Hanging on by a Strand

•November 15, 2008 • Leave a Comment


SEVERAL WEEKENDS AGO, they just wanted to get away. It’s been like that for the past year-and-a-half now. Every so often it all gets to be too much and they try to leave it behind, or at least distract themselves, maybe even fool themselves, if only for a few days.

But late this past May was different. They needed to go. There was no way they could stick around, even though it stuck around them, following them wherever they went. There was no way they could be there when May 23 came back around, a day that was once only marked by a cake, a few candles and probably one of the greatest and joyfully sung renditions of “Happy Birthday” you’d ever hear.

They still drive the same vehicles. They still live in that brown, two-story house on Highway 3 on the east side of Hampton that looks much the same – both Hampton and the house, with the rock garden on the south and west sides with the cherub and the small bench that was sweat equity, put in after May 23, because of May 23. And Bob Strand’s room is still at the top of the stairs, still much the way he left it, with its muted, dark green walls, his bed in the back, left corner, the word “imagine” in large letters hanging near the head of the bed and a dresser right inside the door to the left with a check sitting on top that was made out to him for eternal life and signed by God, a check that his mother stumbled across when she was going through his room last year. And, yes, he had signed the back in his then-adolescent scrawl.

A quilt drapes the black, metal loveseat to the right of his bed, one where a close family friend stitched together 30 blocks from some of Bob’s favorite t-shirts. There’s a block of Hard Rock Café New York, one of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” Another of the 30 blocks is from his Hampton-Dumont FFA t-shirt, one of “West Side Story,” one of the Beatles in their Sgt. Pepper get-ups, and another of Iowa Falls/Hampton-Dumont tennis – a road map of sorts of Bob’s high school years.

Some of his clothes are even there, like a pair of denim shorts and an orange Led Zeppelin t-shirt – the one he’s wearing in one of the last photos taken of him, a photo that is curling and is wedged between the glass and plastic frame of the microwave door in the kitchen. His mother found them in the laundry after May 23, one of the last shirts and shorts he had worn, and pulled them out because they still had Bob’s scent on them. She bought a large, sturdy teddy bear built to take a lot of loving and slipped the clothes on it, so when she needs to let out a hug and her sense of smell is taking her back, the sense tied the closest to memory, she’s not just holding his clothes. Bob’s scent is mostly gone now, but every once-in-while she thinks she can still smell it, even if she wonders if it’s in her head.

Many things are the same. But those are the things that mean nothing. The things that mean the most are changed forever. Now there is a hole in the middle of every room, at every meal at that light-colored wood dining table in the middle of the first floor, in every photo of every activity of that blended family, in every one of their hearts.

And that hole doesn’t sing like Bob did seemingly every moment he wasn’t sleeping. It doesn’t try to keep the peace like he did, his mother’s little peacemaker, the glue in the family, she called him, even if he was the baby, the youngest of six. It doesn’t ask Bethany Strand – Bob’s older sister by two years – to stop being a hater when she’s in the middle of a fight with a friend, like Bob did when they were both at Hampton-Dumont High School. It doesn’t tell Phil and Pauline Strand “I love you.” It doesn’t tell them they are the greatest parents in the world, just like Bob used to do, no matter how old he was.

That hole just sits there. Unmoving. It’s the kind of hole only those who have lost a child can understand, an exclusive club no one wants to be a part of and every parent prays they’ll never join. And it’s all they can do, sometimes, to keep from collapsing into it.

“There’s a hole in Grandma’s heart,” Pauline told her grandchildren when she couldn’t hide the tears from them a couple mornings before Phil and her went away again. She can feel the tears coming for sometimes days out, knowing a bad day is on its way, and it’s about time to get out again. They’ll wash over her – the tears, those days – pulling her into the hole, and then recede, only to wash over her again, like the tide. Only the tide is predictable.

But they knew May 23, the first anniversary, would be deeper and darker than anything the light from even 1,000 birthday candles could illuminate. That’s the way of anniversaries, making the good even better, the bad even worse, and the horrifying unbearable.

So a couple days before, on Wednesday, May 21, Phil and Pauline packed up her white PT Cruiser, the one with faux wood trim, and headed southeast on a four-day sojourn to where they’d never been. They weren’t escaping. There is no escaping. But they were trying to find peace from the hole, maybe outpace it, along with the kind of haunting that anniversaries, the kind of anniversaries that scoff at being thought about in the past tense, are so good at bringing.

Pauline loves the way her PT Cruiser rides. It’s good for long trips and the back seat folds down, or even comes out. It’s perfect for bargain hunting for inventory for a store selling country décor and gifts. Guyla Pohlman, Pauline’s boss, gave her a list – more distraction – of what to buy for the Wood Cellar in Hampton, the place Pauline has worked the past decade, the place whose cheery, yellow sign above the front windows of the store stretches out below the three windows of the second-floor apartment where Bob, her 19-year-old baby, took his last, shaky breaths.

It took Pauline a couple weeks or so to get back to work – Guyla told her to take the time she needed – but it’s never been hard to be there because of its location. There are plenty of other reasons it has been hard, but never because of what happened above the store.

“It gave me a purpose,” she said about the list.

They took their time getting down to the Quad Cities and then to Keokuk, first heading over towards Dubuque to stop by New Melleray Abbey where Bob’s oak urn was made under a blanket of prayer by Trappist monks, then following the Mississippi River south to a hotel in Clinton on Wednesday, and a bed and breakfast in Rock Island on Thursday. When Phil and Pauline woke far away from Hampton Friday morning, the first anniversary, they made their way further south to Keokuk, trying to keep busy, trying to go through the motions, trying not to think.

The two – who have been to GriefShare, a support group helping those who have lost a loved one – toured historic Fort Madison and slipped over to the Illinois side to take a look at historic Nauvoo 20 miles down the road, then had a nice dinner, drew a “bubble tub” at a B&B, and had a drink before going to bed.

“If you are gone and you go out to eat someplace that’s not familiar,” Pauline said with her distinct intonations and methodical cadence the entire family shares, “you can pretend everything is fine at home.”

Even though it had well over 120,000 miles on it, the car was a forest green – Bob’s favorite color – 1997 two-door BMW 318ti with brown leather seats, an orange sunroof, power locks, power windows and air conditioning and Bob’s girlfriend, Jordan Kruszka, from Thornton, was getting a tremendous deal. Keith Johnson, Jr., Bob’s older brother and Pauline’s son, was selling it to her for $1,400, more than a couple thousand dollars below the current Kelly Blue Book value.

“It was like a souped-up Escort,” said Keith, who thought he had it sold to another buyer before it fell through at the last minute. “Definitely a girl’s car.”

There was just one catch. She had to drive over two hours south to Grinnell to get it.

Keith had been given money and bought the car for $4,800 for an acquaintance under the agreement that the title would be taken out of Keith’s name quickly. But before that could happen, and apparently before license plates or some kind of registration could be put on the car, the acquaintance and a friend, wads of cash totaling more than $2,000, two knives, a hypodermic needle, a pocket notebook detailing prices and amounts, a glass pipe, and 3.2 grams of meth that Grinnell police officer Stuart Fricke believed was “ice,” were pulled over just before 1 p.m. on March 11, 2007.

The driver and passenger were taken into custody, charged with possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver (less than five grams) and possession of drug paraphernalia. The car was taken to the impound lot in Grinnell.

A little more than two months later, after the first buyer backed out, and not long before the car would be auctioned if Keith didn’t do something, he called Jordan. She was excited. The next morning, May 23, Jordan, Bob, Keith and Jordan’s mother, Candice Kruszka, left Hampton in Candice’s car early enough to stop for breakfast at Perkins in Marshalltown. Pauline had given them some food money before they took off, a memory she repressed until later – it’s funny the things the mind packs away in the name of self-preservation – feeling guilt for what she once thought, in the throws of mourning, as the part she played in encouraging them to get the car.

But who wouldn’t take that deal? A perfectly good, loaded BMW that also came with two sets of low-profile rims? Never mind that the spring in the driver’s side windshield wiper was broken and the wiper wouldn’t stay on the glass and Keith, who drove the car back to Hampton, had to lean a bit to his left when it poured on them a half-hour out of Grinnell and kept raining most of the way back. The car itself was a great deal. Much better than the ’97 purple Cavalier Jordan called the “death cab.” It’s what was inside the car that makes the site of every green BMW now almost unbearable.

Keith had been in contact with Grinnell police officer Fred Foreman, the officer who originally pulled the car over a couple months before, set up a time to get the car, signed some paperwork, answered “yes” when asked if the car was his – even though he never considered it his – and paid the impound fee.

Before Jordan, Bob and Keith got in the car, Jordan’s mom asked if the police removed all the drugs from inside and Foreman said they did. Jordan, and then Keith, asked again, just to make sure, “because there was lots of dope in there,” Keith said. The officer assured them again. But the trash, the empty pop cans, the empty baggies from what was dumped out by the driver and passenger back in March, Keith said, not to mention the clothes, CDs, two Sony PlayStations, two duffle bags, two stereos and sub amps, weren’t the most reassuring. Foreman couldn’t guarantee Keith, though, that even though the title was in his name, that he wouldn’t have problems with the registration if he was pulled over.

The current car owner, the future car owner, and her boyfriend put some more air in the tires and headed for home to transfer the title. Jordan sat in the passenger seat talking about how cool her car was, about wanting to cruise around in it when they got back instead of getting back to SCMT High School in Sheffield in time for gym class. Bob was in the middle of the back seat, leaning forward so he could hear, propping himself up on the leather of the two front seats.

Bob was thirsty and Jordan had a water bottle with her so he asked for it. The next thing Keith remembers was the sound of dry heaving coming from the back seat.

“Sorry, bro,” Bob said, “I almost threw up in your car. What is in here?”

Right after they left Grinnell, as morning was turning into mid-day, Bob reached for a bottle of flavored Aquafina in the console between the front seats thinking it was Jordan’s, thinking that several gulps of what was in there would do his parched throat good. But there was nothing good about what was in that bottle. There was nothing good about that powerful mixture of meth and water that had been hiding in there, lurking in there, showing no signs that it was anything else but purified water from a public water source for at least the past 10 weeks, at least since March 11.

Next time you’re at a restaurant waiting for your food, rip open one of those white sugar packets and pour that gram of sugar into your glass of water, take your fork and swish it around a little, then drink it.

If it was meth, that’s all it would take. For some, it might be a little more, for others it might be a little less. But on the average, that’s all. One gram. If you were really brave, grab a half-dozen of those packets, giving you six times the lethal dose. Before your food was delivered, it would already have started taking its toll.

