Finally, A Peaceful Sleep

A short story by Bob Downing

     I fell into my bed with the heaviness that only comes from complete exhaustion. The day’s struggles had drained the resources of my mind and body, and now the only thing I craved was sleep…limitless, dreamless, wonderful sleep. I closed my eyes and tried to erase the events of the day, but I found myself reliving the terror of the past twenty four hours.   The attack by the rebels on the convoy had come without warning, and the unsuspecting little band of travelers were helplessly outnumbered and outgunned.   The resulting carnage was a nightmare of blood, fire, and death, and only I had been able to escape the sword and bullet before the arrival of the militia.
     With the army’s arrival, the rebels had vanished into the jungle, and all that was left was the scene of tragedy.   The captain in charge had graciously given me an escort to my cabin, a modest dwelling high in the mountains overlooking the dense rain forest.   It was after before I unlocked my front door, and, with the escorting soldier making a quick safety check of the premises and departing, I was quickly left in the loneliness of my home.
     The moon was slowly rising over the ridge to the east, and the evening breeze was gently brushing the curtains of the windows as they waved a greeting to my arrival.   The heat from the day’s summer sun lingered and was still nearly unbearable, but a touch of coolness in the breeze hinted of a more comfortable night.   The fire from the wood burning kitchen stove had long since gone out.  Occasionally I heard the screech or yelp from the nocturnal jungle creatures as they played their nightly music. I clicked on the lone light in the kitchen and told myself I should eat something because it had been twelve hours since lunch, but my exhaustion took command.  I decided that preparing any kind of meal was far too much trouble. I threw some water on my face, changed into my sleeping clothes, and collapsed into the bed.   In the darkness, I saw the attackers again, and the events seemed to replay over and over.   I struggled to erase the images, and, in time, as the weariness and exhaustion took a firmer grip, I began to drift into a fitful sleep.
     I subconsciously heard the noise even before I was fully awake.   It was a very quiet, brushing sound, as if someone had rubbed his hand over a bit of cloth.  The unfamiliarity of the sound brought me out of my stupor, and my eyes unwillingly cracked open just a bit.   At first, I wondered if I had dreamed the sound, and I lay there listening for any repeat noise.   The slight ticking of the clock and the rustling curtains seemed to assure me that all was well.   It was quite dark; the moon had slipped behind a cloud, and I could only very slightly see the ghostly outlines of the furniture in the room. I began to drift back into unconsciousness.
     This time the sound was a little louder and seemed closer, and it definitely had a brushing, sliding sound, as if something was moving.  Due to the warmth of the night, I had been sleeping under a light cover.  The moon had reappeared and cast a pale dimness to the room.   Instantly my senses were in high alert as my eyes strained to see, and I listened with the intensity that comes with the foreboding of danger.   The clock and curtains were ignored now as I surveyed the room…and then I saw it.  My eyes had finally settled on the foot of the bed, and as I was peering with narrowed eyes, a few inches from my feet…the bed cover moved.   At first I thought my foot had involuntarily twitched, but a few seconds later I heard the brushing sound along with a movement of the cover, and I realized there’s something under the cover!   My first reaction was to jump and run, but before I could even react, I felt a cold clamminess touch the side of my right foot, and watched in horror as the cover moved again, and I felt the invader slide over my foot and rest up against my ankle.   I froze, petrified, unable to move, and aware that I was probably now sharing my bed with a snake.
     Here in the jungle, there are very few nonpoisonous reptiles, and those which inhabit this area of the world are known for their deadly venom and their speed of attack.   I knew my chance for escape had been lost; it would be impossible for me to leap from the bed before I was struck by the deadly fangs.  I could feel the cool skin of the serpent as it contentedly rested next to the warmth of my foot.   Fearing any movement, I breathed in short, shallow gasps and tried to will my limbs to stay still.   As my anxiety rose, I began to perspire profusely, and in my exhausted panic I imagined I was dreaming a nightmare.   I told myself all I had to do was wake up and get out of bed to relieve this torture, but the cool sensation next to my foot brought me back to my senses before I moved.  Afraid to make a sound, I silently wept and prayed that the agony might end, but the antagonist at my feet seemed to be contentedly at rest.   My heart pounded with the ferocity of a long distance runner, and I feared the sound of my heartbeat would disturb my unwelcomed guest.   My arms and legs began to ache and cramp, and I fought with my own muscles to force them to remain motionless.
