Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Life's Choices

It was about four years ago, one of those flawless winter afternoons, the sky crisp and heavy with thought. Coming back from work, I was hurrying to get home. Even though the day wasn't late, it had started very early and I wanted to get home to my black lab before he was doing the Barkley Bladder Boogie. So I took the shorter route on the freeway to get towards home, anticipating the glare of the setting sun when the sky turns to diamond brilliance for a few minutes, intensifying the sound of the truck engine bouncing off the cooling pavement. I was just below the speed limit, as speeds traps were rife through here, the windows up, YoYo-Ma playing Vivaldi quietly on the stereo. So many thoughts going through my head.

The scene I had just left was not a good one and knew I would be carrying the sights and smells of the day with me on the drive, perhaps hanging those thoughts of them up somewhere this evening so I could get some sleep. I needed to think about other, happier things. I needed to stop at the store and get some milk and paper towels on the way home. I needed to give a friend a call back. But I wasn't thinking about my home and my Barkley home on the couch.

He's the keeper of the sofa, guardian of the throw rugs, and something I never planned on getting, but I did, suckered in by the litter of black fur. The first night home, he slept on my chest as I lay on the couch next to his prepared little kennel of which he wanted no part. I felt the gentle thump against my chest, for he began to give me his heart that very first night, and he, mine.

Then the days became weeks, and then months, and before you knew it he was my protector, not the other way around. On those days, when the reality of another sanguinary day takes hold, I could escape into the loving affection of a simple game of fetch or a nap for two on the family room couch. That safe spot buffered me, hid me, helped me distance myself from anything that troubled me, while he and I both left the past in bounding leaps of faith and joy. But, that night, as I drove along the freeway, I wasn't thinking about the doggy greeting I would get when I got home, Barkley yipping for joy at the sound of my big black Chevy truck coming up the drive.

I used to have a VW Jetta, until I moved to where the drive to work involved two lane highways, head on traffic, and little to no plowing before getting to the main freeway into the city. Looking at oncoming traffic as I fought for traction on a road not always plowed, it hit me. Not the subtle detection of nature's wrath I've sensed in the woods when I've picked up my gun and moved quickly to shelter. It was something that had been lurking in my mind for some time, even as I made my way in haste through the dark. It was that perception of a large grill of a semi truck about to spring full clawed on me if it crossed the center line. I realized suddenly how tiny my little VW was and how little chance I had of living if I hit something bigger than I.

Then a couple days later I hit black ice. I was alone on the road, going pretty slow, but I still found myself suddenly facing 180 degrees from the direction I was headed but still in my lane. I'm really not sure how that happened. I know all the rules in a rear end skid, don't brake, steering in the direction of the skid, so that the momentum of the vehicle will straight you out. I think though, in this case, I simply closed my eyes and muttered increasing loud four letter words as my hands did something with the steering wheel from muscle memory.

The next day I bought the bat truck. Four wheel drive isn't my personal savior but I now looked down ON some of the other trucks. It had an extended cab and four doors and big tires. It's as nimble as a Humpback whale. But I bought it to haul stuff and for protection around me, not to play Speed Racer on the interstate.

What we drive is a deeply personal thing. For some, a car is nothing more than transport, Point A to Point B. For some it's a need to show off to the world some image of yourself that only you carry. For some it's custom license plate with a useless Humming SUV that is no better at serious off road antics or warfare than the Smart Car.

I've a truck for squirrel usage when needed, also 4 wheel drive, to get into places that people just don't want to go. I've gotten used to a big truck, and find myself feeling strangely small and vulnerable in anything else.

I feel the same way when I go out without a weapon on my hip. I notice how small I am compared to most men, and certainly most criminals. I've felt it in a city where I could not carry, walking faster, head up, trying to look confident as I swim in a river filled with sharp toothed predators. Kick and stroke, kick and stroke, no fear of drowning, just a fear of the sharks out there as I move, vulnerable as a small minnow in a deep river.

