Chapter Two: Judah
“The other side of the shore-so close, yet so far. How can we cross over except in the dark?” –Judah
That’s the poem Judah left on my kitchen counter one of the last times I saw him. But our story starts many months before that.
In Oregon where snow drapes over the tops of sharp edged mountains and rain falls for entire seasons, a forecast saying this year is wetter than most, is no small thing. It is the wettest May on record and the all-time wettest month in 121 years of record keeping.
Rain, snow, all elements come and go for people in houses who mutter under their breath as they dash to cars and comment in coffee shops, “So wet out there,” as if it’s the first time they’ve noticed. But for those in the weather, outside, for lack of anywhere else to go a shift in climate-especially wetness, is cause for more than conversation over a warm mug of coffee. It is soaked socks and fungus, it is a deepening cough and a damp blanket which may freeze overnight. It is preparation which may or may not be enough.
Bees drown in puddles of exhaustion and those who wander may indeed be lost in the cold, the wet, the enchanted green and the relentless yet oddly hopeful way of the Northwest seasons, of which there are many including the usual four and two additional: there is False Spring which happens in February with sun and 60 degree days which inevitably lead to snow in April and New Summer which hits in mid-October like a one week reprieve before the long, gray march to June.
In Japan, there are 50 words for rain. In the Pacific Northwest there are three: torrential, constant and intermittent.
For Judah, a 22 year old homeless kid, the day’s weather begins with inventory as he finds a corner in the deep end of book shelves on the upper floor of the university library where wide windows reflect the rainy fog tossed around the Siskiyou Mountains. Garbage bags, tarp, rope, knife, walking stick.
He removes his pack and coat, which he places over a chair. Hidden behind fiction, he takes off his boots slowly and quietly hoping his socks will dry. He sets his purple, red knit beanie on the table. If no one complains or calls the cops he’ll spend the day reading:
“To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated….”
“That Steinbeck can sure write,” he mutters while folding back the pages of his paperback “Grapes of Wrath.” Judah sees himself in it. He is waiting out the depth of the wetness which soaks through every layer he’s wearing. The previous wettest May was in 1957 when 4.24 inches of precipitation was observed.
He wasn’t born then, his dad wasn’t even born then.
But then, a lot has changed since his father showed up in the world.
“In my family, all the kids worked,” Judah says as he leans back in his chair.
His 6 foot 2 inch frame and lanky presence is cool but energetic. A blue collar kid he grew up in a Philadelphia suburb fully expecting to work construction like his dad and grandfather.
Judah is sitting with his grey backpack strained at its seams with notebooks, socks and books. But he wears most of his clothes on his back. His pant legs are rolled up at the ankle; playful and tragic. They reveal a foreign looking leg. It is metal with a hinged ankle descending into his boot.
He lost everything quickly. “It was hot. I felt weird. Then it was over.”
In minutes, Judah’s life changed for good. He lost his leg from the thigh down when the tractor he was driving flipped and pinned him beneath.
Of course, no one saw it coming. Who would?
Judah’s dad dropped him off at his uncle’s farm in rural Northern Pennsylvania during summer break from high school. The still hopeful days of June lay out before him when summer romances and saving cash seemed probable.
The farm emerged where rock houses and stone bridges rise out of green pathways leading mysteriously to tall and skinny homes with grain silos casting shadows. The heat pulled waves from the thirsty grass and brought farmers begging for cups of water and a break from direct sunlight which bakes the farm country and its small towns all summer through harvest before the winter comes to punish with its relentless dry-snow cold.
Most folks in Bethel make a respectable income in the mid $50’s and they take pride in working hard to keep up the squat shotgun houses which line two way streets and modest government buildings scattered through “town.”
But, like so many things, that too is changing. Family farms cannot compete with the mega farms of the plains states and changes in farm legislation away from dairy hits Pennsylvania hard. Factory jobs scattered within driving distance have all but dried up, some 100,000 manufacturing jobs lost in a decade, taking construction with them. Steel is laying off by the thousands and Judah’s dad bounced around temporary positions building houses and occasional stores.
While bigger cities share the same pain, whether by factories closing or farms drying up, communities see themselves more by culture than economy or geography. Farm country is the kind of place Philadelphia residents disassociate from as “Country” or “Up.”
But Judah was associated with both, a city kid by school year and country farm boy in the summer.
He expected to spend a bit of time helping out at his uncle’s farm in the “ Up Country” before coming home and getting back to his life of finishing high school and patching it up with his on again, off again girlfriend.
There were no long good-byes when his dad dropped him off with a suitcase. “We didn’t hug or nothin’ like that. It’s not how our family did things. We figured we’d see each other soon enough.”
By the next day Judah was astride his uncle’s tractor working a back field.
As the sun rose to its hottest at roughly 3pm, only a few days into the summer, Judah felt faint driving through miles of wheat fields. That faintness turned to heat stroke and Judah lost consciousness. The tractor drifted off its path, hit a tree and flipped onto Judah pinning him underneath it.
He lay under the tractor feeling his blood and life draining from him as the sun went from its hottest point to slowly setting. He expected to die.
“It hurt. But that wasn’t the main thing. It was just so weird feelin’ myself dying and lookin’ up at the sky. It was so beautiful. It didn’t make sense.”
He doesn’t know how long he laid there trapped. He knows he blacked out and that he was beyond escape. His lodged leg went from painful to numb. He knew he was losing blood and he suspected if someone didn’t come soon that sky would be the last thing he’d see.
“I didn’t really feel sad and I don’t remember thinkin’ about God or nothin’ big like that. I just kept noticing what I could see, the sky above, the fields around me, the tree nearby and they were so peaceful and calm, you know, just watchin’ me die. The sounds of the birds were so clear, I remember thinkin’ it’s good they were there with me. I was okay with it. Maybe in some way I almost wanted it. It’s hard to explain.”
When he didn’t show up for dinner, his uncle went to check on him. He was air lifted to the nearest hospital in Philadelphia. “I knew my leg was really messed up but I was like, please, save my leg. I thought they could.” He woke up instead to discover he’d become an amputee from just above the knee down. It took a while to sink in-between the pain drugs and the trauma.
“It’s possible to get sick and get better. You can get a flu that makes you think you’ll never get well, but you do. Your feelings can be like that too, you know, temporary. You can have your heart break like when my dad married my step mom and she didn’t like me, but you can also change how you feel. But when your leg is missin’, there’s no change, no recovery, no next thing. It’s gone and for the rest of your life you’ll be the guy with the missin’ leg. There’s no changin’ that.”
He was just barely 18.
“I could still feel my leg. It wasn’t there, but felt like it was. And it burned sometimes but I couldn’t do nothin’ about it.”