NEW FICTION: The Man Who Could Not Die (Chapter 2)
October 13, 2002
Continuing the transcribed journal excerpts of J.M. Lincoln...
New Year’s Eve, 1899: The new century arrives with glory and a sense of optimism that is unparalleled in recent years. We are living in Manhattan and I am employed as an industrial engraver. Veronica and I stand atop the roof of our brownstone at 235 W. 55th Street and quietly toast the new millennium, our faces lit by the glowing fireworks that ignite the midnight sky. Even in the dimness of the night, the lines on Veronica’s face appear pronounced. She notices my stare and she touches my face.
“What’s happened to you?” she asks.
“What do you mean?”
She tells me that my face hasn’t changed. She tells me I look as young—if not younger—as I did when we lived in Wheeling 18 years earlier.
So I tell her. I ask her to recall the collapse of the Hawkingsworth mine. I relate to her what occurred during those tenuous three days. I hypothesize that the glowing stones have somehow altered me—have kept me from aging—and that they’ve…
I stop in midsentence. She asks me to continue.
I begin to speak but abruptly stop, then walk, a moment later, toward the edge of the roof. The fireworks explode across the Manhattan skyline, casting heavy shadows on the roof. I grasp a piece of discarded metal pipe and squeeze it in my hand. It crumbles like tissue paper. She stares at me through bewildered, aging eyes. Veronica grasps my hands with hers and stares, but I realize she is looking at me not with love, but concern. She is analyzing the wrinkled flesh of her hands against the smooth softness of mine. For the first time in our many years together there is a look in her eyes I’ve not seen before: Fear.
September, 1912: Veronica dies in her bed on September 22. Her death is slow, painful. I sit by her side, an overwhelming sense of guilt and helplessness threatens to pull me apart. Our children are with us. Grown, and older in appearance than me, they are filled with fright and anger. Fright because, in watching their mother die, they are seeing death up close and realize they, too, will one day be in her place. Anger because they believe—they know—that somehow I have found a way to bypass the eternal sleep. Veronica passes at 3:17 a.m. Her last words to me are whispered.
“Don’t be too long.”
“I won’t,” I tell her.
Her pale, blue eyes softly close for the final time.
The day following the funeral I recount to Janey and Joshua the details of my survival in the Hawkingsworth mine 1882. Their reactions are…not what I was expecting. Joshua is particularly upset. Though not quite 40, his physical appearance belies his age; he looks like a man in his 50s.
“It’s not right. I worked those same mines.”
You do not want this, I tell him.
“You don’t know what I want. One day you will bury us—Janey and I—just as you’ve buried your wife, our mother.”
“Do you think I want that?”
“I think you must. You can then move to another city, change your identity. Start again.”
Though I will not admit it, I realize Joshua speaks the truth. Whatever it is I’ve become has, at the very least, enabled me to start anew. The realization is both exhilarating and terrifying.
March, 26 1913: My thoughts were many miles distant as I walked across 54th street in New York’s theatre district. It was two days ago, March 25, a sunny, unseasonably warm day in New York. I was returning from having purchased tickets to the musical Tomorrow’s Son, which has been the rage for several weeks. I purchased the tickets for Janey on the occasion of her upcoming 40th birthday. My mind played with the number over and over; I began to daydream. So much so that I failed to see the oncoming delivery truck as I crossed the intersection of 49th and Ivy. I do not remember hearing the wail of the vehicle’s horn. I do not recall the shouts of passersby warning me out of the street. I remember only the impact as the truck, having jackknifed, toppled, then slid toward me, its payload—several tons of sheet glass—becoming dislodged from its bed. The rig and its contents impacted with immeasurable force. I remember a feeling as if I was being ripped apart. Then blackness.
Despite massive blood loss and multiple leg fractures I survived. More confounding is the fact that today, merely 48 hours later, I walk out of the New York Hospital for the Infirm, fully recovered. As night falls, I remove the gauze bandages from my arms, legs, face, and torso. There are few scars, and I find that if I stare for several minutes at a particular scare, I can watch it as it heals.
At the stroke of midnight I consume an entire bottle of turpentine and various other poisons. The following morning I feel fine. I now realize three truths: 1. I do not age. 2. My strength is far beyond human. 3. I cannot be killed. As U.S. involvement into combat with foreign lands looms ever near, I begin to realize a potential within myself heretofore unconsidered.
World War I (the Suicide Missions): On April 6, 1917, the United States, under the leadership of President Woodrow Wilson, declares war on Germany. I enlist in the army the following week and undergo a brief, albeit thorough, basic training. The first US troops arrive in allied France several months later, on June 26. And I am there.
The American First Division is some 4,000 strong. We are known as the “Big Red One,” and are under the command of Major-General Robert Lee Bullard, an experienced military man who graduated from West Point Academy in 1885.
His objective is Cantigny, a captured village occupied by the German 18th army commanded by Oskar von Hutier. The German army uses the seized Cantigny as an advance observation point and, as such, it is heavily fortified. The soldiers with whom I have enlisted are young and afraid. But they hide their fears well. In this regard I feel it is I who am the coward. I have no fears of death, for I cannot die.
