Saturday, April 16, 2011

A stormy San Antonio night

I watched the body of the man I’d just killed float away downstream from where I stood, in just about the middle of the widest street in San Antonio, Texas.

My shoulders sagged with exhaustion.

But I felt nothing like remorse, only the sudden fatigue that follows the sort of adrenalin overload I’d just gone through.

Disinterested, I turned away from the human flotsam now headed towards downtown and eventually the Gulf of Mexico, concerned now only with the coming struggle against the flood’s powerful flow to reach my home.

My warm, dry, safe, home.

A seeming dream-memory that drew my feet forward. Each step an exhausting effort, hampered by, I noticed now for the first time, the cold, the bone-chilling cold of the thigh-deep river which pushed me unceasingly away from my goal.

To maintain my balance I had to lean forward into the current, looking, I imagined, like a mud-covered mime walking into an imaginary hurricane. Each step a careful choreograph: lift the heel and force my foot forward, dragging my toe across the pavement.

Fear of the current or tripping over an obstacle were not what slowed my pace. It was, rather, the vivid image of being sucked through 12 miles of pipe to the south side of the city which kept me in check:

Floods in the river valley that is San Antonio tend to follow a pattern: The old, inadequate sewer lines fill first, pouring their excess out of the curbside drains and then, in heavy enough storms, they build up power, enough to lift the massive iron covers from their manholes.

At first he sight of these, riding on 4 to 6 inch high fountains, is a laughable delight.

But if flooding continues, these amusements may be swept from their perches leaving behind a deadly trap. A hidden void waiting for the misstep of the unwary.

Every flood season, 2 or 3 innocents meet their fate this way. Stepping where there is no street and slipping into the Stygian depths, swept to their fate.

Dying alone.

Drowned in the turbulent cold and dark.

I lived, those days, in a six-unit apartment building about two blocks from Fort Sam Houston, the center for medical training in the US Army. At first glance it was a nice neighborhood, a mix of military, college student, and retired military housing. Across the street from where I lived was a grassy field dotted with pecan and and black oak trees called Mahncke Park. In winter, the trees were bare except for bright green clumps of mistletoe.

As inviting as it looked from my window, I learned the hard way that it was not fair ground for picnicking. The oft-mowed earth was, instead of pastoral meadow, prime environment for thistly briar patches, several varieties of low, often nearly-invisible cactus waiting for the toes of the unwary and inhabited by two equally nasty and aggressive varieties of swarming, biting fire ants.

In retrospect, I guess the whole neighborhood was a lot like that. A glance beneath a thin veneer and the niceness disappeared.

The transient nature of its residents provided fertile field for the city’s criminals. Burglary, car break-ins, and auto theft were rampant. Enough so that the Army issued warning guidelines to the soldiers, WACs, nurses, and attached civilian personnel that lived in that area.

But in 1972 a different level of criminal, a predator more vicious than any carnivore, came into the neighborhood.

This creep and I first crossed paths in December of that year when my next-door neighbor, his fourth or fifth victim, was brutally raped and assaulted.

That night her roommate and lover, another WAC, had spent the night with me and our upstairs neighbors (an ex-GI and his wife) playing Spades and Hearts, drinking beer and smoking cheap Mexican pot.

Dawn was breaking by the time Tim, his wife long asleep, and Judith, Suzanne’s partner, and I called it quits. Laughing and stretching aching muscles, the 3 of us stood on the small veranda that joined the front doors of the WACs’ apartment and my own.

Totally oblivious to the horrifying events taking place only a few feet away.

When Judith finally opened the door to her apartment we were greeted by a scene of total chaos.

Fleeing out the window, through the unopened screen, was the dark figure of a man. Across the room, battered and bloody was Suzanne, gagged with a wad of cloth, cheeks streaked with tears and blood, her eyes an odd mix, I remember clearly, of terror and relief.

The three of us, all trained Medics, were more concerned with the victim than the animal that had done this to her.

Tim went to the bathroom for bandage material, Judith to the side of her dearest, and I to the kitchen for water.

An Army ambulance called and assured that our friend’s injuries were not life-threatening, Tim and I prowled the neighborhood for hours in vain search for her assailant.

The description we gave to the police only confirmed the several they had already been given by previous victims: short, dark-haired, olive-complected, bad facial acne.

They offered little hope for any prospect of immediate capture.

This was, remember, the dark ages of rape investigation.

The Army was a little better, offering Suzanne psychiatric counseling and transfer to another Duty-station.

(Except for a brief visit while I was on duty in the hospital, I never saw her again. Judith declared her sexuality so she would be discharged, following Suzanne a week or two later.)

Months passed and I was rejoined by my wife Rachel, also a WAC, who had been stationed at Fort Dix, N.J. Another five or six months and though not forgotten, the incident was mostly erased from my mind by the salve of time.

It was late spring and I was out with my good friend George. My wife stayed home to study and we went to see “The Godfather” across town.

