Monday, March 12, 2012

Fear Begets Courage

Fear is one of the most powerful, controlling emotions in the human experience. It can keep us from dying and it can keep us from living. This is my story of meeting Fear.

In 2001, I lived in state campgrounds with my dog, a Honda that started sometimes, and a cell phone that worked even less. I held a part-time job but could not save enough money to get a place of my own.  Every 14 days, I had to pack up my temporary home and move to another state campground 20 miles away, rules you know.  Back and forth I moved, all summer long.

Late one afternoon, my dog and I were driving back to the campground when I spotted smoke up ahead.  As I got closer, the source of this thick cloud became obvious.  An SUV had gone off the road and hit an old willow tree head on, which then fell on top of the car’s roof.  Flames were shooting out from under the hood and slumped over the steering wheel was a white-haired man.

I pulled my Honda off the side of the road and ran as fast as I could back to the SUV.  And in that instant I became acquainted with fear.

So many things went through my mind in a matter of seconds.  There was never a doubt about what I had to do.  But unfamiliar thoughts streamed into my consciousness. I never considered I might die in an explosion or be burned to death. Or that I would witness another human being lose their life in such a terrible way. I was afraid. No, I was terrified. More so than ever before in my life. I was not ready to die.

But it is a miraculous thing what our minds are capable of. I pushed that fear away and took action. Don’t get me wrong, I was still terrified, but I detached and set it aside like a cool cup of coffee and moved forward with my task.  If this sounds calculated, it was. My body moved while my heart and mind were filled with fear.

Another motorist drove up as I was making my way down the wet, slippery slope to the trapped man.  She motioned she was calling 911. When I got to the SUV, flames were growing higher and the smoke was getting thicker. The steep slope placed the car at an angle away from the road, so when I opened the car door I had to continuously hold it up with my left hand and work toward freeing him with my right. He was semi-conscious and kept mumbling about finding his glasses. I got his seatbelt unhooked and kept telling him he had to get out of the car. I pulled and pulled with my right arm, when finally he fell out of the car and on to the ground.  Seconds later the inside of the car went up into flames. And he began to very slowly slide under the car.

You always hear stories of people in these situations having an incredible rush of adrenalin, giving the person extraordinary physical abilities like being able to lift a car. As I tried to pull the man away from his burning vehicle, I remembered this phenomenon and was confident I could probably pick him up, toss him over my shoulder, and carry him to the hospital no problem. But it never happened. I have always been a strong woman, yet in that moment I felt as weak as a newborn. I yelled to him to put his feet on the side of the car and push, to help me get us away from the car. Remember, we had to go UP the slippery wet slope, and he was dead weight, figuratively speaking.

At last the other motorist, a middle-aged woman dressed as if coming home from the office, can running down the slope. She grabbed one arm, I the other and we pulled. We moved him maybe a foot. Again, pull!  Another foot. It was then a red pickup came to a stop up on the side of the road and a man came running down to help. “1-2-3, pull!” I shouted. Two feet this time. “Again!” I hollered, and we moved him another two feet. Windows and tires exploded and the black smoke billowed from the car. At last we came to the shoulder of the road. I wanted to keep moving him further away from the fire as I was afraid of an explosion. The man who stopped to help was afraid we would injure the motorist further and didn't want to be sued, so he got back in his truck and drove away. The five more minutes it took for the emergency folks to come were the longest moments of my life.

The fire trucks and ambulance arrived and took the man away. I later found out he had serious internal injuries and was in the hospital for several months, but survived. I also found out this same man had pulled a mother and her two children from a burning car decades earlier when he was a truck driver and came upon the accident. I hoped fate stopped right there.

And if that wasn't enough, I also found out the woman who came to assist had lost her husband in a car crash on that very same road some years earlier (he had a heart attack while driving and died instantly). She was a passenger in the car and helplessly watched as their car burst into flames. Firefighters were able to extract her husband in time. I can't imagine the fear in her heart on that day, nor the memories. She is a true hero.

She and I were given awards for saving the man’s life by the County Sheriff’s Department later that year. It still doesn’t seem real to me. But what is real is that I learned what courage means, the ability to face your fear and still do what needs to be done. And I take that lesson all the way. I now believe I can do anything, no matter how much fear or discomfort I feel. I just think back to that day and remember...set the fear aside like a cool cup of coffee and move forward.
As Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.  We can truly stand in our power if we remember these wise words.

No comments:

Post a Comment