Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Struggle

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Bill Van Poyck was executed by the state of Florida on June 12, 2013.  
This story was submitted by his loving sister, Lisa, 
and we consider it a great honor to be able to share it with you

By William Van Poyck

“I always hoped he’d be a normal boy, eventually,” his father had often observed in moments of private pain. “But even when he was just a little skipper, not much bigger than a freckle, Earl was different than the others.” For as long as anyone could remember, Earl Voorhees had been different. Not in the sense of better or worse, at least not initially. Just different. As for his father, there would be no triumph of hope over experience, and between the two would lie a continuum of consequences.

Earl paced the concrete floor, as was his custom, ninety-minutes a night with a surgeon’s precision, moving in the deliberate way of men who take possession of a place by walking through it. He was handsome in an irregular way, of average height but powerfully built, with naturally broad shoulders, thick, corded limbs and large hands as square as shovels. He walked with a smooth, athletic grace and with each step his calves and forearms bulged in near caricature, like an homage to Popeye. Even his head, atop a stout neck and crowned with short dark hair, bespoke a reserved energy, like a coiled spring. His open face expressed a straightforward manner, with even teeth and clear, vivid blue eyes that everyone talked about. A man of above-average intelligence with a sharp wit and disarming smile, he carried with him an air of order, a certain gravity, a largeness reflecting the residue of a life lived in the arena.

As a child Earl was fearless, a trait which informed the core of his being. From an early age, he endured his own solitude, waging a relentless battle with fear, a private conflict experienced at the level of his soul, as Jacob wrestling with the angel at Jabbok. Earl grappled with fear as one would a tangible presence, a struggle that marked his character with its ineffaceable traces, until his ultimate victory cut itself, like the facets of a diamond, into his hardest places.

“It’s complicated the way people turn out,” his Aunt Helen was known to remark when asked about Earl. “If only his father, well…” and her voice would trail off, only to rise sharply when asked about Scott, Earl’s older brother. “He was an unfit vessel,” she would insist in her Florida cracker accent, “just a bad seed.” She would hug her Bible and blame Scott for taking little Earl down the wrong path.

Earl paced, lost in reflection, his calloused soles chafing rhythmically against the floor. He lived much of his life inhabiting the past, for the present was grim and his future elusive. He cast his mind back, peeling away the layers of his memory like a ripe onion, to those childhood days when he sensed he was capable of anything but responsible for nothing. His earliest memories of his lifelong struggle were grounded in Miami, a sleepy town still comfortable with its rural southern roots. A land of slow days and burning sun, of undulating sawgrass and fishing camps. A time just beginning to be marked by the singsong Spanglish patois echoing across domino games suffused with the pungent smoke of hand-rolled cigars.

It began as a solitary endeavor, driven by indiscernible imperatives, his jumping off of roofs. He came to call it “roofing,” and he recalled the first time at his own house. Earl remembered the beguiling call to the roof edge, the battle of will, edging ever closer, the churning gut and the taste of fear rising up to fill his mouth. Then, that moment of transcendence as he committed himself with infrangible determination and leaped. On the ground, stunned but unhurt, he triumphantly raised his arms in victory. For the first time, he felt truly alive. That was the beginning. Earl was seven. That summer, one by one, he conquered the neighbors’ homes, roofing them all, in search of ever more challenging tests. At night, unable to sleep, he stepped out of his house, roaming far and wide until he found a suitable roof. Only after forcing himself to jump, only after again feeling alive, was he able to return home and sleep soundly. Later, he drew the neighborhood boys into his competition, daring them to match his jumps. It was always Earl who emerged the triumphant winner, arms raised. And when he occasionally hurt himself he refused to acknowledge pain or regrets. The other boys’ interest soon flagged, in direct proportion to the height of the roofs, until they finally agreed Earl was just crazy and he was again left alone to his solitary pursuit.

At age eight, Earl bent a paper clip and jammed it into an electrical socket. The shock blew him across the room amid a shower of sparks. His father beat him with his belt, cursing his stupidity. The next day Earl cut an extension cord down to a three-foot section, skinning the insulation back from the tips. Plugging it in, he sweated in anxious anticipation, heart pounding, eyes locked on the shiny copper wires lying on the ground. Then, with a grim determination, he pressed both palms down on the bare wires. The violent surge shook his frame, knocking him down. But Earl scrambled to his feet and danced about like a victorious prize-fighter, relishing another victory over fear. I must make pain my best friend, Earl decided, and that became a lifetime mantra. Earl unplugged the wire and carefully put it away, but from that point on the wire became a trusted companion, stored away until the inexplicable need drew him back and forced upon him another test of will. For many years, in times of need, Earl resorted to the wire, a self-affirmation of his courage and fortitude. 