It will attack your sympathetic nervous system, raise your heart rate, your blood pressure and your body temperature and you will start sweating. It will then dehydrate you, leaving you no way of cooling down and your body will start to cook itself.

By this time, you’ll be out of the restaurant, but the only place you’ll want to go is home. Your muscles will start to twitch and contract, and with hyperthermia lending a hand, your muscles will break down, overloading your kidneys with more than enough proteins to slam them to a halt and your lungs will fill with fluid.

Your blood vessels will then constrict and, within a matter of just a few hours after you ripped open that packet, your cardiovascular system, including your heart, will collapse.

Then it would rip out your mom and dad’s heart, too. And then your five brothers and sisters, including your closest, your full-sister Bethany. Then it will do the same to your girlfriend and all of your dozens of best friends – the kind who kept coming up to Pauline and Phil after Bob died, claiming he was their best friend, leaving them to wonder just how many best friends one person can have. Then it would make all of their worlds stop spinning at the oddest times when something will trigger a memory – a song, a spoken word, an image, a thought – that would make them feel it all over again.

Keith has traveled the long road back from an addiction. He’s clean now and he’s in a better place, but no former addict can forget what meth tastes like in water. He knew the instant he took a sip of that water, the instant that concoction touched his lips and his mouth, one small moment after Bob asked what was in it, that it was meth.

It wasn’t long at all before Bob started tripping, remarking how orange the sky was that day, before Keith reminded him that the sunroof was tinted.

Keith kept asking how Bob was the entire way back from Grinnell to Steamboat Rock – where Jordan jumped back into her mother’s car and headed back to school – to Ackley then to Hampton. But no one thought it would get much worse than the intense euphoria Bob was feeling. Most who have been around meth have not heard about anyone dying from drinking it, not Keith and not another reformed user who talked to the Chronicle. But then, tweakers don’t dump six times the lethal dose in one water bottle and chug it, either.

When the four got back to Hampton, Jordan and her mom headed north, Keith emptied the car and took everything up to his apartment above the Wood Cellar and Bob went to a friend’s house, then a short time later brought the friend to Keith’s apartment.

Bob said he was hot, like he had been for a while, and Keith suggested he take a cold shower. He felt a little better, but his stomach still hurt. Keith had him lie on the black futon with the red comforter draped over it, the futon that faced the three tall, narrow windows with the grayish-green, homemade drapes that blocked out the morning sun as it came up over the Franklin County Courthouse across the street; grayish-green homemade drapes that didn’t help the baby blue walls or the dark, red trim, the old green carpet or the red target pattern painted on the ceiling.

Grinnell police are not talking, but they deny that a water bottle was left in the car at the impound, Hampton police chief Jim Wobschall said. It’s true; there is no mention of a water bottle in the Vehicle Removal or Impounding Report or in the Property/Evidence Control forms for incident number 2007000223. But there is also no mention of the duffle bags, the two PlayStations or the two large CD storage binders full of CDs. Some of the CDs were bootleg, but most were original. Keith was going through them, dividing them into two stacks, one that he would like and another that Bob and Jordan would like, even though Keith and Bob loved the same music – the Beatles, Tool and Led Zeppelin, the band whose songs Bob would sing in Pauline’s car. While he sorted he was keeping an eye on his baby brother, listening to him twitch and squirm on the futon.

“You can’t sit still on that stuff,” Keith said.

But then Keith didn’t hear Bob moving anymore. He dropped the CDs, ran to the futon and rolled Bob onto his back. He still had a pulse, but his lips were blue. Bob’s friend called 911 and Keith started CPR. Five compressions and a breath. Five compressions and a breath. Bob threw up.

Keith couldn’t feel a pulse.

Forgive them. The rest of that tragic day is a blur. There are two times that are known. The 911 call was placed at 3:33 p.m. and Bob was declared dead at 4:16 p.m. And those are only known because they were in the official reports. But for those who were there, time didn’t just stand still. It didn’t exist.

It was a slow day at the Wood Cellar for Pauline, not the worst way to spend your birthday, getting paid to hang out in a cozy place with someone you call the greatest boss in the world. Pauline’s two youngest grandsons had surprised her that afternoon by bringing something they helped their mom and Bob’s sister, Rachel Reis, make for Grandma’s birthday. Pauline’s mom had shown up, too, unannounced. No one was aware how much they’d soon need each other. Maybe it wasn’t a coincidence they were all there.

Pauline moved to the front of the store, by the big glass windows, when she heard the ambulance pull up outside, thinking maybe a senior citizen at the pharmacy two doors south was having some trouble.

But the sound of pounding, racing footsteps was coming from the stairwell on the other side of the store’s south wall. The only occupied apartment above the store was Keith’s, the others were vacant.

“Go!” Guyla yelled. Pauline, thinking only about Keith, threw open the Wood Cellar door, made the sharp turn to her right and charged through the door to the stairwell with the thick, whitish-brown wood railing and a smell of old wood, moving up those 22 stairs and not remembering how, rushing past an emergency medical technician who was rushing back down to the ambulance. She flew through the open white, metal door, the first door on the right at the top of the stairs, then turned to her right and quickly made her way down the short, white hallway, past the multi-colored, checkered-painted storage room on her left and was stopped cold a couple steps into the living room. She never once thought about Bob until she looked to her left and saw him lying there on the black futon with the red comforter, his eyes half open and dull, his fingers curled.

Bob was her New Year’s baby, born on Jan. 1, 1988, at a whopping eight pounds, 14 ounces. He was her youngest child, who had a star quality from the time he posed for the camera in Daddy’s boots, the ones that nearly came up to his hips when he had to be no more than three. He was the one who hammed it up when he posed, looking mischievously pensive next to a life-like wax statue of Samuel L. Jackson on the Hampton-Dumont choir trip to New York City in his junior year, where they sang at Carnegie Hall and where Bob was enamored with Broadway after taking in one show. He was the one who brought the house down playing Tony in Hampton-Dumont’s production of “West Side Story,” straining his vocal chords when Tony had to scream, then couldn’t hit the high notes in “Maria.” He was the one who was Tony, who became Tony, Hampton-Dumont vocal instructor Bonnie Stewart, one of Bob’s favorites, later told Phil and Pauline.

He was the one who could be no closer to Spencer Poulos and probably didn’t know how lucky he was to grow up next door to his best friend, even though it turned out later that there were many best friends. He was the one who came in way past curfew, infuriating his father, only to put out the fire by telling Phil that a friend was having a really hard time at home and just needed someone to talk to. He was the one who was never embarrassed of his parents the way most teenaged boys are.

And he was the one who right there, on that futon, was most likely already gone.

“My mind wouldn’t let me go there,” Pauline said.

Keith pushed her back into the hallway. She pushed back into the living room, looking at Bob, who the EMTs and Hampton police officer Mark Morrison threw Keith off of when they got to the apartment about the same time.

“Go downstairs and wait,” Keith told Pauline. “We’ll take care of it.”

A friend sat next to her downstairs in the Wood Cellar, Pauline wondering what to do. Keith, who was near hysterics, was upstairs wondering the same thing, when officer James Hilton, who had just arrived, sent him down to the ambulance, out into that overcast day, to help him get out the stretcher.

But by the time they got it out of the ambulance, Keith saw four guys – he doesn’t remember who – coming down the stairs from the apartment, each holding a corner of that red comforter, Bob laying in it like a hammock, on his left side.

Pauline’s mom took the wheel with Pauline in the passenger seat, following the ambulance, shaking almost uncontrollably just halfway through the 1.39-mile drive from the Wood Cellar to Franklin General Hospital.

Phil’s foreman at Sukup Manufacturing told him he had a phone call. It was Guyla telling him Bob had just been taken to the hospital. But Phil can’t remember when the call came in. Things became instantly foggy. He thought it might have been just after his afternoon break was done, a break that would have started at 3 p.m. He thought he might not have had his welder leathers back on yet, but he can’t remember. He also has no idea how long, or short, it took him to drive the 11 miles from Sheffield to Hampton. He was on autopilot.

The family was sent to the main surgical waiting room, then led to the emergency room when a nurse told them “it didn’t look good.” When the healing effects of western medicine had no power, they were asked to talk to Bob, still lying on the red comforter, and tell him to come back. They tried. Oh, how they tried.

Jordan climbed up on the table, beside herself, beside him, screaming, “They lied to us! They lied to us! They said it was safe!”

Two weeks earlier, Jordan and Bob attended SCMT’s “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”-themed prom, where Bob was Bob, posing with the cartoonish, cardboard cutouts. And where he – his eyebrows raised – light-heartedly leaned over to give Jordan a kiss on her right cheek, and she light-heartedly feigned disinterest, both posing for the camera. Someone clicked the shutter button.

The lighting was perfect. The orange and gold in her dress and the gold in her hair matched the orange chrysanthemum on left lapel of his jacket and the gold and orange stripes in his dark tie. The light tone of her skin complemented his brown shirt. Her blue eyes were glowing, bolting out of the frame, contrasting his dark jacket and dark hair that was long on top, always long on top, but short this time by his standards, and still nearly covered his eye brows. Phil and Pauline hung it on their wall as an 8×10, above the fireplace in their den, above the mantle where the poem Jordan wrote to her Bobby only a few days after that terrible day rests in a frame. Just to the right of that poem are the glasses he was wearing in that photo, the fashionable Aspex pair he picked up at Dr. Craig Semler’s office in Hampton, glasses with brown bows and instructions from Bob never to mess with them, one of the very few things that could upset him.

Keith never went to the ER. He understood Hilton to say that he needed to stay in the apartment, where, minutes later, he picked up the phone and dialed the Grinnell police department. Officer Foreman got on the other end and Keith let him have it with all the furry of a raging, scared, protective older brother, admonishing him for saying the car was clean.

“He’s my little brother and I would do anything for him,” he said later.

Keith hung up the phone when he was crying too hard to talk. Hilton came back looking for the flavored Aquafina bottle and took it and Keith back to the hospital with him.

While they were on their way, Keith’s forgotten cell phone rang back at his apartment. It was Bethany. She was in Minneapolis, where she was going to school and couldn’t get back until later that night. She didn’t know where Keith was and she needed him. She was scared. She was crying. He got the message a day or two later.

Hilton walked back into the ER, held up a clear plastic bag of trash that included wrappers, McDonald’s boxes and a plastic water bottle. Jordan pointed to the bottle. It later tested positive.

Then at 4:16 p.m. – after the medical people had done all they could do to bring back someone who was already gone, after they had done all they could do when there really was nothing they could have done for someone that full of poison, probably not even if he would have gone straight from the bottle to the hospital – Dr. Brian Hansen, who grew up in Hampton and was a year or two ahead of Rachel in school, walked over to Pauline, sitting in a chair, and knelt down in front of her. She cupped his face in her hands and softly asked, “He’s gone, isn’t he?” He didn’t have to say anything. She knew the answer.