     Suddenly without warning, the serpent moved, and I felt the icy, rough skin as it crept along the calf of my leg toward my knee.   I screamed silently and strained to resist movement.   The creature seemed to sense something was astir, and stopped, as if listening for a warning sound and attempting to get a sense of its own surroundings.   I held my breath and stared at the dim ceiling with panic-stricken eyes attempting to force myself to lie still.   And then it moved again. I watched in fascinated horror as the cover moved, and the serpent slithered from my right calf, crossed over my left leg, and coiled into a lump just below my left hip.   Now within a few inches of my paralyzed hand, the snake seemed to be considering its options.   It appeared to be unable to get comfortable and squirmed and rustled around as if trying to find a good position.
     I was paralyzed with pain, desperate for oxygen, and suffocating with heat.   I felt my limbs were being torn from me even as I lay there motionless.   Anything is better than this torture, I decided.   I will leap from the bed and take my chances, because it is only a matter of time before the serpent realizes it is in the company of an enemy and strikes.   On the count of three, I will jump……one…….two…….and the serpent moved again.
     The cover began to move, and I joyously watched as the lump moved to the edge of the bed, and I heard a soft thump as the serpent landed on the floor.   I exhaled as if I had been underwater for too long, and I lay there for what seemed hours trying to hear the movement of my enemy.   I heard no more sounds.   Finally, throwing caution to the wind, I sprang quickly out of bed and ran to the light. The brightness at first was blinding, and I scrambled for my gun and machete.   I searched the entire room with gun and knife at the ready, slowly and methodically…every corner, closet, drawer, cubicle, and nook, but to no avail.   And now the weariness of the night began to weigh even more heavily, and like a drunken sailor, I stumbled back to my bed, and after checking every layer of mattress, sheet, pillow, and cover, fell into a deep comatose sleep.
     The morning came far too quickly, and though the hour was far past sunrise, I arose still exhausted.   My body ached from the evening’s tensions, my head pounded, and I walked as one who was sorely inebriated.   What I needed was a strong cup of coffee.   After drawing the water and locating the coffee, I went outside to the woodpile to pick up a handful of kindling to start a morning fire.   As I lifted the chunk of firewood, I saw the eyes of the cobra.
     His six foot body was curled in the traditional attack position, and his red piercing eyes were hypnotically tracking my hand.   In a flash of movement, he struck.   I jerked my hand, but it was too late, and I felt the fangs penetrate and the venom injected in my hand.   I screamed in alarm and watched in fascination as the cobra calmly recoiled and rose up to watch his victim.   I started to run, but the strangest thing happened.   My pain began to fade away, and the most wonderful calm began to settle over me.   I looked at the cobra, and admired his beautiful color and proud demeanor.   The weariness of the last twenty four hours vanished like fog, and a great peace surrounded me.   I sat down on the grass and looked at the bright morning sun and felt the warm morning breezes.   The trees had never appeared so green nor had the birds ever sounded so beautiful.   I wanted to rest and enjoy this moment, so I lay back on the carpet of green. My vision began to dim, and I breathed a deep gulp of wonderful, fresh air as I felt myself drifting away to a place of peaceful, permanent sleep.
     The cobra, satisfied his enemy would bother him no more, slipped silently into the jungle.


Nip/Tuck

      Shirley and I have enjoyed vacationing in Hawai’i. We have been there five times and have learned that the proper spelling for “Hawaii” is “Hawai’i.” There are many parts of the world which are touted as places of paradise (and we haven’t seen them all), but the Hawai’ian Islands are our benchmark until something better comes along. This short essay will not be a travelogue, but rather a recounting of an incident which happened in “paradise” which is a little funny now, but at the time created a few tense moments.
     On our third trip to Hawai’i, our base of operations was our timeshare condo on the island of Maui. On our first trip to the islands, we were captured outside our hotel in Honolulu one evening by a slick talking salesman, given the timeshare condo sales pitch, and fell for it hook, line, and sinker. It actually worked out pretty well. We used the condo on our next three trips and in the years we did not travel to Maui, we were able to easily rent the condo to someone else. Anyway, one thing that Shirley and I enjoy doing is snorkeling, and Hawai’i is a snorkeler’s dream. The water is clear, the coral is magnificent, and there’s an abundance of marine life. One of our favorite places to go is Molokini, which is a crescent shaped uninhabited island about fifteen miles off the Ka’anapali coast. Charter boats take loads of water soaked tourists to this island, where they drop anchor, and the tourist jump in and snorkel and dive to their hearts’ content. It is a gorgeous spot.
