Learning terror on the highways

Self-driving cars are racing into our future. They supposedly will cut fuel consumption, extend our suburbs yet decrease commute times, cut the number of cars on the road by more than half, ultimately make our roads safer and cure the heartbreak of psoriasis.

Scientists theorize that a car with a dozen or more computerized “eyes” that are constantly alert and instantly responsive will be safer than a car with a human driver with just two eyes whose response times vary because of distractions like sleep deprivation, cell phones, music, mirror checking and messy sandwiches.

In the meantime, we humans are going to have to continue to navigate our crowded, crumbling roads and teach our offspring to drive safely upon them as well. It’s an important, and potentially terrifying lesson.

In fact, I remember just how terrifying it can be.

The 1979 movie “Alien” was the most terrifying cinema I’ve ever watched. I was sure the monster was in the cat and I urged Sigourney Weaver to leave it behind as she abandoned her space ship, but she went back for it!

I didn’t know until the final credits rolled that the movie was over. I relaxed for the first time in two hours and my stomach was sore three days from the tension.

But I didn’t know terror.

I’ve been trapped in a July hailstorm above timberline on Pikes Peak with the trail disappearing beneath ice and darkness approaching. We couldn’t have survived a night on the mountain me and three buddies braved the storm, climbing, exhausted, to the top.

But I didn’t know terror.

When I was sideswiped on a rain slick interstate by an 18-wheeler on a cold dark night, I still didn’t know terror.

I’ve taken the subway from New Jersey into Manhattan at midnight, heeding a native’s warning to sit as far front and as near the conductor as possible. I perched on the scarred plastic bench holding my country mice eyes unseeing, straight ahead. I pled silently for a cloak of invisibility to drape over me and to cover the neon sign I knew flashed above my head saying “Easy Mark.”

But terror remained only a textbook definition, a movie subject, an Edgar Allen Poe concoction. I only thought I knew terror, like a boy thinks he knows love.

Then, I took my 15-year-old daughter driving for the first time. And I discovered terror.

I grew up on a farm, driving tractors and trucks in the field from age 11. I learned the levers and pedals that made things go in slow-moving vehicles, in wide open spaces.

I had no idea until that first driving lesson how narrow are the roads or how close to the roads are mail boxes, or how sharp are the curves and how abruptly the pavement drops at the shoulder, or how wide are oncoming vehicles.

In the very first moments, after Erin adjusted the seat, mirrors, seatbelt, radio, sunglasses and hair, and figured out which pedal was go and which was stop, she almost took out one of those mailboxes. Fortunately, the ditch we rolled into on the other side kept the box safe.

It’s a helpless feeling, to be sitting on the rider’s side, with no brake and no steering wheel when all manner of disaster careens at you. I pushed a size 10 footprint into the floorboard when Erin didn’t seem to turn the wheel enough to accommodate the slow rolling curves. Unlike a 3-D movie simulation, these terrors really can jump off the screen like a Velociraptor to bite off your head.

I told Erin to ignore the cars on her bumper, and not to fear the ones coming toward her seeming to take up the whole road. When they get closer, you’ll see the road really is wide enough for both of us, I assured her. And the bridges only seem too narrow. And 30 miles per hour is fast enough!

You cannot imagine how dizzyingly fast 40 mph seems to a dad when his first time driver is behind the wheel.

To her credit, Erin finished the one-hour session with a new appreciation of how difficult and mind bending it is to drive well – a task that looks so easy when observing an experienced driver. She made a lot of progress and our next session was much easier. (I won’t go into the part about trying to teach her how to drive a stick shift.)

And importantly, I was reminded that the best way to overcome the terrors that lurk “out there” – under the bed, around the corner, in the operating room, on the next calendar page, when the phone rings, when your wife says “we need to talk” – is to face them. Get in the car with them and stare them in the eye while racing down the open highway.

Of course, it’s better to have a brake pedal on your side when you do.

 

Healing power of the right word

I suffered a pretty awful accident May 14 while following my grandson on a mountain bike down an open, sloping field on his parents’ property.

We’d been tooling around for an hour, just enjoying a simple ride on a perfect spring day. Who needs a helmet for that? Well, Grayson wore his because he told me, “Safety first.” I should have listened.

He led me to the top of the hill, launching from his uncle’s driveway down through the field. I took a moment to soak in the sight and relish the feeling. His joy was palpable.

He was out riding with his papa, atop the freedom of his wheels and the thrill of a downhill slope. Giving myself just a moment to appreciate the scene, I took off after him, cutting a new path to the left of his line.

A lip at the edge of the field dropped several feet. I intended just to ride it down, hanging on tightly to reach the broader, softer slope. I didn’t see the hole at the bottom until it was too late. In an instant of clarity my brain registered, “This is not going to be good.”

My front wheel hit the hole and the bike stopped dead. I kept flying toward the ground like a spear and landed on my head

Grayson ran back up the hill to see if I was all right. “No, Grayson, I’m not all right. Go get Nana.” I felt like someone had hit me in the head with a 2 x 4 and that I’d lost six inches of height from having my spine compressed.

