Ian gave Sheila his switchblade
on the afternoon she died. It was a touching scene. Sheila came over and
showed it to The Survivor. Her big, beautiful green-speckled eyes revealed
an uncommon mixture of endearment and bemusement.
"Look," she whispered,
carefully pulling the folded blade from her purse. "Ian gave me his knife."
Ian actually had no need
for such a weapon. He wasn't part of any gang. There weren't any gangs
to be part of. The Air Patrol frowns on such things in the militaristic
environment of Clark Air Force Base in The Philippines. Nevertheless, Ian
clung to the switchblade as a symbol of his budding teenage macho. Parting
with it was indeed a gesture of extreme romantic sacrifice.
There was more between
The Survivor and Sheila than a shared understanding of an unusual gift.
Sheila had once been The Survivor's girl. Her romp with Ian was a brief,
deathbed fling that was common between the living and soon to die. Sheila
and The Survivor had been together much longer. Their eyes held deeper
Even this didn't reveal
the entire drama being played out that agonizing summer day. Sheila was
catching the doomed civilian transport with her family. That meant Susi,
Sheila's blonde and beautiful younger sister, was also slated to die. Susi
was the reason Sheila and The Survivor had parted. He had met Sheila while
chasing Susi. He went with Sheila still wanting Susi. He broke up with
Sheila because it seemed senseless to call her his girl, when in reality,
she was the second choice in her own family.
As Sheila, Ian and the
switchblade drifted off to embrace away final moments, The Survivor was
left facing the elusive Susi for the final time. It fit. While anguished
lovers desperately clutched each other all around, The Survivor could do
nothing but gaze upon Susi's tormenting beauty.
"I'm sorry," Susi whispered.
Her huge blue eyes took over from there. "I know how much you loved me,"
the eyes said. "I know I hurt you. Maybe I made a mistake. In time, we
may have found each other. There would, of course, be no more time. Susi,
like Sheila, would die that afternoon. And The Survivor didn't even have
a switchblade to give her.
Ian and the Survivor were
silent as they walked away from the airport. Ian's thoughts were no doubt
of Sheila. The Survivor's were of Ian. Ian was alive, but just barely.
He would die in a few weeks. He would take Bob and Dan and a blur of others
with him. The Survivor remained. He always remained.
He remembered the first
time. He had been in the Philippines a few months and was finding it much
to his liking. It was so unlike the trauma of adjusting to his last home.
The North Carolina boy had been ripped from his small town bliss and tossed
into the cultural shock of Bangkok, Thailand. But this new home was an
Air Force base, an island of Americana, complete with stores, movie theaters,
parks, and much to his delight, organized football!
Rick was his welcome mat.
He was a stereotypical football player -- big, blond, refreshingly narrow.
They became the best of friends. Rick was the first he saw die. Rick's
death was also the hardest to survive, for those who remained were forced
to exist with RickÕs widow. With Rick, Pam had been the most popular
freshman girl in the school. Bouncy, perky, full of life. She was the epitome
of what she was, a high school cheerleader. When Rick died, he took with
him everything that was wonderful about her. Pam was caught in the horrible
vacuum that we all dreaded. She should have died with Rick that summer,
yet when The Shadow swung his sickle, Pam flinched. She lingered on her
death bed another year. It was her fate to exist out of place, out of sync
with the world around her. Hers was the curse of surviving without forgetting.
Rick was The Survivor's
best friend, but he had forgotten.
Pam's time came a few
weeks after Sheila and Susi's. Despite the pain, there was something special
that kept drawing The Survivor to the airport. As death crept closer, he
knew they would recapture the glorious days of Rick. The airport held that
kind of magic. It was an emotional free zone where the bad times, betrayals
and squandered friendships could not penetrate. Before she died, Pam sprang
back to life.
he said, seeing her as she was before, as she was then. "Find it again
on the other side."
The junior year was one
of unforgettable glory. Ian and Bob and Dan were replaced by Allen and
Glenn. Allen and The Survivor teamed to become the school's dynamic duo.
