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Labor Day weekend. Every year. It’s when I close myself off … don’t read emails … don’t pick up my cell phone … don’t check iPhone or Facebook text messages … don’t want to do much of anything except sit staring at a blank screen until sleep once again turns me over to some kind of temporary peace.
Even as I look out my front window right this moment, I hear three men, pulling down the long ladder where they’ve been working on my roof all day on this hot summer holiday. It makes me think back — I don’t know what time of year it was — when my dad was working on my brother’s roof … the roof of the very house where my four siblings and I had grown up. My brother’s wife had a roast in the oven that day, and my dad had commented on how good it smelled when he went inside to use the bathroom shortly before dusk. They were almost finished for the day.
I’ve never asked my brother — I just can’t, and I honestly don’t remember — if that was the same Friday I’d worked overtime for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Northern District of Iowa, and didn’t get back home to Onawa from Sioux City until around 9 or 9:30 p.m.
Because I’m the one who started the Iowa Cold Cases website, many of my readers think of my father as Earl Thelander, the man married nearly 25 years to my mother who died Sept. 1, 2007 from burns suffered in an explosion caused by copper thieves four days earlier. My hard-working stepfather, Earl, died on Labor Day weekend in 2007.
My biological father, Don Ewing — the one who helped my brother with his roof and got me the unexpected set of drums for school band — is the one who also bought me the Olympia International electric typewriter (my first electric typewriter) even when, despite how many times he said we couldn’t afford that particular machine, I’d stayed put in front of the Olympia International, typing over and over again, “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of his country” on a machine I found to be the most beautiful and best piece of equipment in the whole world.
I remember the day my mom and dad had taken me to Iowa Office Supply in Sioux City, me sitting in the back seat with my old black manual Royal, thinking no business would ever give us more than $50 for the used green-keyed machine where I’d learned to type more than 125 words per minute and had already written three full novels before graduating high school; on that Royal I’d written the novel “Gentry,” which my high school English teacher, Jerry Laffey, had allowed my fellow classmates to read and submit a critique for a grade rather than having to read and submit a detailed report about a great white whale or a report on a 19th century young woman’s coming-of-age story about falling in love and how socialtial classes played such a role during those times.
These days were long past the days when I couldn’t wait to get to Mr. Stablein’s class to learn more about Pip and Estella and Miss Havisham … the class where I learned nothing is ever as it seems, and that the washing of one’s hands will never cleanse the actions those hands took shortly before another life came to an end.
Donald Everett Ewing was my father. He died 29 years ago today. His death came on the very same Labor Day weekend as my stepfather, Earl, as the dates overlapped and my family attended Earl’s viewing on the 20th anniversary of Dad’s death.
These two men were both great men, each in his own separate way.
My stepfather used his hands, working hard his entire life, fixing great problems for every customer he served. I remember so well how Earl always left every single job sight far more cleaner than it had been when he arrived. He passed this work ethic on to two of his sons — Byron and Doug — one who would carry on his father’s expertise in heating and air conditioning units, and one who would dive into the depths of plumbing where many of us fear to tread. (I later learned, though even semi-retired, that one military veteran son would go the distance to see an unexpectedly laborious job through to completion even though he could have bowed out early on. But, after all, he was Earl’s son. He’d not only finish the job, but ensure his craftsmanship equalled if not exceeded his father’s legendary work.)
Earl lived on through the work he’d taught his two oldest sons.
My dad used his hands in a fully different way. He used to fix outboard motor engines before focusing on that single right-hand index finger — the trigger finger — that eventually landed him as the youngest member ever to be inducted into the Iowa Amateur Trapshooting’s Hall of Fame.
At the end of every day, many of these men think they go home, having accomplished little other than having shot a number of clay targets or fixing someone’s furnace or having taken apart and rerouting the way a sink will drain, but they are men who make differences in all our lives every single day. They may go home thinking, “Shit, that job took twice as long as I expected,” but they leave behind people who can only be thankful “that they stayed … that they took the time to do what was needed and did the job right.”
My father died 29 years ago today. And though I’ve not yet allowed myself to tell the full story of all that happened that night, I present to you, my readers, what I am able to tell without losing myself in the process.
This is the story — “Empty Shotgun Shells Floating Downriver” — that I am able to tell you today on the 29th anniversary of my father’s death.
EMPTY SHOTGUN SHELLS FLOATING DOWNRIVER
by Jody Ewing
For three long days in September 1987, I lived during the daylight hours with my mother and four adult siblings beneath a rural Iowa bridge. We walked the banks alone while surrounded by city and county squad cars, gawkers, divers and dogs. Come nightfall, family and friends gathered in town at the century-old brick building—the former “Hotel Monona”—my mom had purchased in 1976 and where she and my stepfather now lived in a newly converted ground floor apartment.
Townsfolk had yet to start bringing casseroles and other baked goods; after all, my father’s body hadn’t yet been found, and of course my parents were divorced and Mom and Earl would soon mark their fifth wedding anniversary. Still, the Monona remained home base for those who chose to stay behind to make sandwiches and potato salad and later deliver food and drinks to those who’d firmly planted feet along the Little Sioux River.
