The sun hadn’t risen fully from its bed when I walked across the porch with a warm mug of coffee in hand. I sat in my favorite rocker, a faded hickory chair that had a reversed back that supported my lower lumbar system. Birds sang, and somewhere down in the holler a woodpecker banged out a rhythm that echoed throughout the woods. It was a typical autumn day in Mississippi. I took a sip and watched as life happened all around me.
Two years ago, I had returned home from warring across the Middle East. My body had returned, but my mind had yet to catch up with my physical presence. I sipped some more coffee and watched as squirrels dashed across my yard.
Tall trees, of oak, sweet gum, pine, and spruce stood where God had planted them. All of them were naked, except for a lone oak tree. Its branches jutted out in every direction. Up, down, and straight out-the limbs went everywhere. On the lowest branch, a growth of clay-colored leaves continued to defy gravity and refused to fall to the earth.
My mind drifted to the war and to my friends that never returned home from the killing fields. Their loss is never far from me. Even as I finish off the coffee; hot tears sting my eyes. Will I ever escape from this pit of despair?
Across the road from my house, saffron colored spruce trees dotted the landscape. It broke up the nakedness of the other trees and diverted my attention away from the melancholy. A lone crow sat on the branch with the stubborn leaves on it. It opened its mouth and let out a squawk.
The wind kicked up, and I wiped my tears. No one saw my tears, save for a sharp-eyed hawk that watched the pasture. The hunter watched for prey; I watched the hunter.
We’ve had back-to-back killing frosts this week. Winter was not far off. I rocked in my chair and listened to the wind. The frosts have killed the grass, the trees have shed their leaves, and all that remained are the skeletons of the forest. “Much like my life. All that remained are the ashes after my hopes and dreams had been consumed in the rage of yesteryear.”
For a while, I sat and listened to the sounds of nature. The chorus of wildlife in motion calmed me. I enjoyed the view from my porch so much I decided I would go for a walk.
Hindsight would suggest that I should’ve started my walk by going down my driveway. Instead, I walked into my grown over pasture. The grass was brown, dead at the icy touch of the frost. Tall bushes and thick brush covered my pasture. The frost had not completely disappeared from the grass. My trek through the bliss of Mother Nature would carry me through the bottom of my property and around my pond.
I smiled as I watched various wildlife sprint and fly all around me. Sunlight filtered in through the canopy of trees. It was beautiful. I was so engrossed with the beauty I saw that the hole in front of me went unnoticed.
My forward momentum propelled me into the inky darkness, and I crashed to the ground. Pain overwhelmed my senses. “How long did I fall?” In the damp, musty earth I had limited vision. I couldn’t see anything, but I knew I had broken something. I groaned. “Dear God, did I break my leg or my foot?”
Fear wrapped its fingers around my heart and squeezed. In the darkness, I panicked. I took several deep breaths and gradually gained control of my emotions. In the dark my training kicked in, and I took stock of my situation.
“Okay. I’m alone with a broken bone or multiple bones. I’ve got to find some way out of here.”
I couldn’t treat myself or make a splint for my injured body part. I couldn’t see it; therefore, I couldn’t fix it. The sun was hidden from me. I gazed upward to the hole I had fallen into. Inky darkness blocked any light from reaching me.
“Help!” I yelled.
My voice went hoarse. No one lived near me, and no one knew I had gone for a walk. I was on my own. My only hope rested on my determination to escape.
“There’s got to be a way out.”
On my belly, like a snake, I crawled deeper into the pit. I grunted as I struggled toward what I hoped was freedom. I could hear running water in the distance. “You’ve done it this time, Freeman. This is as bad as that idiot kid that kept falling into the well on Lassie.”
I laughed in the darkness. Having a sense of humor would help me keep hope alive, and that would determine if I survived this ordeal or not. “Sometimes you have to just grin and bear it,” I whispered to myself.
My eyes had adjusted to the inkiness of the cavern. Renewed with vigorous energy I crawled onward, praying that my effort would not go unrewarded.
Inch by inch, I struggled forward. It felt like it took hours to make my way to a crest. “God, I’m so thirsty.” My leg throbbed with pain. In the dark, I heard the scattering of tiny feet.
“Rats. Oh, dear Jesus, don’t let me get eaten by rats.”
I felt around until I touched a stick of some sort. It would serve as a weapon against the unseen critters. I swung the stick back and forth in front of me. The patter of tiny feet grew quiet. I took shallow breaths and thought of Iraq. “Here in this hole, it is rats but over there we had to deal with rabid dogs. Thank God, it’s not dogs.”
After I created enough racket to scare off the rats, I crossed over the crest. I could hear the bubbling of water. “I won’t die of thirst at least.” I reached into the water and cupped a handful. It was cool and refreshing. I gulped it greedily. Then, I continued to make my way to what I hoped was freedom.
