Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Drop Zone

*One morning last week I dropped my step-sons Caleb at the High School, then Nolan at Our Lady of Grace. It's been 5 or 6 years since I was dropping kids off at school in the morning. Doing so once again reminded me of my first go-round of parenting when that thankless job was part of my regular routine. He's a blog post from those years:

“Command central; do you copy? I am now entering the drop zone.  If I’m not back in an hour, send in a chopper to air-lift me out.”

Now I’ve never actually said that. Don’t even have a 2-way radio in the car. But when I enter the drop zones at the Intermediate or High School with my kids in the morning, I wish I had commando back-up.

I don’t do it everyday, mind you. You’d have to be certifiable loony to do it five days a week. But each Friday I take my kids out for breakfast. Afterwards, Sally is dropped at the Intermediate School and Cal and Jack at the High School. So, I've driven more missions than I can count.

As we approach Field Drive from 10th Street an unbroken gauntlet of SUVs lurch over the bridge and through the intersection from the west. My light turns green, but before I touch the accelerator the sorry bastard behind me is honking. Probably some drop-zone-weary veteran who has to navigate the hellish commute to Indy if he survives the drop zone. Just the thought of it has his adrenaline gushing and his fingers itching on the horn.

After the turn I’ve got a quarter mile to collect my thoughts before entering the drop zone. I switch the radio to a bass-thumping rock anthem to get myself psyched-up. Sally’s already leaning forward in her seat gripping the shoulder straps of her pack. My hands are sweating on the steering wheel.

Suddenly an incoming mini-van darts into my path from 16th Street. I pound the breaks just as the menacing outline of the Intermediate School emerges from the darkness like an awaiting tomb.

Moments later we enter the serpentine trail of tears that makes up the first drop zone. Like a long line of push-pull toys, we accelerate/brake, accelerate/brake past taunting enemy propaganda signs that read, “Proceed slowly to the drop zone,” and, “Thank you for your patience.” 

Yeah, whatever.

As we approach her drop, Sally’s praying to herself, “Dear God, please make Dad turn off that dorky music before he opens the door. I don’t want my comrades to hear.”

Family-generals stop one at a time at the ramp to launch their charges. Just when you think you’ll move forward, the most recent drop, a kid with a trombone case runs back to kiss his mommy goodbye.

Finally Sally’s turn comes. The door opens and the wind furiously whips the hair back off her forehead. She leaps out and disappears into the yawning darkness of the Intermediate School.        

One drop down. One to go.

The right turn out is pure torture. An unbroken line of urban assault vehicles block our way. Desperate Joes force a westbound back up in their hopeless attempts to turn left into the drop zone. Fear and rage grow on their faces. It was here last year I saw one T-boned in a fool-hearty attempt to enter out of turn. The memory puts a knot in my stomach.

“God-speed left-turners. God-speed.”

Back again on Field Drive, that solemn ribbon of asphalt bordering the battlefield, some greenhorn in a Jeep up ahead lets a troop transport . . . I mean a school bus, in.

“Buddy, what are ya thinkin’? I yell, hammering the steering wheel with my palm. “Busses are like barbed lumps of cholesterol in the veins of this God forsaken mission!”

The lumbering giant groans into line, waiting with the rest of us through the mind-crushing boredom of the Field/Cumberland 4-way stop.

Finally it comes into view, the High School’s “Horseshoe from hell,” I whisper under my breath. I’m a team player and wait in line. Impatient drivers with a death wish dart ahead, creating a 2nd lane on the left only to let their darlings out in the truly life-threatening jumble of anxious cars at the ramp. Not me. I won’t temp fate.

Cal and Jack are seasoned veterans. They watch the battlefield ahead, ice water in her veins, emotionless as little white iPhone earbuds chirp in their ears.

Suddenly both boys make this old soldier proud. They launch a preemptive drop well before the ramp, then walk coolly toward the entrance, having freed me for escape. "No guts, no glory!" And these boys have guts!

Now I only have to navigate incoming teenagers whose headlights dart recklessly like tracer rounds in and out of exits. I’m temporarily shell-shocked when an IED car stereo explodes Ludacris . . . or was it Snoop Dog, just inches from my window.

I emerge onto the relative safety of Monument Street, having survived to fight another day.

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