Godspeed, then and now
All day Monday we watched the news of Superstorm Stella. My son has a three day training session scheduled for Chicago he needs to run and I am coming along to assist. The media attention was on the Northeast, mostly Boston and New York, but off to the side, there is talk that Chicago was scheduled to get a few inches as well. We checked the web, called the airlines, and wondered whether or not to get on standby that night for a red eye flight, or just take our chances with the morning flight reservations we had for today, Tuesday. We didn’t want to scramble to do the red eye standby thing, and pay the extra money for the hassle, but with some of our trainees coming in on international flights, and already quite likely en route, we definitely didn’t want to cancel the training.
Even the red eye was going into the storm. My son and I pondered what to do – nobody was suggesting O’Hare would close and the airline wasn’t any help. My son’s wife thought we should just ease our minds and drive down to Seattle Tacoma International airport and get on standby. I was leaning that way myself. In the time of indecision, I finally decided: why not say a quick prayer, ask God for advice, and see if I can discern something from the all knowing and all loving being who watches over me?
Hundreds of books on how to discern the voice of God have been written by people smarter than me on the subject. Bottom line is, it’s never an easy thing to do. Each book has its own suggestions on how to discern and follow the will of God in your life, up to the minute, if you wish to be that precise. Stories of great saints of yesteryear who relied on faith and prayer are included in anecdotes as examples of God’s faithfulness. Usually, the advice is: sometimes He’ll give you direction, and sometimes He’ll kinda let you flounder on your own and in the experience of doing so learn to trust Him in ever deeper ways. It’s a hit and miss thing, although since the writer is an expert on the matter, more hit than miss. But we all know anecdotes in which the will of God was pretty obviously missed, despite us having the faith of a whole cup of mustard seeds. Usually, those who offer advice suggest you ask God, wait, quiet your mind, and observe whatever is impressed there. Or something like that. I’m a little too attention deficit whatever to do it well. With great silence comes great distraction. To do it well comes with practice, and observation.
So, silently I asked God what He thought. I waited with a semi-quiet mind, and the first thing that popped in my head is Buddy Holly. I recollected the famous story in which on a cold winter night in North Dakota, Buddy had a chance to take a flight out of some small town where he and other musicians on some all star rock n roll tour had just appeared, and get to the next town quicker. Everyone involved loved the idea, touring being the grind that it is, but only a few seats were available. The musicians fighting over the last seats flipped coins, or did rock-paper-scissors – not exactly sure, but I saw Buddy in my mind’s eye watching a flipped coin. Buddy won, got on the night flight and perished with Richie Valens and the Big Bopper in the winter cold. The next day, Don McLean brought the bad news onto your porch step.
Now, the lesson I took from this was NOT that the flight was doomed (it wasn’t), but that you can stress and worry about what the best flight to take is, but trying real hard to catch a plane on a cold snowy winter night for one’s own convenience isn’t always the best course of action. You just don’t know about life. We didn’t know if our, or any of the subsequent flights Tuesday would be cancelled. And, as i told my son, if our flight was going to be cancelled, chances were good we could catch another one as the airline and airport did what they had to do to get going again. Other flights were booked throughout the day, and anyway, Chicago was not the city getting slammed. Everyone was watching the Atlantic coastline.
I texted my son and told him I figured we shouldn’t worry. Go to the airport as scheduled.
We did, the next morning, pulled into the car lot, and then got the text that our flight was cancelled. Immediately my son started mentally pummeling himself:”I knew I should have flown on standby last night. My wife said I should. I should have listened to her, I knew I should have…” I apologized for my part in bringing this uncertainty into his life, and we dropped off the car and took the shuttle to the airport to see how they would accommodate us.
It was a mess of course. The problem, the staff told us, was not so much the runway and weather conditions as it was the condition of planes that sit overnight in frozen weather and then need to fire up. Not good. Whatever. I’m not an aeronautical engineer or anything. Anyway, my son used his MVP status to get the last seat on a plane to San Jose and then to Chicago, about 3 hours later than expected (he’s headed there now). The best I could do was book a flight the next morning on another airline and meet him in mid session of day one. As I write this, that’s about 16 hours away.
I got back to the car lot shuttle and picked up my car to return home until tomorrow. Now, I spent most of my childhood in the neighborhood on the hill just east of the airport. It was a fairly long walk, but I used to do it once in a while to pick up a copy of The Sporting News to read about my beloved Seattle Pilots and every other team in the nation (these were the pre-internet days). As I pulled out of S. 170th St. to take a left onto 99 and then to I-5 to my home on the other side of Seattle, the nostalgic heartstrings pulled on me to take a right up 170th. I figured I’d drive to Military Road, and take a left and get back on the freeway. A quick jaunt, because there was nothing in the old neighborhood I wanted to see.
