A Vacation Upgrade
By Bob Young
“How about lunch in Turner’s Corner?” Tom said.
“Turner’s Corner? It’s too small to have more than one?”
“After driving the blue line roads on this map for three weeks of this vacation you should be ready for Turner’s Corner, Nora.”
“Lunch it is.”
“It seems the corner turns because the road has to go around the Marshall Creek Military Reservation.”
“That obstacle might take us out of our way?”
“We still should get to Aunt Edna’s for supper tonight. There aren’t many other small towns to slow us down the rest of the day.”
“A light lunch is in order.”
“With Aunt Edna in our future.”
“The last time we were there she had enough food for a family reunion.”
“Our cooler will be healthy again.”
“Sure. When we move on, she’ll stake us with enough cold chicken, potato salad, and rhubarb pie to get us all the way home.”
“A pit stop in Turner’s Corner and then Aunt Edna’s.”
Our lunch stop was typical of so many we made. There was a place to gas up the car, buy groceries, stamps, and a newspaper. The convenience store was next to the feed store hardware combo outlet across the street from a dinette next to a community hall. Houses filled in a really short main drag, interrupted by the beauty parlor barber shop sharing an entrance, a grade school, and an insurance agency. The bank was the most permanent looking structure. A side street cut by it into a neighborhood of front-porched family homes garnished with flowers and cushioned gliders. Children played in small front yards.
It was middle-America.
We were sensitized to the pace and the atmosphere of Turner’s Corner because Tom and I worked hard to create enough time to wander the county roads over six states. We went looking for everything but city life and we found it. Reaching Aunt Edna’s house meant we would be in the vicinity of home in a night or two. We went home in the style with which we ventured out taking two weeks to wander home.
“I’m going to pay for this gas, Nora. Want anything?”
“No. I’ll meet you at the restaurant.”
I walked past a few homes once I crossed the street toward the dinette and greeted an older man standing at his gate.
“To the devil with you,” as he turned to spit into a rose bush.
I tried to form a response from my awkwardly open mouth but he was quicker.
“Don’t sass me now! I already expect you know it all.” His back was already turned to me as he toddled on a cane toward the only house on the street that seemed to need care.
My eyes left his retreating back and swept the street, his sharp greeting begging a reassessment of his town. But all I saw lifted me. Here was a little town obviously loved by an industrious people. Homes were well kept. The streets were clean. Gardens were tended and imaginatively organized. Children played happily.
I wrote the old man off as the town curmudgeon. I walked into the dinette full of wonderful odors and a buzz of conversation.
The place struck me. It was full of young adults. Both the clientele and the waitresses were our age, except for one fellow who was beginning to show some crow’s feet around his eyes. He seemed to be the center of attention.
“Hi. What would you like?” an ebullient waitress offered.
“I guess I’d like to join this party.”
“Birthdays are fun,” she purred.
“Looks like a good segment of town turned out for this one, too.”
“Yep. George is fifty today.”
The door to the street in the diner slamming open pulled me around. Tom stood plastered against it avoiding being run over by a pained and angry seventy year old woman as she barged past him.
“George McHenry, get back to work.”
The dinette erupted in laughter as the older woman dragged the birthday ‘boy’ from his place of honor. With a laugh and a shrug of his shoulders, he waved goodbye. A chorus of salutes and laughter sent him on his way.
“What was all that about?” as Tom sat down next to me.
“Lavinia doesn’t like George hanging out in the dinette. She’s afraid he’ll get involved with one of us single gals,” when the waitress handed me the menu.
“He looks old enough to know better,” I replied.
“But he’s young enough to get in trouble,” she quipped.
“If I had a mother like George has, I’d take her meddling a lot less jovially than he does,” as Tom took a first look at the special of the day.
“That’s not his mother, that’s his wife.”
“Is that right?” Tom said looking confused by the stark age difference.
“No wonder she’s worried,” I offered. “This is a younger crowd. Does your place cater to the young adults in town?”
“We’re the place to hang out.”
