I believe providence and misfortune wage a constant battle in our lives, with the winner ultimately determining our time on earth. Why, where and when they come calling is a mystery.
Not to put too fine a point on this, but fate has spared me many times over. A different roll of the dice and I’d be dead.
As a young man in the Air Force, I was part of the mission assigned to support a remote base in the Arctic Circle. While en route to our destination, one of the two engines of our military transport aircraft disintegrated in midair. The breakup sent oil and shards of metal slapping against portal windows, over the wings, into the bitter winter night.
To this day, I can’t explain how our pilots managed to fly that crippled airplane safely back to Labrador, Newfoundland, but I remember thinking at the time, “This ain’t right. No Arizona desert rat should meet his demise over Greenlandic sheets of ice.”
I didn’t panic, didn’t pray to a higher power, and didn’t offer any acts of contrition. I was too pissed off to pray, steamed at the prospect of why I had been singled out for this joyride.
“Destiny, you owe me,” I thought. But as it turned out, I knew precious little about providence and chance.
Shortly after that, fate came calling once again. Now stationed stateside, my duties included monitoring and inspecting fuel titration transfers at 18 Titan II nuclear missile sites in southern Arizona. Given the distances involved, I would hitch a ride on helicopters that routinely transported personnel and supplies to the sites. On one memorable trip the chopper torque levels momentarily wavered, causing incremental drops in altitude – akin to a suitcase on rollers thumping down a flight of stairs.
Time stopped, my fate interrupted as we descended. I couldn’t catch my breath, and didn’t – until the chopper stabilized and safely landed on the missile site desert floor. WTF. Breathe, boy.
Not that I’m proud of it, but, I’ve had one foot in the grave numerous times. In a lost decade marked by personal irresponsibility and self-indulgences, I’ve battled with drunken (white) undercover cops at a local watering hole and on another occasion, my buddy Larry (who happens to be black) and I were chased and shot at by black party crashers (drum roll) at a Christmas congregational event. I still can’t wrap my head around that one.
At yet another social event, a drug impaired “friend” of a friend, – unprovoked (I swear.) – pulled a knife on me. Apparently he didn’t appreciate what my Mother often characterized as “the shit-eating grin” on my face. Spontaneously, I channeled my old man, took my belt off, coiled one end of it around my fist and smacked the fool across the head with the silver-laden buckle at the other end. Game, set, match. Who could have guessed that my father’s boyhood beatings would one day prove useful?
To say I’m living on borrowed time would be an understatement. I’ve walked away from not one, but two head-on car accidents. And on several other occasions while driving at high freeway speeds escaped death by dodging all variety of ladders flying out the back of pickup and utility trucks.
And if air and earthly calamities weren’t enough, as a child, I was swept away in a rain-swollen desert arroyo. I was fortunate that an attentive older cousin was playing nearby, heard my calls for help, jumped into the torrent and pulled me back to the bank. One of many “don’t tell Mom” episodes in my life.
Animals, as well, have damn near killed me. I survived a multiple car rollover (avoiding a cow) on an abandoned desert road and spun off a rain-slick highway to avoid a murderous deer that jumped over the hood of my truck.
Much later in life I was damn near lost at sea during a monsoon while in a small boat that lay dead in the water. This could well explain what my therapist says is the source of my abandonment anxiety.
But in the most bizarre of incidents, as a teenager laboring in a cotton field during a severe thunderstorm, a lightning bolt struck and killed a co-worker standing not one hundred feet away from me. Inconceivable, given he had earlier saved me from harm by chopping off the head of a rattlesnake nipping at the heel of my boots. Go figure.
I guess this collection of events explains why my wife is hesitant to fly or ride with me, shuns river and ocean cruises, and steers clear of Arizona deserts and thunderstorms. She also forbids my smiling and gazing too intently at anybody at social gatherings – averting any possibility my sinister grin incites a riot.
The question I have is whether these events preface my purpose on earth. Why am I still here? (Not that I’m complaining, mind you, just saying.)
So, I wake up this morning to Virginia greeting me in the usual manner. Her preferred method of communication is to turn the lights on and off in different rooms of the house. Initially, I attributed these occurrences to electrical short circuits. But having confirmed our breakers and bulbs were in working order, and as these episodes increased and moved with us from room to room, a pattern readily became apparent.
These occurrences happened when we were discussing any number of family topics. And, depending on the exchange, Virginia would either turn the lights on (agree) or off (disagree). It finally dawned on me that she simply wanted to be part of the conversation. How cool is that? I think of her wireless electrical signals as matronly, a silent voice added to guide our deliberations.
You see, Virginia used to live and died in this house. It’s home to her. As neighbors, we knew her only briefly.
She was inquisitive and always sweet and kind to us, but it was clear that age would soon consume her.
After her passing, we purchased and took up residence in her house, and to date, she continues to illuminate us with infused enlightened energy.
And now that we’ve readily accepted her as part of the family, she’s become even more mischievous, pushing open and closing doors. And when she requires our acknowledgment of her presence, she emits a cool breeze and a fleeting silhouette against the wall. It freaks me (and my dogs) out sometimes. All the same, she’s a welcomed member of the family for as long as she cares to stay.
So all this got me to think about demise,departure, and destinations of loved ones, as well as an eerily numerical peculiarity that followed me throughout my lifetime and wherever I go: the set of numbers, 1111.
