(August 2, 2017) Provided below is a guest post in the form of the first chapter of Ray Hanely’s novel, A Reunion in Time.
“Jack, please come quickly, I need you”, the plea coming from my old friend Charlie Rawlins as I lifted the phone. Brief words, taken short seconds to pour out, but words that opened a tale so incredible I hesitate to put it to paper lest I be taken for mad and committed to an asylum. Yet, compelled I am to write this all down while it’s still real, to those under whose eyes it will fall, you can believe or not, it matters not, for I know what actually happened.
I stood, in the spring of 2011, before the rain streaked window of my overpriced condominium on Little Rocks President Clinton Avenue listening to the frightened pleading in my old friends voice as he said, “It’s Tom, I know what happened to him, he was murdered, but I think you can save him, I know it sounds crazy but……..”. “Charlie, slow down, what? Murdered, Tom? How? Who?….I’ll call the police” was all I could say in a failed attempt to slow the cascade of frantic words from my friend of many years.
“No, no!!! They can’t help, it’s too crazy, you have to come today and give me chance to show you, I need you, Tom needs you.” “Charlie, I don’t understand…murdered?… but I can save him?…what are you talking about?” “Just come, please Jack” In the resounding silence that followed all I could say was “I’ll be there by 3:00” Charlie’s parting words rattled me further, “It could be, uh, a long trip I will ask you to take, but thank you my friend.”
As I sat back in my chair, in the book filled room, my cat General Lee leaped into my lap, blissfully unaware of my troubled thoughts. An image of my old friend, Charlie Rawlins flooded my mind as I thought of life changing events. Charlie, a retired college Physics professor, small, wiry, with snow white hair and beard…..lived in the deep woods near the hamlet of Little Italy, Arkansas, some 60 miles west of Little Rock. His wife, Rosie, had died a decade ago, leaving him and a son, Tom.
The son was, last I saw him, closing in his 30th birthday, born later in life to his eccentric but adoring father. Tom had traveled the world as a journalist and sometimes explorer, adventurer who was the light of his aging father’s life with frequent letters, photographs and emails from around the world. When he was in Little Rock the two of us would often dine with his father, Charlie…sometimes poking good natured fun at the theories and inventions that seemed always underway in the laboratory located in the massive barn behind Charlie’s old farmhouse. Little did I know as I sat staring out into the rain, stroking Henry, that one of Charlie’s inventions was the root of the events that would soon propel me on a journey beyond even my wildest imagination.
“It may be a long trip” had been Charlie’s parting words…., with that thought I tossed together some clothes, blood pressure medication, first aid kit, and as an afterthought packed my Colt 45 pistol. Just as quickly I unpacked the gun and put it away, surely any trip to help Charlie wouldn’t require a gun. Not a standard part of a physician’s luggage, but then while I was a doctor, I probably fit few peoples images of the healing arts. Having invested early a few years ago in a drug company that invented Viagra and profited handsomely, I had semi-retired from the practice of medicine. I’d grown weary of dealing with too many people with more aches and pains than my own and a system choked in paperwork and lawyers. I’d chosen to spend my days toying at writing books and walking in the Arkansas woods with a camera and imagination about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life….something at the age of 50 perhaps I was overdue to decide. I’d acquired a permit for the gun as a part of my training and part time work with the Little Rock Police SWAT team, which had given me some interesting adventures. If I could have only known what lay in store………
Having left Henry the cat in the care of my elderly, pleasantly nosy neighbor Mrs. Longinotti, I exited my building onto a rainy, raw day surely to be soaked before reaching my truck parked down the street. As I turned onto the walk, a voice I knew better than any other, echoed from half a block away, “Dad, Dad….wait for me”. Turning, I saw my 21 year old daughter, Lydia, leaping puddles, broken umbrella doing little to keep the cold rain off her blonde head.
Tall, gorgeous and ever perplexing to her father, I was normally delighted to encounter her often unannounced visits. Given the urgency of my summons from Charlie I was taken a bit off guard, while for some reason, flashing through my mind was the wellbeing of her mother, who had gone her own way a few years ago, tired of waiting for me to “find myself” as she put it.
Hunkered back under the overhang of my building I watched Lydia wrestle with her broken umbrella, a mischievous smile on her rain washed face, saying, “Gee Dad, why the glum look, aren’t you glad to see your loving daughter”. A recent college graduate, still sorting through career and boyfriend options, she had a way of drawing everyone’s attention, whether entering a crowded room or standing in the rain on a sidewalk.
