BACK IN JULY, my wife and I drove to Pittsburgh to see some relatives. We weren’t really close, but we decided to visit on hearing that old Uncle Gregory had cancer and wasn’t doing well. I’d known Uncle Gregory pretty well as I grew up. They’d lived in Litchfield on the next farm a half mile away. Aunt Maggie baked just the best hot muffins, as I recall. We’d go on over maybe two, three times a month. As a youngster, Uncle Gregory’s stories fascinated me and I always had fun in his old farmhouse and barn.
One day he looked at me strangely and said, “Richie, my boy, one day you’re going to be in the wrong place at the right time! On that day you are going to rise above yourself.”
Did he mean fly? He looked at me owlishly, like he’d had a revelation. It scared me a little and if I didn’t like him so I’d have told Mom, I think. But I didn’t, and soon forgot about it. I forgot for a long, long time.
One year Uncle Gregory and Aunt Maggie quit the farm and moved to Pittsburgh. The mills produced steel big time back then and the money looked awfully good to my aunt and uncle. They’d farmed the place in Litchfield pretty much unsuccessfully for twenty-five years. The land in their quarter wasn’t much good and the crops showed it. They weren’t dirt poor, but close enough.
When Uncle Greg came to Mom and told her he couldn’t do it any more, Mom cried.
“I’ve had enough,” he said, “let that farm break somebody else’s back!”
She loved her big brother, but nothing to be done. Uncle Greg made up his mind and his sister couldn’t change it. Even as a twelve year old, I could see he looked tired. I saw something else in his eyes, too. Later on, when I became an adult; that look came back to me and I knew then that the land had defeated him.
They pulled up stakes and moved. Life did, too. I remember Mom and Dad looking wistfully after their little boy as I dragged a suitcase out to my old Chevy and tossed it in the trunk. Molly, bright eyed and beautiful, waited in the passenger’s seat with a glorious smile. Somebody had tied old cans to the bumper and taped a sign on the trunk. We kicked up some dust as they clattered behind us, disappeared around the corner and into our new life.
Now twenty-five years had gone by. I became an EMT. I liked the job and I liked the companionship of the people I worked with. We were family.
Mom died within a year of Dad, four years ago. Dad had carried too much weight around for too long.
“Your Mom’s good cookin’,” he’d say.
Mom chided him about it, for all the good it did. But she loved him. The look in her eyes when he came back from the fields at the end of a long day said it all.
Uncle Greg and Aunt Maggie came for the funerals, but didn’t stay long. Now we were heading their way, probably to the same purpose.
Signs pointing to Pittsburgh cropped up early. Mighty big numbers appeared on those signs initially, but we ate up the miles and the numbers got smaller and smaller. Finally I saw one that said Penn Hills and Monroeville, on the outskirts of the big city where my aunt and uncle lived. I shook my sleeping Molly gently and she came out of it.
“Pittsburgh. Need my navigator.”
“Oh, okay, honey.” She rummaged around on the seat and found the directions. She glanced at the paper and gave a cry of dismay.
“Rich!” she said, “My water bottle must have sat on the paper. The ink ran. I can’t make out what exit to take.”
“Don’t worry, hon,” I said, “It’s up here.” I pointed to my head.
I shot her a quick look. She smiled.
“I’ll recognize the sign when I see it.”
“Ye of little faith.”
“We’ll see. Ah, that’s it up ahead.” I saw a sign in green with reflective white writing that said “Wilkinsburg, next three exits.” That’s their suburb.
To me I thought, “Which one?”
I opted for Route 8. We have one of those in Connecticut, a really nice, well-maintained road. I couldn’t be far off. I took the third exit just as if I had it all planned. Molly looked over at me and I glanced at her. Men don’t need directions.
Except they do. After five minutes, I said, “Oh, damn!”
I said it a little too loud. Joey, our late life child, woke quickly and started to cry out. Molly looked at me reprovingly and turned to calm him.
“Sorry, Joey. Sorry, honey. I just realized that we can’t get there from here. The directions came back. Thought I’d nailed it. Should have taken 130.”
Molly, properly flustered, said. “Great! What now?”
“Sorry.” I felt contrite. “This will take us out of the way, but I can find a way to double back, I think.”
“Shouldn’t we stop and ask directions?
That nettled me. Sure, I made a mistake, but I could correct it.
“No, we’ll be fine.”
Molly knows me. She kept mum.
We’d traveled about a mile when all hell broke loose! Approaching the intersection of Rt. 8 and Oakwood Street, going about fifty I noticed the big blue and white “H” signs for Columbia Hospital. The image acted like the click of a trigger…
Suddenly I heard the squeal of brakes and then the thundering sound of metal on metal. A second before, some dude tried to power his rusty old Toyota along the breakdown lane at the same time a light colored Lexus made a right turn. Fifty isn’t fast when you’ve got a lot of room and traffic is cooperating, but right now it was deadly.
I jammed on my brakes! My Honda swerved and lost it. I fought the wheel. Vehicles all around me maneuvered, trying to avoid the unthinking stupidity of one individual. We were all too close now. I heard a wrenching crash behind me and then I got rammed.
