Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Search



"Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not;
and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad."

~~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow~~


Bill didn't get in until long after dark. It was summer, blistering summer, in California's Imperial Valley, the temperature that day soaring above one-hundred-ten degrees. His brown and tan uniform was crusted with alkali, as was his skin, which was crazed with bloody scratches. His voice was a whisper, all but gone. Although he washed off the salt and the blood, and although it's now been years, his eyes still grow hollow, his face still contorts when he recalls that day.

As a law enforcement ranger, his patrol sector included large stretches of desert, including the Imperial Sand Dunes, a monstrous recreational area where visitors from San Diego, Los Angeles, and elsewhere still congregate on holidays and weekends, bringing with them an assortment of off-road vehicles in which to enjoy the great outdoors. On this particular day, dispatch received a frantic call from a family group from which two seven-year-old boys had gone missing. They'd been riding their child-sized motorcycles in the camp. "Get out of here," the grownups said. "You're making too much noise." So they did.

But that had been before lunch; now past noon, they still had not returned.

Heat rose off the desert floor in undulating waves. Nothing moved. There was no comforting sound of motorcycle engines in the distance. Bill's stomach plummeted.

He activated search and rescue and rangers rolled in from other sectors, other counties. He and his people started 'loading up', drinking water and sports drinks as fast as they could choke them down, knowing. Just knowing. It was too hot…too hot.

Still, trained to save, Bill held out hope. If they could just get to them in time…if the boys stayed together they had a better chance…maybe they'd come back to camp…maybe they were in another camp…maybe…maybe.

They tracked the bikes for miles, in and out of gullies and washes, eventually into the San Sebastian Marsh, an isolated alkali swamp, maze-like and thick with tamarisk and salt cedar trees, the ground temperature over one-hundred-thirty degrees, the air stifling, nearly unbreathable, humidity over ninety percent.

They searched on foot, almost frantically, pushing through stickery thickets, wading through noxious, stagnant pools—calling out the boys' names until they had no voices left. A professional searcher collapsed and had to be air-lifted out, overcome by heat. Bill carried another one out. He and the others kept on, walking, sometimes crawling. Hours later, exhausted and broken-hearted, they found the children a few yards apart, their little motorcycles nearby.

Both of the boys were dead.

Like everyone I know who deals with death, who hands out
grief—who has to be the one to tell, to professionally inform, to see the dreadful dawning of knowledge on the faces of  loved ones that life will never be the same again—Bill was stoic, his regret efficiently compartmentalized, tucked down in his gut, there next to Vietnam, next to car crashes, house fires, murders; nestled in with dozens and dozens of little boxes of other people's pain all mingled with his own—a lumpy, broken mosaic of unuttered woe.

That night, we sat together in the dark for a long, long time. As always, there were no words.

There was just us.