For years, I was known as our football team’s triple-threat man – I’d get threatened three times before getting my lights punched out. No, seriously, I usually played center, the person who hiked the ball – and where my lack of speed was not a great liability to the success of the team.
One day at football practice, I was filling in at the position of defensive tackle. The offense ran a play in my direction, which featured me as the main defensive person that must be removed from the ball carriers path. There was a collision – between me, and about four of them. I immediately went down, driven backward into the ground, as was accustomed, but this time uncomfortably bridging a backward arch over a teammates helmet. Ouch … ouch, ouch, ouch! I felt something in my back give way.
As my teammates lifted themselves off the contorted heap, walking away and regrouping, I just lay there, looking up at blurry figures stepping over and around me through my helmet’s facemask. This was weird. What had happened? The scene was kind of spinning and I heard the coach yell, “Snee, you can get up now. The worst is over.” Still, I just lay there, not in defiance of the coach, but because something inside told me to not move. A group of coaches surrounded me, looking down. After some discussion and getting me to answer some questions, they conceded I could be hurt. One left to phone the paramedics. Finally an ambulance drove onto the practice field. The paramedics, with some help from my teammates, scooped me onto a stretcher, uniform and all, and loaded me into the back end, strapping me in and asking me questions, like, “Where does it hurt?”
Now you may think that an ambulance service having well-trained paramedics who are delivering a spinal trauma patient to the emergency room, would give that patient a gentle and smooth ride. Not so. I never knew that any ambulance ride (my first) could be so rough and bumpy. Everyone inside was hanging onto those chrome stability bars to keep them from rolling around and flying out the back end. It was intense. I could feel every frantic swerve, sudden braking, pothole, drainage grate, asphalt repair, and curb being struck for those 6 miles to the hospital.
After some x-rays and some accompanying treatment in the hospital emergency room, the conclusion was that my spine was okay. “You had a muscle spasm,” I was told. Being age 16, I still didn’t know if that meant whether or not I’d be able to walk again. I was also told my dad had finally been reached and was on his way. I remained nervous and silent, still frightened. But now I was struggling more with the memory of that ambulance ride than from my injury.
Dad arrived, which calmed me, as the staff continued rigging a back brace onto me while attempting to reassure us both that there was nothing to worry about – my back would be sore for a few days. Other than that, fine. Shortly after they released me.
With me sitting upright in the passenger seat, Dad drove us back home overlapping most of the same route as the ambulance had taken, but being very cautious not to jostle me. I appreciated that, eying those ridges of asphalt and valleys of manhole covers. Dad seemed preoccupied. “They said I’d be okay,” I reminded him. “That’s right,” he agreed, keeping his gaze forward on the road ahead. “But something else happened.” He fell silent. “Well, what happened?” I asked, feeling the car crossing some ripples of pavement and getting ready for some pain, which never came.
On the way home, Dad started to tell me what happened to him before getting the hospital’s call. “I was working in the building out back,” (we lived on a small farm), “and Laddy came up to me and whined.” Laddy was a collie, the dog I’d grown up with from the time I was eight. Through the years Laddy was very protective, but he was a playful and loving family dog. Dad went on, “Laddy whined some, then some more, then he started barking at me, trotting out of the barn, then turning around and coming back, still whining and barking.” I asked, “Like when Lassie wants Timmy to follow?” Dad nodded, “Yeah, kind of like that. So I started to follow him. He was leading me toward the house and I thought something must be wrong inside. I got to the door and Laddy followed me in. The phone was ringing, and it was the hospital calling. They told me that you’d gotten hurt and that I should come right away.” Dad didn’t say anything for a moment. “When I hung up the phone, Laddy just laid right down. He seemed calm again, like nothing had happened.” Dad was silent.
I’m not sure what my first comments were to Dad’s story. Dad never talked about weird things. His world was made up of the five senses we’re always taught about, and his judgments were either black or white. Shades of gray never found a home in his thinking. At least, that’s what he always said, telling us that ‘gray’ was for idiots who couldn’t decide anything.
This particular moment with Dad was a novelty, a bridge in my thinking and perhaps his, too. I never knew that Dad would experience something so ‘gray’ – something completely defying his authoritative black and white outlook – an outlook that I often found myself trying to imitate. I never knew that I could have a sort of cosmic personal experience with my dog, Laddy. And I never knew there was something unseen, some kind of force at work, surrounding us through the love we share.
From that moment on, I wanted to know more.