"You want us to go after an actor?"
"Yes, an actor."
"Why him? Why not someone important like a congressman or a senator--or even the President?"
"They're well guarded. He's not. And he's not just an actor. He's an anti-communist actor--one with political clout and a podium. And there are. . . other reasons. But it's not your job to worry about those."
"These operations aren't cheap, you know."
"Yes, I know."
[The recording is silent for several seconds].
". . .You aren't going to back down are you?"
"No. You have your mission, Dmitri. Now go carry it out. Believe me: this man is well worth the trouble."
July 4, 1958
It was one of those long, lonely drives before the days of car cassette players. There was flat road ahead, corn on either side, and a single fuzzy radio station on which the strained plucking of a banjo could be heard intermittently through the hissing and crackling of static. The heat of the day was just beginning to break, and a cool wind blowing in through the open windows brought with it pungent, earthy smells of hay and manure.
Ron reviewed the speech in his head as he watched a low-flying crop duster take its final run against a pink sunset. Despite the political nature of his talk, his words had been well received, and he had even earned a standing ovation. Yet the speech wasn't perfect by any means. Several sections needed reworking, and that one-liner about the eternal life of government bureaus had fallen flat.
Now why was that? he wondered.
Ahead a tractor shimmered in the hazy heat of the asphalt as it rolled its driver home. Ron waved as he passed, reciting his joke aloud.
". . .A government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this earth."
He chuckled to himself. It was a good punch line.
He recited it again, intonating it just as he would have in a real speech.
The setup isn't strong enough, he decided. To the audience, the joke had probably seemed like a non sequitur. But if he could preface it by adding in funny statistics of government gone awry, or some other related ideas. . . How about: "No one in government voluntarily reduces his power. A program, once launched, never disappears. Actually, a government bureau is. . ."
There. That worked better. He would have to remember to write that down when he stopped for the night. His memory was still good but not what it used to be. Just a decade ago he had been able to learn a full set of lines in a single morning. But now. . . was he really in his late forties already?
Ron checked the rear-view mirror.
Only one other car on the road. Was that the same one that had been following him since just after he left the plant? It looked like it. He couldn't make out the driver's features, but he appeared to be talking into a radio.
Ron looked back at the road ahead, jumping in his seat as an animal appeared in front of the car. He swerved to avoid it.
Damn, he cursed himself.
He needed to pay attention. This wasn't a train ride. He couldn't just let his mind wander off like he was used to. He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and then shook his head to wake himself up.
Driving wasn't so bad, but on the train he could read or write or meet folks and hear their stories. Unfortunately, the three trains he could have taken to the plant had all malfunctioned, and so he'd had to drive.
Better than flying, though, he thought.
Ron focused more carefully on the road ahead, where a sign told him that he was entering the town of Dayton.
A hundred and eighty years ago, he had told his audience, the founders of this country made a choice to risk their lives defying the most powerful military force on earth for the sake of freedom. Today we face a similar choice, but not just for ourselves. We are on the front lines of a war against the most dangerous enemy that has ever faced mankind in his long climb from the swamp to the skies. As I speak to you today, the iron curtain ripples ever outwards, enslaving the people of Asia and Europe under the death shroud of collectivism. And it will continue to do so unless we make the choice to fight it, because this is the last stand on earth.
Bold words, he thought. But will I have the courage to fight as the founders did?
The traffic increased, and Ron slowed the car. Vehicles were converging on a spot about a hundred yards distant, some parking along the edge of the road while others turned off into lanes and gravel drives. Families swarmed out of their cars carrying blankets and lawn chairs and picnic baskets.
Off to the right, the lines of corn fell away and the land opened up into a large, flat green, where people were settling down all over the grass--men with rolled up shirts and neatly slicked hair, women in flowered dresses with neatly coifed locks, children with scuffed knees and flyaway hair teasing each other and running around. The families who were already settled in on their picnic blankets sat facing west towards a church and a long a-frame meeting hall, which were both perched along the edge of a narrow lane that branched from the highway just ahead of Ron.
Now here's a little town celebrating Independence Day, he thought. I think I'll stop here awhile.
