Read an Excerpt the year we disappeared
a father-daughter memoir
By CYLIN BUSBY JOHN BUSBY
Copyright © 2008
Busby Ross, Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter One CYLIN
ON August 31, 1979, we were supposed to go see The Muppet Movie. Dad had promised us that when he woke up, he'd take us to the movie before he went in to work the night shift. He was a police officer on Cape Cod, in Falmouth, Massachusetts. He worked the 11:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m. shift, then slept during the day for a few hours.
Usually, he'd come home from work right around the time I was sitting down with a bowl of Cocoa Puffs. Sometimes he'd hang out with me and my brothers until it was time for us to catch the bus, eating a piece of toast with raspberry jam, his favorite breakfast, or telling Mom about his night. But other days he'd go straight into the bedroom and change into his good suit, the dark brown one with the big lapels. He'd wear a cream-colored print shirt underneath, and a tie, too. I thought he looked like a movie star in his suit, with his strawberry blond hair, green eyes, and broad shoulders-like Robert Redford or Clint Eastwood. But as good as he looked in it, that suit always meant Dad was going to court to testify in a case. It also meant that he wasn't going to get much sleep, so we should be sure to stay out of his way when we got home from school in the afternoon.
During the summers when we didn't have school, Mom made sure to have us out of the house by 8:30 or 9:00 a.m., rain or shine. We'd go to the beach and have swim lessons in the morning. Then we'd spend the rest of the day there, eating bologna sandwiches that were a little too warm from sitting out in the sun and begging Mom for quarters so we could cross the hot sand to the ice-cream stand for a Nutty Buddy or some chocolate chip cookies. Mom usually brought a big bottle of something to drink and a few Styrofoam cups to keep us from asking for soda money, too. But on days when she was feeling generous, we could get a real soda in a cold can from the ice-cream guy. I loved the feeling of a freshly opened Orange Crush, so cold and fizzy it hurt my mouth to drink it fast.
As the afternoon wore on and my skin started to feel tight and hot from the salt and the sun, I would take my favorite towel, a white one with a bright rainbow arching across it, and wrap it around me, even covering my head. Then I'd lie in the sand by Mom and watch the sunlight filter through the stitches in the towel, transformed into my own private rainbow. Sometimes I'd fall asleep cocooned like that until it was time to go home.
On days when it rained, we still went to the beach for our swim lessons, and we'd stay for as long as we could take it. If it was a light rain, Mom would bring an umbrella and tell us to get out in the water. "What difference does a little rain matter, since you'll be getting wet anyhow?" she'd reason. She'd plant the umbrella in the sand, take out whatever paperback she was reading, and plunk down in a beach chair.
My two older brothers and I would come out of the ocean hours later, lips blue and shaking, only to wrap up in towels that were wet from being left on the beach in the rain. It's not like my mom or my family loved the beach-we weren't trying to break any records for being the biggest sand bums on the Cape. But Dad had to sleep, and when we were stuck at home there was no way that could happen.
Snow days were Mom's worst nightmare. We'd be sent out to go sledding for hours at a time, just to keep the house quiet. We'd come back in, soaked to the skin, and shuck off our snow-covered coats and boots with Mom whispering, "Your dad is sleeping, so keep it down." But we'd always want to watch TV or play records. And then the fighting would inevitably start. Maybe Eric, who was thirteen that year and totally into sci-fi, wanted to watch Star Trek while I wanted Little House on the Prairie. We'd end up yelling and chasing each other around the house, throwing Atari game cassettes at each other, Mom reminding us that Dad was sleeping, only to see him appear, bleary-eyed, groggy, and in his underwear, at the bedroom door. "Keep it down to a dull roar," he'd growl in his heavy Boston accent. Then he'd disappear back into the bedroom, and we'd try to be good for at least a half hour or so.
That summer I was nine years old-just turned nine that May. I loved the Muppets. I adored Kermit and Miss Piggy especially. The whole family watched the show religiously on Sunday nights, with my parents on the couch and the three of us on the rug right in front of the television. So that day at the beach, all I had been thinking about was how we were going to the movies that night, finally seeing the Muppets on the big screen. Dad would sneak in a big bag of peanut M&M'S for us all to share, and we'd get a huge tub of popcorn. But when we came back that Friday afternoon and found Dad at home, still in his suit, I knew that he had just gotten home from spending the day in court after working all night, and he hadn't had any sleep yet. We weren't going to the movies. I was crushed. While Mom went to make dinner, I laid on the bunk bed in my room, still in my sandy blue bathing suit, and cried.
