Hanging on by a Strand

By JUSTIN HILL

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.

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2 Responses to “Hanging on by a Strand”

  1. This is a very nice tribute to bob. I am friends with Al and Lori Poulos and their kids. Bobs death was a very hard time for all of them.

    • Thanks for taking the time to search for this story, Helen. There are a few stories I have done that will always stay with me. This is one of them.

      Phil and Pauline were incredible, sitting through weeks and weeks of very hard questions from a journalist who wanted to know every tiny detail so I could tell the story as honestly and honorably as I had the ability to do. The places they went with me, from their memories to the actual room their son took his last breath, were not easy places to go.

      They say the odds of a marriage surviving the death of a child are not good, but Phil and Pauline are an incredible couple and seem like an exception to those kinds of rules.

      I knew Al Poulos from the times my job would take me out to the country club. Great guy. Always had a smile for me. I know Bob was like a son to him. Tell Al I said ‘hi.’

      Aloha nui,

      Justin

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