He turned onto a little gravelly patch that served as a parking area and waved his hat to the car that had been following him as it went past. Then, after quickly polishing his glasses, he pulled a pen from his coat and a note card from the glove box and jotted down his new setup for the 'eternal life' joke.
He left his hat on the passenger's seat before stepping out of the car and making for the green. A couple was crossing the lane ahead of him, swinging their little girl between them.
"Wheeeeeeee!" she shouted as she went up in the air, before landing with a crunch on the gravel.
Ron emerged from between the church and the meeting hall and continued across the green towards the other spectators, past a parked pickup truck and a couple of fold-out tables on which little American flags were laid out in rows. Nearby, a record player blasted Sousa marches, and Ron hummed along as he stopped by one of the tables to grab a flag.
"Hi," he said to the volunteers at the table, giving a smile and a nod here and there. "How do you do?"
As he crossed the green, waving his little flag in time to the music, Ron watched a man and his son emerge from behind the pickup truck with armfuls of fireworks: slim little rockets, with stars and stripes painted onto the sides in red, white, and blue. He waved to them.
"How do you do?"
Crossing into the center of the green, where families were laying out their picnic blankets and lawn chairs, he passed a couple lounging together on a plaid blanket.
"Hello," he said.
"Hello. . ." said the young man. Then, "Hey! Wait a minute. Wait a minute."
Ron turned back to face the young man.
"Well, I'll be! Has anybody ever told you that you look like that actor fellow? What's his name?"
Ron opened his mouth to speak.
"Cary Grant?" the man's wife suggested.
The man snapped his fingers. "Yeah, that's him. You look like Cary Grant."
Ron smiled. "Thank you. But I wouldn't tell that to Cary."
The man gave Ron a strange look. "Why not?" he asked.
"Because he told me I look like Bonzo."
"Ha. Haha. Hahaha. Did you hear that, Margaret? Cary Grant told him he looked like a chimp." When he had finished laughing he asked, "You aren't from around here, are you?"
"No," said Ron, "just passing through."
"Here." The man shifted over. "Have a seat..."
"Nice to meet you, Ron. I'm Bill, and this is Margaret."
Ron shook Bill's hand and gave a nod to Margaret as he sat down. "A pleasure to meet you both."
"So where are you passing from, Ron?"
"I was just over at the General Electric plant in Danville. I did a little speech for them."
"Oh yeah? You know, Margaret always says that I have a good speaking voice. She says I could be President with this voice. Isn't that right, Margaret?" Bill put on an official demeanor, "'This is a war of light against darkness, freedom against slavery, Godliness against atheism...'"
Ron laughed. "That's pretty good, Bill."
As Ron watched the firework man and his boy set up their equipment across the field, Bill treated him to a verbal tour of life in Dayton. In his words, it was a comfortable little place of about a thousand souls where life moved nice and slow. The biggest events of the year were the church holidays, and the important people consisted of the minister, the mayor, the sheriff, and a couple of Korea vets.
When the firework man and his son--"Wayne and Greg," Bill called them--were finished setting up their equipment, there were five pole launchers set in a line with little rockets placed on top of them. Behind these sat a big launching box filled with twenty-five more rockets. Bill said that these were for the finale.
The music screeched to a halt as the firework man took out the record and put a new one on. A narration began, telling of the founders' fight for independence and how, on July Fourth, they charted a new course across the tides of history. Then a blaring brass orchestra began to play the Star Spangled Banner.
Wayne took his lighting stick, and went down the row of rockets igniting the fuses. Greg was ready with more rockets as the first fireworks popped into the dusky sky.
Pop. Pop. Crackle. KaBOOM.
The rockets shimmered red.
The next round went up.
Crackle. Crackle. Pop-pop-pop. KaBOOM.
Glittering white filled the sky, fizzing all around them. A few sparks landed amidst the crowd, but were quickly stamped out.
The third set of rockets went up.
KaBOOM. KaBOOM. KaBOOM.
Blue sparks mushroomed above them. Then a mix of red, white, and blue in different patterns.
And the rocket's red glare!
The bombs bursting in air!
Gave proof through. . .
