PotomacBridge

The bridge from Sandy Hook to Harpers Ferry…and also from lunacy to sanity.

“Nothing just happens!  Nothing just happens!” thundered the evangelizing voice of T.D. Jakes as I gnawed on fried chicken from the comfort of my hotel bed.  The congregation shouted its approval of their leader’s assertion that there is no such thing as a coincidence.  I pondered the idea for a moment, took another swig of cola, and clicked the remote.  Now The Andy Griffith Show flickered from the screen.  It was an episode I recognized, the classic “Man In A Hurry,” in which a stranded big-city motorist finds his patience tested by the leisurely pace of Mayberry as he waits for his car to be repaired.

“Ah, what luck,” I enthused before it occurred to me that T. D. Jakes would presumably disagree.

I was determined to squeeze whatever enjoyment I could out of my accommodations, as my room was costing me four times what I had budgeted.  Perched high atop Harpers Ferry at the edge of the Catholic cemetery, my lodgings were in every way a far cut above my original reservations.  In order to justify the indulgence of attending a five-day educational conference at my own expense (along with opportunities to do further research for my historical novel set in the area), I had intended to stay a little further down the Potomac, just across the river.  There at the base of Maryland Heights is the small community of Sandy Hook, where a humble hostel offers shelter to Appalachian Trail hikers, assorted vagabonds, and fiscally prudent educators.

The idea of staying in a hostel held no appeal to me beyond its minimal cost.  Multi-bunk barracks and community bath facilities are not what I would consider to be positive amenities.  In addition, this establishment was only open in the evening, overnight and morning hours, outside of which the doors were locked.  Still, I anticipated a busy week, and what more would I need from my accommodations but a safe bed and a shower?  As I was traveling alone, I did not need to consider the comfort of my family.  I could handle roughing it for a few days.  It might even make the whole endeavor more fun, allowing me to assume the role of the itinerant writer, a rugged intellectual who cares not where he sleeps so long as he may practice his craft.

I arrived at Sandy Hook early on Sunday afternoon, pulling into the deserted gravel lot of the white, two-story house that would be my hostel home for the week.  It wouldn’t open for hours yet, but the quiet surroundings looked like a nice place for a relaxing walk after my long drive.  If I changed my mind, I could always drive into Harpers Ferry and find something of interest.  I shut off the engine and emerged from the stale cabin of my Saturn into a pleasant August breeze.

Almost immediately the gentle rustling of the trees was accompanied by a stirring in the grassy area beyond the lot, and I turned to see a lone figure emerge from a midday nap.  A short, middle-aged man in rumpled hiking attire loped toward me and extended a pudgy hand in greeting.  The greying hairs of his frizzy beard offset a balding pate, and his sad eyes stared at me from bulbous, wrinkled sockets.  I noted with amusement that he resembled the latter-day Billy Joel.

“Hey,” he offered, “you staying here tonight?”

“Yeah.  You too?”

“Uh-huh.  But they’re not gonna open ’til six.  I’m just hangin’ out ’til then.”  He peered more closely at me.  “You hiking the trail?”

“Oh, no,” I laughed.  “I’m here for an education conference at Harpers Ferry.  Plus I’m doing some research while I’m here.”

“Mmm…”  he nodded, “I need to head into town myself.  Maybe you can give me a ride on your way in tomorrow?”

“Sure, sure,” I heard myself say as my head bobbed up and down affably.  It disturbed me a little that I had just promised a ride to a total stranger, but I just as quickly chastised myself for being so uptight and judgmental.  This was all part of the hostel life, a casual community of good-natured travelers who believe in random acts of kindness and paying it forward.  Just because circumstances had afforded me the luxury of a car while Billy Joel had none, did that give me the right to keep it all to my selfish self?

I smiled my widest smile.  “My name’s Bob.  It’s nice to meet you.”

“The pleasure’s all mine, Bob.  You can call me Matt.”

Perhaps this was the genesis of a rich and rewarding friendship.  There was an almost collegiate air about Matt that made me conclude that he probably had a few interesting stories to tell.  I decided to give him an opening.  “So, Matt, what brings you to Harpers Ferry?”

‘Well, Bob, I’m on my way back to D.C., which is where I spend most of my time.  I’ve been doing a lot of research in the libraries there, and I’ve got files full of evidence to show every congressman and senator who’ll listen to me just what the government’s been doing to me for the last ten years.”

“Really?” I politely responded.  “What is that?”

He looked at me conspiratorially.  “Bob, have you ever heard of directed energy?”

“Um…directed energy…”

“I’m ex-military, Bob.  The government’s been experimenting with directed energy for years.  Picture a microwave without the microwave oven.  Imagine being able to torture somebody halfway across the world just by bombarding their body with hyperfocused energy beamed by satellite.  They’ve been doing this stuff to me for years, Bob.  I didn’t always look like this.”  He spread his arms to indicate his haggard frame.  “I used to be to a specimen of perfect health.  That’s what directed energy will do to you.”

“Um…” I muttered, trying to think of a good response while fighting my flight reflex, “why would the government want to do that to you?”

“Because they don’t want you to know the truth,” he said matter-of-factly.  “I found out they put a damn chip in my head when I was in the army.  I didn’t even know it until years later, after they started hitting me with directed energy.  I didn’t know what it was at first, but as soon as I found it, you can bet I started raising a stink about it.  I’ve got enough evidence in my files to put half of ’em in jail!  Once they knew I wasn’t going to stay quiet, that’s when they started using the chip.  Oh, yeah.  They use voice-to-skull technology just to harass me.”

