Sam Cordall was hanging upside down outside the space station, working on a camera that was no longer transmitting. It was true that he was an American astronaut but he had a degree in electrical engineering and was familiar enough with the workings of a simple remote camera. Fixing it was just the excuse he needed to get out of his cramped quarters. This view of The Earth was breathtaking and he couldn’t think of a better place to be right now. His mind wandered to thirty-four months ago when he had accepted the offer to live in this place with his partner, Adrienne. The two of them had sacrificed a lot to come up here, including their marriages. They were more than halfway done with their five-year mission and they had come to respect each other in more ways than one.
Over the headset, Adrienne’s voice said “Sam, dinner’s almost ready!” Funny, she’s not the domestic type at all, he thought. In fact, it was probably the absence of her domestic talents that cost her four-year marriage to that railroad engineer in Ohio. One could argue that you can’t call operating a food replicator a domestic talent. “I’m almost done, dear!” replied Sam. He thought she might like that response as he chuckled at the life they had made for themselves in this place. He jokingly compared their lives with Desi and Lucy, but without children of course. The truth was that they were nothing like the married television couple. They were scientists sent to space to learn more about extraterrestrial life. Adrienne Cuniculus’ field was quantum physics and Sam’s specialty was molecular biology. But, for all practical purposes, they were a match made in Heaven, or at least somewhere between Heaven and Earth.
Sam finished up his task and worked efficiently to collect his tools. Adrienne confirmed that the camera was again working and he felt satisfied with his repair job. He worked quickly but carefully to put all of his tools in their place in the toolkit. Getting in too much of a hurry could be very dangerous when one was wearing a spacesuit. The fabric could tear or a hose could be jarred loose and there were plenty of horrendous consequences. In fact, just being outside the structure was dangerous enough. Sam made his way to the hatch.
“Life lock!” Was that voice in his head or was it coming over the headset? His vision was tunneling and his breathing was becoming labored. “Adrienne, what are you saying?” he asked. Sam’s hands and feet were feeling numb and cold and he felt like he was beginning to black out. “Life lock!” Every movement took all of his energy and focus and he could barely make out the hatch door about ten feet in front of him. “Life lock!” Sam was close to being out of it but he was conscience enough to realize that the voice he heard was his own. “Life lock?” What did it mean? Why were those words coming out of his mouth? “Adrienne?” he shouted. “I need your help! Can you hear me?” All he could see was blackness. Either Adrienne wasn’t answering or Sam could no longer hear. He did, however, have an awareness of consciousness but all of his senses were numb or no longer working. Was he dead?
“Jim? Are you still there?” said a voice on the other end of the line. He felt like he was waking from a dream. “Jim, have you fallen asleep up there?” she asked. Mable started laughing and Sam opened his eyes. “Holy crap!” he thought to himself. Sam’s left hand had a hold on a large iron spike and he held a telephone handset in his right. He was at the top of a telephone pole, talking to someone on the phone! “Jim? Is that my name now?” he asked himself. “I think we have a bad connection,” said Mable. “Call me back when you get it fixed,” she chuckled to herself. “Wait a minute, Mable” said Jim. “There, I think I’ve got it. How’s that?” “Well, I thought I was talking to myself for a minute,” laughed Mable. “I’ll see you in a couple of hours!” Mable was gone.
Jim looked below him and saw the lush, green prairie grass below. He knew where he was and why he was there. He worked for Bell Telephone in Sedgwick County, Kansas and he had climbed this pole to check the connection on the phone line. He remembered that his name was Jim Williamson and that he had eggs and ham for breakfast this morning. “What the Hell?!!” said Jim out loud. He checked his harness and saw that he was still securely fastened to the pole and his lineman boots were tied tight and ready for the next pole climb. “I was Sam. Sam Cordall. What is happening to me?” He stayed where he was and looked out to the miles of landscape before him. It was dotted with cattle and he remembered that he had a few head of his own to take to auction tomorrow up in El Dorado. “I don’t understand,” he said to himself. “I have memories of this other life and yet I have memories of this jim-guy, too!” His thoughts changed to his family as he straddled the long, wood pole that pointed upwards. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a wallet. His wallet. It didn’t look like the one he owned but it was familiar. Wait a minute. It didn’t look like the wallet that Sam owned, but neither did these clothes or these boots. Jim’s mind was going a mile a minute. He reached inside the leather and found the pictures. There was his wife, Jessie . . . just as beautiful as the day they married. Has it been fifteen years? There were two more pictures. His two children. There was Patrick, now twelve years old, and Shelley, who was ten. They were good kids. “No one is going to believe this,” thought Jim. “I don’t believe it.”
