Independence Day?
by Timothy Swan

"Independence Day?" is focused around a group of kids that I ran with as a youth. Although we never stole a car, my small Mid-Western town provided a fist full of stories fit for embellishment.

I would not say that this morning's mail was a shock, but it was certainly a surprise. I had just returned from my brisk morning walk with Titus, our lovable yet not overly bright chocolate lab, when I greeted Bob, our mailman of many years on the path to the door. Today's delivery was one that I had lost sleep over through the years. And today my old fears were rushing back. This was the first of the letters that I would receive. Having the first in my hand did not make me feel terribly sure about what Bob would bring tomorrow. I sat down on my Corinthian leather sofa and placed my feet carefully on the glass coffee table, even though my wife, Martha, detests feet on the furniture. A numbing feeling of disbelief was starting to circulate throughout my body. If it were not for Titus' clicking toenails, followed by Martha's clacking heels, I would not have been drawn back to the realities of the day.

Today was Wednesday, our grocery shopping day, and Martha had her hands full of coupons clipped from the weekend paper. She walked into the room and must have immediately noticed my ashen color and the concerned look on my face. As I glanced up from the letter, she walked to the coffee table and grasped the remote in her open hand and muted Headline News as Jerome Jerinovich was wrapping up the sports. Martha turned to me, seating herself in the brown wicker chair and asked me if everything was okay. I barely mumbled a coherent word as my glazed eyes stared through the letter. She reached over and placed her hand on my shoulder and began to rub ever so gently. The years had taught those hands well, always releasing the tension with a caring caress. She repositioned herself in the chair and her eyes peered over my shoulder. Her lips formed the names on the letterhead, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern. She immediately recognized the law office from our days in Des Moines and tilted her head in an inquisitive manner. Certainly, after all our years together, I owed Martha a full explanation.

I was not fully sure where to start; there was much to this letter, and I was uncertain about what I should say. As I began, the feelings flooded back. It felt like the occurrences of years ago had happened just moments before. My voice was unsteady and my hands trembled as I gazed off into the distance. Somehow I managed to find the words, and Martha listened very intently. I told her that the letter was from Lenny Stewart, Jeremy O'Hara's lawyer. Jeremy was a chum that lived in my neighborhood as we were growing up. We were best friends and ran with another kid named Brian St. James. We did everything together as we went from grade school through high school.

It happened in 1976. School had only been out a month. Brian, Jeremy and I were all excited about the huge fireworks display that the city was going to put on. We had planned our Independence Day celebration for two weeks. Brian had convinced his older brother to get him M-80 firecrackers, an assortment of bottle rockets, and some Roman Candles. We had all pitched in the money we made doing odd jobs. Jeremy mowed grass for the old lady across the street, and I helped my brother deliver newspapers. It seemed like the Fourth of July would never arrive. We got a plastic bag from the Sears department store on 5th Street, and we hid the fireworks under Brian's shed. We wanted a place where nobody would look and where our stuff would stay dry. We were really proud of our stash of explosives, and it was very difficult for us to keep quiet about it. On July 2, Brian was over at Jimmy Brown's house trading baseball cards, when Jimmy mentioned that he had some sparklers. Well, Brian had a hard time controlling his excitement about our stash, and he started bragging about how much we had under his shed. They always say that good news travels fast and before we knew what had happened, Jimmy had told his older brother Johnny about our collection. Johnny got some of his friends together and swiped our whole bundle.

Jeremy was very mad and he beat Brian pretty good in a fight. I was mad, but Jeremy worked Brian over good enough, so I let it lie. The Fourth was approaching fast, and we had nothing to celebrate with. We figured there had to be something exciting we could do to make the other kids take notice. It seemed like days as we lay among the reeds in the back field mulling over our options. Since we weren't supposed to have the fireworks in the first place, there were few avenues to recover our loss, so we had to make Johnny's Gang wish they hadn't stolen our goods. Making kids three years older envious was a very tedious task; they always seemed to think of everything first and be a step ahead.

