Copyright 2006 hammingbyrd7
Looking back, I think the first clue about my abilities occurred months before they started manifesting. It was in the first week of January in 2001. I was still sixteen at the time. It was the week my mom died.
I've had classmates who've lost family members, through accidents and illnesses, so I've seen both ways, fast and slow. Before I lost my mom, I used to think that fast was better. Maybe I still do. I would have hated to watch her suffer. But the shock... Oh man, it's brutal. And the guilt... Not too much in my case, just the normal regrets of not being nicer to someone you loved while you had the chance. For my dad though, it was a different world entirely...
He'd been married to my mom for more than thirty years. They both grew up in Sterling, Illinois, a small town of about fifteen thousand an hour or two west of Chicago. My parents lived there all their lives, sharing classes in primary school, becoming high- school sweethearts... My dad started working for Northwestern Steel and Wire right out of high school, just like his dad. My mom became a sales clerk. They married each other when they were both twenty-one.
My dad is a union man. I'm not saying that to boast or to put down. I'm just telling you his perspective. According to my dad, there are two great opposing forces in the universe. I'm not talking about God and the Devil. I'm talking about labor and management, and my dad is on the side of truth and goodness. He's labor.
My dad thinks of the USW as his family. He's also honest, a hard worker, kind, and horrified by lack of loyalty the Northwestern owners have shown for their workers. My dad has seen it all, from reneging on promises for medical care to blacklisting people who spoke out about safety violations.
My dad started working the night shift in 1967 as an apprentice operator, learned the various trades of tending and casting, became a team leader... By the 1980's he was working mostly with specialty steels, and in the last decade before the accident he earned his certificates as master millwright and worked almost exclusively in maintenance and installation. He loved his work, took pride in it to the core of his being. Then in December of 2000, after 122 years in operation, Northwestern filed for Chapter 11. And a few weeks later there was the car crash. For a while everything just seemed to fall apart.
It started for me in the early Monday morning of January 1, 2001, a few hours before sunrise. I was home alone fast asleep when someone started pounding on the door. It was the police...
I was at Community General a half hour later, met dad in a deserted waiting room outside the surgery area. He almost didn't recognize me, and I almost didn't recognize him. He looked as if he was aged fifteen years in the last few hours. In a shell-shocked voice he told me what happened.
He and mom were coming home from the union's New Year's Eve party, about two in the morning. Dad was driving. Mom had just unclicked her seatbelt to get something from her purse in the back, and suddenly there was a tremendous crash and the car went flying. Dad and the other driver were unbelievably lucky, a few pulled muscles and some minor cuts from the glass. Mom though... Mom went through the windshield, head first...
For all the torture dad would put himself through in the coming months, we never could get a clear picture of what happened. Except for the driver of the other car, there were no witnesses. He claimed dad swerved wildly and struck him, but that story didn't particularly fit with the crash evidence. Both drivers had been drinking, but both were also legally sober. In the end no citations were issued. It was just one of those accidents. Maybe if the lighting or the road conditions were just a little bit better, or if either driver had been just a little more alert... maybe nothing would have happened.
If... In reality, I was sitting with my dad in the living room in the late afternoon after the funeral. I asked him a couple of times whether he'd like something for dinner, but he kept shaking his head no. I just sat there in silence with him for almost an hour, not knowing quite what to do. I knew what dad's problem was. Men of his generation are not supposed to cry...
I had my eyes closed, thinking of mom, hating the emptiness of the hole she left. I was angry and sad and frustrated all at the same time, and then all the emotions seemed to focus into one white-hot spark of rebellion against the universe, and I felt the brief flash of a terrific headache behind my eyes.
I opened my eyes. "Uh... Yeah dad?"
"Did you just flick the lights on and off?"
"Huh? From here?"
My dad just stared at me for a while. "Yeah, I guess not. I must be seeing things. Sorry..." He closed his eyes before I could reply.