At that moment, a hole so deep they couldn’t see the bottom and so wide they couldn’t scream across opened up in the middle of all of them.

The medical staff left the room, giving the family as much time to spend as they wanted with Bob, saying their goodbyes. Then the family left Jordan alone with him, a few last precious moments with her Bobby, before he was taken away.

Within minutes of 4:16 p.m., cell phones rang all over town and all the way out to the Hampton Country Club, where the Hampton-Dumont boys golf team was preparing for the state tournament, where Al Poulos – Spencer’s father, who said losing Bob was like losing a son – is the grounds keeper.

Jim Davies, the Iowa Falls-Alden/Hampton-Dumont boys tennis coach, got a call from his nephew, Nic Menning, Bob’s friend and former teammate who had graduated a year before him.

Bob was in the Basement Bunch youth wrestling program in Hampton and he loved it. He played football and baseball through junior high, too. But once he hit high school, the only sport he played was tennis, even though most kids his age with a 6-foot-3 and 190-pound frame, his dad’s strong chin, and his mother’s smile go for the more popular sports.

Heading into his senior season of 2006, the first one after Nic had left, Coach Davies thought he had a good chance of being the top player on the team. Bob made the top six on varsity, but he had other things going on.

There were his performing arts, although he turned down a lead role in a play that year after the departure of Mr. Kapalski, who had directed him in the other productions, including his bit role in “Java” when he was a freshman and Bethany, who was also in the play, was a junior. He was hooked on acting from that moment.

There was Hardee’s, where Bob was busy being named “Employee of the Month” and being loved by the crew, who hated to see him go off to NIACC in the fall of 2006.

Then there was Jordan, who he met and fell hard for in the summer between his junior and senior years. Bob and Pauline were on a bike ride around town not long after that when Bob told his mother he’d met the girl he was going to marry. Pauline reminded him he’d just met her and how old he was, almost shrugging it off as puppy love, but it didn’t matter.

His feelings only grew stronger over the next two years, and plans were made. Maybe the West. Maybe that would be a good place to start a life, to live out their own production of their version of “The Great Escape,” as Jordan called it. Maybe Vancouver, British Columbia. Maybe some other place.

Coach Davies – whose son Aaron, pursing an acting career in New York City, is good friends with Bethany – got the call just before heading into the tennis season-ending awards banquet just up the street from the apartment at Breadeaux Pizza at 5 p.m.

They ordered pizzas, passed out awards, but there wasn’t much talking between the players who rode with Bob to tennis matches one spring earlier.

Details were spotty then. Pauline didn’t know much about what was happening when she was sitting in the ER and Phil knew even less. All he knew was they were going to pick up a car and a day at work later Bob was laying motionless on a red comforter in the ER and Dr. Hansen was kneeling down in front of his wife.

A mixture of truth and rumors were coming through those cell phone calls, but Coach Davies heard enough truth to piece some things together.

“You heard he drank some water and I recall someone saying something about that car,” he said. “You just wanted to find out whose car that was and whose water that was and do something to that person… prosecute that person.”

Coach Davies, who Phil and Pauline had considered as a sponsor for Bob’s confirmation, sang at the funeral, along with the chamber choir, and cut out the obituary from the newspaper and placed it on a shelf in his living room among selected memorabilia from his time as a tennis coach.

“It’s tough to lose someone that young,” he said.

Pauline knew Bob was going to sing and perform from the time he was just a toddler, when he could do “Mississippi Squirrel Revival” and “The Streak” and other hits by Ray Stevens.

Father Jim Miller, who was at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Hampton for many years before leaving for Marshalltown three years ago, saw Bob’s compassion for people and thought his future could have a cloth in it.

“He was a person with a lot of potential,” said Father Miller, who met Bob when he was becoming a teenager. “He could have offered a lot to society and now he’s gone.

“When he was a lector at church and he read scripture, he did it in such a good way that I felt he could be a leader of faith.”

It wasn’t just his way with people, the way he could have you rolling on the floor, him knowing you needed to roll on that floor, when five minutes earlier you were having what you thought was the worst day of your life.

It was also his insight into people, into the world around him, the way he could carry on an adult conversation even at a young age that was impressive.

“He got the big picture,” Bonnie Stewart said. “Not just as an actor, but with our relationship to other countries. He was in seventh grade during 9/11 and when we got word that planes had hit the World Trade Center, he said, ‘Can you say Osama bin Laden?’ He had heard no news reports that day. It floored me. I thought, wow, this isn’t your typical seventh grader.”

The only times his parents can remember him throwing fits had to do with his hair – once – and his glasses after he started wearing them in fifth grade.

“It wouldn’t take all the fingers on one hand to count the times he was in a bad mood,” Pauline said, “and I can’t remember when those were.”

Then there was also the time Phil sat in the barber’s chair holding his three-year-old son between his legs, his left arm around him, his right hand holding Bob’s head. Bob squirmed, kicking those cowboy boots – he’d never go anywhere without those imitation gray snakeskin boots with the black uppers – railing against Traci Spear and against his first professional haircut. Imagine that, not wanting to have his hair cut.

He later grew his hair down to those glasses, most times covering up the top of the frames, hair reminiscent of the Beatles, who were on the front of that black t-shirt he wore all the time. He had to slick his hair back to become Tony in “West Side Story” and Pauline told him how handsome he looked and how she liked seeing his face and how she wished he’d keep it like that. But after he was done being Tony, he went back to being Bob.

Department of Criminal Investigation agent Scott Green completed his investigation. No criminal charges were filed because it was determined that there was no criminal intent in Bob’s death.

But as far as Hampton police chief Wobschall and Franklin County Attorney Brent Symens are concerned, the case is still open and because of that, they aren’t willing to talk much about it, not wanting to give too much information out, not knowing who they may need to talk to, if anyone at all.

“We are never in a hurry to close a case, especially when there’s a death,” Symens said. “We can’t put any length of time on it.”

“I don’t know if you ever really close a case on a death,” Wobschall said.

Dumping dope into a bottle of water or pop if a user or dealer is pulled over by law enforcement is not at all unusual, but police wouldn’t have been looking for liquid meth a year-and-a-half ago. It had just started being transported in water, said Wobschall, who knew Bob, a lifelong schoolmate of Wobschall’s son. Wobschall and Symens said they hadn’t seen anything like this before that tragic day, and they haven’t seen anything like it since.

In most of the dozens of cars they seize each year, the chief said, there is usually trash, including empty pop cans or half-full water bottles, but what police are looking for are “things of value” and to “protect the city from liability.” Everything is supposed to be documented, but very little is removed, with most departments worried about liability and lawsuits in this litigious society.

“Knowing what we know now, would we test every water bottle? No,” Wobschall said. “But we’d probably test an open bottle at a known narcotics stop.”

Still, what can be taken out of a vehicle is up to each individual police department’s procedure. If a car is auctioned, it is cleaned out, but there is nothing in the Iowa code that directs law enforcement to clean out a vehicle after it’s been impounded after a drug arrest, something state Representative Linda Upmeyer, a House District 12 Republican and a registered nurse, wouldn’t mind seeing changed and would be happy to help move forward.

“It’s entirely reasonable to remove every single thing short of the manual of the car,” Upmeyer said. “I can’t imagine why police would have left something like a water bottle in there. It’s easy to see when the seal is broken. Impounding a car for a parking violation is one thing, we don’t want people’s right infringed upon. But if someone does something illegal and a car gets impounded, there should be no reason why you couldn’t put everything inside the car into a bag, and if someone asks, ‘Where’s my stuff?’, you point to the bag. Next time it might not just be a water bottle.

“I don’t have a problem working with police departments and highway patrol and helping to move it forward. A policy like this would also remove the fear of liability from law enforcement.”

Upmeyer, who is also on the House Rules Committee, has seen catastrophe spur legislation three or four times before.

“Sometimes terrible things happen and it shows us where the gaps are that we didn’t know were there,” she said. “Odds are that it could happen again. They might be small, but let’s address it. Let’s learn from our mistakes, let’s fix it and make it a broader policy.”

If it was introduced and had bipartisan support, it could be on the books by next July. If it went through the rules process, it could be done in six months.

The autopsy showed that Bob had 11,081 nanograms per milliliter of meth and 350 ng/ml of D-amphetamine eating him up inside, when only a total 2,000 ng/ml would have been enough to do the job.

And then there’s the part that everyone would just as soon forget about. Not because it had a part to play in what happened, because it didn’t. Not because they are trying to hide anything, because they’re not. After almost a year-and-a-half of feeling like they are trying to catch their breath, to bring oxygen back into their numb bodies. After feeling like they had been abandoned by law enforcement. After being strung along for a year by an attorney who ate up half of their two-year statute of limitations for a civil suit in a death before he cut the string, telling them he couldn’t take it, Phil and Pauline decided they couldn’t keep Bob’s story silent any longer. If it would stop it from happening again, even once, because right now there is no safeguard against it, they needed to tell it. If it would stop it from happening again, even once, they believe it’s worth it.

And not because Bob didn’t always do everything he should have. He was no saint and Phil and Pauline aren’t claiming he was.

They just like to forget about it because they were upset with him that it was even in his system.

“Every time he did wrong, he got caught,” Pauline said. “As we grow, we have to learn to make the right choices and he was learning.”

But if you are going to tell a true story, you have to tell the whole story and this is part of it, the small amount of THC, or pot, that measured 14.4 ng/ml in his system when he died, an amount far outnumbered by the amount of ibuprofen.

Bob never hid anything from them. They knew about the occasional marijuana use and they didn’t like it, but he was 19, starting to become his own man. What could they do? But that’s where he drew a hard line, a line he preached to others not to cross, having seen the damage it can do if that line is breached.

There were others who knew about the pot, too, which can be detected in your system for up to a month. Others, who like to spread small-town rumors, used it to build a bridge between Bob and meth, even though the chasm between the two would make the Grand Canyon proud. Some rumors pointed to Bob, saying the bottle and the meth were his, with an underlying tone that he had it coming.

“I heard a lot of people talking,” said Bonnie Stewart, who saw Bob through the chamber choir for four years, show choir for two and the North Iowa Honor Choir. “Bob wasn’t perfect, but he wouldn’t have done that. He was fallible, he could be naughty, but I knew it was a mistake the way he died. Bob would not have chosen to end his life or to be so foolish. He had everything to live for.

“I was absolutely shocked and saddened. He was not able to fulfill the promise in him. He could have done anything with his life. It’s so sad that he couldn’t fulfill his promise.”

