Some on the ground were already watching in horror. Their glances would alternate between the structures on the ground and the falling craft from the sky, wondering if the end result would be like a Hollywood movie---a huge bang and a spectacular fireball. Emergency personnel had been called. The first sirens were wailing as the first vehicles started out the door. Their trips would be futile.
Jack actually smiled in the final seconds. Incredibly, waves of pleasure radiated down his spine and out of his toes as if he were listening to a Mozart symphony. He knew that most men never have the joy of experiencing perfection in life, a moment when all that has past synergistically combines with all that is to be to produce the strange perfection of all that is no more.
The end came. The plane did explode as it hit the ground, perfectly placed so that only the craft and the occupant would perish. By the time the flames were extinguished, there was no body left to be found. Spectators noticed a Red-tailed hawk circling the wreckage.
I was still grieving the loss of Jack. Jack was my best friend. We had grown up together, gone to school together, lost our innocence together, and fought in a war together. Without speaking we knew each other’s private thoughts. People often said we were like identical twins. Without him I just felt empty. I was debating whether or not I should join him.
A hand touched my shoulder.
“Hey, man,” Billy said, “how’s it going? You o.k.?” He sat down across from me. “A beer at ten a.m.?
“I’m fine,” I said. “It wasn’t me in the plane. And hell, it’s late. I started drinking at around eight this morning!”
Billy had been my second best friend; now he was getting a field promotion. He sat down in the booth across from me. I could see that he was trying to figure out what to say. Thankfully, he didn’t hit me with the typical platitudes. He just reminded me of the truth.
“I’ll skip all the clichés,” Billy said. “ALS is a shitty way to go. Jack knew that. He told us all what he was going to do and he did it. Hell, be happy for him! He died on his own terms. That’s more than most of us will ever do.”
Everything he said was true.
Billy had more to say. “And Jack loved flying more than anything else in the world. I think he would have rather been a bird than a human. It was the perfect way for him to go.”
I raised my glass. “To Jack!” I said. Billy looked at my wrist.
“Is that the famous watch?” he asked.
I smiled. “Yep. The ‘High Noon’ watch. One half of my inheritance,” I replied.
“Refresh my memory?” Billy asked.
“Well,” I explained, “this watch was in Jack’s family for a long time. His granddad had it in Vietnam. His great granddad got it during World War Two. It was their lucky charm.”
“Ah, I remember now!” Billy said. “In the forest. His great granddad hears a click, turns around, sees a German officer pointing a Lugar at him and realizes it misfired!”
“Right,” I said. “Then he drops the guy with two rounds from his rifle. The officer hits a tree as he falls, the watch gets banged up and stops at exactly twelve-hundred hours. Thus they name the ‘High Noon’ watch. The lucky charm.”
I took the watch off to let Billy look at it.
“Not too lucky for the guy whose life ended at noon,” Billy said. “That thing is really beat up! Cracked crystal, torn band, dented stem cap. Sure enough, hands froze on twelve noon!” Billy handed the watch back to me.
“Beat up just like me,” I said. “Wearing it makes me feel like Jack is still around. Crazy?”
“Not crazy. Just human,” Billy replied. “Can I ask…what was the other half of your inheritance?”
I reached into my pocket and took out a set of truck keys.
“The keys to Jack’s truck,” I explained. “Parked outside. The Ford ‘F’ one-fifty.…..maybe you noticed it? I drove it here.”
“Wow!” Billy said, “that’s yours? She’s a beauty! Somebody put a lot of time into that baby. A lot of customized work!” He paused again as he stared at me.
“Look,” Billy said, “you guys were really close. I know how much you must be hurting. If there’s anything I can do, let me know. O.K.?”
“O.K.” I said. “and thanks for coming.”
“I’ve gotta run,” Billy said. “Sorry I have to cut it short. Gotta get the kids…soccer game this afternoon, and Suzy is at her mother’s. You call me whenever. Take care, man.”