I sat there feeling totally bewildered. The weirdest part was, I had seen the flash too, but it was behind my eyes, two live wires of anger and sorrow shorting against each other in my mind. How in the world could dad have picked up on that? I sat there probing my mind for the intense headache I thought was coming, but I felt fine. I finally shrugged it off as a meaningless coincidence. There was no other logical explanation. And I was right. There was nothing logical about that flash at all...
I went back to Sterling High on January 8'th, a week after the accident. The kids were very sympathetic, that helped a lot. It's a modest sized school, just over a thousand students. The class ahead of me, the graduating seniors number about two hundred. I have some mixed feelings about the school. I like my teachers, but the drug dealing has gotten so out of hand I sometimes worry about my safety... And Melanie's...
Melanie is my girlfriend. She gave me a really great hug after school that day, long and affectionate, holding me in her arms as if she never wanted to let me go. We had seen each other briefly over the past week, but there was so much family coming in from both my mom's and dad's side that we never really had much of a chance to talk. We both decided to skip the bus and walk home...
I should tell you about Melanie. We're in the same AP science and math classes and have been friends since we were toddlers. She's bright, considerate, very courageous, athletic, ambitious... She is determined to become one of the world's greatest doctors... Melanie is also absolutely, positively, the most beautiful creature who ever walked the Earth. She also has one of the wackiest, most dysfunctional families I've ever heard of, let alone met. Seriously, they're one for the record books.
We held hands as we walked home, not doing much talking at all. Somehow, we didn't need to. Melanie could sense how I was feeling and she thought having me talk about it would only make it worse, at least for now. She gave me a quick kiss and a warm smile as she dropped me off at my house. Her home is only three blocks away. I felt a lot better heading up to my room to study. Melanie was right. She's so perceptive. Just being with her and not having to try to verbalize all the chaos within me... It was exactly what I needed.
That's where we were in our relationship, at the holding-hands stage. Well, over the last few months we've started to kiss each other goodbye too. But Melanie is genuinely shy about getting more physical, and to tell the truth so am I. We'll be going to the junior prom of course, and we both have our dreams about the future. But for now, we're still exploring how to be emotionally intimate with each other. We're holding off on the physical stuff till later.
And the months passed. At the end of February, (or the first of March, take your pick when it's not a leap-year), I turned seventeen, a month ahead of Melanie. More time passed and somehow I came to terms with never seeing mom again. But for dad it was a different story. The United Steel Workers were a family to him, but somehow even the USW couldn't replace the hole mom had left in his heart. Winter turned into spring and I hadn't seen dad smile or even relax in months. And the fact that Northwestern would be shutting down the plant in May certainly wasn't helping any. I worried a lot and tried to be around for dad to talk with. There didn't seem to be much else I could do.
Then on the last day in May I came home from school and found dad grinning like a Jack O' Lantern. He had been traveling over the past week, ever since the plant closed, and had just gotten back from a trip to Reading, Pennsylvania. One look at his face and I knew he had struck pay-dirt.
"Carpenter Technology?" I asked grinning.
He nodded happily. "I was unbelievably lucky. They have an opening that fits me perfectly! It'll actually be an increase in base pay, much better than I was hoping for. I'll be going back into operations again, specialty steels, and branching out into titanium."
I gave him a beaming smile. "So when do you start?"
For the first time, dad looked a bit worried. "They're anxious for me to start right now. They're offering me a nice bonus if I start this coming Monday. Eric, we have some talking to do."
I'd been so happy for my dad I wasn't paying attention to the implications of all this. It suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks. I'd be moving with dad to eastern Pennsylvania. Melanie?!!
I broke the news to her the next day, after we left the prom. We had a really nice time there for about three hours, but then some of the kids started pushing the envelope on rowdiness. The chaperones were struggling to keep things under control. A part of me wanted to stick around and help them, but my first loyalty was to Melanie. I wanted her out of there. So we drove to the Dairy Queen for some ice cream. I waited until we finished our cones, and then I told her about dad's new job.
"What?! Eric! You're not joking, are you?"
"About something like this? No, of course not. He's going to leave on Sunday, start the next day."
"He? You're not going with him?"