That certainly seemed evident. Tom and I commented on the statistical oddity that Turner’s Corner was. Unlike so many rural communities, the young people had stayed. Their commitment to their little town was clear. Their energy and intense loyalty kept almost everything in sight well maintained, bright, and shiny. A few crabby seniors seemed to be the only break in the pattern.
Our food showed up through a stainless steel window near our seats which was delivered by another ancient looking man. Our waitress seemed to be apologizing to him for making him come out of the kitchen with the order. Her attempt at a friendly exchange fell on deaf ears. He gave her a withering look and creaked with a decided limp back through the kitchen doors. We had asked for ice water with our meal, having had our fill of diet sodas out of our cooler during the morning’s drive.
We ate, paid our bill, and walked back to our car. We both noticed simultaneously that we weren’t going anywhere. All four tires were flat.
“You’re more stupid than the people who live here.”
We turned to see the first crabby senior citizen I had encountered. Both of us hesitated. His unexpected comment prevented a normal reaction as we saw our sorry situation. I glanced at Tom who was looking more and more wounded, his precious car hobbled so. He was also put off by this man so much our senior.
“Don’t just gape at me. You’d think people from a big town like Milwaukee would have enough sense to stay on the interstate.”
“We’re just passing through,” immediately kicking myself for sounding like a matron in a ‘B’ movie.
“To where? This is the end of the world.”
“I’ll go to the service station…”
“They won’t give you a tow, even though there are young ones there. I own the place.”
“There’s nothing friendly about that,” beginning to lose my cool involuntarily kicking a flat tire.
“Why expect friendliness here? This town’s going to hell in a hand basket,” laughing so hard that his cane might not be enough.
“Everyone at the restaurant was super. They treated us…”
“Not everyone,” he pointed out. “They let you drink the water with your meal. You’re a part of Turner’s Corner now.”
“This guy’s wacko, Nora. I’ll find some help at the dinette.” He walked away swearing under his breath frustrated by the nightmare suddenly broken out.
“Now, Nora, let him go. He’ll find out what’s going on in his own way.” My head snapped toward the old man when I heard my name. I had took a couple of deep breaths to keep from ripping into him, especially when he finally smiled as he saw me getting a better hold on my emotions. “You’ll never be the same now that you’ve drunk water from our system.”
“The Army contaminated it years ago. It was a big scare at the time. Experts from Washington and top brass from the nearby base were crawling all over Turner’s Corner.”
“Everyone seems fine.”
“That’s what they concluded at first. After a few years, we started to see the results of their fooling around over there at Marshall Creek.” He started to walk away.
“Where are you going?” my voice almost in a whisper.
“It’s time for my nap.”
“There’s got to be more…” emotion thickening my throat as I ran after him.
“There sure is. But I’m not going to tell you.” He turned and smiled at my startled face. I could feel tears welling in my eyes. “Go see Markee Rutherford, 212 Oak Street. She’ll tell you the rest. After all, she’s the oldest person in town.”
With that, he left me on the sidewalk, heart pumping, wondering whether a stop in Turner’s Corner was going to cost me more than arriving late at Aunt Edna’s.
I met Tom coming out of the restaurant. He looked more frustrated and determined to get air for his tires but I dragged him along to Oak Street. He was babbling to me his amazement about his plea for help only receiving laughter in the lunch spot. Tom was still coughing out confusion when I knocked at 212.
“Yes?” A woman about thirty years old asked through a screen door.
“I am certainly not Mrs. Rutherford. Who the hell are you?”
How reassuring. A moody thirty year-old.
“We’re just visiting town and wanted to meet your oldest resident. You know, we wanted to talk to her about the history of this town and things like that.” I’m such a lousy liar. Tom and this woman obviously thought I was crazy. Tom didn’t want to talk to anyone about history. This person behind the screen door knew we were in trouble or about to make some.
“Mrs. Rutherford is in the backyard. She’s partial to the sandbox these days.” The woman slammed shut the front door in our faces.
I walked around the house picking up the happy chatter of many children as I went. Approaching a wooden gate in a fence, I looked over into spacious backyards where at least a dozen children roamed. The space formed one large grassy playground under some lovely trees where each family had placed different play equipmet. As I let myself through the gate, I noticed Tom was following at a distance. His heart just wasn’t in it. Knowing he would catch up, I sauntered into the yard fairly confident that one of these children would lead me to Markee Rutherford.
