Author Archive: Eric Fritzius

Owner/operator of Mister Herman's Publishing Company and Mister Herman's Production Company, Ltd. Author of A Consternation of Monsters, available in print, ebook, and audiobook formats.

DATELINE: Monday, March 21, 2005

CLINIC DAY 1:

I woke up at 4 a.m. with something akin to a minor anxiety attack. I’m not usually an anxiety attack prone person, though I admit to having spent many an Hour of the Wolf worrying over things I have no control over. This one was no different. Instead of worrying about my first clinic, though, I was worried about my stupid cat back home in West Virginia. I could just imagine her curled up on the edge of the bed meowing pittifully to herself because we hadn’t come home. And she would have nearly two more weeks of that before we came back. I know it sounds sort of dumb in retrospect, but that’s how my head works. After lying there for nearly an hour fighting to get to sleep and failing because I kept hearing mewing in my head, I took a moment and prayed for the little beast. I prayed her time alone would not be painful and that God would lessen her anxieties as well as mine. After that, I went to sleep.

At 5:30, I woke up again and stayed woke up. I wanted to sleep longer, as I actually had until 6:30 before breakfast was served, but I also wanted to get up and grab any available water the showers might have. Sure enough, there was some. Evidently the water pump had found some life during the night and was able to send some water up to the hillside tanks above us. I used it to its fullest. It was so nice to be clean.

It was also nice NOT to be a walking pile of ache, as I had expected. Not even my feet ached, though, and they ache on most days.

Breakfast was pancakes and more fresh fruit.

Afterwards, we held our morning bi-lingual devotional with Pastor Douglas, during which he talked about the need to call upon God’s help for our clinics that week. We also had prayer in Spanish and English for the doctors and medical staff who would be ministering to the physical needs of the patients and for the missionary staff who would minister to their spiritual needs.

We all knew what kind of stressful atmosphere we were about to go into—or at least we thought we did. At this point, I knew I was scarcely prepared for the job I’d been assigned and knew how much of a seat of the pants operation our set up would be. The night before, I’d been happy to leave the clinic site with no set up just because I was hot and tired, but that was looking like less of a good idea today. I was just hoping and praying that we could set up our pharmacy before the doctors could see too many patients and send them to overwhelm us. Whatever the case, I knew that we were doing God’s work and he would assist us and lend us strength to accomplish it. We just had to keep our faith. (Always easier said.)

For our first week’s clinics, our WV team was originally to have three Osteopathic physicians, but one of them, Dr. Wadell, developed some rather nasty stomach problems days before the trip and was forced to stay home. We came with Dr. Allen and Dr. Lally. Assisting them would be three first year students (Carrie, Sarah, Dwan and J.C.). Our two fourth year medical students (my wife Ashley and her friend Flo) and third year med-student (Andrew) would be seeing patients on their own, consulting with the doctors as need be. The team from Wisconsin came armed with two dentists, a dental surgeon and several dental students. We also had two midwives, at least one nurse and a number of non-medical personnel, including Dr. Waddell’s wife Sandra and their daughter, plus the daughter of one of the dentists, quite a number of local missionaries and translators and one library assistant (i.e. me). All together our group was probably pushing 90 people.

Our trip back to the bus-station took around 20 minutes. On the way, we passed probably 50 people who were either waiting by the side of the road for a ride or were walking along the edge of the road on their way to work. So many people in the area have to walk everywhere they go. Or catch rides in the backs of pickup trucks. I don’t think we saw a truck that didn’t have at least ten people in it the entire time we were there.

We arrived at the bus station clinic around 8 a.m. Mary Ann and I, already apprehensive and prayerful, were horrified to find that our little green jail cell of a pharmacy contained none of our requested shelving. We didn’t relish having to jump from duffle bag to duffle bag, rooting through bottles and baggies of pills to find the drugs we’d need for each prescription. We needed shelving! I started searching the bus-station for some shelves. I found a ready supply of plastic lawn tables with removable legs. These had been given to the entire team for our use. I figured two of them stacked would make for half-way decent shelving with room for storage beneath. Four of them were even better. Of course, it would be kind of difficult to reach the meds on the top tier in the back, but some shelves were better than no shelves. Still we had an awful lot of drugs to store, so taller shelving with more actual shelves was still needed. I left the pharmacy cage and began searching again.

Before I could search very far, Butch came to tell us it was time to introduce the mission team to the crowd. Crowd? I hadn’t seen a crowd? Where was the crowd? Mary Ann and I left our shelf setup in the pharmacy cage and followed Butch, Dr. Allen and a number of other med-staffers down the long hall that made up the clinic proper and around the corner. There we found the rest of the mission team gathered for prayer. Afterwards we began filing through a doorway at the end of the corridor that lead into the open market area of the bus-station where we found ourselves standing at the edge of several dozen Guatemalans seated in plastic lawn chairs. This was ostensibly the pre-waiting room for the clinic where the patients who arrived earlier and received a number card wait.

The way our medical mission clinic system worked was like this: potential patients arrived in the morning before the medical team. They were each issued a numbered card–essentially their “ticket” into the clinic–until all the allotted cards for the first half of the day had been distributed. (Probably 60 cards total. More cards were distributed later in the morning and even into the afternoon once it was clear what the patient turnover rate was and we could tell if there would be time in the day to see more patients.) At this point the patients were brought to the pre-waiting area where they are seated and eventually introduced to both the medical team and the mission team. One of the missionaries, usually Butch with Marcello translating, then explained the clinic/mission process. The patients were told how the entire med/mission team was there to minister to both physical and spiritual needs. On the physical side, the patients would be seeing doctors and the doctors would diagnose them and give them a prescription for medicine, all free of charge. The fact remained, though, that we could not give them a life-time supply of medicine and what we were able to give them would be gone within a month or so. However, the news of the gospel that the mission team was there to share did come in a lifetime and even after-lifetime supply. Every patient there would be given the chance to hear the gospel message. No one had to accept it or even listen to it if they didn’t want to. But every patient would be given the chance to talk one on one with a missionary. Regardless of their decision, they would still see a doctor and be treated. The missionaries were just there to offer more.

The only thing I really knew about the medical side of things was what I had heard from Ashley and from Dr. Wallace, (the physician who had been the medical team leader for Ash’s 2003 mission). Dr. Wallace contends that the only “real medicine” he ever gets to practice is when he’s doing mission work. When he’s in his office in the states, there are a myriad of do’s and don’t’s that restrict the way he can work. One naturally thinks of HMO’s and insurance companies and the many rules and regs associated with them, not to mention mal-practice insurance, but there are other pitfalls for the average doc too. For instance, if a doctor sees patients whose care is paid for through Medicare or Medicaid, that doctor is extraordinarily restricted in what he can do for any other patient he sees. Let’s say the doctor sees a patient who is not on Medicare and does not have insurance to pay for their treatment; that doctor might want to cut the patient a break and treat them for free, but under Federal regulations legally cannot do so because he or she accepts Medicaid patients. Cutting a non-Medicaid patient a break while seeing other Medicaid patients is tantamount to Medicaid fraud and the doctor could be fined incredible amounts of money. A doc can get around that by simply not accepting Medicaid patients, but then they would be cutting out a good portion of their patient base. That’s just one example of the kind of things Docs in this country have to worry about that they don’t in Central America.

On a medical mission, such rules and regs are pretty much thrown out the window. Such rules are not as strict in Central America to begin with. And if the mission doc sees a condition that needs treating then and there, he’s not going to refer the patient to another doc more specialized in taking care of it unless one happens to be standing within 20 feet at the time. Teeth get pulled, bones get reset, wounds get treated, medicines get prescribed and emergencies taken care of, all by the clinic docs. Basically, the job that needs doing gets done with no red-tape. (It’s how things used to work for family practice docs nationwide.) Granted, some things are beyond the scope of a medical mission staff and have been known to get shipped to the nearest emergency room, but for the most part if it walks in to the mission clinic it gets taken care of there.

As we were lead out in front of the crowd and Marcello introduced the group of us in Spanish as the mission team. We then each took turns introducing ourselves to the patients, saying our name and what sub-group we belonged to. It felt very weird to say I was on the medical team, but that was my role for the week.

I stood there in line with my fellow team-members and tried to be patient, but my mind was screaming at me that what I needed to be doing was setting up the pharmacy and finding shelves to aid in that search. I’d seen some shelves in a caged and locked cubby-hole shop before, but had been told they were privately owned and we could not borrow them. While I stood there before the crowd, at one end of the bus-station’s open air market, I spied at the other end of the market area a set of tall gray metal shelves. They were next to a cubby-hole shop that was actually open, but the shelves weren’t being used.

After the introductions were finished, Butch explained that the med team’s needed to leave to go prepare their stations. I made a dash for those shelves. They were perfect! Tall, metal and gray, about six tiers worth of shelving, seven if we used the top. However, I didn’t want to take them without permission. I tracked down Mrs. Hounko again and asked her about the shelves. They didn’t seem to be in use and were sitting out in the open where we could get to them. She said she would ask the manager of the bus station and see if we could.

Meanwhile, back at the pre-wating area, Dr. Allen had stayed behind to offer his testimony to the gathered patients. This was a daily occurrence during the clinics, with a different team member giving their testimony every day. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there for any of the testimonies the first week, because I was busy seeing to the pharmacy. During the second week, though, I did hear a few and found them very affecting. It’s always intriguing to hear how the people came to know Jesus. Often, they do so despite fighting against it for years. And it can be even more amazing when you knew the person before salvation and can see what a life-altering change is made following it. (My own testimony is very normal and not terribly exciting in this regard. I’ve had my share of on-again/off-again time with the lord, a problem that I still struggle with. I’ll probably share it before this blog has finished.)

Mary Ann and Ashley were back in the pharmacy cage, assembling the tables I’d found into makeshift shelves. We began stocking these with meds, starting with the A’s. However, our luggage full of meds was not arranged in any particular order, let alone alphabetical, so there was much running and searching of bags to find what we needed. And we always found something we forgot to stock later and had to make space for it. Also, while many of our meds were of the pre-bagged variety, that we’d dosed out the night before, there were plenty of others that had not been counted and were still in big bottles. We just stocked those too and worried about the counting part later. We could see, though, that we were quickly running out of room on our make-shift patio table shelving. That was when Mrs. Hounko came to the rescue. She arrived with two gentlemen who carried in our requested metal shelves, set them up in the open corner of the pharm-cage and even wiped them off for us. We started shifting stock quick. Even with the shelves, though, we didn’t have room for all the meds, but after relocating our vast vitamin supplies to the floor, we felt like we were still in good shape.

During this chaos, the two people who were to be our primary pharmacy translators for the trip arrived. Their names were Cynthia and Esdras. Both looked to be in their late teens or early 20’s. We didn’t have time to chat much with them, though, because we were under deadline to get set up. They both chipped in to help us out and before long we had our makeshift pharmacy mostly set up, or at least as set up as it was going to get before our first patient arrived.

The job of pharmacist was pretty intimidating at first. As I said, I know little of pharmaceuticals beyond household painkillers, so I was initially terrified that I would make a massive screw up and do someone harm. However, I soon came to see that for the most part, I didn’t really have to know anything about the drugs to do the job. Being a medical mission pharmacist mostly involved dispensing drugs as per doctor’s instructions as deciphered from cryptic dosage codes written in bad handwriting on the back side of each patient’s history sheet. It was also good that Mary Ann, my partner in med-slinging, is a nurse who knows from bad handwriting. She gave me further pointers by writing out some pharmaceutical codes for me to follow, that the doctors would be using.

qd = one pill per day
bid = two pills per day
tid = three pills per day
qid = four pills per day
hs = bed time (or hour of sleep)

There were also symbols for the quantity of pills to take with each dose, ranging from 1 to 3. These look like Roman numerals, without the bottom bar and with the addition of corresponding dots above the upper bar. As long as I could properly interpret these and other such instructions I was fine. And when I couldn’t, Mary Ann usually could. In extreme cases, we sometimes had to go track down the docs themselves to see what they meant, but usually we had it sussed out pretty good.

These codes were also easily transferred to our non-language based instruction slips we brought with us and which we included in each baggie of meds. The slips consisted of four panels featuring a face with a pill being shoved in its mouth. In each panel, there was also a time indicator, such as a sun rising for morning, sun at mid-day for noon, sun setting for evening or a moon for night. We’d circle the morning face for once a day, morning and night faces for one pill every 12 hours, three faces for a pill every 8 hours, and all four faces for every 6 hours. Beyond that, we also had Cynthia and Esdras conveying the dosing instructions in Spanish to help explain our circled cartoons. It was a simplistic way of doing things, but that’s what the job required. The docs were each seeing between 40 and 60 patients per day each, but we were seeing ALL of them. And when seeing hundreds of patients, you don’t have time to mess around with complicated instructions unless the instructions are actually complicated. We had our moments for that too.

For instance, some of the meds, such as Amoxyl, came in powder form and required mixing and refrigeration by the patients themselves. The amount of water to be added to the poweder was not measured in teaspoons, though, but 74 milliliters. So we had to mark medicine cups for them at the 30 milliliter and 15 milliliter marks and show them how they would have to pour two 30 milliliter amounts and one 15 milliliter amount, (Yes, I know, this makes 75 milliliters, but lets not pick nits), into the bottle and shake it all up. Then we had to mark the medicine cup for the 1/2 teaspoon amount of mixed medicine they would have to give to their child. This is where the translators Esdras and Cynthia became invaluable to us, because after we’d explained it to them only a couple of times, they knew exactly what to tell the patients and from there on out we just had to pass them a bottle of Amoxyl and say, “This is the Amoxyl/mixing/refrigeration speech,” and they’d go right to it.

After only a handful of patients had come through, I started feeling more confident about the job. Ashley had stayed with us to help for the first 10 patients or so before being called away to start seeing patients herself. It was a little scary to me at first that she wasn’t there as our safety net, but I didn’t have much time to worry as more patients came flying at us. I tell you, having the experience of working Mondays at the library certainly prepared me well for the stress of the pharmacy cage that day. In fact, I daresay I’ve had worse days at the library. Just not for 12 hours straight.

Even with only Mary Ann and I inside the cage, it was still terribly hot. I was sweating profusely and constantly wiping it away with my arms so as not to soil my hands. Eventually, I went and found a wash cloth to use as a sweat rag, and I carried it everywhere I went. When I did manage to soil my hands, I was very careful to wipe them down with my ready supply of hand-sanitizer before continuing with the pills. I also made frequent trips to the bano to wash them with soap and water and then more hand-sanitizer. The patients didn’t seem to mind that we were sweating. They were sweating too. It’s just one of the realities of being trapped in a cage in a sweltering bus-station. Before too long into the day, Marcello brought in a fleet of oscillating fans to set up at each medical station. Our pharmacy cage power outlet wasn’t working properly, though, so our fan had to be set up across the hall and pointed toward us. Unfortunately, most of the wind was blocked by the patients waiting for their prescriptions. The fan wasn’t entirely ours, either, as Ashley’s doctor station was two cubbies down from us and she needed air too, so the fan oscilated between us. We were all pretty uncomfortable.

As I said, we still had pills that we needed to count out individually, because they had not been among those pills that were pre-dosed before. Mostly we had to do this with Naproxen Sodium and Cipro, two drugs that the docs were prescribing loads of. In some cases, like for children, the prescription required a smaller milligram dosage than the pills naturally come in. In such cases, we would have to cut the pills in half. Most of the time this was easy enough, as we did bring a pill splitter with us. The splitter only worked with round pills, though, so for long pills, like Cipro, we needed to use Mary Ann’s extry-sharp Swiss Army pocket knife. (It was a brand new knife, so it was clean!) I split those on a cutting board, cupping my hand over the pill as I cut it to prevent pieces from shooting out between my fingers. However, during one pill-cutting session, my cupped thumb wound up beneath the knife and when I chopped down on the pill it also chopped into my thumbnail, cutting into it at an angle from the tip down to about half an inch in. It didn’t hurt, but I immediately knew that I’d cut through the nail pretty deep. I was afraid I’d start bleeding, but other than a little blood beneath the nail, I was fine.

I was proud that, uncharacteristically for me, I didn’t start howling like a girl about my wound. I just slapped a Band-aid on it, acted like a real man and went back to my job. I became even more proud of this good behavior a few minutes later when a patient arrived at the pharmacy counter who had a wound far far worse than I pray I ever have or see again.