“Really.”

“They’ll wake me up in the middle of the night, sometimes just one guy, sometimes three or four of ’em talking at once.  Doesn’t matter where I go, voice-to-skull works anywhere.  I’ve had nights when I haven’t had a wink of REM sleep because they won’t let me.  Just to harass me.  They’ll tell you things like you’re wife is having an affair, or go jump off a building, anything to drive you crazy.  But that’s just mind games.  It’s the directed energy that’s caused me so much pain I’ve had days when I can’t even walk.”

“Wow,” I managed, trying to look and sound sympathetic to the plight of this madman.  A short pause ensued, Matt staring at me intensely while my relatively normal brain searched frantically for a swift and sure escape.  After a few quick calculations, it returned the following insights:

1) Do not give Matt a ride to Harpers Ferry tomorrow, or to anywhere at anytime, for that matter.

2) Do not stay at the hostel unless you’re okay with being the victim of axe-to-skull technology.

3) Get away now, and do not return.

“And now the VA wants to cut my benefits,” he started in again.  His rambling speech became an aural blur as I smiled and nodded compassionately, waiting for the right opportunity to announce my departure.  It was essential that I not imply in any way that he was welcome to come with me.  I contemplated my options while paying scant attention to Matt’s concerns, though I was careful to display every social cue that would indicate my complete engagement.

‘That’s incredible,” I deadpanned at one or another of Matt’s implausible revelations, and he continued unabated as a lonely man might if he were delivering a monologue to his wide-eyed cat.  My legs were starting to ache.  When at last I thought I could endure no more, Matt gave me the great gift of proclaiming his intention to take a walk and invited me to accompany him.

“I’d love to, but I have a few errands to run before the hostel opens.”  I beamed at him, willing myself to look like someone who just couldn’t wait to get back and listen to more tales of covert government torture.

“Oh,” he reacted pleasantly, “I’ll see you later, then.”

Within the hour I was calling my wife from my locked hotel room, explaining that the sting of our forthcoming credit card bill might be trumped by the comfort of having me alive to pay it.  And as it happened, staying at that location was quite advantageous, expenses notwithstanding.  The Catholic cemetery was home to headstones relevant to my research, and I was only a few minutes away from the conference site.  The hot sausage gravy and biscuits each morning didn’t hurt, either.  By the end of the week, I was almost grateful to my psychotic friend for scaring me away from the hostel.

I left Harpers Ferry as soon as the conference ended around noon on Friday.  I was looking forward to returning home, especially because an uncommon alignment of the planets (i.e., both of our daughters spending the night somewhere else) was about to provide my wife and I with a rare evening to ourselves.  But halfway across West Virginia, my Saturn lost all power, and I glided to a stop on the berm along Route 68.  A call to AAA and one long tow-truck ride later, my vehicle and I were deposited in the crowded lot of a Morgantown mechanic.  I begged the owner to look under the hood and replace my battery before he closed up shop for the day.

“It ain’t your battery,” he informed me after a quick diagnostic inspection.  “It’s your alternator.  I could try to charge your battery up a bit, but you won’t get too far on that.  Where’d you say you’re from?”

“Ohio.”

“Right.  Nah, you’ll never make it out of West Virginia, I’d say.  And our supplier is…” he looked at his watch, “just about to close.  We can get to it first thing tomorrow morning, though.”

I sighed heavily as the promise of dinner and a movie with my wife vanished like a swirling eddy of vaporizing exhaust fumes.  Add an expensive car repair to my list of Harpers Ferry trip debits.  And another night in another hotel.  But wait, as they say in the notorious TV merchandise offers, there’s more…

“Ah am sew sorry fer yoo,” drawled the mechanic’s receptionist as she returned the phone to its cradle.  She had offered to help me arrange a room for the night, but after a few calls around town, her fear was confirmed:  there wasn’t a room to be rented in Morgantown that night.  Not when parents were bringing their college kids back for another year at West Virginia University.  Not when the Mountaineers were playing at home tomorrow afternoon.  And so the bitter truth became all too clear.  I would be spending the night…in my car.

With the prospect of an uncomfortable night’s fitful sleep ahead of me, I decided that a good, head-clearing, leg-stretching walk was in order.  As I ascended the hills toward downtown, a grumpy pessimism got the better of me, and I began to resent the very land upon which I trudged.  Of all the places to break down, why was I stuck in a little college town where a lousy football game can fill every hotel room?  What kind of a hick garage can’t lay their hands on an alternator on a Friday afternoon?  How long will it be before I can get out of this place?

I soon tired of looking down at my shuffling feet and raised my gaze to the horizon.  That’s when I saw the billboard for a car dealership, unremarkable in every detail but its location:  Don Knotts Boulevard.  My ire rose again.  Don Knotts Boulevard?!  What kind of a town would have a Don Knotts–

Suddenly a tattered fragment of trivia broke loose from an inner recess and tumbled into my awareness.  I was stranded in Morgantown, West Virginia — the hometown of Don Knotts.  I was the man in a hurry.

You are free to make of this what you will, of course.  But I know what T.D. Jakes would say.