But more rumors pointed to Keith, saying that it was his bottle and, with the same logic that says 2+2=22, saying he, a recovered meth user, someone who is more aware of the dangers that lurk inside than anyone, had his brother chug from a bottle with enough dope to kill him not just once, but almost six times. They might as well have said he told Bob to hold a gun to his head.

Keith couldn’t avoid the rumors. He walked right into them on the street and at work, where he missed some time because of the toll it was taking.

Bob didn’t try to save himself. That was what they kept hearing. That was what they were told was the biggest obstacle to a win in a civil suit, one that will most likely not be coming. Never mind there was nothing that could have been done, just like Rachel, a registered nurse, had to keep telling the family, reassuring the family, when there was enough guilt energy going around to fuel the county. If only Bob would have tried to save himself, they might have a shot and the jury and the defense might not rip Phil and Pauline and Bob to shreds, they were told.

But Bob was 19. He had become a man. He had to be responsible for himself. He had to man-up, he used to tell his parents. There’s no reason for them to believe he thought any differently that day. Besides, what 19-year-old male isn’t immortal?

Phil and Pauline believe there are other reasons he didn’t go to the ER, though, other than because of what he had heard that morning.

Bob loved his mom. He told her often and it was her birthday. The last thing he might have wanted to do on her birthday was create drama by going to the hospital because of some meth in a water bottle.

And several months before, in a computer lab at North Iowa Area Community College, someone shot him with high compressed air giving him a second-degree burn on his elbow. Jordan had to talk him into going to the ER for that. He was a student and his parents’ insurance got the bill and Bob got an earful when his parents had to pay $200 out of their pocket.

But now he wasn’t a student anymore. He had left NIACC and wasn’t under his parents’ insurance. There was a job lined up, but he hadn’t started, so there was no money and someone would have to pay for it. Two hundred dollars might have covered the first few minutes of this trip.

Still, they say, he never tried to save himself.

The apartment, at 8 ½ First Street Northwest, otherwise known as Main Street, is vacant now and smells stale with no air circulating and a carpet that needs to be torn out.

No one has lived there since Keith moved out. But the futon is still there in the living room, only against a different wall. The TV in the right front corner is gone.

“The first time I came up here after Bob died it was tough. I was scared,” Phil said. “I don’t know of what, but I was scared.”

Keith had a hard time, too. He didn’t go back up for several days after the EMTs came to get Bob, but then he decided it was the only place he could afford at the time and it was his apartment, so he was going to live in it.

There are still some things he left in there and he needs to go get them, but it’s hard to think about going back and walking through that white, metal door.

But that’s nothing compared to what he sees every night when he shuts his eyes. That’s the hardest time of the day.

“At night when I go to sleep…” Keith pauses, takes off his glasses and tosses them on his mom’s kitchen table, puts his palms to his eyes and cries, the kind of cry that only happens when a brother has lost his brother. “… every night when I shut my eyes… I relive it every night.”

Pauline jumps up from the stool to Keith’s left, tucks her left arm around him as she stands over his left shoulder, her right hand on his right shoulder, trying to say comforting, motherly words, the kind of words she didn’t get to say to her Bobby when he was hurting.

Keith’s been helping out Rachel and her husband, Bill, for the past few months, caring for their young kids, being the 24-7 uncle who is almost always there to play and that helps him cope.

Phil and Pauline were in shock for the first year and when they weren’t numb, they could pretend Bob was at school. That daze, that denial helped them move from day to day, though. But then the second year came.

“Then reality hits,” Pauline said, “and it’s real. We find happy moments, but it’s the joy that eludes me. But I have faith it will come back again someday.”

Every event that happened that day, and the previous few, relied on the one before it. Pull one away and the whole thing collapses and reality is what it used to be instead of how real it has become.

Bethany can talk about her brother and go to his grave and she’s fine.

“But then out of the blue,” said the sister who shares his mannerisms, and catches herself expecting him to be in his room to hang out like they used to do, “that’s how it happens.”

People are scared to say Bob’s name, to bring him up around his parents, but Phil and Pauline don’t mind. It’s not jogging a memory they’re trying to forget. They don’t want to forget. If they are asked about him, it means that others are thinking about him, too, and that’s comforting.

It has many faces, their grief, and one of them is homesickness, like when you’re little, Pauline said, and you go to your aunt’s house and you want to go home really bad, but you can’t.

And did you see Phil’s grief? He’s right there, standing to his left, almost coming up to his shoulder, but stopping at his heart, the heart that’s always been big, but now is bigger after Bob taught him how to open himself up.

“Knowing Bob made me a better person,” said Phil, who got a big hug from him the last time Phil saw him. “He wasn’t afraid to show love, so why should I be? He knew what life was about.”

The grief’s name is Fred, the name Phil gave him so he can just tell Pauline that Fred was there again today and won’t have to go into any detail again. Pauline will just know it’s been a bad day.

“Something can tip me like I’m walking on a 2×4. Something can push me, like a song or a thought. It’s like having someone right beside me. I can look here, and here, and here and everything is fine,” Phil said, looking up and over to his right, pointing with his right hand. He then pauses, bringing his right arm back, pointing across his body with his palm up and fingers together, presenting Fred and said very softly, “but when I look right there… he’s over there. He’s always there, not far away.

“I can have a tough time at work, or I can have a tough time at Menard’s.”

Phil – whose face and brown hair with just a touch of gray have thinned in the past 17 months, although he still wears the same glasses, graying mustache, and soul patch – never thought he’d have a son of his own. But as Bob grew up they also became great friends.

There they are in the cafeteria outside the gym after high school graduation, Bob’s diploma tucked under Phil’s left arm, his left hand clutching it as if it’s about to get away, his right arm around a smiling Bob, whose black gown is thrown over Bob’s left shoulder, Phil’s right hand on Bob’s right shoulder, pulling him in. There’s a look of steady pride, a father’s pride, on Phil’s face. The corners of his mouth are pulled up just slightly, hiding behind his mustache. But look at those eyes. That’s where you can see it. He’ll show all of his teeth shortly, but right now, those eyes are smiling wide, saying “This is my son!” They don’t need to say any more than that.

Bob is the son who made Phil cringe when he didn’t study much for the Gettysburg Address at that Memorial Day ceremony a few years back, then delivered a spot-on rendition, a young, beardless Abe Lincoln, reaffirming his father’s faith.

Bob is the son he talked history with, the son he talked philosophy with. The son he wasn’t just a father to, but also a great friend to. The son who had a lot of father-things yet to come from Phil.

Phil’s father gave him his grandfather’s watch, and he was going to pass it on. But now whom is Phil supposed to give it to?

Life isn’t 78.1 years long like the Centers for Disease Control’s latest report says. Life is only one moment long, this moment that we are in right now.

Bob knew that. It’s the way Bob lived.

“He had so much love in him and he gave it all away,” Pauline said, curling her arms into her and then throwing them out after wiping away a tear from behind her glasses on her bad day.

Sometimes on a bad day, the portrait of Bob giving a thumbs-up at Jordan’s prom that was tattooed on the back Pauline’s left shoulder, the one that has a tiny amount of Bob’s ashes mixed in the black ink, will ache. She doesn’t believe it’s a coincidence.

Keith was gung ho about getting a tattoo, like his siblings. But Pauline, ever a mother, was hesitant, asking if they were sure that’s what they wanted. Then she was told about mixing a very small amount of his ashes in the black ink and she was sold, but only if it was a portrait.

A couple months after his family lost him, they all had a piece of him. It was both Phil’s and Pauline’s first tattoo. “And my last,” said Phil, who had Bethany design a heart with a banner that reads “Bobby” and had the tattoo artist cover his heart with it.

Around Pauline’s neck is a necklace she’ll never take off. Dangling from the necklace is a cross and inside that cross are some of her Bobby’s ashes. The rest of the family has necklaces, too, some with a heart, some with an infinity symbol, another with a cylinder.

And the rest of Bob’s ashes that aren’t in an urn, or dangling from a necklace or touching his family are waiting to be scattered. Whichever family member is the first to head to the Atlantic coast will spread some there and whoever goes to the Pacific coast will throw some to the wind there, because Bob always wanted to get to California.

It might sound different, but there was no way they were going to go about things in a manner that would be considered normal. After saying goodbye to him in hospital, Pauline couldn’t say goodbye to him in a casket. Besides, Bob said if anything happened to him, he didn’t want a bunch of people looking at his body.

They didn’t need two goodbyes, anyway. The way he lived, the way they all lived with him, there was never much left unsaid.

Bethany wasn’t able to be in the ER and say her goodbyes, but in her mind they’ll meet up again. In her mind, one that is as artistic and creative and outside-the-box as Bob’s, she can see them meeting on the moon and sipping gin and tonic, while they toast to life and watch the world spin below. There, she would finally find peace.

Sounds exactly like Bob. Sounds exactly like Bethany.

“We should keep in mind life’s balance in everything we see, for it’s the only living pattern – the magic, the love, the harmony,” Jordan posted on a discussion board in an open Facebook group title “We Remember Bob Strand.” “And if this line of balance could make us Bobby, we should probably assume it took the time to make us a place of peace.”

Phil and Pauline try to find their peace when they get away. They can pretend they’ve found it, anyway. They can pretend everything is fine back home.

It’s kind of like acting, like putting on a show. All that’s missing is the singing.


The Relative Calm After the Storm

•June 4, 2008 • Leave a Comment


THE MEETING ADJOURNED in the “Talk” – a staked-down, sand-brown canvas command center – and the canvas door that had been zipped halfway shut on the left side was now pulled open.

Soldiers in digital camouflage-patterned ACUs (army combat uniforms) tracked mud inside from the mushy slop that formed outside after a day filled with mostly rain, slop that covered their tan boots over the toes, onto the giant tent’s black mat floor that sloped slightly toward the door.

Major Dave Nixon sat behind a table, then paced while talking, but most listening, on his cell phone at the back of the tent. A three-foot by four-foot map of the war zone, divided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency into five sectors, hung behind him on the silver canvas wall. Above the map, florescent tube lights – powered, along with laptops and two-way radio chargers, by a generator humming outside – ran the length of the 30-foot long tent. More than 30 boxes of pizza, most of them just emptied, sat on a table on the left side of the temporary structure that kept the breeze and the chill of the falling evening off the soldiers who filled it.

The “Talk” was abuzz before some of the Iowa National Guard 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry’s 160 soldiers called into service embarked on that night’s mission to provide security during curfew.

A few soldiers crowded around a laptop. Another marked a spot on the tent’s other five-sectored map hanging on the wall opposite the stack of pizzas with his left index finger. Others waited in line to be issued one of the walkie-talkies that crammed the table in front of them just a couple muddy steps inside the door, some of them holding onto the orange vests they’d put on before taking their spots at one of five checkpoints. The rest divided into groups of four and jumped into Humvees.

