Rob Bartell spent sessions with his post-traumatic stress counselor discussing methods to channel his anger. Now he focused on cranking the window down in his cheap rental. The cold morning air refreshed him. The folded American flag and medal they tossed him at the capital were in a backpack on the passenger seat. He still felt the governor’s handshake, which tried to match his.
I know you were there, Bro, he thought.
He did not recall what the governor said, but instead remembered that Pataki, who was considered a tall man, looked up at him. Bartell was six-foot-seven and stocky. His Army recruiter said he was the poster boy for the Lynyrd Skynyrd song that went, “lean and mean, and big and bad, Lord.”
He sat cramped in the little car and breathed consciously, slowly, in and out.
“Fuck it,” he whispered on exhale. Parked, with his head on the wheel, his hands remained unaltered from the mad grip that connected skill and anger in road rage.
He drove here daydreaming when something bounced off the windshield. Left, he saw a man hollering, gesturing and trying to pull alongside in a silver truck. Bartell veered to block the man’s next approach as he’d done in convoys overseas. The silver truck, forced toward the ditch, pulled behind to avoid oncoming traffic. The man did not relent, and he tried to match Bartell at a faster speed. Bartell performed the standard “PIT” maneuver. He braked hard and fell behind the truck to steer into the pickup’s rear bumper. The driver tried to correct but lost traction. The car nearly flipped, fishtailed, and stalled in the road. Bartell sped on.
[Request immediate air support. Danger close.]
Bartell’s mood lifted from that fog. He looked around the empty parking lot and expected to see a pickup roaring toward him. A one-lane road was the only entrance to the riverside park. The battle was over.
[I’ll waste you, motherfucker.] Inhale, exhale, inhale.
Dead leaves scattered. Surrounding fields of big river grass yellowed and bent. The park was void of seasonal boaters who wintered out until Memorial Day. A plastic porta-potty door rocked on one hinge. Toward a stack of boat docks and picnic tables, tractor tracks crossed the grass. A bike trail intersected the road beyond.
He drove here after the ceremony. It was his running sanctuary since his homecoming – the fourth deployment after the attacks. He wanted to be alone.
SLAM! The porta-potty’s door lashed to a gust. He flinched. His ghosts rustled as he got out and stretched. He zeroed the chronometer on his watch. He tightened his leg strap and observed the muddy Mohawk waters flow slowly toward the Hudson. A historical marker pointed out where workers camped the river bank two centuries ago as they dug the Erie Canal from Albany to Buffalo.
“I’ve got a mule, her name is Sal,” Bartell mumbled half-hearted. [Fif-teen miles on the Er-ie Ca-nal.]
A static ran through his head while he checked the car’s front bumper for scratches — a small ding in the plastic cover meant nothing too noticeable. He felt like kicking it in. But he regained himself and thought of mules pulling barges. He thought of ditch diggers with bent backs, their clothes muddy, and shovels of heavy mud. They were resilient, many immigrants, who helped invent modern excavation. The newspapers praised their progress but called their effort worthless. “Clinton’s Ditch,” his father recalled. “It was once something unfathomable, like men on the moon.”
[He once praised them.]
The street remained void as he ran. He jogged slow, warming up passed stubbed fields of clipped corn stalks that hid scattered deer runs and irrigation pipe. Where the area stopped, he turned right with his breath rapid, onto a crushed-stone bike trail that stretched past a farmhouse and a crooked cow-barn. His feet crunched the cadence. His breath adjusted quicker. He saw a battered, thick-wheeled tractor parked like an odd ornament, out of gas, or maybe under repair. The November air warmed from the bright sunlight; nevertheless, he saw no others. The trail continued 12 miles to the Town of Pallentine. Half paved. The gravel half Bartell favored for his carbon-fiber foot. He also liked the serenity of the forgotten canal nearby.
“I can run the trail up to town,” he thought, overzealous. “Then up the highway, maybe to Utica. When would I stop?”
It was hard to find that sweet spot, he told his counselor, because his throttle often stuck at high and low, with no cruise. The feelings were too strong, and he failed to see the things now beyond. They prescribed him medications, “for a while.” Their effect in the last two weeks was noticeable. He did not feel so battered.