The children nearest me looked up from their play and froze. They stopped to look over this stranger who was definitely invading their turf.
“Is Mrs. Rutherford out here with you somewhere?” Another group of playmates turned to see the stranger. “Is she a member of your family?” The children had no idea whether they should help me. They weren’t even looking at each other. There seemed to be a code of silence here. “The lady in this house told us we’d find her with you.” A group of children from almost two houses away started to run towards me, the leader, a boy, was carrying a baseball bat. As he got closer to me, Tom picked up the pace and came through the gate. The boy was about eight and clearly the oldest child in the group. He stood right in front of me with the bat resting on his shoulder but gripped with both hands.
“I’m just looking for Mrs. Rutherford,” gently sensing a playground riot could break out.
Slowly, out of the back of the pack that just ran up, a young girl stepped up next to the batter.
“I’m Markee Rutherford.”
Tom touched my arm. “Let’s just get the car fixed and get out of here.”
“Wait, Tom.” To the girl, I asked, “You’re the Markee Rutherford that the owner of the service station told us was the oldest person in town?”
“Floyd sent you?”
“Is that his name?”
“Yes, Floyd’s had it pretty hard. He did something to your car?”
“Flattened all four tires,” Tom’s face reddening as he quickly explained. Markee looked at both of us for a minute.
“You deserve to understand more about what we’ve been through,” the childlike voice sounding sad.
“I’d like that, if you’re willing,” my voice softening.
“Sure. Come on over to the picnic table and I’ll try to explain things to you.”
As we moved to the table most of the children went back to their games. But four other children stood around the table as Markee, Tom, and I sat together in the shade of an old maple tree. Markee’s shoulders and head barely cleared the table top.
“A strange gift has been given to us. It’s strange because it is a gift only for some and because it came from the military reservation in their attempt to build a new weapon.”
Tom and I shot quick looks at each other, drop dead amazed that this story was coming out of the body of a child who looked five years old.
“Something got into the water?” my voice even softer.
“Yes, but before we realized that, the changes began to appear. We would reach fifty years of age and if we had left blame behind, we would grow younger.”
“Blame?” my eyes showing confusion.
“As far as we can tell, blame is the key.”
“What do you mean?”
“Those of us who look at each other as opportunities not as the cause of the problem began to see changes.”
“Most people have some troublesome acquaintances in their lives who plague them,” as Tom threw up his hands in protest.
“We found a describable, definable level of maturity in some of us. We looked at each other, even at Floyd, and saw gift.”
“All of these changes and observations didn’t sink in until after the Army had the accident?”
“Quite a while ago their scientists and a handful of officers told us a germ warfare experiment entered a stream that supplies our watershed.”
“They were surprised we weren’t dead.”
“Good thing it failed,” nervousness coloring Tom’s voice.
“The scientists had a hard time masking their disappointment, actually.”
“The Army worked with us over the years as we became more aware of the changes that were taking place.”
“Not everyone gets younger again?”
“There’s been some friction.”
“We noticed,” the mouth on Tom’s face twisting wryly.
“Learning not to blame is difficult.” Markee sounded weary. “It’s a realization that comes in the midst of special experiences.”
“Haven’t you built it into the school curriculum or something?” as Tom continued to struggle.
“The gift doesn’t seem to come easily. There also isn’t complete agreement to try to help everyone have the experience?”
“Why?” Wonder put more emotion in my voice.
“We don’t know what will happen when I reach birth age.”
“Oh…” came the realization simultaneously from us.
“That’s right, if you’re the oldest…”
“I’ll be the first one to get back to infancy.”
We sat there silently taking in that statement. The other ‘children’ at the table rustled nervously without comment being close in age to their friend.
“I imagine the changes you have gone through just physically to return to five years of age have been challenging,” a newly found empathy bubbling out of me.
“More than I could begin to share this afternoon.” A knowing murmur from the rest of the children with us suggested a community of spirit that went deep.