A huge wall of sound--greater than any firework--washed over the crowd.
People all around began crying out, pointing up to the northern sky, where a blaze of light was streaking towards them. It grew brighter and brighter, glittering white hot as it drew closer.
Oh God, thought Ron. It's happening. The nuclear war has started.
But before he could even begin to pray, a series of parachutes emerged from the object, and it slowed enough for Ron to see that it wasn't a bomb at all but a silvery rocket ship. It crashed into the corn field that bordered the western edge of the green, sending plumes of blazing yellow flames shooting into the air. Dirt flew up in thick waves as the vehicle careened across the field towards the church and the green, making it look as if they were under attack from a giant mole. Ron stood up to get a better view just as the ship crunched across the lane and finally chugged to a halt at the edge of the grass where it screeched as it struck Wayne's pickup truck.
And then all was silent except for the record player skipping:
The whole scene flickered in the glow of the burning field as dust billowed around them.
When the dust had more or less settled, a group of men from the audience went to meet the still-smoking rocket. When they were only a few yards away, they stopped, and one of the men called out, "Halloo the rocket."
A hatch on the side of the ship popped open, scattering piles of dirt and bits of corn off to the side.
A leg emerged. Then a torso. Then a helmeted head.
The pilot, thought Ron.
He was tall, taller than any of the town men, with muscles that made bulging outlines in his formfitting red jumpsuit. When he removed his helmet, he revealed a large, square head topped with short blonde hair that had been matted down in odd whirls.
The Dayton men approached him. One of them reached out for a handshake, but the pilot ignored the proffered hand, gazing out over the heads of the men to peruse the crowd. He worked his eyes slowly back and forth as if searching for someone. His gaze leveled on Ron.
A man touched the pilot's shoulder to get his attention.
In a lightning quick motion the pilot snapped the man's arm and threw him into three of his fellows, knocking them over.
Then all hell broke loose.
The pilot walked straight at the crowd and people scrambled out of the way. There were screams, pounding feet all around. To Ron's left and right men drew guns. Then the pilot picked up one of the fold-out tables, knocking the record player to the ground, and threw it bodily into the crowd.
Ron barely avoided being hit by diving to one side. Others were not so lucky. Two people who had been behind him were knocked down. The bulk of the crowd bolted for their cars.
"Firing lines are clear. Take him down."
Ron covered his ears as the deafening blasts rang out on other side of him.
PshClang. PshClang. PshClang.
At least ten rounds deflected harmlessly off of the rocket man's chest as he advanced on Ron.
Ron's hands began to shake. He brought himself unsteadily to his feet. His body told him to run.
No, he told himself. The pilot was targeting him. If he ran, he would lead it towards the others who were fleeing for their lives. He had to stand and fight. The pilot was wearing body armor, but his face was unprotected. All Ron needed was a weapon that could reach it.
One of the metal legs had snapped off of the thrown table and was lying in the grass a few yards away. Ron shuffled over and picked it up, then descended into a fighting crouch.
More shots exploded around the green, some whizzing past the pilot's head while others clanged off of armor. The sheriff moved in, plastering the pilot's center of mass with bullets, but still the pilot moved forward unperturbed. Nearing Ron, he reached out his bear-like arms, his unnaturally waxy face deadpan. Seeing that bullets were having no effect, the gunmen began fleeing, yelling at Ron to run.
Instead, Ron lunged forward and swung the table leg at the pilot's head. The head bent quickly to the side, and Ron's weapon clanged harmlessly off of a massive shoulder. Ron dodged a sweeping punch and brought the leg down again, hitting home, right on the rocket man's mouth.
With a clank.
The rubber foot caught in the pilot's cheek and Ron yanked at it, ripping away flesh with a loud tear and whipping the pilot's head to the side. Ron raised his arm for another blow. The pilot turned his head back. Mechanically. Glazed eyes staring at Ron from over a jaw of grooved metal.
The robot didn't.
An enormous hand reached out and gripped Ron like a vice. Then the other hand reached out and caught him. The robot's neck twitched. A loud clicking emanated from its chest. And it opened its torn lips.
"A present. . .from Mister Khrushchev."