Now, from what little I understand, the sequence is associated with a dimensional portal. There’s no science behind it, only allegory. So why does it persist? And why am I always seeing the sequence? Is it a clue to the spiritual dimension of life? Or is it a sign to the level of consciousness or existence or an alternative reality? Is it a property of mass and time that collectively defines a separate physical quantity? Where does it go? Hey, how the hell should I know? I flunked Physics 101!
All, I know, is the damn number appears everywhere. I glance at my watch; it’s 11:11. I go to bed; the clock on the nightstand reads 11:11. I go into the kitchen for a snack; the oven clock says 11:11. I get into my car; the dashboard displays 11:11. I check my phone; it’s 11:11. All day and night, it’s 11:11.
I can’t escape it, even on vacation. While in London, we visited Westminster Abbey, and within that site, steeped in more than a thousand years of history, lay the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior.
The memorial honors those killed in the war and, as our guide dutifully informed us, the armistice ending WWI was signed on the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.”
If 1111 is indeed a portal, perhaps I’m an antenna, an intermediate channel, an unknowing cosmic medium – Yeah if only. But, knowing my luck, it’s more likely the numbers signify my mortality, that my ticket is punched and set aside and that I’m on a celestial deathwatch: tick tock, tick tock.
Further contemplation brought me to reflect on the deaths of extended family members. As a child, our father’s brother, my uncle, was killed by a truck that slammed into him as he fixed a flat tire on the freeway outside a town across the state.
Our father was devastated. As a 10-year-old boy, I witnessed him cry for the first and only time in my life. As my uncle’s younger brother, it was his familial obligation to retrieve his older brother’s body as soon as possible. That meant by air.
But our father was petrified of flying. As the eldest son, the responsibility was passed on to me. Thanks a lot. Reluctantly, I boarded a local farmer’s Piper Cub and experienced my first airplane ride.
I can still hear the droning sputter of the propeller and the wheezing intake of the engine and wondered how that flying piece of crap managed to stay aloft.
Fast forward, on the flight home, I remember gazing at the human specks thousands of feet below. As the winds buffeted the small plane, I kept thinking about the coffin squeezed directly behind my seat, turbulence rattling my deceased uncle inside. “How inconsequential are we,” I thought. To this day, it weighs heavily on my mind.
My mother’s brother Joe (Chuchi) also died in an auto accident. That’s when I first learned to cope. This time, it was personal. I knew and loved him. He was my favorite. He was my friend. He would sit with me on the steps outside our front door and razz me about my piano legs, tell me jokes, and let me sip on his beer.
He would listen attentively to everything I said. His eyes glistened when he spoke as if he knew something we didn’t – perhaps that his time was short. As was his nature he would often tell tall stories, and on occasion overturn secret family stones. I distinctly remember how he’d take long, deep breaths, his barrel chest inhaling all the air in the room – seemingly aware of the need to take inventory and stockpile all that five senses afforded him. I’ve always sensed that he knew an inexorable journey was forthcoming. I miss him dearly. He was a genuinely lovable character; authentic, down-to-earth, vulnerable and honest. Every family should have one.
My cousin Tommy died tragically, murdered in a drug deal. Even so, what a piece of work. He was the coolest S.O.B. I’ve ever known, straight out of Hollywood casting. Back in-the-day, when disco, Italian horns and chokers were in vogue, we use to frequent clubs up and down Speedway Boulevard, Tucson’s hippest strip. With his leather jacket, slicked back brown hair with blonde streaks and manicured goatee, he’d swagger into our favorite club, the Living Room, and women would swoon and men would gaze with envy. He was a player.
Night after night, he’d sit in the same reserved corner table; sip single malt scotch whiskey (neat) and watch the comings and goings of patrons. A great many obliged to pay a visit to “his” table – bees to flowers. But as fate would have it, his reputation and occupation – eventually got him killed.
On the occasion, we’d discuss our respective families, but more often than not he’d wander off, lost in the cloud of a cocaine high.
Tommy was a quixotic mixture of illusion and reality. He viewed his romanticized life and “services” as respectable, even noble. Peering over the rim of his drink, he’d flash his Cheshire cat grin, and murmur, “Freddy, life is good – life is good.” Repeating it, as if in need of convincing. Who was I to question his depth of motive, reason, and despair? Innately, we both knew the clock was ticking: tick tock, tick tock.
My Cousin Danny’s teenage son also died under tragic circumstances, a drive-by shooting while waiting for a school bus. How incomprehensible is that, to have your child die for no reason?
Not on the battlefield, not fighting crime or putting out fires – but waiting for a school bus. Explain that to me. Of course, nobody can.
So, it’s been a pensive day of recollection and reflection. Human purpose and transience are heavy. Neither science nor secular philosophy nor religion holds the answers to the mystery of why we’re here, why and when we die, and where we go after our demise.
The more we know, the more questions there are than answers. Perhaps an ambiguity insulates us from ourselves, from our inability to cope with revelations we’re ill-prepared to handle. Perhaps we learn to live life in the face of loss. Perhaps our life isn’t about us at all, but more about what we leave behind.
In the interim, we muddle through; hoping that elucidation from whatever source provides us clues in our pursuit of reason. Well, it’s 11:11 p.m. and my office lights just flickered, a signal that it’s time to put all of this to bed.
Have a good night, Virginia. I enjoyed our heart-to-heart; kindly turn down the lights. See (feel) you in the morning: tick tock, tick tock.