Return to the Family Homestead
Mountain Falls, Virginia
She was waiting on the porch steps, just as though she knew he was coming. Jason saw his headlights flash on her and her silhouette against the bare porch light, as he turned right into the circle in front of the cabin. It wasn't late, but he was strangely tired. Almost before the engine stopped running, he was out of the car and climbing the steps to her arms. Grandma Gail wasn't somebody that you'd normally hug. But that had changed. They both needed the encouragement of feeling flesh and blood once again--alive.
"Oh, Grandma. I tried to call, but all the phones, even my cell, were down." Tears were streaming down his eyes as he hugged her close.
"I know. I know." Gail Forsythe shook her head in disbelief. "I tried and tried, but I couldn't reach anybody. I knew you were coming, so I just sat on the steps and waited. I just knew you had to come. I willed it!" She pulled him tighter as her tears flowed, too.
Finally, after a long period of silence where they just held each other and cried, Grandma Forsythe pulled away and said, "It's getting cold out here. Come on inside and I'll fix you a hot chocolate and some popcorn."
As the screen door slammed behind him, Jason could smell the old wood of the place where he had spent so many carefree days growing up. That familiar smell brought back good memories and helped dispel the dark thoughts that clouded his mind. Here, he would have some semblance of home. The smell of hot chocolate and popcorn popping in the kitchen was even more welcome. He sat down by a big bowl of popcorn in the kitchen and continued his story.
"I don't think anyone made it, not even Uncle Jim. It was the most terrifying thing I've ever experienced. It's a wonder that more people in our school weren’t injured. And the dust. It was everywhere. They told us it was radioactive. I tried to wash off all I could. We'll have to be careful with the stuff in the car and wash it again too. Damn! I forgot. I left a bunch of food out in the car." Jason jumped up from his chair.
"That's okay, Jason. Sit back down. Don't rush. It'll wait till you eat your popcorn. I just can't help thinking. I thought there was nothing worse than when your grandfather died in Vietnam. There I was with two sons and nothing to go on. Now this happens. It's all in your hands, Jason. The long proud history of the Forsythe family has come down to you. It's a terrible responsibility that fate has put on us. But we have to stop crying and be strong. I made it back then and we'll make it now."
Tears welled up in Jason's eyes again. "Now, now. Grandma. Don't place this whole thing on my shoulders. I'm trying to do the best I can. Can only do one thing at a time. Like getting that food in here before it gets too warm." He jumped up from his chair and ran outside. Strange. The night seemed like any other cool spring night in the mountains. Nothing had changed here. It seemed like this place and the mountains were forever. It was comforting. He dried his tears, opened the trunk to the Camaro, and started pulling food out with the light from the trunk lid and the moon.
It took three trips for him to get all the food into the kitchen. By that time, Grandma Gail had apologized three times. They both began putting food in the refrigerator until it was full, and then, Jason took the frozen stuff down to the chest freezer in the basement his father and uncle had dug under the cabin. It was damp and musty down there, but he remembered watching his dad and Uncle Jim digging it by hand one summer. After that, he and Gayle had played there often. Now, it seemed like it had always been there, like the cabin.
Jason got back to his popcorn. "What's been going on in the news, Grandma? I only caught a little bit of it on our portable TV before the batteries gave out."
"Oh, the big news is, and you already know, that most of the government is gone because of the blast. Fortunately, Vice President Phyllis Knox was on Air Force Two at the time, and was sworn in as President in San Diego a few hours after the President, most of Congress, and the Supreme Court, were killed in the blast. The country is in chaos and President Knox has declared martial law to prevent anarchy and looting. With our Armed Forces stretched so thin in other parts of the world, she's relying almost entirely on the National Guard. Some of those units pulled out and went AWOL because of the situation. Nobody knows who did it. There's a lot of speculation and blaming, but no one group has come forward and said that they did it. Whoever did probably knows that our reaction would be swift and deadly. If we knew who did this one, say, like bin Laden, we wouldn't fool around with declaring war. We'd just go and kill him."
"I'll have to get on the computer and see what I can find out. I hope my ISP is still up. I suppose there are already shortages and the economy has gone to hell?"
"All of the roads in and out of DC and up and down the entire East Coast were jammed with people fleeing mostly unknown threats. People fled from almost every major city -- Miami, Houston, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. It created a nightmare for the rescue missions to DC and for law enforcement and the rest of the country. It isn't over yet; most of those who fled the cities are still wandering around looking for a place to put their heads down at night. Most had to sleep in their cars."
"I know. I passed Interstate 81 on my way here." I'm sure glad I was on old US 50 or I might not have made it."
"Did you say that Jim was responsible for the bunker at the Pentagon?"