The wounded patient was a 73 year old woman, tiny, thin and frail-looking. She reminded me a lot of my Mamaw, only with long gray and black hair tied back in a pony-tail. She would have looked like any number of elderly patients we’d seen that day, but for one difference. Covering the right side of her face, around her eye, was a new white bandage that had been taped to her temples and brow. The woman had been lead to us by Astrid, one the missionary translators who had been working with Dr. Allen that morning, who was holding on to the lady’s arm, steadying her and slowly guiding her to the counter of the pharmacy cage. (We didn’t yet know Astrid, but we would come to appreciate both her immense skills as a translator and her sweet spirit as the week progressed.)

As the lady passed her prescription to us, I first noted that it was written for antibiotic cream. Then, out of curiosity, I looked back up at the lady to her makeshift eye patch. The bandage didn’t quite reach all the way to her nose, and at the edge of it there I could see that part of the side of her nose was actually missing, just above her nostril. It was a crescent shaped wound but you could see from the size of the bandage that the visible portion of the wound was only a tiny part of the whole and that it likely extended across her entire eye orbit, if not onto her cheek itself.

I was only a little bit shocked at the sight initially, not having time to really consider the ramifications of such a wound. The lady didn’t seem to be in any pain, however. So I shrugged it off and started filling her prescription for antibiotic cream.

Most of our cream meds were in large tubes, which we parceled out smaller amounts from in little mini-zip-lock baggies. However, most of our anti-biotic cream came in little individual sample packets. The prescription didn’t specify how much cream to dispense, but I knew that if she was meant to put it on that wound for any amount of time she would be needing a lot of it. I loaded up a baggie for her with cream-samples and gave it to her. She smiled and thanked us and Astrid lead her away.

Only after she had gone did I begin to wonder what had happened to the lady that could have caused such a wound? My imagination went into overdrive on this. One thing was certain, though: I knew that I would never again complain about having to stand in a hot and sweaty cage with a little self-inflicted cut through my thumbnail. Such things no longer mattered. That poor lady was living through far worse and did so with a smile. We would learn far more about this lady that evening.

We didn’t have time to dwell on what we’d seen. More patients and more prescriptions came at us fast and we were having to scramble. We could mostly keep up with it and didn’t have huge lines until one of us would run into trouble with a particular prescription. Usually our trouble was that the doc who’d written it hadn’t specified something that needed specifying, like how many pills should the person take and how often. Other times the docs would use the drug-name for the drugs and not the commercial name (for instance Ranatidine instead of Zantac) and I’d have to figure out what they meant. This affected me more than Mary Ann, who almost always knew which was which. I still had to go around making little duct-tape labels of all the different double named drugs we were commonly prescribing. And in other cases, we simply couldn’t find the medicine at all either due to our having misplaced it among the shelves or not having unloaded it from one of the four suitcases and shipping cartons in the first place. These stock-cases were scattered in different places down the corridor and we’d have to run and dig through them all before finding it. One of them, we discovered, had been left on the bus, so I had to find Oswald and his “bus key”, a.k.a. Marcello’s daughter, to help me fetch it. It went on like that all day long.

Just keeping up with the never-ending stream of patients bearing prescriptions was stressful enough. And even if I wasn’t going to complain about it, doing so under the conditions of heat, humidity and sweat made it even worse. In such an environment, tempers are apt to flare and I was afraid mine would be no exception to that. I’m well known in my house and sometimes at my place of employment for not dealing terribly well with stress. I have been known to growl and snarl and have on occasion been known to utter ear-blistering curses when under such stress. Oh, I keep it together pretty well during my solo Monday hell-shifts at the library, but prolonged exposure to such stress had me worried that I might crack. The entire mission team had been told to be on our best behavior and to always have a smile on our faces, because the locals would be watching us carefully. Here we were, ostensibly a group of Christians coming into towns to do work and help save souls. If we didn’t look the part, if we got angry or seemed unhappy at having to do the job that we’re doing, the locals would likely draw conclusions, maybe even correct conclusions, that we’d rather not have them draw. And I knew that the pharmacy was very important in this regard; after all, it would be the last impression most patients would have of our team and if we were short-tempered and growly, it would not be a good one. I had prayed at the start of the day for God to give everyone on the team strength in this regard, but especially me. I had known things were likely to get ugly and I wanted emotional backup from on high when it did. And I have to say that throughout the day, with very few exceptions, I remained blissfully calm and a smile—a genuine smile—was never far from my lips. I suppose I should not be surprised, for it was exactly what I’d prayed for. I think the entire team fell under this blanket of calm.

Another of the people on the medical team none of us had yet met was Emilio Salizar. Emilio was a 4th year medical student in Guatemala who looked like he was probably in his mid-20s. Sometime late in the morning he set up a clinic cubby-hole directly next door to the pharmacy. Emilio didn’t speak very much English, so we had to let Esdras do the introductions and interpreting. Much like my 4th year med-student wife, Emilio was there to see patients too. He had an advantage over the American docs, though, in that he didn’t have to have a translator on the patient end of things in order to do his job, so he was able to see far more patients far faster than most everyone else. The only real trouble came on our end, which is where the translation wound up shifting. Emilio would prescribe drugs with brand names we’d never heard of. And in Spanish. So most of the time we needed Esdras or Cynthia to translate the prescriptions before we could fill them. Often they would not be familiar with the drugs in question either and we’d have to go to Emilio himself and often consult Mary Ann’s PDA, which was equipped with Epocrates, a program for cross-referencing drugs and their international brand names. Emilio was wonderfully patient with us, especially the times he would come to ask us if we had a particular med and we’d just throw up our hands in classic “Beats me” pose. He would just grin and we’d start trying to help figure out what he needed. He became a familiar sight in the pharmacy during our clinics that week, often accompanying his patients, checking to see what meds we had on hand and then writing prescriptions right there. This didn’t bother us one bit. What ever it took to work things out was all fine with us.

Around 12:30 it was time for lunch. Since there were so many patients still waiting, we didn’t want to shut down the whole clinic for lunch so we were going to take it in shifts. Mary Ann volunteered to go second shift so she could eat with her husband, so I was to take first.

Lunch was served a few doors down from the bus-station itself, at what appeared to be an outdoor bar next to the local fire-station. We had a choice of either chicken sandwiches or hamburgers. My burger was pretty good, though I did notice the presence of a mysterious pink sauce on it that seemed to be a condiment. Our theory, upon later discussion, was that this was the Guatemalan version of “special sauce”, i.e. Thousand Island dressing. Only the ketchup to mayonnaise ratio seemed skewed more toward ketchup, making it pink instead of Thousand Island-colored. This would not be the last time I would meet this particular sauce during my time in Central America.

I didn’t hang around long after I’d finished eating. Though I did want a break, I knew the pharmacy was bound to be busy and Mary Ann would need. I also knew that once she and Dr. Allen went to lunch, the traffic would drop off considerably due to the fact that Dr. Allen wouldn’t be pumping patients through like the pro he is. And on this theory, I was right. Things slowed right down. I had time to talk to Esdras and Cynthia between prescriptions. Esdras gave me pointers on my Spanish. I’d been using a little that day, saying things like “Uno por dias” and “Dos por dias” for pill amounts to take. Esdras pointed out that I should actually be saying “Uno por DIA” as it was one per day and not days.

After Mary Ann & Dr. Allen returned from lunch, the clinic had its first emergency case of the day. It began with raised voices looking for Dr. Allen. I didn’t find out the details until later, but the emergency case was a man with a possible spider bite or scorpion sting on his leg. The wound had occurred some days before and had begun to redden and began to develop into cellulitis, an infection of the skin itself. The man had taken some Amoxicilin for it, which is an anti-biotic that’s available over the counter in Guatemala, but it’s not the right kind of anti-biotic to treat cellulitis, so the condition worsened. All the while he continued going to work, getting sicker by the day as the cellulitis infection spread through his bloodstream and made him septic until he collapsed that morning. When they brought him in he was burning up with a fever, dehydrated, delirious and unable to move his arms properly. Dr. Allen began treating him with a drip IV and came to us for liquid anti-biotics and other anti-biotic pills. Cooling him off was definitely part of the treatment too because at one point Butch came over and asked if he could borrow our fan. He said they needed it for a guy who was dying.

“Yes! Please! Go! Take it!” I said. I’m thinking, Don’t ask for the fan–just take it! He’s dying!

The man lived, but from what Dr. Allen said later it was a close thing and he might not have been out of the woods entirely. The man lay on a makeshift cot for much of the day until he finally woke up and by the end of the day he seemed pretty coherent as he walked the halls with his IV.

In the afternoon, Butch came to take my camera. Before joining Word of Life, he used to work for an IT department and is thus a fully wired dude of much computer savvy. He had brought his laptop, a speaker system and a video projector. (Butch was also never ever out of proximity to his PDA, on which he kept our daily clinic stats, syncing it up with the laptop every day.) Butch’s master plan was to collect all the digital cameras from the staff and download their pictures onto his laptop to save to DVD later. This way everyone on the team could have a copy of everyone’s pictures. It was a great idea.

Right around 4:30, my brain stopped working. It evidently had decided it had had enough activity for the day and was no longer going to function at peak capacity. The result of this was that I could no longer think clearly and everything I did took twice as long because I kept having to stop and refocus my brain on the task at hand. I thought maybe I was just dehydrated, so I chugged down some more water. Nope. Brain just stopped workin’ right. Of course, this is when we became the busiest.

Cynthia and Esdras dove in to help us out with the rush. By that time in the day, they’d seen most of what we were dispensing and knew the dosage amounts to circle almost better than we did. They jumped behind the counter and started dispensing, being certain to confirm with one of us that what they were doing was right. I never saw them make a mistake.

We were supposed to shut down the clinic at 5, but everyone knew this was an arbitrary deadline to be ignored. If we still had patients in the hopper to see, we’d stay until they were seen. The docs kept working and we kept dispensing until 7:30 p. Even after the last patient received their meds, we couldn’t really relax. So much of our medicine still needed counting and pre-dosing and we’d even run out of some of the dosed meds and would have to count out more from the stock supplies. We knew we’d have to haul chunk of it back to camp to do later and after the draining day we’d already had, this thought nearly exhausted us. We proved this on the way back to camp, as several members of the team fell right to sleep, including Butch. Dr. Allen snapped his photo to give to Dr. Rich, who had fallen asleep at the church dedication the day before and had been photographed by Butch.

We got back to camp around 8 and learned that the water pump had been replaced during the day so the showers were running at full capacity. Yay! The transformer was still having issues, but as long as we only ran the one air-conditioner per cabin, we’d be okay. Sounded like heaven to me.

I dumped my stuff at the cabin and came down for dinner. Butch was at the pavilion setting up the slide show, going through and rotating the images so that everything was upright. He used a freeware slide-show program that allowed him to play the slides with music. The first song up was “Let my Words be Few” by Phillips, Craig & Dean. It’s a beautiful song and fit right in with the images that began flashing up on the screen above. I sat down to watch, seeing images of the medical team and dental team doing their jobs. Only then am I really struck with the incredible nature of what had taken place today. Oh, sure, I had known in a kind of On Paper way that the mission was doing a lot of good, but I’d been trapped in the cage all day and had seen very little of the treatment, except on occasional bano breaks. Seeing it on the screen really brought it home and I knew that I had taken part in something far greater than myself.

Then the slide clicked over to a shot of the lady with the eye wound—only without her bandage. As bad as I had imagined that wound to be from just the little glimpse I’d had of the edge of it, the reality was far far worse. Her entire ocular orbit was simply missing, from just above her nostril across her cheek and to the brow ridge. Gone. It looked like something you wouldn’t believe in a horror movie, yet there it was in full color. It was too much for me. The weight of the day fell on me hard and I began sobbing uncontrollably. I felt so very sorry for that poor old woman with half of her face missing. What had caused that? Dear, God, what had caused that? And all we had been able to do for her was give her a baggie of anti-bacterial cream.

I couldn’t take it. I walked away from the pavilion and into the darkness, down the hill toward the lake, and I just cried and cried. I had known my emotions had been close to the surface all afternoon, but now I couldn’t control them at all. I just stared into the darkness with tears streaming down my face while Phillips, Craig and Dean sang, “Jesus, I am so in love with you. And I stand in awe of you, Jesus.” And I found myself in awe. Surely there had to be some greater purpose in this woman’s life. Maybe she was meant to live as an example of goodness in the face of such a woeful injury. But what a price! It absolutely broke my heart.

I prayed then for the old woman. I prayed that God would take her home rather than let her suffer. Or if that was not his will, that God would make her the example of a beautiful soul shining through the tragedy that I hoped she already was. I just wanted her to have blessings in this life and to gain her deserved reward in the next. It was one of those moments in life that seem so incredibly unfair and make you wonder how God could allow such a thing to have happened. But the thing about God is, he knows what he’s doing. He has a plan and it will be carried out in his good time. That may sound like excuse-making to non-Christians, but I’ve seen it happen and I prayed that I had seen it in that lady’s face that day.

After ten minutes or so, I was out of tears. I could see Ashley sitting back at one of the tables beneath the pavilion lights. I wiped my face and went back up to sit beside her. She wasn’t in much better shape than me, emotionally, but she had a glorious smile on her face through the tears as she watched the slides from the day. She could see it too; the good that had been done by just a few people.

Later, Dr. Allen told us about the old woman. He had treated her. She is in her early 70’s and had received a burn to the eye from hot oil nearly 15 years ago. Her eye couldn’t be saved then and without medical care the surrounding tissue, starved of blood by the burns, began to slowly necrose. The wound has continued to increase in size since then and she was in horrible pain for many years because of it. But eventually, the nerves that were in the area died out and for the past two years she has had no pain from the wound at all. She keeps it very clean and washes it out every day. She had not even come in to the clinic seeking treatment for the wound itself, but simply wanted to know if we could give her a bandage to cover it because she didn’t like how it looked. Dr. Allen said he loaded her up with bandages.

I continued to be emotional throughout the evening, but I was far from the only one. As Butch read the stats of the day to us, we learned that the clinic saw over 500 patients that day and 117 of them accepted Christ, with many others reaffirming their existing faith. The medical treatment is definitely the draw that gets people in, but clearly some leave with much more. We had to give that an “Amen!”

We were up later than we wanted to be with our evening devotional, but we knew it was important. It was a time for people to share things they had seen throughout the clinic day and give thanks. The translators and local missionary staff seemed impressed at the energy of the medical team. We too were impressed by theirs. It may not seem like it would take much energy to translate languages, but it can be brain-taxing work. From all reports, the translators are fantastic and I already knew that ours were.

Afterwards, starting at 9:30 or so, we began the arduous task of pill sorting and counting once again. I really didn’t want to be there. I so wanted to go to the showers and then climb into bed, but I knew we had to keep plugging away or tomorrow would be far worse. Second day at any clinic setting is always busier than the first, because word gets out and word of mouth spreads fast. We had to have these things pre-counted or we’d be forever counting pills the next day. We had lots of volunteer help from the medical and dental team. As we started to work, Butch kept his laptop going and began showing funny little video clips he’d been collecting for years. The videos really lightened the mood and made the work go faster. I was still dog-tired, but at that moment I just felt great that we were laughing and continuing to work toward a larger goal that was bigger than any of us.

GUATEMALA CLINIC DAY 1 STATS
Patients Seen: 525
Prescriptions Filled: 330
Salvations/Rededications: 114

 

NEXT

DATELINE: Sunday, March 20, 2005

My bunk house collectively woke up around 6 a.m. (Some before, some after, but that’s generally when everyone’s travel alarms began blaring.) I half expected my arms and feet to be throbbing limbs of pain from all the heavy-lifting the day before. Oddly, they didn’t. Such muscle pain usually doesn’t catch up with me for at least a day anyway, so I figured I’d be one giant ache, come Monday—just in time for clinic day.

I climbed out of bed and put on my flip-flops to go outside and have a look around
in the daylight. The camp was gorgeous. Sure, it’s still very much under construction and there are plenty of signs of that—from the exposed rebar near the pavilion to the as yet unlandscaped red dirt to piles of rocks that will be used for paving pathways—but there was a lot of potential. And down the hill from the bunk houses and pavilion was a fantastic lake. The sun had just come up over a nearby hill, casting light across the surface of the lake and making the picture I was seeing of the men in boats net-fishing even more beautiful. Fishermen: It’s an appropriate image for our mission plans for the week.