Earl stopped at the window to deeply breathe in cool air, the breath of empty space. He stared out into the luminous night, his mind drifting, the memories recurring like a skipping record. He saw, then touched the livid scar creasing his forearm like a purple vine. He was nine when he picked up a blue steel double-edged razor blade and a thought invaded his mind. It refused to leave, taunting him, telling him he was a coward unless… Earl resisted, struggled, argued and reasoned, but, in the end, he viciously slashed the blade across the underside of his forearm, from left to right. He stared in astonishment as the flesh parted, gaping open, momentarily painless and bloodless, offering the briefest glimpse of gleaming bone, white and shiny as sink porcelain, of sinewy muscle sheath and severed veins, spurting like tiny maroon garden hoses. The wound instantly filled with blood and pain, overflowing, gushing hot and red. Earl calmly wrapped a towel around his arm, walked into the kitchen and announced he was hurt. After the hospital and the many stitches, Earl was unable to explain why he did it. He felt his father’s belt that night but he only remembered the taste of victory.

“Earl could be a lovable boy,” an elementary school teacher once reflected. “He bubbled over with curiosity, and was a bundle of energy, full of life. The thing I recall the most was how much he loved to read.”

Earl turned his leg, eyeing the triangular shape scar on his calf. He was ten, perhaps eleven, when he saw Aunt Helen’s unattended ironing board, the iron plugged in, upright, with wisps of steam feathering its tip. Seized by that familiar irresistible urge he picked the iron up, clenched his teeth and pressed it against his calf, held it tight as the skin sizzled, never uttering a word through the odor of burnt flesh. Days later, when the large, ugly burn became infected his father noticed it. Earl took the belt stroke like a stoic monk, secretly pleased with another victory, and a scar to bear witness.

Earl stood sentinel at the open window, framed starkly against the rising moon. The night swung wide before him as he inhaled cool air, concentrating on his breathing technique. He suddenly thought of the father he never really knew. As a child, Earl would rummage through his father’s wartime memorabilia, hidden deep in a closet in the den. It was forbidden territory. Earl would secretly pore over these belongings, the old photographs turned yellow and cracked, the ancient newspaper articles turned brittle as egg shells. He touched them, held them, breathed in their essence, seeking an echo of his father’s true voice. The war medals, and there were a lot of them, fascinated him. In a musty old brown leather kit with leather straps and metal buckles stamped “U.S. Army”, lay the guns. A big Colt .45 model 1911 semi-automatic service pistol. A German Luger. A smallish semi-automatic taken off an Italian general he captured near Messina, Italy, in the summer of 1943. And, wrapped in a stiff, olive drab canvas duffel bag, a squat, heavy .45 caliber Thompson submachine gun. Earl held these weapons, felt their weight and heft, played war games with them, held fast by a mysterious allure that drew him back to them time and again. Earl had heard of his father’s war exploits, mostly from others, and Earl knew that these guns had been there, fought there, killed there. Alone, without training or guidance, Earl taught himself how to operate them, to disassemble and reassemble them, and in due time, how to shoot them.

Earl reached up and touched the small scar on his chest, smiling faintly. He recalled the long-ago summer when he and three buddies were exploring the South Miami woods in search of adventure. When one of the boys produced a handful of .22 caliber bullets, Earl impulsively suggested they make a fire and throw the bullets in. At first, as Earl tossed a single round in to the flames, they all hid behind trees some distance back. Bang! There was an unimpressive explosion and a small shower of embers. Earl stood a little closer to the fire when he dropped the next bullet in, while the others hung back. Bang! Again and again Earl dropped the bullets. Bang! Bang! Each time Earl stood a little closer until, finally, he refused to retreat at all. Bang! Bang! Bang! The others peered from behind their pine trees, then yelled when Earl, standing implacably, dropped all the remaining bullets into the flames. Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! One by one they exploded, blowing sparks and burning sticks into the air. Smiling broadly, Earl turned, facing the boys with arms raised, fists clenched in triumph. They stared back, speechless, pointing, and when Earl looked down the blood was coursing down his chest. Only then did he feel the pain. Earl simply pressed a palm to the wound and jogged home, leaving his friends crying in fear. The wound proved not to be overly serious, a fragment of lead with little penetration. That night, after the stitches, after the belt, Earl lay in bed, smiling with satisfaction - of the four boys, he was the only one who did not cry.