"That's what Dad said. About six months ago he was asked to upgrade the bunker for just such a situation."
"I pray that he's alive. We'll have to both keep that thought in mind until we learn for sure. And that may be a long time. If he was in the bunker, he may have survived."
"We'll just have to wait. The way the radiation is now, they won't be coming out of there very soon--maybe months."
Grandma Forsythe needed to change the subject--so she did. "I'm sure glad you're here. We have a history of service to the country, you know. Jeremy Forsythe settled this land in 1793, after serving in the Continental Army. Remember his grave site in the family plot?" It was hardscrabble land then; it remains so to this day. If it weren't for the military, we Forsythes would be a poor lot indeed. As bad as it is now, and it may get worse, it had to have been worse during the Civil War. The family split over which side to fight on, even though we'd never owned any slaves. Abraham lost four sons. Two of them, Elias and Jacob, had gone to Richmond to make their way in the world and decided to join up with Stonewall Jackson and the Confederacy. Elias was cut down by artillery at Miller’s cornfield in the Battle of Antietam and Jacob died fighting his brothers in Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg. David and Michael joined up with General McDowell at Bull Run. Michael died during the Battle for Chattanooga. David survived many battles, only to die of pneumonia after he came back from Appomattox. Joseph, who at 12 was too young to go to war, but stayed home to protect the homestead for his crippled old father and mother, was your great great grandfather.
"Your great grandfather, David Forsythe, was a veteran of the Spanish-American war and rode up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt. The depression wiped out everything that he had built, and we had to live off this land or die. Yes, we've seen troubled times before, but we Forsythes have a way of surviving." She looked at the clock on the kitchen stove. It read 12:30 a.m. "Oh my goodness, it's late. Time for us to go to bed.
Jason retired to the spare room he had slept in many times before. Even though it was late and he was very tired, he couldn't sleep. Thoughts of the last two days kept crowding in, keeping him awake. Finally, with the dawn's light peeking through the window, he succumbed to sleep. It was nearly noon when he opened his eyes and discovered how late it was. When he got to the kitchen, Grandma Forsythe was waiting, reading a book. "Sorry about not waking you, but you looked so peaceful that I decided to let you sleep as long as you needed."
"Fix me some eggs. I know it's almost noon, but I still feel like breakfast." Grandma’s eggs were the best. The lingering smell of bacon frying always made him hungry. Gail smiled and did his bidding. It was good to have a man in the house again. Still, he ate little. Not the appetite she had remembered from that growing boy.
Jason spent the rest of the afternoon unpacking the things that he brought from Reston. Grandma Gail helped, and they both cried when familiar items appeared. That evening she fried some venison steaks for him. It only reminded him of the big buck he had shot during the previous deer-hunting season. His father drove that deer to him.
They watched the news on television that night. Phyllis Knox had assembled an interim cabinet and asked the governors of the states to appoint interim senators and representatives for a hastily assembled Congress to meet in an undisclosed location. Even with martial law and the National Guard fully deployed, there was widespread looting and anarchy in many places. Local law enforcement was almost overwhelmed with widespread crime that suddenly raised its ugly head. Religious and civic leaders urged calm and cool heads, but the populace seemed bent on destroying two and a half centuries of representative democracy. Fear was the factor most mentioned as the cause of the bad behavior. No group or individual had come forth to say that they had caused the nuclear blast. Aljazeera and other media sources quoted al Qaeda as saying that they had no part in it. There were groups in the United States who advocated all-out war against Moslems worldwide. As foolhardy as that would seem, it became the rallying cry for right-wing candidates for Congress and the Presidency. President Knox called for elections to be held at the normal time, the second Tuesday in November. It promised to be a hectic political season with only a short time for the Republicans, Democrats, and independents to prepare their slates of candidates.
Scenes of overflowing hospitals and patients with terrible burns and injuries filled the television screen. Power was still out in many areas and several million people who had fled the cities were now displaced and needed to be housed. All across the country a citizen effort to take in the refugees was beginning to work. When the hotels overflowed, families had opened their homes to other families who only had their cars to live in after they fled. However, only three days after "the American Holocaust" as some were calling it, the citizen effort was already starting to come apart. All across the country, towns and cities were opening their gymnasiums and civic centers as shelters for those that were already leaving private homes. The stress on the economy was immense. The cost of food, drugs and fuel skyrocketed as retailers took advantage of shortages caused by hoarding. Many workers refused to go to work or the owners had shut down their plants. The stock market dipped to its lowest point since the Great Depression. Millions cashed out their stock accounts and retirement plans until the President ordered a stop to trading. Interest rates shot up, but no one was borrowing anyway. Banks were having a difficult time collecting on the loans they already had out.
