen-aged boys of Unity House busy and not fighting each other, and two, to act as a rescue group to the local neighborhood. Due to the destruction and radiation, the police and army can not get into this section of Worcester. The people living on Marion Avenue and Plantation Street only have the Men of Honor aiding them.
Day Five, 11am
Ryan and I had a Gator at our disposal, but first we built a fourth Mylar structure near the south hallway door and closest to our parking lot, which would make things easier for us when the medical convoys and dozens of military personnel arrived.
With its cut-out back rests, a Gator is the vehicle of choice for irradiated travel because the rad suits were too bulky for us to fit comfortably in any normal vehicle. Our suits were half as bulky as Eric’s, but they still had the rear-mounted battery compartment for the blower motor which blew outside air through filters into the helmet of the one-piece body suit.
Our rad suits were much like an insulated Carhartt work suit, except it was whitish and smooth, with multiple layers. One of the layers was a metal mesh fabric which blocked the radiation, while another layer was made of moisture absorbent material. But even with that absorption protection we really sweated if we didn’t take it slow and easy.
The helmet took a little getting used to since it had a tapered point in the middle of the screen that distorted one’s vision. Plus, too much physical movement created a sweat that fogged up the lens. So, we always moved in slow motion, which helped us conserve strength and compelled us to focus clearly on the task at hand.
We looked just like astronauts, really, although maybe not quite as puffy. Our suits were certainly much thinner than Eric’s, though. Our suits were designed specifically for the type of protection we needed: alpha and beta dust, three-five days post-nuke, whereas Eric’s was the kind that you could walk into a nuclear accident and shake hands with the plutonium.
Our specific job was to “first respond” the Union Hill neighborhood. First respond meant “Contact, Inform, and Assist.” Our area was the five blocks north of Unity to Hamilton, the fourteen blocks east to the lake area, the two blocks west that included what was left of Shannon Street and the downhill side of Marion, South, and Dorchester Streets, and ten blocks south along the Granite Street-Heywood corridor to Derby Street and then over to Massasoit.
Worcester City Police from its station at Grafton and Arcadia, and Mass-Fire and Rescue airlifted into Lake Quinsigamond State Park, covered everything else on the Eastside, traveling along the Grafton Street corridor south to Route 20 and north to U-Mass Medical on Route 9. FEMA and the Mass National Guard concentrated on everything else north and west.
Thus, Unity had responsibility for an approximate sixty-block area, with over three-hundred homes and a few small apartment buildings. All told we had a potential of 2,500 neighbors to check out. Our first priority was to scout for towels on front doors or other signs of distress.
“Can I drive?” Ryan asked, as I headed to the driver’s side of the Gator.
I hesitated, and Ryan continued.
“I know how to drive. C’mon, Dave, I’ve been driving since I was a kid.”
“Yeah, my Uncle Johnny taught me how to drive his truck that one summer I lived with him and Aunt Jo.” I was skeptical.
“How old were you?”
“Twelve-years old and you drove your Uncle’s pickup truck?”
“I’ve always been big for my age.”
“That was the summer you got in all your trouble, wasn’t it?”
That was the summer Ryan raped his Uncle Johnny’s thirteen-year old female neighbor. That was the summer he killed his Uncle Johnny’s German Shepherd. That was the summer he set fire to the dumpster at the elementary school in Uncle Johnny’s town of Stoughton. That was the summer Ryan’s mother began her year-long stretch in Brockton State Hospital to deal with her schizophrenia. That was the summer Ryan began bouncing from relative to relative, trying to find someone who could control his hormones, his confusion, and his angry, explosive violence that almost caused the strangling death of his sixteen-year old cousin. That was the summer Ryan went to prison. That was the summer Ryan became a ward of the state. It was quite a summer.
“Ryan, I dunno. Let’s see how it goes. Let me drive and I’ll think about it.”
Oy vey, no license, it’s government property, what if he runs somebody over? I’d be red meat for the state review board. Thoughts like that ran through my head as I drove down TT’s road through the Abbey Gardens to Heywood.
