Flashback 1986, part three

You can read part one here.

You can read part two here.

When his shift ended, Juan did not furtively smuggle the woman out of the airport. He knew how to avoid looking suspicious. Confidently he took her arm, escorted her to his car in the employee parking lot, unlocked the passenger door, and invited her to take a seat. The woman was trembling the entire way, but she managed to stand straight, to walk as if with confidence, and to keep her face calm. The exit gate of the parking lot opened in response to Juan’s magnetic card, and soon they were in traffic, driving just like every other vehicle on the road.

At his apartment building, Juan adopted the same nonchalant manner. He even held the woman’s hand in the elevator and as they walked down the hall. He pulled out his keys, unlocked his door, and invited the woman to have a seat on the couch while he got them each a can of soda from the fridge.

He sat in a chair. Each of them sipped from their cans of soda. The woman—Juan was increasingly thinking of her as Laura—began to thank him again, but Juan waved his hand through the air. “Remember—this is for a very short time, until you come up with a better plan,” he told her.

Then the telephone rang.

The call was from his supervisor. “Juan, this afternoon at work, did you see a young woman with dark hair, running? About five-three, well endowed, maybe thirty years old?”

Juan hesitated only briefly. “A woman matching that description ran past me a little after noon. A man was following her.”

“That must be her. Did you see her again after that?”

“No,” Juan said. He reasoned that technically he was not lying—she had not left his sight, so he could say that he hadn’t seen her “again.” “Why do you ask?” Juan said.

His supervisor sighed. “She escaped from a mental institution. Evidently, with all this talk about the event at the airport two days ago, she’s become convinced that she is Laura Kinser. I gather that there is a similarity in appearance. Either she’s still roaming around the airport, or she slipped out through one of the employee exits. We’re all being told to keep an eye out for her.” He paused, and then added, “She’ll probably be found before you’re on duty tomorrow, but if she’s not, do remember to watch for her. Let me know if you see her or get any news about her.”

Juan agreed that he would do so, then hung up the phone, deep in thought.

She let a couple of minutes go by before softly saying, “That was about me, wasn’t it?”

Juan nodded.

“What did they tell you?”

“He said that a woman escaped from the hospital and somehow got to the airport. They say that she thinks she is Laura Kinser, who we all know died in a plane crash two days ago.” He pointed to the morning paper. “You can read all about the crash if you wish.”

She began to reach for the newspaper, then stopped. “You read it,” she said to him. “You tell me what it says.”

“Your plane took off, and then it exploded. They found your body—well, part of your body—in the wreckage. Your purse was there with your ID.” He gestured again toward the newspaper. “It’s all there in black and white.”

“Things are not always as they seem,” she said in a mysterious tone of voice.

“Laura, I was on duty at the time. I saw the explosion. No one could have survived it, believe me.”

“All you know is that someone flying my airplane died in an explosion. They had my purse with them. Someone is going through a great deal of trouble to make it seem that I have died, to the point that someone was willing to die in the charade.” Her voice trembled as she beseeched Juan, “Please believe me. I know it’s a lot to swallow, but I really am Laura Kinser, and I am very much alive.”

Juan shook his head. “You’re right,” he said. “It is hard to believe what you say. No I’m not accusing you of anything, and the offer still stands—you can stay for a night or two. All the same, it’s even more important now that you find a place to go afterward.”

She sighed. “I don’t look like the Laura Kinser you see on TV,” she acknowledged. “I’m missing all the make-up, the jewelry, and the bright-colored clothing. I guess it doesn’t matter whether or not you believe me. But if I can’t convince you, when you saw me at the airport, how am I going to convince anyone else now?”

“Surely there must be someone who can recognize your voice, or who knows things about you that no one else knows. You must have some friend, some family member, who can identify you.”

She shook her head. “My parents have been dead for years. No brothers, no sisters. The people at work only know me as an actress—they’re not friends. And as for dates… well, ever since high school I haven’t been out with the same man more than twice.”

Juan didn’t know how to respond. After a minute or two of awkward silence, Laura—that is, the woman who claimed to be Laura—shyly inquired, “May I ask another favor?” When Juan nodded, she said, “I really need a shower—it’s been a couple of days. Do you mind?”

“Of course not,” Juan replied. “I’ll get you a washcloth and a towel. You can use my soap and my shampoo. Oh, and there’s a new toothbrush in its wrapper I can let you use. The toothpaste is in the medicine chest.”

While she showered, Juan turned on the television to watch a ball game. Three innings later he heard her voice again. “Juan?” she said quietly. He looked away from the TV. She was wearing nothing but the towel.

“Do you have a t-shirt I could borrow? I hate that shirt they gave me to wear.”

