Called to the Search
Following the tragic death of her husband, Maine State Trooper Drew Griffith, novelist Kate Braestrup decided to take on his dream of pursuing the ministry. A graduate of Bangor Theological Seminary, she was hired by the Maine Warden Service as chaplain. What follows is the first chapter of her new memoir, Here If You Need Me, published by Little, Brown last month. Certain names have been changed to protect privacy.
A six-year-old girl has wandered off from a family picnic near Masquinongy Pond, and she remains missing after a long day of waiting. The Maine Warden Service has mounted a search. There are dozens of people combing the woods near the picnic grounds. Some are local guys, volunteers from the community, but most of them are game wardens in green uniforms. Handlers from the Warden Service K-9 unit have brought dogs trained to find people and dogs - those braced in the bows of boats drifting over the surface of the pond's marshy edge - trained to alert to the signature scent of a cadaver.
The parents may or may not know about the cadaver dogs. They may or may not realize that when Chief Warden Pilot Charlie Later's plane buzzes overhead, he is scanning the brown bed of the pond for a small, pale human shape beneath the water.
The parents do know this much: they love their child, and their child wanders in an inhospitable environment. They know the dark is coming on. They have been told that the Maine Warden Service chaplain has been called. What else could this be about but death?
Around three in the afternoon, as my kids are trooping into the kitchen, dumping their backpacks in the mudroom, describing their school days, the telephone rings.
"Your Holiness!" Lieutenant Trisdale roars. "We've got a situation up here by Masquinongy Pond we could use your help with."
So by four, I am waiting by Chickawaukee Lake. Lieutenant Trisdale has sent a seaplane to fetch me. The lake is a ten-minute drive from my house, so I had time to eat a bowlful of supper's chicken stew and to swallow a Dramamine. I have heard that Charlie Later takes a dim view of wardens who puke in his airplane, and I don't want to test his tolerance.
My car is parked in the little lot adjoining what passes for a beach, a mud bank that the city of Rockland improves in summertime with sand and a lifeguard. If this were summer, there would be children paddling in the shallows, canoes and kayaks on the water, and - increasingly - "personal watercraft," or Jet Skis, zooming around.
But it is late October. The lake, abandoned save for a small flock of migrating mallards, is a placid gray mirror for the autumn afternoon. The sky boasts an archipelago of clouds so perfect in their imitation of islands that in the lee of the largest one, I can make out an inlet where a boat might find secure anchorage.
I blow on my hands and tuck them into the scratchy woolen armpits of my uniform jacket. I've forgotten my gloves.
People hear warden service and assume I am a prison chaplain. They picture me at the Supermax, counseling rapists and accompanying the Dead Man Walking to the electric chair. "Maine doesn't have the death penalty," I explain, and in any case, I work with game wardens, not prison wardens. Game wardens are law enforcement officers who work under the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Finding a lost child in the woods is among the many useful things these folks know how to do.
How old a child? "A little girl," the lieutenant had said. Unavoidably, the image of my youngest daughter, age eight, comes to me. Her name is Anne, but her nickname is Woolie, with manifold familial variations (Woolie-Bully, Wooglet, Woo), and her cheek was warm and soft against my mouth when I kissed her good-bye.
I dial my house to hear my children's voices. There are four altogether. Zachary is the eldest, at fourteen, and the rest follow in reasonably tidy, two- year intervals: Peter is twelve, Ellie is ten, Woolie is eight. "I know. You would think we'd planned them," their father would say, deadpan, when others expressed surprise (or was it dismay?) at the monotonous regularity with which he and I had reproduced.
Woolie answers the telephone with a complaint prepared: Peter has gone off with the electric pencil sharpener. He won't give it back, and he called Woolie a bastard. Such language is insulting and morally wrong. In addition, it's inaccurate, and I wonder whether this should be an aggravating factor in my adjudication.
"All right, Woogie-Piggie, I'll talk to him.
"Peter, share the pencil sharpener," I tell him when he comes on the line. "And no cursing."
"Okay," says Peter cheerfully. I can hear Woolie shrieking insults in the background. "Peace, Mom-Dude."
It's early in the search. There's hope - real hope, not the faint hope that families cling to as days drag on.
"Incidents can be rated on a scale of one to ten," a Denver, Colorado, police detective once told me. "Sometime during your career, you might get one or two incidents worth a ten. A bad murder, maybe a young victim, or you shoot somebody, or maybe go through the death of a friend and fellow officer. Those are tens. Most incidents are going to be way down on the scale, like maybe a two or a three. But you know what? I think it's all those little twos, threes, and fours that add up over time. I think those are the ones that get you in the end."
