Catholic Distance University

Dirty Little Coward

Gerald C. Matics

From the testament of Father Liam O’Neill:

Never kept a diary before. Never felt the need. I’ve always placed my trust in God and had faith he’d see me through every peril, so when I felt the need to talk, I talked to Him.

Tonight I’m writing this diary—on scrap paper tucked into my Bible—because I’m afraid God isn’t listening in my final hours. And I’m scared.

If you’re having trouble reading this, understand it’s about fifteen below zero with the wind chill, and I’m wearing thick but ineffective gloves. Makes it hard to hold a pencil. It’s also hard to see by the dying glow of the snowmobile’s headlight through this makeshift tent; the light’s been on most of the day, so the battery is probably nearly flat. Either that or there’s too much snow accumulating on the side of the tent for light to penetrate. Or both.

I am Father Liam O’Neill, parish priest at St. Jude’s on the Hill in a small Pennsylvania town you’ve never heard of. Eastern Pennsylvania, where there aren’t any mountains or anything to prepare you for here. “Here” is the Poconos after the worst winter storm in years.

Just checked on Bob—Father Bob Ford. He’s still unconscious, but it looks like the bleeding has stopped. He took a nasty blow to the head when he wiped out.

Old Bob Ford. I used to call him a dirty little coward after the old song about the guy who shot Jesse James (a.k.a. Robert Howard) while he was hanging a picture with his back turned.

But that dirty little coward
Who shot Mr. Howard
Laid poor Jesse in his grave.

All in fun, of course, but sure as I’m lying here, after what he did today I’ll never call him that again.

I keep getting ahead of myself. I’ll try to explain, to tell it right, so someone might know about it someday.

At forty-four, Bob Ford isn’t much older than I am, but he’s been the pastor of St. Jude’s for going on eleven years. That’s unusually long to be in charge of one parish, but Bob’s the kind of guy who just seems to disappear into a situation; maybe the bishop forgot he was there. In the three years I’ve been at St. Jude’s, he hasn’t made one significant change; the Mass and reconciliation schedules, the altar cloths, the votive candles (still wax and wick), all the same as the day he took over. Me, I’m more of a daredevil, always ready to try something new, and Bob and I have a friendly running argument about the value of change.

“There’s no growth without it, Bob,” I needle him.

“People of faith need a rock to cling to,” he maintains.

Imagine my surprise when he agreed yesterday to come up here. My idea was to take advantage of last week’s dumping to go where the snow was still pristine, trek up on a snowmobile, fashion an altar out of evergreen wood, and celebrate the Eucharist in the wilderness with only God above watching.

“Sounds nice, Liam,” Bob said over dinner in the rectory when I’d floated the idea halfheartedly. I nearly spit out my bean soup.

“You’re kidding,” I said. “Did you not hear what I said?”

“Of course. It sounds fun. And the fresh air will probably do me a world of good.”

“Father, I’m stunned. You eat two slices of white toast with grapefruit and O.J. every morning. You always cross your right leg over your left. I’d bet money you wear the same collar you wore the day you were ordained. You don’t do change well.”

Bob shrugged. “I happened to read Ecclesiastes this morning before Mass: ‘To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.’ Well, maybe it’s time for me to get out and play in the snow.” He winked. “Maybe even have a snowball fight.”

“Baby steps, you dirty little coward!” I laughed. “How about starting with some snow angels?”

We made our plans. In the morning, after arranging coverage for the day’s services, we would load his car with chalice, ciborium, wine and hosts, altar cloths, and other Eucharistic necessities, plus a chainsaw to fell the “altar” tree and a length of rope to guide its fall. Bob insisted on the rope; he didn’t want us damaging any more of nature than necessary.

Bless his heart.

* * *

He just stirred a little and mumbled something. Guess that’s a good sign. I’ll try to wake him in a little while, though I don’t really know why. Unless it’s to tell him we’ve been rescued—ha ha.

I should be praying now. I’m a priest, after all, and praying is one of a priest’s main missions; he prays for the souls in his care; he prays for the poor throughout the world; he prays for the sick and the weak and the hungry and the downtrodden; he prays for the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace, amen. A priest prays for everyone.

