I seem to remember it this way…
“Brad, where are you heading?”
It was weird staying at the Williamsburg Inn. So many of the guys I went to high school with worked there now. I found it uncomfortable that they were holding doors for me or bringing me room service. It was weird.
“I thought I might just walk around town for awhile, I answered. “I need some time to clear my head.”
Eric, who had been a couple of years ahead of me was always one to offer advice a little on the cautious side. Once after he left for college he told me to be careful at parties and make sure I studied. I didn’t listen.
He said, “There’s a storm coming, so be careful.”
I nodded and headed for the Governor’s Palace. The walk was just long enough to get me worked up about my job. The higher ups were making decisions about our company that were going to cost a number of people their jobs. We were a small company, so everyone was close. I was the point person for the layoffs, but I disagreed with my bosses’ decision. They were going to trim the wrong side of the business by getting rid of workers instead of cutting administrative positions. The workers were producing, but the leadership was sucking the business dry. People like me should have been losing their jobs, not the ones making our products.
After a short walk, I found myself standing at the Governor’s Palace wall.
The wall was not as tall as it had once been. When I was in second or third grade it seemed much higher. Back then, I was supposed to stay at the Colonial Games until my mom got off work. Instead of listening to her, I decided to run around Colonial Williamsburg, but I didn’t have a ticket to get back into the Palace grounds. I knew I would be in trouble if I wasn’t there when she came looking for me. Since I was still at an age where I was more afraid of my mother than the possibility of getting caught breaking some rule, I decided to climb over the fence and get back to the games.
I got in with no problem.
Years would pass and I would find myself walking on a cold, rainy day with George Washington. It wasn’t really him, it was Mr. Tom Gardener who was in charge of Buildings and Grounds for Colonial Williamsburg. He had given me permission to hunt at Carter’s Grove and we were walking the areas where I was allowed to go. He said nothing as we walked, but as we came out of the woods behind my house, he turned and said, “Just you.” Then he got into his green truck and drove off.
That weekend two of my friends came over and we headed into the woods for an afternoon hunt. We picked a prime spot and just sat. The winds off the James River blew the tall pine trees together. They clacked and creaked. A gray sky and the wind combined to make a miserable day in the woods, so we decided to head home early.
Once we were back on the dirt road heading towards the house, we caught a glimpse of a hunter’s orange cap off in the woods. Thinking nothing of it, I waved and we kept going. The next day my mom got a call from Mr. Gardener asking that I not hunt out there anymore. It seemed that the hunter had been a vice president and he had turned me in for being out there with my friends. I was more than a little angry at the guy for ratting us out. While the incident faded away, it would be with me for years. A few years later Mr. Gardener would die and I would work for the VP without holding a grudge. I guess I had moved on.
Now I stood looking at the wall I had scaled as a youth, thinking this would be one crazy way to get a little peace. Life had been spiraling out of control and I needed a break from the insanity. I was at a crossroads professionally. There was so much going on in my job that I could not manage the pressure. Logically I knew what had to be done to keep my job, but ethically I felt this process was wrong. Before the pressure got to be too much, I figured I would do something wrong in an attempt to find the right answer to my dilemma.
The grounds of the Governor’s Palace has always been special. I loved being out by the pond or running around the maze. The crunch of the shells on the walking paths and the musty smell of the boxwoods always brought a calm. With everything that was going on around me, I thought spending a night on the Governor’s grounds might be just what I needed to break the indecision that held so tightly to me.
So thirty-five years after my first scaling of the wall, I climbed over again. A storm was coming and I knew that I would need shelter, so I checked out the coach houses and the stable, but both were locked. The palace, itself, was out of the question, so I headed for the ice house. I remembered that there was a key hidden under a bench in case of an emergency and hoped that it was still there. Luckily, it was and I unlocked the door and stepped into the ice house as the rain began falling.
My old hunting friends had given me a bottle of George Washington’s Rye whiskey from Mount Vernon and I decided that this would be the night I would break the seal. I sat back against the wall and started to drink. At first the whiskey burned, but later I drank without feeling. Then I heard the shells crunching and I knew someone was coming. I huddled in the dark sure that I was about to be caught. I was right.
“How are you doing, Brad?” asked Mr. Gardener.
I couldn’t even answer. I looked at the bottle and took another swig. It was smooth like water.
“It’s funny we should meet here,” he said, “the last time I saw you was out at Carter’s Grove.”
I asked, “Who are you, really? Come on, you can’t be Mr. Gardener, he passed away when I was still in high school.”
“True, I did, but I’m here now. What do you have to say for yourself?”
I took another drink. “Nothing, but why do you ask?”
“Brad, you are sitting in a cold, wet room during a heavy storm drinking whiskey in the hopes that all of your problems will somehow go away. Does that sound like ‘nothing’ to you?”
He had a point, though I believed the bottle was playing tricks on my mind, I was struck that Mr. Gardener had said more to me in these few minutes than he had back when he extended his permission and trust so that I could hunt at Carter’s Grove. I started thinking about what probably happened when the hot dog eating vice president called him about kids hunting out there. I guessed Mr. Gardener just listened and took the hit without trying to weasel out of anything. I also guessed that he was disappointed in himself for trusting that a fifteen year old would do the right thing.
“Did you get into trouble when you let me go hunting?” I asked.
“Did you explain that you had told me not to bring friends?”
He shook his head, “No.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“I didn’t feel like I had to. I got yelled at for letting you go hunting. If I had just said no to you, I would have never gotten in trouble. You being out there with your friends wasn’t the issue. Although it seems to be one for you.”
Interesting. He had gotten to the very root of the problem. Getting yelled at, for him was about accepting responsibility for his actions, not the actions of others.
“I’m sorry I did that to you. When they asked me to go, I should have said no. I knew I was wrong, but I did it anyway.”
He smiled and stood up with his lanky frame struggling to stay hunched over in the low ceiling of the ice house. He extended his hand and shook with a warmness that I did not expect from a dead man.
“Be responsible for yourself. Control what you can. Everything works out when you do.” He ducked as he went out the door, “Finish that bottle and then lock up. You best be out of here before the storm ends.”
Then he was gone without even making a sound on the walking path.
I took his advice and turned the bottle up three more times, chugging just as hard as I could. The rain was coming down harder now and I didn’t have any gear to stay dry. By the time I had the door locked and the key back under the bench, I was both soused and soaked. There were security cars parked in the lot where I had initially climbed over the wall, so I headed back around the pond and climbed over into the Matthew Whaley playground.
The walk back to the Williamsburg Inn would take about fifteen minutes and the rain would stop as I passed Bruton Parish Church. I knew what I had to do at my job. I had to be honest to myself and at least attempt to convince the higher ups that they were making the wrong decision. If they agreed with me, some jobs would be saved. If they didn’t, then I would probably have to find somewhere else to work. My old friend Eric was standing at the door when I got back.
“You alright, Brad? You’re soaking wet.”
“Eric, you wouldn’t believe it if I told you. I’ve got to go home and take care of some things.”
He nodded with understanding, “Everything works out that way.”
At least that’s how I remember it going…