After three blocks we didn’t see any towels, and I began to wonder if we were going to have any customers.
“Whaddya think, Ryan, see anything? Any towels?”
“I guess we’ll keep on going and see what’s up.”
We turned onto Houghton, and looking south we could see for a mile the overwhelming chaos outside our hilltop oasis: smashed cars, trees limbs, torn-apart buildings, glass, signs, furniture, and aluminum siding blown everywhere. It was the biggest mess I’d ever seen, and a lot worse than what I’d encountered going to the High School. This southern section was significantly harder hit. From where we stood Worcester South looked like the wrecked remains of a sci-fi superstorm.
Weaving between rubble on Houghton, we continued on to Park Terrace and saw towels everywhere. I parked in the middle of the street, behind a mangled Chevy pickup.
“Let’s go to the first house together and see how it goes,” I suggested.
“Okay,” Ryan said.
We waddled up to the first house, a one-story wooden stick frame structure with no driveway or garage. When these houses were built, no one figured working class folks at American Steel and Wire would ever be able to afford a car. Such is the charm of Worcester’s history.
We knocked on the door. No answer. I knocked again, while Ryan walked around the side.
“Don’t scare anyone, Ryan.”
“There’s someone lying on the floor, Dave.”
“You see them through the window?”
We tried opening the door, but it was locked.
“Shit, how we gonna get in?” I said.
“We need a crow bar,” Ryan stated confidently, and began to look around the property.
That’s my Ryan, always thinking.
He led me to the back of the house where we found a large storage shed. It too, was locked, but Ryan wrapped one of his fingers underneath the metal clasp, and with a grunt pulled it off.
One finger, cool.
Inside we found a good-sized workshop with a couple of large flat-blade screwdrivers, a hammer, and a cat’s claw.
We went back out front.
I started banging away with the hammer and flat bar but didn’t get anywhere, so Ryan said, “Let me try.”
I handed the tools to Ryan and he placed the cat’s claw right in the crack of the doorjamb above the knob. Three mighty whacks and he had the bar wedged tight.
“Now what?” I asked.
“I dunno, let me think.” Ryan took one of the screwdrivers and wedged it in underneath the knob. He then torqued the screwdriver and slid the cat’s claw into the jam and said, “Put your body into the door when I give ya the word.”
“One …two… three. Go!”
Ryan applied maximum twist onto the tools and I put 220 pounds of clinical mass into the door. She popped right open until the chain latch went tight.
“No problem,” responded Ryan, giving the door a high karate kick right below the chain.
“Boingggg.” We were in.
On the floor a few steps in from the door lay an unconscious woman about sixty.
“Help me pick her up, Ryan.”
“Let’s carry her out to the Gator.”
“She sure is heavier than she looks, eh, Dave?”
“I gotta put her down, Ryan… Whew.”
We had only taken her to the doorway and I was pooped and sweating.
“Why don’t I back up the Gator so we don’t have to carry her so far,” Ryan suggested.
“Good idea. Are you sure you can drive?”
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
“I’ll go with you and watch, just in case.”
The Gator had a standard four-speed transmission. Although Ryan had trouble with ‘a little clutch, a little gas,’ he got the hang of it after a couple of tries. It was obviously not his first time behind a wheel, but I just couldn’t believe his uncle had let him drive a truck when he was twelve.
Ryan backed it up, and we half-carried, half-dragged this woman onto the Gator.
“Better let me drive, Ryan,” I said as he headed for the driver’s side. “I want to talk to my boss before I let you drive all over town.”
“Okay, but I can drive.”
“I know you can; I just saw ya. I’ve taught a lot of kids how to drive and it took ‘em forever to learn stick, so I can tell you can drive.”
“The front door is wide open. We can’t leave the house open like that. This neighborhood’s gonna rip it clean.”
“You’re right; any suggestions?
“Hmmm… We can nail the front door shut from the inside and go out the back. The back door we’ll have to leave unlocked, but it’ll look like it’s all locked up unless someone tries it.”