Passing years can play tricks on one’s mind, allowing time to second-guess unpleasant facts. It’s not that we purposely set out to deceive ourselves, but history can all-too-conveniently rewrite itself if someone doesn’t rescue evidence submerged under water three days and lug it up a steep muddy riverbank piece by piece for close examination before gently placing it atop other salvaged items in a brown paper sack.
Had the lone tennis shoe I found on the riverbank been a mate to the pair he’d worn hours earlier when I last saw him? Had he already been in the dark murky water by the time I got home that night to lay me down to sleep? Had I lost the soul one keeps?
Inner whispers taunted me.
You’ll want to remember every detail of those three days at the water’s edge with the dogs and divers and sheriff deputies, one whisper said. Your sisters and brother will depend on you to have the facts neatly written down so when they’re ready to open their own paper bags they, too, can say ‘Oh yes I do remember now’ and ‘I’d forgotten all about the soiled possessions you carried away in yours.’
And so on October 7, 1987, I gathered up scores of scrawled handwritten pages and notes and sat down at the desk in the home where he’d recently laid his head and started typing on the IBM Selectric that long had replaced the Olympia International that long had replaced the manual Royal he’d bought for me when he and my mother took me to a Sioux City office supply store in search of the perfect first typewriter I’d ever own. I’d felt like an only child that day, destined to pound out stories about families and love and loss and pigeons —both clay and live with fear—shooting out against blue and cloudy skies as shotgun blasts echoed in my ears.
The typewriter’s ball spun wildly as I slammed down on paper the same unkind words we’d hurled against each other in the final hours of his last night alive.
We’d had the big trial that day—the Chicago, Central and Pacific Railroad bankruptcy case—and as federal court recorder for the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Iowa, I’d stayed late as testimony dragged out into the early evening. Despite a pounding headache, I couldn’t wait to get back home to tell my mother and stepfather all about the trial, one of Sioux City’s largest.
I arrived in Onawa just before 8 p.m., an hour of daylight left to spare, and went straight to the Monona. After gulping back two aspirins, I eagerly answered all their questions while taking care to not ask them the one I most wanted answered; had my father left town that day?
Yes, this time he’d stayed around much longer than we’d thought he would. Sure, he had made some threats, but after all, wasn’t that type of anger one of those stages of grief everyone experiences after a divorce? Besides, hadn’t he already sold all his guns? Even his favorite Winchester 12 gauge that helped launch him into the Iowa Trapshooting Hall of Fame?
He still loved her. Everyone knew that. She knew that. And in her own way, we knew she’d always love him, too. She’d waited for the last of their five children to graduate high school before divorcing him.
When my ex-sister-in-law stopped by the Monona one hour later, she reminded me it wasn’t only Friday night but also Labor Day weekend. “Let’s go across the street to B & B,” she said. “I’ll buy you a drink.”
I wanted to go home and change before going to the local pub with its country-western music and horse collar wall hangings, but she wouldn’t hear of it. “We’re burning daylight, girl, and nobody cares if you’re in a suit.”
Forty-five minutes after Denise and I arrived at B & B Round-up my father walked through the tavern’s front door. He didn’t see us setting in a booth and took a seat at the bar. He sat there alone, smoking a Kool Filter King cigarette and staring absently to some place beyond the rows of bottles, his eyes fixed on nothing but the past. His shirt hung loosely around slanted shoulders, and suddenly he looked older to me than his 50 years. His left hand cupped a glass of liquid gold.
“I’m going to go talk to my dad awhile,” I said, and Denise got up at the same time.
“I need to get going, anyway,” she said. “I’ll see you later.”
Taking a deep breath, I pulled up a barstool next to my father and sat down beside him. “Where’s my drink?” I joked.
His slate blue, glazed eyes looked into mine and I realized he’d been drinking for some time.
“Get her one,” he motioned to the slender bartender, but I shook my head and lifted my glass.
“I already have one,” I said, but he looked past it and over my shoulder and then stood up.
“Let’s go sit in a booth,” he said, and we moved across the room to the same booth I’d just vacated. He set his drink on a Budweiser coaster and lit another cigarette. “So, what is your mother and that husband of hers up to these days?”
He’d once again drawn a line to see if I would cross it. Mom’s side. Dad’s side. Why-won’t-you-take-my-side.
“Mom and Earl are fine,” I said, stirring my Bloody Mary. “How’s Jo Ann? I haven’t seen her in ages.”
“That’s another thing,” he said. “I ain’t got no business staying twenty miles out in the country with my sister when I got four grown kids living right here in town.”
“What happened with the job in Florida?” I tried to change the subject. “Weren’t you supposed to go back last week?”
His birthday loomed less than two weeks away and I suspected he didn’t want to spend it alone.
“I got more brains than what them people wanted. And that don’t answer my question about staying with you.”
“I don’t want anybody staying at my house while I’m at work,” I said, staring down at my glass to avoid the glare I knew would follow.
