Friday, July 17, 2009

Mother Nature, Murderer

By Shane Gericke

The death came from thin air.

It was almost mine.

Emphasis, almost. The lightning bolt hit all of us. Me, not quite hard enough to kill. Him, though . . .


I still think about the impossibly young man who saved our even younger lives.

But I can't remember his name.

So Him, it is.

I was 14. I was at Rainbow Council Boy Scout camp outside Chicago, on acres far enough from civilization that Scouting could afford a few hundred of them to put up a summer camp. A group of us kids was there one early summer weekend, practicing for an upcoming backpack through the mountains of New Mexico.

We'd been working doggedly, hiking hills and trekking woods. It was hot, and we were tired and sweaty. So at the end of the afternoon, the young man who ran the waterfront--supervising swimming, canoeing, rowing, lifesaving, all that--said, "Hey, why don't you guys jump in. I'll keep an eye on you." Being 14, we said, "Cool," and jumped in. He was an adult, but only relative to us--he was 21.

So we're swimming in the river, and he's climbing into the guard shack, an elevated platform made of stout wood, with a metal roof to keep off the rain. It's a clear blue sky, not a cloud around. Hotter than hell, but delightful in the water, which, being part of a reclaimed strip mine, was brownish with the occasional green bloom. Didn't matter. We're having a great time. He's listening to music on a small radio. Probably WLS, the rock giant in Chicago back then.

All of a sudden he blows his whistle. Being kids, we start griping and moaning.

He jerks his thumb.

"Out," said he.

"Why?" said we.

"Heard a little crackle," said he. "On the radio."

"We don't see anything," said we.

"It's time to go," insisted he.

So we left the water and started walking up the riverbank. Me and my best friend Terry were twenty, thirty yards from the shack. A handful of our buddies were at the base. "Him" had shut off the radio and was preparing to come down the ladder . . .

A single bolt of lightning slashed from the Wedgewood sky.

Hit the shack.

Flashed over.

Punched us all to the dirt.

I hit with my knees. Then my face.


Terry and I got up first. It didn't seem like we'd been knocked out, but we must have been, given what came next. We ran to the shack. Our friends at the base were groggy and rolling, but alive.

Him was still in the shack.

On the floor.


We scrambled up the ladder.

Him was green.

I'd always thought death was blue.

"Uh?" said my look to Terry.

"I think yeah," said his look back.

We immediately started working on him. Heart compressions. Breathing. Screaming silent messages to wake up goddammit you'll miss supper if you don't.

Nothing worked.

The older kids at the base finally got up, came up the ladder, took over.

As they thumped and breathed, I ran back to the camp and told the real adults, who called in the alarm to the local volunteers. They gave me a resuscitator tank and I ran it back to the shack.

It didn't work. This was pre-camp, and things were being fixed and replaced for the season. Things like air tanks of resuscitators.

I ran back to the office. They gave me a bulb resuscitator that you squeeze to shoot air into lungs. I ran it back.

It didn't work either. Dry rot.

By this time the sky was blackening and the wind was whipping. Rain was coming down in buckets. Fire hoses. Name your cliche. Water was rising, roads were flooding out.

Ambulance delayed.

Ambulance delayed.

Ambulance delayed.

We kept working on Him.

The camp nurse, a pretty young woman who was really nice to us kids, came up the ladder and started working on Him. One of the adult camp directors followed. We stood back and watched.

The wind whipped this way and that.

Flipped her white nurse's dress up to her shoulders, exposing her nylons, which were tan, and her panties, which were purple or red or some other exotic color.

A man was dead. His face was green. A storm was pounding. Lightning was shooting. Lives were in danger. We were 14.

We stared at the pretty lady's panties.

The adult caught it. Blinked as if to say, "Boys." Pulled down her dress with one hand and worked on Him with the other.

Ambulance delayed.

Ambulance delayed.

Ambulance delayed.

But Him was dead, so it didn't really matter.

Finally the ambulance arrived. One of those old Cadillac models, staffed by a couple of guys whose body language seemed to say, We got in, might not get out.

Turns out they were right. They couldn't get out, and neither could we.

Everyone to the dining hall, the highest point on the property.

We slept the night--well, laid there wide awake but pretending, anyway--on dining room tables as the storm writhed and danced. Him was stored gently in the walk-in cooler in the kitchen next door. Maybe the ambulance guys snuck Him out later when the storm tailed off. It's thirty seven years now and I don't remember.

Before we went to "sleep," the adult leaders explained what happened, even though we'd all been there. They were very choked up. One was crying, just a little, but not too much, so not to scare us. Back then, adults really did have stiff upper lips. They said he was a great kid, and he saved all our lives.

They were right. He was a kid. Just like us. And he saved our lives.

That's when I knew I'd be a writer some day. In second grade I'd already decided that's what I wanted to be. But this is what proved it. I knew someday I would write about a death.

Of a hero.

In a small town.

In the middle of nowhere.

Who I'll always remember as Him.

And thank for saving my life.

And giving me the chance to write these words for you today.


I was at ThrillerFest all last week. For those of you who haven't been, Tfest is the annual gathering of 600-plus thriller writers, readers, editors, publishers and other industry folk at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City, under the auspices of International Thriller Writers Inc. It was a blast. I got to hang out with some of the best people in the world, among them our very own Criminal Minders Sophie, CJ, Rebecca and Kelli, and drink any number of glasses of J. Walker's finest Black Label. Had lunch one-on-one with two of my favorite writers, Lee Child and Joseph Finder . Traded writing tips with Robert Dugoni, who's working on some deliciously cool books right now. Even got to hang out at a karioke bar in the Village one night with a few writers and readers, staying till nearly three a.m. I murdered "Ring of Fire," but since Johnny Cash sings worse than I do, I felt like Sinatra. Tfest will be there again next July, and I highly recommend you attend if you like thrillers and their authors. Maybe we can do Drinks with the Criminal Minders for our fans! More at


Jen Forbus said...

Wow! Just Wow! I got goosebumps reading this, Shane. Excellent post. Excellent! It'll probably turn up in my dreams tonight.

Thanks! :)

Shane Gericke said...

Thanks, Jen. Funny, but I still like thunderstorms. Go figure.

Unknown said...

Shane -- I'm damn near in tears. Wonderful post, and a great reminder to live life to the hilt, because all illusions aside, we don't have a bit of say about when we leave this earth.

I hope everyone kisses someone they love today.

Shane Gericke said...

Thanks, Mysti. Life IS fleeting, there's no doubt, with no guarantees of another minute, let alone another hundred years. An example: Friend of mine put off everything till retirement--as in, "We'll do that when we retire"--and two years after he did, he got Parkinson's, and can't do a damn thing now except shake. Thirty years of plans with his wife to go places and do things, evaporated.

So yes, grab a loved one and lay on a big ol' smooch!It's totally worth it.

A couple years ago, I went back to the camp to see if the spot was the same. (Hadn't been back there since I got out of Boy Scouts at 18.) Amazingly, it hasn't changed. It was like a time capsule. The dining hall, the hill, the river, the tower--everything looked and smelled the same as that day. Except it all seemed much smaller than when I was 14. Musta shrunk in the wash.

Again, thanks for the lovely comments on my writing, from you and Jen and everyone. Tis appreciated.

Shane Gericke said...

The day I posted this, a good friend died for bad reasons. More on this Friday, but thought I would share with my friends here first. I hate when life imitates what we talk about here.

Jen Forbus said...

Thanks for sharing with us, Shane. So sorry to hear about your loss. I'll have some special prayers for both you and your friend's family.