“Good idea, Ryan. You can do that while I take this lady back.” It seemed like a good idea, but something stopped me.
“Ah, wait a second, Ryan,” I said. Then it came to me. “Let’s stay together. If someone sees you rummaging around the house and I’m not here to explain a busted front door and all, you could get in a lot of trouble. Let’s stay together. This woman is just going to have to wait.”
Ryan shrugged his shoulders, but I think he understood the ugly truth that his criminal convictions for felonious assault and rape would neutralize any benefit of the doubt he might need from investigating police officers.
Nailing the door shut, I spoke telepathically to the unconscious woman on our Gator.
“Lady, whoever you are, you life is being saved and your house is being protected by a convicted child rapist. I want you to know that. Not quite sure why, but I want you to know.”
When we got back to Unity, Adam and the boys were watching us through the window.
“What are we going to do with her?” Deon shouted through the window. “She looks dead.”
“We’re bringing her in,” I replied though my helmet.
“I said we’re bringing her in ….”
“What?” It was useless. There was no way he could hear me through their glass window and my Plexiglas shield. I pointed to the loading dock.
Adam stepped out as Ryan and I carried her inside the Mylar canopy.
“Adam, here’s our first customer,” I said from the doorway, taking my helmet off. “There weren’t any on Heywood, but Park Terrace is full of ‘em. It’s towel city; this is going to take forever.”
“I know, Dave. As for this woman the best we can do right now is bring her indoors and treat her for shock. Any name?”
“Shit. I didn’t think about that,” I exclaimed. “We’ll get it when we go back down. Any word when that medic team is coming?”
“Soon, I hear. I was going to go out on foot with Naleef and Deon in the new rad suits, but the convoy radioed us to stay put because they expect to be here shortly and want us to be here to help them get organized. We’re gonna be a triage center when they get here, but for now we do the best we can. For minor injuries we’re going to give first aid, food and water. For second-degree patients, those with complex or very serious injuries we’re going to send them on to the major trauma center they’re setting up at the high school. Third-stage folks who aren’t gonna make it, well, we’re to just make them as comfortable as possible. This woman might be third-stage.”
”I don’t know Adam. We found her on the floor of her living room. She had the strength the put a towel up sometime between early this morning and now. She might be savable.”
“You’re right. Was there any one else in the house?”
“Ahh… That’s right; we should’ve checked. I forgot that one, too.”
“Don’t worry, Dave, nuclear war is like that. Take it easy on yourself,” he said, smiling.
I smiled back.
“Adam, since we don’t have any doctors here yet, maybe I should I run this woman down to the high school. It looks like that’s where the primary medical set up is taking place, judging from the number of Chinooks flying there.”
“Karen,” I shouted. “Does the high school have doctors yet?”
She signaled with a thumbs-up.
“Tell them we’re coming in with a patient from Unity.”
Again, she smiled and gave me a second thumbs-up.
“I don’t know. Take her back out in the dust again?” Adam asked.
“My knowingness says, ‘Yes.’”
“Then go for it. We sure aren’t going to be able to do much for her here.
“Ryan! We’re putting her back on the Gator. We’re gonna take her to the high school”
She turned bluish-grey as we transferred her.
“Deon,” I shouted, “get me that black respirator bag from the Army’s first aid kit. I’m gonna do CPR as we go.”
Adam must have heard me because he brought the black pouch to our portal in a second.
“Ryan, you know CPR?” I asked.
“Then you drive, buddy,” I said, hopping into the passenger seat.
Squirming to get a good angle on her mouth with the bag, I also sought to get a little room for heart massage. I couldn’t feel any pulse through the gloves so I looked close at her neck to get any tell tale sign from the carotid artery.
Plans change in a hurry, don’t they, I thought as we roared out of the parking lot.
“Take it easy, Ryan,” I shouted as we roared down the muddy path at 45 mph. “I’m trying to be a doctor back here.”
Yeah, and all I can do is half-ass squeeze this rubber air bag with these thick gloves on. My fingers were beginning to cramp as Ryan tore through TT’s Abbey Road
Hold on lady, and in case you’re not aware of things, that child rapist I mentioned a while back is now driving you to the hospital.