But tell me this: what’s the use? Is God listening? Is He even there? There were poor in Christ’s day, and there are poor now. There’s been no divine intervention to stop cancer or strokes or AIDS from claiming people a little at a time. There is more evil in the world today, right now, than there has ever been. These are all things I can see with my own God-given eyes. So am I to believe that the souls of the departed are any better off than they were when they left? What evidence of that when two of God’s servants on earth are huddled on a mountaintop waiting to die?

Priests, we pray for everyone. But who prays for the priests?

We dressed warmly the next morning—just earlier today—before loading up and taking to the road. It was a straight shot up I-476 to the Pennsylvania Turnpike and into the Lehigh Valley. The road was well clear of last week’s snow, though there was still quite a bit of the stuff off the pavement, and Bob’s dilapidated AM radio told us there was but a ten percent chance of more snow in the next 24 hours. Bob seemed to relax at that, and we had a good spiritual conversation the rest of the two-hour drive.

A little out-of-the-way shop off Route 309—incongruously called “Beachcombers”—advertised snowmobile rentals, so we stopped by. Bob wore a dubious look as we checked out several models.

“You’ve ridden one of these before?” he asked.

“Of course. At least once a year since I turned thirty-five.”

“You’re thirty-six, Liam.”

“Well, would you prefer I lied? Come on, you’ll be fine. Look, here’s a couple of small ones.”

“No, thanks. We’re only going to need one.” He pointed at a two-seated behemoth in the corner. “I’m feeling adventurous, not suicidal.”

“All right, fine. But you pay attention to what I do, because next time I’ll expect you to carry your own weight.”

“Fine, fine.”

“You dirty little coward.”

The guy behind the counter gave us a funny look when we walked up and told him what we wanted. Thinking back, I probably misinterpreted that look.

We paid and left with the snowmobile and a trailer to haul it. Next stop was a service station, where we made sure the snowmobile’s tank was full. Luckily, Bob remembered to top off the small tank on the chainsaw; having grown up around electronics, I’d completely forgotten.

Finally it was time to hit the trail. We pulled off the road at a likely spot and gazed up a moment at the majestic tree-laden mountain rising above us. Then we packed the snowmobile’s twin saddlebags, and Bob watched warily as I fired up the engine and pointed out some of the controls.

By now it was getting close to noon. The sky, which had been a brilliant deep blue when we’d started our trip, now began to cloud. I wasn’t worried; lightly falling snow would only add to the picturesque setting, and we’d surely be back before it got too heavy.

I hopped on the snowmobile and motioned Bob to climb on behind me. He did with obvious trepidation, as if he expected it to rear up at any moment, and when I gunned the engine his arms convulsed around my waist.

“Begging your pardon, Father,” I said over my shoulder, “but would you mind not squeezing the stuffing out of me?”

Bob laughed nervously and eased his grip. “Sorry.”

“No permanent damage. Just try to relax, will you? Look at the scenery.”

“Sure.”

But I don’t think Bob looked at the scenery much. I have a feeling he buried his head between my shoulder blades and closed his eyes; I could feel his brow pressing into the middle of my back. Dirty little coward, I thought, not too unkindly.

* * *

He was awake just now for a few minutes. He asked if I’m okay.

“All in all,” I said, “I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”

“Right.” He sounded groggy and tired, as if he’d just finished a hundred-mile march.

“How about you?” I asked. “How do you feel?”

“Well, the bad news is I can’t feel my feet. The good news is my athlete’s foot has been acting up lately, so it’s probably just as well.”

Maybe it wasn’t that funny, but it started me chuckling. Soon I was laughing hard, and somehow in the midst of it I was bawling.

“I’m so sorry, Bob,” I blubbered. “I should never have brought you up here.”

“Liam,” he said tiredly, “if it weren’t God’s plan, I wouldn’t be here. But here we both are. Stop worrying about what you shouldn’t have done.” He paused. “You know, if it’d help, we could hear each other’s confessions.”

“Sure, and after that we can give each other Last Rites.”

