We were sitting ducks. A family of four sitting ducks, to be precise. The headlights were closing in on us. The jagged glowing eyes penetrating the darkness grew larger as the space between us was devoured by a metal beast controlled by an impaired mass of flesh and bones.
The blackness of night had held no air of dread, no sign of an impending crossroads. Each step, each breath, each word was not unlike any other minute, of any other night. A typical evening heading out to visit with the Ingram family. Four people sitting in the usual arrangement across the bench seat of a pickup truck, complacent with the illusion of control.
Life teaches the mind how to see potential and consequences.
The adult minds in the car knew seconds before impact. Tightening her grip on the small child sitting in her lap, the sound of Mom’s voice was not Mom’s voice. Her tone was unlike anything I had heard in my short life. The changing tone of a mother’s voice gets your attention.
“Oh my God! He’s going to hit us.” The sound of her statement is what I remember, not the words. I could hear her fear, her panic, her disbelief, her helplessness. Sitting in Mom’s lap, I was too young to attach definitions to the sensation sweeping through my body, but I could feel something not present prior to that space in time.
With little time to react, Dad looked for a direction of escape and drew the gear shift down to reverse. No time was left on the clock. The targeting light carried the fate of his family in the hands of a stranger driving a swerving, unconventional bullet.
We were sitting ducks.
The locals’ name for the intersection of Highway 55 and Highway 81 is The Y. Hwy 55 terminates at the curvature of Hwy 81 as the road changes its trajectory from east to north. I was about four years old when we sat at the stop sign at The Y waiting for life or death to be decided.
The bullet landed a glancing blow down the driver’s side of our pickup; the force shoved our vehicle toward the shoulder. When the bumpy ride came to a complete stop, emotions ranged from scared to relieved, from thankful to angry.
My brother followed Dad out of the driver’s side door as Dad headed toward the man staggering out of the car. Adrenaline and a primal instinct to protect his family possessed this man who had seen the grim reaper pass by the window of his pickup truck. Ordering my brother back into the truck, Dad proceeded directly to the yelling and cursing phase of the encounter. The stranger leaned into the passenger side of our pickup, the smell of alcohol floated onto our faces with each word exiting from the drunken man’s mouth.
“Are you okay little girl?” Frightened and clinging to my Mom, I did not have to answer. “Get your damn hands away from her!”, Dad yelled. His voice reflected assurance that compliance was not a suggestion.
My big brother was only about 7 or 8 years old at the time. He remembers the full name of the police officer attending the scene. My Mom remembers the drunk driver was a lawyer from Wichita and that he was released from jail the following morning. I only remember emotions; the sensation of anxiety rising from an unknown source buried inside the youngest years of my mind.
The devil is in the details. Derived from an old German proverb that translates to God is in the detail. If Dad had pulled up to the stop sign at the Y just a foot or two closer to the center line … If the drunk driver had veered two feet further to the north … A slight alteration of details and the course of this family’s life would have drastically changed in an instant.
I was too young to remember the details of the accident. And yet … throughout the next 50 years, I approach the stop sign at the intersection of Hwy 55 and Hwy 81 with trepidation. An involuntary, instinctual awareness of danger sweeps over me; breathing becomes shallower and muscles tense. Situational alertness at a visceral level.
Whether the details are hiding in the callousness of the devil or in the grace of God, facing fate head-on is never easy. Vulnerability lives at the intersecting Y of two curving directions.