“Bullshit!” He slammed down his fist so hard tomato juice jumped from my glass and sprinkled red flecks across the table. “It don’t have anything to do with you not wanting anybody at your house. If it were your mother you’d let her stay there in a minute. You just don’t want me in your house.”
“That’s not true.” But even as I spoke the words we both knew I’d lied; I didn’t want him staying at my house.
I didn’t want to wake up anymore to stagnant cigarette smoke hanging in the air. I didn’t want to pay another hefty phone bill for long distance calls I’d never made. I didn’t want the television blasting in the next room while I tried to sleep. I wanted to prove to my four siblings that I, too, could finally be strong and say he needed to move on.
Two years earlier, I’d gone back to Maryland to try and salvage my marriage after an initial separation. The same rainy day my husband and I were moving into our newly rented house with our two young children, my father showed up out of the blue.
“I’m headed for a shoot, but was so close I had to stop by and see my grandson and granddaughter,” he said, hoisting our 6-year-old son to his shoulders.
Trapshooting had been my dad’s life. He’d broken so many records I’d lost count. In July 1975 at age 38, he’d been the youngest shooter ever inducted into the Iowa Trapshooting Hall of Fame and the first one to go in with minimum years. Dad was known nationwide as a member of the All-American Trap Team and one of only 15 members in the United States and Canada to be on its First Team. In July 1976, he and my 14-year-old brother, Brett, broke another record by becoming the first father and son in Iowa history to be on the All-American First Team in the same year. That same year they were Winchester Western Corporation’s guests of honor at the Grand American in Vandalia, Ohio, where they received specially engraved gold signet rings. And in June 1977, the 25th Annual Billy Fawcett Memorial Trapshoot at the Minnesota State Shoot in St. Cloud touted on the event brochure’s cover: Dedicated to the All-American Don Ewing.
My father hadn’t shot much since 1981 when he and Mom divorced, and in all the years I’d accompanied him to shoots across the U.S., I’d never known him to attend a shoot in Maryland. He’d been wandering about somewhat aimlessly, settling in with friends or family members for short visits as they’d allow.
He arrived just in time to help us carry our belongings from the one-day rented U-Haul onto our new home’s open but covered back porch—furniture and boxes some military friends had allowed us to store in their Andrews Air Force Base townhouse’s basement while awaiting our move-in date—and of which I now discovered were populated with dozens of tiny cockroaches.
I’d tried to hide my tears as I unpacked every item from every box outside in the windy rain … all our dishes … my grandmother’s mementos … my old typed and handwritten short stories … and wasn’t sure if I cried more over the scattering roaches and having to unpack outside or because my father had arrived on the very day I’d planned to start a new beginning with my young family.
“It’s okay, Mommy,” said my 4-year-old, clutching to her chest the Cabbage Patch doll my dad had given her during his last visit. “The rain will stop. It always does.”
While still living in Iowa, my former Maryland employer had gotten wind of my pending return east, and my new banking job began Monday.
Once I went back to work, my father settled into his own routine of daytime TV and nights out after dinner. Every week or so he’d pop into my office at the bank’s regional office, and one Saturday talked me into accompanying him to a Virginia shoot under the guise Barbra Streisand would be there. I’d been furious after discovering I’d been duped.
“Well, she could have ‘pert near been her twin,” Dad had responded with a short puff of laughter that vibrated across his lips. It never occurred to me he’d just wanted one of his kids at the shoot with him like in all the good old days when three or four of us all tagged along.
By the time the three-month mark approached, I’d slipped into such a state of malaise I dreaded going to work each day and looked even less forward to returning home. The reconciliation with my husband wasn’t working out, and I didn’t know whether to blame it on our lack of privacy or a marriage damaged beyond repair long before my father’s arrival.
He’d already gone through what little money he had left, and if we wanted to help him to his feet there seemed only one solution.
“Don’t worry about paying it back,” I said outside that morning before leaving for work and kissing him goodbye. “It’s not much, but hopefully enough to get you started. And don’t forget where we live. You know how much the kids will miss you.”
I’d smiled, and given him what he always called “another quick smooch.”
At three o’clock that afternoon, I wondered how far he’d got. Had he headed back to Iowa? Or had he got sidetracked in Virginia when saying goodbye to friends?
I didn’t wonder long.
One of the loan officers tapped on my office door. “Looks like you have a visitor and he’s come with good tidings.”
I looked up from a balance sheet and found my father standing there grinning, a full case of Martini & Rossi Asti Spumante gripped in his hands. Another loan officer appeared at my door, cupped his hand around his mouth and shouted down the hall, “The party’s up here!”
Two weeks later I left Maryland—and my own marriage—for good. My father and I said our goodbyes again before he headed south in his Buick Grand Sport and my children and I followed the U-Haul west.
In the two years since I’d returned to Iowa, my father had visited frequently, first staying with my sister Lori, then with me and then with his sister Jo Ann. He’d stayed longer than usual this time, and as a single working parent I quickly tired of his hours, his having taken over my daughter’s bedroom and his lack of initiative in finding gainful employment. I politely asked him to leave and go stay with his sister for a while, and he’d gone … reluctantly.