I needed some bano time to freshen up from my night’s semi-sweaty slumber. I also needed to brush my teeth. This is something of a complicated affair for Gringos in Central America. You can’t trust the local water in most places that you visit. It’s only mostly okay for washing up. Sure, it’ll get the visible dirt off your hands, but any microbial contaminants in the water will stay on your skin and have a nasty habit of getting into your mouth the next time you decide to chew on a fingernail. Granted, we’d been told by Marcello that the water at the camp comes from a deep well and was thus most likely free from nasty biological contaminants, but we were still encouraged to use only bottled water when brushing teeth and always slap on some hand-sanitizer after washing hands. I did pretty good on my first go-round with tooth brushing up until it was time to rinse off my toothbrush. I’d already turned on the sink’s faucet to wash the toothpaste spit down, so naturally my hand plunged my brush beneath it to rinse it off too.

“Ahhh!” I screamed, quickly snatching up my water bottle and dousing the end of my brush as though it were on fire. My fellow bano-mates assured me that I was probably fine, but it was still a bad sign to me this fresh out of the mission trip gate.

Most of us dressed in our Sunday best for the church service we were to attend. The mission materials we’d been sent ahead of time stressed that for all church services the ladies would need to wear a skirt and a nice shirt and men to wear slacks with a shirt and tie. I brought a short-sleeved blue shirt and yellow tie which went well with my tan corduroys. When I went out to breakfast, however, all the higher-ups from WOL were dressed in light colored polo shirts. It turns out that the person who wrote up the rules for Sunday dress had cut and pasted them from a similar document designed for a European mission trip and never considered that such rules of dress would be woefully uncomfortable in Central America. I soon ditched the tie and the t-shirt beneath after the morning heat started to build up.

We had a breakfast of fresh fruit and tasty Zucaritas! (the south of the border version of Frosted Flakes. Somehow they’re tastier than Frosted Flakes because you get to call them Zucaritas! and say it with an accent.)

At our breakfast devotional, we met Pastor Douglas, who had come in on a late flight at 10 p the night before and had arrived at the camp in the wee hours. I must have been sleeping good, because I never heard him come in. Pastor Douglas is the minister for a church in Atlantic City, NJ. and was to be our primary minister for the missoin that week.

The church we were to attend was in the nearest large town, of Esquintla, just under an hour’s drive away. (I didn’t hear Marcello’s time guestimation on this one, but I’m sure he probably would have told us it was 20 minutes away.) I didn’t mind being back on the bus at all. I wanted to see more of Guatemala in the daylight and absorb as much detail as I could.

We passed by field after field of sugar cane, mango trees, banana and plantain trees and sometimes coffee bean orchards. Mostly the fields were empty, though, save for some of the skinniest cows I’ve ever seen. Not starving, skinny—or, not usually—but still some very slender cattle. We also passed a scary-looking Guatemalan prison, which Oswald told us, via Michelle’s translation, is called “Hell”. It looked the part.

There were three volcanos in the area as well. For such massive geological features, they sure could sneak up on you. This was partially because it was so humid that the hazy sky became almost sky blue itself. So, there you’d be, sitting on the bus, casually looking out at what you thought was clear blue sky until you see this flattened volcano mouth sticking out of a portion of it a mile or two up in the distance. It’s the kind of sight that gives you chills up your spine. We saw three of them this way.

The church in Equintla was a picturesque white cement block structure nestled in a small neighborhood of shops. Inside, locals sang familiar praise songs in Spanish. The band and singers they had there were extremely good, too, and we found ourselves getting into the spirit of the music quickly. The minister of the church soon called attention to our presence and told the congregation that we were in the country to do free clinics in small towns. He asked them to pray for us that week and to walk back to where we were seated and lay hands on us as they all prayed. Now, I’ve been to several churches where the laying on of hands is a common thing. It’s spoken of in the Bible and Christians are called upon to do it on occasion when moved to do so by God. It’s not usually done in my particular church, but I understand it happens. The laying on of hands in this church, however, was far from strange. It was no charasmatic display, but just a natural extension of prayer. There was power in it too. I wasn’t expecting to be emotionally affected by it, but I suddenly found my eyes welling up with tears as we prayed. Something about the outpouring of affection from complete strangers moved me. Immediately I began to worry that this was a bad emotional trend to start this early in the journey, but I went with it.

There were scooters everywhere in Equintla and on our way to lunch Oswald and Alex had to do some fancy team-driving to keep from smooshing them. We traveled to the nearest McDonalds. Outside was another guard with a shotgun.

McDonald’s in Guatemala is almost exactly like McDonald’s in America, only in Spanish. They also serve a few unexpected things, such as fried chicken. I later learned that McDonald’s also has a delivery service in some of the larger cities. It was not uncommon in Guatemala City, for instance, to see a McDonald’s delivery driver on a scooter.

While at lunch, we noticed a beach shop across the street and Ash and I decided to go over and see if we could get her a towel. Only after we crossed the street and entered the shop did it occur to either of us that we didn’t know the Spanish word for towel. We instantly became the stereotypical Americans on vacation, trying to convey towel to the clerk by any means up to and including pantomime, all the while yelling “TOWEL… TOWWWELLLL!” It was horrible. They didn’t have any towels either, so it was even more horrible.

After lunch, we drove an hour to our next destination, which was another church. This was an old community church that had outgrown its facilities. The 2004 mission team had evidently visited it last year when the minister had first proposed raising funds to construct a brand new building. It had not taken them even a year to raise the funds, some of which came from connections made by the Word of Life team. The building had been completed and we were there for the dedication ceremony.

The new building for the church was a little ways down a dirt road that ran through a small neighborhood community. I say neighborhood, for that is what it was, but it did not resemble any neighborhood I’ve seen in this country. It consisted of very simple cement block houses on plots of land that looked around a fourth of an acre. Some of the homes had chickens in the yard, some had gorgeous fruit-laden banana trees, and near some, children were playing and watching as this line of sweaty dressed up Gringos walked through their midst on the way to the new church building.

The church building itself was a large cement block structure with windows open to allow the breeze to pass through. Inside there were row upon row of plastic lawn chairs and ceiling fans overhead. However, being at the hottest part of the day the fans didn’t do much against the heat. Soon many of us found ourselves nodding off as the heat and rhythms of the all-Spanish service lulled us to sleep.

After the service, we bussed up and headed out to visit and set up our first clinic site. On the way we stopped at a gas-station so everyone could have a bano break and pick up snacks. I went inside. I didn’t find much in the way of snacks, but I did find a towel for Ashley. No more pillow-case showers for her.

The clinic site was nearly another hour’s drive in a little town called Chiquimuilla. The site itself was in a former bus-station turned strip-mall. Actually, calling it a strip-mall is a pretty generous description. It was more like the bus station had been carved into aisles, which were further broken up into little cubby-hole shop-spaces with a footprint of around 10′ by 8′. Some of these cubby-hole shop spaces were completely open while others had steel doors or cages to keep the contents safe. However, few of these cubby-holes were actually in use as shops and most stood empty save for dirt and trash. In the center of the bus station was a maze-like area of more unused cubby-holes and beyond that was a much larger and mostly cubby-free area that was being used as an open air market. The mayor of the town had hired the usual guys with shotguns to stand guard over the place all night so that none of the team’s equipment was stolen.

On previous missions with Word of Life, one of our local WV pharmacists, Fritz, had come along to do the pharmacy thing. He was unable to come this year, however. So at some point in our trip thus far, it was decided that Mary Ann Allen and I would be in charge of the pharmacy. Mary Ann made lots of sense, because she is a registered nurse and knows the meds pretty well. The logic for including me was that since I work in a library I must be good at organizing and classifying things. I don’t know about all that, but I had come on this trip to be of whatever use I could and working in the pharmacy sounded very useful, albeit a good ways out of my field of expertise. Everyone kept assuring me we’d be fine.

The pharmacy itself was to be set up in a cubby hole shop with a green caged front with a fold up cage window and sales-counter area. It looked like tcanteenene area for a prison. It was also far filthier and spidery than most folks care for in a pharmacy. Fortunately, the manager of the bus station was on hand and Marcello convinced him to have a few of his guys clean out the cell and mop the floors for us. They did right then and there and before long it looked good enough to use. Being a cramped little cubby-hole, though, we wouldn’t have much room for storing meds unless we were able to do so vertically. We stressed to Marcello the need for lots of shelving to hold all the meds. He asked the manager and was told we would have shelves by morning.

With no shelving, there wasn’t much we could do to set up the pharmacy. It didn’t help us that most of the medication we’d brought hadn’t even been sorted into dosage baggies yet, either. We resolved to cart all the meds back to the camp and do some sorting and predosing that evening in something far closer to a sterile environment.

Most of the other equipment on board the busses came with the dental team from Racine. They had brought portable dental chairs, drills, compressors, sterilizers and all manner of dental tools, which had to be set up. They went right to it and were still plenty busy when Marcello told the rest of us to load back up to return to camp. We’d been told that our clinic site was only five minutes away from the camp. It was actually around 20 minutes, which was still pretty short. Gringo Time strikes again, though.

After the dental team joined us at camp, we had a fantastic dinner of chicken, rice and fruit. IÂ’ve never eaten so much melon, pineapple and mango in all my life, and it’s all great! We all stuffed ourselves, then sat around and sweated while we began our evening meeting where we were introduced the rest of the national staff of translators and helpers who had come in for the clinics.

We were also told that the water pump for the camp had crapped out earlier in the day due to being overloaded by the transformer problems. Rather than have us go without running water, Marcello asked the local fire department to come in and pump our water tanks full again. Unfortunately, we didnÂ’t know where they sourced their water from, so it was likely contaminated with dangerous bacteria. We had to therefore be extra careful only to drink from bottled water.

After the meeting, we asked for help in counting pills. This, we thought, would be a long and arduous process in which our bulk medicines would be divided udosagedoseage amounts, (usually a month’s supply, or however much it usually took to knock out whatever it was being prescribed for), pre-bagged and labeled in little zip-lock baggies. However, while it was a long process, we had nearly the entire camp volunteer to help, so the work went much much faster. Still it was terribly hot and most of us were living for the shower we knew we’d be having after retiring for the evening.

While working, we left aside a third of the meds to take with us to El Salvador the following week. The vast majority of what we brought would be used in Guatemala, though, as we would have more docs available for the clinics there.

We wrapped up our counting near 11 p and I headed up the hill for my shower. Only, I walked into the shower-house to discover there was no water. Not even a trickle. The tanks were empty. I nearly broke down crying at the idea of having to go to bed sweaty and nasty from my day.

Then, upon returning to the bunk-house, I learned that due to the ongoing transformer problems, we were only allowed to use one air-conditioner per bunk-house. And it wasn’t the one nearest my bed.

I climbed into my bunk only to find it gritty. My duffle bag had been sitting on the concrete floor all day and had picked up a lot of the dust that had been tracked in from outside. Now I was doubly filthy and still hot. I kept trying to tell myself that I hadn’t come here for comfort and that maybe there would be water in the morning, but it didn’t help much. Eventually, the air did cool off in the bunk house, though, and I fell asleep.

(I know what you’re thinking: Poor Gringo. He’s visiting a country where few people have running water let alone air-conditioners of any kind and he’s whining about only having ONE. Believe me, I’m just as disgusted with myself over this as you are. My only excuse is that it was still early in the trip and certain realities about the situation had not quite hit home yet.)

 

NEXT

DATELINE: Saturday, March 19, 2005

After a mere three hours of sleep, I was awakened at 2:30 a.m. by the sounds of people moving around in Ma’s house. Everyone else was awake and getting dressed and gathering up their things. We’d let most of the luggage in the truck, so there wasn’t much to gather.

Ma and Pa were also up to see us off. They offered Cheerios and coffee to everyone, but we didn’t have much time for eating. The trip to Charlotte Douglas Airport from Hildebran would take about an hour, so we needed to hit the road. We needed to get there as early as possible since our luggage contained lots of things customs officials might be curious about.

We gave Ma and Pa a hug goodbye and told them we loved them. It makes me feel fatalistic to be saying “Goodbye” to people because in my mind I’m thinking that it might be the last time I ever see them again. I know it’s probably just me being paranoid, but who knows what might happen on this journey? We could die in a plane crash or be killed by guerillas. Or gorillas, for all I know. I don’t think it’s very likely, being as how we’re essentially on a mission from God. But as Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett pointed out in their novel Good Omens, you can’t second-guess inefability, so I don’t know what God’s plan for us is. I just know that since beginning to prepare for this journey, I’ve been taking steps to ensure that things will be okay on most fronts if I don’t come back from it and part of that is telling the people that I love that I love them.

We arrived in Charlotte at 4:30 a.m.

Ashley and I used to live in Charlotte before departing for the mountain state so she could enroll in medical school and I in library servitude. We like Charlotte an awful lot, but don’t miss the sprawl and traffic very much. Fortunately, the airport is on the side of town we entered from and is easy to get to.

We parked in long-term parking and began hauling our bags to the enclosed shuttle waiting area. Within a few minutes a shuttle appeared. The driver was astounded that five people could have so much luggage and that it could weigh so much. The whole time we were hauling it onto the shuttle bus, he kept questioning us as to what we were really doing.

“You’re moving house, aren’t you?” he asked. “Yeah, you’re all on the run and getting out of town!”

We just smiled and said nothing to dispel this. I knew we must have looked very strange, though, each struggling with two 70 pound check bags and two near 40 pound carryons.

Inside the airport, there were lots of people sleeping. Some were sprawled in chairs, while others—sometimes entire families—had just plopped down on a section of carpet by the window for a snooze. I’ve heard Charlotte Douglas is a good aiport to sleep in, but had never before seen it put into practice.

We met another traveling companion inside, our friend Andrew Bright, now a third year medical student. Andrew has been on two other mission trips with Word of Life in the past, including the Honduras leg of the mission trip Ash went on in 2003. Now we were six.

It’s a good thing we arrived so early, cause we were first in line and had plenty of time to use the handy scale to make sure our bags were within their weight limitations. One of them was 71 pounds, so we took a few bottles of Ibuprofen out of it until it weighed in at exactly 70 pounds.

We were a little worried about another of the bags that contained $450 worth of Enfamil baby formula. Enfamil, for those who don’t know, comes in powder form in giant coffee-can sized tubs that aren’t very easy to pack. Instead of trying to pack them in their cans, Ash had just poured the white Enfamil powder into gallon zip-lock baggies. It made for easy packing, but also closely resembled bricks of cocaine. Ash had stowed the Enfamil labels inside the baggies to help identify them, but no matter the precautions it still looked like a suitcase full of blow. Granted, no drug-sniffing dogs would be attracted to it, but baggage x-ray technicians would certainly want a second glance.

The Continental Airlines desk didn’t actually open until closer to 5:30, but we were there and ready when it did. By then there were lots of other people in line behind us. We got through the line fairly quickly, fumbling in our cheap Wal-Mart passport wallets on strings to find our passports and e-boarding passes, etc. Dr. Allen and Mary Ann had swanky J. Crew passport wallets, but they had to fumble with them just as much. We then moved to the line to get through the metal detectors. Something in my carryon flagged suspicion and the x-ray techs had to run it through again. I still can’t figure out what they saw—maybe my odd-shaped hard-plastic water-bottle that looks vaguely like it might contain plutonium, or maybe the half-dozen juggling balls or metal Hotwheels cars I’d brought to give away—but the bag itself passed on second inspection.

Our plane was one of the smaller jets in the Continental fleet, the kind with two seats on one side of the aisle and one on the other, with very little carryon storage. We even had to check most of our carryon luggage at the jetway so they could store it in the plane’s hold. Ours were the very last seats in the plane, right by the bathroom, with me and Ash on one side and Andrew on the other. I think our stewardess must have had the hots for Andrew, because she kept bringing him more food and beverages and asking if he was hot or cold. Since Ash and I were seated right there, she offered us some extra food too, just so she didn’t seem like she was playing favorites. We knew, though.

We flew from Charlotte to Houston International. I was somehow expecting to have the same hellish experience that I had at Houston Hobby a couple of years ago, but Houston International was a breeze. It’s still a huge airport, but in a comfy sort of way. Even landing 15 minutes late, we were easily able to take the shuttle-train to our next gate and were there in plenty of time. We still wound up an hour late in taking off from Houston, though, and my 3 a.m. Cheerios had long since run out. I needed breakfast and coffee pronto!

On the airplane, little TV screens popped out of the ceiling and we were shown the standard Do This in Case of Emergency film that no one ever pays any attention to. Only this time we saw it twice, once in English and once in lightning fast Spanish. In fact, every time any announcement was made by either the flight crew or the captain, it was made first in standard well-paced English and then a second time in Indy 500 Spanish. I hoped not everyone spoke Spanish so quickly on the journey, or my by-now vestigial Spanish skills would never wake up.