A few steps south of the “Talk” was a parking lot. A few steps east of the parking lot was a twisted, ravaged, hollow, jagged shell of what used to be Aplington-Parkersburg High School, an example of the catastrophic destruction a seven-tenths of a mile wide EF5 tornado left behind when it decimated the southern third of Parkersburg late afternoon on Sunday, May 25.

Just beyond the small evergreens to the north, on the other side of the line of camouflaged one-man tents soldiers not heading out on patrols were staking down, kids played. They climbed on and off the back deck of a house where a piece of dangling siding appeared to be the only damage. Only a few steps away, a large pine had been ripped up by the roots.

The initial tornado warning was issued that Sunday at 4:22 p.m. for northeastern Grundy, northeastern Hardin, southeastern Franklin and Butler counties, including the cities of Aplington and Parkersburg. The follow-up storm-based tornado warning for northern Grundy and southeastern Butler, including the cities of Aplington, Parkersburg and New Hartford, went out at 4:46 p.m, including the warning text: tornado will be near Parkersburg by 5 p.m.

The tornado touched down two miles south of Aplington, near the Butler-Grundy county line at 4:48 p.m. Three minutes later, another warning was issued.

The black monster, with its satellite twisters spinning around it, slammed into the southern third of Parkersburg at 4:59 p.m., sounding like a freight train.

But it didn’t just sound like a freight train. It also sounded like glass shattering and homes being sucked from foundations before crashing back down, or some homes simply being shredded in the over 200 mile-per-hour winds. It sounded like vehicles turning into missiles and anything that was airborne turning into projectiles and striking random targets, pitting siding like bullets. It sounded like once-mighty trees being uprooted, leaves sucked from branches and giant limbs splintering.

But it also sounded like a miracle that all but six people emerged from the unspeakable.

After downgrading to an EF2, despite growing to over a mile wide near Dunkerton, the tornado lifted after covering more than 50 miles and spending an hour and 10 minutes on the ground.

Tornado damage in Butler County alone is estimated at over $3 million.

Less than 0.1 percent of all tornados grow to EF5 status, the highest in the new Enhanced Fajita Scale. The last F5 tornado to hit Iowa was in 1976, and there have only been two EF5s in the country since the upgraded scale was unveiled last year. The other one hit Greensburg, Kan., last May, a tornado that was nearly two miles wide, killing 11 people and taking out an estimated 95 percent of the town of just over 1,500, almost 400 people smaller than Parkersburg.

The National Guard had been called to Parkersburg to provide security, man check points and patrol the part of the tornado’s path that lies inside the city limits from the 8 p.m. curfew when victims and helpers had to leave for their own safety, and 6 a.m., when they could return to continue to clean up things that for many took on a new meaning after perspective was shifted by the colossal twister.

There were rumors about looters before soldiers, including Hampton natives Aaron Morrison and James Morrison, were on the ground Tuesday morning, May 27, but there wasn’t a problem after that. Weather was still an issue, though.

After a day of mostly rain that dampened the clean-up efforts Thursday, there was a chance of severe weather again that night with storms firing up in eastern Nebraska late that afternoon. But it wasn’t just wet, it was cold. Temperatures, which never met the projected high, were already below the forecasted low.

First Sergeant Chris Clausen – who works for Mid-American Energy when not called upon like he was three nights earlier as he was tending the concession stand at his son’s baseball game back home in Ida Grove – slipped on his cold weather gear, including gloves, and hopped into one of the Guard’s Gator ATVs, the one with the windshield.

The 160 Guardsmen from the 133rd, along with 15 additional soldiers and airmen from the 67th Troop Command, Joint Forces Headquarters, 734th Regional Support Group, 133rd Test Squadron, 132nd Fighter Wing and Iowa Air National Guard Headquarters – who are “providing communications support, transporting water, creating emergency electrical power and providing operational support,” according to public affairs officer Lieutenant Colonel Greg Hapgood – answer directly to Butler County sheriff Joe Johnson, the incident commander, but Clausen isn’t far down the chain.

The first sergeant isn’t responsible for tacking up the orders that hang to the left of the five-sectored map opposite the stack of pizzas in the “Talk,” orders to “conduct security patrols” and stop “unauthorized entry to the hot zone between 2000 and 0600 hours,” but Clausen is responsible for making sure they are carried out.

The 133rd had been to Iraq and has the distinction, good or bad, of being the longest-serving unit in the Sandbox, having spent 16 months in country. This time they weren’t carrying weapons, they were wearing soft caps and they didn’t have to steel their nerves, but the soldiers, using words like “hot zone,” took their duties just as seriously.

They only wished they could do more.

“It’s frustrating,” Aaron Morrison said while walking the streets with a group Wednesday afternoon. “We wish we could help with clean-up, but we can’t.”

But there are liability issues and legalities and the last thing the Guard wants to do is take any business away from civilians who make a living removing debris. Still, it’s hard for Clausen to tell his men not to lend a hand, especially those who grew up near Parkersburg and know it well, who strained their eyes trying to latch on to something familiar when they came to town, something that would help them get their bearings.

“I want out of my orders,” one soldier told Clausen.

“Why’s that?” Clausen asked.

“So I can help,” the soldier said.

But the Guard is helping.

“These people’s lives are scattered all over and we need to make sure it’s all still there when they get back in the morning,” Clausen said before heading out on patrols Thursday.

Like the groups of four in Humvees, the first sergeant and his Gator snaked through Parkersburg, taking random paths through what many aptly describe as a war zone – appropriately dotted with American flags with a few red A-P Falcon flags scattered here and there – even if its not the kind of scene the 133rd saw in Iraq.

“If you watch the History Channel or the Discovery Channel,” said Clausen, “World War II battlefields look just like this.”

Clausen has worked hurricane reconstruction and had an idea of what to expect when he came to Parkersburg, but was still shocked at the sight when the unit rolled into town from the east Tuesday morning.

He wound his way to Highway 57/14 and headed west for a little more than a half-mile, about the same distance the twister was across when it blew into town. He pulled over at the checkpoint just off the 57/14 curve to the south where the east-west highway turns north on the southwest side of town, where what looked more like a wall than a tornado made its entrance, and asked how two of his men were doing. He then watched as they tell a woman in a minivan, who only wanted to drive the half-dozen blocks north through the devastation to get to the turn-off where 57 splits off Highway 14 to the west and heads for Aplington, that they were sorry, but they just couldn’t let her through.

A couple nights earlier, Clausen had watched as a vehicle approached that same check point, only to turn around. The first sergeant happened to then drive to the checkpoint where 14 splits off from 57 and heads south on the southeast side of town. There the car was again, turning around. It tried yet again to approach a third check point.

“At that point, it was time to call law enforcement,” Clausen said.

He steered the whining Gator down into the destruction. Outside of the floodlights at each check point and the floods in the parking lot near the “Talk” that seemed so far away now, even if it was a matter of blocks, the lights of the ATV were the only illumination against the night that had settled in.

Clausen marveled at the natural force responsible for the devastation, as he drove past a house with the exterior walls that were torn away, leaving only a few interior walls, two painted baby blue and two others across the open hall painted purple in what may have been bedrooms. The house had been sucked from its foundation and set down on the curb.

A few blocks north, Clausen made his way past a roofless house with a buckled wall and a spray-painted sign out front that was a testament to the sense of humor most residents carry alongside their unbending pride. It read: “For Sale, Open Floor Plan, Natural Light.”

But there is not always humor. A couple blocks south, over on 57/14, what used to be a house with only a few center walls standing, the rest in piles around it and even scattered around the neighborhood, piles that were mixed with rubble from other houses treated the same way, the owner scrawled out their frustration in giant, red, spray-painted letters after an adjuster from a certain insurance company “SAID THIS CAN BE SAVED!!!”

Clausen drove west and north, past the farthest northern edge of the destruction that is well defined, into the untouched part of Parkersburg with glowing street lamps and fortunate ones in their like-nothing-ever-happened houses, sitting in front of their televisions, enjoying electricity for the first time in five days.

“I wonder what they feel,” said Clausen, leaning forward on the Gator’s steering wheel, pointing at the pristine houses with front porch lights lighting up front steps, referring to a sort of survivor’s guilt. “I try to put myself in their place. Would I feel guilt? I almost think I would. Look, their antennas are still on their roofs.”

He made his way west, over to the Parkersburg Veterans Memorial building, a place he tells soldiers to go to refresh from time to time with some coffee or a beverage, and pulls up to a Humvee just as a soldier climbs into the front passenger seat and shuts the door.

After the soldier realized whose eyes were locked on him, he rolled down the window.

“Did you leave the waitress a nice tip?” Clausen asked.

“Yes, first sergeant,” the soldier replied.

“And if you were made of wood, would your nose be growing?” Clausen asked.

“No, first sergeant,” the soldier said as the other three laughed.

The days are long for the Guard, so Clausen tries to keep the mood light. Twelve hours on and twelve hours off. At least that’s what they try to stick to. Sometimes those “on” hours can get longer. Before Clausen finally went to sleep on Wednesday night for the first time since arriving, he’d been up for 40 hours.

The 160 soldiers from the 133rd are also away from their families again for a short while after being gone for a total of 22 months because of Iraq.

But they’ll make the sacrifice because of what they see around them, scenes like the two purple-flowered crosses and a flag at half-mast in front of a barren foundation on the north side of 57/14 on the southwest side of town that Clausen fears the meaning of, or the earlier scene of the man with a cane in one hand and a hoe in the other picking through what might look like a porch if not for the dining room table and chair behind him.

“Any inconvenience to us pales in comparison to what these people are going through,” Clausen said. “The days may get long and after a hard day at work you just want to go home. We can still do that. These people can’t. They don’t have that comfort.”

But sometimes it almost gets to be too much. Earlier in the day, Clausen stopped his Gator in the middle of it all and sat back, felt the rain coming down and was almost overwhelmed thinking about “home” and what it all meant.

There must have been many times – the times that take up space between the therapeutic laughs and jokes – between the day before Memorial Day and now when the victims in Parkersburg and New Hartford and Dunkerton felt the same.

Just before 10 p.m. Thursday, when there was a dark-as-pitch, eerie silence over Highway 57/14, the kind when wide, darting eyes strain to focus on anything, lightening flashed the sky white, silhouetting piles of wood and plaster and twisted metal and jagged, leafless, shattered trees that had once been houses, a Kwik Star gas station, a Pizza Ranch, a neighborhood. But the sudden bolt of intensely white light didn’t make it any less eerie.

