Photo Credit: commercialappeal.com
The dark clouds moved across the sky, bringing the sweet aroma of raindrops. Charlie could feel it coming, the old crick in his knee flaring and sending spasms up through his ancient leg. When he was eighteen, Charlie had climbed the old water tower in town on a dare. The bad joint and the infamy of falling from the tower was all that remained of his youth. Sometimes, Charlie would stand below that old water tower and imagine climbing it once again. He remembered the fear winding its way through his body as his foot hit the first rung of the rickety ladder.
Charlie sighed, pushing the old memory from his withered mind, and continued towards his truck. As he climbed into the cab of a truck that was almost as old as he was, Charlie said a silent prayer that Bill would have what he needed. Charlie wasn’t the farmer he used to be and had sold off many of his acres over time because he could no longer work the land like before. His father had left him the farm on his passing, but Charlie had never made time for a family so he ran it alone. Alone and with the help of a few farm hands here and there. What was left of the 200 acre plot was only a little over five acres, and Charlie mourned the passing of those precious miles every time he drove past them.
Bill’s place was a long twenty minutes away, and Charlie drove as fast as the old truck could handle. He wound his way through town, stopping at intersections for kids riding bikes in the last hours of summer vacation. Charlie cruised by the old drive-in where he had once taken Anne Marie Jenkins after one of those silly school dances. She had been wearing a light pink dress that puffed out at the waist. He had matched the shade of her corsage perfectly, and he had driven his dad’s Mustang to pick her up. The drive-in was later as well as his first real kiss.
As Charlie drove and reminisced, fat drops of rain began to fall, splattering the rusty roof of the old pickup and dribbling down the cracked windshield. The old wipers creaked like Charlie’s leg as he flipped them on. “And, it begins,” Charlie muttered. He had hoped to get home before the rain. He needed to trade the pulley system to get things going again on the farm, and a storm would put a significant dent in his schedule, and his paycheck.
Charlie pushed the truck a little faster, its belts squealing in defiance, towards Bill’s which sat a few miles beyond the water tower. Charlie did the best he could to push away those old memories that seemed to come more frequently since his last doctor’s visit. Old Doc Benson had taken a listen to Charlie’s heart and pronounced him not long for this world. Of course, Charlie had resisted believing the modern medicine diagnosis even though Doc was as old as they come. However, Charlie couldn’t deny the fatigue and chest pains that came and went.
Faced with his certain destruction, regrets began to sneak up on him. Why hadn’t he gotten married? Had some kids? Why did his life feel like it lacked purpose and importance when the end was so near? Charlie shook the thoughts from his head trying to focus on the road. The rain had taken on a sheeting quality, slamming water onto the front of Charlie’s truck, and the ancient wipers couldn’t keep up.
Charlie depressed the brake pedal, attempting to compensate for the lakes of rain that had migrated to the surface of the road, when a form appeared in front of him. The figure flailed and lunged toward the truck, its black hair streaming and flying in the wind. Charlie’s gentle decrease in speed morphed into a brake-slamming, tire-screeching attempt to not hit the person head on. Charlie gripped the wheel as the back of the truck began to fishtail on the slick street, but his tires finally found purchase on the asphalt and Charlie shot forward as the truck came to a jerking halt.
Trying to catch his breath, Charlie fumbled for the door handle of the truck, swung the door, and stumbled into the pouring rain. The person had collapsed in the middle of the road, but Charlie could tell it was a woman, more like a girl. He ran to her, his knee screaming from the combination of the accident, the weather, and his age. He rolled her on her back, noticing that she didn’t seem to be bleeding or to have any broken bones, and her eyes fluttered open.
“He’s still up there,” she bellowed, trying to sit up. Her clothes were saturated with rain, and water ran from the dark ropes of her hair.
“Shh,” Charlie soothed. “Who is up there?” He asked, looking around for help, but the road was empty. People must have taken refuge inside from the storm because no one with any sense would have braved these torrential drops and beating winds.
“Tommy!” she screamed, pushing herself to her feet and dragging Charlie towards the field. Charlie stumbled and struggled to keep up with the crying girl when he looked up and realized where he was. The storm had obscured the hulking tower from his view by the road. Charlie’s feet suddenly planted and he ripped his old hand from the girl’s young one.
“Where is Tommy?” Charlie asked, his words coming slowly and measured. His eyes stayed glued to the tower and fear started to unfurl in his stomach.
“He’s stuck inside the tower. We went up there on a dare, and he fell in. I can’t get him out by myself. Help me!” She cried and began her dash towards the immense structure.
