Wednesday, October 19, 2011

An American Hero

Author's Note: Consider this an extreme sequel, by several generations, to Fighting For Love and my other short stories. The idea came from a video project one of our history teachers has his students do every year.

Newark International Airport, 2001
James Kidd McCloud sighed and shifted in the uncomfortable waiting room seat. He hoped they started boarding soon. He hated riding as a passenger. Flying was his passion. He’d been doing it for more than 15 years now.

His cell phone vibrated in his pocket then started playing the tune to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. That was his wife’s ring. The both loved Westerns, it was one of the things that had brought them together in college. Pulling the phone out of his pocket, he read her text.

When can we expect u home? Kids miss u! Me 2!

He smiled and quickly tapped in his response.

Flying commercial. ETA 12pm.

It wasn’t often he flew commercial these days. Mostly, he was in the pilot’s seat, flying for Fed Ex. But, they’d had him at a re-training seminar in New York and had chosen to send him home commercial rather than use up valuable cargo space.

Looking back at the gate, he wondered what movies would be playing on the six hour flight. That was one of the perks of flying commercial. There was a new Tom Selleck Western out that he hadn’t seen yet. He smiled as he thought about his obsession with all things Old West and what had sparked that obsession back in high school.

Lincoln, Nebraska, 1981
Jimmy slammed through the front door. This had been one of the most frustrating days of his life. He hated high school. It was such a drag.

“James Kidd McCloud, how many times do I have to tell you not to slam that door?” his mother berated him. She walked out of the kitchen, wiping flour off her hands. “Now go back and close that door properly.”

Dropping his backpack on the floor, Jimmy slumped back to the front door and softly opened and closed it with exaggerated care. As he turned back around to look at his petite mom, he asked, “Satisfied?”

“Delighted,” she smirked. “Now, you want to tell me what’s got you so riled up?”

“Not really,” he muttered, looking down.

“How about if I throw in some chocolate chip cookies?” she bribed.

“I suppose,” he mumbled, already headed toward the kitchen.

A few minutes later, a cookie in each hand and a glass of milk in front of him, Jimmy had already almost forgotten all his troubles.

“Now, you want to tell me what’s going on?”

“Oh, my history teacher’s got this bug up his butt. He got his hands on a bunch of new video equipment and he’s bound and determined we’re gonna use it.”

“So, what’s the problem?” she asked. “I thought you loved technical stuff like that.”

“It’s not the video stuff that’s the problem. I could do that in my sleep,” Jimmy mumbled around a mouthful of cookie. “It’s what he wants us to do the project on. We’re supposed to interview our family members and find out about what our family was doing at certain points in history.”

“Sounds interesting. Does it matter which times?” his mom asked, as she placed another cookie in front of him.

“Nope,” Jimmy said, gulping down half his glass of milk. Setting the glass back down, he picked up the third cookie and just looked at it. “We really only need one major story. But we ain’t got none.”

“We don’t have any.”

“That’s what I just said,” Jimmy grinned at her, knowing how upset it made her when he used bad grammar.

“No, that isn’t what you just said, young man,” she answered repressively. “But that’s beside the point. What makes you think there aren’t any stories in our family?”

“Aw, come on, ma! The most interesting thing that’s ever happened in our family is your and Dad’s wedding getting delayed by a tornado!”

Mom laughed at that. “Hardly. That’s just the most interesting story you’ve heard. Did you know that both Great-Great-Grandpa Kid and Great-Great-Grandma Lou rode for the Pony Express?”

“The what?” Jimmy asked in confusion.

“You remember, the mail service that ran the mail across country in relays, using horses. It only lasted about 18 months. The Civil War and the telegraph killed it. But in its time, it was the fastest way to get mail across the country.”

“Wow! Now that sounds more like it,” Jimmy said.

“When is this project due?”

“Not until the end of the semester,” Jimmy said. “Mr. Jones wants to give us plenty of time to do the research.”

“Good, then when we go out to Grandpa McCloud’s ranch over Labor Day you can ask him all about them,” Mom smiled. “He’ll have a grand time telling you all those old stories. And make sure to ask him about the treasure chest.”

“The treasure chest?” Jimmy asked, starting to get excited about the project now.

His mom just smiled mysteriously at him as she took the empty cookie plate and milk glass away from him, setting them in the sink.