The evening was a disaster in the making. Dad had to sleep, Mom was stuck in our two-bedroom house with three grouchy, hot, tired kids who couldn't face the disappointment of a canceled movie date. To cheer us up-and probably to get us out of the house for a few hours-Mom came up with a plan and pretended that it was something great. "We're painting Dad's car," she announced, and headed to the basement for paint and brushes.
Mom was really tired of Dad's car-a multicolored Frankenstein of a Volkswagen Beetle put together from spare parts. She was pretty tired of all Dad's other car "projects," too. We always had one or two VW Beetles sitting in our L-shaped driveway, either parked off to the side or up on blocks. Dad would buy them cheap and keep them around for spare parts for the one Bug that he actually kept running-most of the time. That summer, he had a white MG parked in the yard too. The body of the car still looked good, but it didn't run. He had plans to fix it up when he had the time. Meanwhile, it made a great place for my brothers and me to play-messing with the radio knobs and jerking the stick shift around like we were driving. We weren't allowed to touch the emergency brake, after my brother Shawn accidentally sent the MG rolling backward down the driveway one day. But even with that off-limits, the cars in the driveway were the best toys we could have asked for.
The VW Bug that Dad was using as his main car that summer had an okay engine and it ran, but it didn't look too pretty doing it. He had pieced together the body from three or four other VWs, so it had a red front fender and a blue front fender mismatched on either side of a faded red hood, along with a blue door on one side and a gray door on the other. The seats were split open in some spots, with rusty springs and tufts of coarse horsehair sticking out. This made riding in Dad's car a summer nightmare-sitting on the split seats, especially in the back, in shorts, or worse, a bathing suit, was torture unless you stuck a towel under you. Mom was on Dad's case about the car and how it looked. "It's embarrassing," she'd say. "Can't we at least paint it one color?" Dad would shrug. "Sure, knock yourself out."
I don't know why Mom picked that night to start in on her project, other than the need to get our butts out of the house for a few hours, but she did. She got out the only big paint can she could find in the basement-green paint-and a few extra paintbrushes. "We'll surprise your dad by painting his car while he's sleeping," she explained, and everyone joined in. It didn't take long to realize that painting a car with a paintbrush wasn't such a great idea. The brush left sticky lines on the car, and as the dusk rolled in, so did the gnats and mosquitoes, leaving streaks and spots where they landed in the gooey mess. Mom didn't want to give up, so she just kept on painting the door and one fender with the too-thick paint-paint that I think was actually for wood, not cars-until it grew too dark to see what she was doing.
I grew bored of the painting quickly, and opted to play with our new box turtle instead, while Mom and my brothers tackled the job. Dad had found the turtle on one of his runs up Hatchville Road-a sweet country street that wound its way around the corner from our house. Though it didn't run along the coast, Hatchville was one of the prettiest roads on the Cape; it cut through fields, past big houses, horse barns, and a famous organic farm. Sometimes, in the summer, Dad would take us running with him on the route, the three of us puffing behind him, trying to keep up. Shawn was the only one who had the steam to make it the full five miles, while Eric and I usually dropped out of the race around three. On evenings when I knew I couldn't keep up, I'd take my bike and race circles around Dad and my brothers. "Come on, slowpokes!" I'd shout, standing up on my pedals to push my bike faster than they could run.
With his better-than-20/20 vision and the instincts of a cop forever looking for clues, Dad always seemed to find stuff on the side of the road: a mangled pair of sunglasses or a beach hat. A piece of jewelry, cheap to start with and now run over a few times. A mangled baseball, rotted and brown. Usually the stuff Dad found was worthless, but one evening, he came home with a good-sized box turtle, about as big as my shoe. He didn't have any marks on him, except for a scuffed up shell; Dad thought he had probably been hit by a car since he couldn't seem to walk very well.
We put the turtle in a cardboard box and set him up against the house, in the shade. I brought him water in a little bowl, and some iceberg lettuce to eat. But he never even took a bite; the lettuce just turned brown and droopy. I tried flesh grass trimmings and leaves, too, but he just wasn't interested in eating. Late in the day, I would take him out of his box to give him some free time. If you waited a really long time, and you were very quiet, sometimes he would take a step or two in the driveway. But mostly he just sat there, blinking his big shutterbug eyelids and not doing much else.
When Mom was ready to put down her paintbrush for the night, she was so proud of the gooey half-painted car, she went inside to get the camera to record it, so we have a couple of pictures from that evening. In one photo, Mom is posing by her paint job. She looks petite and trim in shorts and a summer top. Her skin is tanned a honey brown, her dark hair in a pixie cut; she's smiling big. Another picture shows me, sitting in the drive-way by the cardboard box with the turtle beside me. I'm painfully thin, all knees and elbows, and too shy to actually look into the camera, so I'm looking down instead, smiling a little. My long straight hair, parted in the middle, falls like curtains on either side of my freckled face.