I hadn’t seen him all week since the railroad bankruptcy trial began, though as I wiped up tomato juice spatter I quickly realized his resentment hadn’t subsided at all.
He leaned his back into the booth’s corner and smirked at me across the table. “Ain’t none of you the same,” he said. “You ain’t the same kids I raised. She ain’t the same woman I married.”
“That’s right, they do,” he said, lunging forward to lock his eyes on mine. I tried to look away but the steely blue magnetic waves pulled mine back just as they had as a child. “You know I still got power of attorney over the Monona, don’t you?”
“What? Where did you…” The fragment of hope in his glassy eyes, that sliver of faith he’d managed to cling to made me stop short. He really believed it. That one day things would be like they were before, that if he couldn’t have her, he could take the one thing he thought really mattered to her, that winning back the Monona would somehow translate into also having won her.
He’d hated that she left him, hated that he couldn’t get over her and hated even more the very idea she may have gotten over him. I’d thought hate had finally fully consumed him, but now, in his eyes, I saw past the hatred and found the same ineffable raw sense of hopelessness I’d witnessed only once before.
I’d walked into the Monona that day and saw them sitting side by side on the old worn sofa, neither having heard me come in. My father had his head bent over and buried in his hands and my mother had her right arm wrapped around his shoulders while he rocked back and forth and begged please Hopie please don’t leave me and please Hopie please I can’t live without you and his great shoulders shook like a mountainous volcano just before he erupted with a guttural wail that spewed forth intolerable pain and distress and my mother looked up and I saw tears rolling like lava down her twinging face and she saw me standing frozen there beholding the real depth of their love for each other for the very last time.
It would take me many years to fully understand why she had to leave, to understand how a man and woman can truly love as one though not live as one, yet as I sat across the table from him in the booth at B & B and saw that look in his eyes once again, I knew he could not stop loving her despite the pain it would bring him in the end.
I got up and went to the restroom to wash my face and clear my head. By the time I returned, Dad was ordering us another drink. “It’s your turn to buy,” I joked, not wanting him to notice I’d gone to cry.
He dug through his pockets, pulling things out and placing them on the laminate table. A pocketknife. A set of car keys. A silver dollar money clip with no money in it. And two loose dollar bills.
“It’s all right,” I said. “I’ll get it.”
He looked up only long enough to silence me, and I barely heard him speak. “What’s fair is fair.” He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a five. Only then did I notice the blue jeans. When had he stopped wearing khakis? And what had happened with the yellow shooting shirt? He’d become a different man than the one in the big Hall of Fame photo hanging on my wall at home—the man sitting perched on a stool with the big Stetson hat and neatly pressed khakis and yellow shirting shoot and cowboy boots, a 12 gauge shotgun angling from the floor with the barrel casually nested in the crook of his left arm, a hand still sporting a wedding ring and solid gold Trapshooting trophy ring—his grin as wide as neighboring Nebraska.
I’d been in bed only two hours when something stirred me from a deep sleep. Struggling to open my eyes, I saw silhouettes of two people standing in my bedroom doorway, the living room light behind them. I thought I’d turned it off.
“Jody, are you awake?” I heard my mother’s soft whisper. I didn’t answer, but by the time she’d walked into the room and sat down on the edge of my bed, I’d recognized the other figure as my youngest sister Kysa.
I sat up and looked at the clock … just after 4 a.m. For some reason, I never thought to question why my mother and sister were in my bedroom in the middle of the night.
Mom placed her left hand across my right leg. “Your dad was in an accident last night.”
I guiltily recalled our argument the night before. I hadn’t given in and let him come back to stay with me. In fact, I’d actually stood up to him, really held my own for the first time. I’d defended my mother and said I didn’t want to hear any more bad things about her or Earl. And then I’d lied straight to his face when he said we’d all be jumping at the chance if Mom were the one needing a place to stay.
“How is he?” I asked.
She skipped a beat before choking on two words. “He’s dead.”
My legs began shaking uncontrollably and electricity sparked in waves through my body as I pounded my fists against the mattress to ward off demons rising up inside me.
No! No! No! No! The words mirrored those I’d screamed in childhood a thousand nights before shedding sleep’s last veil and awakening to find no monster hovering over my bed.
I had to go to him to make things right again. “Where is he?” I asked.
“They haven’t found him yet,” Mom said. “His car hit the Little Sioux River bridge and went into the river, but they haven’t found his body yet.”
In the second that followed, I suddenly wanted to strike her. No body? NO BODY? If he were dead, how could there not be a body? How could she sit there and tell me my father was dead when they didn’t even have a body?
The thought of his car hitting a bridge seemed ludicrous; he’d practically spent his whole life behind the wheel, whether pulling a 33-foot Cobra fifth-wheel trailer to a shoot or driving the #32 stock car he used to race when I was young. I could still remember the pillows my Grandma Ewing gave all of us for safer rides in that blue race car.