[We’ve hauled some bar-ges in our day
Filled with lum-ber, coal, and hay
And ev-ery inch of-the-way I know
From Al-ban-y to Buff-a-lo.]
Overgrown, the abandoned canal stretched west and paralleled the path, the main road, and the river. Oak and maple trees now filled its low areas where diverted water once floated cargo and people west across the state. His father said that when the railroads came the mule-powered barges were no match for steam engines. Then the thruway.
Bartell’s father considered himself a canal historian. He brought him and his brother once to find an unknown, abandoned lock hidden in the woods. He said he snowshoed to it during a winter storm, as a kid, and whistled on an acorn top for help after he twisted an ankle and could not get up. It’s sheer rock walls were collapsed and half-buried. His father retraced the steps. Bartell was seven, and his brother, John, was nine. Their mother just died, and so they hiked through the woods to cope with the loss. Bartell awed at the massive granite blocks that looked tumbled and turned over by gods rather than decades of river ice. Each block seemed as chiseled as those in a Roman cathedral. He thought to find that magical, rooted place to keep a chunk of stone over his parent’s graves. Maybe that’s what brought him. He wished his father saw him at the capital. He wanted to recover sooner.
He passed between un-mowed edges of Queen Ann’s lace, purple burdock flowers, and milkweed. He knew the way, soon a low bridge over a creek, and then a long, level ditch.
[Filled with explosives, your boot came off in the muck. We’re trapped. Then that jackass turned back, and after him, to unfuck it he needed a step, but it’s deep, up to the fucking hips deep, and it bit a leg off. I mean, you’re kidding: over a shoelace? A disappearing joke in the quicksand that the bullets boiled? No. You’re gone and never to come home. My mangled meat. Horfunkinray. That’s my joke-a-day. Mine cauterized, and mud took it away.]
A silver truck crossed an intersection ahead of him, slowly. His eyes strained. If the driver approached him, he might kill him. The medication would not help.
Its tires squealed. It sped on.
Bartell ran toward the unmarked grave of Danny McKinley, who was shot dead by Sheriff William Stillwell during the 1818 Canal Strike. The diggers walked off the job after a foreman tried to dry their camp. Eight young men rode out on a cold November night into Palatine and stalked into the Spraker Inn on River Road. In a wild, drunken stupor, McKinley snatched Stillwell’s drink from the bar and proclaimed that no one could stop a man from his right to drink. Stillwell, too old, with one seeing eye, left the room but returned shortly with his young deputy. He then leveled an old musket on the men. It was time for them to get back to camp, he told them. McKinley leaped toward the sheriff and the others moved when he was gunned down in a cloud of powder. The men got their whiskey but were no longer allowed into towns. There would be no trial. They shoveled McKinley’s grave as they dug foggy-headed, up the Mohawk Valley toward Buffalo.
[“Shit. Get my fucking leg!”]
Bartell’s team encountered stiff resistance sectors and elaborate minefields on his last patrol as they pressed into insurgent sanctuaries. There were many gunfights, and their efforts to clear the roads bogged them down. The patrols were slowed further by the deep mud and the irrigation ditches that crisscrossed their path. John said they reminded him of the Canal, but Bartell realized that the canal back home did not require modified tanks to plow hidden bombs out. They slogged their way slowly forward through that muck in the morning when John died. They called for close air support with laser-guided bombs and strafed to flatten enemy positions. Then Alpha company came upon an impassable ditch filled with quicksand where their tank sunk. Impossible. Bartell and John’s team inserted on Black Hawks to flank the position, now under major attack. John thrived in those intense situations. It was a prowess underestimated by many.
“It’s gonna be a mud fight,” John said to him using a weak hillbilly impression. “We’ll crawl right into Clinton’s Ditch.”
Orders came to wait for equipment, but insurgents targeted the team stuck and exposed down in a flooded, overgrown area. They agreed, the men did not have long.
[“It’s an acorn top, boys. You blow across it with your thumbs in a V-shape like this, and it’ll whistle, so when you’re lost, someone will help. Here, you try.”]