“Are you sure you are getting enough help from the Army? We could research any more help you would need.”
“There’s a more pressing decision,” as she looked unflinchingly into my eyes.
“You’re a part of Turner’s Corner now… a part of our gift and our curse.”
“We just had one glass of water with our meal,” defensiveness escaping Tom.
“That’s all it takes,” a taller boy slid a little closer to Markee.
“We’ve picked up some rather talented people for our town this way. A terrific insurance broker and a crackerjack attorney,” a little smile appearing on her face.
“I know I have other plans,” not ready yet to decide my fate.
“Think about it. I suspect, at the very least, you’ll want to stay in touch.”
“I can write you?”
“Of course. Someone will always write back,” she offered without expression. Her friends, though quite knowledgeable of her situation, froze in place.
A chill ran through me and my throat got thicker with emotion and it seemed right to say goodbye with hugs.
We walked back to the car at a somewhat quicker pace, choreographed by Tom’s nervous recounting and analysis of what we had been through. As we went, I couldn’t help but sink my eyes into the face of every child and young adult I saw. Some of them had been through more life than we could imagine. There was so much to discover in this town and yet I knew it wasn’t in me to stay.
Markee had them come and put air in our tires. There was a boy on the truck. As those who seemed older worked on the car, I looked at him. He didn’t speak but I felt that it wasn’t because he was shy. He acted like an experienced mechanic who was more interested in the strange visitors than filling four tires.
Tom was trying to give his helpers money.
“We don’t want nothin,’” with no bitterness in the response.
Neither of us felt like arguing. The mechanics silently got back into the truck and they drove away.
My nerve endings were alive. I never felt so aware of my surroundings. As the car trembled to life, I shook in a shiver that touched the inside of my backbone. Tom’s silent driving felt so very good. He drove carefully through the town but when the speed limit allowed it, he took off.
As the miles separated us from Turner’s Corner, I began to sag into my seat. I kicked off my shoes, propped my feet on the dashboard and put a CD in the player. Tom smiled when he heard my selection and he asked for some help reading the map on our display so he didn’t have to take his eyes off the road.
He had to turn right ahead and then we could go west again to our destination.
“Aunt Edna will wonder why we’re late,” my mind trying to embrace my former life.
“I thought I’d give her a call when we got to that town on the Minnesota border.”
“That’s the one that’s pretty big, isn’t it?”
“Umm, yes, it’s very big by rural standards.”
“A little civilization won’t hurt right about now, huh?”
“You could say that again.”
“Well, we followed the blue line highways to find America…,”
“Nora, it’s just crazy everywhere, isn’t it?”
“Markee’s got the same struggle we have.”
“Sadly, for longer.”
“She has the dream of many an older adult.”
“She’s young again and yet she still knows everything she ever learned.”
“If I knew then what I know now…”
We sped quietly along the blue line highway this summer day looking like a perfect sunlit postcard presentation of the heartland. Clouds parting broke the sun upon us in joyous bursts. Green fields lush with moisture fed the eye with the security that a grand harvest was on the way. Softly rolling hills invited the languid repose of the mind most vacations hoped for and often never got.
I drifted back home mentally for a moment to work on a challenge that I had left behind. The man with whom I shared responsibility for a circle of engineers had become impossible. When I left home, I didn’t care to think about how difficult working conditions became. While we had functioned satisfactorily for a time, communications had failed. I was wishing for Markee’s longevity. Yet, I wondered whether it was everything. As long as I lived, my nemesis could find a way to avoid change. There was no incentive for him since he seemed to think there was nothing wrong, that less communication with me and others made work more efficient. My attempts to suggest our area was way under productivity had been shrugged off. Many others were simply satisfied with Ronnie’s success at protecting our department from layoffs and disaster despite a boring performance.
Just a few of us were chafing at the mediocrity but one by one our little dissident group was gaining in members. We shared between us that too many gifts were being wasted and something had to be done. We intended to introduce values other than experience and loyalty. We were ready for accountability getting our work done rather than covering up the little Ron really led forcing blame on him.