Juan wanted to ask how her kidnappers had forced her to change her clothes, but now was not the time for that. He tried not to stare at her, but he noticed how her clean hair was beginning to curl as it dried. “Any particular color?” he asked. Laura shrugged, then grabbed the towel with both hands to keep it from slipping. Juan went into his bedroom, found a red t-shirt, and brought it to her. She retreated to the bathroom to get herself dressed.

A few minutes later she was out again. “One last favor,” she said. “I’m starving. Set me free in your kitchen—I’ll see what you have, and I’ll whip up a supper for both of us.”

Juan watched the rest of the baseball game while she cooked. She put together a surprisingly tasty casserole of ground beef, macaroni, canned tomatoes, and cheese. Juan envied Laura’s talent at blending herbs and spices; he had a fairly good selection, but he always followed recipes. What she had produced was noticeably more flavorful.

After they had eaten, Juan told her, “I have to be at work early in the morning, so I have an early bedtime. I hope you will excuse me.” He locked the door of his bedroom, hoping that she would not be offended. Juan read for more than an hour before turning out the light and going to sleep.

To be continued… J.

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Flashback 1986, part two

You can read part one here.

Two days later Juan was back at his desk in the airport’s private wing. Once again he sat through a gray and cloudy day, as if nature itself wept for Laura Kinser. Once again Juan felt sleepy, since no one came to visit his part of the airport on such a gloomy day.

In his mind Juan could still see the orange fire and the black cloud, as he could still see the yellow airplane peacefully lifting off the ground a moment earlier. He tried not to look outside. At home the night of the explosion, watching the evening news and the memorials to Laura, Juan had finally cried. The tragedy weighed heavily upon his heart.

Juan tried to distract his mind by any other subject: politics, religion, even the Never Again series. He forced his mind to try to puzzle out the secret identity of a character identified only as “the Avenger.” As before, Juan was distracted by the sound of footsteps, but this time the person approaching was running. Moreover, the sound came from a hall that led to an abandoned warehouse—nobody should have been running toward Juan from that direction.

The woman who came around the corner from that hall was about the same height as Laura Kinser, and she had a similar figure. Both these facts made Juan’s heart race, and he felt as if his heart had risen into his throat. The woman’s face was not familiar to Juan. He had little time to react to her sudden appearance, because she ran up to him, saying, “Please protect me! They’re trying to kidnap me! Please help me!” Already Juan heard heavier footsteps approaching from the same hall the woman had just exited.

He had no time to ponder a decision. Juan did what seemed natural at the moment—he took the woman by the arm and swung her around behind his desk, pointing to the space where his chair belonged. At the same instant that the woman’s head disappeared under the desk, a man came around the corner, following the same path she had taken. Juan pointed down the hallway that led to the main terminal. The man nodded and did not stop running. Juan stood by his desk, wondering what he was going to do next.

Two or three minutes passed. Juan looked down at the woman cowering under his desk. “I don’t think he’s coming back,” he said. “You can come out now.” She looked timidly up at the security guard and only reluctantly abandoned the safe shelter he had offered. As the two of them talked, she continued to glance nervously down the hall to assure herself that the pursuit had not returned.

“So,” Juan said, still standing. “What’s all this about?”

The woman shrugged. Juan could see that her hands were trembling. “They kidnapped me—I don’t know why. They didn’t seem to expect any ransom, and they didn’t try to harm me. They never even spoke to me. I don’t know what they wanted.”

Juan frowned. “They locked you in a warehouse for no reason at all?” He wasn’t questioning her; he was trying to solve the puzzle with her. Juan noted that the woman was wearing slacks that were too big for her. His keen eyes even discerned that the white shirt she was wearing buttoned as a man’s shirt, not a woman’s shirt. Her feet were bare. He wondered about the strange outfit, but instead of discussing her clothing, he said, “They never gave you any indication of what they wanted?”

She shrugged again. “They just grabbed me and threw me in there and locked the door. When they brought me here, I had no idea what they were planning to do to me. I still don’t know what they wanted. All I know is that they had a gun. I didn’t bother to ask any questions.”

Juan observed that she was wearing no make-up. Her eyes were large and brown, her nose small, her lips full. Her black hair was tied in a loose bun. Juan found her attractive in a girlish way, even though he could see that she was well beyond her teens. “Perhaps we should formally introduce ourselves,” he offered. Bowing slightly at the waist, he continued, “I’m Juan Rivera, at your service.”

The woman smiled slightly, though her hands continued to shake. “I’m very pleased to meet you, Officer Rivera,” she said, extending her arm to shake his hand. “My name is Laura Kinser.”

