It was one of those days when you hung another year on the line. Seems like they don’t matter much these days, unless they end in a zero. Then again, it was one of those days when once again you saw what’s important in life and why you stay in this tiny corner of America on the Redwood Coast.
For me, the day started several weeks ago. I was driving up the 101 to a friend’s house to watch the Warrior’s ill-fated Game 6 with Cleveland. Stopped at the Wilson Lane intersection, waiting for traffic to pass, then an unseen WHAMMM… as another vehicle, doing an estimated 50 m.p.h., plowed into the back of my car, crushing the trunk into the back seat, breaking my seat as the back window exploded, showering me with glass.
Seat broken and horizontal, I rocket across the highway, unable to feel my legs to hit the brake, I black out, then come to, my face feeling warm and sticky, hearing someone say, “Put the cowboy hat over his face.”
I yell, “I’m not dead,” only to have a Fort Dick Fire first responder grab my hand and tell me “Jon, we’re here with you, we need to protect your eyes.”
Seconds later, you hear the jaws of life cutting through the side post and door, inches from your head, as the shrapnel spits off your hat. You lay there, telling yourself you can’t feel your legs and they’re cutting you out of your car and this can’t be good. Shortly thereafter, the EMTs slide a board under your back and you try to tell yourself the screaming pain in your spine is a good thing, maybe it’s not snapped.
From first consciousness to Sutter Coast Hospital, the first responders, EMTs, CHP and paramedics are straight up with you, while confident and reassuring. Things get fuzzy again, as your family arrives at the hospital and, through a gauzy, IV haze, you hear people talking about faraway places like Medford, Redding, Oakland and San Francisco.
Next thing, you’re in a small compartment, strapped in tight and it’s dark. You still can’t feel your legs or your right arm and hand. Sedated, you look out a port hole to the stars and a full moon, as you wonder if you’ve passed from this life, as the ice in your belly grows with the fear that is taking hold and you call out, “Is anybody there?”
From the dark, someone takes your hand in both of theirs and tells you you’re in an airplane and being flown to a spinal trauma center and it’s going to be alright. The face of the paramedic comes into view, smiling and kind, as she begins to tell you what happened, while the fear recedes with her taking charge.
Her partner takes a seat beside you, as the engines roar and we lift off. You begin to drift off, concussed, as the soft female voice returns, telling you to “Come back here now. Tell me about yourself.”
Seemingly moments later, you land in Redding where you’re transported to Mercy Medical Trauma Unit, the Cal-Ore Team staying with you all the way, your fears strangely abated by three unknowns who are no longer strangers.
Weeks later, on a warm Wednesday afternoon, a caregiver wheeled me into Azalea Park to pay my respects to the three fallen Cal-Ore heroes and their passenger, April Rodriguez, a loving mother and kind woman I had the privilege to know. The bagpipes played, as I thought of this community of people, the EMTS, paramedics, nurses, pilots, police, fire men and women and first responders, who are the first to encounter the sharp edges and carnage of this life, who through their courage, dedication, compassion and expertise, somehow put life’s pieces back together when tragedy strikes, as it did for this lone driver on U.S. 101 on an afternoon in June.
I listened to the representatives of the Cal-Ore heroes and admit to some tears during the reading of Michelle Tarwater’s letter to her mother, commencing with, “Dear Mom, If you’re reading this, something has happened….”
Like anything else that afternoon, it brought home the realization these people possess of the edge they walk, while protecting the rest of us. That and Cal-Ore President Sean Russell’s poignant observation of how many times the word love had been used by the preceding speakers and you knew that when April Rodriguez met the angels in the early morning of July 29, she was carried there by their Cal-Ore number.
I remember one of Walter Payton’s greatest runs was about 38 yards. He ran about 100 yards all over the field. He cut left, he cut right, he doubled back and forth and juked and deked all over the field and got 38 yards to the beat the rival Packers out of what should have been a 5-yard loss.
In a sense, that was Michelle, Debbie and Larry’s lives. They might have played it safe but chose a different path and kept going until they finally reached out and touched enough people to accomplish what they had been sent here for.
If there were ever three lives that were being laid to rest, it was them. They’ve earned this peace and a place at God’s table.
As I looked out upon the crowded lawn and hill at our other heroes and we beneficiaries of their valor, I couldn’t help but recall Lyndon Johnson’s statement when he decided not to seek a second term, choosing instead to return to his Texas ranch on the Pedernales River, a place, he said, “where the people know when you’re sick and care when you die.”
661-Tango-Charley. Last Call.