They were the star athletes, the king heartbreakers. Their light shown
so brightly they even defeated The Shadow that waited so patiently at the
airport. For while The Shadow was a merciless taker, he also gave. For
every Susi and Sheila he took, he brought a Jane and Beverly. The Duo understood
this better than anyone. Instead of avoiding The Shadow's lair, they sought
him out. They entered his home, waiting for the replacements to descend
the same silver steps that swallowed so many before. And The Shadow paid.
He had to. Debbie and Joyce came in one family. Karen, Elaine, Laurel,
they all skipped down the dreaded silver steps. Young, beautiful, alive.
They offered everything a young man could want, everything but love. For
once you fell in love, The Shadow owned you.
The Duo danced mockingly
around this snare. That was the year for hitting and running. There were
championships to win, nights to remember, a lifetime of memories to be
made. The Shadow was blotted from their minds, for he only attacked during
He was patient, this demon.
As spring grew late, he began to rumble. Allen caught the disease and died.
Glenn also went down. The Survivor too caught it that summer, but unlike
the others, he would not die.
As he recovered, the uneasy
thought kept flashing in his mind. Should he have died alongside Allen
and Glenn? Was 1972 such an incredible year because his comet was burning
out? And the ultimate horror, was The Survivor to become next year's Pam,
a walking zombie who let The Shadow maim, but not kill?
When school started, the
Survivor staggered back. His entrance into that first class proved dramatic.
The Golden Boy quarterback risen from the dead. The reception was inspirational.
All those joyful, welcoming faces, shouted greetings, bright smiles. It
was the highlight of a disquieting year. For The Shadow had grown wise.
He watched in rage as Allen and The Survivor defeated him the previous
summer. They had tapped his power by welcoming the replacements with more
fervor than they mourned the dead. He erased Allen during the next killing
season, but The Survivor refused to succumb.
The Shadow boiled for
three seasons, fiendishly planning his revenge. It must have delighted
him so when the answer came. That summer, he would stock the football team
instead of the cheerleading squad. Instead of beauty and bounce he brought
biceps and brawn. The girls were all a twitter. The Survivor had instantly
become yesterday's hero, a ironic victim of his own code of seeking out
the new and forgetting the old.
But the trick was not
nearly as deadly as The Shadow had schemed. In his three seasons of preparation,
he had failed to consider the reverse. The Survivor was Yesterday's Hero
in the eyes of Yesterday's Heroines. The distinction was not a small one.
The heart pained not for warmed-over memories, the glow having faded forever.
Indignity for sure, but indignity could be handled. Only the agony of unrequited
love would have given The Shadow the victory he sought, and Yesterday's
Heroines held no such power.
Enraged, The Shadow attacked
on an unprecedented front. That The Shadow feasted voraciously on the seniors
was well known. It was one of the few constants of high school on an Air
Force Base carved out of foreign soil. Until then, there had been rules.
The Shadow had only one season, summer, to attack. It was what made the
senior year tolerable.
This was not to be a year
for rules. The Class of 1973 was The Survivor's class. The Shadow still
festered with the memory of the two who stole his crown of thorns the previous
The Class of '73's theme
song had been "Stairway to Heaven." The song, like the class, wasn't just
any song. "Stairway to Heaven" would become a rock classic, some say the
single greatest piece of music to come out of the rock era. It played endlessly
during the wild weekend on the beaches of Corregidor, the same beaches
where MacArthur had once vowed to return. The whole class had gone for
a "Senior Skip Day" weekend and somehow the chaperones had vanished, leaving
the seniors to experience pleasures MacArthur never dreamed.
"Stairway to Heaven,"
must have been written by The Shadow himself. The song was destined to
forever turn up on The Survivor's radio. It would come without warning,
a haunting song that flooded him like nothing else could with a torrent
of memories. "Stairway to Heaven." Silver stairs at the airport. It fit.
The bloody war that festered
in a neighboring jungle ended that spring. It was the hated war that put
so many of them there. America was hanging its head in shame, bitterly
tasting the bile of defeat for the first time in its proud history. The
Shadow surely cackled hideously at the irony he was weaving. The same peace
that secured life for so many young soldiers would bring and unprecedented
wave of death to The Survivor's classmates. On the day the war ended, a
fever ravaged the school. They marched out to the airport like the soldiers
had marched from Corregidor. Within a month, a full fourth of the 1,200
high school population took sick and died. The Survivor's senior class
had been specifically obliterated, losing nearly half.