I am not sure to this day who thought of it first, and I am not sure that I wanted to, but we decided to steal a car. It was not so much the theft itself, but it was the idea of driving a car before Johnny's Gang that motivated our actions. We figured that while everybody was at the fireworks display, we would snag a car. We knew which car we would take-a sun-yellow 1964 Volkswagen Beetle with white-wall tires. If ever there was easy pickings, this was the car. Ed Miner owned that yellow Beetle, and he lived just down the street. He worked nights at the foundry and always left his keys in the car. Mom said he did this because he figured nobody would steal his car in broad daylight. According to Ed's garbage, he was a Bud man. Two weeks before we took the car, Ed's neighbor's house caught fire. Even with the fire trucks right outside Mrs. Robinson's place, there was no sign of Ed.

The drill was made and now it was time to execute the plan. Brian owed us big for getting our stuff stolen, so we made him steal the car. We had it worked out so that he would pick us up at the end of the block, just behind Mr. Ferule's huge evergreen. As Brian scraped the front wheel rim against the curb, Jeremy slung the door open. I scurried into the back seat, pressing into an old spare tire and a red greasy rag. Jeremy flung himself into the passenger seat and slammed the door closed. Brian dumped the clutch and dove his foot heavily into the gas. We tore away from the curb, leaving a puff of white smoke lingering in the air. We hurried down 3rd Street and made a left onto Othella Road, throwing bits of gravel against the black and white route marker. An opossum fell prey to the mighty chrome bumper as Brian weaved down the middle of the road. We pulled up at the end of Darrie Lane and Jeremy took the wheel. He was a little more cautious than Brian and eased the car onto Webster Street. He headed north. Even though Jeremy was driving with more control, he was driving considerably faster.

We passed through the apex of a blind sweeping right-hand bend and crested a small hill just east of town as Judy Mathers was wheeling herself across the road. We must have hit her going around 60 MPH, launching her well into the air. I can still smell the fear that enveloped the car. The panic in Mrs. Mathers' eyes and look of horror is forever etched on my retinas. As Mrs. Mathers became airborne, her wheelchair was also thrown into the air, smashing the glass windshield and snagging the top of the car, tearing the roof back in a serrated gash. The three of us were so surprised by the occurrence that we froze motionless, as if suspended in time. We looked at each other and knew what we had to do. We wrecked our car a little more than two miles from our neighborhood, so we flat footed it home.

I don't think I had ever run so hard in my life. When I arrived home, I headed straight for the bathroom, becoming violently ill, vomiting several times and ending up so weak I was unable to move for several hours. Brian lost sleep in the weeks following the accident because of nightmares and insomnia. Jeremy slowly withdrew from everyone for about a year. His parents were divorced, and his mother worked a lot. Never again were we like we were that first month after school was out. We decided to keep our mouths shut about what had happened and to lie our way out if necessary.

We initially agreed to say that we knew nothing about the accident and that we were at the fireworks display with everybody else. This was a believable story, but we never ended up needing to use it. Fortunately, an even better story presented itself. The police hauled Ed Miner into custody as their prime suspect for the death of Mrs. Mathers and never released him. The court decided that Ed had consumed too many drinks on his way home from Moe's Tavern after work and was responsible for running over Mrs. Mathers.

The accident was written up in all the papers. During the trial, the media hounded Ed and the jurors. In the end, the town was barely satisfied with the 15-25 years levied on Ed for his crime.

Twenty years seemed a damn long time when we were 10, but as the years passed, we knew that one day Ed would be released from prison. When we were kids, we figured we were good kids except for that accident. We believed that we should not go to jail for our mistake, and we were sure that if we spoke up, jail is where we could end up. As the months marched on, we stayed quiet and over time our crime seemed less harsh. The years passed and the day that Ed would be released drew closer. Ed had put in some tough time in Joliet. Jeremy knew a chaplain at the prison who led Mass and passed on bits of information. Father Pritchard thought that Jeremy had a passing interest in Ed since he was the big news in our town growing up. According to Father Pritchard, Ed lost more than his self-worth in prison: he lost two fingers and an eye. Nobody is fully sure what happened in that incident except for Ed and the guy he got into the fight with. Today I am as sure as ever that when he gets out, he will be looking for somebody to make up for all those lost years.

Father Pritchard let us in on other information about Ed, too. Supposedly, Ed was now Big Ed and had done considerable studying in his cell. He had spent much of his free time in the prison law library and had received his G.E.D. It seemed likely that Big Ed was ready to make amends for the wrongs in his life. His pending release prompted Jeremy to contact his lawyer to determine if Ed had any legal recourse. Jeremy also wanted to get us together to go over the details of that fateful afternoon. That was the letter that I received in the mail. Jeremy asked us to gather at the Dixie Truck Stop in Carmi to go over our options. Attached was a note saying that Ed's nephew Gary was on the ballot for District Attorney in the November election. I guess one problem of small towns is the number of constituents to fill the elected positions. This raised our chances of being implicated in the murder of Mrs. Mathers.