“Good idea. Let’s run through all the sacraments while were at it. Only problem is, who’ll marry us?”

We talked a bit more before he drifted away again.

* * *

Somewhere on the trip—I don’t suppose it matters exactly where—while I was looking at the scenery and Bob was looking at my back, two things happened. First, snow began tumbling gently out of the sky like tickertape. Second, the gas tank on the massive snowmobile sprung a leak. Was it a rock? A stick? Fatigued metal? Doesn’t matter. The tank was losing fuel, and we trailed it behind us without even knowing it.

We rode several miles up the mountain, switching back, leaving the trail and rejoining it, getting hopelessly turned around. It was okay, though, I figured. We could always retrace our tracks on the way back.

An hour’s drive put us on the summit; a small clearing lay before us, and beyond that a priceless vista. Distant mountaintops, some higher than our own, were jagged white teeth against the overcast sky. The snow was thickening, but we could still clearly make out a vastly superior skyline than that offered by any cityscape. We were quite a ways above the valley beneath us; white sprinkled with evergreen ruled the land as far as we could see.

“Well, what do you think?” I asked.

“Breathtaking,” Bob admitted.

I left Bob to set up while I took the chainsaw and rope in search of a suitable tree, one just mature enough to yield the size wood we needed. Bob followed the cutting sounds to find me, and with me on the saw and him on the rope, we felled it like loggers. From there it was just work to strip excess bark and wood to come up with five or six rough boards we could lay side by side for our altar. We brought them back to our clearing, cleaned up, got ready and celebrated Mass.

How can I explain how joyful it was, turning our faces and hands toward heaven to pray, letting the wind whistle hymns through the trees while we meditated on God’s word? In the midst of it, a young deer wandered into the clearing and sniffed tentatively in our direction before walking right past us. Bob and I grinned at each other.

The snow intensified during the consecration; by the time we reached the benediction our makeshift altar was nearly covered. The temperature had also dropped precipitously, and the wind was picking up. Earlier I had thought it would be nice to stay atop the mountain the rest of the day, contemplating the majesty of God until darkness chased us home. But now there wasn’t any view; a speckled veil of white flakes shrouded the mountain and valley alike. It was time to leave. Hurriedly we packed the saddlebags and mounted the snowmobile. It putted a little when I kicked it over, but then it caught and we forged ahead.

My plan to follow our tracks back was rapidly becoming folly. Even the deepest ruts were filling quickly with fresh snow. In some places they were completely obscured, and navigation became a best-guess proposition. I didn’t tell Bob, but perhaps he felt my body tensing with worry. Perhaps, like me, he was starting to form a few prayers on his lips.

Maybe ten minutes later the snowmobile coughed, lurched a couple of times, then quit. I sat completely still a few moments, then tried to kick the motor over again once or twice before my eyes happened on the fuel gauge, its needle resting balefully on E.

“Houston,” I said quietly, “we have a problem.”

* * *

This time I tried to wake Bob and couldn’t. I suppose it’s just as well. I’m told it’s at least a peaceful death, once the initial limb pain fades to numbness. My own feet and hands are nearly there.

I’ve been ashamed to put this down until now, but if I don’t I guess no one will ever know it. They’ll just assume I slipped contentedly away into the arms of the waiting Lord. But that’s not what I’ve been thinking. I’ve been angry, cursing God in my heart. We came out here to do Him honor, and our reward for this will be death. Not a glorious death—if any death can be called that—or even a purposeful one, but a death in ignominy. The papers might carry the story of the two missing priests for a few days, a week, maybe. Then it will die down and sometime next spring a group of hunters, perhaps bent on killing the deer we saw during our piddling little Mass, will happen on our frozen bodies—if the other woodland creatures haven’t gotten to us first. Damned shame, they’ll say, then laugh at us for being so stupid. Only they really should be laughing at me alone; Bob’s only misstep was to put his trust in me.

* * *

I was shouting within minutes of discovering the ruptured gas tank. Why hadn’t I noticed it before? Now we were stranded on a mountaintop, and the weather was threatening to turn us into blessed popsicles. I ranted, I raved; if it had been a homily I might have sent more than a few parishioners away from the church for good.