By my lights, a one is when they find the lost person alive. Ones are good. A ten is - well, a ten is a dead warden, I suppose. Still, line-of- duty deaths are rare, if not quite rare enough. (The Maine Warden Service has the highest number of line-of-duty deaths of any agency in the state, a total of fourteen in the 125 years of the service's existence.)
Where is the Masquinongy Pond search going to fall on that Colorado detective's scale of one to ten? If the child is dead, it's going to be up there around seven or eight for all the wardens as well as for me.
My children are all alive and well, if not well behaved. I can count on a solid little hit of adrenaline to clear my head when I arrive on scene. So I kick idly at the gravel, take some deep breaths, blow on my hands, wonder whether Peter and Woolie's issues merit intervention by a shrink, fantasize idly about sailing to the islands in the sky.
"It would be nice if this little girl turns out to be alive," I suggest out loud.
Barely audible at first, above the adenoidal agreement of the ducks, a faint buzz grows steadily louder. The warden service seaplane suddenly pops up above the high blueberry barrens at the far end of the lake. Its appearance breaks the island illusion; the clouds are clouds again. The plane gives a friendly wing-waggle and swings toward the water. It is aimed at the wrong shore, but I know by now not to jump and wave. The pilot has to land the plane nose into the wind. When the pontoons have made contact, flinging up twin plumes of white spray and carving sleigh tracks in the lake's silvery surface, Charlie will turn the plane around, and it will grumble gently to my shore.
Once I'm installed in the passenger seat, Charlie drives the plane hard into the wind, the pontoons skid off the water, and we ascend over the peak of Ragged Mountain.
"The lieutenant is going to meet us at Masquinongy Pond," Charlie says. "I guess it's not looking so good."
I nod, looking carefully out the window at distant objects to forestall nausea. Penobscot Bay lies to our right, gleaming blackish blue around the shreds of land that form Islesboro, North Haven, Vinalhaven, Isle au Haut, and myriad little islands. I can pick out details: Owls Head Light, the breakwater in Rockland Harbor, the square hull of the ferry backing out of the slip at Lincolnville Beach. Old mountains, smoothed by glaciers and time, roll off to the north and west. Charlie turns westward and flies behind the sun.
Charlie's hands rest lightly on the plane's steering wheel. I have an identical yoke in front of my seat that tilts in tandem with his as Charlie makes small adjustments to the variable air. Charlie's father was a warden service pilot, too. Charlie grew up flying all over the state, and his relationship with an airplane seems at least as natural as my relationship with my feet.
And so, though I am prone to motion sickness of all varieties, I do like flying with Charlie. I like to look at Maine from this new angle and from the sky rediscover its familiar features - seacoast, church spires, winding roads, huge tracts of forest, silver lakes, trailer parks, rolling meadows. The tree-lined edges of the pastures below us are accented with a startling yellow, as if a giant artist used his thumb to smudge the vivid dust of a pastel landscape. It takes me a little time to realize that the dusty smudge is where the fallen yellow leaves of the maples have drifted.
"It's harder when it's a child," Charlie is saying, and I remember again the warmth of my daughter's cheek.
The parents of the missing girl are standing, stage lit, within a cone of lamplight at the far end of the Masquinongy Pond Recreation Area parking lot. Insects whirl drunkenly above their heads, and among them I note the disconcerting, flitting motion of little brown myotis bats taking their evening meal.
Perhaps thirty yards away, a modified RV belonging to the Salvation Army casts its own circle of light and supports its own rave of light-drugged insects, its own dance of bats. Through the open back door of the vehicle, I can see Brian Clark, a plump, walleyed veteran of many search scenes, washing pots. He will have spent a long afternoon cheerfully dishing up coffee, doughnuts, and Dinty Moore beef stew to search crews as they came in from the woods. Most of the volunteer searchers have reluctantly gone home for now. In the darkness, they can do no more than spread their scent, contaminating the area that the K-9s will continue searching through the night.
"I'm Reverend Braestrup," I announce. "I'm the chaplain for the Maine Warden Service."
"Ralph Moore," the child's father says. "This is my wife, Marian. We're not churchgoers." The woman smiles apologetically as if I might have been offended by her husband's abrupt tone.
"I'm not a church minister." I shrug and smile. His face does not relinquish its skepticism, but Mr. Moore tugs once on my proffered hand, like a man testing the strength of a knot.