Jim left his gear at the switching office and walked out to his pickup truck in the parking lot. Mable was right behind him and said “Get some rest this weekend, Jim. I don’t want you falling asleep at the top of any more telephone poles!” “Sometimes, that’s the best kind of sleep,” he replied. Jim got in his truck and cranked it over. Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” was playing on the radio and Jim’s mood quickly became upbeat. It had been several hours since his adventure at thirty feet in the air. It felt like a dream and the details of his last life were starting to diminish. “I need a stiff drink, and some sleep,” he thought to himself. He turned out of the parking lot and headed out of town towards the Interstate 35 turnpike. Jim lived just outside of Hanover and it was a good 30 minute drive home.
It was an early summer evening and there was a light, dry breeze. Jim could smell the peony flowers as soon as his feet hit the gravel driveway. There was also a trace fragrance of lilacs in the air as they grew wild all around the area and were in full bloom. Shelley was on the front porch with her dolls when her dad drove up and she ran up to meet him as he walked toward the house. “Daddy, you’re home!” she shouted. “Hey, little girl!” he yelled back. The sight of her made him forget the day’s happenings for a little while and he quietly wondered how he could have ever not known about his simple life in the country with his family. Jessie was in the kitchen making supper. Jim could smell the meatloaf and his wife was finishing the prep work for an apple pie that was about to trade places with the meat dish. “Are you ready for a beer?” she asked. “Do I still have that bottle of Scotch?” he asked back. “Uh oh . . . it sounds like a day that you want to forget!” she answered back. She reached inside the tall cabinet and pulled down a full bottle of liquor and set it on the counter. She then retrieved two glasses from the dishwasher and said “I’ll have a little bit of what you’re drinking.” They both took a swallow from their glasses and then looked at each other. “Is everything okay?” she asked him. “Yes, it is now” he replied.
Patrick came down from his room just long enough to sit at the table and eat supper with the rest of the family. “I’m taking a dozen head to the auction in the morning and I’d like for you to come with me” Jim told his son. “You’ll need a good night’s sleep,” he continued. Patrick let out a long, audible sigh and asked “Do I have to, Dad? I was going to hang out with Chris and Joey at the skate park!” “Take a rain check, son. I need your help with a couple of those cows. They’re mean and ornery!” Patrick conceded and asked “Can we stop at the sporting goods store on the way back? The ‘One-Wheel’ is in and it’s so cool!” “Is that the one with the hub motor and lithium battery?” Jim asked with interest. “For sure!” said Patrick. “You just lean forward to go and lean back to slow down. It’s awesome!” “It’ll be mid-afternoon by the time we’re finished. No promises,” said his father. Patrick climbed the stairs back to his room and Jim knew that his son had returned to his world of music and video games. “The day out will be good for him,” Jim thought. Jessie started washing the dishes and Jim cleared the table. After taking out the trash he wandered out to the barn and prepared the cattle trailer for tomorrow’s run. The sale of those cows will make their mortgage current and relieve some of the stress that he and Jessie had been feeling.
Jim looked up at the ceiling. It was two a.m. and he hadn’t slept a wink. The moonlight poured into the master bedroom and he was able to find his slippers without stubbing his toe. He slinked quietly into the hallway while Jessie slept soundly on her side of the bed. Both of the kids were fast asleep as well. Patrick’s light was off and Jim could hear the sound of stillness from behind his closed bedroom door. No music and no video gaming noises. Good, he would need the rest for tomorrow’s work. Well, actually it is today’s work – six o’clock will come soon enough. Jim walked up to Shelley’s doorway and peered inside. Her Minnie Mouse night light was on and he could see her angel face surrounded by covers and Barbie dolls. “This is a good life,” he thought. “Why would I want another?”
Jim Williamson walked down the stairs to the living room and sat down at his laptop computer. “Life lock,” he wondered. “Where did that come from and what does it mean?” He punched in the words at www.google.com. LIFE LOCK was the name of an identity theft protection service. “That’s almost appropriate,” he thought. Jim thought about his five-year mission and the space station where he lived with Adrienne. He tried to remember his life before the space station but the details were fuzzy. “I was once married, wasn’t I? What was my life like before the mission? Did I have a house in the country? Was I happy?” As hard as he tried he could not remember one thing about his life on Earth as Sam Cordall. “Who am I really?” he asked himself. Was Adrienne real? He wasn’t sure how to investigate this alternate life of his. Was it all a lie?