The hit to my rear sent me sideways! I whipped the wheel and recovered. In seconds it ended with silence. I looked at Molly.
“You all right?”
Molly looked sacred and disoriented. She nodded.
A whimper from the back seat. I turned to look. The impact had dumped him on the floor. He began to cry.
She turned without a word to take care of him.
“Joey? It’s all right, honey. We’re in an accident. Come here, sweety.” Joey’s arms were out and his mother grabbed them and they nuzzled each other.
I tried the door. It protested but opened and I got out. My first impression; smoking cars and cursing people. Then I saw a flickering orange light ahead. The sun had been roughly behind me. Fire! The screaming began. It reverberated through my head and drew me like a magnet. Maybe somebody else could function in this, but I knew what I had to do. I jumped over twisted bumpers and skirted slack-jawed people. Twenty feet in front of me I saw it.
The miscreant’s car had caromed into the side of the Lexus just ahead of the right doorframe. The luxury car withstood the heavy impact but as the Toyota crushed in at an angle, its bumper and hydraulic shock absorber took out the right corner of the Lexus’ firewall. The thin gas line above the engine severed. Gas ran over the hot engine. Smoke poured forth with fire a fraction of a second behind. Inside the Lexus, a woman and her husband sat, trying to clear their heads.
The gas fed fire sought to escape. Flames shot out of the car’s crumpled hood and into the passenger compartment. The man’s wife began to burn. She screamed! Her screams echoed amongst the wrecked cars. People’s heads turned in time to see what appeared to be a madman leaping over the damage heading for the anguished sound!
Inside the car the husband began to understand. He reached for his wife to pull her to him, but she couldn’t move and her sounds were primeval. He became frantic and pulled harder. He called his wife’s name. A shadow fell at the door but the man could see only his wife. Nothing else in his world mattered. Others around the scene moved toward the sound. Still others, afraid that the car might blow up, moved away.
The madman yanked at the door. It didn’t budge. He looked around and called to the others. “A tire iron, shovel, anything!”
Some responded and looked quickly into trunks that would open.
Someone called, “Here!”
The madman turned and caught a hurled tire iron. Without a thought, he attacked the edge of the doorframe, tearing, ripping. He caught the edge and with superhuman strength, he pulled and twisted. The door gave and he grasped the edges. With a screech of metal, he flung the door open.
The woman turned to the air that entered the car. The awful, hideous look on her face should never be seen by any man. The madman paid no attention. He grabbed a breath, held it and reached over her deftly to disconnect her seat belt. Then he reached into the fire and felt for the burning leg. He must free this wounded animal.
Burning groceries! Canned goods! Jammed! He yanked them out and threw them behind him. He freed the leg. Dragging the burning woman out with the strength of ten, he laid her on the ground, ripped off his blazing shirt and tossed it away.
The woman moaned in fright and pain. She turned, grasped the man and held on ferociously.
He held her tight for a moment. “You’ll be okay,” he said, “you’ll be okay.”
Sanity returned to the husband. Coughing and choking, he got out of the undamaged side of the Lexus. He came around and looked at his wife, then her leg, then at me. He started to cry. His wife closed her eyes against pain that now crept beyond shock.
My arms felt blistered and burned, but I didn’t look at them. I disengaged from the woman’s arms and the husband knelt and took her in his. I heard sirens racing toward us. Above that, a swelling cheer from the many people who now surrounded and helped us away from the burning vehicle.
Finally I looked around. Smoke rose into the sky and flames pushed blistering heat at us. Molly arrived at my side and her look contained all the compassion and pride that can be felt by woman for her hero. She carried my EMT bag from the trunk. I go nowhere without it.
I opened it with burned hands and got out the salve. I went to work. Molly helped all she could. Two police cars sped up and screeched to a halt, followed by an ambulance, the fire truck right behind. Competent men boiled out of the vehicles. Two grabbed chemical extinguishers and went to work on the roaring fire. Two more approached the woman and me. Assessing the situation in an instant, each took charge of a burn victim.
An EMT gently disengaged the husband from his wife and the wife lay back on the blacktop. She started to shiver. Expert hands stripped away burned clothing and applied more burn ointment.
The EMT who approached me said, “You’re an EMT?”
“From what I can see, you’re a goddamned hero!”
I said nothing. What could I say, that a madman took me over and just now I’d come to my senses?
“Hold out your arms, my man. Hank.”
“You’re one of us, Rich, definitely one of us.” He went to work.
The police took charge. Out of noise, confusion and chaos, order. The fire went out. Relative calm returned.
Molly stood by my side looking down at me. I’d loved her and she’d loved me, but never in our years had I seen love like what glistened in her eyes at that moment.
“Molly, better get on the cell and tell Aunt Maggie we’re running a little behind.”
“It can wait a few, honey. I’m going nowhere.” She smiled.
From the edges of my memory I heard Uncle Greg’s prophetic words, “Richie, my boy, some day you’re going to be in the wrong place at the right time. On that day you’re going to rise above yourself.”
Wrong turn, wrong road. Burns we’ll remember, but we’ll heal. And a life saved. You called that one right, Uncle Greg.