There's one more picture, of my two brothers standing with their backs against our red-shingled house, squinting into the setting summer sun. Shawn, thin and darkly tanned like Mom, his brown hair cut in thick bangs over his eyes, his new braces crowding his mouth; Eric, big and broad like Dad, with the same strawberry blond hair and a splash of freckles over his nose. I'm glad we have this picture of them, taken on that night, before everything changed. I'm glad to have the picture of Mom, looking so happy and young. I'm even glad to have a picture of the turtle, though I don't know what happened to him-forgotten in his little cardboard box by our house while we were gone in Boston, where Dad was undergoing the emergency surgeries that would ultimately save his life.
But most of all, I'm happy to have the picture of Dad's car. Because the next time I saw that car, it was in a black-and-white photo on the front page of the Cape Cod Times, shot full of holes. The front window was shattered, the driver-side window completely knocked out. And the driver-side door, freshly painted green, was riddled with shotgun pellets.
Chapter Two JOHN
AUGUST 31, 1979, was a Friday, the start of Labor Day week-end on the Cape. I'd worked the previous 11:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m. shift, and then spent until late afternoon in court. After sitting around all day I didn't even get to testify, having only a minor backup role in the case. It was a major waste of time. I got home around five in the afternoon with no sleep, exhausted, and was supposed to take the kids to the movie theater.
I thought about calling in sick, spending some time with the kids before school started back up in a few days. But this was Labor Day weekend, and on the Cape that meant parties, drunk drivers, tourists having their last hurrah before heading back to New York and Boston and wherever else they came from. We needed extra cops on duty to handle this weekend-more of the real guys on the force, not just the "rent-a-cops" as we year-rounders called the summer guys. It would be an asshole move not to show up for my shift. So I told Polly I had to hit the sack and to wake me at 9:45 for work.
The kids were disappointed about the movie, but I told them we'd go tomorrow night instead. Polly got me up, I showered and trimmed my beard and had some coffee. I'd been wearing a beard for several years at this point. Came about as a result of a week-long vacation and fast-growing whiskers. We were working five days on and three days off, so right before my vacation, I skipped the shave for my last shift. That gave me twelve days to grow a beard, and it looked pretty good. So I went to work with it, and since there wasn't any official policy about facial hair, my sergeant said he'd talk with the chief. Next morning, Sergeant and I met with the "Grand Fubar"-our private name for the chief, "Fubar" meaning "fucked up beyond all reality." The chief approved beards as long as they were neat and trim. Within a month, a dozen bearded cops were saving copious bucks on razor blades.
Polly told me shortly after she woke me up that-surprise!-she'd painted half the car green. I took a look. She'd used a four-inch paintbrush and, under the circumstances, had done a credible job. But I was grumpy, still tired from getting only three hours of sleep, so I didn't give her any compliments. Instead, I pointed out that now I'd have to get a new registration due to the color change, just nit-picking. It was looking like it was going to be a tough night on the public indeed.
At about twenty of eleven, I fired up the newly painted Bug and headed in to work. As I drove down Sandwich Road, I noticed another Bug, a white VW, facing into Pinecrest Beach Drive and a full-sized light blue sedan facing out. The people seemed to be talking to each other. About half a mile south, a vehicle closed on me rapidly from the rear, hit high beams, and pulled out to pass. The speed limit on this stretch of road was thirty-five, and we were already doing a bit more than that.
But the car didn't pass. Instead, I heard this incredible roar and felt this tremendous punch in my nose. My head and upper body were thrown down, across the passenger seat. There was a second booming roar, and I started to sit back up. I noticed in the light from the radio that there was a pool of blood, bone, teeth, and hair lying in the passenger seat. Somehow I knew it was parts of me lying there, and I thought quite calmly, Shit, now I'm going to bare to go to the dentist. I knew I'd been shot, that's what the booming sounds were. I'd probably been hit in the nose and mouth.
I sat up and stomped on the brakes, bringing the car to a screeching halt. A third boom went off and the passenger side of the front windshield filled with half-inch round holes. I could see the light blue sedan now, stopped about fifty feet in front of me, and I was thinking how easy it would be to shoot back through the windshield at it-the thing was already full of holes; it wouldn't do any more damage. But since I had kids at home, my stainless steel (to resist rusting in the salty Cape air) .357 revolver with its six-inch barrel was hanging in my locker and not in the shoulder harness that fellow officer Pauly Gonsalves had advised me to start wearing years earlier.
Excerpted from the year we disappeared by CYLIN BUSBY JOHN BUSBY
Copyright © 2008 by Busby Ross, Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
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