1984: Invisible Badge


Given my razor/laser memory it may seem odd that I don’t remember much about 1984  but then there wasn’t much during that year that I feel like savoring. It was a very difficult year – I had left a good career as an Army officer and was encountering more difficulty than  expected  getting my freelance illustration career up and running. Before I left the army I had lined up several paying projects but six months into my new career I had run out of work and was having trouble finding more.

It didn’t help that I had been out of commission with a severe case of bronchitis during the late summer when most of the fall’s work in the gaming industry was assigned.  We also had some unexpected major expenses that played havoc with our family budget, a budget that was already in trouble when I wasn’t able to secure a pay-slot as a captain with the Reserves. I probably don’t recall much about that year because most of my spare time was spent struggling with depression, dividing my “down time” between deeply regretting leaving the Army and being unbelievably homesick for Alaska.  I was able to continue only because I had my beautiful Saxon princess to sustain me and two delightful sons – I could never keep a good funk going when they were crawling all over me playing He-Man and Skeletor. We had also made some good friends, a difficult task at best for non-Utahans living along the Wasatch Front so every couple of weeks we’d arrange a joint Family Home Evening where we’d play board games with another couple while our collective rug-rats would play He-Man with other kids for a change.

Such was the case when  we shared a Family Home Evening with John Taylor and his family. John was a senior non-commissioned officer serving the in the 1st Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group (ABN), a National Guard unit that was taking an excruciatingly long time getting me assigned to a pay slot as the battalion S2 (intelligence officer).  John was one of the few members of the unit that had readily accepted my presence so it was heartwarming when he and his wife opened up their home to us one January evening. The night passed pleasantly as we played games with John and his wife and it seemed too soon when it came time for us to be on our way home. It was a foggy, frosty cold night so Lori and I bundled the boys up in our little Audi Fox station wagon then sped out smartly on the interstate, hoping to get home as soon as possible…

…only to have the engine of our car stall and die on the interstate about five miles from the house. It wasn’t a total surprise; we had been driving the car at (close to) sea level for the previous four years and it was not running very well now that we were at an elevation that was at least 6000 feet higher. The frosty weather was also a factor; unless I regularly added a gas dryer to my fuel tank ice would form, then melt into water that contaminated the gas which in turn made the engine run poorly.  Luckily the car had stalled at the top of a long slope with an exit ramp at the bottom so we coasted down and pulled to a stop so I could fix the situation.

After checking to make sure that Lori and both boys were snug and warm I got out of the car and went to the emergency kit in the back of the Audi to fetch a bottle of HEET® gas dryer.   I had just started to pour the solution into the gas spout when I was startled out of my wits by the blast of an truck’s air-horn that seemed much too close – and when I spun around I was met with the glaring headlines of a commercial tractor-trailer rig that was barreling down the off-ramp, heading directly at our little Audi which must have been hidden from the truck’s driver view by the thickening fog.

(At this point I went into Tardis-time – when outside events seem to move at a snail’s pace to what I was thinking and experiencing inside…)

The truck was headed directly for my car where my two sons and my sweetheart weren’t just sitting in but were securely buckled into. There was no way that I could get to them and get them out of the car before the truck hit, but I personally had time to dive into the drainage ditch at the side of the road and safety. My decision took no time at there was no way I could/would save myself without my family so  I leaned back against the tailgate of the wagon, folded my arms, and waited for the impact…

…which didn’t happen. At the last minute the truck swerved to one side, passing us so closely that I was scattered with gravel and knocked off my feet by the displaced air from the truck’s passage. I waited for a moment or two to let my heart beat slow down a bit, then finished pouring the HEET® into the gas tank, got back into the driver’s seat and turned the key one more time. Our little marvel of Teutonic engineering started right up and we drove happily home, singing Primary songs with the boys and conducting a post-game analysis of the evening’s SCRABBLE®.

Between the late hour of our return, the cold night air and a cozy, toasty warm water bed I had little trouble falling asleep that night. I had almost dozed off when I realized with a start that I wasn’t as depressed as usual.  For a second I was baffled, but then I remembered the near-miss with the big truck. I’ve spent my life earning badges – emblems of what I held to be external indicators of my personal worth  – my letter in football, my jump wings or art show ribbons that all somehow never filled a void in my lift. That night I had performed the single most courageous action of my life by choosing possible death over life without my family, but no one would ever know about it and I certainly wouldn’t be getting any sort of badge – at least one that anyone could see.

It didn’t matter. It was OK – and my life was better for it.


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