Once we were in the air, they served us a nice breakfast and showed us the movie A Cinderella Story. (It’s a cute enough movie, but I still gave it a C.) They also told us we could keep the little mini-headphones that we used to listen to the film’s audio track. I’m not really sure why they gave them to us, other than to get us to throw the headphones away for them, because the headphone jack had a double plug set up that most CD players do not.

Between bites of food and occasionally paying attention to the movie, I read up on Guatemala from the Lonely Planet entry on it I’d printed out. Like many Latin American countries, this one had seen quite a lot of turmoil in its time, even beyond the Mayans. It was also supposed to have a much higher rate of crime and listed violence against foreigners as a big part of that. Comforting. It was also said to be extraordinarily beautiful in places and had some pretty amazing archaeology on display in some of its older cities. The guide spoke of the Holy Week festivities in Antigua as being particularly of interest to travelers. I didn’t know if we would be anywhere near Antigua at that point, but this was Holy Week. Seemed a shame to come all this way and miss out on that.

Very quickly into our flight, I saw that we were above the Gulf of Mexico. Not long after that, I looked down to see that we were above Mexico itself. That’s when it finally hit me that I was no longer in the United States. Not since I left the island of Guam, where I lived from age 2 to 3, had I been this far from home soil.

The ground below looked very dry and red from my view from the plane. How would Guatemala look?

Within another couple of hours, I had my first airborn glimpse of Guatemala proper.

My first impression was: I only THOUGHT there were big mountains in West Virginia. The mountains I was seeing below us were enormous, and quite often volcanic as evidenced from the smoke pouring out of their tops. I could also see occasional huge fissures in the earth below, caused no doubt by the frequent earthquakes due to said volcanic activity. Things below looked kind of dry and arid too, but then March is in the dry season, so that was to be expected.

Soon we were flying low over Guatemala City itself. It was a pretty big place, though there were very few buildings of any major height. Mostly there were low buildings, spread up and down throughout the hills and valleys of the terrain. And the color! You fly over most American cities and everything is shades of gray and brown. Guatemala City, however, was alive with color. The buildings and homes were often painted in quite vivid shades of red and blue and green and yellow. There were also hundreds of bright red busses with as much chrome-plating as they could fit on around the red. Things looked alive down there.

As the plane landed, I was reminded of some advice given to me by my friend Shoshanna as to what to expect from the Guatemala City airport. She’s been there before and warned me that I would need to keep a very close eye on my luggage, since it would be a big target for thieves. She has had friends who were mugged at knife-point for their bags there.

Well, good luck to them if they try it on us, I thought. Any thief who thinks he can haul away one of these 70 pounders is welcome to try. I thought it would almost be worth blunting the wheels on the bags just to see someone try to drag one away and listen to the “Eeeeeeeeeee” sound as the bag left twin trails of black plastic in its wake.

After deplaning, we went through customs. It was no problem at all; just had to give them the forms we’d filled out on the plane, that stated why we wanted in the country and when we were planning to leave again, and we were through. The customs guy was even nice. Then we hurried to see to our luggage that was even then beginning to make its rounds on the conveyer belt.

The baggage claim area of the airport left little to the imagination. Most airports have the typical conveyer belt that slides out of a mysterious rubber-flap covered hole leading who knows where; a magic luggage spout, if you will. In Guatemala City’s airport, the conveyer belt was set into a giant glass window looking out on the tarmac itself. We could clearly see bag handlers unloading the bags from a truck and putting them on the conveyer belt on their side of the glass. I felt sorry for them as they struggled with our luggage.

We had tied strips of army green cloth to the handles of all of our luggage for easy identification. Andrew, Dr. Allen and I stationed ourselves at different places around the conveyer belt, ready to snatch bags off as soon as we could, then haul them into a pile back where the ladies were standing guard. Someone even found us a rolling luggage cart to pile the pile onto, so we wouldn’t have to haul them by hand. All but one of the bags appeared. That’s right, the Enfamil bag was nowhere to be seen. Now, I realize the Enfamil bag’s contents looked suspicious, and all, but who really tries to smuggle cocaine INTO Guatemala? We decided to write it off and hope it turned up later. For all we knew, it was still sitting in a customs locker in Charlotte.

Outside the airport, the weather was very comfortable and in the upper 70’s. I’d left North Carolina wearing jeans, a t-shirt and a hoody, but could see they would soon be a little warm. We were met outside by Butch Jarrel, one of the higher ups at Word of Life in New York. He lead us through the thick crowd of people waiting outside and told us we could put our bags on the WOL bus. It was kind of a curious thing, though. Having never met any of the local Guatemalan staff before, it was difficult to discern who was a genuine staff member and who was a potential bag thief trying to look like a staff member. It made sense to me that bag thieves might pose as sky-captains or cab drivers just to get hold of your stuff. Then I noticed that all the people helping move bags were wearing Word of Life T-Shirts, so they were probably okay.

There were two more flights arriving within the next hour, so we hung around to wait for them too. It was a great opportunity to people watch and meet some of the other staff members. Rick Brooks, another high-up from WOL headquarters in New York, was there. He welcomed us and told us the most useful phrase we could know in Spanish: Donde es su bano? (Where is your bathroom?)

Among the crowd were a number ladies in traditional Guatemalan dress. Ash told me that you don’t see it as much in the city as you do in the countryside. She’d seen more in 2003 when she was in the mountain town of Quetzaltananga. There were also children who came up offering shoe-shines, or selling fruit or were just asking people for “dollares”.

I was a little uncertain how to behave in the crowd. Part of me wanted to start snapping pictures of everything like a big gawky tourist. However, we’d been told that we shouldn’t take pictures of the locals without permission, particularly when it came to photographing their children. It is apparently a prevalent belief that westerners come to Guatemala to steal away children for rich families back in the States and anyone taking pictures of children can be suspect. From what I understand, this is not entirely untrue.

One of the other flights contained fellow West Virginians while the second was bringing in a team of dental students and dentists from Racine, Wisconsin. I decided to put on my Word of Life name-tag before offering to help move their luggage to the bus. It was a good idea too, as a couple of them wisely didn’t accept help until I’d flashed the ID for them.

Once all of the flights had delivered their passengers, we all bussed up and drove
through Guatemala City to the home of Marcello Diez, the man in charge of all things WOL in Guatemala. The journey there was an interesting one.

As I’ve said, I’d never been in a foreign country until that point, so just seeing the way things worked was fascinating to me. You might not think it would be all that different. After all, big cities in America can be just as hectic and fascinating as in another country. However, there’s just sort of a different flavor to it that’s a little hard to pin down at first.

There was kind of a work-in progress feel to the city. It’s a lot like visiting a construction site and seeing all the bits of it that are sort of half-finished; like exposed rebar awaiting concrete or maybe a finished building awaiting paint or an older structure that’s seen quite a bit of wear and is probably next on the list for a face-lift; there are bits of trash lying around that the construction workers have dropped and won’t worry about picking up until final cleanup, etc. Except the whole city feels this way. I imagine with all the earthquakes that happen, there is a very good reason for all the construction and wear.

The cars were another difference. Sure, there were loads of the same sorts of vehicles you see in America and other countries, but there were quite a few I didn’t recognize at all. Some of the most obvious of these were in the form of miniature mini-vans, smaller still than even the smallest mini-van I’d ever seen. They also look like they’re constructed from pressed tin and live in perpetual fear of kids with BB guns.

The Mayan influence was also evident everywhere you look. I don’t even know from Mayan influence, and I could see it.

Like most big cities, there were lots of billboards to be seen nearly everywhere you looked. The ones I noticed the most were for things like Gallo beer, or ads for the movie Robots, but there were plenty of others. The architecture too was far different than I’m used to seeing. Almost all of the homes and businesses I saw were constructed like mini-fortresses. The businesses had gates that could be pulled down over the front of the store, much like some businesses in major U.S. Cities. Most of the houses were boxy and constructed of concrete block. Usually they were brightly colored, often covered with stucco. But they were not open in the front, to reveal the front door of the home itself. Instead, there was usually a high concrete wall topped with either razor wire or broken shards of glass set into the concrete itself, with a wide metal door set into. Beyond that door lay either a front garden area or a garage, but the outside looked pretty tough to get through. I don’t know the true origins of this style of home, but keeping unwanted people out seems to be the definite theme.

Marcello’s house was no exception to this. Though he lives in a gated neighborhood, his house is still very much a lovely colorful fortress from the outside. Inside the metal garage door, there was a tiled floor garage area that was far cleaner than you’d imagine a garage to be. The actual front door to his home was in the garage too, as well as set of tall clear windows that gave a view into his side-yard. We also found a long table upon which a cold cuts tray and sandwich fixings are laid out. We’d not eaten since our breakfast on the plane, hours earlier, so we were hungry.

First things first, though: I had to find the bano.

I’d been holding my bladder since before we landed and had not sought out “facilities” up to that point because I did not wish to be waylaid in the airport bano by someone seeking to steal my carryon backpack. (This is probably a case of over-active imagination on my part, but that’s really all I had to go on at that point in my trip.)

One of the other things I’d been concerned about on the trip was the reality that bathrooms in Central America work differently than in the states. See, most Central American plumbing pipes are too small to accommodate toilet paper. So instead of flushing the soiled paper away after “making stinky” you have to put it into a small trash can beside the toilet or risk clogging up the works. The idea that stinky paper is to be left there to remain stinky is kind of an icky and alien concept to most of us Gringos. However, in practice, it’s really not that big a deal–at least after you manage to train your hand not to drop the paper in the pot, post-wipe. The thing about poopy paper is that it dries up pretty quickly and is thus no longer offensive to the nose. And most of the homes and places I traveled to while south of the border, (I emphasize MOST, as there were definite exceptions), were meticulous at emptying their bano bins on a regular basis. While I didn’t have to make stinky at that moment, I wouldn’t have minded doing so in Marcello’s bano. It was spotless, fragrant and well-ventillated.

After lunch and introductions, we all piled back in our two school-busses to head south of Guatemala City, toward the coast where the Word of Life (Palabra de Vida) camp property is located. We quickly discovered that though Marcello’s house was fortress-like, the busses themselves were not. Some theif had been aboard and made off with two backpacks while we were inside eating. These were only the first of the thefts that our collective 40 plus member team would experience during the week.

The driver of our bus was a man called Oswald. We would come to respect him greatly as both a person and a driver over the week, but our initial impressions were that he was a bit reckless. Driving regulations in Guatemala are a good deal more lax than in the states. I’m sure they have laws to cover it, but most of the time they don’t seem to be enforced. Oswald proved that point by hurtling our massive bus through busy city streets, weaving among the cars like an Indy driver, as we made our way out of town. And while it might have seemed reckless at first, we soon came to realize that Oswald had a great deal of skill when it came to maneuvering that bus. He was aided in this by one of the missionary staff named Alex. Alex was a funny man who was able to convey his humor despite his rusty English skills. Alex’s job was to lean out the door of the bus and make sure Oswald wasn’t running over anything important. They made a great team and no important things were squooshed.

Guatemala City was pretty smoggy that day. You could smell the pollution in the air. That gradually lessened as we left the city limits, moving down past past sprawling apartment suburbs of tiny little terra-cotta-colored-roof fortresses. We also saw some less fortress-like dwellings. They were shacks, really, clustered together in suburbs of their own, a reminder that the poor of Guatemala live far worse than most poor in the United States.

Before getting out of the city entirely, we stopped at a gas-station next to a row of toll-booths so that people could buy snacks and drinks and visit the bano one last time before we hit the open road. Standing guard in front of the gas station was a man with a large black and silver sawed-off shotgun. It’s very off-putting at first to see people walking around with shotguns in public, but this was a commonplace sight almost everywhere we went. From banks to little roadside mom & pop cocinas, guys with shotguns were the “in” dudes to have guarding your place.

We still had some daylight left to us as we left the gas-station and began traveling into the countryside.

Guatemala is quite beautiful. The geology of the place actually reminds me a lot of West Virginia; just mountains and rolling hills and trees and lots and lots of rocks.

Ashley and I talked a bit with the people on the bus, trying to get to know them. Seated next to us was a local missionary staffer named Claudia, who Ashley knew from 2003. Claudia was all smiles all the time. While her English was better than my Spanish, she still didn’t seem to speak very much of it, so our communication was limited to my Spanish and what we could send through interpreters. Our interpreter aboard was Michelle. She’s an American with the Racine dental team who spent some time in Mexico as an exchange student, years back, and picked up the language. I don’t know much Spanish anymore, but Michelle sounded flawless as she conversed with Oswald and Alex.

Marcello, who was driving the other bus, had earlier told us that the camp was 2 hours from Guatemala City. It was actually closer to three. This was our first example of a phenomenon we learned to call Gringo Time. Gringo Time, you see, is what we gringos are used to operating under. In Gringo Time, things begin when they’re scheduled to begin and when you ask how long it takes to get somewhere, a definitive and accurate answer can be produced. In Guatemala, things don’t work on Gringo Time, which means schedules are rarely followed very closely and everything takes twice as long to accomplish as you’re told it will. The sooner you are able to accept this the better off and much less frustrated you are. Oddly, I accepted it right away and was never bothered much by the delays. It’s actually a far more relaxed and leisurely way to live.

Very soon on our journey to the camp, we found a prime example of why life moves at a slower pace in Guatemala. For as we appproached sea-level, the comfortable temperatures of Guatemala City gave way to humidity and heat. By the time we reached camp, near 9 p.m. I was asleep and sweaty. The dirt road up to the camp property was very bumpy, but not too long. It was slow-going, though, and without the rush of wind through the windows, the heat really started to set in. The humidity felt like it was at full force at the camp. Mind you, I grew up in Mississippi, where July and August are just one big sweatbox, so I figured I could take it. This didn’t mean I had to enjoy it, though.

It was difficult to see anything when we stumbled off the two busses. This was due as much to the surrounding night-time darkness as to the blinding flood-lights on tripods stationed near the camp’s kitchen, which was the nearest building to the gravel parking lot. Beyond the glare of the lights we could see the shapes of some other buildings, further down the slope of a hill, as well as other lights coming from beneath a covered pavilion area. Beneath its roof were rows of covered tables and benches, as well as a couple of foosball-style games and a ping-pong table.

Though we couldn’t really see much of the camp, it was apparent from the equipment, dangerously exposed sections of rebar right at shin-level and in-progress buildings that this camp was still under construction. We were to learn more about the overall camp project as the week progressed.

We unloaded the van of personal luggage and headed to the bunk houses. There were four bunk houses in all, two for the men up the hill and two for the ladies down the hill, with the pavilion and kitchen building in the middle. Each bunk house was equipped with two high-powered air-conditioners and rows of sturdy bunk beds. I chose a top bunk because I liked bunk beds as a kid and always made a point of taking the top bunk at Summer Camp. This felt as much like Summer Camp as I’d seen in quite a few years. There were even enough bunk beds available that a few of us were able to swipe matresses from the spare bunks to pad out our thin solo mattresses. We had all brought twin sheet-sets and bedding with us, because the camp did not yet have any on hand, so most of us set about making our beds. I’d not had room room in my luggage for a pillow, but found that my hoody jacket wadded up in a pillow-case made for a fine pillow. Andrew came in late and had to take the bunk beneath mine since most of the other spares had been pillaged by then.

In proximity to each set of bunk houses was a bano/shower house. Ours had very large and very fast frogs in it, one of whom I was able to photograph before he vanished in a hopping green blur. I didn’t mind the presence of frogs one bit. I figured if there were frogs in the bano there probably weren’t any snakes. Or bugs.

Before dinner at the pavilion, Rick asked the married team-members and a few other seasoned adult types to meet with him. He explained that the mayor of the nearest town had offered four hotel rooms for use of the mission during the week. Rick wanted to offer them to those of us who were married so that we could stay together if we wanted. It was a very generous offer on the mayor’s part, but it wasn’t one that I wanted to accept. Beyond the issues of having to travel 20 minutes to get to and from the hotel, it would put those of us in the hotel at even more of a personal distance from those in camp. Being away would not lend itself to getting to know the rest of the team and I think would have lessened the mission experience as a whole. (And as for being away from Ashley, I had spent four months in a row away from her while she was on medical rotations, so surely I could survive two weeks.) Fortunately, the other married couples felt the same way as Ash and I did. No one went to the hotel.