Near Rock Creek, Nebraska
“So, I hear you’re wantin’ to learn ‘bout Pappy Kid and Grammy Lou,” Jimmy’s grandfather greated him. They’d just spent the last hour on rural roads, traveling into the middle of nowhere, Nebraska, where his Grandpa still lived on the old family horse ranch.

“Yeah,” Jimmy smiled. “It’s for a school project. And, I’ve gotta see this treasure chest Mom’s been teasing me about!”

Grandpa McCloud’s eyes twinkled with humor. “Well, we’ll just have to see, ‘bout that. I figured we’d start with this.”

He held out a small, leather bound book. Its age was obvious. Jimmy set his duffel bag down on the ranch house porch and gingerly took the book in both hands. Turning it over and over before opening it up, he asked, “What is it?”

“Your Great-Great-Grandma Lou’s diary,” Grandpa said. “She started keeping it shortly before she joined up with the Pony Express.”

“Wait a minute, Grandpa,” Jimmy said. “I’ve been doing some research and no woman ever rode for the Express.”

“Well, that’s not quite true. Go ahead and read it, the explanation’s in there. We’ll talk after supper.”

With that, Grandpa McCloud turned to greet his son and daughter-in-law. Jimmy ignored the ruckus, sitting down on the porch swing and looking at the diary. He was almost afraid to open it. Eventually though, he opened the cover. Written on the inside was a faded inscription.

I hope you can use this gift to work through things you can’t talk about to anyone else. Know I’ll always love you.
Stay Safe. Charlotte.

“Hmm. Louise must be Grammy Lou. But I wonder who Charlotte is?” Turning the page, he read the first entry.

5 February 1860
Well, I did it. I cried through the entire time, but I finally cut off all my hair. This way I should be able to stay safe. No one will ever suspect I’m a girl, now. The clothes I bought are a bit big for me, but that’s good. It’ll help me hide better. I even got a pair of glasses to hide behind. Yet, with all that I still don’t feel safe. Not after what Wicks did to me. I need to get further west.

I saw an ad today for riders for some new mail service. I’m thinking about signing up. I can ride better than anyone, even my Pa admitted that. And the pay’s good. $125 a week. With that much I’ll be able to save up real quick for a place of my own. It’s already been too long since I left Teresa and Jeremiah at the orphanage. They’re going to think I’m not coming back.

“So that’s how she did it,” Jimmy marveled. “She dressed up like a boy.”

Turning a few more pages, he read another entry.

10 March 1860
The station master gave me quite a scare today. I thought for sure he’d seen through my disguise this morning. Turned out he was just worried I might be too small for the job. I showed him I could ride better than all them other boys. They’re nothing but a bunch of hot heads and misfits. Guess that means I fit in, huh? Well, all except for the one they call The Kid. He’s a quiet one, but pretty normal otherwise. As good with a gun as that James Butler Hickok, but nowhere near as cocky. I can’t figure him out.

A few pages later, another entry caught Jimmy’s attention.

10 April 1860
Caught! And on my first run, too. Things were going fine, till some robbers got the drop on me and stole the mochila, shooting me in the ribs. Kid had to be the one who found me, too. Jimmy would’ve probably kept my secret without asking. Buck and Ike, too. I’m not so sure about Cody. He couldn’t keep a secret to save his life. But Kid? He’s so tied into doing what’s right that lying about who I am is going to be real hard on him.

At least he finally agreed to try. But only after he almost gave me away

Jimmy spent the rest of the night reading his Great-Great-Grandmother’s journal. He couldn’t believe the adventures they’d had or the risks they’d taken to get the mail through. And not only had she ridden for the Express, she had gone on to serve in the Civil War alongside his Great-Great-Grandfather.

That night at supper, Jimmy got Grandpa McCloud to tell a few stories, too. He set up his video camera to record them for his project.

“Now, Pappy Kid, he never talked much about his time in the war. He had what they called Battle Fatigue back then. In my day we called in shell shock. Today they call it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But, I think Battle Fatigue best suited Pappy. He was just tired of fighting. Didn’t even want to talk about it.”

Grandpa McCloud smiled at the memories.

“What did he talk about?” Jimmy asked.

“Oh, he liked to tell stories about how he and Grammy Lou met. And how he sure messed up the courtin’!”


“Yep. You know it took him five marriage proposals before she finally agreed to marry him?”

“Really? I think I’d have given up after the first one!”

“Well the first two tries, she just kinda put him off. Didn’t say yes or no, just played like he was jokin’. The third time, she said no, she wasn’t ready yet. The fourth time, they was interrupted by a gang of outlaws. The fifth time, she didn’t even wait for him to finish before sayin’ yes! That was always your Pappy’s favorite part of that story!”