Through it all Bob sat calmly on the lifeless machine, watching me.

“Liam, why are you getting yourself so worked up?” he asked.

“Why?” I shouted. “Why not? Don’t you have any idea what’s going on? Don’t you know how far we are away from everything? Are you that clueless?”

It wasn’t fair, and I knew it as soon as I said it, but Bob took it in stride.

“I’ve been called worse. But I’ll tell you something I read in a very good book years ago: ‘The Lord provides strength, not taxicabs.’”

That caught me short. “I doubt that was in the Bible.”

“No,” he said, smiling. “Stephen King. Can’t get enough of the guy.”

I looked at him for a moment, then laughed by way of apology.

“Anyway,” he went on, “the point is, God’s taken away our taxicab, but we still have strength, so let’s walk. We’ll get there eventually.”

“But where? Which way?”

“Downhill,” he suggested. And, there being no better idea on the table, we did.

Or, at least, we tried. I’d taken no more than a few steps into the side of a long, narrow clearing when something went wrong.

The ground gave way beneath me and I was over my head in white crystals, and the lower half of my body was instantly wet and numb. Only then I realized I’d fallen into a snow-covered stream.

At once Bob was there, grasping at my upraised hands. “Grab hold,” he yelled, and I latched onto his wrists. “Now pull, hard!”

It was nearly too much. But Bob kept yelling at me, exhorting me, and somehow I managed to raise my shoulders enough for him to hook a hand under my armpits. That made it a little easier, and after what seemed an eternity my hips were on solid ground. I rolled onto my stomach and pulled with the last of my strength, Bob helping me all the way.

Now I was out of the immediate danger of being swept away, but there was a new hazard; hypothermia could kill me quickly. Without a word Bob set to work undoing my boots and yanking off my wet jeans. He shed his own coat and covered my bare legs while he took off his own pants—beneath he wore heavy thermal long-johns—then put the dry ones on me. Moments later my insulated boots were back on with two of his handkerchiefs in lieu of my sodden socks. I was more spectator than participant, weak and dazed by what had happened.

But Bob must have been thinking at lightspeed. Quickly but carefully he walked to the edge of the stream and peered across, where trees marked the far boundary a good twenty feet or so away. Then he went back to the snowmobile and rummaged through the saddlebags for the chainsaw. As I watched, he uncapped the saw’s and the snowmobile’s tanks and poured fuel from one to the other. I thought it wasn’t worth the effort—that the tiny amount of gas would never get us down the mountain even if I were in a condition to drive it.

I didn’t realize that Bob’s idea wasn’t to get us down the mountain.

He went back into the saddlebags for the rope we used to guide the tree’s fall and tied one end shoulder-high to an evergreen; the other end he tied around one arm. Then, as I looked on in foggy amazement, he coaxed the big snowmobile’s engine to life and hopped on.

“I’m going to get you home, Liam!” he shouted at me. “If I have to carry you down this mountain, by God, I’ll get you home!”

With that, he zoomed the thing inexpertly but quickly back the way we’d come. Then he slewed it around, crossed himself, and opened the throttle, racing toward the ravine. Flabbergasted, I watched the snowmobile lift from the near bank with Bob on top.

Even as he soared over the ravine, I thought crazily of the old pilot’s creed: a good landing is one you can walk away from; a great landing is one where you can reuse the plane afterward.

Bob’s landing was neither good nor great. He started coming off the seat before touchdown, and when it hit he rolled off, striking his head hard on a tree. The snowmobile plowed into a different tree and ended up on its side, looking disappointed.

Somehow Bob roused himself, pulling his way up the tree. He managed to wrap his end of the rope around a branch and knot it before he collapsed, leaving a neat little tightrope across the ravine.

I had to get across that rope to see to Bob. If it killed me, I had to get across. I stood shakily, wrapped arms and legs around the rope, and shimmied across.

Bob’s head was bloody where he struck the tree. Surely he’d be unconscious, I thought, but he looked up at me with heavy lids.

