Jacob’s parents drank too much. I was only twelve, but I could tell. They lived a couple of houses away, but it wasn’t far enough to keep us from hearing them fight. Many nights I couldn’t sleep because Jacob’s parents would yell and scream untill dawn.
Jacob and I shared the same sixth grade class. He barely made passing grades and didn’t do well socially. It seemed like Jacob’s only concern in life was survival. That summer I learned how difficult survival was for him. On a warm June evening, the noise from his house kept me awake. Although we weren’t great friends, I worried about him. My bedroom window overlooked our backyard, which backed up to the Naval Weapons Station. Other than a few trees and dozens of underground bunkers, there wasn’t much to look at. However, on this particular night I thought I saw someone run through the fence to a large spruce tree near the first row of bunkers. As I rubbed my eyes and strained to see through the darkness, the lights came on down the hall and I dove into bed fearing my parents would discover that I was awake.
The following day I saw Jacob in his yard. “Are you ok?”
“Yeah,” Jacob said avoiding eye contact, “I’m just tired, didn’t get much sleep last night.”
“Was that you I saw running into the Naval Weap . . .” before I could finish Jacob had me by the throat.
“You can’t tell anyone. Promise me you will never tell anyone you saw me there.” A look of terror was in his eyes.
“Ok, I promise Jacob, let go of me.” He started to walk away. “Wait up, man.” I followed him to the alley between our backyards and the fence to the Weapons Station.
“This is where I go in.” There was an area where the dirt had been removed from under the fence. The weeds growing around it made it difficult to see. I had walked past it hundreds of times without noticing.
“What do you do in there?”
“See that old spruce tree.” The tree blocked the view from the opening in the fence to the guard shack on the other side of the bunkers.
“That’s my safe place. I got a platform in the tree nobody can see. Nobody would think to look for me there. Sometimes I gotta get out of my house. You have to promise me you’ll never tell anybody, you have to swear to God.”
“Ok, ok, I already promised.” The seriousness of Jacob’s situation was sinking in. I had to keep my promise. I suggested that Jacob and I keep flashlights. If things sounded bad at his house I would give one quick flash from my window to the spruce tree and he would signal back to let me know he was ok. Many nights that summer a flash returned from the old spruce tree. The police made regular stops at his house and a number of times they took his father away in handcuffs. That fall his father left and it seemed like things might get better, but shortly after school started his mom had a new boyfriend who was meaner than his father. I suppose it’s bad enough to see your father hit your mother, but when the boyfriend hit her it was more than Jacob could take. At thirteen he could fight pretty good but he was no match for a grown man. He would get in his best shot and then run for the safe place. We continued our flashlight vigil most of that year, until one night Jacob’s house caught fire. We never really knew if he set it or not, but instead of running to the safe place he kept running. After that, I flashed my light at that old spruce tree many nights hoping for a response that never came.
High school and college came and went without a word from Jacob. His mother and her boyfriend were killed in a car accident the year after he left, so he had no home to come back to. The old spruce tree continued to stand like a sentinel reminding me to pray for Jacob. On one of my trips home after college I received a letter. Inside the envelope was a picture of Jesus. I was a little perplexed until I turned it over and discovered a note.
I finally found my safe place.
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