"Actually, I should probably tell you: we're atheists."
"I'm not offended," I say. "What a long, hard day you two have had."
"Yes," he says.
"I'm so sorry this has happened to you."
Mr. Moore looks away, toward the edge growth that fringes the parking lot. "I am, too."
Mrs. Moore stands still, but her eyes scan constantly for signs from the surrounding darkness, her arms wrapped tightly across her chest. It's work to wait this way, aching physical labor.
"It's miserable to wait," I observe, and she nods, still scanning, her mouth taut.
Beyond the parking lot, the edge growth gives way to mixed deciduous woodland that rolls on for miles, interrupted only by an occasional swamp or swiftly flowing stream. It's been nine hours since the family dog returned and Alison did not. The Moores are tourists on vacation from a large Massachusetts city, but even if they were locals, the forest and the nearby bog and water would seem increasingly menacing as the hours wore on past mealtime, past bedtime. The people with uniforms, guns, and dogs had arrived in their emergency vehicles, blue lights flashing, as well as airplanes and boats, verifying the seriousness of what is, the awful plausibility of what might be.
"Look, Reverend," Mr. Moore says, gesturing into the darkness. "I know all these guys have to keep looking. I can tell they are putting on a brave face for Marian here. But you can tell me the truth."
Unbeliever though he may be, Mr. Moore is not asking the lady in the clerical collar for an objective assessment of a practical situation. He wants the God's honest truth. He wants me to tell him, with all the weight and authority my presence conveys, that his daughter is not dead.
Do you think she's dead?" I asked Lieutenant Trisdale after Charlie Later landed me safely on Masquinongy Pond. We were driving to the search scene in his truck, bouncing over the old roads, the lieutenant's paperwork, coffee cups, and collection of cell phones leaping about my knees. Fritz Trisdale has nearly three decades of experience behind his assessment. What ever he says, I will believe.
Fritz scrubbed thoughtfully at the five o'clock shadow on his jaw. "I'll tell you what, your Reverendship," he said slowly. "I think she's still okay, to be honest with you. It's not like the kid was retarded or suicidal or something. She's just good and lost. Those woods have been cut over so many times that there's plenty of scrub and low growth to keep her hidden from us. Hell, you'd practically have to step on someone to find 'em in there. She's probably scared of the voices she hears, if she hears 'em at all. I think she's alive. Ronnie Dunham's bringing his dog Grace up this evening, and Grace'll have a fresh nose." Fritz stopped and gave it another thought but came to the same conclusion. "Yeah," he said. "I think we're going to find her."
Listen," the child's father is saying to me. "I'm an engineer. I work with statistics. You don't have to bullshit me."
His wife is holding onto my hand, tightly, and her hand is cold. She turns her eyes to me as her husband continues: "I know that the longer this search goes on, the greater the chances are that my little girl is dead." Mrs. Moore flinches sharply at the word, and grips my hand even more firmly. Later my knuckles will ache, and I'll find the marks of her fingernails in my palm.
"I have been on many searches with the wardens," I answer him. "These guys are good at what they do. They have a lot of experience between them. And I've been with them on searches where they really don't think they are going to find somebody alive."
I pause and both parents lean closer, as if my voice might suddenly soften beyond the reach of their ears, but I speak boldly. "If the wardens have told you that in their professional opinion they think they will find your daughter alive, I believe we're going to do just that."
Mr. Moore's knees visibly wobble. Mrs. Moore gives forth with a weak exclamation, and her hand softens in mine.
Oh, please, Jesus, let this be true. Let the little girl be alive.
If it isn't true, then one of the searchers will find the body. It is a small body to begin with, no more than fifty-five pounds according to the report, and it will have dwindled in death. There will be no vital signs, no spring of skin or tapping pulse beneath the warden's gentle fingers at wrist or throat, no warmth. The clothing will correspond to the description each searcher carries: khaki pants, light blue jacket, blue sweatshirt with a picture of Elmo on the front, gym socks, and Teva sandals.
"I wish we had better news for you," the lieutenant will have to say to the parents. "Oh, I am so sorry," I will say. And the wardens will make their assessments of the scene, consider the possibility of foul play, take measurements and photographs, note the condition of the body, call the medical examiner, inform the news media. When the medical examiner authorizes removal, they will place the little body in a body bag and carry it from the woods. Then they will go home, hold the warm, living bodies of their own children, and know too well the risk they take by loving in such a precarious world.