Within moments Nana pulled the Subaru into the field beside me. She sent Grayson to his uncle Bubba’s house at the top of the hill for a towel to stop the bleeding and for an additional hand to get me into the car. By this time I’d surveyed my extremities, all of which functioned, so I knew long term I would be fine. But, oh, I hurt.

Later tests would reveal fractured skull, cracked vertebrae, bruised spleen, lots of abrasions and cuts that required 10 staples to close. But for now there was just lots of activity with the other grandkids and Bubba and his wife, Sonya while we debated calling an ambulance.

In the midst of that hubbub I heard the sweet voice of 7-year-old Grayson saying, “It’s my fault. I should have told Papa about that hole.” I reached for Grayson’s leg and told him never to think that. He bears no blame.

But during the next 15 hours in two emergency rooms and calls back and forth among family, I kept hearing that Grayson was feeling responsible. That is a heavy burden for a bright, sensitive seven-year-old. It saddened me that he felt that way.

I was released early the next morning and went home with a neck brace to rest and heal. Grayson’s mom and dad, who had been out of town celebrating their 12th wedding anniversary during all the excitement, brought the kids by the house to see that Papa was OK. I knew I needed to find the right words to relieve Grayson of his self-imposed burden of blame.

His face was painfully tentative when he saw my brace, staples and stitches and he was wondering how I would react now that I was upright. In an instant I smiled big, held out my arms and loudly said, “Grayson, my rescuer! You’re the one who rescued me when you went for help! Thank you, buddy.”

In that instant his face transformed from hesitant to happy, from reluctant to rejoicing, from tentative to triumphant. He went from self-blaming to knowing he contributed to my being OK after a bad spill.

Choose your words carefully. A well-chosen word has the power to heal. A quick, harsh word has the power to destroy, to tear a hole in the cloth of confidence.

I know people who still labor under the self-image an angry parent imposed upon them 50 years ago, rather than with the reality of the bright and beautiful people they are today.   Grayson is young and aggravating sometimes because he is so intelligent and curious and he insists there is nothing he cannot do.

But from this day forth, no matter how many times I huff and puff and say, “No, Grayson, you cannot use the chainsaw,” he will know that on May 14, he rescued his papa.

Hold the Ladder

Hold the ladder

 When I came back from a trip to Bihar, India, I thought I knew that in those dusty villages with dung-daubed mud brick walls lived the poorest people in the world.

Then I went to Haiti after the earthquake.

I was convinced then that in those barren tent cities with no apparent water source, no services and acrid smoke permeating the humid, tropical air lived the poorest people in the world.

Then I heard K Brown’s stories and saw his pictures from Ukraine.

Once more, I knew that in those frigid and muddy streets twisting without rhyme or reason between leaky shelters cobbled together with nails, wire and plastic lived the poorest people in the world.

I think I’m right this time.

After his first trip to Ukraine, Brown, a masterful video story teller, brought home haunting images of the murky, fetid streets and shacks of the Roma village in Mukacheve. Their Ukrainian neighbors consider the Roma, or gypsies, untouchable. But Brown and his team found them so winsome, transparent and hungry that he has become a regular visitor, planning and bringing medical teams and vacation Bible school workers back every year.

So often our mission trips become a four-act play of we go, we minister, we cry, we take pictures to prove we care. We leave behind everything we brought to be distributed among the people because we feel suddenly selfish having extra when they have nothing.

Dana Brown left behind more than her extra jeans. Dana, who assists her husband K on most of his documentary journeys, is the victim of a genetic defect — cardiomushextremis. Basically, she suffers from an extremely soft heart, susceptible to the emotive vibes of the poorest among us, those who feebly cling to life’s fragile fringe.

Dana finds relief for her condition only in ever higher doses of gypsy children, administered through hugs and smiles that communicate more love without words than a common language ever could.

She paints fingernails, holding each little hand in her larger hand, skin on skin, dirt on clean, hope on heart. More than polish the kids want their hands in hers and they run behind a building and scratch off the color so they can jump back in line to have Dana paint their nails — and hold their hand.

Dana encouraged an older woman waiting on the edge to join them. She at first declined but Dana’s disease is communicable and the woman softened. When Dana reached for her, the woman clutched Dana’s hand and touched it to her lips, and cried as if she’d never seen love before.

In discussing the incident K said it is not unusual for a gypsy’s only experience with touch to be harsh, from the scourge of anger or the hard discipline of a parent or spouse frustrated at the impotence imposed by poverty.

“Maybe it’s been a long time since the older woman felt the simple touch of kindness,” K says. “Maybe she has no one who snuggles up and says ‘I’m here simply because I love you.’ The tears mean something. I just wish I knew the whole story.”

K says all the noise and chaos of village life fell silent behind the tableau being painted between two strangers, with a brush of love on a canvass of common humanity. The only sound, he said, was the drop of tears into Dana’s lap.

K is inspired by the faith of gypsy Christians who see the hand of God caring for them in the worst of circumstances. A Hungarian translator keeps going back to the village “because I feel like I’m climbing a ladder to heaven every time I’m around them.”

K and Dana keep going back. They’re looking for others to help them hold the ladder.

(This story printed in the November-December 2014 issue of Herald, a publication of Baptist News Global)