Aided by our French allies, the US assault against Germany at Cantigny begins May 28, 1918. Our assault is preceded by a dozen French tanks which sweep across the land for two hours deploying a formidable barrage of artillery. The fighting is intense; trench mortars explode across the terrain, wrapping the air in thick blankets of smoke. The Germans attack with an arsenal of weapons that include flamethrowers, machineguns (most notably the Bergmann 7.92 mm, the Bergmann Maschinenpistole 18/1 or MP18, and the Maschinengewehr 08), and rifles (the standard being the Mauser Gewehr 98). It is by use of these weapons that I watch my colleagues die, both individually and in groups, in the two-day assault at Cantigny.
During the second day of the battle we are met with seven counter-attacks by the German army. Seven counter-attacks. It is an unheard of determination on Germany’s behalf. We sustain more than 1,000 casualties, but I am not among them. Although I bleed upon the land, my wounds—despite their number—are never fatal. But Germany’s desperate counter-attacks fail, and the Battle of Cantigny ends with the US and her allies victorious.
Following a 48-hour respite, one-half of our division is ordered to the north-west, to aid the failing allies in Aisne, where a massive assault by 17 divisions of German infantry some 4,000 guns strong, is obliterating the French and British allies—casualties are reported to exceed 120,000! The British IX Corps have been virtually wiped out. We arrive on May 30 and learn that Germany has captured 50,000 allied soldiers and 800 guns. They are closing toward Paris, and their occupation of the glorious French city seems certain. Still we must fight.
The allied command of the Second US Division receives a report on June 1. There is a castle—DuChampe—along the River Vesle. It is rumored that the castle is stockpiled with guns and ammunition—much of which was seized from the allied forces by the German armies during the first two days of the attack of the Aisne. Between June 1 and June 2 there are six US-led assaults against the Castle DuChampe. Each has been no less than a death sentence to those soldiers of the First and Second Divisions involved. I can watch no more, and speak privately with my commanding officer. I explain to him why I alone should siege the DuChampe. I explain that I cannot die, cannot be killed. I show him the faded scars from numerous bullet wounds. I don’t know whether he grants my request because he believes me or because he is merely tired and desperate (and after all, what’s the value of one man’s life in the chaos of the war?). He grants my request, except…he refuses to send me alone. Of this point he is unyielding.
On June 3, 4:23 a.m., we descend upon the northern corner of DuChampe. But the initial assault ends horribly as I watch 42 of my fellow soldiers fall in half as many seconds. Our division is 100 strong, but we are outgunned and outnumbered. We are without shelter against an enemy who is carefully hidden behind brick and mortar. We are cut down by our own captured Brownings and British Vickers. Officially, I am 63 years old, but I look and fight like a well-conditioned soldier in his 30s.
As the remnants of our company quickly retreat from our failed first wave, I turn and slowly begin walking toward the great wooden doors of the DuChampe. My helmet protects my head from injury, my body absorbs the rest of the onslaught. A thick fog from the River Vesle hangs heavy upon the marshy plain, providing partial cover against the German sharpshooters. I walk through the mist unhindered toward my objective. To the enemy I must appear as an undead apparition, a spirit that cannot be stopped by man or weapon.
The castle’s doors are bolted from within. I rip through the oak doors with as little effort as one might tear apart a road map. The German soldiers stand bewildered as I dismantle one of the giant twin doors from its hinges and hurl it upon them. Behind me the Division begins a second wave—this time with little resistance. Most of the soldiers at DuChampe surrender without further provocation—a total of 131—one for each slug the field medic removes from my body that evening. But the objective has been met. The reports regarding the ammunition and weapons stockpiled within the DuChampe were not exaggerated. There are several thousand rifles and machineguns and nearly 100,000 rounds of ammunition. Denied these desperately needed supplies, the allied armies’ victory is decisive in the battle at Aisne.
My injuries are severe, but not life threatening. Nothing, is seems, is life threatening to me. I recover fully in a matter of days and am subsequently awarded the Silver Star for valor above and beyond the call of duty. I do not consider myself a hero. I would like to believe that anyone whose circumstances were akin to mine would have acted similarly.
April 1919: I have returned to Manhattan, but neither Janey nor Joshua are here. They have departed, with no information as to where they’ve gone. During the war I’d been fatally wounded on more than a dozen occasions, yet those wounds felt superficial compared to the isolation I feel alone in this great city of concrete, steel, and glass. There is nothing for me here.
Charlie McGee and Sean McBride have, with whom I fought alongside at Cantigny, have invited me to relocate to the windy city. They are both employed with the Chicago Police Department, and I will likely join them.
June 20, 1927: A trio of bank robbers led by Butch “Bag Pipes” McTiernan (so nicknamed because he would brazenly play the bag pipes during armed hold ups), attempts the robbery of the First National Bank of Chicago, Hill District Branch.