Whether she really was Laura Kinser or not, clearly she could not continue to hide under Juan’s desk. Still, she remained close to the desk and ducked underneath it whenever she heard footsteps approaching. Over the next two hours, she hid five times. Twice she was hiding from people walking toward their planes, but the other three occasions were legitimate reasons to hide. The man who had been chasing her went back to the warehouse, then out again, and then back once more. He never stopped to ask Juan any questions, although once he stared hard at the security guard while walking past him. Self-consciously, Juan fingered his badge while he tried to look engrossed in the book he was pretending to read.

His shift was about to end, and the woman who claimed to be Laura Kinser did not appear to have a plan to get out of the airport. “Do you have a home, or someplace I can take you?” Juan asked. He hoped the question did not sound impolite.

She looked up at him, her large eyes wide with fright. “Oh, no, I can’t go home,” she explained. “That’s the first place they’ll look.”

Juan gazed at her. Under her baggy clothing, she did appear to have a figure resembling that of Laura Kinser. If one imagined the appropriate make-up, perhaps sunglasses, and of course the trademark earrings, he mused, she just might pass for the actress. Then he thought, no, something else was missing. He wasn’t sure what it was. At the same time, even though she was probably not Laura, she was a woman in trouble, and his job was to help her.

“Who are they?” he asked gently. “What do they want from you?”

“I told you—I don’t know.” She looked as though she was about to cry. “They talked to each other as though they had a plan involving me, but I never heard what it was.” She put her hands over her face. “I’m so scared.”

Juan wanted to hug her. He wanted to tell her that everything was going to be alright. Instead, he placed a hand on her shoulder. “I can’t do much to help,” he warned her. “I’m only a security guard. I don’t even have a gun. But if I can slip you out of the airport, I can put you up in my apartment for a day or two. That is, if you don’t mind sleeping on the couch.” She looked up at him gratefully, so he added, “Mind you, it’s only for a couple of days, until you figure out what to do.”

“Oh, thank you,” she said, sobbing, reaching out to hug him.

Juan accepted the hug as he asked himself, “How do I keep getting involved in things like this?”

To be continued… J.

Fifteen years later

I took part in two services this morning at two different churches. Neither preacher mentioned the terrorist attacks of 9-11 (so far as I can remember), but both spoke of the attacks during the prayers, and one of them had a moment of silence for the victims of the attacks.

Americans over eighty years old remember where they were when they heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Americans over sixty years old remember hearing about the assassination of President Kennedy. Americans over forty years old remember the stretch of weeks during which John Lennon was killed, Anwar Sadat was killed, and attempts were made upon President Reagan and Pope John Paul II that seriously injured both men. Americans over twenty years old remember the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington (and the attempted attack that ended in Pennsylvania), but to college freshman that bit of history is probably a vague memory if they remember it at all.

It seems that each generation has a defining tragedy, an attack of such violence that its impact lingers in memory. Until Christ returns in glory, he warned us, there will be wars and rumors of wars. History is less a countdown to the Last Day than it is a continuing reminder that the world is polluted by sin, stained by evil, and subject to God’s righteous judgment. On the Last Day the earth will shake, and every earthquake of our lifetimes reminds us of the Last Day. Every storm, every flood, and every disastrous fire reminds us of God’s judgment upon a sinful world. Still, the end is yet to come.

Nature in revolt against humanity seems only fair, given the damage we regularly inflict upon God’s creation. Human violence against one another is devastating in a different way. War is one of the most vivid metaphors we have to describe the fight between God and evil; or rather, the revolt of evil against God. When nations engage of wars of conquest against their neighbors, or when nations are embroiled in wars of revolution, the violence and bloodshed and death—as well as the hatred that justifies such violence—presents an image of the war that began when Satan deceived the woman, and she and her husband ate the forbidden fruit. Although the decisive battle of this war was fought as Jesus was hanging on the cross, the culmination of this war will occur when Jesus returns in glory to claim his Kingdom.

Revelation 16:16 refers to a battlefield called Armageddon. This word has taken on several meanings in western culture. It literally means “the heights of Megiddo.” The city of Megiddo was on a plain in northern Israel; in ancient times, several significant battles were fought on that plain. As a geographical feature, the heights of Megiddo do not exist. I believe that Armageddon refers to the entire war between God and evil, from the first day of sin to the Last Day, the Day of the Lord. Evil forces gather sinners into their rebellion—all the nations of the world are involved. Yet Jesus wins without an arrow being shot, without a spear being thrown, without a sword being drawn, without a shot being fired, and without a bomb being dropped. His victory was announced from the cross when Jesus said, “It is finished.” Ever since that weekend, the people faithful to Jesus have been carrying news of this victory to all the nations of the world, as Jesus said we would do.