“I’ve been over in the Stephens building for an interview, what kind of stock broker do you think I’d make?” With her degree in pre-med this question should have made me laugh as I could next have expected her well worn retort, “What, me become a doctor, look what it did to you Pop”. “Where you headed in this monsoon? Buy your favorite girl here lunch?” As was her pattern since she learned to talk she fired more questions without pausing for answers. “Running away from home?” she jested upon noting my stuffed bag looped over my shoulder. I quickly relayed to her the urgent, strange call from Charlie, leaving out the part about Tom’s “murder” for now, let alone the fact I was supposed to “save him”. Not surprising, Lydia announced she was coming with me, perhaps for the pleasure of my company but also, I suspected, because she had long been attracted to Tom, his ragged good looks and globe hopping lifestyle. She had also grownup with a “favorite Uncle” affection for Charlie Rawlins who doted over her on frequent childhood visits over the years.
On the drive out of the city, as the rain soaked pavement narrowed, housing tracts giving way to forest, Lydia prodded me for details of Charlie’s plea for help. “Gee Dad, I didn’t know doctors still made house calls, what’s the whacky old coot into now? Don’t hold back on me”. Gently as I could I relayed as verbatim as my recall allowed the cryptic, rattled message from Charlie, including the part that Tom had been murdered but that I could still “save him”. I heard Lydia’s breath catch at that part, then the sobs, followed by forced, less than successful effort at composure….a part of a daughters failed attempt to disguise her feelings for a young man from her father, an age old pattern repeated through centuries I expect of father and daughter relationships.
We drove the rest of the way mostly in silence, with Lydia staring out the passenger window, lost in her own jumbled maze of thoughts, memories and dreams. Upon reaching the turnoff from the county road onto Charlie’s farm Lydia left the truck in the rain to open the gate, ignoring the “beware of dogs” sign, knowing all the dogs Charlie had was a geriatric golden retriever. A quarter mile down the mud hole filled path that passed for a driveway we pulled into Charlie’s front yard, behind his motor home parked under a shed that once almost killed me. It had occurred while part of group trying to add a foots height to the shelter in order to accommodate a new, taller behemoth on wheels….the entire structure fell over when bracing jacks slipped, only a well placed tree halted the buildings fall short of mashing me into my eternal award. Things just happen when you are around Charlie though, and some sixth sense told me what I’d been summoned for would make the near death experience beneath the falling parking shed pale in comparison.
When Charlie didn’t answer our knock on the front door Lydia and I made our way around the corner of the yard, littered with cast off machinery parts, interlaced with several pink plastic flamingos. I briefly pondered the ridiculous image of the replica tropical birds standing in the rainy Arkansas wooded retreat of my eccentric friend and wondered if in one sense I was just about as out of place in being able to help in response to his call for help…..and I said a silent prayer for my friend that I could at least ease his pain.
As we started down the graveled path leading to the enlarged 19th century barn that served as Charlie’s workshop we were greeted with the fiercely barking Pharaoh, his grizzled old golden retriever. The shrill threatening barks quickly turned to tail wagging recognition as he turned about to lead us through the side door of the workshop into what might have passed for Charlie’s office. Seemingly unaware, despite Pharaoh’s announcement, of our presence we were greeted by the back of Charlie’s snowy head bent over a work table littered with papers. With Pharaoh tugging at his sleeve Charlie stood up and saw us for the first time, a mixture of anguish and relief flooding his tired, craggy face.
Only when Charlie straightened up and turned in the light of the lamp on his work table did I see the coat and clothing he was wearing….knowing I was staring in open mouthed astonishment, speechless, I realized he was wearing what almost certainly was a confederate soldiers gray uniform, with a sergeants rank on the faded sleeves.
Lydia moved quickly, wrapped her arms around Charlie’s neck, a muffled strain in her voice, “Uncle Charlie, hope you don’t mind my tagging along with Dad here, but maybe I can help both of you.” Charlie leaned around her and embraced my hand in the grip of a much younger man…mouthing “thank you Jack for coming, this is so, so…. hard and confusing….”, a tear rolled down his lined face. Stepping back, for the first time, Lydia seized up the confederate uniform, and while looking Charlie up and down, said not a word.
Trying, only partly successful, to pull himself together, Charlie told us “Sit down, please, I’ve got coffee on, maybe something stronger…you may need it to bear with me through explaining this nightmare I’ve created.” We took the coffee, with the sense it might well need to be something stronger soon as we watched Charlie pace the room, finally stopping to stare out the window, his back to us, hands behind his back.
“Charlie….please tell me, what happened to Tom, there’s been nothing in the papers, the radio news says nothing about any murder, please…tell us what happened?” “Lord knows, you have been under some awful strain, and that uniform?” “We want to help, just help us understand what has happened.”
While Charlie ignored my confused questions, across the table from me I watched Lydia fight back tears, she struggling with what to say and uncharacteristically at a loss for words. Charlie turned slowly away from the window, collapsed in the chair at the end of the table and said, “Tom is dead, has been for 100 years.” Upon seeing both Lydia and I speechless, knowing we must think he’d lost his mind he added, “He was murdered on the dome of the State Capitol on May 18, 1911.”