As the season of Christmas continues into a new year, my hope for the birth again of God’s messengers of peace in unexpected times and places, even here and now, lives on in spite of all the bad news 2015 has been able to muster. And to that end I share a short story I wrote years ago and included in my book, Building Peace from the Inside Out.
“Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they shall be called Children of God.” Matthew 5:9
Sally was sitting next to the window over the left wing of a 737. The lights of the city would have been pretty as they left O’Hare, but a snowstorm was brewing and the clouds quickly engulfed the plane. Sally was going to spend Christmas with her grandmother in Richmond, Virginia. She was a little scared. She was 14, and this was her first flight by herself. In her nervousness, she had neglected to use the restroom at the airport; so as soon as the seatbelt light went out, she was out of her seat.
In her haste Sally bumped against the brief case of the man in the aisle seat, knocking it off his lap. She reached down politely to pick it up for him, but he grabbed it quickly and gruffly warned her to be more careful. When Sally returned from the restroom she apologized again for the brief case incident. She tried to strike up a conversation with her seat mate. He was in no mood to talk. Sally put her IPod headphones on and turned to the window. There was nothing out there in the darkness but one blinking red light, way out on the end of the wing. Sally thought it was bouncing up and down way too much.
“What makes grownups so darn grumpy, especially at Christmas?” she wondered. But her thoughts were rudely interrupted by an explosion in the rear of the plane. They began to lose altitude rapidly. Everyone panicked and screamed. NO one heard the captain’s voice over the P.A. system urging everyone to “please remain calm.”
The next thing Sally remembered was coming to in a snow covered field. She was 300 yards from the flaming wreckage of the plane. She seemed to be OK except for some cuts and bruises. The man who had been sitting next to her was a few yards away. He was badly hurt and calling for help. Sally was tempted to ignore him but knew she couldn’t. He was barely able to talk, but Sally understood that he was still concerned about his brief case. Wondering what could possibly so important about that stupid brief case; she half-heartedly began to look for it as she searched the area for other survivors. The fire was too intense to get close to the plane. She saw no other signs of life.
Sally found a briefcase. She took it back to the man, but it was the wrong one. She was about to just leave and go for help, but the man pleaded with her. He was desperate. So she looked again. This time she found the briefcase under a piece of the fuselage. She took it to the man, and he motioned for her to bend down so she could hear him. He said he had a very important letter that had to get to Washington. He stressed how urgent it was, begging her to promise him she would see that was delivered. He fell back unconscious before she had time to respond. She took the letter and put it in her coat pocket, half wondering if he was on the level.
Ambulances came. Sally was taken to a hospital where she learned she was in Bellefontaine, Ohio. Her cuts were cleaned and bandaged. The doctors said she had suffered a mild concussion. The next morning she remembered the letter. It was still in her coat pocket. Sally decided she would try and find the man before she opened it. When she asked about him, the nurses told her there were only two other survivors. They were both women.
Back in her room, Sally opened the letter. It was a very official looking dispatch from the CIA in Los Angeles, warning the President about a plot to assassinate several foreign heads of state when they visited Camp David for a summit conference after Christmas. If the assassins were not stopped the possibilities for starting World War III were staggering. Sally was overwhelmed. She didn’t know what to do. She wasn’t sure who she could trust. If the letter fell into the wrong hands…. She wasn’t sure what might happen. But she did know that she had been charged with delivering it, and she would.
Sally asked the nurses when she could leave the hospital. She discovered that because she was a minor, they would not release her without parental consent. Sally tried in vain to convince the charge nurse that she had to leave. Seeing that was hopeless, she simply went back to her room, got dressed and left after the night shift came on duty.
Sally’s cell phone had a GPS on it that would have been really helpful had she not lost it in the crash. So resorting to older technology, she picked up a map at a convenience store. She discovered she was 60 miles from Columbus, the state capital. There must be an airport there, right? She had also lost her purse and had no money; so she decided to hitch a ride. Being young and attractive, she didn’t have to wait long for a ride. She was really glad to get out of the sub-freezing weather when a man in a Beamer stopped for her. She would have been more comfortable with a woman or a couple but was in no position to be picky.
The man seemed friendly enough. In fact he had ideas of being a lot friendlier than Sally wanted. A few miles down the highway, he turned off on a county road and tried to force himself on her. Sally resisted so fiercely that he finally just slapped her hard across the face, called her a bitch, and pushed her out into the cold. Sally didn’t mind at all. She was just glad to be rid of him.
Two hours later, nearly frozen from wandering in a blinding snow storm, she saw car lights coming toward her. She flagged the car down and discovered it was a sheriff’s deputy. The deputy, of course, wanted to know what Sally was doing there. She told him that she needed to get to Columbus. He insisted on taking her to the hospital to make sure she was OK. She protested but to no avail.
Sally didn’t realize she had gone far enough to be in different county. She was relieved to discover that she was not going back to Bellefontaine, but to another town called Marysville. The ER staff there treated her for frostbite and gave her a good meal. They could not understand why she was in such a hurry to be on her way. Sally tried making up a story about a sick uncle in Columbus who needed her. Didn’t fly. Finally, she decided she would just have to tell them the truth. She did. They laughed. So, reluctantly, she decided she had no choice but to show them the letter. That would convince them. But the letter was gone. It had fallen out of her pocket somewhere in the snow.