Holding up the diary, Grandpa McCloud continued. “Now, your Grammy Lou, she liked to tell stories about her adventures. I think she was proud that she’d done so much that the world didn’t think a girl could do. I think your Pappy was proud of all she accomplished, too. He’d just sit back and listen to her reminisce, with a smile on his face. Most times he’d have ahold of her hand. And, at a particularly good point in the story, he’d lift her hand up and kiss the back of it.”

The next morning, Jimmy followed his Grandpa McCloud up to the attic with his video camera. Grandpa moved quickly over to a well maintained corner of the attic and knelt down in front of a large, old-fashioned trunk. Jimmy quickly checked to make sure the camera was rolling as his grandfather reverently opened the ‘treasure chest’ as he called it.

Reaching in he began pulling out various items and telling the story behind them. First came two old revolvers in holsters. A tattered black hat with the ragged remnants of a black feather plume followed. Then came a black leather pouch on a sinew string and a small jewelry box with a black Bible that had a childish picture drawn just inside the cover. Next came several old books, some dime novels, some actual leather bound books, all resting atop a coiled whip. Finally, came a beautiful white silk and lace wedding dress, slightly yellowed with age. Buried beneath it all was a pair of pearl handled Navy Colt revolvers.

As his grandfather pulled each item out, he accompanied them with stories about the people they’d belonged to.

Over the next few days, Jimmy had his grandfather and his mother read portions of Grammy Lou’s diary, getting the whole thing on tape. During the last recording session that Labor Day morning, Grandpa wrapped his story with, “Pappy and Grammy, they’d never admit it, but they and their Pony Express family were true blue, American Heroes. The type of heroes that do what needs doin’ without lookin’ for any reward. Some of ‘em died for what they believed in, some died tragically and senselessly, but they never let the danger keep them from doin’ what was right. We all could learn a lot from them.”

Lincoln, Nebraska
As the lights came up in the classroom after they’d watched Jimmy’s video, he said “And that’s why my great-great-grandparents are my new heroes.”

“You did a great job with this project, Jimmy,” Mr. Jones complimented him. “You’ve got some good research and some even better storytelling.”

Jimmy preened a bit. A compliment from Mr. Jones was really worth something. He only said you’d done a good job when you’d really done a good job.

“This is an A+ project.”

Omaha, Nebraska, 1986
Jimmy grinned as he prepped his plane for take-off. There was nothing he loved more than flying. And it seemed delivering the mail had become something of a family tradition. His Grandpa McCloud had teased him mercilessly when he’d accepted the job with Fed Ex. But, it meant he had a regular schedule and still got to fly planes.

A well built younger man with a thick shock of dark, curly hair and laughing blue-grey eyes took the co-pilot’s seat and began going over his part of the take-off checklist.

As they taxied down the runway, the younger man turned to Jimmy and asked, “So, how’d you get into the flying business?”

“Well, Isaac, it’s a long story.”

Looking at his watch, Isaac said, “We’ve got four hours scheduled in the air before we land in Vancouver. Can’t be longer than that!”

“This story goes all the way back to the Civil War!”

“So, spill already.”

Newark International Airport, 2001
“Last call for the direct flight to San Francisco,” the stewardess intoned over the PA system.

Looking around, Jimmy realized everyone else had already boarded the flight. That was fast, he thought to himself. There’s no way they boarded nearly 200 people on a flight in less than 15 minutes.

Grabbing his bag, he texted his wife as he headed to the gate.

Boarding now. C U soon.

“Remember, you’ve got to turn that thing off before takeoff,” the stewardess warned as she checked his ticket.

“I know,” he grinned. “I’m a pilot myself. For Fed Ex.”

As he walked down the ramp to the plane, he felt the phone vibrating. Grabbing it before it could start playing the accompanying tune, he read:

Good. Love u. Ride Safe!

Stepping across the threshold of the plane’s door, Jimmy reached out with one hand and gently patted the exterior of the plane in a traditional symbol for good luck. He sighed in satisfaction as he sat down in the last row of First Class. He’d used a few airline miles to upgrade, but the extra leg room was worth it, he thought.

Looking around, he could tell the plane was less than a third full. Seemed a bit low for a Tuesday morning flight. But, things happen sometimes.

Soon, the plane was taxiing toward the runway for takeoff, only to stop and idle.

