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anadyr

Serendipity

Posted by anadyr Dec 3, 2017

1963-Ford-Galaxie-muscle-and-pony-cars--Car-100925395-ae5e7e284ea2f3b9b7c5b95fd5a11880.jpgMy car’s radiator exploded, steam covered everything. The right front bumper crumpled, the heavy steel hood folding like tissue paper.  I’d just rear-ended a 53-foot long semi tractor-trailer that had pulled out in my lane but going only a third of my speed.  I was waiting for the engine block, the big, cast iron V-8, to come through the firewall and end my life. 

The truck driver, seeing that I’d hit him, gunned his engine so that the inertial force would be less.  I rammed the steering wheel hard, so hard that I flattened it.  I sat there stunned; knowing that my car would go up in flames, unable to move.  The truck driver pulled off the road, me connected to his massive rear bumper, a steel I-beam that showed no damage.

“You OK?” he asked.  “Didn’t you see me?”

I found it hard to speak, my chest hurt a lot.  I nodded, and then slowly climbed out of the crumpled convertible. “I saw you pull out, no signal,” I said my back hurting.

“Car’s totaled,” he said. 

I didn’t look back. 

“You wait for the cops, I’ll see if I can raise them on the radio.”  He returned to his cab, started his engine and with two tugs, disengaged my car from the truck.  I thought he might leave, and I’m sure he would have if a State Trooper had not been traveling the other direction, made a U-turn and come back with lights on.  He pulled in front of the semi, blocking his exit.  Got out of the car, told the truck driver to stay in the cab, then walked up to me.  I was leaning against my car, dazed.

“Hey, Roger, remember me?” he asked.  It was somebody that I’d gone to college with a couple years before.

“Yeah I do,” was the best I could do as an answer.  I leaned against my wrecked car.

“Let me handle this,” he said.  “Get in.”  He led me to his patrol car, and then put the truck driver in the back seat and we sped off to see the Justice of the Peace.  The driver admitted guilt, posted bond, and left with another patrolman.  My friend took me to the bus station, called my folks, and paid for my bus ticket back to Pittsburgh.

I spent a couple weeks at home in back injury rehab.  The United States Marine Corps, to which I had promised my military life, got wind of the accident and I flunked a physical at Bethesda Naval Hospital a month later.  Now discharged from the Marine Reserves the Army took me. In about six months I got a large cash settlement from the trucker’s insurance carrier.  Sudden wealth meant new friends and I was a minor celebrity at work.

One of them was a co-worker, Jane, who had never spoken to me for any length of time. She poked her head to get details about the accident, and then asked if I’d give her a hand.  Normally, that meant lifting or moving something, but I stood unsteadily and asked what.

“Blind date,” Jane said. John,, a fast-talking Navy Lieutenant in the office, had asked her out.  She felt he was too fast for her to go with him alone, but if I’d go along with her roommate as a foursome it might be OK.

“Where?” I asked.

El Bodegon, the Tavern, a Spanish restaurant on 21st Street Northwest in DC.

“OK,” I said with feigned enthusiasm. “As a favor, can John drive?” 

El Bodegon was fun, the kind of place where they pour wine in your mouth directly from the narrow spout of a kidney-shaped bottle. Until you choke. It was a good time, but not a great time.  At the end of the date we shook hands, my blind date and I.

Two years passed, and we saw each other twice, once by accident.  Another night we tried to spend some of my insurance windfall, but that didn’t work well.  I left for Fort Benning, the army, had orders to Vietnam.  She went on to other things including a boyfriend. 

Top-8.bmp.jpgThree years later in July, 1970 we stood at the ornate soaring altar of the Washington National Cathedral, her in a bright white Priscilla of Boston dress, me in a rented gray morning coat. I felt that old twinge from that accident.  She put her hand on my lower back and said, “It’s time.”  The pain went away.

anadyr

Details

Posted by anadyr Dec 3, 2017

Sometimes you feel it’s hopeless.  No, I’m not talking about that kind of despair that makes you think of ending it all, but the bleakness of life in general:  the negative news that fills the air, the sickness and death of good friends and total strangers, even the shortness of a cold winter day.

Life can be exhilarating, it can be dull.  It’s the dullness that makes you introspective, I think; when you’re busy and creative you don’t have time to meander down those dark roads.

The sameness of days leads to bleakness of nights.  It is Christmas, but not a very merry one.  I avoid television news as much as I can. I read the ads, not the front page in the newspaper.  I go to holiday events designed to lift the spirit, but there is something bothering me.  Christmas and then New Year’s parties are canceled because the hosts have come down with the flu. A single cow slaughtered in Washington State makes headlines, and I look carefully at every piece of beef in the meat case, buying none.

A friend discovers that he has cancer--the rapidly growing type.  I see him sitting up in the hospital and he speaks calmly of his faith, that God has given him a good and long life, and he’s prepared.  It makes him smile, and I guess I return that smile.  He’s only a few years older.  I make the comparisons.

Another person tells me about the sadness in his life, the lingering illness, and the pall that hangs over him.  We’re eating lunch and he struggles to hold then move his almost useless arm, the one disabled from a stroke. He needs time to walk up steps, resting when he does.  We talk about his golf game, the trouble he has playing, his rehabilitation, slow and painful. He too is just a few years older. 

A young friend needs a kidney transplant. He’s not much older than our daughter.  His mom tells us his brother is the donor.  It’s set for early February.  He’s still lead singer in his rock band, but he gets tired easily.  We pray that it will go well, for both of them.