“What was that?” Tom’s voice bringing me back. I sensed that something had whizzed past our car coming out of my day dream. “Look out.” A dark vehicle roared past us going west and then another. “There’s another one right behind us,” as Tom gripped the wheel rigidly expecting a crash. The two light trucks ahead suddenly showed brake lights and as Tom slowed to avoid ramming them, two vehicles pulled up one on either side, the one on the right fighting to hold straddling the road and the apron. Slowly, boxed, we and the cars around us slowed to a stop. Soldiers came out of all of the vehicles with weapons wanting us out of our car. We had no choice but to comply.
“What is your name?” the camouflaged face shouted just inches from my nose.
I couldn’t remember. The fact that he asked me again and again without giving me time to respond, didn’t help.
“What were you doing in Turner’s Corner?” That was another question for which I didn’t have an answer. While this angry person was talking at me, I could see that they were searching the car.
“Why did you drink the water?”
“Leave it to you to screw up even that,” rashly trying to actually participate in this very rude conversation demanded of me.
“What does that mean?” the angry face shouted.
“You did a number on that town.”
“It seems you were looking for trouble in Turner’s Corner.”
“We were just on vacation,” even a little more energy ebbing within me frosted by the abuse I was getting.
“Pretty far off the beaten path, wouldn’t you say?”
“We thought we were finding America. Feels more like WWII Germany right about now,” my voice rising to an exasperated cry.
“Which news organization do you work for?”
“We’ll have to see about that.”
“New York Times, Washington Post, CBS?”
“Morley Safer’s in the trunk,” smiling now finding my equilibrium.
“Ma’am, you’re in deep trouble as it is…” my smirk not fading.
A jeep roared up drowning out his authoritative line. My inquisitor’s posture changed, too. He relinquished my personal space and I had a chance to look for Tom. From across the hood, I could see his fore arms and hands stretched out on the ground. He was lying very still. As my anger started to be overwhelmed by panic, another figure approached me. He must have come from the newest arriving vehicle.
“Miss, I’m Captain Stonebeck, the officer on duty here at Marshall Creek Reservation… and you are…”
“One angry taxpayer,” sputtering as Tom’s situation frightened me.
“You must understand that some very important…”
“Look around you. Here we are at gunpoint on a state highway.”
“You’re in no danger here…”
“Captain, my fiancé is lying on the ground getting a close look at the yellow line on this highway wondering why he ever consented to this vacation. I’m out of breath defending myself from your toughs and you want me to think I’m safe?” I looked him earnestly in the eye.
“I’d like to change all that and offer you the hospitality of the officer’s club on base.”
“I just want to get to Aund Edna’s.”
“All in good time.”
“She’s expecting us this afternoon and we’re already late.”
“We have a very special civilian community on base here. I thought since you had visited Turner’s Corner you would want to consider its benefits.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Over the years, travelers have happened upon that little town and become a part of its special magic as you have.”
“Whenever someone shares in the unique charm of Turner’s Corner, we invite them to stay with us for a while. Many have stayed for a long time. We apologize for the roadside encounter. Our man in town was indisposed today.”
“You mean you…”
“We have a very interesting civilian community on base that enjoys the best benefits Army life can offer, a steady government income, and an attentive scientific staff that looks out for your every need.”
“You let unsuspecting visitors drink the water there so you can kidnap them for scientific purposes?”
“Kidnap is a bit strong…”
“It’s not strong enough, Bucko.”
“I know this seems rather abrupt but think of the advantages. It would be a very comfortable life, especially for you.”
“I don’t believe you…”
“We would fit you into our world so that your career desires would be fulfilled.”
“I’d never see the real world again.”
“Our people travel but this situation is very easy to come home to.”
“I don’t know…”
“You would be a very popular addition to the community.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, let’s just say a person your age would complement the profile of people in our little enclave right now.”
“A person my age?”
“The fact that you are young for the first time, it would be helpful to see you interact with some of the people who are young again.”
“Live together in community.”
“Is there a gentle but firm way to tell you that I want to get in that car with Tom and drive away never to see you again?”
“Please think about what you are doing…” I boldly pushed past the office to join Tom and pulled him to his feet right in the presence of the soldiers and their weapons. “It’s a beautiful part of our base right by the creek,” the Captain said continuing to sell.
