First Death (excerpt from “Exit Music”)

bi_newcover1 (2012_08_18 15_01_40 UTC)

The first time I died, I was an infant.

They told me about it later. We lived in the woods near Rockford, Alabama, if you are one of the few people who know where that is. It was during the second World War. I was born only twenty-three months before my death. I learned much during those months, however.

Next to the river whose name sounds like a particular of Creek foreplay, and close to that isolated little city of Rockford, there was (in 1942) a narrow road, Glaze, which led to a ferry. The ferry worked constantly because of the many people who had to travel that road. My father and uncle worked on the ferry and had almost no time off work during that period. At any time of day or night green army jeeps and trucks might come to one bank or the other, their drivers bellowing across the water for haste. The ferryboat was quite old and could not move fast.

My father worked the night shift and my uncle the day shift. When either of them tired of the shift they pulled, he would tell his brother and they would switch. This went on for some years after the war and after my death.

One night before my birth, the last part of December 30, my father was plowing the ferry like a water-ox across the Coosa, trying to ignore a man who wanted to sell him one of the motorcars. “Man drove it three and a half years, died, heart attack, wife sold it to my boy and my boy’s in the Marines now. Whattaya say, man? Huh?”

Suddenly my uncle came running to the bank toward which the ferry was creeping, waving his left arm (he was left-handed), his voice moving over the night waters like some nearly-mute flying fish, though fish in the Coosa are not known to fly.

“Sa-a-a-a-am!! Hey Sa-a-a-ammm!” A whistle through his fingers pierced the air.

The purpose of this commotion was to let my father know that I was being born and that he would cover my father’s shift that cold night and the next morning, too, if necessary.

I grew along like any infant. A local store supplied me with plenty of bland jellied food, since my mother’s breast milk was no good. I received numerous uncomplicated toys of wood and rubber. It was a relatively happy life.

Ah, but just about the time I was beginning to develop a rudimentary concept of myself, disaster came in the form of a small bone.

Near Thanksgiving, 1944, with many giving thanks for so much (the Bulge battle had not yet surprised everyone), I ate something a two-year-old shouldn’t. A friendly aunt or perhaps a naive young cousin gave me a bit of turkey or chicken – whatever it was that year – and a burred bone caught in my throat. I remember hacking, coughing, making catarrhal sounds belonging to someone tens of years older.

After listening to me cough all day the following Friday, on Saturday I was taken to a doctor in Montgomery. Our odd old car had no heater and, ah luck!, a freakish snowstorm that day – the 25th – hampered everyone on the long, awful drive. Just outside the city the snow stopped falling and I ceased to sleep without waking. I knew I was done for, as they say. Vague keening sounds seemed to come from outside the car. The air force base’s planes were all covered in white, or they may have been painted white.

At the hospital, the ER doctor pronounced me dead before he went into another room to complete the necessary paperwork concerning my demise.

© 1972, 2018 Thomas N. Dennis

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