I slowly raised my eyes from the letter and met Martha's gaze halfway. Her face looked troubled but understanding. Although I had finished the story, I was unsure how to continue. I had never felt so uncomfortable around Martha in my whole life. I truly felt as if I had let her down. Thoughts of her lost respect fluttered through my mind. I had entered into the story with certainty in my innocence, but as the words drew the tale, guilt began to swell in my chest. I don't think I could have said a word if I had to. My throat was tight and dry as I awaited her verbal reaction. Nothing came from her lips, now tight and drawn. Her arm slid slowly across my shoulder and grasped my arm. Her strength showed in her firm hold on my elbow. She drew me near and placed my head on her shoulder and ran her fingers though my hair. Even though words did not express it, I knew that her love for me was deep and that she would see me though this difficult time.

After returning from the grocery store, I called Jeremy. He sounded relieved to hear from me. He said that Brian had called him earlier in the morning and that the plans to meet in Carmi were still on. I told him that Martha and I would leave shortly, but we would have to make motel arrangements first. Jeremy said that Brian would be flying in tomorrow night and asked me if we could pick him up. I told Martha what Jeremy said, and we called Martha's sister to watch the house and Titus while we were gone. Martha had anticipated us having to leave quickly, so while I was on the phone with Jeremy she had already packed our bags. I loaded them into our BMW and we set our sights north. The hot Texas sun made for an uncomfortable ride, but as we emerged into the Missouri Ozarks, the weather became more amicable. Drifting north toward the Iowa line, my thoughts returned to my childhood. The early innocence of youth swept away in a flash of foolishness.

I still harbor much hate for those involved. I question why Johnny had to steal our fireworks, and why Mrs. Mathers had to be crossing the road at that moment. I wonder why we picked that road and why Ed was so easily convicted. Time had passed, but questions were still unanswered. I knew that returning home would heal many of the wounds of youth, but not without them being torn wide open first. We rolled into Carmi around 8:45 PM and checked into Shirley's Motel and took a quick shower.

We picked up Brian a little after 9:30 PM and rode quietly back to the motel. We agreed that it would be best not to talk until all three of us were together at the Dixie Truck Stop. Martha and I mumbled a few words and went to sleep. Although completely exhausted from the trip, I was barely able to sleep for more than an hour or two.

When we met Brian on the balcony smoking a La Gloria Cubana Wavell, we knew this was going to be a tense day. Our small talk over breakfast revealed the changes that had occurred to Brian over the years, and it was apparent that he was even more nervous than I. I had never really considered the situation from anybody else's position other than my own. Brian had been the one to actually steal the car, and he was now sure that this detail would come back to hurt him. Brian and I met up with Jeremy shortly before 10:00 AM and proceeded to Mr. Stewart's office to review our legal options. Lenny told us that in the state's opinion the case was closed, the crime was solved and the time was served. He said that significant new evidence would have to be presented for the case to be re-opened. The information Lenny presented us made us each feel a little bit better, but the pending release of Ed still had us a bit jittery.

It is truly amazing how problems tend to resolve themselves, for as Ed was taking his first steps of freedom, tragedy set in. Hitching down Route 13, Ed became frozen in the headlights of a southbound flatbed truck hauling steel beams from the foundry. The doctors said Ed's accident occurred because the abrasions incurred on his good eye during his prison fight refracted the light, all but incapacitating him. The truck's skid marks were as long as willow branches and kids could be found for days admiring them on the sun-bleached asphalt pavement. Ed met a demise so ironic most of the respectable papers passed it over. Oddly though, a two-page article was written in the Weekly World News that prompted a flood of speculation into the original murder. Fortunately for us, most of the speculation revolved around alien abductions and satanic rituals. The police decided to leave the case as it was, solved, and Brian and I returned home to resume our lives. As for Martha and I, we are doing fine. The situation brought us closer than we had been before. Withholding my history from her for all those years had created a small division that has now been removed. We are once again able to carry on as one with new energy.

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Updated Monday, April 28, 1997.