It was all too fast. Those
who remained were shell-shocked. Everyone had lost someone. All the seniors
were now sick, including The Survivor again.
He would be the last,
of course. The powers beyond The Shadow had so designated it. From his
death bed he began to cling to a new phenomenon amid the mass murder. As
each friend died, another would rise phoenix-like from the ashes of bedside
mourners. Once merely casual friends, a bonding would take place to turn
them, for the short period preceding their deaths, into close friends.
Jim's death brought forth Mike. Mike's death brought him to David. David's
introduced him to Shawn. The chain would repeat itself until The Survivor
had become closer to his classmates in those two week stints than he had
the previous years.
In mid-August, the holocaust
was nearly complete. Only The Survivor and Hugh remained.
"I'm dead tomorrow," Hugh
said. "When the hell do you go?"
"The last moment," Hugh
said. "You had to watch us all go didn't you? You had to be the last."
"It wasn't my choice."
"You coined the term didn't
you, Hugh said, knowing the answer. "It really caught on. And you're right!
This time it was a whole damn senior class, one by one getting on that
jet never to be seen again. Spread out all over the world. Different bases.
Different states. Different colleges. It's death all right. How the hell
did you survive all these years. You were a freshman here weren't you?"
"My father's a civilian.
He had a four year assignment. Everyone else was here for one or two."
"No, I mean, how did you
survive it?" Hugh asked, growing serious."
"I created the term, remember.
I saw it for what it was. Death. The shadow of the jet sweeping over the
base was the last thing you could see when someone was swept away. The
Grim Reaper never had a finer coat.
"And the memories?"
"I never wrote anyone.
I never tried to hold on. I never loved.Ó
"You were smart there,"
Hugh said. "Debbie wrote me twice after she died. Twice! I gave that bitch
the best year of my life, and she couldn't hold on longer than two weeks.
Can you believe that?"
Nobody wrote longer than
a couple of months. That was slow death. I discovered that early on."
ÒI thought you
died last summer," Hugh said. "What happened?"
"Home leave. Another gift
from my civilian father. We get summers off every two years. To go home,
they say. What a joke. I never had a home to go back to."
"Hey, well, it's over
now," Hugh said. "We're at the end. You survived."
I couldn't tell Hugh the
truth. I didn't think he would understand. The worst was still ahead. There
would come a time in all our lives when the pain would surface, cutting
deeper than before. For some it would be during the periods of future failure,
that moment when you first realized life was not to proceed as planned.
When the marriage broke up, the career stalled, the dreams died. For others,
it would be during those temporary setbacks, the retooling to start out
in a different direction. Still others would long for it for no other reason
than the fact that so many others take such comfort in the reunions that
brought them all back together every decade or so.
There is that need in
all of us to go home. A need for that entrancing swing around the school,
that tantalizing trip to the old lovers lane. Those wonderful retracing
where the buildings, trees and roadways each welcome you back and unchain
long forgotten memories as if they, not you, held them.
A time when we could revisit
the old friends and see how their lives came out, to take comfort that
their struggles mirrored our own. To gather them around us to chase away
the demons of adulthood.
More than anything, the
need to remember, to get together and remember the games won, the hearts
broken, the best of times. Each old friend providing a piece of the puzzle
that recreated the picture that brought it all back.
That need would surely
come, as it has for The Survivor now. A decade and a half has passed. A
milestone that brings so many classes together in celebration all across
the world. For us, the Wagner High Class of 1973, MacArthur's Children,
there is nothing but darkness, emptiness, a lost, cold feeling. There's
nothing but depressing memories of all those who went to the airport and
slipped away forever, taking a piece of you that would never be recaptured.
Holding a piece of a puzzle that would never be reconstructed.
All those who climbed
up the silver steps, entered the silver jet, and died.
That Hugh, is why it was
not over that summer. It will never be over.
Matera '73 <email@example.com>