We need to remember acts of war, both as lessons from history and as pictures of what is yet to come. Commemorations of Pearl Harbor, or of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, serve both purposes. May our memories of the past and our witnessing of present violence prepare us for the victory already won but yet to be seen in its fullness. And, to those who fear war and terrorism and violence, may we remember to share the good news of this victory. J.

 

The flag at half-staff

I was wrong about two things when I first began writing this post about flying the flag at half-staff (half-mast in the (British) Commonwealth of Nations or on an American ship). Fortunately, I have a tendency to fact-check my own writing before sharing it with the public.

I thought that I had been taught in school that the flag at half-staff was not literally half-way between the top and bottom of the flagpole, but only lowered a bit from the top. Perhaps things have changed since then; otherwise, I was taught wrong, or I am misremembering what I was taught. Nearly every description of “flying the flag at half-staff” that I can find today indeed does define “half-staff” as literally half-way between the top and bottom of the flagpole. The exception to that description was a dictionary definition of “half-staff” and not an official or semiofficial publication on flag etiquette. Obviously, common sense would direct that the flag not be flown literally at that half-way point if that causes the flag or others below it on the flagpole to touch the ground or become entangled in trees or other obstructions.

I did correctly remember that, when a flag is to be flown at half-staff, it should first be raised in the morning to the top of the flagpole and then lowered; likewise, at the end of the day, the flag should be raised to the top of the flagpole before being lowered and removed. I also correctly remembered that the President of the United States declares when the flag should be flown at half-staff. Aside from annual observances such as Memorial Day, the flag generally is flown at half-staff at the death of a public servant, such as a former President, a Supreme Court judge, a member of Congress, and the like. The flag also might fly at half-staff to honor military personnel who have died in the line of duty. Governors may order the U.S. and state flags to fly at half-staff at the death of a state government official or former governor. No mayor may order the flag to be flown at half-staff except for the governor of Washington D.C.

For the last several years I have thought that some individuals and businesses were choosing to lower the flag to observe other tragedies, such as school shootings, the shooting in a movie theater, and the bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon. To me, it seemed inappropriate to treat those deaths as equal to the death of a public official or of military personnel. By no means do I think that those were not tragic events—each of them was horrible, and each of them deserved a public sense of sadness and mourning. I merely objected to using the flag as a symbol of those tragic deaths, since the victims were not placing their lives into the service of the United States of America. Likewise, it seemed inappropriate to fly the flag at half-staff after the shootings in Paris last year. Again, that event was a horrible tragedy, but few of the victims were citizens of the United States and none of them were public officials.

I still feel the same way about those observances, but I was wrong to assume that individuals and businesses were making that decision. Each of those times the flag flew at half-staff, it was by proclamation of the President of the United States. I cannot say whether or not any political agenda led the President to make those proclamations. I do fear, though, that as hatred and senseless violence increase, we may arrive at a time when we are in constant mourning. In the near future, we might never see the flag flying at the top of the flagpole again. J.

Four calling birds

Older versions of the song called them “colly birds,” among other things, but most versions of the song published in the last hundred years have named them “calling birds.” At any rate, the fourth day of Christmas is also the festival of the Holy Innocents. Like the festival of St. Stephen, this day reminds Christians that we are surrounded by evil and by many dangers in this world.

After Jesus had been born in Bethlehem, wise men came from the east, following a star, seeking the King of the Jews. Some scholars think they came from Babylon and others from Persia, but there are two reasons to believe that these wise men (or Magi) were Arabs. First, the three gifts they brought are all native to Arabia. Second, the prophet who associated the coming King with a star was Balaam, who came from northern Arabia.

These wise men came to Jerusalem seeking the King of the Jews. Herod feared competition so much that he executed members of his own family because he thought they were plotting against him. Herod told the wise men to find the King and to let Herod know where he was. The wise men did find Jesus and his mother in a house in Bethlehem. (No, they were no longer gathered around the manger when the wise men arrived with their gifts.) Warned in a dream, the wise men did not return to Herod; also warned in a dream, Joseph took the child and His mother to Egypt. In his rage at being tricked, Herod ordered that all the boys in Bethlehem “that had not yet reached their second birthday” be killed. In this way, he hoped to eliminate the true King of the Jews.

God permits tragedies in this world, even as he works to overcome all evil. There was sorrow in Bethlehem over the death of those young boys, but protection for Jesus promises a joy that far outweighs the sorrows and tragedies of this world. In whatever struggles you are facing, may God bring you Christmas joy. For we do have good news of great joy—a Savior, Christ the Lord. J.