Rattlesnake Mountain

18 04 2011

We were all there in the open field at recess watching James’ dad get blown to bits.  James was even there with us.  Of course, we had no idea what we were looking at.  It was one of two plane crashes I remember seeing from that same playground during my time in elementary school.  The small aircraft hit close to the peak, igniting a fire that spread and rose until it engulfed the top.  What is fire to a little kid?  What is tragedy?

A few years ago, I noticed my goldfish staring in awe at a candle I had placed near the fishbowl.  Where, in nature, do fish confront fire?  All of the beasts in the forest know it well.  At the first scent of smoke, the bees start packing up the honey.  The deer flee for their lives.  Even the snakes head for the water.  All of the animals of the forest know what fire is, and they fear it dreadfully.  The fish don’t have a clue.

There we were, like a pond full of goldfish, staring at a fire, and somewhere in that fire was our classmate’s father.  We didn’t have a clue.  I remember when he was called out of the classroom.  I remember the next day, staring up at Rattlesnake Mountain, with its ashen gray cap, and freckle-faced Brent exclaiming, “Dude!  That was James’ father!”  He kept saying it until it finally hit home with us.  The teacher may have told us all at the same time, but I don’t remember.  It was a hard thing to grasp.

James was rare for being a black kid in a nearly all-white school.  He was one of only about three non-whites I think I saw in the seven years I was there, five non-whites, if you count the faculty.  He was extremely quiet and well-mannered.  So much more dramatic the change when he began biting and kicking his fellow students for no reason at all (I thought).  We were only second-graders.  I had no idea what it was like to lose my father.  All I knew was that my classmate was behaving like a rabid animal.  Shortly after that, James moved away, and we never saw him again.

And then I had my own Rattlesnake Mountain, that same year.

Christmas came, and I got my very own Starscream Transformer robot toy.  I remember it well, and I remember how it came with two left hands and a missile that broke as I was detaching it from the forms.  I recall the evening when I sat on my father’s lap, and he helped me put the decals on the toy.  He had the sticker for the shiny gold eyes grasped in a pair of tweezers.  He hesitated, he breathed deeply, and then he gave me the tweezers and set me down on the couch and wandered off.  I had no idea that I was witnessing my forty-two-year-old father have a heart attack.  Once I finished the decals myself, I wandered about, looking for my parents, when my older siblings informed me that they had gone to the hospital.  My mom came home late and alone.

The next day was business as usual.  I thought my dad was going to die, and there I was in school, doing what I did every day, helpless in my circumstances.  I don’t remember why, but I found myself biting and kicking my classmates like some rabid animal.  Yes, now I could relate to James.  I was horrified at my own actions, watching myself transform like a young Jekyll and Hyde story.  The teacher knew something was wrong at home.  She pinned a note to my clothes and admonished me to leave it there until my mom took it off.  I don’t know why, but I wore the note all the way home, without trying to read it.

The next day, my mother kept me home from school and took me to visit my father in the hospital, instead.  That was all it took to make me a happy well-mannered kid again, seeing him alive and in good spirits.  My first day back at school, the teacher pinned another note to my clothes, thanking my mother for whatever it was that she had done.  “Now, don’t take this one off,” she said, “This is a good note.”

In second grade, my parents were enormous giants to me.  The prospect of my dad dying was like the prospect of God dying.  This one who should have been too big to fall, this all-providing source of survival was at death’s door.  I can well imagine how Christ’s disciples might have panicked at the death of their rabbi, a surrogate father, but more, something like Father God in the flesh, too big to fall, dying like a mortal.  One can see Peter’s fight/flight response, cutting off a servant’s ear one moment, and denying Christ the next, having witnessed the death and destruction of the man who always had all of the answers, the one who could not be touched.  There he was, the apparent source of life and health, bleeding on a cross.  Christ’s mountain was called the Skull, but it was the place where the snake had bitten him on the heel, symbolically.  It was his Rattlesnake Mountain.

It recalls to mind the various faces of the September 11 attacks, all of those close shots of people hanging out of windows to escape the fire.  Those must have been someone’s fathers and mothers.  I can only imagine the horror of having watched it happen to a loved one.  Much worse, to have seen the face of one clearly, on a newspaper or on television.  When I watched the tsunami roll across Japan, it was like the plane crash at Rattlesnake mountain, like a goldfish staring at a flame.  It was mesmerizing, but it was nothing personal to me.  I feel like I should sympathize more.  I know I would feel much different if that tragedy came to me.

Deep in the recesses of my mind, I wonder if we’re all destined to feel the pain of those victims.  We’ll feel their pain, or we’ll feel that pain.  I pray to God that the pain is only sympathetic.  If that’s all I pray, then I probably am not sympathetic.  And, if I am cold, then perhaps the hour has come for God to break me, that I may bleed, and, having bled, I may learn to feel again.

Advertisements

Actions

Information




%d bloggers like this: