Saturday, October 24, 2009

A Chemical Episode

A Short Story

The Explosion

The only other time I have been forced to evacuate was that one night, almost twenty years ago now, when the chemical plant exploded. This happened over the summer, two years after college but before we left home for good. My twin brother and I were both back in River Heights with our parents and our younger sister, Katie, who is now dead. My older brother Kevin was living in Boston with his fiancée.

It was a sweltering night, thick with the kind of weighted silence that covers the earth after a scorcher, a shroud of exhaustion. All when I was growing up in that cushy suburb, our house never had air conditioning. The walls practically melted right off the beams. We jacked open the windows at night, accomplishing nothing. A battalion of sickly electric fans of nearly every variety, some older than me, was deployed strategically throughout the house.

I lay in a pool of sweat and moonlight, finally asleep, my body strung out from working all day and then cutting our grass. Tommy and I had flipped a coin. I lost. Suddenly a tremendous report thundered off of the roof of the sky, a single blast that was like the sound a battleship’s heavy guns makes in films. The concussion literally shook the house. It was this that woke me up. Some part of my consciousness heard the blast, but my body responded as if physically shaken. Woozy with fatigue, smelling ripe, I lifted my head up, then propped myself onto my elbows and stared out the open window.

At that moment the door to my room creaked open and my brother Tommy walked in, dressed only in a pair of underpants. His hair was sticking straight up and he had one eye closed. ‘What the hell was that?’ he asked, as if I could supply the answer.

‘Don’t ask me.’

Tommy shuffled across the frayed carpet to the window and peered out. ‘It sounded pretty close by. Did you hear it? Some kind of explosion or something.’

‘Hell yeah I heard it,’ I replied. ‘You could feel it, too.’

‘That’s the part that’s freaking me out.’

We both fell silent for a moment.

‘If this were about ten or twelve years ago, I’d say it was the Russkies, finally giving us what was coming,’ said Tommy.

‘It ain’t the Russkies,’ I said. ‘They waited too long, and now they got nothing to hit us with.’

A Cumulative Effect

I didn’t know I was headed for trouble until I was already in the middle of it. There aren’t many warning signs – at least, not if you’re not trained to see them. It doesn’t follow discernable patterns, and if it attacks, it does so without provocation. No wonder doctors and scientists are still essentially baffled by these matters.

Looking at my life from where I sit – I am 39 years old now – I’ve actually achieved many of the things I wanted to when I was younger. Sure, I’d like to be rich and have greater peace of mind. But I really am fortunate. The one thing that I’ve always wanted – aside from my literary aspirations – was to have my own family, and God has given me an absolutely beautiful one. My wife Rebecca and I were married in 2000, and we have two gorgeous daughters: Elizabeth, who is nine already, and Claire, who is five. The three of them are easily the most important things in my life. It might not seem that way once I finishing telling this story, but that doesn’t change the fact.

Tommy is married too, by the way. He has four children. He lives in Emmittsburg, Maryland, and works in the Marketing department at the College of Mount Saint Mary’s. I work in the sales department for a financial services firm, writing copy for various documents. Thus, he makes less money than I do, but he’s a better provider. He’s a more conscientious father than I am, and a natural member of a community as well. I’ve always believed that Tommy’s had a little bit of an edge over me when it comes to sociability. Whenever I’m in his town I meet a lot of people who tell me how terrific he is. I wouldn’t argue the point.

As I said before, though, I think I’ve done well enough for myself, especially in terms of what’s important. And I do have my gifts. I’m a better writer than Tommy is. That may not sound like much, but to me it makes up for a lot. Some might say that Tommy has more personality. But a writer rationalizes that he has a more dynamic inner life than your average schlub off the street. It’s bullshit, but it makes me feel better. I guess what I am trying to say is that I know who I am, at least relative to my twin brother. I can live with the differences.

Our lives were nearly the exact same story until just after we got out of college. Then two tragedies occurred. The ripples from these two events prodded us in different directions. Our lives began to resemble one another less. Then we married utterly different women, at completely separate times. Twins must eventually drift apart, in some ways, while maintaining an inviolable bond in others.

For me, however, after the second tragedy – the death of my sister Katie by vehicular manslaughter – more bad things happened. Not all at once. Every two or three years. But they began to accumulate. The collective weight pressed down on me harder and harder without my even knowing it. Until I just gave way. No one saw it coming. Least of all me.

It wasn’t until the third night of the current evacuation that I remembered. There had only been one incident in my entire life that pointed towards what is happening now. And it had started with the chemical explosion, on that late summer night nearly twenty years ago.

After the Explosion

My mother seemed the most rattled the morning after. I didn’t understand why at the time. Katie was still asleep. I came down the stairs, seeking my father. She told me without making eye contact that he had left for work already. That was surprising since it was not yet seven o’clock. But I didn’t dwell on it too much because my mind was occupied with the strange incident in the middle of the night.

Tommy came stumbling down a few minutes later and we had some coffee. Seeing him all bushwhacked reminded me of the old times when we used to drag ourselves downstairs to go deliver The Newark Star-Ledger. Damn, I thought. Nothing changes.

My mother sat at the table with us. She seemed distracted but she wouldn’t talk about it. So we sat there for a while speculating on what had happened the night before. Nobody could even begin to determine what it had been. All we knew was that something had blown up. We wondered aloud whether it was somebody’s house, but we had seen no smoke and heard no fire engines, and it seemed unlikely that a residential home in the middle of a suburb would suddenly pop off like a Roman Candle for no apparent reason.

Another possibility seemed more likely. About a half mile down Arbor Street from where we lived, near the center of River Heights, the housing developments came to an abrupt end, right about where a set of railroad tracks cut across the town. Between all the houses and the downtown area there was a handful of warehouses and nondescript office buildings. A used car lot near there had been abandoned since I was a little kid. There was a UPS facility somewhere in there. It was a dirty, unappealing part of town. We used to joke that it was the Communist District because of the ugly buildings.

There was one small side street running perpendicular to Arbor that I had never once traveled down. It was called Industrial Road. It was probably about 1,000 feet long by the looks of it. From Arbor Street you could see curious smokestacks and cylindrical tanks full of God-knew-what, stuff that probably ended up in McDonald’s Happy Meals or something like that. Foul-colored smog chugged out from hidden orifices at odd times. This had always been a mysterious place to me, Industrial Road, because I never saw anybody actually coming or going down that street.

The only person I ever knew that actually worked there was my dead friend Mutt Ploughman. He had worked for UPS for a while.

I thought about Industrial Road while were sitting around the table that morning, with the sun struggling to hurdle the huge trees in our backyard. We all agreed that the explosion had to have occurred in that area. Wasn’t there some kind of chemical plant or something down there? Tommy wondered. My mother said she thought that there was.

What else could it have been? But it was so bizarre. Everything quiet, dead of night, all these washed-out people exhausted from carrying out the same old suburban routines lying asleep in their beds, and down there in the industrial part of town where nobody recognizes anything, something goes awry. All that matter bubbling along, or whatever it was that went on there day in and day out, week after week, until a moment arrives when something happens – nobody knows what – and the whole thing just kind of boils over. Ka-boom.

That night my father did not come home from work.

Experience with Death

The first of the tragedies was the death of our old friend Mutt Ploughman, the first summer after we graduated from college. We’d known Mutt since we were seven years old. He’d lived four houses down from our own up until the day he died. That day came in 1995. I don’t feel like I want to rehash all of the specifics. I’ve told a thousand different people the whole story about three times each.

He had been in the backseat of a car that another guy was driving too fast down a rain-slicked street in the middle of our suburb. Most of us didn’t have jobs yet and had nothing to do except tool around and look for a place to eat. Maybe the only reason Mutt ended up inside a chassis twisted around a tree trunk like a paper clip bent around a #2 pencil was because driving fast was the only way to milk a cheap thrill out of existence.

The craziest thing about that experience – the part that still festers inside of me somewhere like a hole in a tissue wall – was that Mutt had been the only one of us that did have a plan for the future. He could be such an asshole sometimes, so ridiculous and petty and full of himself for no reason whatsoever except to compensate for his own numerous liabilities. Half the time I knew him I did everything but wish him dead. But Mutt Ploughman was the hardest working friend and peer I had ever known. He had spent his entire 21 years of existence preparing to drag himself out of a hole he hadn’t dug, and when he finally got his head up out of the ground it was as if somebody came by in a huge truck and rolled right over it. For those of us left behind to figure that out, it was a real blow to our sense of equilibrium, a foot to the balls right as we were walking into the Grand Hall of Adulthood.

That was merely the prelude, though. Just two years later we encountered death again, and this time it didn’t even try for ironic humor, opting for flat-out injustice instead. Its victim this time was my own little sister. She was only sixteen years old. It happened in the winter time around 6 o’clock in the evening, when congestion in our little hamlet could get downright ludicrous.

Katie had had a driver’s permit and was behind the wheel of my mom’s brand new Honda with its owner in the passenger’s seat. She was paused at a stop sign near a blind curve, trying to turn right. Katie began her turn a little too slowly in a spot where you really needed to be more decisive. But the derelict who came around the bend doing 75 in a 40-mile-an-hour zone had no excuse but his own stupidity to be taking that curve so fast, no matter how tentatively Katie had acted. The guy had a prior record of other malfeasances to which, on that cold night, he tacked on vehicular manslaughter. He killed my sister. The last I heard he was still in the cooler. But that was some time ago, so he’s probably out by now.


Actually, I didn’t make it home that night either. None of us did. I had a buddy from work attempt to give me a lift home because Tommy had the car we were more or less sharing. He had a longer commute to his menial office job, so I didn’t gripe that he had the car more often. It was a piece of shit anyway, a Chevy Caprice from like 1986.

Anyway, when this guy Chuck from work tried to bring me home, we were coming up over the railroad tracks I mentioned earlier, not far from Industrial Road, when we came upon a police barrier. There were two saw horses positioned in the street and a squad car with the lights going. A lanky cop was standing there glaring at us. I recognized him right away as a guy who had been a few years ahead of me in high school, a real burn-out, once sang lead vocals for a garage band called Cut & Dry. Only now I had to admit he looked pretty cleaned up in his johnny suit. He held up one hand because I guess he wasn’t confident we’d get the message when we saw his Crown Victoria and the wooden horses.

When Chuck rolled down the window the cop said to him, ‘No outlet on this road.’ He left it at that, so we were forced to inquire exactly what the hell that meant.

‘No admittance. We’re in the middle of a contained evacuation process, due to an incident last night.’

Jesus, it’s like this guy memorized the textbook, I thought.

‘But I live just up the way. On Arbor Street. He’s bringing me home.’ I had to lean partway over Chuck’s lap to say this, which was slightly awkward.

The cop canted his head lower to stare at me. Exactly the way they do it in the movies, right before they say, Would you step out of the car please? Then they shoot you and steal your car.

For a minute, I thought he was going to recognize me too. But if he did, he didn’t let it slip.

‘Residents are to be advised that it is unsafe to return to their homes until further notice,’ he said, still quoting from that book.

‘We can’t go to our own houses?’ I asked. Chuck and I exchanged dumbfounded glances. The cop said nothing. Another car behind us, a Dodge Omni, honked. I canted around in my seat and gave a gesture with both arms, the exact translation of which would have been: Seriously, asshole. Where the hell are we gonna go?

Good question, there.

‘Where am I supposed to go, then?’

The cop stared elsewhere, looking up Arbor Street, as if he were Clint Eastwood scanning a forlorn horizon.

‘I guess you’d better find yourself a friend. If possible.’ He grinned.

That part probably wasn’t in the book.

The Meaning of Meaning

As you might expect, Katie’s death transformed our family. Nothing was ever going to be the same again. Everybody knows beforehand, in the academic sense: if you lose a member of your family, life will change. It’s going to be hard. Et cetera. But man – as only experience with death can reveal to you, you do not know the meaning of those words until it happens to your family. That’s because once it does, those words, and all other words, have no meaning.

This was the result of those two tragedies that surprised me the most: the way that they began, very slowly, to strip the substance out of things. It happened in an almost geological way; that is to say, over a period of many years after they happened, they remained coursing through me like some dark river, painstakingly carving a canyon through all that I had thought to be true. This process – obviously – continues.

The ironic thing is that it started with language. That was the first layer of ground beneath my feet that I noticed beginning to erode. This, of course, was right at the time that I was getting started in creative writing as more than a hobby. Rather, it was a serious endeavor that I really believed, as I still do, that I had a vocation-like summons to throw myself into. But a crippling thing occurred in the wake of my two experiences with death. The language itself started to lose the tight grip that had compelled me to write in the first place.

Even worse, there was no one to blame. It was just people being people. After Mutt’s death in 1995, he was showered with superlatives and his head heaped with laurels for his considerable achievements in life – just surviving; functioning in the world when he’d never had the love of his father or the emotional support of his mother; starting his own landscaping business. He’d earned that praise. The problem was that nobody gave it to him while he was still living. Myself included. Very few people gave a shit about Mutt while he was here with us. And that includes the people who conceived him.

Katie’s death – murder, to me – was two years later. Late in 1997, a half year after the chemical explosion. Fair or unfair, people didn’t treat Katie the same way they had treated Mutt – again, including me, Tommy, and everyone else in my family. She was the golden child inside our house; outside of it, everybody loved her. We all still do. My wife, who never even met Katie, told me once that she never could have done any wrong in my own eyes. That shocked me at the time, but she didn’t mean anything negative by it. She was probably right.

After Katie was killed, I noticed that the same thing happened that had happened with Mutt. People would come up to you and say things about your dead sister (or daughter, in my parents’ case) that had either no basis in fact (‘She was flawless’; ‘I never once saw her cry’; ‘She could do anything and do it better than anyone else’) or that had no basis in anything (‘She’s in a better place’; ‘It was just her time’; ‘These things are beyond the understanding of this world’). With most of us, you hear enough of these things, and you just start to tune out.

But I had developed an interest in words, language, and expression, and because of that interest, I was paying attention. It had a terrible consequence. For God’s sake, what had happened to my language? What did all of those words mean? The sympathy cards had their trite poetry. The eulogies had their overwrought superlatives and inaccurate recollections of qualities that couldn’t have been as pure as they were being ‘remembered’. Even the Catholic prayers we recited ad nauseam didn’t seem rooted in modern existence – not for me, not at that time. ‘May the souls of the faithfully departed rest in peace…’ Faithfully departed? My sister’s teenage spine had been crushed by a Ford Bronco doing seventy-five miles an hour.

I had taken composition and literature classes in college, and I fell in love with novels, essays, and the idea of conveying one’s thoughts precisely in the appropriate arrangement of words. But after these tragedies, words began to seem like vapor no matter how they were arranged. This was a considerable problem, because I was still very much interested in writing! No wonder my literary career has been a non-starter. And yet to this day – as you see – I still try.

That’s not even the worst of it. Those two deaths actually led me to troubles even deeper than the literary one – and for an aspiring writer, that’s a mouthful. I noticed that once language began to lose its meaning, so too did the ideas and realities that it existed to serve. Things like: ‘career’. You struggle all of your life trying to advance it. What for? Where did that ever get my father? ‘Faith’. In what? In who? The rite of Mass was all words – prayers, readings, hymns. Did they mean anything? You still ended up dead. “Life”. What was it? What was Katie’s life, what was Mutt’s? When they only hung around for twenty-one years, or less, in the first place?

All of this slowly morphed, festered, evolved, or whatever word there is left to use, into an unruly mass in my brain over a period of years. I’ve said it many times before: how I got my wife to marry me in 2000, seeing as how all of this was rolling along in me like a massive stone gathering moss all the time, is still an utter mystery to me.

The Rant

I ended up at my old friend Rizzo’s house that night, since our entire street had been evacuated. It took a while to track down Tommy. Nobody was carrying around cell phones yet. Eventually he figured out to call over to Rizzo’s place to see if I had gone there. Rizzo was still hanging around town too, of course. We had spent so many nights at his place that it was practically second nature to his mother and father to walk into various rooms of their own home and see one or both of the Meegan twins sitting there.

We stayed at Rizzo’s that first night, the whole next day and night, and then, on the third day, we got the all clear to go back to our homes. Like everything else, it got boring quickly. I can remember shooting hoops that first night on Rizzo’s driveway amid rampant speculation about what had happened, whether or not there would be a toxic airborne event, acid rain, chemicals in the water, mutant babies over time, and whatnot. I don’t even recall what we did about things like brushing our teeth or changing clothes. We either figured something out or just neglected those necessities until we got back to our house. Most likely it was the latter.

It was during that second day that we learned that our father had not come back to the area the night before. In fact, no one even knew where he was. This may be why I can’t remember much about how we filled those 40 hours following the explosion. My father had never done anything like this. My mother was a wreck over it, understandably; but that alone was cause for alarm, because she didn’t get knocked off balance by much. At least, not before her daughter was killed. When we talked to her the next day, she said he had not called her, she had no idea where he had gone or what he was doing, and she didn’t seem to have any clue to what might happen next.

At first Tommy and I were flabbergasted. Something had to have happened. Had he rolled his car into a ditch somewhere? Possibly. Kidnapped? Please. In our town? But as we talked about it and kicked it around with Rizzo, we began to suspect what might have happened. Though you couldn’t call it worse, exactly, than him getting killed in his car, it was in some ways nearly as disturbing, inasmuch as it was a lot less easier to explain.

It was Tommy who first brought up ‘the rant’. That’s what we had already started to call it. We knew that there had been some strain in our household and particularly in our parents’ marriage over the previous one or two years. As far as we knew, it had nothing to do with infidelity or anything of that sort. Our family had been under a terrific financial burden for years, what with three college tuition cycles already having taken their devastating toll, and Katie’s still coming.

We also knew, since he was always counter-productively candid about it, that my father had experienced worsening frustration with his job. He was a scientist by education. He had spent years in classrooms and laboratories as a teacher and research chemist, toiling away in search of compounds that would become drugs used to treat neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. During my entire childhood, he had been employed by a large pharmaceutical company, where it was his primary job to develop these medicines and get them pushed through the extensive and bureaucratic process to bring them to market.

Evidently, advancing this was an endlessly frustrating series of tests, studies, applications, more tests, focus groups, data gathering, and on and on. But it hadn’t been until only a few months before the plant blew up that he had told Tommy and I – just casually, out of the blue – something that let us know just how exasperating the task really was. He said to us that in all of the time he had been working for his employer –since 1978 – they had not been able to successfully bring even one drug to market. Years of research, testing, and endless grappling with the Food and Drug Administration. Something – a lawsuit, an unexpected side effect – always got in the way in the end.

Then there were Dad’s health issues. Although he was never very overweight, he had developed high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and had been visiting a cardiologist with increasing frequency. In 1995, he had had a minor flutter of a heart attack while using a treadmill, more like a fainting spell, but it put an intensifying fear inside of him.

The doctor said he was under too much pressure, and that it was imperative for him to find activities and/or techniques to help him relax. But he continued to work long hours, attend research conferences, and strain against red tape and office politics. He would rarely participate in any social or community events with my mother, for it seemed his whole life was occupied with work and sleep. Katie had gotten really interested in drama in the second half of high school, but Dad missed all her plays. My mother would implore him to find ways to ease up, but he would end up yelling at her, asking her how the hell he was going to do that, when they were still paying the twins’ college loans, with Katie still to go, and a double mortgage?

Finally, one night – about a week before the chemical plant blew up – Dad came home very late from the office. Tommy and I had already gone up to our rooms. I was just lying on my bed, trying to fall asleep. The heat was absurd. He came in and immediately exploded. I had no idea what set it off and I still don’t. He just went nuts. My mother didn’t even try to prevent it from escalating. Every once in a while I could hear her interject a muffled comment, in a reasonable voice, and I had to suppose she was just trying to gently ease him back from the edge, like a cop in the window trying to talk down a jumper. But for the most part she just let it happen, and my father let it fly:

‘….all day long, all year long, I pound my head against a stone wall, I do all of the work, I mark all of the data, I follow every procedure, I cross every goddamn T, and something still gets in the way of it … I spent all of those years in the lab, I put in all the hours of research, for what?? I travel to Europe and I get up in front of those Swiss and Danish and Japanese executives and I make the case, and they pat my head and salute the spirit of my investigations, then they go back to their conference rooms and deny the funding, every fucking time …. I come home, the house is an utter disaster, the boys are loafing around, no drive to do anything, there’s no ambition anymore …. you’re running around all the time, Katie’s got this, Katie’s doing that, the bridge club, the library, the Band parents, it never ends, it’s all bullshit, no one can even stop to breathe, the bills are piled up on the desk, the college calls all the time, all I want to do is sit down …. then there’s Kevin’s up there doing God knows what, living with that girl, she calls the shots, she’s the one driving his life, where the hell is his initiative, what is he doing about anything … but young people always know it all ….'

It was pretty astonishing. He’s losing it, I thought at some point. I don’t know if Katie was asleep already. But I knew Tommy was awake. He was in the next room, but I could tell he was listening just as I was. Maybe I fell asleep before it ended, maybe I heard the entire thing.

The next morning both of them acted as if nothing had happened, ridiculously. I came very close to bringing it out into the open, but at the last minute I decided not too. My intention was to talk to Dad alone about it sometime later. It wasn’t as though we couldn’t talk to him. He would have answered questions about it if I had asked. But I never got around to it. My mother held it together.

On Rizzo’s driveway, Tommy brought up the rant. For whatever reason, I had not thought about it until that moment.

‘I think the ol’ man might have gone off the rails,’ he said.

Rizzo stood there and said nothing. I stopped dribbling. I think Tommy was going for a wry spot of humor. But it fell like one of his bricks onto the pavement.

Do the Math

I have a problem with figures. I always have. Numbers, math, that stuff has never been my thing. I did terribly in every one of my math courses in high school, permanently hobbling my overall grade point average. When I got to college, I made sure I selected a major that had the absolute minimum of mathematical courses required, but I still had to take two semesters’ worth. Then I never took another course with numbers in it ever again.

I’ve never regretted missing out on taking more math courses in college, and I’ve always been candid with regard to my open loathing for numbers. But there’s one aspect of life where this has come back to haunt me, and that is the management of finances. The only times I have really wished I did have a head for figures was when I sat down with a checkbook. Unfortunately, my wife doesn’t particularly have an aptitude for it either. This has gotten us into more trouble than I ever thought possible.

Money was always a major source of strain for my parents when I was growing up – as it is for a lot of couples. The only time they ever really had knock-down arguments would be when things got stressful financially. But one thing they absolutely never did was talk to us about it. We never knew a thing about where things actually stood, let alone how they worked out any problems. If I were to say anything at all about what my parents’ financial strategies were or how they handled even the most basic budgeting practices, I would be making it up. They never shared any of that with us, beyond commenting frequently that money was tight, that it ‘didn’t grow on trees’, that we should always be mindful of the size of our family.

I often wonder about that today as I have found myself embroiled in financial difficulties the likes of which I never would have expected. I knew it was going to be a difficult part of life as an adult, but I think there was a part of me that honestly believed that these matters sort of ‘worked themselves out’. Would it have helped me if my parents – my father in particular – had been more forthright when it came to financial management? Should he have taught me how they made it through those horrific times when Kevin and Tommy and I were all in college at the same time? I don’t know if it would have helped or not, but it never happened.

I understand that to even raise the question sounds like I am tapping my parents as partially responsible for my own failures. They are not to blame. I wouldn’t even have made it to adulthood were it not for how well they did provide. But I still think about it sometimes, especially when I consider ways to help my kids to avoid the calamities that have befallen me. For I never want them to experience the hellishness that financial mismanagement has caused for their mother and I.

My father was extremely old-fashioned when it came to money. That meant two things: 1) you didn’t discuss it with anyone who was not a financial advisor; and 2) the man, the husband, handled everything. You earned the money, you paid the bills, you doled out allowances to the members of your household, and you didn’t bitch about any of it. You also didn’t screw it up. Even the Scriptures said it was on you as head of the house. The book of Proverbs emphasizes it repeatedly. So I came out of my childhood with the understanding that all of it was my job, but with absolutely no idea how to do any of it. And this, to my wife’s misfortune, is how I entered into family life.

Combining this with my spectacular ineptitude with figures made for a deadly mixture as far as my family’s financial health was concerned. We were okay for the first four or five years, Rebecca and I, because we both came into marriage with a certain amount of savings, got a lot of generous monetary gifts for our wedding, rented our home for a long time, and had only one child for four years. But later on, after we bought a house, took out two mortgages, and had my daughter Claire, things got much more difficult.

We developed a dependency on plastic, the deadliest substance known to man. We became masters at spending money we didn’t have, like so many other Americans. I never knew how insidious credit card companies could be, but I was about to find out. Then an element of fate also interjected. The housing market collapsed in the late 2000s, and the rest of the economy followed it over that cliff. Gas prices soared. Raises went out of existence. Interest rates sky-rocketed. Before I could even turn my head I was tens of thousands of dollars in the hole. Creditors were calling me around the clock, at my home, at my office, and on my cell phone. The pressure that it put on my wife and I was unimaginable.

It was right at the time this pressure was at its peak, with the economy in a free-fall, that we found out Rebecca was pregnant with our third child. God forgive me, but my response to that information was a mixture of exhilaration and absolute terror – both in the exact same measure.

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