“Will do,” I said. I watched him walk out the door. I gulped down my beer, had the waitress bring me a couple more, and finished them as well. And that’s when I decided to join Jack! We had been inseparable in life. Why not in death? I walked outside and hopped into the truck.
“O.K., baby,” I said to the Ford. “It’s you and me. Let’s take a last, final, glorious ride. Let’s take a ride to Willard’s Bluff!”
The highest elevation for Willard’s Bluff was only around five hundred feet, but it would be enough. That’s like a fifty story building. The drop off the road over the edge from the turnaround at the top was almost straight down. If I drove the truck over the edge, I could even die like Jack did! The flight would be shorter, but the result would be the same. I liked the idea! I flipped on the radio. The radio voices just kind of droned on in the background.
“And it’s ten fifty-eight a.m.! Time for traffic and weather on the eights….” the radio voice said. Blah, blah, blah.
“Nope,” I said. “It’s time for another beer!” I grabbed one from the open case on the passenger’s seat.
The ride was about an hour. I figured I could make it there by noon. Jack and I had driven up to Willard’s bluff with quite a few girls in our younger days. He always drove; I was always in the back seat. Jack was always better with the girls than I was. He always set up the dates. I smiled remembering some of our exploits, or more often than not our attempted exploits! I could see us all in high school, Jack and Sally and Debby and me. Wow, those days were fun! I was lost in reverie.
“And it’s eleven eighteen a.m.,” the voice said. “Time for traffic and weather on the eights….”
“Nope,” I said. “It’s time for another beer!”
I could see us in our prom tuxes, laughing and getting ready to pick up our dates. “You two look so handsome!” Jack’s mom had said.
“We did look damn handsome in those days, baby,” I said to the truck. “Jack picked those tuxes out. We certainly did have our share of the girls thanks to him!” I remembered that time we doubled with Mary and Kathy.
“And,” the radio voice said, “it’s eleven forty-eight a.m. Time again for traffic and weather…..”
“And,” I said, “it’s time for another beer!”
I remembered the day Jack dragged me off the road after the bomb exploded. I remembered him saying, ‘Don’t worry. It’s gonna be o.k. I’d never let anything happen to you! I’ve got the tourniquet on. You’ll be out of here in minutes.’ I remembered the blood and my screams. He had visited me every day for months during my rehab and cheered me on as I learned to walk again.
We were getting closer to the top of the bluff now. “Baby,” I said, “we are almost there! One more beer!”
“And it’s eleven fifty-eight a.m.,” the radio said. “Time for traffic and weather on the eights…..”
“We’re close,” I said. “We won’t need any more traffic reports! There’s the turn around at the top of the bluff. Let’s do it!”
I undid my seat belt as I floored it and headed for the top. I held the wheel tightly as I saw the bluff’s edge getting closer.
“Baby,” I said, this is how Jack must have felt! Just before he put his plane into that dive!”
My heart was pounding; my breath was rapid. The engine was roaring. I screamed out a final “Yeaaaaah! Let’s do it!”
And then suddenly…..the engine died! And the truck slowed and coasted to a halt, stopping about thirty feet from the edge that I was shooting for. I could feel my heart racing. I sat there sweating and taking deep breaths.
“Damn it!” I said. “I can’t even off myself right!” I took some more breaths, got out beer in hand, and popped open the hood. I didn’t see anything obvious that I could deal with. I jiggled the battery cables, but they seemed ok.
I didn’t see anyone around. “Anybody out here?” I yelled. No answer. “Fuck it,” I thought. “Who cares.”
It was a beautiful day. Blue sky, sun shining, birds cawing in the background. I threw away the newly emptied can and grabbed another beer from the truck. Then I walked over to some grass near the turnaround at the top of the bluff where I could gaze out over the edge. I sat down in the grass bemoaning my misfortune, and popped the cap on the new beer.
A squirrel came hopping over. He stopped about ten feet from me, sat, and stared directly into my now somewhat blurry eyes.
“What do you want?” I said to him. He just kept staring at me. Then he came closer.