At eight forty-five, Alison still has not been found. The Moores and I are sitting in a little row on a picnic table, our feet braced on the seat. We are on a first-name basis by this time; they have dispensed with "Reverend," and I have been invited to call them Ralph and Marian. I'm secretly pleased to note that Marian is no longer holding my hand, and Ralph is no longer keeping his distance from her fear or from my comfort. Husband and wife sit close to one another, their hands entwined, and close to me.
Over our heads, the bats continue darting in their unnerving, skittish flights. The Moores tell me the story of their last vacation day, of their cheerful plan for a final autumn picnic, about the thermos full of hot chowder, the crisp Macoun apples they picked at an orchard the day before. They need to describe the way the dog ran off and the little girl went after him, calling his name, and how they didn't think to follow her.
I explain again how the warden service conducts a search and how seldom they fail to find what they are looking for, even in less-accessible terrain. Mr. Moore likes it when I refer to "statistical profiles of lost juveniles" and use initialisms like PLS (point last seen). He wants to hear about the search protocols, the reasons why the search is being concentrated in one area rather than another, why the search planes stopped flying at dusk, whether and how he and Marian should speak with the television news crews slated to appear at dawn. He takes up my suggestion about sipping water and reminds his wife to stay hydrated.
Marian breaks in at intervals: "Should I have followed her?" "Wouldn't a good mother have known something was wrong before her baby got so far away that even all these men with planes and dogs can't find her?"
"Aw, darlin'," Ralph says, stroking his wife's back.
"Why can't all these men with planes and dogs find Alison?" Marian asks me.
"It's surprisingly hard to find a small person. These woods are dense. You'd almost have to step right on her to find her."
"But wouldn't she hear us calling to her and answer?" Ralph asks.
Not if she's dead.
"She's asleep," I say.
Why do you weep?" Jesus inquires of a bereaved crowd in Mark's gospel (5:39). "The child is not dead, but sleeping!"
"Little kids who get lost in the woods do something really smart," I tell Marian. "When they realize they're lost, they find a snug place - like under a bush - curl up, and go to sleep. Adults tend to keep moving; they keep trying to find their own way out. They think they have to solve the problem themselves. Little kids conk out and wait for the grown-ups to solve it. If Alison is under a bush asleep, she probably can't hear us hollering."
Alison's mother looks at me, at my clerical collar and my uniform. She believes me.
I want to be right. I try not to want this too much.
It's quarter past ten. The moon is up, a sliver in the sky with a pale yellow halo of high clouds.
The picnic, the dog scampering into the forest, Alison's blue-clad back disappearing between the trees - a sharpened image her mother fears she will carry forever as the last. The Moores are telling me the story again. They describe their initial attempts to find their daughter, the half-embarrassed cell-phone call to 911, the arrival of a sheriff's deputy and then a game warden who initiated the search that now proceeds outward from the PLS according to statistical best bets. The volunteers came and then the K-9 teams, and a Salvation Army van, and a chaplain with her God's honest truth.
Why do you weep? Your daughter is not dead, but sleeping!
"Jesus took the child by the hand and said to her, 'Talitha cum,' which means, 'Little girl, get up!' And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about" (Mark 5:41). That's how the gospel story goes.
That is the way the Moores' story will go when they get back to the city. It is a story to be filed away for graduations, for Alison's wedding rehearsal supper, and for her own children: "Once upon a time, Alison got lost . . . "
And this is how the Maine Warden Service found her: At about three o'clock in the morning, a few miles almost due west of the PLS, Warden Ron Dunham's K-9, Grace, found a little girl in an Elmo sweatshirt curled up under some brush.
Ron hunkered down and let the dog's cold nose awaken her. "Hey, honey," Ron said gently. "Do you want to go home?"
The girl sat up and rubbed her eyes. "Yes," she said calmly. She crawled out from her nesting place and got to her feet.
"Want me to carry you?"
"No, thank you," Alison said politely.
Alison's nice manners would be part of the story too, for Ron Dunham as well as for her parents. Gazing fondly at her and at each other, the Moores would tell the tale: " 'No, thank you,' she said. Can you believe it?"
"Want me to hold your hand?" Ron asked.
The child considered for a moment. "Yes," she decided.
So Warden Dunham and Alison come walking out of the woods hand in hand, past the Salvation Army food wagon and into the parking lot, with K-9 Grace trotting proudly ahead. And my whole, lovely job at that moment was to bear witness to rejoicing and to join in the gladness of the coming day.