And then came what seems like a very long stretch of time—somewhere between my house and the Little Sioux River—where I sat in the back seat of my mother’s Chrysler’s Fifth Avenue, feeling the coolness of leather beneath my jeans and smoking one cigarette after another. Cigarettes I hadn’t wanted him smoking in my home.
“Are you cold?” my mother asked, and I said no although my arms and legs would not stop shaking. I’d quickly thrown on a thin blue T-shirt and slipped my worn huarache sandals on my feet.
Mom turned to face Earl and I saw her slip her hand into his. Her fluffy blonde hair was pressed flat on one side, but she looked more beautiful than I’d ever remembered. Earl had given her a new kind of radiance and she glowed in his presence. I pictured them sleeping soundly when my only brother, Brett, the youngest of us all, had come pounding on their door and told my bewildered, still half-asleep mother, “I don’t have a dad anymore,” and I had to stifle another sob. I knew she loved Earl dearly—we all had come to love Earl like a second father—but Dad hadn’t quite left her life. Earl squeezed her hand, and, feeling my mother’s ache, I looked away and my mind raced.
I need to find the body. I will find the body.
We saw the flashing red lights long before we got to the bridge, and as we drew nearer they gave way to several squad cars parked just off the two-lane highway. Earl pulled in behind them as I stared in disbelief at the Little Sioux River bridge.
How could I have been so unprepared?
As far as my eyes could see, broken glass sparkled under lights like a magnificent chandelier crashed down upon a stage. Scraps of paper large and small danced and soared amongst the crystal shards as if trying to steal the limelight. Debris and reminders of my father’s life lay haphazardly scattered all across the bridge.
I got out and took two steps forward before feeling a light snap against my ankle. Looking down, I saw a section of an eight-track tape: The Oak Ridge Boys – Fancy Free. Part of the magnetic tape slithered around my feet, the rest strewn across the pavement like discarded ribbons from a child’s Christmas package. The distorted guardrail lay halfway down the bank.
I made my way through a dozen onlookers toward the bridge. Yellow foam earplugs, still in new cardboard containers, hugged the corner of the bridge’s foot-high ledge. A small sheet of paper—my father’s handwriting!—fluttered away in the wind before I had time to bend down to retrieve it.
Darkness hung thick all around, and cornstalks’ shadows waved from the adjacent fields.
He’s there. Not in the river. Thrown from the car … I know it. He’s in the field and he will come walking out, laughing and ready to spin his latest adventurous tale.
“A lot wilder than spinning ’round that track,” he’ll boast with gusto. “Should’ve had ‘Number 32’ on the side of that little Buick.”
“What was he wearing? Do you remember?”
A young sheriff’s deputy stood in front of me, a pencil poised over a small notebook page. He gave a sympathetic smile. “It would make it easier if we knew what to look for.” My mind reached back, but could no more go in reverse than the Oak Ridge Boys tape I’d found on the highway. How could I not remember? I’d been with him only hours earlier, but could not recall what he’d been wearing. I remembered the clothes he’d worn the previous Wednesday when he’d come by my house and bragged about his recent weight loss. Yes, he was slimmer than he’d been in years. Downright thin, in fact. Why hadn’t I connected the dots until this moment? How many nights had he gone to bed hungry?
My eyes stared straight through the deputy. I uttered no sound. Somewhere in the dark behind him, I heard my sister Lori’s voice.
She wore an oversized black leather jacket and it made her look even smaller than her already frail 105 pounds. We fell into a tight embrace and I rubbed her back. She smelled like a mixture of cigarettes and Interlude perfume, my mother’s favorite. How many times, while living on the Air Force base two thousand miles from home, had I gone to the base exchange and sprayed the Interlude sampler across my neck when missing my mother more than usual?
“Did you see the car?” Lori asked through chattering teeth.
I shook my head, and she led me away from the deputy to the high northwest bank where the Buick Grand Sport had just been pulled from the river. I didn’t recognize the crouching mass of twisted black metal with the driver’s side roof crushed to the seat, and, turning away from my sister and the Buick—the only real place my dad had to call home for far too many months—burst into tears.
I didn’t want to see it. Didn’t want to be close to it, so headed back toward the bridge. Crossing it alone in the dark, I heard someone else’s cries on the other side. The sobs grew louder the closer I got, and I saw my brother hanging over the railing, hugging the steel bars for support. I put my arms around him and he briefly put his head against my shoulder before pulling away to stare back into the river once again.
“Where is he?” Brett asked me. “Where is he?”
I had no answer.
We stood side by side, staring down into the dark murky waters, convinced the sun would never rise. We constantly looked toward Turin’s Loess Hills, watching for the slightest hint of light we desperately needed to search for our father.
At 6:30 a.m. sharp the sun finally poked its curious head over the ridge, illuminating what remained of my father’s broken life in grotesque color.