What sounded like a sharp “yelp” brought his mind back to his run. Then there was an orange flash in the corner of his eye. Then something flew through the air, into the canal and landed with a wet thud. The sound of breaking tires seemed last.
[You guys stick close, for luck.]
Bartell stood on the shoulder of the trail, trying to catch his breath. He looked down into a sunken area between the road and the bike path — nothing in focus.
“Bartell, that’s you,” asked a bellied, unshaven man across the way. He looked in his 40s and wore a dirty t-shirt and sweatpants. His fingernails looked filthy and dirt marked his side like he crawled from a pit. “I heard you were with the governor. You got the Silver Star, right? You know, I was just messin’, why’ a go off like that?”
Bartell took a deep breath, made a tight fist, and crossed over to the road. The man smelled of cigarettes. He was about to confront him when he recalled John’s mechanic buddy, Cliff. There was a photo of them drinking at Spraker’s before special forces training. John was nervous then, which was funny since he thought up the notion of enlistment.
“My brother, you meant …
[… my brother.]
“It was his. Posthumous.”
[A friend of mine once got her sore
Now he’s got a bro-ken jaw
‘Cause she let fly with an iron toe
And kicked him back to Buff-a-lo.]
The two looked down. Blood streaked across the weeds in a red flight path toward the canal for 50 feet. Further down, through the cattails and lying in a stagnant puddle, was a dog. The mechanic’s silver pickup with its trail of brake marks and plastic shards from its front grill shadowed over the grass with a piece of orange-red fur stuck in a shattered headlight. A smell of burnt rubber lingered.
In 1821 Orville McKinley parked his wagon near the same spot after a desperate search for his son’s grave, but to no avail. He camped the night and set out toward St. Louis the following morning empty-handed. The man spent weeks on his hands and knees, in muddy fields and with no company to unearth the marker canal workers said they placed. What he did not know was that river ice buried the stone in the winter of 1819. His distant Missouri relatives still recall him saying “that it just wasn’t right, leaving his boy’s bones in that god-be-damned place.”
[Not my blood.]
“It’s an Irish Setter,” Bartell asked no one, unsure in its mangled state. The animal panted, from somewhere. He thought, “maybe a year old?”
Bartell read every news story, book, and magazine he got at Walter Reed to escape. They found him there on many occasions in open debate with an empty recovery room, shouting at the by-lines and quotes in Newsweek or the Washington Post with his monitor’s alarm tripped. Medics once found a raving madman in his place — Bartell checked out, just for a moment. Months of medical limbo, learning to walk again, were maddening; after all, what did anyone know?
They came one evening shortly before his move from intensive care to tell him about his father’s severe stroke. He died the day John’s personal effects arrived.
[“… a mud fight.”]
The man with the silver truck flicked a cigarette into the canal and then climbed down its embankment to examine at a closer distance. He hunched over it and folded his face as if he smelled something foul.
“Man’s best or not, they say these injured ones’ ill bite you, if you give ’em a chance.”
Bartell stood silent, now on the edge of the road. The air seemed lighter. He waited, once again trying to breathe right. Steam rose from his heated body with a ghostly effect as passing clouds let in sporadic sunshine. Then a child’s scream from the other side pierced the air and broke the spell. A frantic girl ran to him, down a driveway and toward the road, with no regard. “Casey!” She screamed for the dog.
He thought, “I’m too far,” but this time, he stepped unhindered and vaulted a great deal using the spring of his prosthesis. Strong and swift, he catapulted her clear of traffic, then tumbled down into the ditch.
[On behalf of the State of New York and a grateful nation, I thank you for your brother’s ultimate sacrifice.]
Blurry eyed, he saw her sitting above him. She looked maybe nine. She was transforming, calm, like an angel.
[I know, it wasn’t my fault.]
Bartell rolled onto his side. His breath knocked out of him. Then he noticed a worn gravestone half-buried in the weeds.
(Short story by Mike R. Smith) (Song lyrics, Low Bridge, by Thomas Allen 1913)