Sally began to feel trapped. The trauma of the crash, the cold, the exhaustion—all began to get to her. She had to get that message to Washington. The peace of the world depended on her, and these stupid people wouldn’t even listen to her. She began to scream at them hysterically.
The next morning, Sally woke up staring at the cold, barren walls of a Columbus psychiatric hospital. She was confused and scared. She tried the door to her room. It was locked. She pounded on the door. No one came. She was about to cry when she suddenly became aware of another person in the room. Sally had not noticed her roommate sleeping in the other bed—an African American girl, about Sally’s age. The sign on bed said “Paula.” As soon as she was fully awake, Paula gave Sally some very important advice: “Hey, girlfriend. You keep that up and they’ll put you on the back ward for keeps. You gotta play it cool if you ever want out of here.”
Sally was still frightened, but she recognized the truth in Paula’s words. Sally told her story to Paula. For the first time she found someone who believed her. Paula suggested that Sally try to call Washington; since there was no way of knowing how long they might keep her here. Paula told Sally she would show her where there was a pay phone when they went down to the dining room for breakfast.
Paula introduced Sally to some of her friends at breakfast, and Sally began to feel a little less scared and alone. But her frustration soon returned. When she tried to make her call, an attendant pulled rank on her—said she had an important call to make. And the attendant was still there talking when it was time for the patents to go back on the ward. Sally tried to convince the nurses to let her go back down that morning, or to let her use the phone in the nurse’s office. They refused. They laughed at her and said they were sure the president could wait until lunch time to talk to her.
Sally was about to lose her temper again, but Paula managed to calm her down. They spent the morning talking. Sally was surprised how quickly the time passed. After lunch she hurried back to the phone. She got as far as a White House operator who dismissed her as a crank call. She tried the local FBI office—same response.
Sally was ready to give up. She was beginning to question her own sanity. But Paula had been hard at work. She figured Sally would have a better chance if she could get to D.C. in person. Sally agreed but had no hope of making it in time. Paula did. She got the nurse to let Sally go with her to Occupational Therapy that afternoon. Paula told Sally what she had planned. They had to go outside to get to OT. Paula said she would distract the attendant so Sally could slip away. Sally begged Paula not to do anything foolish. Paula gave her the address of a friend who would help her get to the airport.
There was not time for further discussion. The only good-bye and thank you Sally could give Paula was a squeeze of her hand as they walked downstairs. As soon as they were outside, Paula screamed and took off running. The attendant went after her. Sally froze. She wanted to know what was going to happen to Paula. But one of the other patients knew what the plan was. She gave sally a friendly shove and told her to get going while she could.
Sally left reluctantly, trying to look as nonchalant as possible as she walked toward where Paula had told her the front gate was. She was still worried about Paula. She was also amazed at the lack of security. There were no guards, just as Paula had promised. Sally got on a city bus, trying hard to act calm. She knew for sure that everyone would recognize her as an escaped mental patient—even though she didn’t look a bit different than two days before—it seemed like two years—when she left Chicago.
The bus driver told her where to change buses to get to the address Paula had given her. It was in the University district, which was nearly deserted during Christmas break. Sally had forgotten all about Christmas. She found the apartment on 11th Avenue. It was in a run-down neighborhood, and Sally was uneasy. It seemed to be getting dark awfully early, but then she had lost all sense of what time it was. A huge African American man answered the door. He was about half drunk and Sally started to leave. But then a much friendlier face appeared.
As soon as Sally mentioned Paula’s name, Billy, the sober one, invited her in and asked what he could do to help. Sally told him her story. Billy agreed it did sound far-fetched. But like Paula, he sensed something in Sally’s eyes and her voice that made him trust her, in spite of his doubts. In a matter of minutes, Billy called the airport and Sally booked on a flight leaving for Reagan National in two hours. He said he knew someone who worked for United Airlines who pulled some strings for him. Otherwise things were all booked up with Christmas travelers.
After sharing some warmed-over pizza, Billy drove Sally to Port Columbus in his ’92 Cavalier. It was better than walking, but not much. Billy’s friend, Tracy, met them and produced a one-way ticket under an assumed name since Sally was not a fugitive in 3 counties. Tracy also used her airport ID to get Sally around the security check point. Billy slipped her a little cash to live on when she got there. Sally promised she would come back and repay him when she could. She was also hoping to see Paula again.
This flight was uneventful. Sally relived the nightmare of the last two days. For the first time since the crash she thought about her parents and her grandmother. They would be worried sick! But there was nothing she could do about that now. She would call them as soon as her unbelievable mission was over. And then she fell into a deep sleep of exhaustion.
Sally woke up as the plane was on its final descent over the Potomac. For a scary minute she thought they were going to land in the river and said a little prayer of appreciation when the wheels touched down safely on the other side. She was in Washington at last—exactly 48 hours later than her original flight should have been…. But that was all past now. She was here. Surely somebody here would listen to her. They just had to.