I shook my head and tried to smile. "No. I'll be around for the summer, hopefully for almost all of it. Dad wants me to fix up the house and sell it. He's hiring me."
"Yeah, union wages too... He insisted; $16.93 per hour, plus time and a half for overtime."
Melanie had to smile as this. "You're joking, right?"
"No, not at all... Uh, Melanie... I'll be around for the summer... And afterwards, I don't want to lose you..."
Melanie said nothing for a while. She just stared into my eyes for the longest time, and then started to cry. No sobs, just silent tears falling down her cheeks. "Eric... What you mean to me... I haven't even explained it to myself, let alone have something I can offer you, but... I don't want to lose you either..."
"Eric... Do you want to have..." her voice squeaked, "...with me?"
Melanie blew a full breath of air through her cheeks, and then leaned and sank back into the car seat. I reached across and held her hand. After a while she said, "I thought we had more time; lots and lots of more time. I thought you would enjoy chasing me. I thought I could give you the pleasure of pursuing me, before I let you to capture me. And now..." She leaned over and rested her head against my shoulder. "Hold me?"
I put my arm around her shoulders and my head against hers. We stayed that way for the longest time without speaking. Finally I turned and kissed her. "Melanie, nothing has changed. We're planning on being close to each other for college."
"It's for one year. We can talk on the phone, and I asked my dad about the odometer on his car. It's 830 miles between Reading, PA and here. I could drive that in one day, fifteen hours maybe, no problem."
Melanie sighed and nodded and just cuddled with me. She leaned up and lightly kissed me on my cheek. "A year... It seems like such a long time. Will you really wait for me?"
"Count on it!"
She relaxed for the first time and kissed me again. "Okay! And I will wait for you. Hell! I wish my parents liked you better! They can be so impossible sometimes! And it seems to be getting worse, not better!"
I almost nodded, but didn't want to spoil the moment by turning the conversation to such an annoying topic. I drove Melanie home by the time limit her parents had set. Both her dad and mom came out and more or less glared at me as I walked Melanie to her door. Figuring what the hell, I gave her a quick peck goodnight anyway, and she smiled and did the same. Her dad looked angry, even more than I was expecting. Hell, I didn't want to get Melanie into trouble. I tried to smile politely and then left.
The summer was an incredible educational experience for me. In three short months I picked up an unbelievable amount of experience. Dad had friends from other trade unions come in and oversee my work. The learning opportunities were priceless, and I wound up working close to eighty hours a week. I completely rebuilt the kitchen under the kind tutelage of the UBCJA, the UAPP, and IBEW. That's the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
The house looked great, and I was so proud of the kitchen. I changed the floor to ceramic tile, even put in new sub-flooring before I did the mud job. I sweated in the plumbing for a new sink location and the dishwasher mom always talked about having. And I did all my own wiring, including the installation of a sub-junction box down in the basement. No more worrying now about having the toaster and the microwave on at the same time. The various city building inspectors said everything looked very professional.
I also did a lot of finishing woodwork and found I loved it. I completely rebuilt the staircase to the second floor, replaced a cracked stringer, and put in new handrails and new risers and treads made out of Brazilian cherry wood. It gleamed! And by far I was most proud of the kitchen cabinets, customized solid hardwood maple complete with Hawaiian Koa wood inlay. It took a lot of time with the sanders and the routers and the table saw, but the result looked fantastic. I think it's what sold the house, even in the soft market.
I saw almost nothing of Melanie that summer. She was one of a few high-school students in the entire State to be accepted in a special pre-med summer program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It's just over 200 miles by car from my house to the campus, about a three and a half hour drive. It's not a bad trip, but I only drove it once. Word got back to Melanie's parents about my first visit, and they really reamed her out about it, even to the point of threatening to withdraw their permission for her to be in the summer program. We talked on the phone the next day, and decided we wouldn't push the issue.
