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 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 obstacle in the ball carrier’s path. There was a collision between me and about four of them. Down I went, driven backward into the ground. This was not unusual. However, this time, I arched backward, bridging over a teammates helmet. Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch! I felt something in my back give way.
My teammates lifted themselves off the contorted heap, walked away and regrouped. I just lay there, looking up through my helmet’s face mask as guys stepped over and around me. Weird. The scene was 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 stay down. Soon a group of coaches surrounded me, looking down, then conceded I could be hurt. One left to phone the paramedics and 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 through the gaping doors then strapped me in. They were professionals and asked questions like, “Where does it hurt?”
You might think an ambulance service with 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 an ambulance ride (my first) could be so rough and bumpy. Everyone inside was hanging onto those chrome stability bars to keep 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 doctors said, “You had a muscle spasm.” Holy crap! A spasm? “Will I walk again?” They laughed, explaining I’d be okay and told me that my dad had finally been reached and was on his way to get me. Nervous, silent, I was still frightened, but struggled more with the memory of that ambulance ride than from my injury. I was glad it wasn’t taking me back to the school.
Dad arrived as the staff continued rigging a back brace onto me. We were assured there was nothing to worry about – my back would be sore for a few days. Other than that, fine, and soon they released me.
I sat upright in the pickup truck’s passenger seat as Dad drove home going back the same route as the ambulance had taken, but being very cautious not to jostle me. Ridges of asphalt and valleys of manhole covers practically disappeared.
Dad seemed preoccupied. “They said I’d be okay,” I reminded him. “That’s right,” he nodded and kept his gaze on the road ahead. “But something else happened.” Then silence.
“Well, what happened?” I asked, feeling ripples of pavement and bracing for pain, which never came.
Dad started to tell what happened before he got 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 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. It was the hospital. They told me you’d gotten hurt and that I should come right away. When I hung up the phone, Laddy laid right down, calm again, like nothing had happened.” Dad was silent.
Dad never talked about weird things. His world was made up of the familiar five senses and his judgments were black or white. Shades of gray never found a home in his thinking. He always told us that ‘gray’ was for idiots who couldn’t decide anything.
This particular moment with Dad was a novelty, a bridge in my thinking. Perhaps his, too. I never knew that Dad would experience something so ‘gray’ –– something that could completely defy his authoritative black and white outlook –– an outlook I often imitated. I never knew that I could have this kind of connection with my dog, Laddy. And I never knew that something unseen could be a stabilizing force at work, surrounding us through the love we share.
From that moment on, I wanted to know more.