A half hour earlier, the wife of a Guardsman placed a cell phone call to her husband, who was standing down after his shift serving victims of a natural disaster. She talked as she crouched alone in their basement, taking shelter from a funnel cloud that touched down near their Lake City home 120 miles west of Parkersburg.

Just before 10 p.m., the soldier, standing near the Salvation Army tent near the shattered A-P High School, was still shaking, his wife’s scared voice still ringing in his right ear a half-hour later. He was fearing for her safety and trying to calm his nerves by taking drag after drag off his cigarette, surrounded in every direction by reminders of what a twister can do.

Minutes later, two soldiers wearing orange vests – one soldier from Waterloo and the other from Cedar Falls, just a short drive east of Parkersburg – manned the check-point on 57/14, just a few blocks north of the curve on the southwest side of town.

“Just heading out of town?” one soldier asked as he approached one of the several cars to pass through the checkpoint since curfew fell almost two hours before, the sky flashing white again behind him. “Have you heard about the weather?”

Two counties over, the National Weather Service had just issued another tornado warning.

…Always a Marine

•April 16, 2008 • Leave a Comment


THE SMALL LINE OF CARS was finally led out onto the tarmac at Des Moines International Airport, lining up single file along a chain-linked fence, as luggage and small boxes from the United Airlines Boeing 757 – its dark gray top matching the shade of the shiny, wet tarmac – were unloaded onto a conveyor belt after the plane arrived from Denver, later than its scheduled time that Tuesday afternoon, April 8.

The rain didn’t let up and neither did the cold, as more than a dozen of Lance Corporal Cody Wanken’s family and friends, surrounded by Marines and Patriot Guard Riders – the Wankens were grateful to both for being there for the next three days – waited and shivered outside an outer building on the airport’s southeast side, knowing that their world was about to fall apart again.

“How many times have we stood out in the rain and cold at football games?” Cody’s mom, Sue, asked through a smile before being hit again by the wall of intense grief that came in waves, making her squishy-faced, as Cody would say, all over again and again.

One by one family and friends, who might as well be family, emerged from the line of vehicles – mostly SUVs filled to capacity, almost to fill them with so much love and support that it could squeeze out the reality of that plane and that hearse and those eight white-gloved Marines in dress blues marching to line up, four on each side at the front of the conveyor belt, in front of that open cargo door.

The family stood quiet, motionless, waiting, facing the plane. A Blue Star Mother held a dark blue and gold Navy umbrella, shielding Sue and Rick, Cody’s father, from the rain and little else, while both Sue and Rick clung to Andy and Brittany, Cody’s older siblings, and Zach, his youngest, who was supposed to spend the coming weekend with Cody in San Diego.

Brian Sutter, as close as one can be to the family without sharing blood, stood next to them with his hands in his pockets, his chin quivering. He was wearing sunglasses that dull, bitter afternoon. He wasn’t hiding anything. There was no hiding what was happening behind those shades. It was for Cody, because day or night, inside or out, he donned his dark sunglasses with the wide bows more often than not, saying: “The sun never goes down in Cool Town.”

But there was no sun on the tarmac. Only a family waiting, staring at the blackness inside the cargo door.



ALMOST A WEEK EARLIER, about a quarter after 2 p.m. on Wednesday, April 2, Sue had hamburger cooking on the stove for church, a sink full of dishes and someone at the front door. People dropped in all the time, lots of them, coming in the side door and the back door, just steps away from the garage that was home to the famous garage parties where Cody was the center of attention, as he was in most places. But no one ever came to the front door.

Before Cody left for the Marines two years ago after graduating from high school early, he sat down with his brothers and sister individually, telling them to not worry, being a Marine was his life’s goal. He also told his family that if ever they saw five Marines and a chaplain at the door, he was gone.

“In Cody’s world,” Sue said, “that’s just the way it was.”

Just outside the front door that Wednesday stood five Marines and a chaplain. Sue went numb.

She told herself if she didn’t open the door, it wasn’t real. But it wasn’t a dream. It was the beginning of a nightmare.

“Cody’s dead!” she yelled, opening the door, but Major Philip Farr, who would speak at LCpl Wanken’s funeral eight days later, only asked if her husband was home or if he was close. Another two Marines asked if they could finish cooking the hamburger or wash the dishes.

Cody had just talked to Sue and Andy the night before, as he did several times each week, then chatted with his roommate at Wounded Warrior Battalion-West at Camp Pendleton in San Diego for a while after that and nothing seemed wrong.

But after Sue called Rick, and after waiting for him to make the drive from Dumont back to Hampton that seemed much longer than 13 miles, they were asked to sit down. Major Farr knelt in front of them, hands were held and they were told, very respectfully, that Cody was found unresponsive that morning at 5:40 after he strangely didn’t report for roll call.

“Then the whirlwind started,” Sue said.

They were also told the Marines were investigating, a process that could take up to six months, a process that doesn’t matter much anyway since it won’t bring their son back.

Brian, who had known Cody since he was a five-year-old with a Kool-Aid mustache, had finished hanging dry wall in Geneva early that day and had just sat down on the couch when he got a call from Andy not too long after 3 p.m. “We lost Dobes,” Andy said, referring to Cody by the nickname he got when Brittany, as a toddler, couldn’t say “Cody.”

Brian didn’t hear and asked Andy to repeat it. “No really, we lost Dobes.” A couple minutes later, Brian was hugging Sue’s mother, Grandma Brooks, on the Wanken’s back deck, then found Sue and Rick on the couch in the living room.

“What are we going to do?” Sue asked, knowing there was no answer, but still searching for one, giving Brian a tight “Mama Sue” hug, one of many she gave out over the next eight days.

Cody – a dog handler with the 2nd Platoon, Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, the 3/5 being the most decorated in the Marine Corps – had been injured in Fallujah, Iraq, last September. He had curled up with Seibert, his improvised explosive device-sniffing black lab, and fell asleep before being hit by an Iraqi insurgent bullet that entered near his left ear and exited an inch above his Adam’s apple.

The next thing Cody knew, he had tears in his eyes, wondering where he was, why his mouth was wired shut and why his parents were standing there in front of him. He was at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., having been transferred there from Landstuhl, Germany, where he had already had three surgeries. The Marines had flown his parents out and put them up for almost two months, while paying all their bills through the Semper Fi Fund.

Cody’s pain had become excruciating recently – a functional 20 on a pain scale of 1-10, one doctor said – and after a series of surgeries, he still had three major surgeries to go. His jaw was full of hairline fractures and was deteriorating, giving him intense migraines. It was going to be replaced with a prosthetic. His ear canal and eardrum were going to be worked on and his ear that was mostly gone after the bullet ripped it away was going to get skin-graphed.

But Cody was in great shape from the neck down, worked out religiously, bulked up to 240 pounds, adding 25 pounds of muscle onto his 6-foot-2 all-district defensive end frame since high school, six-pack abs and all. He was always asking if those around him had bought tickets yet. “Tickets to what,” they’d ask. “The gun show,” he’d say as he flexed and flashed his patented, wide Cody smile.

He had been able to bring the party from Iowa to Iraq, and despite his headaches and occasional memory loss from his injury, to Maryland and the Wounded Warrior Battalion-West on Camp Pendleton in California with a contagious zest for life and compassion and service. He felt strong and couldn’t understand why he couldn’t go back to his unit and his dog in the Sandbox.

“If he was more sick,” Sue said, “we might have been more prepared.”

THE LUGGAGE AND SMALL BOXES had all been unloaded from the plane and the baggage carts had been driven away and the hearse took its place in front and to the side of the conveyor belt.

Now there was only silence. The 757’s idling engines might as well have been shut off. The hum from the working of the state’s busiest airport might as well have been hushed. And if the world hadn’t already stopped spinning, it was about to. Then it was about to fall.

A red and white sliver of a corner of the American flag, tucked neatly around LCpl Wanken’s casket, came into view in the darkened cargo bay. Screams pierced the vacuum of silence. Reality took hold. For a week, the family knew, but all they had to hold on to were words. At that moment, as the two Marines inside the cargo bay struggled to bring the casket around and a baggage handler in his bright yellow jump suit – a stark contrast to his surroundings – scampered up the conveyor belt to help, Cody died all over again. The screams, the kind that once you hear them you never forget them, said so.

“We had to get him back home to believe it,” Rick said. But at that moment on the tarmac, the pain was almost unbelievable, almost unbearable.

Umbrellas, seemingly almost self-indulgent, covered only Rick and Sue, and the rain washing down the faces of the family couldn’t mask salty tears.

“Watching the Marines walk under the plane and take out Cody’s casket killed me,” said Troy Potter, Cody’s best friend since first grade, who Cody would call from wherever he was, sometimes multiple times a week, at one or two in the morning and ask if Troy was partying like a rock star.

Exactly five months earlier, Brian – who spent four years in Marine intelligence, and once a Marine, always a Marine – drove to Des Moines International to pick up Rick, Sue and Cody. They were flying in from Maryland on the same day Brittany graduated from La’James College in Mason City. Cody was staying in Hampton for the next month or so before going to California. The next day was Brian’s birthday, his best ever, he said. The following day was the birthday of the Marine Corps. He waited in baggage claim for more than an hour after a mix-up on the arrival time, but the pay-off was laying eyes on Cody, smiling like always, riding down the escalator and bringing him home. Five months later, he drove the Wankens’ white Chevy Tahoe back to the airport.

The four Marines on each side slowly raised their arms to salute the fallen hero, holding that salute as Cody rode down the conveyor belt until they lifted him into the hearse, slowly saluting him again.

There was anticipation during the ride to the airport. Rick and Sue were finally going to bring their son home after nearly a week – the entire process from Cody’s death to his burial stretched for nine days – when most parents would have been able to bury their child, and say goodbye, three or four days ago. But things got heavier the closer they came to Des Moines.

“The hardest thing was the airplane,” Rick said, “but it was satisfying to bring him home.”

Governor Chet Culver, wearing a green flight jacket, huddled with Cody’s family in the stall of a storage building, leading them in a prayer, presenting them with a state flag that had flown over the capitol and a proclamation stating that Cody is a hero. Two Marines stood guard at the back of the hearse, arms behind their backs, feet a Marine shoulder-width apart. The red and white of Cody’s flag was visible through the water beading up on the back window. The governor, who the Wankens were honored to share that moment with, then gave the state patrol instructions to get the family home, they’d been through enough. Moments later, a line of mostly SUVs, led by a state trooper and a couple Patriot Guard Riders right behind and bringing up the rear, were clocking 85 mph most of the 90 soggy miles north up I-35 back to Hampton.

“What Wanken boy wouldn’t love speeding down the road,” said Sue, a sense of peace having come over her along the way home because she had her son back. “It made me feel good. The kid was speeding down the road one more time.”