We talk a lot on the phone, in the evenings. Gosh, I miss her. The talking does help though. Her latest struggle is trying to get her parents to sign for her driver's learning permit. They promised to do it when she turned seventeen, but somehow the paperwork never quite gets done. I don't know why her parents treat her like this. Melanie is one of the most mature and thoughtful people I know. She wouldn't abuse driving privileges. Her parents just don't seem to appreciate her. And her father's attitude towards unions is, "Bust 'em up!" For some incredibly wacky reason, somehow that got translated to "Melanie, stay away from Eric!" It's totally insane!
The summer flew by. With all the work and the overtime I was struggling not to charge my dad more than $1600 a week, but I had given him my solemn word I would not under-report my time. By the end of the summer, I had grossed close to $20,000. It felt really strange, getting paid so much for doing work I found so enjoyable. Before I knew it, the summer was over. It was the last day of August, the Friday before Labor Day. Dad came to close on the house sale and pick me up.
He had a tear in his eye when he saw all my work. He said he couldn't quite believe all the reports from his friends about what kind of job I was doing. His friends aren't the type to rave, and he sometimes wondered if they were joking. I never felt so proud. Then after one last look, we went to the lawyers and signed it all away. My days at Sterling had drawn to a close.
Dad had bought a house in Exeter township, a few miles east of Reading. The township had a much better high school than the city. It's even smaller than the one in Sterling, only about 800 students. I started right after Labor Day. The students were mostly friendly, not too cliquish, and the drug problem wasn't quite- as bad as Illinois. 9/11 happened my second week of school, and somehow I think that helped the class accept me. I think they saw me as a fellow American, rather than some outsider from another State.
My only real problem with the school is that they had this fixed policy that you had to take Advanced Placement courses as a junior IN THEIR SCHOOL before you could take AP courses as a senior. We argued and argued with the school principal and finally even petitioned the school board. No luck. Dad and I hate wasting time fighting losing battles, so in the end he bought me some college texts on calculus and physics and most of my science that year was self taught.
The second time my abilities manifested was right after a phone call I had with Melanie during Thanksgiving break. It was the day my universe changed.
Melanie was calling from a friend's house. The time was late Saturday afternoon.
Right after I had moved to Pennsylvania, Melanie's parents had forbidden her to contact me, no phone, no e-mail, nothing. But we both feel that kind of control is way beyond their parental rights. They were even monitoring their phone bill to check on her. I guess it's not illegal, but man oh man, what an awful way to treat your child. I try not to make sarcastic comments about it. They're still her parents. For the phone call, I tried to start on a topic I knew she'd enjoy.
"So how's track coming?"
"Fabulous!" Gosh, it was so nice to hear her happy. "Coach Collins timed me at 35:37 on the ten kilometer run last Saturday."
"Wow! Six six-minute miles?!"
"Yep! Under! I'm doing a mile every 5:44."
"Wow... Dreaming about the Olympics Melanie? Athens is less than three years away!"
"Yeah, right! I'm still six minutes off the women's world-record pace, and probably one or two minutes away from being good enough for the Olympic team. I hope to be on the podium at the State Championships though."
I took a risk. "Surely your parents must be proud of you, at least about this."
Melanie gave a mirthful laugh. "Well, I must admit, they have inspired me to be the runner I am today."
"Really?! Hey, that's great!"
"Yeah. They still say I'm not trustworthy enough to have a driver's permit. But I figure if I can run five miles in half an hour, then I really don't need to drive."
"Oh... Oh hell Melanie..."
"Oh, it's not so bad Eric. And in another four months, I won't need their signature for the permit. I've got the date circled on my calendar. On Monday, April 1, 2002, the April Fool girl will have her birthday and be eighteen. I'll be emancipated."
Melanie was trying to hide it, but I knew her too well. She sounded just a bit depressed. I tried to shift the topic to her older sister. "Well, better than being emaciated I guess! So how is Patricia doing?"
For the first time in the call I heard Melanie giggle. "Oh, that's right! You don't know. Patty is a guest again of the Whiteside County judicial system."
I must have been slow that day. It took me a moment to realize what Melanie was saying. "Yikes! What's she done now?"