Jim received a fair price for his cattle at the auction and he and Patrick were eating a fine meal at “Oklahoma Boys BBQ.” They made it a point to stop there whenever they were at auction because the food was great and the prices were reasonable and it was a place all their own. Jessie and Shelley seldom came with them to El Dorado and if they did they would probably find a different restaurant cause this was a “man’s place to eat.” Both of them were in great spirits and Patrick asked “So, are we going to the sporting goods store?” “You betcha!” said his dad and they were off to one of Patrick’s favorite places. An hour later, they were pulling up to “Modell’s Sporting Goods” in Hanover. Jim turned the truck off and walked along the side of the empty cattle trailer, looking for tire wear, loose gate latches, or anything else that might become a safety issue on the short run from here to their house. Patrick was “hyped up” on Dr. Pepper and was anxious to get inside the store. Jim’s cell phone rang and he told his son “Go ahead. I’ll meet you over by the skateboards in just a minute.” Patrick said “Sweet!” and he darted to the front door as quickly as he could. Jim didn’t recognize the number on his caller ID but he answered it anyway. “Hello?” he asked. “Life lock!” said the person on the other end. Jim’s lips went dry and his heart began racing. “Hello?’ he asked again. “Life lock!” replied the caller. Jim’s vision again tunneled to a small porthole and his ears felt like he was under water and not able to hear noises clearly from above. “It’s happening again!” he thought. “I’ve got to stop it!” Jim Williamson looked all around himself and saw several vehicles in the parking lot. His son was out of sight, presumably trying out one of those new-fangled skateboards in the store. Jim could see no one close to him but he yelled anyway. “Help me!” he shouted. Suddenly, all was black and Jim passed out.
He awoke to a sore, cramped body. It was more than that . . . he was in pain and it felt like there were “things” crawling all over him. He was sitting in water that was almost knee-deep and underneath the water was mud. “Am I in some kind of hole?” Jim wondered. It was also very dark in this place and he had a hard time getting his bearings. “Was that light coming in through the roof?” He was mumbling to himself now as he asked out loud “Is that a roof or is it some kind of wood door that keeps me trapped inside this hole?” Jim was trying to remember his last “life” but this new one was right up in his face. His senses were on overload and he couldn’t help but feel that he was being kept here against his will. This was scary and he was feeling more than a little bit anxious. It was hot in this place . . . extremely hot and humid. Jim wasn’t sure which was worse: the heat, the claustrophobia, the “things” all over him, or the fact that we was in a lot of pain and sitting in mud and water. He reached down and felt around for something that he could grab. “Is anyone there?” he asked softly. There were several small stones along the wet dirt wall and he began throwing them in all directions. By the sound that they made, he concluded that he was in a large dirt hole approximately six foot wide by six foot long. The roof, if you wanted to call it that, was probably about ten feet above him but there didn’t seem to be any way of getting to it. He guessed that it was probably fastened in some way. Jim touched himself on his arms and legs. He was skin and bones! He ran his fingers along his rib cage and was astonished to find little in the way of fat or muscle on his body! He felt weak and tired, and there was extreme pain in his joints, his torso, and all over his head. “Where am I?” he thought.
He quickly thought of Jessie. “I doubt if she and the kids know I’m here,” he discerned. Judging by the intense amount of weight loss, he guessed that he had been here for a while. But why were his memories of his family and Kansas so fresh in his mind if he had been here for so long? Why didn’t he remember anything of this life before waking up in a pit? How about the space station? Yes, those memories were still intact. Were there other memories? There were! He remembered being a college professor and standing at a podium while lecturing to more than two hundred students! Here comes another one! He was playing football on a large field with thousands of fans in the stands! It’s Rich Stadium in Orchard Park! Jim was a young man and he was an offensive guard for the Buffalo Bills! Only, his name wasn’t Jim Williamson . . . it was Albert something or other.