“Legally,” Rick added.

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Keith Lattman and Sergeant Matt Scott woke up at 3:30 that morning, made sure LCpl Wanken was on the plane in San Diego, then escorted him back to Iowa, changing planes in Denver, getting off first as the plane’s captain made the announcement that they were escorting Lance Corporal Cody Wanken back home.

CWO2 Lattman and Sgt Scott heard a Semper Fi or two from those passengers who were asked to remain seated, who could see what was going on below their windows, but the two Marines had never seen anything like the respect and gratitude and patriotism Hampton put on display. It got to them, past their hardened Marine exterior.

It was about 45 minutes after Greg Webb of Iowa Falls, who had lost his brother in Desert Storm and was another member of the Patriot Guard Riders, pulled his Harley into the processional just after Ames, even though members were asked not to ride their bikes because of the weather and a chance of snow.

The Patriot Guard Riders are a nation-wide group of mostly veterans whose pledge is “Standing by those who stood for us.” They are a group of motorcycle enthusiasts who formed out of necessity to defend against the startling reality of military funeral protesters. The riders travel sometimes great distances to stand guard on the perimeter until the body is laid to rest.

“I just had to ride,” Webb said.

And it was at the end of the processional that saw more and more cars pulling over out of respect the closer Cody got to Franklin County. It was there, at Cody’s destination, where much of Cody’s legacy will remain, that Hampton wore its heart – beating read, white and blue and touched by war for the first time since Vietnam almost 40 years before – on its sleeve.

Kiwanians had decked out Highway 3 in American flags like they do every Memorial Day or Fourth of July, and people lined the street, some waving flags of their own.

But one of the lasting images from all those three days was the first one the processional saw as it came into Hampton. A lone elderly veteran stood at the entrance of the Seabee parking lot on the west edge of town, feet together, back straight, head held high, left arm straight at his side, right arm raised in a sturdy salute.

“We don’t see things like this in California,” the two Marines told the Wankens. “We only see protesters.” There were no protesters this time.

The family never appreciated Hampton more than it did in those moments.

“The flag-draped casket was a rush of emotion,” Brian said, “then there was coming home and seeing people line the streets and the gentleman saluting. People took a few minutes to pay respect to a fallen hero and we will never forget that. It blew us all away.”

The fallen hero would have appreciated it, too.

“Cody would have been so proud of everything today,” Sue said through tears that covered a squishy face after hugging members of the American Legion who greeted the family at Sietsema-Vogel Funeral Home. “His buttons would have been busting.”

CODY LIVED FAST. He had to to cram it all in 20 years and make the kind of impact and leave the kind of legacy he did. He saw what he wanted, did what he wanted, lived how he wanted, having already accomplished the biggest goals he set for his life – playing football and becoming a Marine – one of a select few members of that club.

He was always smiling, always laughing. Turning boredom into a party.

But he was more than just a big smile. He was a big heart.

He was a protector, bringing home wayward frogs and raccoons when he was little, even a box full of opossums, whose mother was dead on the highway. Then there was that snapping turtle Rick had to talk him out of making a home for. Cody loved animals, which helped him make the decision to become a dog-handler.

He was a protector, taking care of bullies in the school hallway, taking care of his friends, taking care of his family, making sure Zach was included in the garage parties, much the same way Andy made sure Cody was included.

But there was that time when Brittany returned the favor, a time when a girl was mistreating Cody at a recent Summerfest downtown. “I had to step in,” she said.

Even after he graduated from Hampton-Dumont in 2006, with a class that is paying to have Cody’s name engraved on the Franklin County war memorial, he’d drop in at the school to hassle a staff or faculty member or two.

Cody played football the way he played life. All out. His mantra, “I love football!” was always on his lips, said in a way to parody the sentiments of an inarticulate lineman, a big ugly. Football was the only other thing he wanted to do as badly as he wanted to be a Marine. Cody – who went to this year’s Super Bowl and asked anyone who would listen, “Did you see me?” – was fifth on the team in tackles during his senior season. He also caught seven passes, one for a touchdown. The numbers weren’t great and neither was his talent, but he had turned himself from a defensive end and tight end with mediocre skills, into an impact player.

He didn’t need to turn himself into a leader, though. He was born that way. When he needed to keep a level head, even then, it came easy for him.

H-D trailed at second-ranked AGWSR, 14-10, with 80 yards to drive and just over four minutes to do it during the second week of Cody’s senior season. Staring at a fourth-and-two from the Cougars’ 22-yard line with about 30 seconds to go, the Bulldogs called timeout and head coach Jerry Shafrath went to address his players.

As Shafrath, who retold the story from behind red eyes at Cody’s funeral, was walking away from the huddle before a play that could be pointed to as the turnaround of the H-D football program, Cody yelled to him. “Hey, coach,” he said, as Shafrath spun around. “I love football!” Then Cody smiled.

Troy – an honorary pallbearer at Cody’s funeral, who muscled his way through his address to his best friend that Thursday morning at the H-D High School gym – hauled in a 22-yard pass from quarterback Ben Hansen, also an honorary pallbearer, on that fourth-down play with 21 seconds left, for a 17-14 win.

“The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was say goodbye to my best friend,” said Troy, who Sue calls a true brother to Cody. Before he got up at the funeral to walk to the stage, passing Cody on the way, he asked his friend to be with him. “I felt him,” Troy said. “He helped me through it. I think he helped make me into the man I am today. We went through some not-so-good times, but we both got through it and it formed us into the people we are.”

That weekend, Troy and Jacob Johansen, simply known as “Farmer,” each got a tattoo in honor of their close friend. Jacob’s is on his forearm and Troy’s is on his chest, covering his heart.

About two-and-a-half years after that touchdown pass, Troy and Ben hooked up again, standing at the back of the sanctuary at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, doing their best to console each other as a Marine stood guard next to Cody’s open casket, less than 22 yards away, during Cody’s visitation the day after his family brought him home.

Across the way, past the pews, Cody’s No. 9 home jersey, the same number Andy wore and Zach, a senior next season, now wears, rested on a hanger, its shoulders scarred from those Friday nights in the trenches, like the one in Ackley.

THE GUARD, with LCpl Wanken to its left, on the other side of the candle and the rosary beads, changed every 10 minutes. One white-gloved Marine decked out in dress blues robotically marched up, then slowly returned the salute of the Marine he relieved, took two steps forward, pivoted 180 degrees, put his hands behind his back, palms out, feet shoulder width apart, standing steely, not moving a muscle. The Marine’s eyes rarely darted to the right, getting only an occasional glimpse of Cody’s next friend, the ones who just kept coming, sometimes in waves during the four-hour visitation.

Sue was doing her best to try to hug them all, some a little longer than others, depending on how much they meant to Cody, and Rick trying to shake their hands.

Several times during the visitation, Major Farr, ever looking out for his Marine family, ever the protector, asked Rick and Sue if they wanted the doors closed for a time, if it was getting to be too much, if they wanted a break. But they weren’t about to turn anyone away.

People were flipping through the scrapbooks laid out on a table, flipping past photos like the one from 2002 where he’s stepping on home plate after hitting a grand slam, receiving a high-five from the opposing catcher. Flipping past photos from when he was three and Rick, always Cody’s hero, was gone for 13 months with his National Guard transportation unit in the Middle East and Cody wouldn’t be seen without camouflage until after his dad came back.

Flipping past photos of trophies won on the hunt with his dad, photos with that smile, always that smile, and eyes spilling over with life. There were photos of some of those fishing trips, like the one last summer that didn’t turn into a fishing trip at all. Rick and Cody just kicked back in sandals and shades, just talking, comparing notes on Iraq, while they floated around the lake for hours, never putting a line in the water.

They were flipping past photos of Cody posing with his family at boot camp graduation, his nephew Cade, then seven, dressed in little fatigues and a fatigue cap, standing at attention, just like Cody grew up doing.

People were looking at photos on tag boards or in frames, like the one of Cody with Cade, Andy’s son, and his other nephew Maddon, Brittany’s son, beneath the poem calling Cody his nephews’ hero, both the photo and the poem in the frame resting in the casket with Cody. Two roses in Marine colors – one gold, one scarlet – were next to Cody’s head, each were representing a nephew.

“He would have been a great dad,” Sue said, “but he was a great uncle.”

Countless stories were swapped; some, no doubt, repeatedly. Many with a smile and a laugh. Some, no doubt, barely appropriate for the building in which they were told.

Many friends came and just stayed, hour after hour, some looking like they didn’t know what to do next, but knowing they didn’t want to leave, knowing for that night, they wanted to be where Cody was the center of attention, the kind of thing they were used to. But there wasn’t much life to this party.

Cody’s family gathered around him one more time, clutching each other, clutching him, before Brittany walked to the back, took Cody’s red No. 9 jersey off its hanger and buried her face in it, drying her tears with it as she rejoined her family. Sue, very much still Cody’s mother, then folded the jersey neatly and placed it gently with her son.

When it was time, a Marine walked down the isle, stopped a yard or two inside a first down from Cody. Before they took him away, the Marine slowly raised his right arm up to the brim of his cover in salute, then slowly lowered it as the celestial voice of Sarah McLachlan floated softly, appropriately, through the church from the green iPod Nano – playing a mix chosen by high school sweetheart Tori Knoll and the Class of 2006, each song with a meaning – that was plugged into the pink base flashing 5:31 then 5:32.

You’re in the arms of the angel

May you find some comfort here…

CODY’S CAMO gave way to a baseball uniform, then a football uniform, then back to camo.

“He was destined to wear a uniform all his life,” Sue said, “and to him, the Marines were the best.”

All he wanted to do was play football, then all he wanted to do was be a Marine. He wanted to make a difference and had the perfect combination of his father’s determination and his mother’s heart.

Cody, then just 16, first talked to Staff Sergeant Brian Maness when the Marine visited H-D High School, only to be told he was too young, the same thing SSgt Maness told Cody the next few times he approached the recruiter.

“Come back when you are old enough,” SSgt Maness would say.

Finally, when Cody was old enough for the Marines to give him a taste of what life was like inside the country’s smallest, but proudest, military branch, SSgt Maness took him to Waterloo for a beginner’s boot camp of sorts, using paint ball guns instead of M-16s.

SSgt Maness came to Cody’s football games, his track meets, became a close friend, then was transferred to the East Coast. But when Cody was injured, SSgt Maness jumped on a plane for Bethesda. Last week, he was in Des Moines, waiting at the airport.

“He was there every step of Cody’s life and there to the end,” Sue said. “He just treated Cody like a brother.”

