Done Nothing by (3 Stories)

Prompted By Dangerous Deeds

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The most dangerous thing I ever did was the consequence of the most dangerous occurrence that ever happened to me.

The most dangerous thing I ever did was the consequence of the most dangerous occurrence that ever happened to me.

52 years ago, I was volunteering as an activity assistant at a county drug rehab center in Western Pennsylvania. The director asked me to take six young adults, 2 women, 4 men, heroin, meth, and cocaine casualties, who were nevertheless charming, intelligent, and funny-my favorite kind of people-to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s remarkable Falling Water.  It would be a pleasant, relaxing two-hour drive through the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania. I’d have to provide transportation, but the center would pay for gas. In those days I drove a Volkswagen Beetle. No room for seven. But my parents had a Chevy Malibu with bench seats that could easily hold six emaciated heads and a skinny hippie.

The day before the trip my parents had the Malibu serviced: oil change, tune up, wheels balanced, and brakes changed. The Malibu hummed through Perryopolis and Connellsville, but I noticed the brakes didn’t feel right. Sometimes, I needed to apply stiff pressure to stop. Sometimes not.  A young optimist, I drove on. For many miles there was no need to stop because we were cruising scenic rural roads.

We crested a high ridge and started winding down a steep incline. I applied the brakes, and nothing happened. The pedal didn’t go to the floor, there was resistance to my foot pressure, but no braking. I put all of my weight, both feet, on the brake pedal and nothing happened. The car gained speed; curves were hard to negotiate. I dropped the automatic transmission into low. That slowed us a little, but the car kept gaining momentum. I pulled up the emergency brake. Nothing.

I slammed the shift lever into park,  heard the transmission grind up, but the car kept accelerating. Thank goodness we were the only people on the road because we were all over it. I had both hands on the wheel, struggling to keep the car on the road. By that time everyone onboard knew we were in trouble, and no one freaked. No one cried or screamed. In a way it was mesmerizing.

On our right the landscape sloped into a deep valley; on our left, the hills rose over us. We squealed around a hard left curve.  Compensating, I almost plowed into the hillside, swerved back toward the guardrail at the edge of the slope. I got the car straightened out, but we were rolling fast, and I didn’t know if I could keep us on the road. Centrifugal force, ya know. It’s put Voyager 1and 2 into interstellar space.

Then… then something happened. Something that compelled me to do the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done.

I heard a voice, a kind, calm, peaceful voice say, “Let go of the wheel.”

Everything was happening fast. I was afraid, but in that furor a peaceful voice said, “Let go of the wheel.” Of course, I didn’t. I wrangled another curve. Then again, the voice said, “Let go of the wheel.”

I do deep breathing exercises every morning. Why? Because I’ve always been a breath junkie. There is something positively bona fide about lungs full of air. That’s what the voice was like. It was as real as breath.

So, very calmly, I let go of the wheel. Put my hands in my lap. The car swerved sharp right, went through the guard rail and as the wheels left the road, I saw a magnificent pearl wing pass in front of the windshield and the voice said: “Everything is going to be fine.”

We went through a small billboard and two small trees. A large tree stopped the forward momentum of the car, but since it was on a slope it rolled completely over one, two, three times, and finally came to rest on its crushed roof less than 10 feet away from a ledge that dropped about thirty feet to a stream.

Shocked silence. Incredibly, we were alive and unhurt. I moved. I said, “Is everybody okay?” Six voices answered “yes,” and then one said, “I scraped my ankle on the bottom of the seat in front of me.”

Then someone said, “What’ll we do?” The young woman in the back seat made an admirable answer. She said, “Let’s laugh.” We did. Then we slid out of the car because all the windows were gone.

A farmer and his son met us at the top of the slope. They’d seen the broken guardrail and stopped to help. They drove my passengers to Falling Water, where they called the police, a wrecker, my parents, and the rehab center.

The car was totally demolished. (The State Police report recorded the new brakes had been put on backwards.)  Yet, how did we walk away unscathed?  I believe we were saved by an angel. Does that sound ridiculous, naïve?  I’m a thorough empiricist, and by that I mean I will never disdain wonder because it’s not falsifiable. I heard a voice, more compelling than any I ever heard. I saw the wing.

I believe Something Other than luck saved our lives, in a situation that was outrageously dangerous.  An angelic shortstop caught us on the short hop.  As Frank O’Hara wrote in his great poem, “In favor of one’s time,” “that’s the angel/ that wrestled with Jacob and loves conflict/ as an athlete loves the tape.”

I assure you; I’ve never done anything like that again. I’ve never heard the voice again.  A passage from my favorite author, P G Wodehouse, sums up, for me, the experience of those tumultuous moments: “there was peace, the perfect unruffled peace which in this world seems to come to those who have done nothing whatever to deserve it.”

“Done nothing” is the operative phrase.

 

Profile photo of Zeque Zeque


Characterizations: been there, moving, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Thank you Zeque for taking us on that dangerous and breathtaking ride. You took your hands off the wheel and ceded control, and a better angel seemed to intervene!

    Welcome to Retro, hope to read many more of your stories!

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    Wow, that was certainly dangerous, but compelling. You had an angel on your shoulder that day, for sure. I absolutely believe what you are saying. I had an incident (not nearly as dangerous) like that happen to me when my children were young (more than three decades ago). Something unexplainable happened; I heard a voice saying, “Help me, help me”. I went and checked on my older son, who swears he didn’t call out (and I couldn’t have heard him even if he had), but was cowering under his covers because something had fallen on him in the dark. We do hear strange voices, commanding us to do things. Glad your angel saved you and your friends that day. And welcome to Retrospect, Zeque.

  3. I found the account quite credible and nail-biting, until the denouement. I’m glad you got out in one piece, and I look forward with great enthusiasm to reading more of your stories.

  4. Jim Willis says:

    John, this is an amazing story.that I missed first time around because of your pen name. I’ve heard a voice like that once or twice myself, as I believe most of us have, usually in moments if crisis. You take us along on your ride and tell the story well!

  5. Khati Hendry says:

    Well that is quite a story! I like the part about good and remarkable things (peace) coming unasked for, a transcendent experience.

  6. Dave Ventre says:

    This atheist since childhood doesn’t buy the angel theory, but it was a well-written nail-biter of a story nonetheless.

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