After dinner, we had our first meeting of the entire United States portion of the mission team. Marcello, Butch and Rick outlined some information about our itenerary for Sunday as well as telling us about the two clinic sites we would be at during the week itself. Half-way through the meeting, the power went off, plunging us into darkness. This was our first bad omen as far as the reliability of the local power transformer. Turns out that all those flood lights and air-conditioners were putting the hurt on the transformer and it would occasionally spit out a disturbing shower of sparks before losing the will to continue functioning.

Later, Ashley and I saw these sparks first hand while looking for our towels. See, we’d originally packed plenty of towels, but in our haste of packing and repacking, Ash had wound up taking all our towels out of one bag and not remembering to put them back in another. We didn’t know this, though, until we had searched all the luggage that was still aboard the van. This was initially hard to do in the dark, but then Andrew came by to help and brought a flashlight. Soon we discovered that the towels were not there. Now, as a good potential Hitchhiker of the Galaxy, I am never far from my towel and had a spare one stashed in my backpack in the cabin. I offered it to Ash, but she declined, saying she would use a pillow-case to dry off that first night. While we were searching, though, we saw the transformer sparking and then saw guys going up on ladders to fix it after it cut off. I was sure one of them would be electrocuted and we’d have our first injuries to treat, but nothing bad happened.

Andrew left me with his flashlight, which made seeing my way back to the cabin in the dark much less perilous. Only when I was back in the cabin did I remember that I’d packed my own flashlight too. It was a long stainless steel pen-light that I’ve had for a couple of years now and which is almost always with me in my backpack. I retrieved it and made a point to have it on my person at all times, least I trip on one of the many rocks and go tumbing down the hill onto some rebar. It’s good that I did, too, because I managed to misplace Andrew’s flashlight for several days.

During my first shower in the shower house that night, I was mid-way through washing my face and had my eyes securely closed so as not to get any water-born bacteria in them when I heard the distant whine of the air-conditioners cut out. I thought: When I open my eyes, it’s going to be pitch black. Sure enough, the power had gone out again, so I finished my shower in darkness.

The power went off twice more throughout the night, knocking out the air-conditioners and leaving us hot and sweaty until the transformer could be seen to. And please know that I’m not complaining about any of this. I knew things would be different in Guatemala and I’d not expected to have any air-conditioning at all, so having some was a blessing. I kept reminding myself that I had not come there to be comfortable; I came there to help with the mission.

That was a mantra that would be repeated and tested many times during the coming week.

 

NEXT

DATELINE: Friday, March 18, 2005

After packing, unpacking, repacking and double checking our packing furiously all morning, my wife Ashley and I were finally ready to depart on our mission trip. The plan was for Dr. Allen and his wife Mary Ann to pick us up and drive us to North Carolina, to the home of my in-laws, where we’ll stay the night and rest for our early Saturday morning flight. We said goodbye to our cat, Winston, who we wouldn’t be seeing for two weeks. We always feel guilty leaving Winston behind by herself, but she’s an enormous wuss and would be even more miserable in a kennel. She had two giant cat-feeder/waterers, so she would be fine. We left the radio on for her, tuned to a country station, since everyone knows all cats love country music.

Dr. Allen arrived around 1:30 accompanied by Mary Ann and a first year med student named Carrie, who was traveling down with us. Dr. Allen brought his enormous Titan pickup truck with a crew cab, so we loaded all the luggage into the truck’s bed. Between Dr. and Mrs. Allen, Ashley, me and Carrie we have 12 full bags, consisting of large suitcases and duffle bags. This will be our check luggage. Most of our clothing is stored in carryon bags.

After loading up, we departed WV for Hildebran, NC. It’s a familiar route, as it’s the one Ash and I take when traveling to see family in NC. Unfortunately, we were so fully engrossed in conversation when we reached Wytheville, VA, that we didn’t notice that we’d missed our turn onto I-77. In fact, I didn’t notice it for another 50 minutes when I started seeing signs for Christiansburg. We had to back track. Dr. Allen was embarrassed for missing the turn, but I was even more embarrassed that I didn’t notice it sooner.

After a late supper at a Crack Barrel, we arrive at Ma’s house around 10 p. I had a few last minute journaling details to attend to, so I don’t actually get to bed until after 11p.

N EXT

Pre-Trip Jitters

With the start of our medical mission trip to Central America only three days away, my wife Ashley has become quite excited about it. Our house is a tizzy of packing and preparation and we have suitcases and supplies everywhere.

Me, I’m a lot more apprehensive about it all. This is mostly because I’ve never been out of the country, let alone on a full fledged mission trip, let alone on a full fledged MEDICAL mission trip before. I can barely put a Band-Aid on myself, let alone someone else, let alone a stranger, let alone IN SPANISH. But that’s okay. I have 10 qualified medical personnel and/or personnel in training, going with me on this trip who can handle Band-Aids and so much more. I’m there to be their go-fer, which is a job I can handle. I think. However, looming over me is the fact that while I don’t know precisely what I’m about to get myself into.

On a gut level I know it’s going to be heavy. It’s very difficult to remain unconcerned when people who would know keep assuring me that my life will never ever be the same again after this trip and that the things I will see and experience will leave me changed forever. Scary, huh?

For instance, in the library, a patron happened to overhear me talking to Ashley on the phone about our luggage situation.

“Headed out of town?” he asked when I’d hung up.

“Huh?” I said, not making the connection.

“Are you leaving town? You mentioned something about a carry-on bag?”

“Oh! Yeah. Er, no. I’m actually leaving the country.” I then explained where we were goning and why. He nodded knowingly and told me it would be an enormous experience and that I would be forever changed. Turns out he had been on several mission trips to Panama. He said when he returned stateside, he felt embarassed to have so much… stuff.

I too have a lot of stuff.

Don’t get me wrong; I think being forever changed by this experience will ultimately be a good thing. I know that my cynical, jaded self can use some perspective on the world and its true poverty not to mention a spiritual kick in the ass. However, being spiritually kicked in the ass still means getting kicked in the ass. It ain’t fun.

Just hearing Ashley’s tales from her trip to Guatemala and Honduras in 2003, I realize I’m in for some serious heavy. We’ll be going to into places in Guatemala and El Salvador where the people have absolutely nothing. They’re far poorer than most of the lower class of this country and have no access to medical care for most of their lives. There, diseases that do not exist in this country because of our health care system go untreated for years and treatable injuries become life-crippling and often deadly conditions. This is particularly true for children, who often suffer from common childhood ailments or parasite infections for months on end due to a lack of medical care. It’s one thing to see it from a distance on television. It’s a whole other to be up to your neck in it and partially responsible for helping alleviate some of it, if only for a brief moment.

As you might imagine, going on a medical mission trip can be expensive. For a long time, that was my primary reservation toward us going on it. See, I’m the guy in charge of keeping up with finances in our house—some might say unwisely appointed to the position. I always feel it’s my responsibility to point out any unwise spending we may be about to incur when it can be foreseen.
Nearly a year ago, I pointed out to Ashley that we would soon be nearing the end of our med-school undergraduate year and would probably only shin deep in credit card debt—what business did we have increasing that debt to thigh or even waist deep by adding 5 grand we don’t have toward the base costs of the mission trip, let alone the medicines we’d need to take with us. Ashley sagely pointed out that when she went on the mission trip in 2003, we didn’t have the 2 grand it cost then either, but by the time she left nearly twice that amount had been donated toward her trip and she was not only able to pay for her trip in full but also help sponsor some of the other team members and purchase extra medicine. Ash also pointed out that before she went to India in February of 1994—the very trip during which she first realized it was her calling to become a doctor—she didn’t have the money to pay for it either, but by the time she left it had been provided. Her attitude then, as now, is that if it’s God’s will for her to do what she feels she’s been called by him to do, he will provide the way. That shut me up but good. I’ve seen God work in this way on many occasions and should know it by heart and simply have faith. However, as the guy in charge of finances, I always feel the need to point these things out for the record, knowing full well I’ll only get shown up by God once again.

Let me say, we’ve had an amazing amount of support behind us on this trip. Friends and family and people we don’t even know have been sending us financial support and supplies like you wouldn’t believe. A great deal of it has come from close family, but also from Ashley’s church back in Salcha, Alaska, who’ve always been big supporters of her mission work and have contributed greatly to each one she’s been on, including this one. We’ve also received support in the form of not only medicine and vitamins and medical supplies, but also toys, coloring books, crayons and candy which we will distribute at our clinic sites. Some of the story hour children at the library as well as children from a local elementary school class have also donated items for us to take to the children in El Salvador and Guatemala. And my sisters in-law, Amber and Caroline, spread the word throughout their communities, in South Carolina and Georgia, respectively, and came up with gangbusters support on that front.

While packing things up this week, Ash and I were going through a box of donations her sister Amber sent us. It was a box full of cute and cuddly little teddy bears and beanie babies and chalk and crayons and coloring books. As I was looking at one of the cute little teddy bears, one dressed in a little yellow sweater, I was struck with just how much some child is going to love that bear. Then I said something dumb.

“I sure hope the El Salvadorian kids like to color, cause we’re sure bringing them a lot of crayons.”

Ashley looked at me with a kind of How Little He Knows and How Much He’s About to Find Out expression, then smiled and gave me a hug. I understood that as much as we’ve gathered to take, it’s actually very little when you consider the numbers of children we’re going to be seeing. What we’re bringing as far as toys and even medicine go won’t get us very far. Ashley says that their 2003 mission team treated over 5000 people between Guatemala and Honduras.

“But you just wait until you see the face of some little girl when you give her two different colored crayons and a page from a coloring book,” Ashley said. “You’ve never seen such joy!”

“I’m going to spend this entire trip in tears, aren’t I?” I said, already welling up.

“No. You will cry. But there will be a lot of happiness too.”

Taking toys and similar things is not the primary focus of this trip, though. We also don’t have enough medicine. These trips never do. Even packed to capacity, with two 70 pound suitcases and a 40 pound carry on bag each, we’re never going to get enough medicine in to meet the demand. Fortunately, the huge swell of support we’ve been given also extends to the mission team as a whole. One of the clubs at Ashley’s med-school donated over $500 toward the trip and the alumni association donated $1000. We’re taking that with us as backup for when the meds we’re bringing run out.

I know I’m not prepared for what I’m going to be seeing. I’ve been told exactly what’s going to happen, but until I’m in it neck deep, I won’t really grok it. Plus there’s the language barrier to get around, which even having taken 6 semesters of Spanish in college is going to be an enormous hurdle. Especially since I forgot all my Spanish and am only coasting on the notion that it will somehow all come back to me. We’ll have translators, sure, but it would certainly help if some of us knew a few more words.

And then there’s the less than comforting threat of political turmoil.

Ashley’s mission team had a few problems, the last time she was in Guatemala. At the time, in late March of 2003, the war in Iraq had just begun. No one was certain what reaction there might be toward Americans, but no extreme reactions were expected–what with Guatemala not being a big Muslim country and all.

I’d only had a little communication from Ashley in the form of one brief phone call and a couple of e-mail messages during the first week of her trip. During the second I didn’t hear anything until Thursday of that week when I got a phone call from Mrs. Wallace, the wife of one of the doctors on the trip, who said, “There are riots going on and the team is getting out of the country on the earliest flight. That’s all I know.”

I had no idea what the circumstances or danger level were. All I could assume was the protests were due to the war and the unwanted presence of Americans. So there I was, with no idea what was going on, only able to assume things were bad and imagine even worse, for a whole day and a half. And it was a LOOOOONG day and a half. But there was nothing I could do but pray.

Late Friday afternoon, Mrs. Wallace called back to say she had been in touch with her husband’s secretary who’d spoken with him that morning. Dr. Wallace had reported that the team was still going to get out of the country on a late afternoon flight and they were headed to the airport, but first they were going to have breakfast. At that point, I knew they weren’t in great danger. I mean, who stops for a leisurely breakfast when on the run for their lives?

Soon after that, I received a cryptic e-mail from Ash saying she was fine and was coming home soon. She didn’t want me to worry. I wouldn’t know precisely what had happened to them until the team and Ashley returned, though, which they weren’t able to do until Saturday night and even then not exactly when or even how they were expected to.

I got word from Mrs. Wallace that the team’s flight was coming in to Roanoke at 9:15 p.m. and I was supposed to meet them there and help carry people back. So there I was at the gate at 9:15. Their plane arrived and all the passengers got off, none of whom were from the mission team. That seemed really odd to me. What was even odder was that Mrs. Wallace wasn’t at the airport as she’d told me she would be earlier in the day. A few minutes passed, though, and a couple of Ash’s fellow students arrived to help greet, including our friend Andrew Bright, (a fellow med-student who is also coming along on the trip this year). I figured I was still on good ground if other people were sharing it with me. I didn’t have the flight number and saw that a second flight from D.C. was arriving in a few minutes. It landed, and we the gate-greeters waited to see familiar faces disembark. They did not. At this point, Andrew, phoned Mrs. Wallace and learned what was up. Seems that with all the ticket purchasing and repurchasing and changing of flights that had occurred to get the team out of the country, the tickets from D.C. to Roanoke wound up not syncing up with the flight from Guatemala to D.C. So when the team arrived at Dulles, they found they had missed their flight to Roanoke by about 12 hours. Instead of fighting with the airline about it, they just rented a big van and were driving back to West Virginia.

I guestimated they would probably arrive around 3 a.m. and I was only five minutes off. As exausted as Ashley was when I met her at the school, she couldn’t help but tell me about the team’s adventures through the riots. I was a welcome audience to learn what had happened.

Some set-up:
Back in the early 1990’s, Guatemala’s government was attacked by guerilla forces attempting a coup. In order to defend the republic, the government conscripted thousands of male citizens to fight against the attackers. These citizens were not paid to do this, but did so at the behest of their government and they were successful at the job. After the fighting, these conscriptee soldiers went back to their normal lives.

Jump to 2003:
A man running for the presidency of Guatemala, (whose name, I’m afraid I do not know nor did I ever, being as how I’m a Gringo who is ignorant of the politics of the vast majority of countries throughout the world), made the pledge that if he were elected president he would pay those citizens who had been conscripted the equivalent of a year’s wages. The conscriptee army thought that sounded like a great deal, so they helped vote the guy in. As soon as he was in, though, the new president said the Spanish equivallent of, “What are you, crazy? We don’t have that kind of money!”

The conscriptees said, “Uh, okay, so what can you give us?”

To which the president replied, “Hmm, how bout a quarter of a year’s wages?”

“Eh, not so great,” the former army said, “but okay, we’ll take it.”

“Great. Will do,” said the president, who then proceeded to lose his shirt investing in Euros. “Uh, sorry gang, I don’t have ANY money to give you,” El Presidente then admitted. “See, I lost my shirt on Euros.”

“No? Okay, fine,” the former conscriptees said. “We’re shutting down your country til you cough something up.”

And they did. They “rioted”, but only in the nicest possible sense of the word. Instead of yelling and smashing stuff and walking around with placards, they just sensibly and collectively blocked off all roads leading between major towns and shut down all traffic between them, then they stood around holding sticks and machettes, looking peeved. Unfortunately, by the time the roadblocks were set up, Ash’s mission team was in Queztaltananga (Xela, to most folks) a small town way up in the mountains, several hours distance from the airport in Guatemala City. Seeing that they couldn’t go on to the even more remote villages they were scheduled to visit, the team decided to try and go back toward G-City and leave the country before the “riots” became less-peaceful. This proved to be quite difficult.

Dr. Wallace and Guatemala mission leader, Marcello Diez, kept explaining to the folks in charge at the roadblocks that they were a humanitarian mission team who just wanted to set up clinics and could they please be allowed to pass through?

“We have sick people right here,” the protesters protested. “You set up a clinic for us and we’ll give you passage.”

Sounded like fair trade to Dr. Wallace. After all, that was what they were in the country to do in the first place. Ashley said that by setting up that clinic, the team actually saw people who were far worse off than they were likely to have seen in the distant villages they were originally headed to.

After a day’s clinic, the protesters gave the team a piece of paper granting them passage through the next several roadblocks and they set out to try and return to the airport in Guatemala City.

About this time, late in the evening, the team met a reporter who was riding between towns on a motorcycle. He had free passage everywhere because the protesters wanted all the press they could get. He offered to go with them between the towns. The roads, however, were awful and were often so filled with potholes that the whole team had to exit the van so it could travel over the potholes without bottoming out. The going was very slow and soon it was 9 at night and the team found themselves on a scarcely-traveled road in the middle of nowhere with no idea what to do. Dr. Wallace was quite worried because the last thing he wanted was to have a bunch of med-students trapped in the middle of who knew what dangers with no end in sight. So he asked everyone to pray that God would lead them out of there or to safety, whichever came first. That’s when the reporter banged on the window and told Dr. Wallace that he knew of a hotel nearby that he thought they could use.