Brian Sutter, or Aunt B as Cody called him, never worried about Cody joining the Marines. Cody had that Marine swagger. And Brian wasn’t surprised Cody fought through his injury from that insurgent’s bullet for as long as he did.

“Cody had the heart of a lion. He was a tough kid and I know where it came from,” said Brian, who was touched even more by Cody’s passing since they shared the Marine bond. “He exemplified tough. That’s why it’s so surprising that he went in his sleep.”

But even after Cody joined the Marines, when there was Cody from Hampton and then Cody the warrior, he didn’t change. He just went back to camo and carried a gun around a little more.

Cody from Hampton passed out coloring books and played ball with Iraqi children. Cody the warrior was the one who froze that day when he wheeled around and there stood an Iraqi boy with a gun, no older than Cade – who Brian calls “Cody version 2.0” and who has yet to take off the dog tags Cody gave him when Cade came out for boot camp graduation. In a poetic twist of irony, Cade ran around at the meal following Cody’s funeral wearing a Kool-Aid mustache. Simply perfect. Brian and Brittany saw Cody and laughed.

But then there was the writing. The free verse that poured out one night when Cody was on patrol. The words no one knew were there. When Brian first saw his writings reprinted in the Chronicle, he called Andy. “Dobes is a helluva writer!” he said.

Maybe it was written by Cody the warrior. It had to be Cody the warrior. How could Cody from Hampton, even though all he wanted to do was be a Marine, feel war enough to paint it so vividly with words? How could he write “Cry Havoc”? How could he know of “this Machine” that won’t let down one minute? How could Cody from Hampton, who saw a beautiful side to Iraq, know how to adapt? What nightmares are? What dead bodies smell like?

“Cry Havoc”

By LCpl Cody Wanken

A young man, a young Marine, a younger brother, a baby to a mother and father.

A man not feared to struggle but scared to fail.

A man wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps and not be scared to take any risks.

Now the time has come and it’s all come too fast and too easy.

Many things go through his head – is he prepared, or is he complacent?

Did he gaff things off or is he just ready?

He can’t eat

He can’t sleep

He throws up and cries for Jesus.

He can’t understand what is war?

He looks at kids and women in the eyes and he can read them.

He doesn’t understand why people are afraid of this machine.

This young man

This young Marine

He looks at his brothers in the eyes like a man and can feel the same fear as if it boils off of him.

His feet burn from the sand.

His body aches from patrolling.

His head hurts from being on his game.

His eyes are heavy from lack of sleep.

This machine will not let down one minute.

They say war isn’t a game, or is it?

People watch TV or play video games and want it.

But they don’t know what nightmares are and what dead bodies smell like.

Is it just a cry for help? NO!

A Marine will adapt and overcome anything that he goes through in his life.

As the war goes on and men die, as men cry as Marines grow no matter what.

At the end of the day, at the end of the raid

A Marine will CRY HAVOC!

Just because he is worn out doesn’t mean he is tired and he will be prepared for the next day.

He will never stop until the job is done and will keep moving for his family and his friends.

Because someday he will see them again.

WHEN CODY CAME HOME for the final time, he was wearing his dress blues, buttons polished to shine.

“He loved his clothes,” Sue said. “He believed if you weren’t dressed to the nines, you didn’t go.”

Cody would always make fun of his dad when Rick would put on a flannel shirt and Carhartts. Rick joked that he was going to wear those to the funeral, drive Cody nuts one more time.

Cody loved to go to movies, too. He didn’t care what it was. He’d let someone else pick. He just wanted to go. There were plenty of other things to do, but one summer, he and Troy rented a movie, one for each day.

But Cody really loved his shopping. He would come with his Hollister and Abercrombie bags and his buddies at the Wounded Warrior Barracks would laugh. Zach would sneak those clothes out of Cody’s suitcase when Cody would be back home and wear them like a badge of honor after Cody had left. Then Sue would get a call. “My clothes are missing!” an irate voice would say on the other end.

But one day he came back to the barracks with bags that weren’t for him. Inside were $40 worth of shakes and broth and whatever else he could find to help sooth Lance Corporal Daniel Patrick’s dry sockets after he had his wisdom teeth removed. Not just spending his money on himself. Just Cody being Cody.

Then a couple Mondays ago, just two days before he died, he made one final phone call about a plane ticket to make sure everything was taken care of. Hampton-native Kelly Humberg was about to graduate from boot camp, but there was no way for Humberg’s mother to get there. But after all those intense weeks, especially Hell Week, a new Marine needs family around him, Cody said.

So Cody arranged it, even though the two boys never got along growing up. He paid for the ticket and got the mother a military discount on housing. Just Cody being Cody.

“It’s small town Iowa. Hampton boy taking care of Hampton boy,” Sue said. “Marine on Marine.”

Lance Corporal Steven Legerlotz and LCpl Patrick, two of Cody’s buddies from San Diego, made it out, along with a third, for Cody’s funeral. The Marines made sure of that. It was a long flight, but they all put on their headphones. It was easier than talking.

Lance Corporal Brad Colman, an H-D grad a year ahead of Cody, who pushed Cody in the weight room, who had a special attachment to Cody through the Marines, also made it back, flying in from North Carolina. He then had “honorary” dropped from “pallbearer” so Cody would have a friend carrying him that final day, instead of eight Marines he’d never met.

Colman leaves for Iraq in June with the 1st Brigade, 2nd Battalion. The last time the two talked, Cody was trying to get him up to speed on what he might find in the Sandbox.

IT TOOK A WHILE and it was nerve-wracking at first, but LCpl Patrick and LCpl Legerlotz warmed up to Cody’s family, sharing Cody stories that sounded like the ones the family already knew, only with different names and different places. It meant a lot to meet the family.

Even though they only knew Cody a few months, the Marines had clicked right away. They already miss those times at the bowling alley, the times when they’d get down and Cody would be there with a smile, those times spent just smoking and joking with Juice (a nickname Cody earned from an inside joke they wouldn’t reveal). They never knew what they were going to get with Cody, but they always knew it was going to be fun.

But if anyone could understand Cody’s sacrifice, a Marine’s sacrifice, it was LCpl Patrick, whose left hand was wounded by an Iraqi grenade in Fallujah. He, like Cody, only ever wanted to be a Marine.

“To appreciate the sacrifice you have to appreciate the taste of America, and to truly taste America you have to practically have your life taken from you,” said LCpl Patrick, wise far beyond his 20 years. “I think God has a plan for everything. We could never project what kind of impact Cody has on this town or those who were around him.”

While some families become embittered when their sons die at war, the Wankens have drawn closer to the Marines, wanting to give back to the Semper Fi Fund that gave so much to them, wanting to help the Wounded Warrior Battalion-West.

Brian just hopes the United States stays the course until the job is done, not cutting and running from Iraq.

“I’m so worried we are going to pull out. It would accomplish nothing, and then, why did we send him?” he said, thumping his right index finger on Cody’s picture laying on Brian’s dining room table. “Why did we send all those great people? That’s one of my greatest fears. I don’t want anyone to die in vain. Guys like Cody are not expendable.”

CODY WAS GOING TO COME HOME a couple weeks ago, but the weather forecast wasn’t good. Ice and snow. He went to Alabama for the weekend instead.

If that insurgent bullet had not found him, Cody would have been coming back from Iraq. The advance party of the 3-5 landed at Camp Pendleton Thursday, April 10. Rick and Sue flew out several days later to greet Cody’s unit and meet Seibert – a dog who wouldn’t behave for anyone but Cody, not anyone before or since. They got to match up faces to the names and the Marines will get some closure.

But Cody did come home, and it was cold and gray and softly raining when he finally did on Tuesday. Still colder, with a temperature in the upper 30s, nearly 20 degrees below average, and gray and rain blowing in sheets when he was laid to rest two days later.

It was the polar opposite of Cody’s personality, the irony of it not lost in the sorrow.

“Yeah,” Brian said with a grin after the funeral, “he’s laughing at us.”

And in a cemetery in Goldfield, next to his grandfather, Cody’s family said one last goodbye as they huddled inside a two-sided blue tent that did its best against the cold wind and the sheets of icy rain. Outside, his friends were numb and soaked.

Bagpipes filled with air, then played “Amazing Grace” as the bagpiper slowly walked away, the sound hauntingly fading.

The flag was raised off Cody’s casket, folded and given to his mother, who was squishy face around Cody for the last time. The 21-gun salute echoed off the distant trees, the bugler played taps and Cody’s family huddled around his casket, falling on it, kissing it, kissing him.

Brian and Troy and Farmer were watching it all through tinted lenses. They were wearing sunglasses, just like Brian and Troy had when Cody came off the plane, because “The sun never goes down in Cool Town,” a phrase Cody would say to Brittany when she would tell him to take his sunglasses off, because after all, he was in the house and it was nighttime. Brian placed a pair of his sunglasses in the casket for Cody to keep with him, along with the last medal Brian received from the Marines.

Rick and Sue are worried about what will happen when things slow down and everything else catches up, when things return to what normal is redefined to be and the emotional sledgehammer hits harder than all the times it was pounding away last week. Only then, there won’t be anyone around to soften the blow.

Sue had to leave for a little while the day after they buried Cody and Rick was alone for the first time in a long time. It was hard.

Brian doesn’t ever want to let go of the pain, his knuckles white from his grip. He wants to keep it inside of him, right where he can feel it, terrified that if time slowly takes it away, it will take Cody’s memory with it.

But Rick and Sue know Cody is still there. Sue feels him when she gets an overwhelming sense that she’s being hugged. Rick has woken up from a deep sleep when he’s heard Cody’s voice in conversation.

Besides, all Cody’s old friends and his new friends have the Wankens’ number and they know where to find them, right there in that two-story white house with the wagon wheel out front, right next to that garage where nearly 30 of them crammed for another garage party that Thursday night, just hours after Cody’s body was laid to rest, a party that lasted until 2 a.m. Rick and Sue hope it won’t be the last time Cody’s friends cram into that heated garage.

“They all connected, all the new friends and the old friends exchanging phone numbers and e-mail addresses. It was just so much fun, almost like a Mardi Gras funeral,” Sue said. “It was boo hoo and then bring out the party. The best part about this is there are more friends. They fit right in like they lived here. There such a sense of peace to have the spirit of Cody spread from California to Iraq. He’s not forgotten.”

The rain was still falling on Friday and the sun had gone down that night, but Sue got a picture message from San Diego on her cell phone that brightened things up. She leaned over her dining room table, covered by scrapbooks and the governor’s proclamation, and flipped her phone open. Just like Cody, LCpl Patrick and LCpl Legerlotz, who had just arrived back in California, were wearing their shades and big smiles. Underneath the photo, it read: “The sun never goes down in Cool Town.”