A relative, a second cousin, is getting divorced.  Two young kids are involved; there are financial issues to solve.  Other than saying that I am sorry I feel that hopelessness we all feel when we get this kind of news.  Not the stuff that people put in the Christmas letters.

Christmas day here on the California coast is cold, and it rains.  I wonder if the outside lights will short out; if a tree will fall.  They don’t, it doesn’t. Sleep comes with difficulty, the morning too soon. 

This morning, like most, I’m walking along the beach in Carmel.  My jacket collar is turned up against the unforgiving wind, hat pulled low against my forehead.  Coming toward me is a determined man with two crutches, his leg amputated, moving as fast as he can, almost running on his other leg.  He says “good morning.”  I agree, tell him that it is. I stop by a bench, fight back tears, and walk again.

My little friends are waiting for me at home.  Nasty, obnoxious, but they are always there, watching me.  I open the plastic jar, the flurry of feathers and squeaks begin. Pushing open the sliding glass door to the deck, I reach in and pull out three peanuts, placing them in my outstretched hand.. 

The bravest one, a puffy Scrub Jay, flies to me, but instead of just grabbing the nut, stays perched on my outstretched hand, looking at me, turning his head from side to side.  I see his cerulean blue feathers outlined in a delicate dove gray; his eyes are ringed in a delicate white.  There is a white delicate eyebrow painted by a master. The Jay stays there at least thirty seconds, then flies away, peanut in his beak, squawking as he leaves.

CaliforniaScrub-Jay.jpgMiles van der Rohe, the gifted architect, was right, I guess, when he said that God is in the details.


anadyr

The Interview

Posted by anadyr Dec 3, 2017

“Wait here, she said curtly.  “He may not be able to see you today.”  She returned to her perfectly organized, highly polished desk, looking everywhere but in my direction.  She tapped a few keys on the typewriter, looked at the paper, apparently admiring her work, then began typing again rapid-fire, machine gunning another paragraph or two.

I noticed that every hair was in place, nails done, blouse ironed and sharply creased, the quintessential secretary, in the days when they were called secretaries.  She seemed to fit the spacious office, the one with the windows, and filled it with her presence.

I was here for an interview, subject to be determined.  The man was a legend, we’d met a few times, he’d nodded and that was it.  For the most part he was a name on the Agency’s organization chart, no more, to me.

The intercom buzzed, and allowing a few seconds, she leaned forward and said in a whisper, “yes, sir?”  The voice on the machine was slightly garbled and I could barely hear what he was saying.  She, on the other hand, was practiced at listening to her boss and recognizing even the most obscure speech.

As quickly as she let her manicured finger slip from the intercom button she stood and again recognizing that I was in the room looking smaller and smaller, said, “Mr. Hughes can see you now.” It was a scolding tone, one that personal secretaries to famous men used with lowly types to make sure that decorum was maintained in the outer and in the inner office. 

She pressed a hidden switch as I stood and I heard a loud click, signaling my entrance into John Hughes’s office here on the third, the executive floor.  I walked in and approaching his desk, offered to shake hands.  John suffered by debilitating arthritis but with every ounce of effort he could muster, stood and shook my hand.  He was under 50 but looked 70, frail and pale, bowed, walking with a limp.

His office was devoid of the “me” pictures that people of his stature seemed to collect and display: photos with kings, queens, presidents, citations and the like.  Just a few World War II captured German oils dotted the walls, the kind of paintings that the allies tried to give back to the new Germany but they demurred, wanting to forget the Third Reich and its artists.

John Hughes motioned for me to sit down at a long Mahogany table near his desk.  I noticed that he carried a small yellow pencil and a notepad, unlined in his right hand. He placed both on the table as he spoke.  “Roger, I want to offer you a chance to work with me on a special and important project.”  Not pausing he continued, “You come highly recommended by a number of people whom I trust, and I am sure you know, and that is good enough for me.”

“Mr. Hughes,” I stammered, “thank you for this opportunity. I won’t disappoint you.”

He looked at me above his tortoise shell colored glasses.  “Do you have a family, Roger, if I may ask?”

“Yes sir, I do. A wife and a baby daughter, sir.”

“Remember that they come first, Roger.  The work we do is important but they are more important.  Please remember that.”

“I will,” I said softly folding my hands on his polished table then lifting them to see if I’d left a mark.

“Go home and see them, tell them that you’re going to do something that might keep you at work a little late sometimes, but tell them that you care for them, and that you’ll be back soon.”  He struggled to get up, unsteadily grasping the arm of his chair.  For a minute I thought he was going to fall.  I heard my heart and his ticking clock measure the beats. 

“Thank you Mr. Hughes,” I said, again shaking his hand. “I appreciate your confidence in me.”

I remembered his words when for the next 18 months I was a slave to the project, working nights, weekends, through Christmas Eve and into Christmas morning, only calling my family to wish them a Merry Christmas. 

I stood proudly with him as he and I received the Agency’s and the Department’s highest honor for our work. In his remarks he took none of the credit, offering thanks to everyone else.

The John Hughes for whom I worked was the man who in October 1962 briefed President John F. Kennedy about the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba.  A young analyst, he was chosen to stand in front of a large image of the island, annotated with the location of the missiles.  Later, he would conduct the same briefing for a nationally televised broadcast. Like most men who have changed history, John Hughes was, at heart, a man who believed in family, and in the home above all else.  His sense of duty, that calling that makes men and women work incredibly hard for a cause, was passed to me during that interview.  I told his widow at his funeral that I appreciated his kindness and his devotion to her.  She nodded, knowing that it was so.