More of his belongings lay scattered along both east and west riverbanks, and I carefully made my way through the brush and climbed down the embankment over sharp rocks and rubble. The heavy sediment tugged at my sandals, threatening to pull them off my feet and bury in deep silt. When I reached the water’s edge I tried to absorb the dismal scene around me.
Stooping down, I plucked a photograph from the underbrush. It showed someone dressed in a chicken suit—the kind of costumes one sees at football games—the big head covered with bright yellow feathers and the large orange beak pointed directly toward the camera. I saw piercing slate blue eyes squinting behind the mask, and instantly knew how hard he’d been smiling when someone snapped the photo. I wiped away the mud from other scattered pictures, some taken during his last Florida trip where he looked deeply tanned and so very fit.
The edge of a book poked from a thicket like an envelope shoved into a Christmas tree, and the title smacked with a grave reminder; You Know You’re Fifty When…
I swiped at my face and walked down closer to the shore, my sandals long mired in mud and left behind. Tiny scraps of paper flittered by like butterflies, and I bent to grab what I could. People’s names. Phone numbers. Mathematical figures written down with calculated answers—every one correct without any hint of carried over numbers—the same way I’d seen him calculate figures in his head faster than my siblings or I could press calculator buttons. Scores from previous shoots. A box of golf balls. When had Dad ever played golf?
Clothes. White socks. White cotton underwear. Tires ripped away from axles. Twisted sections of a silver guardrail. More books. More snapshot-sized photos. The last of what he’d owned but saved.
Every important life event had flown over the railing with his little Buick.
“Maybe somehow he climbed out unhurt,” said an upbeat voice in the distance, and I recognized it as Judy, the wife of one of my father’s card-playing friends. “You know Don. He’s a charmer. He’s probably out there walking around somewhere.”
Yes, I thought. He’s out there walking around. Watching us. He’ll be here soon. He probably got thrown from the car and wasn’t even badly hurt. Perhaps a little disoriented, he’d crawled off or wandered into one of the adjoining fields.
A few feet away I stopped cold. A man’s white tennis shoe lay before me, its laces still tied. I picked it up slowly and then glanced up the steep bank past other wreckage for any clues as to his whereabouts or the cause of the accident. Even as my vision blurred, in the new light I saw the deep gash in the west bank’s side. Something white lay nearby. I blindly climbed back up the embankment, ignoring thistles and sharp rocks cutting into my bare feet. Most of the white towel lay hidden beneath overturned soft earth. I tugged at the cloth, first seeing a pale pink discoloration and then feeling gasoline’s pungent odor stinging my nostrils. Still holding the shoe and towel, the last white cloth he’d likely used to bathe, I turned around to look down the narrow river. I blinked. Hard.
Hundreds of red empty shotgun hulls lay spilled across the east riverbank like a torn bag of jellybeans. They’d scattered down the bank all the way to the water where, guided by the weight of their gold crowns, they floated lazily downriver. One by one, they made a silent journey past me before vanishing beneath the bridge. I let go of the shoe and dropped to the ground to weep.
With more light came the Siouxland Underwater Search and Recovery team in black wetsuits, nameless faces. I sat on the bank under the bridge beside my mother and brother and two younger sisters while we held collective breaths from the time they’d slip into the murky waters until they’d resurface and look up to us with a shake of the head. Earl had gone back to town, and my mother hadn’t yet been able to reach my older sister Kim in California. Kim and her husband lived in a trailer on a construction site and had no phone. Mom had left word with the state highway patrol to drive out to the site and arrange for Kim to call home.
When the divers took a break, we gingerly sifted through the pictures and mementos we’d each accumulated and reminisced as we shared them with one another before putting them into our paper sacks.
“Do you remember,” Lori said, “that time when we had the old blue and white Suburban, when that guy pulled out in front of Dad down on Fifteenth Street and he slammed on the brakes and we went screeching through the intersection?”
The question brought a smile to my face. She’d been sitting next to Dad, and me beside her, and my father had cursed in anger.
“You cock sucker!” Lori and I both yelled out now, imitating my father’s words, and then Lori said again, “You cock sucker!” mimicking the words she’d repeated after him, only this time with a little catch in her voice.
“I thought he was going to kill me,” she said, even though our father had burst into laughter right before his sharp reprimand.
It made me think, too, of the time she rode in the Suburban’s back left seat, window rolled all the way down, the wind blasting through her hair when my father spit out his own window one split second before looking up into the rear-view mirror. I knew she was remembering this, too, but we sat on the bank together and didn’t speak again for a very long while.
By evening, the divers hadn’t found Dad in the ten-foot-deep river and most of the crowd had dwindled away, their jackets rippling in the wind as a storm front started moving in. They’d combed the fields and pastures, walked the rows of corn, but found no trace of anything to indicate his whereabouts. No blood, they said. And only footprints from what they suspected belonged to searchers.
All the evidence seemed to point in one direction: he was in the river … somewhere. Sunday morning, my brother Brett and my mother’s only brother Rick went out in a flat-bottomed boat looking for traces of any kind. The storm hadn’t yet arrived, though dark clouds hung low in the sky and it already had begun drizzling. Miles downriver, down toward the mouth where the Little Sioux emptied into the Missouri River, law enforcement officials found more of my father’s belongings. They retrieved a billfold, more clothes, more empty shotgun shell casings, and papers hung up on debris near the riverbank.