In contrast, it was serenely peaceful in the Virginia Mountains, almost like nothing had happened. There was no increase in traffic on the local roads. The local stores had ample stock and prices did not increase much. People still gathered on the streets of Mountain Falls to discuss the disaster and other events big and small. In rural America, life went on. It was a deceptive calm.
Jason used the calm to his advantage. Taking the 22 for plinking and a backpack with water and his lunch, he left the cabin in the early morning for the mountain trails he loved so much. It took him about three hours climbing through hardwoods and regrowth spruce to reach Balder Ridge, so named because its elevation and bedrock made it difficult for trees to take hold. He was glad that he had taken his insulated jacket because here, high on the ridge, even in the midday sun, the cold wind cut through him. Still, the view was spectacular. He could see half of Virginia. Fortunately, the storm had carried any remnants of the mushroom cloud far out to sea. On a clear day, you can see forever--applied. Jason hunkered down behind a rocky outcropping on the sunny side of the ridge, and ate his lunch. All morning his thoughts had wandered from his family back and forth to the springtime beauty surrounding him. Now they came to focus. He tried to think about what he was going to do. But somehow, he couldn't figure it out. He wanted to go back to school, but wasn't sure if South Hills High would reopen. Even if it did, the thought of living in an empty house with its ghosts haunted him. Besides, his grandmother was old and needed him. Watching the buzzards soar on the thermals on this perfectly clear day he resolved to stay with his grandmother -- at least through the summer. He had hoped to go to George Mason in the fall. That plan might still be open. He didn't know for sure.
In the early afternoon Jason poked around Balder Ridge and found a few artifacts from earlier days -- an old tin cup, a washing board, and a square nail. For two centuries people had been dumping in these mountains. There were valuable antiques to be found. He put them in his backpack and started back down. At dinner that evening his 17-year-old appetite had returned. He ate everything that Grandma Gail put on the table.
And so, Jason's healing began. Every day in good weather and sometimes in not, he would pack his lunch in the morning and head up the mountain. In four weeks, he had shot a few chipmunks, gathered a nice little hoard of artifacts, and found peace and quiet to settle his mind. His grandmother was so happy to have him there that she doted on him continuously. Once a week he abandoned his trip to the mountain to take her to town. It was an all-day affair because besides shopping, there was the beauty parlor and other social activities that Gail regularly participated in. Jason enjoyed talking about the political situation with the old guys at the barbershop. There was much wisdom to absorb. At times the tragedy 150 miles away seemed to be a million miles away. Little had changed in small-town America.
Soon, it was Memorial Day. Jason didn't go to the mountain because he accompanied his grandmother to the family plot to place flowers on the graves of family members who had been soldiers and say a prayer for each. As a final gesture, she asked him to fire a three shot salute with the 30-06. As the third volley dug into his shoulder, and once again could hear the path of the bullet echo up and down the mountain. It brought back memories of other Memorial Days when Taps were played and uniformed soldiers fired salvos to honor the dead who had fought for the country. With just the two of them, this ceremony felt hollow--lonely.
When they returned to the cabin about 11 a.m. the phone was ringing. Grandma Gail never bothered to set up the answering machine, so it just rang until somebody answered it. Jason was going to grab it, but decided at the last minute to look for something in the fridge and let her get the phone.
"Hello, this is the Forsythe residence."
"Hello. Hello? This is Jim, Mom. I'm here at Fort Myers. I'm so glad to hear your voice."
Jason saw his Grandma burst out crying. "Oh, Jimmy! Jimmy! Is it really you! I thought you'd died at the Pentagon with all of those poor people."
"No, Mom. I was one of the lucky ones to be in the Pentagon bunker when the bomb hit. Some very brave men in a tank just rescued us. It's been hell in there trying to find out what happened and if you are all right. You are all right, aren't you?"
"Yes, Jimmy I am. But I'm so sad because your brother*and sister-in-law*and your niece are all gone. Jason is here. We both are trying to cope as best we can." She started sobbing uncontrollably, so Jason put his arm around her to comfort her and took the phone from her hand.
"Hi, Uncle Jim. This is Jason. I can't believe that you're on the line. I heard that you were working at the Pentagon bunker, but after it happened, we prayed, I never thought that you would make it out."
"Is Mom okay? Listen. I've got a new assignment from the Army. I need some quiet time to do it. I'm coming up there for a while. Is that okay with you?"
"It's okay to come. Grandma was just crying. All this is pretty hard on her. When can we expect you?"
"This evening. They are ferrying me there by helicopter."
"I can't wait until you get here."
"Bye Jason gotta go."
"Bye, Uncle Jim. See you soon."