Angels In Shelby
M. Sandra Babcock
I've taken to touchin' the angel pin on my navy blue lapel when our beepers go off, outlining the delicate wings, whisperin' a prayer before jumpin' into the glistenin' white Cleveland County EMS truck. I know angels exist as I've seen their wings in the dust of a Southern country road, the pavement of a highway, in a child's tears.
The South is damn cold in winter. Northerners don't realize this. When they conjure up their image of the South, they see Wisteria hangin' off verandahs, wicker chairs filled with Southern belle's butts, flappin' their fans to cool their delicate skin, mint juleps touchin' parched lips. Yep, Northerners got no recollection of how the South is.
I know. I was once a Northerner.
My husband was born and raised in Shelby, North Carolina and after we married, well here I am. I don't think I had a choice. Jim said with a name like Cassandra Lynn, that the South had its thumb print on me since birth. Still, I cried, I pouted, I prayed but the South lingered like a tick on a hound dog. Took a couple of years of homesickness and feelin' like I was a foreigner but before long, Jim's words became truth. I'm glad I stuck it out, for Shelby is where I belong. The South moved me forward, unearthed bravery and faith that lay buried within, discovered dreams where none existed.
My angels stepped in. I know that now.
I was working at Pizza Hut, a place I particularly hated but I confined myself to a narrow world. Bein's that lunch is a popular meal, the paramedics sashayed in several times a month; driving up in their red striped trucks, the blue Star of Life and county emblem painted majestically on the rigs. They'd be cuttin' up the whole lunch hour and lookin' mighty fine in their dark blue jump pants. I thought, what a great career and started talkin' at 'em. I was cautious at first, "Good afternoon. Can I have your order?" always in my proper northern dialect. Now, there's one thing about Southerners, they make ya feel welcome, like you was family and all. "Good afternoon" soon became "Hey" and destiny shimmered like a new penny.
Robbie Ray headed the EMS program and was on the prowl for new recruits with compassion etched in their eyes; somehow, he caught hold of mine. He'd push his long fingers through the thick mahogany mane streaked with a hint of gray like fine silver thread curlin' gently at his shoulder. Then he'd corner ya with his intense smoky gaze that could rupture a blood vessel. Swoopin' in for the kill, I later learned. He moved toward me one day, with that James Dean-like bravado and the rest of the crew followed his lead.
"Go for it, Case," he said, his voice all soft and Southern sultry. If I were a pat of butter, I'd be drippin' off the cornbread 'bout now.
"Go for what?" I managed to ask between the drippin' and the droolin'. He looked so cool and I wanted to emulate that mystique. I pulled my fingers through my wild, wispy brown hair, kinda sexy like, and I'll be dogged if my fingers didn't end up gettin' tangled in a large knot. Coolness eluded me.
"Paramedic," Robbie said, ignorin' my trapped hand. "I want you on my team." And behind him stood his team givin' me the go ahead sign.
"You guys are crazy," I replied. "What makes y'all think I'd be good at this anyway?" I ripped my hand from that knot 'cause I had to get to cleanin' the counters and besides, I was scared to hear the answer; scared of change.
"You're quick, smart and the crew likes ya," Robbie shot back at me, "but the decidin' factor is your eyes. I see a good paramedic behind those baby blues."
"The course begins next week. I want you there." Robbie Ray said with meanin'. He turned on his heel with expertise and strolled out like he strolled in.
"I need a partner, Case. And you're my choice." Michael Windsor, fifteen years with the department, said to me.
"It'd be an honor to work with ya, Casey." Leroy Mitchell, thirteen years, echoed above the rest of the crew.
I thought they were nuts, I really did, but inside I was bustin' with pride.
Lookin' back, it's hard to believe I took 'em up on the challenge, but I did and soon I was ridin' up in that shiny truck, slidin' my large legs into them special jump pants and joinin' the gang for good mornin' grub and afternoon indigestion.
Once again, my angels stepped in but this time I recognized their presence.
They still call me a rookie and in lots of ways, I am, but I know one thing; you're always a rookie when you stare death in the eye. It hangs in the mind like sticky cobwebs in a corner particularly when it's someone ya know.
I learned that lesson one bone chillin' December day. A day so cold your fingers went numb and ya wondered if you could cut away the blood soaked clothes with your EM shears.
A day when my angels came to visit.
Usually when it's cold enough to freeze snot on a doorknob, all four trucks are out, what with people skiddin' this way and that. This day was quiet and our only decision was where to have lunch.
The crew headed to Don's Italian, and Barb, our waitress, always had a smile and a good laugh to share.
"Hey girl! How ya doin'?" she'd ask with a twinkle in her deep brown eyes.
"Not bad. Yourself?"