Miles O’Banyon and I are in the vicinity. We, along with several other officers, arrive at the bank following an anonymous telephone call to police headquarters by an individual who reported seeing three men enter the bank carrying “a curious number of violin cases.” We call to McTiernan to surrender. A ballet of bullets ensues, with no fewer than 300 rounds of ammunition being discharged. Several bank employees and customers are killed when Bag Pipes and his cohorts use them as living shields.
I realize there is little hope for the remaining hostages unless quick and decisive action is taken. Thus, I rush the building and kill McTiernan and his gang at point-blank range. During the assault I sustain a total of 73 gunshot wounds, but while many of the bullets enter my body, a majority impact but do not break the surface of my skin. My partner, Miles O’Banyon, is less fortunate. He dies of hemorrhaging following a single gunshot wound to the abdomen. And while my injuries were not fatal, the pain I suffer from the many bullets that penetrate my skin is excruciatingly more painful than anything I’d experienced during the war.
Edward Ottenberger, chief surgeon at Chicago Presbyterian Hospital, who operates on me and removes the bullets is astounded at what he calls a “God-like survivability.” In total, he removes 34 slugs from my tattered body, a process that requires 18 hours to complete.
The following day, Ottenberger writes to a colleague, Elliot Turner. Turner is chief-of-surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital and founder of the U.S. military’s Project Lazarus, an experimental research project in which researchers sought to reanimate dead tissue so as to reduce loss of life in future military campaigns—in essence, to create an army that could not be killed. Ottenberger, who was privy to Project Lazarus, sent to Turner the following telegram (a copy of which he carelessly [or perhaps intentionally] leaves in my presence during my recovery):
“…the most remarkable thing I’ve ever seen. To say that his wounds were considerable would be to say that a down comforter contains a goose feather or two. No, I tell you this man was fatally wounded. Thirty-four slugs I removed. Two from the heart, three from each lung. One bullet severed the grand aorta! The loss of blood alone should have killed him. There were dozens of lighter wounds where bullets had apparently struck him but did not fully penetrate the flesh. He was conscious when he entered the OR. There was no shock, no fever. He bled but it was as though the act were akin to breathing. Today, upon examination the patient was conscious and alert. I swear to you the man should be dead! The more serious of his wounds showed healing equal to or better than a patient who was several most post-operative—the more superficial wounds were barely recognizable. I think this man may be an idea candidate of study for your developing project…”
Turner boards a westbound train within 2 hours of receiving the telegram. He reaches the Chicago Transit Station on July 2 and arrives at Chicago Presbyterian Hospital shortly thereafter. I am jointly examined by Turner and Ottenberger. Despite my astounding survivability, the physicians detect nothing that could possibly account for my strange capacity for surviving otherwise mortal injuries. Turner is astounded at the photos taken preoperatively versus my postoperative rate of healing. He explains to me the finer details of the Lazarus Project and is insistent in his wishes to study me as the project becomes closer to its fruition. I’m somewhat impressed by Turner. He is a fast-talking devil dog in every sense. Ottenberger, too, wishes to study me, no doubt for reasons similar to those of Turner, but it is clear to me that of the two physicians Turner is the true pioneer and innovator. They speak outside my room in hushed voices, though to me they may as well be talking through a loud speaker. I hear every word with the utmost clarity. I explain to Turner that, should I wish to become a test subject, I will certainly be in touch. Later that afternoon I sleep briefly.
I awake and discover my arms and legs have been restrained. The restraints are as paper dolls to me. I leave the confines of Chicago Presbyterian despite the wishes of several orderlies who attempt to subdue me. I try not to injure them, but it is inevitable.
The following day I leave Chicago aboard a west bound Union Pacific freight train. I carry only a few personal items aboard the vagabond express. Within the dark and deserted box car there is a sense of quiet calm. The train rolls along at 25 miles per hour, the rhythm of metal wheels upon metal rails is hypnotic. The solitude affords me time to reflect upon my life—or what is beginning to feel like multiple lives.
I think about Miles O’Bannon. He was young, far younger than I. He was a decent human being, a fine soldier during the great war, and a respectable officer of the Chicago police department.
Why was he was killed?
Why was I spared?
I reflect upon my actions of 27 June—the method chosen to stop the Bag Pipe gang, the number of slugs that pierced my flesh. And I ponder my specific motivation. Had I truly been concerned with preventing a crime? Was I testing the limits of my being?
Was I hoping to be killed?
I’d returned the fire, but only after I’d been fired upon more than 70 times. Was my return fire merely reflexive?
I have no answer.
Turner and Oppenberger. Physicians. Researchers. They see me for what I am—something not quite God but more than human. What am I?
I have no answer.
I hop from the Union Pacific the following day, several hundred miles west of Chicago, and walk several hours to the nearest town. For the next 3 to 4 months I move from town to town, heading ever closer to the west coast. I work occasional jobs, earning enough funds to finance my journey. While I know not what awaits me in California, it is, at least, something I look forward to with curious anticipation.
NEXT: The Man Who Could Not Die continues.
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