“Sorry for the delay folks,” the pilot said over the plane’s loudspeaker. “Turns out things are a little busier this morning than Air Traffic Control had planned on. We’re in line and I’ll let you know when our number comes up.”

Jimmy held up a hand to get the stewardess’ attention. She unbuckled herself from her jumpseat and came to see what he wanted. Jimmy noted how the other two passengers in first class followed her with their eyes. There was something about them that made him uneasy.

Trying to shake off the feeling, Jimmy asked, “Since we’re delayed, would you mind if I used the lavatory?”

“Go ahead,” she smiled at him. “But be quick about it. You know it’s against the rules.”

After a half hour on the ground waiting, they finally got the go ahead and took off. They’d only been in the air a few minutes when Jimmy’s phone began to vibrate.

“Crap!” he muttered, realizing he’d forgotten to turn the thing off. Pulling it out, he read the message his wife had sent.

2 hijacked planes hit Twin Towers! B careful!

Jimmy looked up at a sudden scream from the stewardess and a banging sound as the cockpit door was slammed open. He saw one of the other two men in first class standing in the cockpit doorway, holding what looked like a knife to the pilot’s throat. The second man had an arm around the stewardess’ neck, with a similar improvised knife waving around in his other hand.

Jimmy ducked down behind the row of seats in front of him, hoping they’d forgotten his existence. They hadn’t. A moment later, a third man with a weapon came running up the aisle shouting, “Everyone to the back of the plane! Move!”

Jimmy quickly followed orders. Again, he felt his phone vibrate. He pulled it out and hid it in the palm of his hand as he rushed to the back of the plane. There, he carefully opened it and read:

3rd plane hit Pentagon. 100s dead! B careful. Love u!

“If you do what we say, no one will be hurt!” the third hijacker warned the passengers gathered at the back of the plane.

At a call from the front, he looked a warning at the group of scared people before turning and heading back to his comrades.

Jimmy looked at the men and women around him. Some were crying, others were texting or making phone calls.

“I don’t know if you’ve heard,” he said. “But, there’ve already been three hijacked planes crashed today. Two into the World Trade Center, one at the Pentagon. There’s no way they’re letting us go alive.”

“My husband said the same thing,” a slim blonde offered.

“Listen, if we don’t do something, a lot more people than just us are going to die!”

“He’s right,” a man said. “There are already hundreds dead at the World Trade Center.”

“But, what can we do?” an elderly woman asked. “They’ve got weapons, we don’t.”

“We outnumber them by what, four to one,” Jimmy said. “Sure, some of us might get hurt if we rush them. If we don’t we’re guaranteed to die! If we rush them, we might be able to get out of this alive. If we don’t, not only us but who knows how many hundreds of others are going to die as well.”

He looked at the group of frightened men and women and watched as their resolve hardened. Slowly, they nodded, one by one agreeing they had to do something.

“Ok, call or text your loved ones. Let them know what’s going on and what we’re going to do,” Jimmy said, turning to look out the nearest windows on each side of the plane. “We’re not near any populated areas right now so we’ve got a little bit of time.”

Turning his back on the group, he pulled out his own phone and thought for a moment. Then tapped in his message, being careful not to use any shorthand this time.

We’ve been hijacked. We can’t let them hurt others. We’ll do whatever it takes to make this right. It’s a McCloud family tradition. Hug the boys and give baby Lou a kiss for me. I love you, always.

Pressing send, Jimmy sent a prayer flying heavenward at the same time that this would work. Turning back to the others, he took a deep breath and began to speak.

San Francisco, California, 2001
Melissa McCloud looked up from her husband’s last text in shock. Holding her infant daughter in her arms, she now kept her eyes glued to the television.

Finally, the news she feared the most began to scroll across the screen.

United Flight 93 crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Believed hijacked and headed for White House.

Author's Note: This story is dedicated to all those who regularly risk their lives for the good of others.


  1. I was moved the first time I read this, and again just now. Thanks, Pilar, for a great story and a great tribute! --Ann

    1. This is one of my personal favorites.

      Writing it was very cathartic for me. I really didn't experience 9/11 like most of the rest of the workd did, being a member of the media. Instead of everything coming to a halt as I digested what was happening, my world went into overdrive to cover it.

      It really didn't sink in until much later. When the networks replayed their coverage in its entirety last year it was almost like living it all for the first time for me. This story came out of that.

  2. It made me cry then and it makes me cry now. You have done such a good job of personalizing thie story of Flight 93.