The door above opened and chatter from Vietnamese soldiers made its way down to Jim. Bright light filtered down as well and he could see that the door was made of bamboo, lashed together with some sort of cord. Their dialogue was foreign to him but, as they let down some kind of makeshift ladder, they made it known by the motioning of their arms and hands that they wanted him to climb up. He made a couple of attempts to ascend but he simply didn’t have the strength to lift his frail body. Suddenly, their words became sharp and insistent and it was clear that he had better make it up on his own accord. Otherwise, there would be consequences and he didn’t want to know what those might be. He found the strength, one rung at a time, and he was exhausted by the time he reached the sunlight. He was grabbed by two soldiers, one at each arm, and he was whisked away to a hut about 60 feet from the pit. Waiting for him there were two more soldiers in front of the hut, who straddled a structure that was about eight foot tall. The structure was comprised of two posts coming out of the ground and a beam at the top that was fastened to both posts. These two new men in uniform tied his legs together from knees to ankles and then laced his arms tightly behind his back until his elbows touched. His shoulders were screaming with pain and he felt like they were being pulled out of joint. Just when he thought things couldn’t get worse one of the Vietnamese men tied one end of a long rope to his wrists and threw the other end over the top of the structure. They were going to hoist his pretzel-like form up off the ground with his arms bound behind him! Jim looked out in front of the hut to see several other men that looked like him. All were suffering from malnutrition and most had their attention focused on Jim and the two Vietnamese torturers who flanked him. The ritual that was about to start was for all to see and Jim Williamson, or whatever his name was now, was the main character in a most gruesome stage show . Jim had “leaped” back in time to the sixties or early seventies and he realized that he was in a prisoner-of-war camp. He was a pilot in the United States Air Force and these other men were also American servicemen. Jim again thought of his family in Kansas and prayed that he would see them again.
“Hope can be a dangerous thing,” thought Jim. He knew that his captors were breaking his spirit and would most likely break his body if he remained hoisted for long under this structure made of wood. The reasoning behind this production was that his persecutors wanted to remove all hope from the Americans in this place. Suddenly, Jim found some kind of inner strength from the depths of his soul. “Don’t let them take your love!” he shouted to his comrades. “Love is powerful and it will win over the hate in these people!” Jim’s body was hoisted up and the resulting pain tormented him terribly. He uttered just two more words . . . “Life lock!”
Jim woke up to find himself laying on his right side. His body felt rested and his bedding was soft. When he opened his eyes he could see that the morning sun was waking as well and its light was beginning to brighten the room. Jessie was laying the same way in front of him and he moved close to her, wrapping his left arm under hers. He squeezed her gently and she hugged him back. They lie there, motionless for a minute or so and then she rolled toward him. There were no words spoken. There were only kisses and gentle caresses, followed by deep breathing and love-making. He was home.
Several years had passed. Jim was retired from the phone company and he was doing some consultant work for a cattle ranch farmer in Kansas City. The kids were grown and both had families of their own. He and Jessie still had their place in Hanover but they spent a lot of time traveling these days. They were currently on a Royal Caribbean cruise and were on their way from Montego Bay to The Cayman Islands. Jessie was determined to make her tan the envy of every woman in Kansas and she was spending her afternoon in a lounge chair on the top deck of the “Navigator of the Seas” ship. Jim sat at a Blackjack table in the casino on deck four and looked at his chips. He had been sitting there for almost an hour and was “up” by a couple of hundred bucks. He had once jumped into the life of a professional gambler and he knew a lot about winning at Blackjack. He could stay longer and win some more but he didn’t want to draw attention to himself. He collected his winnings and walked over to the first watering hole he came to. The sign above the door read “Schooner Bar.” Jim walked in and sat on a barstool near the back of the establishment.
The place was busy and there were adults of all ages there. It wasn’t the kind of bar that one would find a motorcycle gang frequenting. Neither was it a place to hang out after work. Everyone was on vacation and having a good time. A young man sat down at the barstool to the left of Jim and ordered a rum and punch. The bartender brought it to him, served with a little umbrella and an orange slice. The young eyes looked at the older, wiser eyes of Jim and he said “This is the life!” Jim took a liking to the younger man and they started a dialogue that lasted for hours. Jim Williamson, after having a few, told the twenty-something year old about some of the lives he had lived, or visited. He told him about the Cadillac that he had bought off the showroom floor after winning big in Las Vegas. Jim talked about his days as an exhibition chef at LUCQUES restaurant in West Hollywood. He finished with his romantic relationship with a member of the Canadian royals, the Duchess of Welland. The young man took it all in and when it was apparent that the older man had finished his storytelling he asked Jim “is all of that really true?” Jim finished his drink before getting up to leave and said “Well, if it isn’t . . . it should be.”