There's nothing worse than the feeling of being small prey, when you have nothing of tooth and claw to protect yourself. I was walking in the woods one night, unarmed before that day I fully understood just how far down on the food chain I was. As I walked down a trail towards my car, I got the sense of something following me. There were no big cats in this part of the Midwest, though I'd heard a coyote way off in the distance, but it set my feet on edge. I heard something behind me, sudden, soft, movements. I stopped. It stopped. It didn't sound big, but still the hairs on my arms stood up. I moved, it moved. I stopped, it stopped. Coyote? Evil Penguin from Wallace and Gromit? Feral cat? Elf on meth?

I couldn't help share the survival instincts of the coyote and a small rabbits quivering role in our precarious world. A world in which the soft and innocent can get snatched out of at any time, grabbed in an explosion of pain. I had no defense, nothing more to protect myself than a set of car keys.

How old is fear? How acquired? And when do we stop listening to it? Somethings running through me that defied predation. The night gathered, rabbits run away, and behind me something moved, a fuzzy harmless woodland creature, or something with eyes as flat as dried blood. It was not a good feeling. I may be college educated and a citizen of the most powerful nation on earth, but on that dark night, I was simply a young woman alone, flesh and blood.

I turned around and turned on my flashlight, scaring the absolute stuffing out of a tiny little porcupine. Hardly more than a baby, he was more afraid of my big form, than I was of his little one and quickly scurried away with a shrill squeaky noise. But after that, I didn't walk the woods unarmed.

I do think I walk differently when I'm armed. I don't open carry. That's a deeply personal choice as well, but just as you don't advertise a punch, I don't like to advertise what my capabilities are. I don't carry in my purse either. I'd probably find my gun in there as quickly as I do my keys and the perp would have already stepped over my body, pawned my gold necklace and had a beer, by the time I got my firearm free from the bowels of my oversized purse.

But I do walk differently, with more confidence, head held higher, hands as free as I can make them. I normally carry even with Barkley with me. More than one woman has disappeared with a dog by her side. Barkley is deeply protective, but I don't know if the Labrador retriever, by general nature, would sink his teeth into someone trying to grab me. Should my attacker be asthmatic and have issues with pet dander, well, the bad guy would be toast, but I'm not willing to run an experiment to find out. So when I'm walking him in early morning, when the neighbors aren't out and about, I carry. On those early mornings, just before daylight, when that dark and solitary suspension of night shifts and brightens with the tentative wakings of both birds and men, we are out. He with his teeth, and I with mine.

But I wasn't thinking about that on that drive home that day, or Barkley. As I left a small road to get onto the freeway, as trees released the load of snow from sagging shoulders onto a road spotted with ice. Four wheel drive won't help me with ice, but I was aware of the might of steel around me, should I end up in a ditch.

The freeway is busy, but not backed up, cars zipping past me at 70 mph. Then there, up ahead, half a mile or so, the flash of numerous red tail lights, and with them my pilot brain went into "master caution" mode. Less than a quarter mile ahead of me, a delivery truck swerved a bit, the car next to it did likewise as if trying to see what was happening up ahead. I eased off the accelerator. There was a young girl in a tiny car behind me, I'd noticed her as I'd passed her, twenty something, chatting on the phone, not a care in the world. I couldn't see anything abnormal ahead either, only experience on the road caused me to take my foot off of the accelerator and tap the brake light, hoping she would see and get away from my bumper.

That phrase "it happened in a blink of an eye", didn't take into account how fast an eye could actually blink. Some one had lost a chair from the back of a truck, a recliner, laying there now in the middle of my lane up ahead. There was truck running just ahead and to the right of me in another lane. If I hit the brakes hard, I could tuck in behind him, but then the girl in the tiny car behind me would likely smash into me if she didn't see the brake lights, or simply plow into the chair. I think the chair was bigger than her car. My only other choice, to hit the horn and swerve around the chair into the left lane, hoping she would see or hear and do the same; hoping I didn't lose control on a slippery road. She was likely still on her phone, not paying the slightest attention to what was unfolding.

