Our carefully-planned, 6-week sabbatical had just begun when it came to a crashing halt. Literally.
Amy and I are fortunate to be part of a congregation that values sabbatical. Park Road Baptist in Charlotte had a policy in place long before we became co-pastors in 2000. We took the summer of 2009 with our sons, then 12 and 10, to travel and retreat and renew. We can affirm what a lot of secular companies are also learning: sabbatical works!
We were several years overdue for another sabbatical, so last year we began putting together another plan. The church approved it and gave their blessing. If anything in our marriage can be called perfect, Amy is responsible for it, so it’s no surprise the idea was hers. It was perfect. Our older son is finishing his college baseball career. We’ve seen him pitch, but we’ve also missed a number of his outings. Pitchers don’t throw every game, so when he finally earned a starting spot in the rotation, his turn to pitch was set for – wait for it – Sundays! (I suppose our prayers should have been more specific.)
“As I look at the pictures of the wreckage and mentally replay the accident in slow-motion, I don’t know how we walked away.”
So the plan was to hitch up our 23-foot travel trailer, follow Presbyterian College baseball for the last five weeks of the season, and not miss another single inning of our right hander’s fulfilling baseball career.
Not everyone loves camping, but everyone should. It’s cheap and wholesome. Camping people are nice folks, and what could be better than a quiet morning under the shade or a starry night by a crackling fire? I had another writing project in mind; Amy was going to catch up on some long-overdue reading. And we were just going to breathe deeply.
We loaded up and could hardly wait to get out of town. After a Tuesday home game, we hit the road the next morning for a 3-game series at the University of Pittsburgh. I’ve done a lot of towing through the years. Since the four of us are avid water skiers, I’ve towed our inboard boat thousands of miles. I have a 16-foot utility trailer (don’t all pastors?) that I’ve used almost exclusively for church projects, hauling mulch and lumber, a skid steer loader and a front-end loader that I have frequently borrowed from my uncle. And we had a small, 1965 travel trailer we had towed around North Carolina for years until we finally upgraded.
But all of my towing experience failed me as I entered the left lane of I-77 northbound, about 15 miles south of Beckley, West Virginia. I moved over to pass half of a double-wide mobile home that was being towed up the interstate. I passed the companion car, “Wide Load” emblazoned across the bumper. As I accelerated alongside the mobile home, the wind shifted suddenly and the camper began swaying side to side.
There is a common warning about this dangerous towing scenario. I’d seen videos of trucks being flipped after a camper went out of control. To try to correct the problem, I accelerated, decelerated and braked (though I’m not sure in what order). But I was unable to stop my truck from fish-tailing wildly alongside the big rig to my right.
I already knew we were out of control when Amy yelled, “Russ… RUSS!” Then, too quickly to even warn her, we hit the left-side guard rail going about 65 miles per hour. I saw it coming long enough to know there was a steep ravine to my left, to think “this is really happening,” and to brace, not so much physically as with a kind of fatalistic shock. The deafening, metal-against-metal crash was sickening, and the “whoosh” and shrieking skid of tires was disorienting as the back end of the truck was propelled counterclockwise across the left lane and through the right lane of the highway. As I realized we were being dragged backwards down the interstate, I heard the camper crash on its side. At some point the camper broke free from the truck hitch and both driver’s side wheels were wrenched from their axles.
Then, as if I were just pulling into my parking place at church, everything stopped. For a few seconds, all was quiet.
We had literally and quietly come to rest alongside the right-side guard rail. Our airbags never deployed. Neither of us had that tell-tale sternum pain from slamming into the seat belt’s shoulder strap. There wasn’t a bruise or a scratch on either of us. All four doors of the truck were operational, and there was no broken glass. It was just strangely quiet.
We looked at each other. We checked on our dog in the back seat. Then we looked out to see the windshield of the big rig that was hauling the mobile home staring right at us!
When Amy told the story the first few times, she recalled the rig swerving to miss us as it continued down the left lane. I had to repeat it several times before she believed that I had gotten out of the pickup and met the truck driver on the asphalt between our two vehicles where he asked if we were OK and then said, “Then I’d better get this rig out of here and clear the interstate.”
Amy climbed out and met me in front of the big rig. She squeezed me tightly and kept saying, “We’re alive! We’re alive! You saved our lives!” I have my doubts about that. I’ve replayed the wreck enough times in my mind to put me at fault in about a thousand different ways.
It certainly could have ended badly. What if the guard rail hadn’t held? What if our truck and camper hadn’t disconnected? What if that other truck hadn’t…? I mean, how do you stop a load that heavy and going that fast, that quickly!?
I don’t know the answer to any of those questions. I do know we walked away shaken but unhurt – and filled with gratitude.
Gratitude for life, in all its unpredictability and all its inexplicable twists and turns. Gratitude for luck or fate or probability, the right sequence of coincidences, all lining up at precisely the right time. Gratitude for research engineers whose understanding of the tensile strength of steel and concrete enabled them to design impossibly impenetrable roadside barriers.
Gratitude for the chemistry that develops high speed tires and brake pads. For passersby with quick reflexes – and cell phones. For state troopers whose job is to offer a comforting handshake and protect stranded motorists. For the rough hands and soft hearts of the guys who drive big-rig wrecker and rollback trucks, who offer helpful information and a load of grace while they deposit your total-loss truck and camper in the yard, including words of hospitably, water for the dog and a place to sit and decompress before all the insurance phone calls begin.
“We walked away shaken. We are still shaken today, but by the overwhelming weight of gratitude.”
Gratitude for insurance. And gratitude for church members who respond immediately in calls and texts, who collect redemption points earned in business travel and create a new itinerary with free hotel lodging for every night of camping lost.
We walked away shaken. We are still shaken today, but by the overwhelming weight of gratitude.
As I look at the pictures of the wreckage and mentally replay the accident in slow-motion, I don’t know how we walked away. Some people would tell this kind of incredible story, with its truly not-credible ending, and credit the soft landing to angels’ wings, to the intervention of something powerful and supernatural. If you’ve heard my sermons or read my writing, you know such an interpretation doesn’t fit my theology.
But I have no doubt God was with us. Frank Tupper, my seminary theology professor, taught me to say, “God always does everything God can do.” Amy and I are grateful for all God could do in guard rails and brake pads and quick reflexes, in caring strangers and in lifelong friends.
We returned to sabbatical, breathing deeply and inhaling more gratitude than we will ever be able to handle.