     On this particular Molokini trip, we rode to the site in a forty foot cruiser sponsored by the Pacific Whale Foundation. These people are extreme conservationists to the point that their boat runs on used cooking oil instead of diesel or gasoline. They make regular visits to all the restaurants on Maui to collect their used oil and use it to power their boats. Probably explains why everything smelled of fried fish (not really.) The guides on these trips are very knowledgeable, and by the time you get to the dive site, you want to go hug a shark. They are very dedicated to the ecological well being of the ocean. These Molokini trips usually begin about 8:00 a.m. with arrival at the dive site usually around 9:30 to 10:00 with a little meandering around to look at dolphin and other ocean life. A couple of hours of diving there, then it’s another excursion around the backside of the Molokini volcano to a place on the southwest coast on Maui called Turtle Bay, for obvious reasons once you get there. Lunch is cooked and served while at anchor, then it’s another couple of hours of diving before heading back to port.
     So, on this particular morning while we were snorkeling at Molokini, Shirley and I had been in the water for an hour or so looking at the clouds of fish. Shirley likes to meander along just under the surface with her breathing tube safely out of the water, while I like to dive down to the coral in the 15-25 foot deep water to investigate whatever might catch my eye. Moray eels and other varmints like to hide in the coral, and it’s neat to see these creatures in their natural habitats. Anyway, I would do my thing, diving down here and there, while Shirley would paddle along on the surface. When I decided to surface I would look up and could usually spot her bathing suit so I could get back to where she was.
     This one time I went down because someone had yelled there was a small shark cruising around some of the coral, and I spent fifteen minutes or so seeing lots of creatures but no shark. No, I did not stay underwater for 15 continuous minutes. A snorkler dives, stays down as long as possible, surfaces, gulp some more air, and re-dives. When I gave up on the shark and decided to surface, I looked up, and sure enough, there was Shirley paddling along, and I guess, since shark was on my mind, I decided to do my shark imitation as I cruised up toward her. I floated up underneath and behind her, reached up and gave her a …um….pinch of a personal nature that a husband might give a wife if you catch the drift. She jumped and turned, but I dove instantly and got away. I snorkeled elsewhere for about five minutes and then surfaced to look for Shirley. No Shirley anywhere. I swam around for a few more minutes, and then I spotted her back up in the boat. Well, by this time I was getting tired, so I climbed aboard and sat down next to her. “Did I scare you?” I asked with an apologetic look on my face.
     “What are you talking about?” she replied with a puzzled look.
     “When I came up behind you and pinched you.” She looked at me with a blank look.
     Suddenly a great horror flashed in my mind. “How long have you been back on the boat?” I asked her.
     “About 30 minutes…I got cold!”
     At that moment the realization that I had pinched the wrong woman hit me like a bucket of cold water. I could envision the next scenario. A flustered lady would come out of the water, point at me and yell, “There’s the sick pervert! Somebody shoot him!” And next to her would be her husband, a former World Wrestling Federation champion, six feet, five inches and 290 pounds, walking toward me and growling, “I’ll handle this, Baby!”
     For the next few minutes as everyone reboarded the boat in preparation for leaving, I spent a lot of time looking in the opposite direction of the boarding ladder and studying the boat deck. Any second I expected someone grab my shoulder and make all sorts of accusations. I kept a VERY low profile the remainder of the trip.
     But, you know, I got to thinking about it later, and who knows? I may have made some woman’s day a very special day. I can just imagine some lady getting on the boat, looking around, and upon seeing me trying to be invisible in a corner, graciously walking by while thinking to herself, “I’ll always wonder what his name was!”

James Lemuel Creel 1920-1989

      It’s been twenty-seven years since James Lemuel Creel, my father-in-law, passed away, and I still think of him quite often. I was married to his daughter for the last twenty eight years of his life, and with our marriage now passing the fifty-five year mark, I find I am now older than he was when he left us. It’s a sobering realization because somehow in my mind I don’t feel my age, and yet in years past when I looked at my parents and father-in-law when they were the age I am now they seemed so…ancient. Let me tell you, growing old is not for the weak of heart…no pun intended.