My truck was in tip top shape and the brakes are as reliable as they can be. After years as a pilot, my reflexes were developed to make instant movement, with my brain able to calculate time, speed and distance in a way honed by landing a large chunk of metal onto a tiny surface at 123 mph.

In that blink, I was not thinking about driving into my driveway, happy to be home. I was not thinking about where all these vehicles were headed, and so fast. I was thinking about the rest of my day, of fractured steel, and fragile lives, the structure of bone and skin and tears. I've seen fate dive down from the heavens and felt the disastrous beating of its wings. As a pilot, I myself have fought it off with the advance of a throttle, or the jamming of a brake, split second choices that result in clear sunny skies or shattered ruin.

I did not think of my beloved Barkley waiting for me there at home. I thought of blood and bone and tiny fragile vehicles that carried someones heart. I thought of nothing and everything, as simply and ungracefully, I swerved around the debris in the road.

Fortunately, the girl behind me did too, and it was just another bad day of driving in the Hoosier State. But there, in only instants, lives can change. The world may appear to go by as leisurely and randomly as cattle or clouds, but within it are moments in which one single decision may save or break us. It's there in that moment where fear becomes action, as we gauge a threat as if there was nothing else in our vision or our future, save that.

As my heart slowed, I looked at a photo of a black dog in the visor of my big black truck. I pat the gun on my hip, small things, big choices, that keep the chance of being hurt from finding us.


  1. Those reflexes will always be there... And thankfully so...

  2. Oh, boy, I've BTDT so many times in my driving career it would take a book to list them all!

    And all the time I spent on a racetrack in my youth has served me well.

    The day the Mrs and I were coming home from getting our wedding license, we were driving down the freeway in the #2 lane (the "fast lane" is the #1 lane out here), and some guy in an old Trans Am went barreling by at well over the speed limit. Something didn't seem "right" about the way his car was handling, so I slowed a bit and moved one lane to the right.

    Several seconds after I did this, I saw huge cloud of smoke/dust just up ahead, and people were dodging something every which way.

    The guy in the T/A had blown a tire, gone into the center divider, and was spinning out of control across all five lanes of traffic.

    My old instincts popped up to the surface, and as my wife was screaming and assuming a fetal position, I calmly drove around and through the mayhem, and we continued on our way.

    To this day, she doesn't believe you can toss a Jeep Grand Cherokee around like a sports car if you understand how to drive it like one, and puts our good fortune on 100% luck.

  3. And since your also in the snow belt, if you are just relying on "all season" tires....don't. We changed all three vehicles and both kids "Mom Vans" to true winter snow tires, complete with off market steel wheels. Big, no, HUGE difference in handling. Consider it before next winter.

  4. I am always amazed at the quality of your writing. You put we humble readers right there by your side. Evocative with a clarity which is breathtaking.

    And always, words one can, and should, live by.

    Thanks Brigid.

  5. All of you here know what your comments mean but to OldAFSarge, who is not one of you who hang out with me outside of blogger, I have to say THANK YOU

    I sometimes wonder if I should keep the blog going. I'ts been 7 years and it's hard to maintain a steady posting rate. Losing my Stepmom, Barkley, Big Bro and soon, Dad,is a burden I carry. I will write when I can, but the next few months will be difficult. I am just so very thankful that you care and comment.

  6. Brigid, if you ever need to take a break from running the blog, believe me, we'll all understand!

    And we'll be here when you get back, too.....


I started this blog so the child I gave up for adoption could get to know me, and in turn, her children, as well as share stories for a family that lives too far away. So please keep it friendly and kid safe. Posts that are only a link or include an ad for an unknown business automatically to to SPAM..