“Get in the car, Tom.”
“Think about it…”
I walked past the Captain almost certain he would take me into custody. He let me sit in the car. My ears were ringing as his face appeared in my open window.
“The invitation will remain open for quite a while. We’ll stop by and see you every so often to see if you have changed your mind.”
The vehicle in front of us pulled off to the side of the road and we were free to drive away. We drove as far as we could until emotions overcame us and Tom stopped in a rest area to pull himself together. We both cried holding each other and shaking until we were exhausted. Recovered, we drove on to spend a few days with Aunt Edna.
Captain Stonebeck was true to his word.
The invitation is still open.
At first, the monthly visits to my place of the short, balding career sergeant were frightening. The man would drive up on the same night each month at almost exactly the same time. His arrival was more regular and annoying than any other routine I had ever known in my life. His message was always gentle, brief, and delivered outside my screen door. It was always frightening.
I finally sat down and wrote what happened in Turner’s Corner. I’m actually looking forward to the sergeant’s visit tonight.
Because I have finally, really, decided what I’m going to do.
To get the best out of ‘The Light Gallery’ piece that follows, it’s important to know the influences that brought me to use this approach. My favorite Christian playwright in my early adult life was Norman Dietz. Norman would recast well-known Biblical moments into hilarious comedy that he and his wife, Sandra, would perform for college audiences all over the country. I was always delighted to catch one of their performances and be reminded of the deep meaning lurking under the laughs of his scripts. At the same time, Rod Serling’s writing for TV for ‘Night Gallery’ also caught my attention through his cerebral way of pulling you through a story to surprise you at the end with a plot turn loaded with meaning.
This ‘Light Gallery’ piece uses a futuristic setting to open you up to the Good News you will encounter when you read the suggested passage from Matthew’s gospel at the end.
This Light Gallery sketch is set in the year 2025 on board a cryogenics storage and delivery room. Adam Mitchie spends his working days about this space station which holds the bodies of the men and women who will serve our planet one day. For now they are in icy suspension until they are needed. This sketch is entitled,
A Test Case
Adam whistled his way to work every shift because it always made him feel less alone in his little craft. He had his droids to keep him company and to beat him at chess. He even could call for the life-sized signal of his fiancé but that was small comfort considering the fact that he was very much alone with his charges until one of the starships needed to replace a crewman.
He arrived in the delivery room and made his customary walk among the men and the women who hung suspended in their icy capsules in the large refrigerator pod that was the prominent feature of this space station. These quietly sleeping faces represented some of the brightest minds the earth had to offer. They all seemed patiently peaceful as they waited to serve the earth in its further explorations of the universe.
Adam settled back behind the controls to confirm what his eyeballing tour of the pod had first told him that all systems were functioning well. Not a small responsibility had he, for before him in the long rows of bodies there were one hundred and fifty lives counting on his diligence.
Suddenly, the outer shield sensors of the station began to alarm him of an approaching ship, unscheduled at that. As Adam began to scan to discover who the traveler might be, a cold chill ran up his back as he recognized a Wanloon war ship that was heading right for his station.
Moments later the Wanloon captain was hailing him and filling the control room with his menacing growl.
“Good morning, earth space station. What a welcome sight you are in this quiet section of space.”
“What possibly could I do for you?”
“Well, I’m happy you are so willing to be of assistance to my crew and I would appreciate it if you would un-power your shields so that we might recharge our light speed engines. We are, you see, a ship in distress.”
“More likely you are interested in making sure the people here are never of any use to earth star ships. Pardon me for mentioning it but your reputation as a space parasite precedes you,” Adam replied.
“How unkind you are, but how very honest. Perhaps you will let me honor your honesty with a small reward. I am, after all, the ruler of ten galaxies, and a man of great wealth. You can have the pick of any space princess in the heavens if you will let down your shields and let us refuel on your station’s power.”
“Hit the road you Wanloon pirate. These people are more of a treasure than all of the space princesses of the universe put together.”
Now, please read Matthew 4.1-11.