You never know what the magic words will be that will get you out of a jam.
I was working in Paris, TX with an international mix of people on a project that had consumed our time for weeks. We had nearly slept beside the machinery we were installing. In the end, the process was a success and we were in serious need of celebration. After a night of copious liquid refreshment, we decided to see the sites of the town. As the only one who had spent anytime previously in Paris, TX, I was elected tour guide. In fact, I was just about the only one on the team who was from The States. We had two young men from Wales, a Canadian, one Scotsman, an Australian and a woman from Taiwan.
So, in my inebriated state, from the passenger seat of a van, I conducted the tour, such as it was. Texas is known for having miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles. At the time, Paris was a community too small to host a movie theatre. Their library was slightly larger than my bedroom and contained mostly Zane Gray novels. Paris had, to my mind, three things to see.
The first is a white marble fountain downtown. It was inoperable, but it must have been attractive at one time. That day, it held stagnant, green water and I remembered this area of Texas had once been know for mosquitoes and yellow fever. Time to move on. The second sight was the replica of the Eifel Tower. A tornado had removed the top third of the tower, the previous spring. The base was twisted.
Buoyed by alcohol, I was not concerned, because I had saved the best for last. It was well past dark on this summer evening when we pulled the van into the local cemetery to view my favorite Paris, TX landmark—the statue of Jesus wearing cowboy boots.
We angled the headlights of the van to illuminate the statue and got out to get a better look. We were all just beginning to sober up and it dawned on me that this really wasn’t much: A stone figure of a bearded guy in a long gown, carrying a cross. There was one boot heel sticking out from the hem. We stood there silently, among the tombstones, looking at the statue.
I had just conducted the world’s worse tour.
And then the Australian began screaming. “My God! What IS that?”
He was ashen. I turned to look at what he was pointing at. All I saw was tombstones.
“Don’t you see them? Don’t you SEE them? They’re everywhere!” I couldn’t see anything unusual, but the man was visibly shaken.
Fear is infectious. We were standing in a cemetery on a moonless summer night and it was near midnight. We were suddenly stone, cold sober standing among cold stone monuments. Isn’t that how horror stories start?
The Aussie grew more frantic, “The lights! They’re coming closer!” He was pointing and gesturing frantically, his face a combination of fear and incredulity that we could not see the oncoming menace. Even if he was the only one who could see this ghost, did I really want to stand around there? I was about to suggest we get in the van and leave when he panicked and ran.
There are 40,000 gravestones in the Evergreen Cemetery of Paris, TX. I was sober enough to know that running in the dark, on uneven ground, among standing stones of various heights was probably a good way to break something you were going to need later, say a leg or a head. We took out after him. One of the Welshmen, who played soccer for fun, tackled him. I sat on his chest, my face inches from his, trying to talk sense into him. Two others held his shoulders down and a pair sat astride his legs.
All I could get out of him for the longest time was “the lights”. He finally said the “tiny lights flying about the tombstones”. And then it hit me: He meant the fireflies. It was a windless summer night and they were out in the hundreds. I suppose he had thought them the spirits of the departed flitting about their remains. After I stopped laughing, I explained to him what a firefly was. It never occurred to me that there were no lighted, flying insects in Australia.
We all had a good laugh, but it still took 5 minutes to make him believe us. When I was quite sure he was calm enough and would not run away, I started to stand up.
Generally, this story would end here. But, I only made it about halfway to a standing position. My rise was stopped short by a gun barrel pointed at my face.
I now have complete sympathy for those burglary victims that describe the weapon pointed at them as having an enormously large bore. If I wasn’t sober before, I was now. On the other end of the barrel looked to be a middle-aged laborer with an expression that was just as deadly as the gun he held. I never questioned if he was willing to pull the trigger; this was not an idle threat. I was going to die unless I could think very quickly. I was half-crouched, half-sitting on the chest of an Australian man who was lying in a cemetery, which as it happens is not a good look and a bad position for negotiating for your life. To make it worse, I was getting a cramp. I needed to think of something fast.
I was so focused on the barrel that I don’t remember the exact words of the gun barer. Something about “trespassing” and “after dark.” He may have accused us of stealing. What I remember thinking was that he should point that gun at someone else so that I could start breathing again and that I was likely to wet both my pants and the shirt of an Australian.
As is often the case when I most need them, words failed me. For reasons I can’t explain, all I could think to say was, “We’re from Wisconsin.” It still sounds dim. True, our company’s headquarters were there, but that hardly explained anything. I could not believe that my last words on earth were going to be so lame. I hadn’t gotten around to thinking of what my final words would be, but I was sure they were going to be much more memorable. I was about to become a ghost and I wasn’t going to be a witty one.
I closed my eyes and tensed for the impact of the bullet. But nothing came. When I opened them again the gunman had lowered his weapon and was smiling. He opened his arms to me as though I were a long lost friend. “Oh, well, then, if you’re from Wisconsin! That’s OK. Ya’ll just come back tomorrow, after daylight.” He kindness was welcomed, if incongruous. He lead us back to the van, since we were by now completely lost. He helped me into the passenger seat, and waved, “I’m fixing to go home now. See ya’ll tomorrow! Don’t come back until daylight though.” He talked to us as though we were mischievous children. Perhaps he thought the Wisconsin winters had frozen our brain cells and he needed to be gentle with us. I thanked him endlessly, ridiculously, until we were out of sight.
You never know what the magic words will turn out to be. But if you’re in a cemetery at night in Paris, TX they are, “We are from Wisconsin!”