     My first contact with Lemuel Creel (hardly anyone called him James) was when my mom and dad began attending Peace Tabernacle United Pentecostal Church in about 1950. “Brother Lemuel” was the assistant pastor of the church pastored by Reverend V.A. Guidroz in Baytown, Texas. In those early years Pastor Guidroz was also the District Superintendent for the Texas District of the UPC and due to that fact had to take an occasional trip around the district doing church business. During those short absences, Brother Lemuel would ably conduct the local church services. Even as a kid I can remember that I always enjoyed his sermons because he told good stories and analogies to back up the points he was trying to make.
     My relationship with the Creel family got ratcheted up several notches when as a teenager I realized that he had a daughter who, with just a smile or a frown, could make or ruin my day. Fortunately, the spark seemed to be mutually encouraged, and in our teen years, Shirley and I were usually “dating,” “going steady,” or “good friends,” with only an occasional “don’t call me, I’ll call you” thrown in.      There were bumps along the road for Lemuel. Buadda, his wife and Shirley’s mother, died of cancer in 1957 when Shirley was 16. Shirley dropped out of the teenage romance game and assumed the role of substitute mother for her younger siblings. Later, Lemuel married Geraldine Lewis, a widow with a teenage daughter a year younger than Shirley. With a new mother and a new sister, Shirley was relieved of some of the motherly responsibilities and reentered the dating scene, and of course I was there to help her get started again. By that time I owned a car and could come a-calling whenever I thought it safe. It was at that time I began to realize that Lemuel had certain rules and guidelines for the home and for guys taking his daughter various places. At the time Shirley and I thought we were being severely persecuted, but, looking back now as a parent and grandparent, he was pretty easy with us. I could never be really sure if he liked me or not, although I will admit that in those days I was shy enough that I could hardly carry on a conversation with anyone, so he and I never really had any extended discussions until years later.
     But one thing I will never forget was the night I asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage. This charmingly quaint tradition, long since forgotten in these modern times, goes back hundreds of years, and I, the dutiful suitor, did as I was expected. Shirley and I along with Lemuel and Geraldine sat in their family room chatting about some inane subject while my mind raced about what I was going to say and my shirt got increasingly wet from a nervous sweat. Finally, during a pregnant pause, I blurted out, ”Brother Lemuel, may I marry your daughter?” I really think during the next fifteen seconds my heart did not take a beat. Finally he responded with the words that would ring in my head for years, “Well, I guess there’s nothing I can do to stop it!” I was so happy he did not say no that I totally missed the complete lack of enthusiasm on his part. Anyway, on August 18, 1961, Shirley and I were united in holy matrimony.
     Now, before you begin to think that my personal self esteem was permanently damaged by my father-in-law’s lack of enthusiasm about our marriage, let me say it’s true my relationship with my in-laws was sort of arms length for those first few years, but as I have become more educated and mature and watched my own children grow, learn, and prosper, I can now look back through time and see myself through my father-in-law’s eyes as we sat in that family room in 1961. And when I see what I was in 1961, I realize that if I had been Brother Lemuel in that room, I would have thrown me out the door. There I sat, all of eighteen years old, no education, working basically as a laborer for my dad’s company, and didn’t have a hundred dollars to my name. Even scarier, my mom and dad had taken me to Austin, Texas, and enrolled me in the University of Texas in May of that year to begin my college career…and I canceled the whole thing because I wanted to stay home and get married. My parents and Shirley’s parents should have gotten us all together and said something to the effect that if you love each other get your education and then get married. But they didn’t, and you know what? It worked out anyway. And for that I thank God and the fact that we both had good families. Of course, there was another reason…in our religious culture of that time, divorce was not an option. Couples worked out their problems. And we were so young and na├»ve we had a lot of growing up to do after we married.
     A couple of years after we married, Lemuel suffered a second shock when Geraldine was diagnosed with cancer, and I can remember being in the hospital room when the diagnosis was announced to the family. Lemuel leaned his head against the wall and began to weep, and the rest of us bowed our heads and stood there like statues. It never occurred to me to put a hand on his shoulder or try to comfort in any way. I still feel guilty about that. A few months later, Geraldine was sent home to spend her final days. During one of the evenings when Shirley and I were spending the night with them, there suddenly was a commotion in Geraldine’s room. We all rushed in to see her taking her final breaths. The gasps for air came farther and farther apart until they ceased. Lemuel said quietly, “Well, she fought a good fight.”  He covered her head with the sheet and calmly dialed the funeral home and asked them to send a hearse. He hung up the phone, lowered his head, and wept. And again, I stood there.