“Call me a coward, will you?” he said, then shut his eyes and slipped away.

I knew there was no way I’d be able to carry him any distance down the mountain. So I did the only thing I could: use our cassocks, surplices, and altar cloths to build this makeshift tent where we’re now huddled together.

Then I prayed for a miracle.

* * *

No miracle has come. I’ve stopped praying for one since it’s dark now, about eight hours after Father Bob Ford’s maiden flight—perhaps you could call that a miracle.

I don’t say this bitterly. And despite my little tantrum earlier, I haven’t given up praying altogether; now I’m praying for our souls, and repenting for my own lack of faith. I am sorry.

Who prays for the priest? The priest, of course. Never, Lord, never let me forget it.

Looking back over these pages, I realize now it’s not a diary I’m writing at all. It’s a testament of sorts—my last spiritual will and testament—and yet I find I’m not the hero of my own story. That would be Bob Ford, formerly a dirty little coward, now surely an instrument of God. Despite my shaky faith, there is one point on which I’ve never wavered: that the Lord does indeed work in mysterious ways. And I bear witness that nothing in my life has ever validated that belief like the events of today, quite possibly our last day on earth. Please, God, let this epiphany not be too little too late.

I’m finished now. Very tired. In a moment I’ll go to sleep for a bit, and when I wake up—if I wake up—I guess I’ll find out once and for all how merciful the God I’ve served all my adult life really is.

I hope it’s all true. I hope when I awake I’ll be standing in heaven in front of the Lord.

With Father Bob Ford at my side.

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be th

* * *

From the Scranton Times-Tribune, early edition:

E. STROUDSBURG, Pa. — Two Philadelphia parish priests are clinging to life after being found stranded in a remote area of Shawnee Mountain in a rescue emergency personnel are calling nothing short of a miracle.

Fathers Robert J. Ford, 44, and Liam M. O’Neill, 36, from the Montgomery County parish of St. Jude’s on the Hill, were listed in critical but stable condition this morning at the Pocono Medical Center in East Stroudsburg. Hospital officials said both men are suffering from hypothermia and have lost several fingers and toes due to frostbite. Ford also has a moderate concussion, officials said….

The priests were reported missing by a clerk at Beachcombers, a snowmobile rental establishment in Echo Lake, when they failed to return a rented snowmobile by dusk.

“I could tell they was city boys who didn’t really know what they was getting into, with the storm coming and all,” said the clerk, Marvin Fowler. “But I kept expecting them to turn up, and when they didn’t I knew something was wrong.”

Rescue workers were dispatched to the scene during an unexpected break in the storm. They combed the area with helicopters for several hours until they spotted the snowmobile’s headlamp.

“That battery was just about flat,” said helicopter pilot Mike Poole. “They had maybe another half an hour of light, if that, or we’d never have found them. We’d probably have had to give up anyway because the snow started coming down again just as we were pulling them up on the winch.”…

From the Scranton Times-Tribune, late edition:

E. STROUDSBURG, Pa. — New details are emerging about the miracle rescue of two Philadelphia parish priests who were lifted from Shawnee Mountain last night.

Emergency workers pulled off a dramatic rescue when they lifted Fathers Robert J. Ford, 44, and Liam M. O’Neill, 36, of the Montgomery County parish of St. Jude’s on the Hill, off the side of Shawnee Mountain. Both men were unconscious at the time, and Ford remains in a coma but is expected to recover….

Lying in his bed at the Pocono Medical Center in East Stroudsburg as he spoke to reporters, O’Neill seemed not to notice his extremities had been bandaged after doctors were forced to remove two fingers on each hand and a total of five toes as a result of frostbite.

He could talk only about two things: Ford’s valiant efforts to keep both of them alive long enough for help to arrive, and the incredible mercy of a loving God.

* * *

From the testament of Father Liam O’Neill:

When Father Ford wakes up, I’m going to ask him to hear my confession.

THE END

Gerald C. Matics has been a professional writer, editor, and corporate communicator for more than fifteen years. He lives and writes in King of Prussia, PA, where his wife Lisa and son Jack give him plenty of reasons to wake up in the morning.

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