When we got to the high school we couldn’t figure where to go. There were no signs posted, but we saw three Chinooks parked on the football field, and Gators shuttling supplies into the gym.
“Where to?” screamed Ryan.
“Go to the back side of the gym.”
Ryan gunned it and tore through the rubble-strewn faculty parking lot, jumped the curb, blasted through the side lawn, and around the administrative offices towards the gym. When we rounded the corner we could see double doors on the far side of the gym complex.
“Head for the doors, Ryan.”
Other Gators were pulling up to the doors, and as we arrived the doors opened on overheard conveyors, as if by magic. Ryan gunned us in first.
“Hold it soldier,” said a rad-suited soldier with a bullhorn specially adapted to fit on his helmet. Soldiers with M-16s and rad suits guarded the gate.
“We’re from Unity House. We’ve got a lady that needs a doctor,” shouted Ryan.
The lead soldier smiled. He motioned us to stop, with his palms facing down, pushing them to the ground like he was patty-caking the air.
“I know,” he said. “We got your radio DX, Unity Triage. But you’re tracking dust. Park your Gator here.”
Ryan came to a full stop behind a little low-slung curtain, which must have been a dust barrier.
Once my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw dozens of gurneys inside, and four rad-suited technician wheeling one toward us.
“Good work, Unity,” the lead soldier said. “Bring us some more customers, we’re open for business.”
“Roger that,” Ryan said.
The soldier saluted and Ryan followed suit.
I jumped out of the back of the Gator and helped the four techs lift her over the dust curtain and onto the gurney. As we did so, a fifth soldier gently blow-dried her free of dust.
“We’ll take her from here, soldier,” one of the techs said as they wheeled her away.
Soldier? Hmmm. I had never heard anyone say that to me before, at least not in this lifetime. The last time, it was Belgium in a British tank during the Battle of the Bulge, and before that it was Shiloh in ’62, but those are stories for another time. Now, I had beaucoup towels to deal with in this war.
“You drive, Ryan,” I said, getting back in the Gator.
If I’m gonna be a soldier, I think I’ll be an officer and enjoy the ride, at least for a little while.
Ryan drove us back to Park Terrace, and we stopped right where we had left off.
“Ryan, why don’t you go back to the first house and see if anyone else is there. Check for a name, too, like on phone bills or letters. Anything that might be lying around. I’ll go to the next house.”
We hadn’t taken two steps when a WCPD squad car screeched to a halt on Heywood and pealed down Park Terrace toward us. It drove right up to the Gator, then skidded into a 45-degree turn, pinning the Gator against debris in the road.
Two Worcester City police officers jumped out.
“Hold it. Don’t move,” shouted one, pointing a shotgun at me. The other cop headed toward Ryan.
“Who are you and what are you doing here?” the first cop challenged. Despite the fact that we were all wearing the same radiation suits, he assumed we were bad guys.
“We’re from Unity House on Marion Ave.,” I shouted. “We’ve been assigned by FEMA to scout the Union Hill area for survivors.
“You got ID?”
“Yeah, but I’m not going to take off my radiation suit to get it. You’ll notice we’re wearing the same suits as you. You can call Specialist Eric Mulhearn at Forward Command to confirm. We’re one of two teams working this area, although we only have one Gator. The other team is up at Unity House. You can check with Sergeant. Karen Jackson on the forward communication channel. Or go up to Unity. Our director Adam Peronski is up there.” At this point my interrogator was more pissed off at me for giving him too much information than he was for my not being a bad guy.
Must be tough being a cop today. Five days cooped up and nothing to do. Ryan and I are probably the first suspects he’s had a chance to chase all week.
The second cop came back and tapped my guy on the shoulder, saying, “They’re cool. I know the kid from Unity House. He’s cool. He says this asshole is his therapist. Let ‘em go.”
“You ought to have some external ID,” the other cop said to me. “There’s lots of strangers coming into town, now. We just wanna be sure.”