It wasn’t freedom. In the dark I bumped into a rock wall. I sobbed. My leg ached; my whole body hurt. I’d survived far worse situations, but apart from nearly drowning in the Euphrates River in an overturned vehicle, I’d never been trapped. “I survived all that only to die in a hole at home. What a way to go.”
There was a crack in the wall that light filtered through. I could breathe clean air from it. In the dark, I felt around until I found a rock. It was solid and hefty. I smashed it into the wall. A piece of the wall chipped off. I continued to smash it into the wall. Small pieces fell off at first and gradually bigger pieces gave way to my bashing.
“Jesus. I’m over 200 pounds. That crack would have to be massive for me to get through, I’ll be down here forever.”
I banged my rock against the wall in a furious rage. “How stupid do you have to be to fall into this freaking hole,” I shouted as I slammed the rock against the wall. Exhausted, I slumped against the wall, my fingers and hands bled from the cuts I received while raging.
“So much for keeping a cool head,” I scolded myself.
Survival of any situation required a person to maintain a sense of calm. I had not maintained a calm demeanor or a disciplined approach to escaping. I wanted to cry, but my mind wasn’t done tormenting me yet.
My thoughts turned to my life. I’d been married and fathered two children. I retired early. After my retirement, I attended college and earned my degree. I had put away enough money to never work again. While I wasn’t rich, I managed to get by.
Then my thoughts twisted around, and I focused on what I hadn’t done since my life imploded. I never found love after my divorce, and I had not successfully sustained any type of relationship with friends nor family. I became bitter and severed all personal ties with everyone. After constructing walls around my heart and running off anyone who cared about me, I became a hermit.
Now, I’m stuck down here in this hole all alone.
“This is it. Every bad decision I ever made followed me into this hole. I always feared dying alone, and now it’s my reality.”
With my troubled thoughts at the forefront of my mind, exhaustion set in. My eyes closed, and I dozed off into disturbed sleep. I awoke to the pattering of tiny feet. I grabbed my stick and swept it in front of me.
“Not again! Get on you rats,” I yelled in the darkness. The strain of shouting hurt my throat.
My ‘nap’, whether minutes or hours, caused me to miss the going down of the sun. Darkness had descended on the hole; the inky blackness smothered me.
I felt around until I touched my rock. Sharp, jagged edges cut my fingers, but I gripped it and smashed it into the wall. Between the moisture of the wall and my continual bashing, the hole enlarged.
“Come on. Freedom could be just over the crest.”
My foot ached, but the thought of freedom was enough to keep me going. The hole had enlarged enough for me to get through due to non-stop blows I railed against the wall. I crawled up to it and pushed with my good foot. It was slow going, but I made it into the hole. Minute by minute, I inched forward. I could smell clean air.
“Come on. You’ve almost made it out.”
Time had vanished in the hole. I had no idea what time it was, or if it was close to sunrise. The stress of being trapped had drained my strength. It took everything I had to keep going.
“Come on,” I chided myself, “you don’t want to die here, do you?”
I rested on my belly and looked around. My ‘hole’ grew narrow. To make any further headway, I had to lie on my side. Taking care not to bang my injured limb, I turned over. I pushed on. Dirt particles fell onto my face. As I crawled further into the hole, I wiped at my eyes. In the dark I could make out a twinkle.
“What is that?”
I climbed a little further. Pain filled my whole being, so I rested. I watched the twinkle. It was stationary and continued to blink. “It’s a star,” I grumbled. My exhaustion, coupled with hunger, made it difficult to keep a clear head.
“Wait a minute! It’s a star!”
I shouted with excitement and pushed toward the twinkle. My heart pounded with the thought of freedom. It took some time, but I finally crawled out of the hole.
In the wet grass, I gazed upon the heavens. It was full of stars, each twinkled, and I laughed. The star-filled sky reminded me of Iraq.
On a night like no other night, I had stood under such a sky and wondered if God would forgive me for the horrible deeds I had perpetuated in Fallujah. At that time, I wasn’t sure if I deserved His forgiveness. I’m still not sure. However, I was thrilled to be out of the hole.
I stayed on my back and watched the stars while I gathered my strength. In time, I rolled onto my belly and crawled toward home.
“Thank God, I’ve made it out. I wasn’t eaten by rats, and I didn’t die in either hole.” I felt an odd appreciation for surviving the war. For years, I had harbored a grudge for coming home, when so many had never returned. My survival was a privilege not afforded to many of my friends. Falling into the hole had given me clarity on how blessed I really am.
My freedom from the hole wasn’t guaranteed, nor was it free. It required hard work on my part, but I had overcome my ordeal. God saw fit to give me a second chance; and it was up to me to make the most of it.
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