Kysa and I rode with Mom and Earl all the way to the dam, thinking if the current were strong enough it might have carried Dad that far. We stood gazing over the edge of the concrete wall, watching water beat against rocks and swish through the damn’s opening before rolling away to merge with the Mighty Mo. By the time we returned to the Little Sioux bridge, the drizzle had turned into a downpour and Brett and Rick were pulling in their boat. Dad’s two sisters, Jo Ann and Shirley, waited with their husbands in another car as the wipers lobbed back and forth and the rain beat in pellets on the swollen river.
Early that evening my mother and I met my sister Kim at the airport. We hugged one another for a brief moment before allowing ourselves to cry.
“Is it over?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “It will never be over.”
“Let’s go,” my mother said. “Maybe they’ve found something.”
We’d just begun walking through the airport when I saw him up ahead. Those same old khakis with the rolled cuffs. That light yellow shirt and the thinning hair. Hadn’t he even seen us? And why did he move away so fast with such long strides? My pace quickened as I began following him. I left Mom and Kim behind, rushing through the airport, struggling to keep him in sight, wanting to holler out to him to wait for me, but he faded fast and disappeared from view. And suddenly, there he was again, ready to exit through the airport’s revolving doors. I stopped running and shivered as the cool outside air hit me. He hesitated one brief moment and then abruptly turned to look straight at me. Our eyes locked for two full seconds before he stepped into the rotating cylinder, vanishing from sight just as Kim caught up with me.
“What in the hell were you doing?” she said, leaning over to catch her breath.
“There was something I needed to tell him. Something I needed to say.”
“Who?” She looked around at the unfamiliar faces.
I stared at the revolving doors, waiting for him to reappear.
“Who were you looking for?” Kim asked again.
“It could have been him,” I said.
My mother joined us and we stepped outside. The rain had finally stopped.
“The cops left a message on our door,” Kim said as we walked across the street toward the parking ramp. “I didn’t find out until last night.”
A special “Underwater Search and Recovery Team” from Missouri were on their way to help. They’d heard about my missing father over their scanner while looking for a 9-year-old boy down south, and they were bringing dogs. Big dogs. Intelligent dogs. The always-pick-up-on-a-scent smartest dogs they had.
They said the dogs would go out on the boats with them and could smell gasses from a dead body—even bodies under water—and that the dogs would “get excited” if they got a “hit.”
We thanked them profusely as dogs jumped into small fishing boats. At 7:05 a.m. on Labor Day, the boats rocked and swayed while pulling away from shore and coasting to the narrow river’s middle.
I looked out across the cornfield and wondered why Dad just wouldn’t emerge from between two rows of tassels. I wanted to shout, “Why do you make us wait! Come out and feel the sunshine on your face!” I didn’t want nice strangers from Missouri proving how good the dogs really were. I wasn’t ready. But the cornfield only swayed and whispered and I turned my attention back to the boats.
Ten minutes later, a woman yelled. “We got a hit!”
Kim grabbed my arm as one of the deputies beside us explained a second dog would have to verify the hit before they’d send down a diver. Otherwise, he said, once a diver went down it messed up the scent and the dogs would have trouble picking it up again. A second dog verified the hit, but instead of sending a diver down they marked the spot and moved the boats a few feet away. I didn’t understand why they waited.
It wasn’t very long before one of the dogs picked up another scent. A second dog verified it and they decided to send a diver into the river. He went down again and again, covering the area just south of the bridge between the two hits, but returned to the surface each time having found nothing. Onlookers shouted out advice.
“You should be down the river farther and working your way back,” one said.
“Hell, he’s probably already long gone and washed out in the Missouri,” said another. “Them dogs are probably picking up scents from ‘fore he floated away.”
My siblings and I looked at our mother for reassurance. “If he’s in the river,” she said, “he’s probably right there where the accident happened.”
That area lay right in front of us, and as a family we decided we weren’t moving.
Just after 1 p.m. another car stopped and a woman with long sandy blonde hair approached our chief of police and the other officer standing next to us.
“I’m from the Ida County Water Rescue Unit,” she said. “If you need any help here, we’ve got our own team equipped with everything … drags, drivers, the works. I was by here Saturday and saw everybody and see you haven’t had any luck. We have all our own people and work strictly on a volunteer basis, and we’d be more than happy to help out.”
“I think we’ve got about all the help—”
“We can use all the help we can get,” I interrupted the officer. “The more people helping, the sooner we can find my father.”
The two leaned together for a quick conference and the officer nodded to her.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can with the help,” she said.
After she’d gone, my family reassembled at the top of the dike, sitting on pickup tailgates as the afternoon sun warmed the ground. Our ears perked up when we recognized a diver’s voice over the police chief’s scanner.