“I understand. We’ll go back to Unity and make up some signs.”
“It’ll help the people in the neighborhood, too,” said the cop. “They’re gonna be freaked seeing guys like you, guys they don’t know showing up in space suits and banging on their door. You could get shot.”
“You’re right. We’ll get on it right now.”
I had begun to warm up to my interlocutor, so I extended my gloved hand. “I’m Dave Stein.”
“Officer Robertson. James Robert Robertson.”
“Nice to meet ya.”
“How are your able to fit in your squad car with these rad suits on?” I asked.
“It’s a challenge,” Officer Robertson replied, smiling. “Gettin’ used to shouting through your Plexiglas helmet?”
“Never in a million years,” Officer Robertson laughed, causing his visor to steam up.
“When are you going to start retrieving folks from their homes?” I asked.
“Very soon. We were just going back to the station to get our medics when we saw you. We were supposed to have started our retrievals by now, but our medical convoy is taking longer than expected to get to us. I hear the convoys for Unity and the High School are delayed as well. There’s real bad wreckage on the Vernon Hill viaduct.”
“That’s good to know, thanks,” after a pause, “well, I guess we’re gonna go back to Unity and make some ID.”
“Roger that, buddy. Take care.”
“Let’s go Ryan, and make ourselves look official,” I shouted. We mounted our Gators as the cops backed-up to let us pass.
“Adam,” I called out as we walked into Unity, “we gotta make some FEMA signs or something that we can wear, like bibs that identifies us. We should put something on the Gator, too. We need stickers, or something that we can post on the door telling people why their house is busted open. We almost got shot just now on Park Terrace.”
“Yeah,” Ryan added. “The cops pointed a shotgun right at Dave.”
“Friendly fire is the most dangerous of all, eh, amigo?” Adam offered, just back from his first foray with Naleef and Deon.
“The convoy’s still delayed, so we went out,” he said. “We talked to about a dozen folks on Shannon who are going to come over in an hour for a hot meal and a modest shower once they suit up in plastic. Most have cuts, too, from flying glass, so they’ll probably be getting some medical attention, too. But, Deon had to answer nature’s call, so we all came back. Total protection does have its price.”
“Yeah…” but that was all I wanted to say on the subject of friendly fire, pee management, or community sponge baths. “Is there any coffee?”
“Yep, on the kitchen counter.”
“I need to unwind before I turn myself into an Official FEMA Radiation Rescuer.”
“Did you get the name of that woman?” asked Adam.
“Hell no,” Ryan stated. “The cops jumped on us before we had a chance to get back in the house.”
“Ya know, Adam,” I mused, “we’re gonna need clipboards and Sharpies and stuff like that to take notes, get names. Things like that. Plus anything from FEMA that will let everyone know we’re official.”
“You’re right,” Adam replied. “I’ll tell Karen to have FEMA get us ID’s.”
For the next hour we made bibs out of old linen sheets for each of us. With Sharpie markers we wrote FEMA in six-inch block letters. Then underneath we wrote Unity House. I took my driver’s license out of my wallet, wrapped it in plastic food wrap, and then duck tapped it to a three-foot section of rope to act as an ID on a lanyard. I had all the guys do the same with their school ID’s.
“Adam, why don’t you take Deon or Naleef back out. Take the Gator. Ryan and I will make us lunch.”
“Okie-doakie. Who wants to go, you guys?” Adam asked. Of course Deon clamored to go, but Naleef? He was hard to read. Shy and quiet, he didn’t say anything, but what did he really want to do?
“Adam, why don’t you take Deon this run, and I’ll take Naleef out right after lunch. We’ll just take turns.”
Adam nodded, and that was our plan.
“I need to lie down, boss, if it’s okay with you,” said Ryan.
“Sure Ryan,” I said. “I need a break, too. I’ll call you in a bit to help me with lunch.”
“Say, Naleef,” I continued, “what’s happening around here? What’s Karen doing?”
Naleef shrugged, but smiled, and started walking out of the kitchen toward Karen.
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