It lifted Ron into the air by his shoulders and began to squeeze. Ron strained against the arms with all his might, flexing his biceps and pressing powerfully against the robot's forearms. Miraculously, the arms were forced slowly apart.
And then something deep in Ron's chest popped. His arms fell slack, unable to bear any weight. The pressure on his shoulders heightened, and he kicked at his assailant, directing his blows carefully at first, but getting more and more frantic as he was squeezed harder and harder. His glasses slid off and the world turned into a frenzied blur. The pain in his chest transformed into a burning sensation all the way up his throat. He couldn't breathe at all. He choked and gasped to no avail. He was going to die.
A blur appeared to Ron's right, crashing into him and causing the world to topple over. The robot's grip on Ron loosened as they fell, and Ron half-rolled, half-crawled away, his aching chest protesting every movement.
His hand brushed against a familiar object. His glasses. He hurriedly put them on and scrambled to his feet, his breathing ragged.
Bill was wrestling the robot, smacking the butt of a gun into its already injured face. He plunged the barrel against the side of the robots head and fired. One. Two. Three times. The robot grew still.
Bill rolled away and pushed himself up onto his feet, breathing heavily. Ron let himself fall to his knees, leaning backwards to avoid putting pressure on his chest. He closed his eyes.
When he opened them, Bill was talking to him, at least, his mouth was moving. But strangely no sound was coming out.
"What?" said Ron. That was strange. Why did his own voice seem so quiet? "What?" he said louder, almost yelling.
"I said:" yelled Bill, though Ron could only just hear him, "'Geez, I really thought you were done for there, Ron.'"
"Me too. Thank you, Bill."
"Who the hell was that guy?"
Ron paused for a moment, wondering what to say.
The truth, he supposed. Bill had just saved his life after all.
"A robot," Ron yelled. "Sent by the Soviets."
Bill stared at Ron with raised eyebrows.
"Are you serious?"
Ron nodded gravely.
Bill looked over at the robot and then back at Ron.
"But why would it be here in Dayton?"
Ron shook his head to indicate that he didn't know. Bill shrugged.
"Sorry it took me so long to come help," Bill yelled, leaning down to examine the robot's face. "I had to run to the car to grab the gun and. . ."
The robot's foot twitched.
"Bill, watch out!" Ron screamed.
Too late. A punch launched Bill into the air, and he crumpled onto the ground six feet away. The robot lifted its head, turned towards Ron, and began to push itself up.
Ron looked around for someone to help him, but the green was completely deserted. Ron was on his own.
Maybe that was good though. Trying to fight had done nothing except get poor Bill hurt. Better that everyone get to safety. The sheriff would be calling for backup from the National Guard. Ron just needed to distract the thing for as long as he could, lead it in a merry chase around the green and through the corn fields. Get it away so that someone could come in with a stretcher for the people who had been hurt.
He stumbled forward into a run, chest protesting every movement. The robot reached its feet and started after him.
Ron ran for what seemed like hours, though it must only have been a few minutes. He weaved around the green, between the two buildings, through the meeting hall, around the corn field, and then back through the lane. The robot lumbered after him.
As his deep breaths began to send shudders through his body, Ron was suddenly reminded of shooting George Gipp's eighty-yard run--mostly the part where he had needed to vomit. He imagined himself on the football field now, breaking away from the line, defenders chasing after him. He was at the ten...the twenty...the thirty. He looked back as he began to circle the church again. The robot was still there, and now it was wielding Ron's table leg in one of its giant hands.
Ron ran with renewed vigor. This chase wouldn't last long unless he could damage the thing some more. Could he lure it across the lane and into the burning corn field? Push it into the fire? Would flames even hurt it? Ron was only a couple of yards from the lane when a blow jolted through his legs and he was thrown forward onto the ground. Fiery pain exploded through his chest and head as they smacked the grass.
The world began to move in slow pulses.
Lord, if my time has come, watch over my beloved Nancy. Watch over my children, especially my newborn, Ron. Watch over Melvyn, Lew, Ed and all my other friends. Today I talked to some people over at the Dayton plant who could use a bit of help: Jim, Meg, and Peter especially. Above all, Lord, watch over this great nation and let it remain a shining beacon to the people of the world. Let it guide those enslaved by Socialism with the bright light of freedom and help them to overthrow their masters.