“This dog is really going crazy down here,” the woman’s voice said. “She’s picking up a hit right here. Do you think we should go down again?”
A plump kid lay on the bank a few feet away, and he leisurely lifted his field radio. “Ah, it’s probably just a scent from one of the divers,” he said. “Besides, we’ve already checked out that spot.”
At 2:30 p.m., the Ida County Unit arrived in a white bus, and within minutes had their boat, drags and divers in the water. An hour later, the Missouri crew stated they needed to leave. They had a long drive ahead of them, and the divers were clearly exhausted. We thanked them again, and after their vehicles pulled away, I looked back toward the river and the boat where my Uncle Rick now rode with one of the Ida County divers. Rick leaned over the edge, lowering another drag into the water.
“I just have a feeling Rick is going to be the one to find him,” I said to my mother, all at once wondering when I’d reconciled the idea Dad was in the river.
“I hope so,” Mom said.
At 5 p.m., she touched my shoulder. “I’m taking Earl back to town,” she said. “Do you want to go?”
I walked with her toward their car. My sister Kysa had been using mine and left just ten minutes earlier. My stepfather leaned against the Chrysler, his arms folded across his chest, and I felt a sudden urge to embrace him. So strong, he was, for his five stepchildren. So strong, he would always be, for my mother.
“I’ll stay here,” I said. “I’ll wait with Lori and the others.” I retrieved my purse from the Chrysler’s back seat and touched Earl lightly on the arm. “Get some rest,” I told him. He nodded before climbing into the car to start the engine.
I walked to Lori’s car to re-deposit my purse. I’d barely closed the back door when I heard an anguished voice scream my name.
If my name is spoken a million more times, never again will it sound like it did when Lori’s angst-ridden wail thundered through that warm September night.
All at once, I knew, but my feet would not move.
“Jooody!” Lori cried again, and I knew the time had come.
“Did they find him?”
“Yeeesss! Where’s Mom?”
I turned around and saw the Chrysler just as it pulled away.
“Get Mom! Get her! Go get her!”
I began to run.
Straight down the middle of the road, I ran as if my life depended on it. I flailed my arms back and forth. “Mom! Mom! Come back!” I yelled, while the voice inside my head kept repeating calmly, They haven’t really found him, they just think they found him … and they may have found something … but they haven’t really found Dad.
The Chrysler continued west down the highway.
Then I saw him. The Moore kid I’d known from years ago in high school—the one who always leaned his head against the classroom’s second chalkboard—and he now stood on the highway’s shoulder next to his parked motorcycle. The county sheriff’s office had long shooed everyone away except family, but the Moore boy remained, watching from afar.
“Go get her!” I shouted at him while pointing down the highway. “Please, go get my mom! You have to go get her!”
He tried to say something and began to stutter, making no effort to mount his bike. He shrugged his shoulders and lifted his hands into the air.
“Please!” I begged him, but suddenly heard squealing tires behind me. I scrambled to the side of the highway to let my brother’s truck pass, lost in the smoke as he roared down the road to reclaim our mother.
I rushed back to the bridge and folded myself into Kim and Lori’s waiting arms.
“The drag caught on something at first,” Lori said, “and when it came to the surface, it popped like a big bubble.”
“It looked like fluid when it came apart,” Kim said. “But then they lost it.”
And then they both began talking at once about how he’d been found and I pulled away and yelled at them that if they’d lost whatever they had on the drag they still couldn’t be certain they’d really found Dad. It could have been anything on the drag, I shouted.
And Kim stared back at me with wide open eyes and said Jody when they pulled him up a second time I saw the calf of his leg and a tennis shoe and one of the hooks had him by the belt buckle but they lowered him back into the water until they can clear us all away because they don’t want any of us to see him when they pull him from the river.
Her words rolled in my head and I didn’t believe her. I didn’t want to believe her. Instead I looked back toward the highway where Brett’s pickup had just come to a stop and saw my mother sitting there beside him.
I began to cry and shook my head. “I tried to make him go after her but he wouldn’t.” “What?” Kim said.
“The Moore kid. The one with the motorcycle.”
Mom and Brett had almost reached us.
“Jody, that boy’s motorcycle doesn’t run right,” Lori said. “It doesn’t have any speed at all. He couldn’t have caught her, anyway.”
I couldn’t bear to see the grief on my mother’s face as Brett held her arm and slowly led her to us, so I looked away, down toward the river. To the boat. The boat Rick was driving. The boat that now sat motionless on the river in the very spot beneath the bridge where the Missouri dogs picked up all the hits and where my family and I had huddled together for the last three long days.
Reeling, reeling, reeling. They were reeling something in. The boat bobbed up and down as men worked hard. Men, who could have been fishing. Men, whose beaded brows glistened in the late afternoon sun as a diver diligently worked beneath the boat.
Brett and Mom had come to stand beside my sisters and me, and we pulled ourselves up. We were strong. We could do this.
And then, a splash of blue. A brief glimpse … a white tennis shoe. And then words, rising from the river toward a place of lost hope.
“We got him, fellas.”