Expecting the worst, the mission team followed the reporter. What they imagined was the Central American equivallent of a rat and roach infested fleabag motel. What they found instead was a five star resort.

After checking into the resort (which, considering the exchange rate, was still fairly cheap) the resort’s staff told them that their restaurant’s buffet had closed for the evening, but that they could whip them up some steaks and french fries if they wanted. So Ash got to eat steak and french fries and spend the night in a luxurious bed in the middle of Guatemalan riots, while I fretted and worried back home. She too knew this and sent me e-mail the following morning to tell me she was fine. The team had never been in any great danger, just in a few tense situations. And not only did they treat some incredibly ill people, but the missionaries were able to lead 200 people to Christ at that “riot” clinic.

The joy on Ash’s face as she told me this story confirmed for me what I had long since suspected: I should have gone on that trip and shared that experience. I also knew that if another opportunity came up to go, I would not turn it down.
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Don’t drink the water

That’s the advice everyone gives you upon hearing you’re about to travel abroad. It was also a chief concern of mine several months ago when asking my wife questions concerning our impending Central American medical mission trip, to occur in March of 2005. My wife Ashley, a fourth year medical student, has been on two foreign mission trips in the past; once to India over a decade ago and once on a two week mission to Honduras and Guatemala in 2003. She knows from not drinking the water. 

That the water would be a concern of mine is no small thing. For those of you who don’t know, Central American water systems are not always the most hygienic and you can get a wide variety of biological contaminants in your system from drinking water from them. The locals are pretty much immune, but wandering weak-stomached Gringos have no such treaty. Ashley assured me that I would be fine and that he mission team would have plenty of fresh water on hand for us to drink and, as a medical mission team, we’d be packing packing all manner of anti-biotics. Pretty much anything short of HIV and Hepetitis could be wiped out with the meds we’d have. That was a relief, but didn’t wipe out all of my concerns, (particularly since I was quite late in getting my Hep vaccinations).

See, I’d never been on a mission trip of any kind before. I’d never even been out of the United States–unless you count Guam, which no one does. So there was plenty I didn’t know about what I was getting myself into. I only had tales of Ash’s former mission trips and stories from well-traveled friends to go on, and some of those were pretty scary. Also, I was not entirely comfortable being a part of a medical mission trip, being as how I have no medical training whatsoever. That was my excuse for staying home in 2003.

Another concern: while I am a Christian and it is the calling of Christians to spread the gospel message far and wide, to my knowledge I’ve never actually done that in an active fashion. I’ll even admit to often living a poor example of how a Christian should. For one thing, I curse a good deal more than is healthy. For another, I pour all sorts of entertainment industry garbage into my brain. Sure, I haven’t killed anyone, but I still feel far more sinner than saint. However, when you think about it, that’s really not such a drawback. In fact, it’s kind of the whole bag with Christianity; the realization that we are not perfect and that we do sin quite regularly and it is only because of the sacrifice Jesus made taking our sins onto himself and dying in our place that we are at all worthy of salvation. Being a saint was not a requirement for going on this trip. Being willing to lend a hand anyway I could was and I already had that going for me. I wanted to go, to be of use and not be in the way. And quite fortunately, medical teams and mission teams always need support staff to help facilitate their mission. That would be my role.

This blog is a journal of the experience. I take it from my pre-trip misconceptions to the sometimes even stranger realities we encountered. Let me say up front that my words here can in no way equal the experience of the trip through this journal. If you read this, you will only receive a surface scan of a small portion of the overall trip, as filtered through my perceptions. I cannot adequately explain to you much of the wonderous nature of the mission. I cannot adequately tell you about all the marvelous people and new friends that I met and how special they have become to me. I cannot adequately convey the amazing nature of what the missionaries accomplished in these countries. I’m going to try to do some of it, but please be assured that however long you think this blog is, I’m leaving out a tremendous amount of material.

The events depicted here occurred between March 18 and April 4, 2005. I’ll post new entries quite regularly, datelined to the date on which they originally occurred. After each day’s entry passes into archive status, I’ll then change its posting date to reflect the original dateline. I hope you enjoy reading about what turned out to be a very harrowing and uplifting experience for us.

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The Talkin’ Fun-Loving Malibu Juice Blues

My little blue 1999 Chevy Malibu has been a good and faithful car for me.  For the most part.  It’s certainly treated me leagues better than my former vehicle, the blue 1985 Chevy Caprice Classic, referred to with heavy spite and ire as the Bent Turd.  Oh, sure, the Malibu has konked out on me on a few occasions and has had to have various bits of it replaced, such as water pumps, serpentine belts and the occasional alternator, but it’s been a good car all the same.

A while back, I began noticing a strange belt-squeaking noise beneath its hood, though and I decided it was time to get it checked out before I learned what was causing that noise the hard way.  I decided to bite the bullet and take it in to the local Chevy dealership for its 100,000 mile tune up.  I’d actually had mixed experiences with the dealership in the past and was once even yelled at by one of their employees who kept insisting that the keys he had handed me were my car keys despite the fact that they weren’t.  But again, they’re the Chevy dealership so ostensibly they would be the ideal place to take a Chevy.

We dropped my car off late on an early March Tuesday night. It was a carefully chosen night, because my wife Ashley’s medical rotation in March gave her Wednesdays off so she would be able to shuttle me to work the next day.

With snow falling on my head, I stood in the freezing wind and filled out the little after-hours drop off sheet.  I wrote there that in addition to the tune up, all belts should be inspected as one of them was making noise.  I also checked that I would need an oil change.

“Did you mention the grabby brakes?” Ash asked as I climbed back into her car.

“Uh, no,” I said. I’d forgotten about the grabby brakes. They’ve actually been grabby for quite some time, but the local brake place said everything looked good in them so we shouldn’t worry too much. Still, who likes grabby brakes?

The following morning, Ash called the Chevy place and told them about the grabby brakes. They said they’d check them. Meanwhile, they already claimed to have found a leaky engine intake that needed fixing to the tune of $700. Ash asked if this was something dire or if it was the kind of thing that might wait a few months. They said it could wait, though if it should spring an antifreeze leak we should bring it back in.

“Did you remind them about the oil change?” I asked.

“No.”

“Well, it’s on the form I filled out, so I’m sure they’ll get it,” I said.

Despite claiming they would phone us, the garage never called. So in the early afternoon, I phoned them and learned three things: 1) the Malibu needed new rear brake drums, which would stop the grabby brakes; 2) the mechanics weren’t going to do the tune up because it would involve replacing bits that would have to be replaced again once we decided to have the intake fixed and they didn’t want to do the work twice—fine with me, as I didn’t want to pay for it twice, either; 3) they couldn’t hear any belt squealing noises so they hadn’t done anything with the belts.  I told them okay on the brake drums and they said they would call when they were finished. Naturally, they did not and by 5 p.m. I was left with no other conclusion but that my car was not fixed.

The next morning, Ashley drove me to the Chevy dealership where I planned to wait for my car to be finished.  However, when I arrived they claimed my car had already been repaired the previous day.  I paid them for the drum replacement and noticed they’d also charged me for a lube job.  It was only after I was driving away that I noticed they had not replaced the little Oil Change in X number of Miles sticker on the inside of the window, leading me to believe they’d not actually changed the oil.

The car ran okay for several days, despite the continued belt squeal sound.  I could kind of understand them not being able to hear it because it only seemed to happen on warm days.

The following Sunday, the right rear tire began to make a horrible clunking sound whenever we braked at low speeds.  By Wednesday, we decided this wasn’t good so we took it back in to the dealership.  The man at the service counter seemed a bit angry about this. He also didn’t seem to want to accept the car at all as he was four mechanics short. We didn’t see how his lack of mechanics was our problem and told him we would much prefer it if they had a look anyway since we didn’t like driving with horrible clunking sounds coming from brakes they had allegedly repaired.  Dude wrote down a little of what we were saying, but wasn’t writing in near as much detail as I thought was required.

“Also, would you please have them investigate the belt-squealing sound that I’m still hearing in the engine,” I asked.  “Oh, and please change the oil, too.” This seemed to make the angry man even more angry, but he agreed he would try if they had time.

When I called them for a status report that afternoon, the Angry Man at the desk said they couldn’t hear any clunking noises coming from the engine nor any squealing noise from the tire. I corrected him that it was actually a clunking tire and a squealing engine.  He said they still couldn’t hear either and suggested I come in the following day to help them hear it.

So at work, Thursday morning, I gave the dealership a call to arrange the auditory aid session.  Angry man said they had driven the car again that morning and still couldn’t hear anything.  I asked if I could come by at noon and he said that would work.

At noon, a co-worker dropped me off at the dealership. Angry man was there but became still angrier when he saw me. He said all the mechanics go to lunch between noon and 1, so I’d have to come back later.

“Well, I sure wish you’d mentioned that on the phone before you told me it would be okay for me to come in at noon,” I said, very calmly.

Angry man flared.  “Well, I’m not going to stand here and argue with you who was right or who was wrong!” he said. “Let’s just go give her a drive now.”

“Sure thing,” I said, still remaining admirably calm.

He dug up my key and led me outside where he moved for the driver’s side door of my car.

“Would you mind if I drove?” I said. Angry Man did seem to mind, but didn’t really have any grounds to refuse me the wheel of my own vehicle. To make small talk while I started the car and maneuvered out of the parking lot, Angry Man started back in on the whole business about how the mechanics had already driven the car twice and couldn’t hear a thing.  As he was saying this, I applied the brakes until the car was at a very low speed.

“CLUNK CLUNK CLUNK CLUNK CLUNK CLUNK!” said the back tire.

“Hear that?”

Angry man’s mouth dropped open. “Yeah. Yeah, I hear that. Anybody could hear that.” He then became incredibly angry at the incompetence of his mechanics for putting him in such an embarrassing situation.  I continued to drive the car out of the parking lot and down the road, both to try and get the belt to squeal and also to make angry man that much more uncomfortable at having to sit there beside me and take it after once again having been shown up. The belt never did squeal for me, but like I told him it usually didn’t do it when the weather was cold.

“Uh, you said you needed an oil change too, right?” Angry Man said as we drove back to the dealership. “Well, we did that when you brought it in last week.”

“Oh, really?  I thought maybe you hadn’t since no one replaced the mileage sticker.”

”Well… um… they’re supposed to do that,” he said.

We resolved to have them fix the clunk and I would save the belt squeal for a day when it was actually squealing.

Naturally, the Chevy dealership never phoned me to alert me to what the problem was with the clunking.  I phoned them, however, to learn from a very sheepish sounding Angry Man that they had replaced my original faulty brake drum with yet another faulty brake drum.  Wisely he didn’t try to get me to pay for the re-replacement.

Jump ahead two weeks. The wife and I go out of town for a medical mission trip to Central America during which time my car sits in my driveway. Upon our return, the belt squeal has not gone away, but has in fact gotten worse.

It sounded particularly bad on the following Saturday, when it did its best impersonation of a choir of crickets throughout my drive to work.  I made it to work okay, but on my way home, after having made it nearly up the giant hill that leads to my street, I hit a dip in the pavement and heard something beneath the hood give way and noticed that the power steering was no longer working.  As I reached my driveway, the engine died and the battery light came on.  I parked, called the wife down for a gander and opened the hood. Sure enough, the serpentine belt was completely off its track. And the reason it was off its track is because the alternator had broken off.

No, really. Broken. Off.

I’m talking, broken off from the engine block at the bracket, broken off.

“Well, that sucks,” I said, staring at it.

“Yes. That does suck,” Ashley replied.

“Those complete and utter morons,” I added.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by this. However, you’d think that when you go to allegedly qualified Chevrolet repair specialists at an automobile repair garage that deals specifically with Chevrolets and you tell them that your particular Chevrolet is making a sound that’s reminiscent of a belt being loose that they’d actually, oh, I don’t know, HAVE A LOOK IN THE GENERAL BELT AREA or something and maybe noticed that the bracket connecting the alternator had CRACKS IN IT!

MORONS!

I don’t say nearly often enough how much I adore my car insurance company USAA.  Genuinely love them.  In addition to being very good insurance, they also have customer service representatives that should be the envy of all other call centers the universe wide. When you phone them, you don’t get a huge hassle from any automated answering service that makes you jump through hoops to talk to a real person. No. You get to talk to a real person who’s friendly, empathetic and willing to help make sure things are as easy for you as possible. It’s one of the most amazing concepts I’ve ever heard of!

USAA not only arranged for a tow truck to come get my car and haul it to the nearest repair provider, which just happened to be within walking distance of my house, but they also commiserated with me over how much having one’s alternator fall off truly sucks. I think I’m in love! Even better, the towing is COVERED by my oh-so-marvelous USAA insurance! Glory Be!

The tow truck driver, arrived in 20 minutes and hauled my car down the hill.  I then gave it an hour before calling the conveniently located repair place.  I was expecting to have to explain why my car had been dumped on them and what I wanted them to fix and then have to wait upwards of a day for this busy garage to get around to doing anything about it. However, they already knew the whole drill about my car. In fact, they’d already been on the phone with parts yards looking for a new bracket for my alternator and expected to hear back from them any time. That wasn’t the truly shocking part, though.

“Did you know your alternator was missing a nut in the back?” my new repair guy asked.

“No. No, I didn’t,” I said.

Apparently, in the back of the alternator there is a bolt that helps hold the thing down and that bolt is supposed to be held in place by a nut. Without the nut, much vibration can occur which can and did cause the metal bracket of the alternator housing to weaken and eventually snap.

Now, I can’t say for sure that the Chevy dealership is directly at fault for that nut being missing, but they were the last folks that had anything to do with that part of my car since they’re the ones who put in a new serpentine belt several months ago.  A more conspiratorial soul might suggest they’d done it on purpose to get more business from me, but I don’t think so.  No, those folks seem to hate doing any work at all, let alone bringing more work down on their heads through sabotage.

A mere six hours later, my new repair guy PHONED ME to say the car was ready. Imagine that; a repair shop that actually PHONES YOU when your car is ready, rather than making you hire a Sherpa.  I walked on down the hill and picked it up with no problem. The bill was only $86, which didn’t strike me as too bad at all.  I think I’ve found my new repair shop.

Copyright © 2005 Eric Fritzius

The Talkin’ Hauling Birthdays, Lack of Carrot Cake & Tooters, Mo’ Better Blues (a Horribly True birthday incident)

My wife Ashley recently celebrated a birthday.  I won’t say how old she is, cause she’ll hit me, but she’s two years older than I am and I’m 32.  You do the math.  (Hey, she was probably gonna hit me anyway.)

Since we left higher paying gigs in the big city to move to West Virginia, for med-school and library servitude respectively, we’ve not done any major birthday presents for one another.  We always get one another a birthday card and maybe something small, but nothing too expensive.

Still, at the beginning of the month in which Ash’s birthday fell, I spent quite a bit of time trying to come up with what I was going to do for her.  I knew she wouldn’t want anything huge, but I felt I still needed to do something.  Fortunately, Ash’s a fairly simple gal who cares not for diamonds, pearls or expensive fru-fru.  She doesn’t wear a lot of jewelry—usually just her wedding set and a pair of earrings or maybe her favorite necklace that features a small gold nugget that was one of the only products of her father’s former Alaskan gold mine.  She does like shoes quite a bit, but not excessively so.

What to get her? What to get her?

Then I thought of it…

One of our last major purchases was a brand new clothes washer.  It’s a Big ol’ Kenmore, the kind with the porcelain on steel top—which somehow seemed an important option to take back when we bought it, but dadgum if I can figure out if that’s done us any good since.  We purchased the washer shortly after moving into the house we now rent, in April of 2003, and we love it as much as two people can love a major appliance. It’s nice and roomy and is so much more efficient at washing our clothes than the tiny apartment-style washer we had been using since we got married.

Once we had the new Mo’ Better washer firmly installed, we had the question of what to do with the old washer. We don’t own a truck, so we couldn’t just haul it off ourselves. Having dropped a lot of cash in the moving process itself, not to mention on the new washer, we also didn’t want to spend any more money in order to get rid of it; so renting a truck seemed out of the question. We called around to the local shelters and charity organizations, but while they would all have gladly accepted it, none of them had the capability to come and remove it from our home.  As a temporary measure, we rolled it into the kitchen and used it as an island for a while until we could come up with some ingenious way to get rid of it.

Months passed.

