Losing a friend shouldn’t happen like this

Linda and I last year on our birthday.

A note of context: The recent torrent of anti-government sentiment and violence may be what triggered a memory from 1995. You may not remember the story of the explosions that rocked the office and home of a US Forest Service ranger in Carson City twenty-five years ago, although it did make national news and was the cover story in the LA Times Magazine. It was even the subject of an episode of “Unsolved Mysteries.” But some of us do remember, because it affected us. The targets of the explosions are good friends, Guy and Linda Pence (no relation)–a forest ranger and a school teacher, and the parents of three girls. The case was never solved.

This piece was originally published in The Nevada Appeal, Carson City’s hometown newspaper in 2000. I’m posting it here on February 17, 2021—a birthday I share with both Linda and her youngest daughter.

All my best friends move away; they get divorced or their husbands are transferred. All of them move, but not like this. Not with bombs and broken glass in the night and the FBI. Not like this.

The phone startled us late that August night. I looked at Don. “Where are the girls?” our eyes asked. But it wasn’t our daughters. It was a friend, co-worker.

“Did you hear the explosion? There’s been an explosion at Linda’s! Didn’t Linda call?” I hadn’t heard the car bomb explode, nor the front windows of the house shatter. Nor had I heard Linda’s screaming at her daughters. “Get down! Get down!” I hadn’t heard the sirens.

And now all I heard was my heart exploding in my chest as the normalcy of my best friends’ life broke into pieces like the shards of glass on her driveway and in her carpet. There was nothing I could do. I couldn’t bear to drive over and stand behind the police barricade with other onlookers in their pajamas. A phone call would be useless; it would most likely be answered by the sheriff. Linda, Colter, and Morgan had probably been whisked away. But were they hurt?

If Linda needed anything, I knew she’d call. I half-expected her to show up on doorstep—a refugee needing shelter for the night. I waited, only dozing until early the next morning. When I finally did talk with Linda, I learned that the sheriff had loaded the three of them into an ambulance, driven them a few blocks away and kept them there all night. Linda had asked the sheriff to bring them to my house, but he had refused. Not enough security.

So they sat up all night in the ambulance while the Sheriff’s Department and the FBI combed the front yard and the house for evidence. The FBI was involved because Linda’s husband, Guy Pence, a ranger with the U.S. Forest Service had been through this before. His office had been bombed four months earlier. No one knew for sure, but most suspected it had to do with Guy’s enforcement of federal grazing laws. A few long-time Nevada cattle ranchers were just angry enough at the new restrictions to try to scare Guy.

Oddly though, Guy was not home that night. He was on a pack-trip in the Nevada wilderness with their youngest daughter, Sitka. A helicopter found them and brought them home. When Guy arrived home he surveyed the damage to his house, his car. He looked into the eyes of his family and surveyed the damage there as well.

After the investigators left, the insurance adjusters and contractors showed up. Woodwork and drywall needed repair and paint. Windows, drapes, blinds, and carpets needed replacing. Linda tried to keep things going as if nothing had happened: trips to the beach, a birthday slumber party. She tidied and straightened busily, nervously, futilely trying to keep things looking normal. For months their daughters could not be left alone.

The FBI trailed the family everywhere: school, soccer games, friends’ houses. Some time later, when Linda and Guy came to supper, I looked out the window for security, expecting to see the unmarked car parked out in front of my house

“Where’s your bodyguard tonight?” I teased.

“Right here,” Guy answered, patting the revolver in a shoulder holster under his down vest. A year later, Linda would still keep a pistol beside her while she slept at night.

In the months following the bombing, investigations proceeded without success and the pressure from the Forest Service mounted for Guy to get out of town. They feared they could not guarantee his safety, nor that of his family. Furthermore, the publicity about the case and Guy’s continued presence in the office interfered with the work of the Carson District Ranger Station. And so, Linda and Guy sold their home and made plans to move away.

At get-togethers Linda and Guy attended in the days and weeks just before they left, we saw two steady, unemotional people who never wept openly, have their voices crack, releasing tears that belonged to us all.

At a last luncheon for Linda we all sang, “From this valley they say you are going…” not knowing she had sung this as a lullaby to her daughters. Her resolve not to cry melted into a stream of tears. We joined her in the flood.

“I feel like the Tin Woodsman in “the Wizard of Oz,’ Guy choked out at supper one night. “I know I have a heart because I can feel it breaking.”

You see, all my best friends move away. But not like this. Not with bombs and broken glass in the night and the FBI. Not like this.

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