“Earl tracked his life by the number and ferocity of the battles he won, as if any other time was unworthy of notice,” his high school wrestling coach had opined.

Earl reached up and touched the steel bars across his window. He was tired, though not sleepy, burdened with the fatigue of a man who has found himself on the wrong side of too many struggles. He lay down on his bunk, sorting through vague childhood memories drifting through his mind like refrains in a minor key. He settled on some familiar ones, of his own golden summer, before the serious troubles began. He was fifteen and his brother, Scott, was back in prison. Earl was befriended by Walter, a local Metro-Dade cop and charter member of The Biscayne Gremlins, a small freshwater cave diving group. Walter introduced Earl to cave diving, and when Earl had a dozen dives under his belt, Walter agreed to let him accompany some Gremlins on a special dive.

It was an impressively hot summer morning when Earl, Walter and four other Gremlins arrived at Withlacoochee Springs in North Central Florida. The particular cave they would explore was known as ‘The Blue Chute’. Eighty-feet below the surface of the cool spring lay a gaping horizontal fault line in the limestone, which opened up into an extensive network of tunnels, passageways and chambers.

Walter pulled Earl aside just before they went down. “Remember,” Walter said, gripping Earl’s shoulder, “the most important attribute of a successful cave diver is the ability to overcome fear and resist your natural urge to panic. Giving into these means to die.”

The Blue Chute extended over 2,500 feet, though its limits had never been reached. On this day, the plan was to go in about 800 feet. They would all go down together but, at a predetermined point, they would split into three separate two-man teams, going separate ways, to minimize any silt out. Too many divers together could kick up the talcum powder fine silt, blocking out all light, creating potentially fatal disorientation. Walter and Earl would team together.

The divers stood on the old macadam road, reviewing their safety procedures. Everyone knew where the emergency air tanks were; everyone knew the directions to their location in case they had to recite them to would-be rescuers; everyone knew the phone number to the nearest hospital. Each diver had two lights and four regulators: two first-stage regulators and two second-stage regulators. Each diver knew exactly how much air he had and how much he could use before he had to turn around and surface. Walter soberly reminded them that The Blue Chute had already claimed the lives of five divers in three separate accidents, the most recent just last year. Then, one by one they dropped into the crystal-clear water and descended.

Below, at the limestone opening, Earl saw the knotted white nylon line, permanently anchored by previous divers, leading deep into the black crevice. The line, Earl knew, was their life. Of all the safety equipment, the line was paramount. It was knotted in code: one knot followed by two knots meant you were going deeper into the system; two knots followed by one knot meant you were on your way out. As Earl swam through the opening, the narrow passageway immediately jogged upward, then straightened back out. Negotiating that bend, Earl saw the diffused sunlight grow increasingly dim until it finally disappeared and he turned on his lamp. There was no other light here, nothing, other than their own, and the void stretching beyond his lamp’s beam possessed the utter darkness of a tangible presence. Earl felt his pulse quicken as his heart surged perceptibly. Earl oriented himself in the pressing darkness, his entire world reduced to that narrow beam. His eyes moved in practiced cadence, from nylon line to wrist, checking his watch and computing his time. Then to his depth and pressure gauges. Then back to the white line. Line. Watch. Gauges. Then back again.

They slowly moved in single file through the narrow tunnel until, suddenly, Earl glided into a large cavern. Their lights arced across the inky expanse, probing the cavern’s limits, reflecting back from monumental stone formations manning the perimeter. Stalactites hung down from the ceiling far above, an indication, Earl knew, that this cave had once been dry. Earl hovered in effortless awe, like an astronaut in deepest space, the silence broken only by the rhythmic hiss of his regulator. The rock formations resembled grotesque medieval gargoyles hiding in the shadows and Earl imagined he was floating in a vast, primal stone cathedral. Then, the six divers floated to the center, some motioning at the numerous side tunnels branching off from the cavern, likes spokes radiating from a wheel’s hub. The divers paired up, going off in different directions.

Earl followed Walter into one of the tunnels, his heart jumping slightly as the walls closed in. He grabbed the safety line and focused on the moment. Line. Watch. Gauges. They were two hundred and eighty feet in. Seven-minutes in. Earl’s tanks were at 2,600 psi. Deeper and deeper they went into the blackness, the tunnel walls so confining that Earl’s hands and shoulders brushed their sides. His grip on the line tightened and his breathing increased. He felt his heart thumping his chest. He sought to push back the anxiety nibbling at the edges of his mind. Line. Watch. Gauges. The tunnel became narrower and his tanks banged the rocks above. How much further were they going, Earl wondered. Did Walter really know where they were going? How would they turn around? Earl pulled mightily at his mouthpiece, tasting the metallic bite of the cold air. Line. Watch. Gauges.