“Ah,” I said, “a lot of people probably sit here and enjoy this spot. They must feed you. That’s why you’re so friendly. Sorry. Nothing for you.” He came really close, about three feet from me.
Then a big Red-tailed hawk came swooping in and the squirrel took off. The hawk landed about ten feet from me in the grass. He cocked his head and stared at me.
“Hey, buddy,” I said. “What are you doing on the grass? You’re a hunting bird. Go hunt.”
The hawk flapped his wings. He came a little closer.
“I’m too big for ya, buddy,” I said. “You’d be a lot better off with the squirrel that was here! Try and lift me and you’ll get a double hernia.”
The hawk came even closer. I was really surprised. He stopped about two feet away from me. He just kept staring at me with his head cocked. I stared back.
“Boy,” I said, “they must feed you guys too.”
And then he came even closer! About a foot away! Now some strange ideas started going through my head. I wasn’t a mystic by any means, but this was really odd. So I went with my gut. I took a shot.
“Is that you, Jack?” I said. “Did you come back as a bird, buddy? You still looking out for me? Trying to tell me something?”
The hawk just cocked his head and stared.
“Give me a sign, buddy,” I said. “Chirp or hop on one foot or sing Swanee River or something. Ya gotta give me something to go on here.”
The hawk stared at me for a bit longer. Then he turned, flapped his wings, and took off. I watched him disappear over the tree line about fifty yards away.
“So much for other-worldly encounters,” I said to myself.
I continued my conversation with me. “Well,” I said, “I’m not just going to jump over the edge. That would be much too mundane. Time to get another beer, go home and re-plan!”
Now I had the problem of getting home. I teetered back to the truck. The key was still in the ignition. I turned it and voila! The engine started.
“Ah,” I said to myself. “Must have been a loose battery cable after all. Jiggling those suckers must have done the trick!”
I got back on the road and started heading back to town. But then I looked over and gasped. I was out of beer!
As I drove, my head cleared a little and I actually began to feel a little better. For whatever reason, that horrible feeling of total emptiness that had been overwhelming me since Jack’s death seemed to be easing. There was less despair. I didn’t feel as alone and isolated as I did before.
I had never bothered to shut the radio off. Once again, it was traffic time. “It’s twelve twenty-eight p.m.,” the voice said. “Time for traffic and weather on the eights!”
“Oh shut up!” I said. I turned off the radio, then rolled down the window on the driver’s side to get at the side-view mirror. It had gotten all screwed-up and was stuck in a weird position.
I looked into the mirror as I fiddled with it. Then I caught a glimpse of my wrist. I did a double take. The watch was running! I could see the second hand moving, and the time was now twelve twenty eight, in synch with the radio. Since the hands had been stuck on twelve o’clock, that meant the watch had to have started at exactly noon!
I slammed on the breaks and stopped the truck. I hopped down and got out and looked around.
“You here, Jack?” I shouted. “You out here somewhere? Was that your sign?” I looked around but didn’t see anything. I got back into the truck and headed back to town. I resumed my conversation with the Ford.
“Well, baby,” I said, “it looks like the reports of my impending demise have been greatly exaggerated! Maybe I’ll give it a year and see how it goes!”
I finally got home and I collapsed in the bed and passed out. When I awoke the next morning, the whole thing seemed like a dream. I wondered if it was all a drunken reverie.
“The watch!” I said to myself. “I’ll check the watch!” It was still on my wrist. I looked at it. The hands were frozen on twelve o’clock. It wasn’t running. Either it had stopped again exactly at midnight, or the whole thing was part of some half-real half-drunken mish-mosh of reality and fantasy. The latter seemed a lot more likely.
Nevertheless, that day was a turning point for me. I started to enjoy life again. I realized that part of Jack would always be alive inside of me. I found myself having internal dialogues with him when I was trying to figure something out. It was like he was still looking out for me.
It was Billy who shared an interesting observation with me weeks later. He said that he had seen me drive back into town that day when I was returning from Willard’s Bluff. He had noticed something strange. He said that there was a Red-tailed hawk that kept circling high above my truck.