Monday, December 17, 2007


"Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing." Battered pilot Bob Robertson waits in shock for rescuers to cut him free from his plane after it disintegrated around him.

In The Right Stuff, the story of the Mercury 7 astronauts, Tom Wolfe related some stories about jet fighter flight testing in the 1950s. This was the time when the first supersonic fighters were being developed. Not much was known then about the aerodynamics of transonic and supersonic flight. Some of the early designs turned out to be unstable. They oscillated wildy - nose up, nose down - at transonic speeds.

Pilots found that they could not give control inputs in time to counteract the oscillation. By the time they tried to correct an upward oscillation, the plane was already heading down. The control inputs therefore only made the problem worse.

The pilots who lived to tell about it said once they figured out they were not going to be able to control the plane, they used the "Jesus maneuver." They cut the throttle, folded their hands in their lap, took their feet off the pedals and said, "Jesus, it's your airplane."

Sometimes the plane stabilized. Sometimes it didn't. Sometimes the pilots walked away from their landing. More often, they were carried, provided there was anything left to be carried.

Any stop you can walk away from is a good stop. The remains of my 2004 Chevy Malibu after spinning off Interstate 40 at 70 mph, Dec. 15.

Hard rain, a shallow left turn, I-40 West at Tenn. mile marker 171, near Dickson, 1:30 Saturday afternoon. I pretty quickly figured out that my control inputs were not doing any good. Looking through the windshield at other westbound traffic behind me was one clue. (Fortunately, the nearest traffic was 200 yards or so away.)

In one gestalt moment, I realize that I am wrecking at interstate speed and surely will not survive.

"Jesus, it's your automobile."

There were two or three high-speed revolutions on the road surface. All I heard was whizzing of the tires skidding across first the pavement and then the grass. The windshield went opaque from water and thrown mud. I hear two loud bangs and the car suddenly stops. I am surrounded by pine trees. I smell and see smoke. The car's on fire! Seat belt off, pull the door handle.

Nothing happens. The door's jammed. I see shattered glass all over me and feel cold air against my face. The driver's side window is shattered. Even if the door worked, it wouldn't open more than two inches because of the trees. Great: I lived through the crash to burn to death.

But the smoke smells different than smoke from burning petroleum or rubber. It smells explosive. Then I see the deflated air bags and realize they are the smoke's source. Relax. I feel no pain.

The front of the car is buckled upward. Nothing penetrated the passenger compartment, which did not deform.

I find my Treo 650 phone on the floor and punch 9-1-1. The dispatcher gets a fix on my phone's GPS signal and assures me help is on the way.

I hang up. Then I tell God I am thankful I am alive and for whatever he had to do with it. ("In all things give thanks," says the Good Book, so I did, right then.)

A man and a woman appear to the left, unable to come close because of the trees. I assure them I am fine and say I've already called 9-1-1. A very cold rain is falling hard. The man leaves but the woman says it's hard to see the car from the interstate, so she will stay to flag down the police.

I try to call my wife but get her voice mail. So I call my eldest son and tell him what happened. I see blood on my right hand. A glance in the mirror reveals cuts above my left eyebrow. Blood covers my left cheek, but the cuts are very small.

I call a colleague and ask him to call our district superindendent. He doesn't have the number with him (he's traveling, too) so he calls my church's secretary, who quickly calls me. I assure her I am fine.

"Here they come," says the woman. I hear a police siren. The interstate is 30 feet behind my car and about 10 feet higher. A highway patrol car screams by, blue light flashing, siren yelling. It disappears over the far hill.

The woman says, "Chasing a speeder, I guess."

Soon a deputy's car appears, parks, and the deputy walks to my car. The woman says she is leaving now. "I am very grateful," I call to her. Later, I berate myself for never asking for her name. I tell the deputy that, except for the cuts on my face, I am uninjured. He asks for and takes my license and makes a report to his dispatch office. A few minutes later the rescue squad appears. One man come to my window and confirms that I am of sound mind ("What is today's date? What is your full name? Do you know where you are?") and so he believes me when I say I have no injuries.

"Do you want us to take you to a hospital?" he asks. I tell him I want the glass cleaned from the cuts in my face and that my left eye feels like glass dust may have gotten in it. So they put the collar around my neck, ignoring my protestations. I crawl headfirst out the front-passenger door. They say they'll get the stretcher-board to take me to the ambulance. I insist on walking.

I should have let them carry me, that way my dress shoes wouldn't have been ruined!

I say I'll sit up in the ambulance for the ride. "Okay," the medic says, "but you'll have to sign all kinds of release forms."

So I lie on the board. They strap me down. "What hospital?"

Dickson's is nearest, but my wife doesn't know how to get there and I don't want her to learn in the driving rain. "Vanderbilt," I say, in Nashville.

After 40 minutes riding on the board, I almost wish I'd said Dickson, rain or not.

Two X-rays, one eye exam and a face swabbing later, I'm checking out. Not even a headache, not a Band-Aid.

While walking from the car to the ambulance I had seen that the car had plunged off the interstate's outer edge, fortunately facing forward, and down the sodded embankment. The Malibu bounced over a small, concreted drainage ditch and then front-first into a stand of pine saplings, plowing over successively larger trees until it hit one that stopped it. The loud bangs I heard were the air bags deploying.

For five seconds - surely the whole event lasted no longer - I expected that I would not celebrate Christmas this year or ever again. But in truth, I've had roller-coaster rides that were rougher.

When the car left the road, it missed by two feet hitting the end of a guard rail head on, which would have been disastrous.

Another two or three feet to the left and it would have bounced off the rail back onto the road. Maybe it would have gone across to the median, which was broad and level, but more likely the car would have stopped in the middle of the lane, almost invisible in the pouring rain to oncoming traffic. That would likewise have been disastrous.

Samuel Johnson, one of the leading literary figures of 18th-century England, wrote, "When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

So does spinning out at high speed in the rain on the interstate. It gives your mind a certain focus.

Today, someone asked me what I want for Christmas. "I've already got it," I answered.

"The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up." - The Song of Hannah, 1 Samuel 2.


It is not really that for five seconds I was dead, and now am alive again. That is God's gift truly, but my life has always been God's gift, even before I acknowledged it.

The clarity is this: I know that for the rest of my life, I am really just a dead man walking. That evokes a certain freedom and a longer view of life. So Saturday night, just before I went to bed, I went alone in the dark to my living room, sat down and thanked God for the clarity.

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