Thirty years ago this coming summer I was unknowingly wading with my friend Mark through a large patch of poison ivy, deep in the woods of Appalachia, the land of my soul. It was a hot and humid day. I didn’t realize it was poison ivy until I emerged up a steep bank onto a dirt path. When I sat down for a breather, Mark says, “You know we were just all up in poison ivy, don’t you?” I can still hear his soft Southern dialect. Not the brash nasal twang of a Texan, or the sophisticated twang of the Carolinas. His was the tempered twang, the melodious, musical spoken word of a fellow hillbilly. His speech was my own, born of the soft, green woods, a shared Southern birthright.
I replied, “Are you kidding me?” My only consolation was that he had been wading through it as well. “Why didn’t you say something before we got into it?”
Mark replied, “If you don’t think about it, you won’t get it.”
If I don’t think about it, I won’t get it. Hard to do, but I had no alternative. I decided Mark’s little theory was worth a shot. A day went by. Two days. Three. No itching, no rash, no bumps. No gouging at my flesh, the itching so delicious I would founder on the scratching. Mark was an Eagle Scout, so I figured his advice to be some lost secret of the woods. If I don’t think about it, I won’t get it. I asked him later if his advice was from some secret lore. “No,” he laughed. “What other choice did we have?”
I remember another time in the woods, out on Watts Bar Lake, across from where we usually camped. There was an expansive Boy Scout Camp there, named Camp Buck Toms. Mark had been there numerous times and came up with the idea one day that we should pull a stunt on the Boy Scouts there.
Now, Mark had a boat he had bought himself. It had left hand drive, like a car, and an enormously powerful motor. We called it the Batboat. Oh, it was a sweet thing. Mark and I took it out countless times in the evenings, around Thiefneck Island, with Mark patiently teaching me to barefoot water ski. I submit that there is no better name for an island on the lake of one’s youth than Thiefneck Island. Barefoot water skiing, for us, involved starting off on a kind of boogie board at slow speed. Once up on the board, I would give Mark the thumbs up. He would then gun the Batboat, since higher speeds were needed to ski barefoot. I never did succeed. Most of my efforts turned into what we jokingly called “50 yard enemas.”
Anyway, back to the stunt. This one particular night, we decided to take the Batboat across the lake to the Boy Scout camp. We took a few other guys with us, as our plan was dangerous. Mark and another guy meticulously constructed a set of homemade fireworks, an intricate web of fuses and taped canisters and rockets, with one main fuse running out the end like a twisted tail. Our plan was to boat over to Buck Toms in the middle of the night, sneak into the center of the camp and light the fuse, giving us time to run back down to the lake and the safety of the getaway Batboat. It was a solid plan.
I remember making our way across the glassy surface of the lake. It was around 2:00 in the dead of the night. A little cold out, summertime middle of the night cool, really. As we approached, Mark shut the motor off and we drifted in. We docked and left a watchman on the boat in case things went south. We told the watchman, my pal Jim, that if we didn’t come back, or if he heard us scream, or if Boy Scouts came out of the woods first, instead of us, he was to hightail it back across the lake, leaving us behind. We really didn’t have a Plan B if that happened.
Off we went, into the woods, up the hill. The moonlight was just enough to light our way, a solitary line of bandits stealing into the heart of the enemy’s lair. I had long heard of Buck Toms, but had never been there. Mark led the way as a proven woodsman. We walked silently, right by tents with sleeping boys within. We could hear their regular breathing and tried not to breathe too loudly ourselves. We were giddy. We snuck up through a web of trails, clear to the dining hall in the center of camp. I felt like a fly, sneaking into the center of a hive of sleeping bees.
I knew that if our fuse burned too quickly, and we were caught, I would likely get beat up. But Mark? Being an Eagle Scout? I knew it would be bad for him.
Carefully, we set up our custom firework and ran the fuse out a few feet to the side. We each took a deep breath, checked for untied shoes, and nodded the signal silently among ourselves. Mark bent down and struck a match. Cupping his hands, he set the fuse afire and off we took, retracing our steps. Across the clearing beside the dining hall, into the woods, down the hill back to the lake, all the way to Jim, hopefully still there with the Batboat. How I ran with joyful abandon as I followed Mark back down the intricate net of trails. There was not time enough to worry about the loud sounds of our retreating footsteps.
I think Jim was more relieved to see us than we were him, as he had been left alone, and had been given the authority to abandon us if need be. There was no such weight of decision on us; we just had to execute. We jumped in, stifling laughter as we hoped and prayed the Batboat would start. There’s something a little funny about praying for success while pulling off a stunt. It started, we backed up, and Mark hit the throttle for home, and none too soon. As we left the cove to race back across the open lake… ahh, it was perfect… the dark sky above the trees behind us suddenly boomed and crackled alive with light after light as the silence of the sleeping bees was shattered with Mark’s homemade ordinance.
I want to remember these things because Mark is gone now. I will never see him again, at least in this life. I believe I will see him again, someday, and we will both be infused and surrounded by such joy there will be no need to bemoan dark days. This is no sweet sorrow. I believe the grotesque, the lies, the monster itself will be wiped away by then. Obliterated.
I don’t get suicide. It is a monster. It takes the best and brightest. It takes the most down and out. It takes those we never thought would be victimized. I know suicide is a liar. To tell a man that life is not worth living is a lie. Committing suicide is trying to play God, and we are not gods; certainly, I am not God. It is not for a man to look at his life and say, “I’ll take it from here.”
One day, years ago, I came upon Mark working on an old pickup truck. He had taken apart the linkage of the three-speed column shifter, had it all laid out on the ground. Now if I had taken the linkage apart, that would be the end of that shifter. All I saw were metal pieces, an unsolvable puzzle, but Mark saw the end result. He saw it whole again.
As far as I know, Mark told no one goodbye, hinted to no one of his intentions, not his wife, not his children. He just left. Today I think of Mark, of days when his heart was light and his cares few. I look forward to thinking back to those days in the woods with pleasure not tempered with pain, and I look forward to seeing things whole again.