Suddenly, the nylon line ended as the bottom fell away and Earl shot out into an immense grotto, much larger than the first. He drifted over the vast expanse, playing his light across the chasm. He could see neither ceiling or bottom. The entire chamber was gently washed in an eerie bioluminescent blue that rippled iridescently wherever their lights penetrated. Earl felt he was suspended in the heart of an enormous liquid diamond, bathed in a soft, effulgent light of luminous transparency. He floated serenely, overwhelmed by the beauty. He was totally at peace, lost in a magical moment. Long minutes passed as both men, alone in their thoughts, floated in the crystalline abyss.

Walter appeared at Earl’s side, grinning wide, making an “OK” sign with his fingers. Then he pointed at his watch, signaled “OK”, and motioned Earl to follow. Walter slid into a dark tunnel amid a cascade of air bubbles. Earl hesitated at the entrance, his stomach knotted with indecision. There was no safety line here. He looked at his watch, then his gauges, struggling to calculate his remaining air time as Walter’s light faded down the inky shaft. He had maybe ten-minutes before he had to turn around. He felt the fist of fear grip his chest. He had to decide: follow Walter, or turn around. Forcefully, he chose to follow him. Whatever else, he could not leave his partner. Entering the narrow passageway, Earl felt his hand slam into the rocks framing the opening, knocking his lamp from his grasp. Instinctively he backed out. The light was falling, down into the dark pit, its beam lazily swinging from side-to-side. Earl immediately dove, kicking his fins violently, chasing the light downward. His heart raced as he surged downward, arms outstretched. The receding light seemed pitifully small against the infinite blackness. Down he swam, kicking harder, straining every fiber. His heart pounded and he pulled hard on the regulator, using valuable air. Slowly, inexorably, he gained on the light. It was there, just beyond his reach. With a final explosive kick he closed in and his fingers brushed the glowing lens. Then, with a terrifying swiftness, the light winked out and an utter darkness enveloped him like a black velvet mask.

Earl immediately turned, halting his descent. He was alone, suspended in total, absolute darkness, aware only of the importunate rasping as he violently sucked air from his regulator. Resolutely, he forcefully suppressed the panic and fear rising up within him. He had to think clearly. He concentrated on his breathing, focusing intently on each labored breath until his respiration slowed to an even, measured pace. A deep peacefulness came over him and his mind cleared. He knew what he had to do. 

Calmly, he unfastened his emergency light from his belt and turned it on, relieved to see the narrow beam arc through the darkness. Checking his watch and gauges, Earl knew he had to get out fast. Adjusting his buoyancy compensator, he floated upward, revolving slowly, playing his light across the grotto. He briefly wondered where Walter was. Surely he would streak into the cavern at any moment, flashing his signature grin. All Earl saw was the interminable blackness.

Wracking his memory, he desperately searched for the tunnel they came in through. The air came harder now. Slowly he drifted upward, his light probing the rock wall. Finally, Earl stopped, steadying himself with his flippers. On impulse, he struck out across the chasm, kicking powerfully, gliding across the open expanse toward the opposite side. When the rock wall emerged from the darkness he quickly flashed his light from left to right, then up and down. There, in the shadows, a darker void. Earl propelled himself forward with growing hope. A profound relief flooded him as his light illuminated a white nylon cord. Grabbing the line, he felt the knots: two knots, then one knot. Yes! Earl looked back across the vast canyon one last time, but saw nothing. Earl swam through the tunnel, forcing himself to remain calm and control his breathing, while his light bounced off the walls ahead. Sooner than he thought possible, he shot out into the first, smaller chamber, the stone cathedral ringed with strange rock formations. Earl floated, trying to orient himself. He had hoped to rendezvous with some of the other divers here, but he was alone. He recalled that there were four separate passageways radiating from the cavern, including the one leading out. That left three tunnels, beside the one he had just emerged from. He furiously tried to recall his movements upon first entering the chamber. Should he go left or right? The air came harder and he strained at his mouthpiece. Earl went to his right, flashing the light ahead. Almost immediately he came upon a narrow opening. Grasping the line, he felt one knot, then two. Earl froze, uncertain now, mentally arguing with himself. He struggled to think clearly. One knot, then two. This was not the way out. Or was it? Was it the other way around? He desperately wanted to enter the tunnel, to follow the rope to the sweet, fresh air above. No. He backed out and continued around the chamber, light probing the rocky wall. Then, just when he was ready to give up and go the other way, he saw a yawning black hole. Desperately seizing the white line, he felt two knots, followed by one. This was it. Earl pulled himself into the tunnel, clawing, kicking faster, his heart racing. Suddenly the passageway turned downward, and as he made the turn a beautiful, limpid light flowed upward. Yes! Earl shot out of the cave, into the light-filled spring, racing up, up, up. Ignoring the safety decompression, he burst through the surface, ripping his mask off and pulling in deep lungfuls of air. Gasping, sputtering, he felt an electric sense of relief. He was alive!