Eventually, Ashley got it in her head that she wanted to build a real kitchen island to replace the defunct washer. She marched right down to the hardware store, told them what she wanted to do

“I take it you’re the handyman in your house?” the hardware store man asked.

“Oh, yeah,” Ash said.

They then spent an hour or so drawing up plans and selecting and ordering the butcher-block top.  She bought most of the materials she would need from them, then got me to drive her to the nearest city with a Lowes for what the local store didn’t have.  She then spent all her spare time for a month sawing, sanding and assembling the island.  When she was finished, she had a beautiful and sturdy butcher-block island to call her very own.

Once we had the new Mo’ Better island firmly installed, we again had the question of what to do with our old apartment-style washer. We still didn’t own a truck, still couldn’t find any charitable organizations that did either and we were still too cheap to call U-Haul.  Ash was all for putting a sign out by the road or an ad in the classifieds to sell it.  Trouble was, while the washer does work it doesn’t work as well as you would hope a washer you paid good money for might.  It would do in a pinch, if you didn’t have one at all, but you would probably have to do the spin cycle a couple of times to get all the soap and water out of your clothes.  With no obvious solution, we finally just rolled the washer over into a corner of the kitchen, in front of our cookbook shelf, and began piling junk mail on top of it.

Months passed.  In fact, a year passed and suddenly it was early October and I’d started wondering what to do for her birthday. That’s when I hit upon the idea of getting rid of the washer once and for all.

“How would you do it?” you might ask.

Ah, I would rent a truck.

Hey, but I thought you were cheap, and stuff,” you might also say.

Sure am. However, I was going to spend $20 at the bare minimum for a birthday present anyway, so why not funnel that Yuppie $5 into renting a truck, getting rid of the devil-washer and securing myself a warm place in my wife’s affections for the effort?

I could just picture her coming home on Saturday, from her month-long emergency room rotation, in Princeton, WV, walking in the door and spying the 3’x2’x2′ patch of open space where the washer once sat. And on the floor, in the middle of the patch of glorious emptiness, would be the beautiful birthday card I had already purchased for her at a local downtown gallery. Sounded like a plan.

Trouble is, my surprises like this NEVER work out and I have a long and storied history of them not working out.

Why do they not work out?  Well, for one thing, I have a wife who insists on pestering me for hints about her birthday present until she gets enough to put it together. Doing this is one of her greatest joys in life. Preventing her from doing this is my eternal challenge—a very difficult one, cause she’s smarter than me. It also doesn’t help that I have a big mouth and let it be known that I had something planned for her.

So Wednesday night, the night before the actual move, she called from Princeton to interrogate me about her present.

“It’s green, right? You said it was green,” she said as a clever ruse to get me to admit to something.  I was steadfastly not admitting anything if I could keep from doing so. Should have just hung up right then.

“Is it animal, vegetable or mineral?” she continued.

“Um… none of the above,” I said.  At its core, her present was essentially empty space, which is—subtracting the minerals, pollen, bugs and cat-hair that might be floating through it—none of the above. She didn’t believe this part and continued plying me with questions. I, in turn, continued being evasive and assured her that while she would really really love her present, she was never ever going to guess what it was.

After a goodly number of other questions, during which I let it slip that I’d had to make a phone call to make arrangements for her present, she asked, “Is this something that’s going to help me cook?”

I could guess what she might be thinking, which I theorized was that she thought I’d ordered her a Kitchen-Aid—a device she has always wanted and which I will one day buy for her when we have money.  However, it was still a perfect chance for a veiled hint, because once the washing machine was out of the way we would finally be able to get to the shelf of cookbooks its been blocking for the past year and a half.

“It might help with cooking,” I said. “It might indeed.”

Oddly, this was not the clue that tipped her off.  What tipped her was what I said shortly after she said she wished she could come home on Thursday instead of Saturday, as scheduled.  I became fearful that she might actually mean it, or worse yet, do it.  It would be just like her to have secured an extra two days off somehow and come home early.  She’s done similar sneak-arrivals many a time before and she never tells me in advance, allowing me to be happily surprised when she pops in the door, or scared out of my wits when she pops in the door in the middle of the night.  The idea that she might pop by in the middle of the washer moving process was not one I fancied.

“Uhm, well if you do come home tomorrow, make it tomorrow afternoon,” I said.  Stupid.

“Why is that?” she said with justifiable suspicion.

“Uh… cause the… um… dancing midgets might not be gone by then,” I lamely said.  “They, uh… they gotta practice for your party, you know.”

There passed a long silence.

“I know what you’re going to do,” Ashley said with a sudden assurance.

“You… you do?”

“Yep. I know what it is, but I’m not going to tell you because it will just piss you off.”

I could tell by her voice this was not a bluff. Somewhere in that long silence, understanding had dawned on her and I had no doubt that she had figured it out. I don’t know if it was a stray phone-routed psychic signal from me or just that she’s smarter than the average she-bear.  Bottom line: she knew and now I had to know for certain that she knew.

“No, go ahead and guess,” I said.

“You’re sure?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay,” she said.  There was a dangerous pause.  “You’re getting rid of the washer, aren’t you?”

I cursed, loudly. As she predicted, I was instantly pissed. Once again my big surprise was ruined due to my own stupid mouth and her woman’s intuition. Why? Why can’t I just shut up about it all and keep things a surprise? Why do I have this Blofeld-like need to show off with crafty clues? Why do I let her draw me into these hint-sparring matches in the first place? Why, WHY, WHYYYYY?!

Ashley laughed and laughed as I ranted and cursed some more and pounded the couch cushions. When I was finished and had calmed down, she told me that it was a very thoughtful and sweet present that she did love. And not only was it a very nice present, but it had the added bonus of allowing her to guess what the present was through constant pestering, which she really really loves and is frankly more enjoyable for her than being surprised in the first place.

So the next day, I went and picked up the U-Haul, hand-trucked the washer up the ramp and hauled it down the hill to the charity second-hand store. (And, yes, I did warn them about the washer’s somewhat wonky working-status—I’m not so much of a cheap jerk that I would foist an unreliable appliance onto a charity organization with no warning.)  At the end of the job, with mileage and a few gallons of diesel factored in, my total price came to around $30, which I figure is a respectable amount to spend on a birthday present.

At the moment, there is only stray cat food in the space where the washer once stood, but I’ll soon have that cleaned up and her card in its place, ready for her arrival tomorrow. She may not be surprised, but she’ll be considerably less cluttered.

EPILOGUE

Back before Ashley guessed what her birthday present was, she asked if I was going to make her a birthday cake and buy tooters. I hadn’t actually considered either a cake or tooters, but decided that at least one of those was a good idea. She even suggested I make the fantastic carrot cake recipe she’d found on the internet.  And after Ashley ruined her own surprise by guessing her present, the only thing I had left going for me was possibly surprising her with cake.

I’d never actually made a carrot cake before, but figured it couldn’t be too hard so I dug out the recipe. It had lots of other yummy stuff in it, like raisins, crushed pineapple, dates, coconut, cinnamon, vanilla, pecans and a cream cheese icing. I had a lot of the ingredients on hand, but did have to go to the store to pick up dates and carrots all the same. I also decided to cheat on the homemade icing and just buy some Duncan Hines cream cheese icing. It’s good stuff and I probably couldn’t make better by myself.

Friday night I started preparing it. It’s kind of a three bowl affair with a dry ingredients bowl, a wet ingredients bowl and a fruit, veggies and nuts ingredient bowl. You mix the first two together then mix in the third, slap it in the oven and take it out in an hour. Well I gathered what I thought were all of my ingredients and put them in their respective bowls, mixed them in the proper order and poured the mixture into the first of two floured cake pans I’d prepared.  I was supposed to fill the pan to 3/4ths from the pan’s top and I did this, but I had no cake batter left over afterward to fill the second pan.  I had somehow expected there would be more batter than that.  How the heck am I supposed to make a double layer carrot cake if I’ve only got one layer?

Oh, well, I thought. It’ll work out. I slapped it on in the oven.

Can you guess which ingredient I left out?

That’s right: THE CARROTS—only the MOST important ingredient of a Carrot Cake.

I’d been trying so hard not to screw it all up and had been very careful to set out all of my ingredients ahead of time, except, apparently, the stinking carrots, which remained in the fridge. I only realized my mistake when removing the cake from the oven, whereupon I surveyed its beautiful brown surface and thought to myself, “Oh man, now that’s going to be one badass tasty carrot ca–aaahhhhhHHHHH!!”

In the end, though, it turned out just fine.  We learned that you can make a carrot cake without the carrots and it’s still absolutely delicious.  It had plenty of other nummy ingredients to make it interesting.  Sure, it was a little bit drier than we might have liked, but still just… Mwahh!

In fact, here’s the recipe.  Go try it yourself and see if I’m not right.

JUICE’S LACK OF CARROT CAKE

Preheat Oven to 375 degrees

In first bowl mix
2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
3 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder

In second bowl mix
4 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 cup corn oil

In third bowl mix
3 cups shredded carrots *
1 16 oz can crushed pineapple
1 box dates (shredded)
1 cup flake coconut **
1 cup pecan halves
1 cup raisins

Thoroughly mix first and second bowls, then stir in ingredients from third bowl. Pour into floured cake pans until the pan is 3/4 full. Bake at 375 for 1 hour or until toothpick comes out clean.

* Optional
** If you leave out the carrots, you might put an extra cup of coconut in. I think I did by accident and my cake was scrumptious.

Cream Cheese Icing
4 cups powdered sugar
28 oz cream cheese at room temp
1/2/ cup unsalted butter at room temp
4 teaspoons vanilla

Copyright © 2004 Eric Fritzius

The Talkin’, Electric Coma, Ghost of the Bent Turd, Three Heaps of Itis Blues (Two Narrowly Averted Horribly True Tales in One)

Somewhere out there, my former and unlamented vehicle, the 1985 blue Chevy Caprice Classic, affectionately known as the Bent Turd, has died.  Not that the death of the Bent Turd would be surprising; it was on its last legs when I owned it, so how much better could it really be treating the poor bastard who had the misfortune of buying it at a bulk car auction?  I figure the first time it broke down, or made that horrible Velociraptor through a jet intake noise that caused me to get rid of it in the first place, its new owner probably sold it for scrap and it has since been compacted into a nice blue and rust-colored metal cube.  Until recently, however, I didn’t actually have any clinical evidence that the `Turd—a devil contraption that left me stranded, powerless and full of utter desperation on far more occasions than I care to count—was indeed no more.  That is, until its ghost up and possessed my new car.

Last month, on a Friday, my wife Ashley returned from her month-long pediatrics rotation with what seemed like at least two different illnesses.  They say no medical student gets out of a pediatrics rotation without contracting at least two handfuls of walking crud, and this would seem to be true.  The snot-nosed, Junior Typhoid Marys in Princeton are spreading contamination in every direction their uncooperative little heads can turn.  Ash firmly believes that if, as a child, she had ever thrown a spitting tantrum and refused treatment in a doctor’s office, like some of the kids she’s seen, she would not have survived the beating her mother would have given her in return.  Alas, parenting skills in Princeton would seem to be low priority. As a result, Ash had been given some pretty heavy symptoms that looked as if they would take more than a couple of days to shuck.

Almost as if mirroring Ashley’s ailments, my 1999 blue Chevy Malibu began giving off congested sort of sounds as I turned the key in it, Saturday morning.  A pang of guilt rose in me, as I’d been procrastinating about taking it in for a much-needed oil change for the last thousand miles or so.  But as my day progressed, this pang grew into a full-fledged guilt trip.  It seemed that every time I tried to start her up, the Malibu’s engine had more and more difficulty coming to life.  At one point, it failed to start on the first try and I had to do it again—a first time occurrence for this particular vehicle.  By Sunday night, it was obvious that I needed to take this car in and soon.

My theory—and I speak from years of experience as an automotive dumbass—was that the car’s engine had very little oil in it or, at the least, very old oil in it, and was having difficulty starting due to lack of proper lubrication.  It could have been ignition gnomes for all I really knew, but I imagined the whole thing would soon seize up and become a chunk of fused metal unless I took steps to prevent that.

Monday morning neither Ash nor the car were feeling much better.  The car started, albeit hesitantly, and drove me across town to my favorite service station, near my library workplace.  I left it with them and walked to the library, spending a couple of hours there before returning to collect it.

“We checked all your fluids and replaced the oil,” the little old man who runs the station said.  Then, almost as an aside, he asked, “Did you have any trouble starting it this morning?”

“Yeah.  I assumed it was caused by old oil.”

The man gave me a funny look I wasn’t sure I liked.  “Wasn’t the oil.  It was your battery,” he said.  “We had to jump it off just to get it in the garage.”

Ah ha!  The battery!  That at least made sense.  This car hadn’t had a new battery since I bought it, so it was probably about time for this four year old, high-fallutin’, Duracel to kick off.

It certainly didn’t sound up to snuff when I started the engine in the service station parking lot.  The more I thought about it, the more I knew my battery issues would come to a head soon very soon.  Sure, it could probably get me home, but there was no guarantee it would start the following morning and I might once again be stranded at the hands of a blue Chevrolet product.  It was time to change the battery.

Now what I should have done was leave the car with the service station and ask them check it out and replace it.  Instead, I drove the car to work and let it sit all day while I contemplated my next move.

The last time I changed a battery was in the Bent Turd after it went into an electric coma in a grocery store parking lot, back when I lived in Tupelo, Mississippi.  My buddy Joe had been visiting me at the time and it was only with his assistance and chauffeuring skills that I was able to get the dead battery changed and retain my sanity.

Back then, my automotive tool box consisted of a broken crescent wrench and a hammer, so Joe first had to take me to Wal-Mart for both the new battery and a ratchet set with which to install said battery.  Unfortunately, it turned out that none of the ratchet bits in my new kit actually fit the bolts of my battery cable clamps.  A semi-nearby autoparts store sold us a correct sized battery-clamp-changing bit.  However, while the new bit fit the standard bolt on the black cable clamp it did not fit the metric bolt some damn genius had seen fit to install in the red one.  Back we went for a metric bit.  Back we went again for a metric bit that was the correct size.  Then, to our horror, we figured out that all our trips to the autoparts store had been a waste of time since the metric bolt had actually fused with both the cable clamp and the battery post and no amount of ratcheting was going to pry it loose from the battery anyway.  The people at the auto-parts shop, whose facial expressions had clearly been downgrading our intelligence with each successive visit, were more than happy to sell us a pair of cable cutters, a new cable clamp to splice onto the end of the cable once we’d cut it, and the most expensive roll of electrical tape outside of the Air Force.  In the end it would probably have been easier to build a new car around the battery.

Such problems were to be expected with the Bent Turd, but not the Malibu.  I should have known something was amiss right away.

I called Ashley and told her of my plan to replace the battery while the replacing was good.  She said it was a good idea and that she’d been to the doctor herself that day.  She’d been diagnosed with the triple-threat of conjunctivitis, sinusitis and tonsillitis, most of which were manifesting in her left eye.  The conjunctivitis and sinusitis she had no doubt caught from a leaky toddler, but the tonsillitis lay firmly on the doorstep of her own childhood physician who, for unknown reasons, refused to take hers out.  Bastard.

Leaving the library parking lot wasn’t fun.  I turned the key in the Malibu’s ignition.  The dash lights flickered and the engine gave a couple of dry-heaves.  I turned it again.  More heaves, then more flickering.  But, on the third try, the engine heaved once then started up and stayed up.  Brilliant!  I put her in gear and immediately drove to Advance Autoparts, the only auto-parts place in town that I knew was both able to diagnose my turmoil and open.

At Advance Autoparts, a young guy named James wheeled a battery testing cart out to my car and began hooking it up to the battery.  The test computer made several painful little sounds.  James adjusted the clamps on the battery posts and pressed some buttons.  The sounds continued.

“I think it’s dead,” James declared.  “No, wait,” he said, watching his display as the test computer made a somewhat less-distressed whine.  “It’s not dead.  Says you have two volts left in it.  You’d need twelve to start the car.”

“Take me to your batteries,” I said.

We went back inside and looked up what kind of battery I would need.  The best one they had cost $109.  This seemed a little steep to me, since the battery I’d bought for the `Turd had been around $45.  I paid the $109 anyway.  Turned out to be the best money I’ve spent all year, because Advance Autoparts offers not only free testing of your vehicle’s battery but free installation of a new battery should it come to that.  In essence, they saved me from the following tribulation.