Ron felt footsteps behind him.
Of course if my time hasn't come then a weapon would be nice.
The robot grabbed his legs, hoisted them into the air, and began to pull. Ron tried to look where the robot was taking him, but when he turned his head, it was jostled jarringly into the ground. He scrambled to get away, but when he clawed at the smooth grass, his fingers found no purchase.
Ron felt something hit his leg, and turned to find the big square launcher spilling its twenty-five finale fireworks out onto the ground. Nearby, the lighting stick lay smoldering in the grass.
The robot dragged Ron another few feet and then stopped next to Wayne's pickup truck. It bent its legs like a shotputter, its arms falling slack.
Ron took his chance, lunging forward just as the robot tried to swing him like a sledgehammer into the side of the truck.
He came free of the robot's grip, snapped up the lighting stick, and clawed his way to the pile of spilled fireworks. But just as his fingertips brushed the fuse of one of the rockets, the robot grabbed him again and pulled him back. It hit at his legs and twisted his ankle painfully, but Ron fought back, kicking wildly at the robot's hands.
He felt a satisfying crunch, and two of the robot's finger snapped off. It dropped him.
Ron dove forward, snatching up three rockets, and in a swift motion lit the fuses.
The robot made for him again.
Ron ducked under the reaching hands and popped up right in front of the robot's face. It grabbed him by the neck and pulled him into its body.
Ron shoved a firework, hard, into the robot's mouth.
"A present from Mr. Eisenhower," Ron choked.
The robot released him to paw at its mouth with a fingerless hand. Ron shoved the other two fireworks into the robot's torn jumpsuit and dove out of the way, covering his ears.
A loud warning sounded in Russian.
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
The three fireworks exploded, sending pieces of robot flying, and showering everything with blazing red, white, and blue.
The bright light of freedom.
Ron closed his eyes.
Oh Lord, thank you for my salvation...
...and boy is it good to know you have a sense of humor.
Ron lay exhausted in the grass for what seemed like an eternity. When he came to and opened his eyes again, night had fully fallen, and all that was left of the robot was a pile of smoke, sparks, and sprockets.
During the ensuing silence, a crowd reappeared at the edge of the green, lit by moonlight and flames. They were watching, buzzing with low conversation. Ron remembered that Bill had been injured. He got up and began to limp back toward the center of the green. Bill was still there, lying unconscious on the ground.
He was breathing.
A man rushed forward, flanked by two others holding medical bags. The EMTs kneeled down next to Bill. The other man--the mayor, Ron remembered--walked up to him.
His mouth began to move.
"Louder," said Ron, pointing at his own ears.
"We heard an explosion," the mayor said. "The attacker..."
Relief swept over the man's face.
"Dead? You killed him?"
"Oh thank you, sir. Thank you."
He offered a hand, which Ron shook grimly.
The mayor was treating him like a hero, but Ron had merely been fighting for his life. For whatever reason, the robot had fixated on him. Why? he wondered. What possible reason could it have had to attack me?
"Would you tell me your name, friend? I..." The mayor squinted through the darkness towards Ron.
"Now, wait a minute. I recognize you. You're...you're..."
"You can call me Ron."
The next afternoon, after receiving accolades from the mayor and a thorough debriefing from the CIA (along with dire threats about what would happen to him if he told anybody what he had told them), Ron was back on the highway, heading west.
It was odd. These past years, he had been so concerned about facing the Soviet threat. But yesterday, he had faced it. And somehow, remarkably--with God's help--he had won.
It gave him hope. Perhaps the Soviets weren't the unstoppable machine that everybody claimed they were. If Americans fought, and had faith, then they could really win this thing. Maybe that was why Ron had been spared. Maybe God had preserved his life to show him just that:
That the Soviets could be stopped. And he, Ronald Reagan, would be the one to stop them.
Check out the next Independence Day contest honorable mention,Rockin' the USAbyLeigh Kimmel!