By John Thomas Tuft

Andre began volunteering at the Crisis Call Line because he wanted to give back. He was a retired high school history teacher, a widower, a Vietnam Vet, a reader of westerns and Bob Lee Swagger novels by Stephen Hunter. He quietly marveled at the cool under fire hero/sniper who always seemed able to find his way out of impossible situations. Others could have their James Bond sophistication and suave spy escapades. Give Andre the retired Marine sniper turned horse rancher, raised in Arkansas, who flew by the seat of his pants, any day of the week. Raised among the steel mill towns around Pittsburgh, Andre had witnessed a lot of change, decline, even transformation over the years. Along with its wake of destruction, division and despair among the technological wonders and improvements. One evening he parked his battered pick-up truck in the lot, went into the building and settled himself at the console for the 8 – 2 shift. At 8:03 Jamie called in. The rest of that time is still a blur to Andre.

“I’m calling just to let somebody know I was here before it’s all over,” said the young voice. “Before what is all over?” responded Andre. “I called a crisis line. Figure it out genius,” scoffed the voice. Andre tried to collect his reactions before proceeding any further. “I’m Andre. Can you tell me your name?” he said in a friendly voice. He heard a grunt of derisive laughter in his headphones. “What kind of a name is Andre?” A pause, then: “I’m Jamie. Don’t try and talk me out of it, you hear me…Andre?” A slight giggle. “Okay Jamie,” Andre replied, “I won’t try to talk you out of anything.” His answer seemed to catch Jamie off guard. “What do you mean?” Andre forced himself to sound calm. “There’s no magic to this, Jamie. You called me, not the other way around. Sounds like you have some stuff you want to talk about. How old are you, 17, 18?”

A long pause. “I’m 16. I’m standing on top of a rail bridge over the Ohio. The next train that comes I’m either jumping down in front of it or into the river.” Andre tapped the keys of his computer, doing a Google Earth search for local rail bridges, a sniper searching for the target, as he said, “Sounds like you’ve put some thought into this. How are you going to decide?” Jamie sounded surprised. “What? Aren’t you supposed to be talking me out of doing anything to hurt myself? Don’t you care if I live or die?” Andre sighed, “Do you care? You told me you’ve left yourself two options. Die now or die a few seconds after now. You’re telling me that things are so bad for you that you’re taking the Twin Towers way.” Jamie sounded impatient and mystified. “The what? Don’t jack me around, Andre.” Andre calmly replied, “On 9/11 when the planes hit the twin towers, people had to choose. Burn to death on the top floors, or jump.”

“Yeah, things are that bad,” whispered Jamie after a very long pause. The computer screen showed too many rail bridges, but Andre sensed that his sniper scope had found the target and was holding steady while he ranged it in. “What hurts you that badly, Jamie?” All he heard was the wind whistling through the beams of the bridge. “Jamie?” Finally, the boy came back on, his voice strained, “Do you believe people can hurt so bad, Andre? So bad that all they do is hurt everybody around them?” Andre thought for a moment. “Jamie, when I was just a couple years older than you, I ended up in Vietnam. I made a mistake one night that got my buddy killed. When I got back, I couldn’t live with myself. I couldn’t look myself in the mirror, and nothing I tried could drown the pain.” “What did you do?” asked Jamie over the mournful pitch of a train whistle sounding in the distance. Andre’s heart was in his throat. It would be an impossible shot, even for Bob Lee.

“I told my girl I couldn’t marry her. That I didn’t deserve her, go find someone better. Instead, she insisted on going with me to go see my buddy’s family, to tell them what had happened.” The train whistle sounded again, louder, closer. Andre’s voice rose, as he practically shouted, “Jamie, she said to me, ‘You’re allowed to make your own mistakes. But being a prisoner of them is a choice.’” The headphones filled with the ungodly thunder of a train passing close by, on and on. It finally passed, leaving dark silence. Andre wondered if he had missed the shot. He held his breath, trying to will hope into the void. After what seemed an eternity he heard, “Andre? Can we talk?”

Hours later as he prepared to leave for the night, Andre placed his well-worn copy of the novel Point of Impact into the drawer and cleared away all the coffee cups and candy wrappers. After all, a good sniper always polices his area and is ready for the next assignment. It’s the Bob Lee way…

Words are magic and writers are wizards.