The sky was dark and large spatters of rain pelted the windshield of my tiny Toyota Corolla. Unaware of the potential force of a south Texas spring-rainstorm we were totally unconcerned.

By the time we left that 3 hour epic, much of the city was under at least six inches of water and we were cut off from most of the rest. We managed, splashing through several cross streets behind larger cars, to make it to an “island,” of sorts, a Jim’s Coffee Shop near the north-central part of the city.

The two pay-phones were jammed and before I could call home, the lines went dead. Unwilling to test my lightly-powered subcompact any more, George and I joined the throng of wet and surprisingly cheerful customers waiting for a table. Most drinking the free cups of hot coffee dispensed by an earnest young assistant manager.

During our wait, we were joined by another neighbor, an Army nurse who lived in the apartment over my building’s garage and who, fortuitously, drove an aging but still powerful BMW.

We decided, before things got any worse, to try a circuitous route that would avoid the deepest spots and try to power through in tandem where we could not detour . We succeeded but the normally quick 20 minute trip took nearly an hour to complete, all of it white-knuckled and most of it blind to all but the pair of glowing red BMW taillights barely visible ahead.

Relieved and exhausted, we were, by the time we pulled up out front, totally uncaring of the water which flooded into our cars when we opened our doors. We laughed at it.

How soon that mood was to disappear.

We were met at my front door by my sobbing, nearly hysterical, knife-wielding wife.

“He’s HERE! He’s been trying to get in all night!,” she shouted, “It must be that guy! It’s the rapist!”

Out of the corner of my eye I caught a movement in the shadows. Turning, I knew instantly the figure that months ago I’d seen in my friend’s apartment.

There was no doubt.

“It’s HIM!” I shouted.

Fool-heartedly snatching the long stainless steel chef's knife from my wife’s hand and shoving her back inside, I gave chase.

The 42-inch parapet bordering the porch? I cleared it in a single easy stride. The 5-foot drop on the other side I didn’t even notice.

Heading down Funston Street into steadily deeper water, my longer legs easily closing the distance.

I screamed a string of barely coherent threats after him, “YOU BETTER RUN MOTHERFUCKER! ‘CUZ WHEN I CATCH YOU I’M GONNA CUT YOUR FUCKIN’ HEAD OFF!” Not especially eloquent I'll admit, but to the point.

At about that moment the sharp object I’d been running with flew from my grasp.

The split-second that my eye followed its arc were enough to allow him to dash around a corner. By the time I turned back, he was out of sight.

I cursed myself but did not slow.

I may have dropped my tool but the twin weapons of my size and my rage I still bore in plenty.

Turning the corner, ready to meet my opponent...


For a good 15 or 20 minutes I searched the shadows. Behind bushes. Between cars. Every likely spot I could find. Until, very pissed at myself, I resigned myself to his escape. Kicking the water, cursing again my moment of distraction, I turned to back toward the way I’d come.

And he moved.

A split-second too soon.

I was already sprinting by the time my body made the 180 degree turn towards him. He saw me coming and ran in the exact opposite direction. Crossing out onto Broadway.

That, next to being a vicious sack of shit, was his biggest mistake.

His path led him straight into deep water. Water that ran several inches over my knees and that gave me, with a 36 inch inseam, a distinct advantage.

I caught up before he reached the third lane. Tackling him like the football player I’d never been, I heard him grunt as I took him, rolling forward with him into the stream.

(Stream hell, we’re talking river by this time!)

I’d taken a breath and if he had, by the sound of it, I’d knocked it out of him. Over and over we rolled in the current, his nails scratching at my face, seeking my eyes or any other vulnerable spot.

We popped up together, his left hand trying to find purchase on my windpipe.

I hit with a roundhouse right, my fist making solid and noisy contact with his temple. It hurt.

It barely seemed to phase him. His fingers found my throat and began to tighten.

My left and then my right fists hit him. On both his temples, on his ears, his cheeks. My right finally landed squarely on the bridge of his nose. That sprung his grip just enough for me to twist myself free.

He rose to run and I hit him hard with my shoulder and we both went under the surface again.

I wrapped both arms around this eel-like enemy and struggled for a controlling grip. This attempt to peacefully subdue him earned me a torn ear lobe, a bloody chin, and two loose incisors.

Ironically, I instinctually turned to my Red Cross Lifeguard’s training.

Standard instruction for dealing with a struggling victim was simple and effective: Dunk their heads under water. I’d even used it once when I worked as a lifeguard.

Once. Twice. And a third time I dunked him under the water.

Each time slightly longer than the time before.

It seemed to have no effect. He sputtered, coughed, but still clawed at my face.

His fingers again found my windpipe and closed tightly.

A fourth time I took him under, longer than all the rest.

At last I felt his grip loosen.

Relieved, I raised him up.

His head lolled back, his eyes rolled white.

Numb, it took a moment for the reality to set in. He was dead.

I let him go, dropping his face into the dark waters and went home to warmth and light.


Post a Comment

<< Home