But as I drove past the Halal market (hmmm…must be new, not there in the 1960s) and headed toward the very busy Military Road, I passed the street my old buddy Steve (aka Dan) lived on, and my mind took me back, to a cloudy Saturday late morning in the summer of ’69. I had wandered up that day to hang out with Steve, who lived probably about 3 miles away from me, much closer to SeaTac, and I was without my bike, a blue beater that probably had another one of its customary flats. I hooked up with Steve up at his house, which was always an experience. Like me, Steve came from a large Catholic family, who had somewhere between 6-12 siblings and a dog. Unlike us, the Bowers lived in a tiny three bedroom rambler: no basement/one bath. The boys shared one bedroom, the girls shared another one. Mom and Dad had their own, and the dog was on his own. Even for a boy like myself, living in a family of nine kids, this house was pandemonium, and I missed the refuge of my little personal bedroom my dad built me when he expanded the carport to house the growing litter. We could thus escape the craziness. But when I spent the night at Steve’s there was no escaping his little brothers, unless it was summer and we had our sleeping bags and slept under the stars – out by the junk pile of wood and nails from a previous structure. But, lacking amenities aside, it was worth it, because Steve was just about the best, down to earth friend a twelve year old kid could have. He had a great dad as well and a mom who was a saint.
On that day, Steve and I decided to head over across Military Road to a different neighborhood where our mutual friends lived. Although Steve and I attended the same Catholic Church, we must have went to different masses, or he played a lot of hooky or something because we also went to separate public schools and we actually never met until we both separately joined a Boy Scout troop located in a third neighborhood below Military Road. So, we figured we’d stop first at Tony’s, then maybe swing by Joe’s (who is now Cathy), and then perhaps hook up with Ron, who lived nearby in a home overlooking the Kent Valley with a spectacular view of Mt. Rainier.
It was a long ways to walk, but Steve had a bike. Hop on the back, and sit on my seat while I pedal, Steve prodded. And then, once on, he informed me it didn’t have brakes. “But it’s OK. I ride it all the time. We’ll be fine,” so long as we’re going flat or downhill, anyway. Somehow, being a dumb kid, he convinced me. If anyone knew how to make a little bit stretch and work, it was Steve. After all, he made living in that house with 6-12 siblings work.
Now, these were the days in which bike helmets were unheard of. I don’t know when bike helmets were invented but they weren’t introduced prior to 1969 in the United States. Probably not in Europe either, since Europe was still kinda pulling out of the Second World War, and dealing with the Cold One, and didn’t have time or money for such frivolities – when you are dodging Nazis and Soviets for survival you don’t tend to worry about bicycle headgear, and our teachers informed us that eating meat in Europe was a luxury, so if you ever find yourself there, don’t be an ugly American and demand meat. And, therefore, when you are a dumb 12 year kid who doesn’t want to walk to Tony’s and your friend insists he knows how to handle a bike with no brakes, well, you just tend to go with it. So, ok, let’s ride the bike…downhill…to Tony’s.
As I neared Military Road today, that earlier day flashed strongly in my memory. I remember flying down S. 173rd St., on a steep hill, toward Military Rd. South. The conversation, with me on the back end of his seat, went something like this:
“Steve! How we gonna stop before we cross Military Road?”
“I don’t know. We don’t have any brakes.”
“What’s your plan?”
“We’re going to go through.”
“What the *(&#(@3$?!!!! am I doing on this *$#%^!@!! bike with you!”
I looked down at Military Road and probably said a quick prayer, distracted as I watched a car go one way, and then a car go the other direction. Homes and trees and hills made it impossible for us to see who else might be coming in either direction, and they sure as hell could not see us coming either.
I gulped, and prepared mentally for the worst as Steve steered the bike through the intersection. Quickly the blessed street below our feet began to grade out, leveled with a broad turn, and as the instant of danger passed, I considered how lucky we were. Extremely lucky. We could have been splatted on Military Road, thrown yards toward who knows where, without bike helmets (whatever a bike helmet was).
I think about that day every once in a while, and then decided to return to the scene. I took the picture above, at the place where I figured we were either dead or lucky as all get out. And as I drove past Tony’s former home, I noticed, as I often do, how things look so much smaller as we get older. I remembered that street being a lot more steep, and even still the snapshot doesn’t really do the hill justice. And I then drove past another busy street of my childhood, S. 160th St., where my poor elder sister saw a poor kid who also never heard of a bike helmet get smacked by an oncoming car. He survived, barely, but suffered serious brain damage. He wasn’t so lucky and didn’t suspect the impending danger. It just happened. The key to riding bikes without helmets is, whether with our without prayer, to be more careful, and smart. And have brakes. Wear helmets, kids.
Anyway, I’m thankful I was able to live a good life, and share this story with you, about 48 years later. Still, it seems like it was only about, oh, 30 years ago. Oh, and Lord? Thanks for watching out for me and Steve that day.
So…why did I miss my flight? Maybe to share a story God wanted me to share? Maybe it just happened that way. But I need to wrap this up with a moral. So…here goes: Life is precious. Slow down when you can, and enjoy the ride. Know Jesus, and you’ll get there – the only “there” that really matters.