The other divers were sprawled on the shore, drinking beer and roasting hot dogs. There was no Walter.

“Hey, kiddo, are you OK?” one of them asked. When the divers saw Earl’s expression they all stood up. “Where is Walter?” the one diver asked.

“Yeah, I’m OK,” Earl said, pulling himself from the water. “We got separated. I lost my damn light.” Earl paused, catching his breath. “He should be coming up right behind me,” he added.

The men crowded around the water, nervously eyeing their watches, while Earl explained what had happened. After five-minutes of uneasiness Chuck, Walter’s best friend, announced decisively, “I’m going down. Steve, you come with me. Darryl, you call the hospital if we are not back in ten-minutes.” Even as he spoke, Chuck was strapping on a fresh air tank. Earl stood by helplessly, silently praying that Walter would surface, laughing at their unnecessary concern.

The two divers disappeared into the spring, their flippers flashing in the sunlight. The minutes slowly ticked by and Earl’s sense of dread mounted. Walter should have surfaced by now. After ten more minutes Earl felt sick to his stomach, the anxiety paralyzing him. Twenty-minutes later an ambulance arrived. The other divers spoke with the driver in hushed tones, ignoring Earl. Then, at the thirty-five-minute mark, the water exploded in a cascade of flashing water. Divers surfacing! Earl stared, but there were only two heads. Chuck pulled his facemask up, looking directly at Earl, then shook his head grimly. Earl’s heart sank. His knees buckled and he sank to the ground, where he put his face to his knees and cried.

It was late that evening when Walter’s body was recovered. They found him in a narrow side tunnel, possibly a victim of silt out, facing in the wrong direction, a hideous, contorted expression on his face, his diving knife inexplicably locked in his hand in a death grip. The other divers avoided Earl but he felt their accusatory stares on his back like an insistent murmured current.

******* *******

Earl Voorhees settled himself on his hard prison bunk, a man at ease with himself, yet never satisfied with the narrow dimensions of his life. His tired mind framed difficult questions about the freedom within his grasp. He sensed the beginning of a journey whose value would best be measured by the baggage dropped off along the way. And yet, he knew, having made it his friend, pain was all that kept him alive.

That night Earl dreamed he was seven again. He was up early to greet the summer sunrise lining the horizon with a swath of Renoir Pink. He was stalking that big, silver mosquito-control plane, with its bright orange stripes, zooming low across Miami in its summer ritual, navigating its precise grid pattern, trailing its pungent cloud of kerosene-based insecticide. Closer and closer it would come with each pass while little Earl calculated the exact one that would bring the thundering plane over his house. Waiting in delicious anticipation, Earl would crouch in ambush, muscles tense, ears straining to hear that distinctive roar, grasping his carefully selected rock. Then, with an earth-shattering howl, the plane would zoom overhead, flying so low Earl could count the rivets across the shiny aluminum skin and clearly see the pilot’s face. Then, with all his might, Earl would spring up and hurl his stone at the shiny underbelly. Always, the rock fell short, and always, the pilot smiled down in amusement. One day, Earl believed, he would hit that plane and something magical would occur. Now, in his dream, the plane was there, overhead, so near Earl felt he could reach up and touch it. Little Earl reared back and threw his rock, and it sailed up, up, up, further than ever before, until it struck the shiny metal belly. Earl threw his hands up in victory and the pilot looked down, smiling, making an “OK” sign with his hand. At that moment, Earl recognized that the pilot was Walter, grinning at him as he flew by. Then, without warning, the plane exploded and crashed to the ground in a burning heap. And little Earl fell to his knees and cried.

Bill Van Poyck and beautiful Lisa

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