James wheeled his tool cart out to the Malibu and began the process of unscrewing the cable clamps.  While he was doing that, I regaled him with the above tale of the Bent Turd’s battery change.  James agreed that it was a horrible experience to have to go through and pointed out that fortunately both bolt heads on the Malibu’s old battery were of standard measurement.

I should have kept my mouth shut.  I’d been thinking of that earlier incident throughout the day, so the `Turd was already in my thoughts.  And if there’s anything I learned during my time with the Bent Turd it’s that you can never say its name because that only gives it power.  At that moment, the evil spirit of my former vehicle perked up its ears, heard its name taken in vain and bit down hard on any chances of an easy repair.

James had already taken off the black cable clamp and had started on the red one when he found it mysteriously wouldn’t budge.

“Bolt’s kinda tight,” he said.  He sprayed it with some WD-40, waited and tried again.  Nothing.  He repeated.  Still nothing.  James scratched his head.

Over the course of ten minutes, various sized bits were tried, none of them effective.  James then went for his pair of vice grips and attacked the bolt with them for a few more minutes.  All this accomplished was to further strip the bolt head.

I stood by the car, thankful that I wasn’t the one who had to deal with it and thankful that I had thought to dress warmly that morning.  My fleece vest, long sleeve shirt and overcoat were nice and toasty while James’ hooded sweat-shirt looked awfully thin.  There was fear in my heart, though.  What if James couldn’t change the battery out?  What if I was left stranded in the Advance Autoparts parking lot, waiting for the tow-truck to come and haul my poor possessed Malibu off to—dare I even type it—the dealership!  There was no way in hell I’d get my car out of there for less than $200, and that wasn’t including the battery for which I’d already spent $109!  Damn you, Bent Turd!  Damn you!

“This is the worst battery I’ve ever had to change,” James said, just to further erode my confidence.  “I better go get Cliff.”  James returned a few minutes later with Cliff, who was evidently the resident veteran battery changer.  I was rather hoping for Max von Sydow, from the Exorcist, but Cliff didn’t even have a crucifix.  Instead, he took a look at the battery, smiled and picked up James’ pair of vice grips, taking glee in his belief that he was about to show James up.  Cliff, however, had never met the ghost of the Bent Turd.

Over the course of the next forty minutes, the two men struggled bitterly with the battery cable.  James’ original set of vice grips were abandoned—nay, hurled back into the toolbox—in favor of a brand new pair from their selection of tools inside.  The new grips certainly gripped better.  They also ground the head of the bolt into a nearly smooth condition much better than the previous pair too.

Twenty minutes into their battle, through sheer brute force, Cliff managed to pull the bolt and its terminal out of the battery entirely.  However, the bolt was still fused into the terminal itself, which was now dangling at the end of the cable and which still couldn’t be attached to the new battery until the bolt was removed.

“We need another pair,” Cliff said.  And back inside James went for yet another brand new pair of vice grips.  When he returned, Cliff clamped his grips on one side of the bolt and James clamped the new ones to the other side.  They then spent another twenty minutes struggling.

During this time, I paid only marginal attention to what they were doing.  Sure, I was having to wait a long time, I was having to stand in the cold with threatening-looking rain-filled clouds hovering overhead, I hadn’t had any supper, but I was warmed and filled by my own personal internal sun of thankfulness that I was not the guy having to do any of this work.  And I was pretty sure neither of them would give up until they’d finished the job.  This was personal.

Eventually, even the immortal spirit of the `Turd must have grown weak, for with a great triumphant cry from James and Cliff the bolt finally turned and came free.  Cliff grinned, clapped James on the back and then, with his job well done, retrieved his jacket from within the store and went home to the Missus, leaving James to mop up the last of it.

“I’m real sorry you had to wait this long,” James said.  “It’s the damnedest thing—`scuse my language.”

“Please,” I said.  “You’re not putting me out at all.  In fact, you guys just saved me from the biggest headache I can imagine.  If you hadn’t been here to do this, it would have been me and my wife having to do it in my cold driveway back home.  And she’s got conjunctivitis, sinusitis and tonsillitis!”

“Ouch,” James offered in sympathy.

I suspect the spirit of the `Turd was not been fully exorcised by the Advance Autoparts staff.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I drove down to my in-laws’ house in North Carolina to meet up with Ash, who was visiting her parents and still trying to shake off her various diseases.  About mid-way through the trip, I tried pass an 18 wheeler and was startled by a sudden loud flapping sound from somewhere within the car.  I thought it was a tire at first, but there was no loss of steering control and no emergency lights came on.  In fact, other than the flapping, everything seemed fine and after a couple of minutes, even the flapping stopped.  I hoped that what I heard was merely a tie rope that might have come off the 18 wheeler, wrapped around my axle and flapped itself to bits against the road.  Hope being a powerful thing, I drove the rest of the way to NC and didn’t think much more about it.

Ash suggested I might have lost an engine belt of some sort. I figured it was probably the air-conditioning belt and not the drive belt, since I’d had no problems driving and hadn’t had the air-conditioning on at all.  Seemed logical.

Turns out, it was the drive belt AND the air-conditioning belt, since a `99 Malibu only has one belt for all of its various systems.  Only about half of my belt was still in the engine, but it had fortunately split down the middle, rather than snapped entirely, so there was still a bit of belt to keep everything running.

We determined pretty quickly that replacing the belt ourselves was out of the question, even with my industrial mechanic father-in-law helping.  It seems a special non-metric and non-standard tool is required—a tool which cannot be found even at Advance Autoparts—not to mention the ability to detach the motor itself from the frame of the car in order to thread the new belt into it.  In fact, according to the mechanic who was nice enough to replace our belt for a decent price, and on a Saturday no less, the whole belt issue is really a conspiracy between the dealerships and the manufacturers, who are trying like hell to produce cars that are impossible to repair at home.

While the ghost of the Bent Turd may have struck again, and may yet still be with me, I’ve come to a rather surprising conclusion about it: I think I like it.  Sure, its presence may have caused my car to break down, but in both of the above instances it didn’t strand me and actually went out of its way to see me to my destination.  Maybe it feels bad for all the crap it gave me while it was still alive and is trying to make up for it in the afterlife.  Maybe it’s holding my car together, Blues Brothers style, at least until I can get within paying range of a qualified mechanic.   Maybe God sent it back, like some great big blue and rust-colored Della Reese, to become my car’s guardian angel. Or maybe blue Chevy’s just suck.  Whatever the case, it’s almost… ALMOST… good to have it back.

Copyright © 2004 Eric Fritzius

 

The Talkin’ Med-School, I Can’t Get Into Things Without My Keys, Furlough from the Crazy Hospital Blues (Another Narrowly Averted Horribly True Tale)

My wife is in her third year of medical studies with the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine.  In third and fourth year, the students are no longer chained to a desk in a classroom, forced to endure hours of lectures that ostensibly are for the students’ benefit but which sometimes amount to a professor reading his lecture notes, which he’s already given to the students, verbatim.  Instead, the students are set free into the world to rotate between various hospitals in various states where they can study the various disciplines of medicine on a more personal and hands-on basis.  They’re also able to schedule vacations between rotation sessions.  And it was from just such a week long vacation, spent resting and relaxing on the beach without me, that my wife recently returned home.  She had two weeks of vacation scheduled, so she had spent one at the beach and then was spending one with me to make up for my not being able to spend the one with her at the beach.  Unfortunately, this final vacation week was scheduled to coincide with three days of pre-testing her school was planning to unleash upon the third year class to help them survive the upcoming OSCE national exams.  So all of her fellow third year classmates had returned to the area from their far flung rotations like birds to the roost.

On Thursday evening of that week, the wife phoned me from the school.

“Poo, can you come pick me up.  I’ve lost my keys.”

I hopped in the car and headed over to find my the wife traipsing up and down the drill-field of the school, looking for her keys in the freshly mown grass.  (This school used to be a military academy, which explains the presence of a massive and otherwise unnecessary drill field in the center of its campus.)  She was pretty sure they’d fallen out of the pocket of her sweater when she was walking between buildings, but the grass had been mown that afternoon and she was none too hopeful that she would find her keys in once piece.  We both searched for a while, but didn’t even find any bits of them.  We gave up and went home, content that if the keys hadn’t been shredded they would turn up at lost and found the next day.

It troubled the wife that she’d managed to lose her keys after so many months spent not losing them.  My wife, you see, used to be an Olympic champion-level loser of keys, perhaps even beating out Paula Mabry, my high school drama teacher, who lost her keys at school on a daily basis and for whom we had to pool money and buy one of those key chains that will beep when you whistle.  The wife’s key loss ability mostly stems from the fact that she hates carrying a purse, barely tolerates a pocketbook and doesn’t always wear clothing that equipped with proper pockets to store her keys in.  That and her habit of laying her keys down in a different place every time she comes home has lead to many a key vanishment and much teeth gnashing on my part.  I used to beg her, in the name of all that’s holy, to please just put her keys in the same place every time so that she would always know where they were.  I don’t know how she finally managed it, cause she still sets her keys down in a different place every day, but the wife eventually developed some sort of system that kept her from losing them cause it had been a couple of years since the last key-loss incident.  (Either that, or she just wised up and stopped telling me about them.)

Sure enough, on Friday evening we got a message that one of her fellow students had picked up a set of keys by mistake.  Unfortunately, the student discovered this only after she was back home in Ohio.  Still, no worries, the student said she would mail them to us.  In the meantime the wife would use the spare house and car keys we have so she would still be able to drive to her psychiatric rotation scheduled the following week up at the crazy hospital in Weston.

The following weekend, The wife braved the two and a half hour trek and soaring gas-prices to return home from Weston.  She didn’t much relish spending the whole weekend locked in the student apartment in the crazy hospital.  (“Let me tell you,” she said, “those people are crazy.”)  Another reason for coming home is that I was scheduled to sing in the spring concert of the Greenbrier Valley Chorale at Carnegie Hall, WV, on Saturday night.  It’s a grand affair, requiring me to get tarted up in a tuxedo and highly uncomfortable shoes.

Saturday afternoon, while putting on my tux for the gig, I decided that my giant wad of keys would thoroughly trash the lines of my pants.  To remedy this, I removed the sub-ring containing only my house key, car key and the key to the universe.  (Yes, I do have the key to the universe.  It’s an over-sized skeleton key that has, over the course of the 15 years it has been in my possession since I purchased it from Wal-Mart, tarnished and lost much of its original gold veneer.  At some point I’m hoping to find the lock to the universe, and when I do you will all rue the day, I assure you.)   This slimmed down key system fit nicely in my pants pocket without being lumpy.  For the same fashion reasons, I left my wallet, checkbook and watch in the car.

The concert went brilliantly.  The wife said it was her favorite of all the ones she’d seen so far and that she was terribly jealous that she didn’t get to sing in it because of her topsy-turvy schedule.  Afterwards, the chorale held a wine and dessert reception downstairs in the Old Stone room of Carnegie (which is another oddity, as the room appears neither old nor to be made of stone).  The wife and I were planning to be good and stick to our low-carb lifestyle at the reception.  However, there were no diet soft-drinks to be had.  My logic suggested that if we were going to have to be “bad” and drink something with sugar and lots of carbs, it may as well be wine, so I grabbed a couple of glasses and went back to find The wife.  Turns out she didn’t want any wine, so I was forced to drink both glasses on my own.  Having not had much to eat for the past few hours, the wine immediately went to work on my head and soon I was feeling rather pleasant.  Shortly thereafter, we stepped over to the dessert table on the premise that we would allow ourselves one small treat from it, but of course came away with brimming plates full of sugary goodness upon which we feasted until our hearts and bellies were content.   I then suggested to the wife that she drive us home, as I was too euphoric and tipsy to attempt it myself.  I gave her my keys and home we went.

The following morning, we decided to be heathens and skip church.  We rarely do this, but there was a lot to be done—laundry, plant-watering, plant-planting, plant-repotting, etc—before she could return to the crazy hospital.   I helped her with the chores and she was able to leave by mid-afternoon and shortly thereafter I settled back in for another week of a semi-bachelor lifestyle, (i.e. a steady diet of bad food and bad TV).

At noon on Monday, I decided it was probably time I left the house.  I needed to mail some packages and hit the grocery store for more hamburger patties and pepperoni.  Plus, the rest of my week was pretty booked solid.  In addition to my grueling three-day work schedule, I was starting rehearsals for an upcoming play Monday night, with further rehersals Wednesday and Thursday nights, plus I was also scheduled to be out of town for most of Tuesday for library software training in Union, WV and Tuesday night brought a second concert with the chorale in an opera house up in Marlinton, WV.  If I was to get any errand running done, it would likely have to be Monday afternoon.

Imagine my horror when I went to pick up my keys to leave and found only half of them there.  Missing was my ring of car, house and universe keys… a ring last seen in the possession of my wife the key-loss tri-athlete.

Not to panic.  She had probably just laid them down in a random place in the living room when she came in.  Only when I searched the living room, they were nowhere be seen.  They also weren’t to be seen in the kitchen, nor on the dining room table, nor atop her dresser, nor my dresser, nor the bathrooms, nor my office, nor her office, nor, once again, the living room.

Where the hell had she put them?

Maybe she gave them back to me and I just forgot and left them in my tux pants, I thought.  Nope.  My tux was hanging in the closet with pockets upside down and there were no keys in them nor in the jacket nor on the floor beneath.  Well, maybe they’re still in her clothes then, I thought.  I tracked down what I thought were the pants she had worn on Saturday, but they contained no keys.  Then again, she had tried on a similar looking pair before we left Saturday night, so these might be the doppleganger pants instead of the real ones.  However, the only other pair of similar looking pants seemed to be missing from both the closet and the laundry.  My as yet unspoken fear was that she had taken the pants and my keys with her to Weston.

No, don’t panic yet!  They had to be somewhere else.  The alternative was to horribly true to consider. 

The car then?  I didn’t know whether to pray that they were or weren’t.  My wife did have a habit of leaving her own keys in her car, on the logic that no one in their right mind would want to steal a beat up 1991 Ford Escort Station Wagon.  But would she have left the keys to my 1999 Chevy Malibu in it—a vehicle no longer pristine and semi-possessed by the evil spirit of my former vehicle, known as the Bent Turd?  Of course, if the keys were still in the car then chances were excellent that the car would also be locked.  Come to think of it, my wallet, checkbook and watch were still hidden in the car too.  I ran down and checked the car.  It was unlocked, but no keys were within.

This left only the horribly true alternative of the keys remaining in The wife’s pants, now with her at the crazy hospital.  I would be trapped in the house during my week without a single free-night to spare.  I would have to bum rides just to get to work.  Or to play practice.  Or to the concert in Marlinton.  And the true irony of it all was that if we hadn’t skipped church in the first place we would have figured this out on Sunday when the keys were still in town.

All search avenues exhausted, I picked up the phone to make the fateful call.  Even before I dialed the number, I was convinced it would bring nothing but sadness and frustration.  The wife probably did have my keys, which was a complicated prospect of which I didn’t even want to think about the full ramifications.  I saw many phone calls to my insurance company and possibly to Fed-Ex in my future.  And even if she didn’t have my keys, she wouldn’t know where they were here.  Heck, she’d probably be hard pressed to tell me where HER keys were, let alone mine.

“Hello?” The wife answered from her apartment in the crazy hospital.

“Um, Swee…” I said.  “Um… do you know where my, uh… my keys are?”

“Your keys?”

“Yeah.  The one’s you… uh… last had when you drove us home Saturday night?  I can’t find them anywhere.”

“Oh,” she said, and I could hear the full weight of understanding behind her voice.  In that one word, she had comprehended the entire situation down to its fibers and extending to its unpleasant consequences.  “No.  I don’t know where your keys are.”

“They’re not still in your pants are they?”

She thought for a minute.  “No, I don’t think so.  I’ve already unpacked everything.  I don’t know where they are.”

At this almost all hope fell away from me.  She didn’t know where they were.  They weren’t even with her there, which meant they were hopelessly lost here.

“Unless, maybe they’re in the chair?” she added.

“Huh?” I said.

“The chair…” she began again.  “Yeah.  My keys were on the back of the chair and when I picked them up I thought I heard another set fall.  They might be in the cushions.”  I raced down the hall with mobile phone in hand, running to get to the big, overstuffed green chair in the living room.  I reached it and started yanking overstuffed green cushions.  At first, I saw nothing.  Then, from deep within the ass-crack of the chair, I spied the tarnished, formerly golden edge of the key to the universe.  I was saved!  Hallelujah!  Once again, the sweety had come to my rescue and  saved the day!  And from the crazy hospital, no less.

Copyright © 2004 Eric Fritzius

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