     Lemuel suffered financially as well as emotionally with his two cancer experiences, but the next few years were much more favorable. He married Anniedeen Bateman, a long time family friend who brought stability to the family. She is practically the only mother the younger siblings have ever known. In 1972 the family moved to Casper, Wyoming, where Lemuel accepted the pastorship of a small church, and began to teach welding in the vocational department of Casper College. In 1973, Buddy and Jeannie, his son and daughter-in-law, followed them to Wyoming, and in 1974, Shirley and I joined the family. It was during these years from 1974 to 1989 in Wyoming that my respect and esteem for my father-in-law grew dramatically. He was a man of character who also possessed a temper which could flare at the most unlikely time. He was highly suspicious of government at any level, and watched his money like a hawk. He was not “tight,” the term we used to use for people who begrudged spending a penny. He did not mind spending money for something for the family; it was just that he kept track of where it all went. Speaking candidly, I never subscribed to that policy and am paying the price for my sloppy financial management even as I write this. I finally learned my lesson a few years ago, but when I think of all the money we frittered away, I get depressed.
     About the time we moved to Wyoming, I wrote a letter to Lemuel and Anniedeen, telling them that I would like to get beyond the “Brother Lemuel” and “Sister Anniedeen” and call them “Dad” and “Mom.” By then the arms length relationship of our youthful years seemed somehow inappropriate and didn’t reflect the current bonding we had with them. Needless to say, they graciously consented, and they have been “Dad” and “Mom” ever since, and I will use those terms for the rest of this paper.
     The fact that I can now talk for a fairly long time about practically anything is partly Dad’s fault. In the small church we attended, everyone had a job to do, and many times when Dad was out of service because of his health problems, I was forced to fill in. In Wyoming, if your preacher is out of action, you don’t call for a sub. There is no one else. You make do with what you have. So I was forced to learn how to speak, and in doing so found out that I sort of enjoyed presenting my ideas. At the time, I also had taken a selling job which forced me to think and speak on my feet, so I was able to finally escape from my mummy-like trance of my first thirty years.
     As I’ve said earlier, Dad taught welding at Casper College for years, and one semester I decided to take a course from him. I figured it couldn’t be too hard and would be fun. Boy, I found out that you need the delicate hands of a surgeon to keep that welding rod from sticking. Dad would tell the class, “Now, do it just like this,” and he would run a welding bead so perfect you would think someone had used their finger to just smear the metal in place. And it didn’t matter what the position…horizontal, vertical, upside down, his welding was a work of art. On my best day, my welding looked like someone had used chunks of bubble gum to seal the crack.
     During the last few years of our Wyoming tenure when I worked at an auto dealership in Casper, I would go to work about eight in the morning, but I would first swing by my in-laws house for coffee and breakfast along the way. It was a most enjoyable tradition, and we had many wonderful conversations as we began our day. Dad was most happiest when he was talking about motorhoming and traveling. He loved winter, and when we had our few dog days of summer, he was quick to say, “Man, I’m ready for the snow to fly!” And he meant it.
     On August 28, 1989, after being diagnosed with another heart aneurysm, Dad’s heart problems finally caught up with him, and during a simple heart catharization procedure something went terribly wrong. The results were that Dad passed away the next day, August 29. Ministers and friends from around the Rocky Mountain District came to pay their respects. Little did Shirley and I realize how his passing would affect us, and that within two years we would move back to Texas and begin new careers. The thing I remember most vividly about the next day or so was when, after all the well-wishers had gone back to their homes, the family gathered at Dad and Mom’s place for our first dinner after the funeral. Dad always had his favorite spot to sit at the dining room table, just as we all did. This time, however, when everyone went to sit, Dad’s chair at the end of the table remained empty, as if no one really wanted to sit in Dad’s place. There was about a minute or two of sort of milling about, and finally Buddy sat down in Dad’s chair, and everyone else followed suit and found our places. The torch had been passed.