[1975 - Pensacola, Florida]
I survey the world from my lofty perch. On one side, the back of a strip mall containing dumpsters, neatly stacked pallets, and a forgotten Rose’s Five-and-Dime Store shopping cart missing a wheel and flipped over on its side. Nothing but woods on the remaining sides with a chain-link fence in the distance marking the backyard of the dilapidated motel we currently call home. It is quiet, almost too quiet, except for the light panting I hear coming from the ground far below me. I cautiously lean down, spotting the tuft of wavy brown hair atop my brother’s head and watch him struggle to jump and grab while kicking upward, his hands not quite reaching the tree's lowest branch.
“Hurry up! I see a hobo heading your way,” I tease. This is not a completely impossible scenario, as homeless men seem to congregate in this isolated wooded area to cook over campfires. We are not sure if canned food is the only thing they are cooking on those fires and don’t really want to find out, so my brother redoubles his efforts and hangs on the limb with both hands now, his feet several inches above the ground, he starts a slow swing. Back and forth—back and forth, legs are pumping to get the momentum he needs and then KICK, his left leg is over the limb as his body scrambles up in its wake. He quickly draws his legs up high and looks down searching for the phantom hobo heading his way. I laugh, “I knew ‘hobo-terror’ could help you do it,” I say as I squint down at him, seemingly miles below me.
Even though Greg is four years younger than me for one month each year (January) and three years younger eleven months following his Groundhog’s Day birthday, he is tough and always a great tree-climbing companion. This has been one of our favorite pastimes over the years, and most times the only place to comfortably sit since our homes are always sparsely furnished. Our current home, the cramped manager’s quarters of the Royal House Motel is no exception, furnishings only included one king bed with nightstands in the master bedroom, a total of four twin beds—two in each of the other two bedrooms with a nightstand between each set—and one dining table in the cockroach-infested kitchen with six chairs that tightly accommodate the six of us.
It is also located in an area zoned as a commercial property on Mobile Highway; so there are not any neighborhoods with kids our age to hang out with or kid-friendly options for entertainment, so my brother and I have made this tree our home away from home unless we are at school, sleeping, or eating.
I turn away and scoot outward on my stomach reminiscent of an inchworm. Outward I inch, toward the leafy tip of the sturdy branch that is our favorite perch, making room for my brother to join me. My back to him, I hear a little high-pitched gasp and “Aaaahhhh,” emanating from underneath me and sit up and turn a little too quickly, grabbing at a small offshoot of leaves and limbs to steady myself. I am scared now as I spy the rusted hunk of jagged metal that is the remains of a burnt-out car-frame directly below, and my brother’s flailing body falling and landing just inches away from the sharp wreckage.
Adrenaline takes over as I leap from my branch, the ground a precarious distance beneath me, landing cat-like on my feet; my hands graze the concrete curb, also inches from Greg’s body. He is lying still on his back; both arms sprawled out to the side. Palms up, his hands look strange, the angle of his wrists overextended. He is conscious but his breathing sounds raspy.
I brush his hair out of his eyes and accidentally touch the long scar on his forehead, an injury that was the result of a rock fight we’d had a couple of years earlier. Lobbing rocks across a creek at each other seemed like a fun game at the time but didn’t work out so well and he ended up with a slew of stitches and a battle scar. His face is clammy and damp with sweat and I see the fear in his eyes.
He is lucid and not even crying, so I say, “I’ll be right back with Mama. Don’t move!” and set off at an Olympic-worthy sprint toward the distant chain-link fence marking the motel where our mom is simultaneously manning the switchboard, checking guests in and out of rooms, and loosely supervising the whereabouts of my little sister, Julie, and baby brother Jeffrey, who are almost...but not quite...old enough yet to wander around unsupervised in hobo-laden backwoods.
I come upon the low chain-link fast and hurdle, my front leg clearing with room to spare as my back thigh drags low on the wire and I hear a “ripppppp” as the seat of my favorite 1970-ish knock-off Jordache Jean’s snag and then tear, leaving a little denim flag flying to mark my passing.
Thoughts of my pale and clammy brother lying, most likely in shock and maybe dead by now, cross my mind as I burst through the side door of the dingy motel lobby scaring my mom up and out of her switchboard chair.
“Greg fell out of a tree and he is hurt really bad,” and I turn to run, trusting that Mama will follow me. Twisting my head to glance over my shoulder just once, I see her slowly jogging in the distance, doing her best to keep up with my partially naked backside—a square of missing denim exposing the skin just below my underwear and the actual pink underwear—urging her forward.
I arrive just seconds ahead of her to see Greg still laying in the same spot on the ground, equidistant are two certain death traps—the rusted car frame, shards of metal pointing skyward, and the concrete curb bordering the back-alley narrow road behind the strip mall.
Two preteen boys are hovering above Greg and one of the boys kneels and places two fingertips on my brother’s forearm, just above the mangled wrist. Is he dead? I wonder...my breath catching in my throat...just as Mama stops beside me leaning over and sucking oxygen like she’s just run a marathon. Tentatively moving forward and dreading the sight of my brother’s lifeless body I fear is awaiting me; I peer over the back of the kneeling boy to see my brother’s eyes open and alert, his face now looking my way. He turns his attention to the current pulse-taking preteen boy and clears his throat.
“Ahem. I am still alive,” he whispers, startling the would-be young medics as they straighten up with eyes widening. Both boys take a step back as we hear the sound of a siren now apparent in the distance. I breathe out, realizing I had been holding my breath, then Mama and I move in closer to my brother and squat down. I feel air wisp across my hamstring and quickly cover the bare spot with my hand, remembering the swatch of fabric left in the chain-link fence seemingly hours ago.
The time which seemed to stand still just long enough for me to get help, has returned to normal speed as the mysterious ambulance pulls up and two EMTs jump out. They check Greg's vitals and then gently lift two broken wrists to swaddle them in some sort of inflated protective devices for stabilization. A backboard is then slipped under his body and he is raised into the air to be placed into the back of the waiting ambulance...an ambulance that appeared out of nowhere…a miracle, as we still have no idea who called them and how they knew where to find us.
The EMTs are turning the backboard to align my brother’s blanketed body for placement, in through the open double-doors, as my mom readies herself to get in behind him for the short ride to the hospital. Greg's wrists were broken all the way through but otherwise miraculously unscathed after his horrendous fall. He clears his dry throat again and with a voice just above a whisper says, “I can see your underwear.” He laughs then winces.
I feel my spirits rise and feel at peace now. I smile. He is going to be okay. Alone now as the ambulance pulls away from the curb, I quickly make my way back to the motel lobby only stopping to pluck the flap of denim from the fence on my way by. I enter the lobby, just as my dad drives up after a long day of classes and studying at Bible College, becoming a church pastor his most recent aspiration.
He spies the empty lobby and the blue swatch of tattered fabric in my hand, as my other hand quickly moves to cover my exposed backside.
“Where is your mother and WHAT happened to your pants?” he asks.
I begin to recount the frightening, mysterious, and miraculous details of the day as his eyes grow incredulous and he turns to jump back into the battered ancient 1960 Volkswagen Beetle, our only family car—now on its last legs—for the drive to the emergency room. I head inside to keep an eye on Julie and Jeffrey until my parents get back from the emergency room. I feel a little tug on the hem of my sweat laden t-shirt and look down at Julie who has a grin on her face.
“What happened to your pants?” she asks. I laugh and shrug as I begin a long and fruitless search for a needle and thread.
By Lisa H. Owens
Inspired by true events - 1975 in Pensacola, Florida