Charlie felt frozen from the memories of his fall from the outside walkway that skirted the tower. He had never been foolish enough to climb to the very top. He didn’t want to climb it, but what else could he do? By the time he contacted the police and fire department, the boy, Tommy, could be hurt or dead. Charlie looked down at his wrinkled hands and stretched his aching fingers. His right hand went to his heart, and Charlie turned around and jogged back to his truck.
He climbed into the bed and wrapped the rope and pulley around his arm. He deftly jumped from the rig and raced towards the water tower.
When he reached that same rickety ladder, the dark haired girl had already begun to climb. “Hey, be careful!” He yelled as he hefted the rope over his shoulder and stepped onto the first rung. Water splattered his face and rolled into his eyes as he looked up and climbed. Drops smacked against the ladder, slicking the surface with their wet bodies, and Charlie climbed. The rope almost fell once during his ascent, but he managed to cling to it as well as the ladder.
“What are we gonna do?” the dark haired girl pleaded as Charlie struggled to pull himself onto the platform and catch his breath.
“I suppose, I’m gonna climb that ladder there, and set this pulley here up to rescue your friend.” Charlie was a matter-of-fact kind of guy, so after he had rested, he stepped onto the next ladder. “You climb down and go get real help,” he called down to the dark haired girl whose eyes had grown to two times their normal size.
“Are you sure, mister?” she asked. He could see she was waiting for permission, so she stopped his ascent and turned to nod at her. She turned and he watched as her head dipped below the platform. Charlie looked up at the ladder and continued his climb.
Although winded, the climb wasn’t nearly as bad as Charlie had expected. Besides the inconvenience and danger of the incessant rain, Charlie felt fine, like he could make it and make a difference. That was until he reached the point where the sides of the giant tower met the roof. Charlie had to inch his way on his belly along the ladder in order to reach the center hole where Tommy had most likely entered the giant metal container.
“Tommy!” Charlie shouted as he neared the opening. “Are you alright, boy?” he shouted and strained his ears against the rain and towards the hole hoping to catch a note or two of the boy’s cries.
Charlie reached the opening and peered down into the dark. “Tommy, are you in there?” He could hear his voice echoing off of the walls of the tower, but he also heard the small words that seemed to float out of the black water about 50 feet down. “Listen, kid, I’m gonna lower down a rope. You need to tie it to yourself and hold on. I’ll pull you up.” Charlie couldn’t hear what the kid said, but he was pretty sure Tommy had responded.
Charlie set to work fashioning the pulley around the metal bars that capped the gaping entry into the treacherous tower. The bars were supposed to protect people, but right now he was lucky they were there to aid in the rescue of the boy. Charlie lowered the rope as far as the length would allow. He felt a tug on the end of the rope and took a glance back down the hole.
“Do you have it? When you’ve tied it on, give the rope two sharp tugs, and I’ll start pullin’,” Charlie said, and he waited. Despite the rain stinging his face, Charlie looked up into the dull sky. His eyes scanned the horizon and the green rolling fields that stretched from here to the end of the county and beyond. He loved this country, its simple living and simple folks, and here he was rescuing one. He could picture to boy’s mother hugging him and baking him a pie in gratitude. He felt satisfied with risking his old life for this young boy’s, and he smiled into the rain. Charlie felt two tugs on the rope, so he left his reverie and began to pull.
The muscles on his biceps strained and pulled. Charlie found leverage against the rungs of the ladder and pulled. Hand over hand, Charlie’s fingers began to bleed but he continued to yank on the rope, pulling until he thought his fingers would break. The rain continued to fall, drenching the rope and turning Charlie’s arthritic hands to ice. Yet, he continued to pull, to heave despite the rain, the pain in his damaged knee, the dull throb in his chest. Just as he thought he could pull no more, the line went slack and Tommy was pulling himself out of the hole and onto the top of the tower.
The boy looked up with his young eyes and into Charlie’s ancient ones, and smiled. “Thanks, mister! You saved my ass,” Tommy said, his cheeks barely containing his glee at being alive, at having a future,
“No problem, kid,” Charlie chuckled between gulps of air. Suddenly, his right hand shot to his chest where his heart had started to pound erratically. “Hey, kid, do you think you could do me a favor? Could you save mine?” Charlie croaked. He blinked and saw the kid move towards him. He blinked again thinking that the rain water had finally soaked his eyeballs as well. It felt as if he were seeing through a blurry window on a rainy day, and then Charlie’s head hit the roof of the tower.
The obituary was short but Charlie would have wanted it that way. It talked about his farm and how he loved this county and his country. But, the lines Charlie would have loved most talked of his heroism. “Charlie Miller always wanted to be important and to be remembered. His life was given to save another’s and there is no greater importance than self-sacrifice.”
The day of Charlie’s funeral, the storm moved on and the sun came out, extending the summer for another few days, and the kids played the way Charlie remembered them.