"I tell ya hon, some days I declare, I musta been born with a silver spoon in my mouth." She picked up a spoon, held it up to the bright afternoon sun and watched it glimmer like a pretty diamond. Then a smile split her face.
"Just so's I can put it down on a table!" Barb laughed and we joined her. "And another thing, hon. I'm mighty glad you're with this bunch. Takes a woman to make sure these rascals do their job right!" She let out a hoot and a holler on that one.
"Seems to me I remember a certain person callin' in, let's see, was that a year or so back, Leroy?" Ol' Robbie Ray said, rollin' his eyes with a devilish grin.
"Now, don't you be gettin' started on that one again," Barb playfully shot back at him.
He loved to yank her chain about the "heart attack" call she made to 911 a year before which turned out to be a pinched nerve.
"Sir! Sir! I'm only fifty years old, but I do believe I'm havin' a heart attack. Send someone real fast. I'm dyin', I tell ya, dyin'," Robbie Ray mimicked Barb's raspy drawl and even got his face in that mournful death look with his cheeks sucked in and all; had the whole restaurant, and Barb, in stitches.
Then she swatted 'em one with the menu before takin' our order.
Barb got our food fast knowin' any moment the calls would start. But today we actually got to finish a meal and shoot the breeze. Robbie hung around a bit holdin' his vacation at bay and finally rumbled out of the parkin' lot in his candy apple red, 450 glass packed fortified 1969 GTO that made the street vibrate and the pit of your stomach feel like a gas bubble ready to explode.
Frost saturated the Southern flora like a pristine blanket and black ice glinted mischievously in the afternoon sun. Beepers pierced the camaraderie and the eight of us scooted into our trucks. I checked my pockets for my EM shears, pen light and bottle of Vicks Vapo Rub that helps keep my cookies down when we happen upon an awful smellin' patient or when the thick stench of death penetrates the air. One touch of the delicate wings and we were off.
Sometimes the world is full of scam artists and we stumbled across a bravo sierra, if I ever heard one. Lawsuit spouted bitterly from his mouth turnin' a simple fender bender into a catastrophe. Mike and me administered aid the best we could between his yowlin' and cussin'. By the time transport arrived, I had all I could do to keep from boppin' 'em myself.
Some days, there are no prayers and I desperately search for my angels.
We got back in our truck, rubbin' our hands in some pretense of thawin' 'em out when over the 'com Leroy's words popped out at us like rapid fire bullets.
"Fatality---Oh, God---it's bad!"
"Calm down, Lee," Mike said. "Tell me your location. We'll be right there."
"No!" Leroy screeched, then his voice started breakin' up "---red G---totaled----dead---we was just talkin' to---"; the 'com went silent.
We looked at each other knowin' the time had come and despite my trainin' and my dislike of tears, a few warm drops pricked at the corners of my eyes. Michael dropped the 'com and zombie-like, started up the truck.
Appeared we weren't the only ones to hear Lee's garbled transmission and soon, every truck was in the hospital parking lot. We knew Leroy had to go to the morgue first and we wanted to tell the family as a family. The wintry Southern sun began to fall beneath its shield as the sky and earth briefly connected like visceral lovers. The intercourse eclipsed and transformed the panorama much like love transforms the inner core of a soul and I caught the whispers of my angels movin' through the Cypress trees.
Leroy's truck pulled into the lot and Robbie Jr. bolted from the emergency room doors, hightailin' it to him. With heads down, we hunkered in for the final release.
"Where's my mom?" the kid screamed. Tears streaked his face and froze in their path. We looked at one another realizin' the mistake we made as Lee got down on his knees, took the kid into his massive arms, knowin' the words he had to say would kick the life outta 'em.
"I'm sorry Stevie," he whispered. The boy sobbed into Lee's shoulder.
"At lunch she was joshin' 'bout being born with a silver spoon in her mouth . . ." Leroy choked on the words.
"So she could put 'em on the table," the boy finished. Lee held the boy tighter.
My mind's eye vividly saw Barb drivin' her old, beaten red Geo. Savin' my pennies for Stevie's college fund, her echo said.
My angels took hold of me then and I settled down next to Lee, feelin' the jagged concrete dig into my knees. Stevie surrendered his body into my arms.
"She was a great lady," I said, my voice tight with pain.
"You got a mighty big legacy to uphold and we'll be right behind ya' makin' sure ya' do her proud." The crew moved beside us, affirmin' my promise, 'cause sometimes my angels take human form here in Shelby.
Before I was a Southerner, I prayed to God and wondered if He listened. Angels were esoteric symbiotic creatures that cared for others. I searched the heavens for answers to impossible questions. But on this night of unexplained reasons hidden deftly in belief, I methodically followed the course of my pin, sensed the dustin' of those heavenly wings and knew my angels visited Shelby in a way I least expected.
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