My older sister (by eight years) thought it was funny when the two of us kids sat in the back of mom and dad’s car and it passed a “Stop Ahead” sign. She’d put out a hand on my forehead and push back gently. When I looked at her like she was crazy, she’d shrug, “Well, the sign said ‘Stop A Head.'”
Yesterday we took 13-year-old Matthew to Camp Tahkodah, up that long gray Highway 67 ribbon from North Little Rock to Bald Knob, and as I passed exit 22 for the umpteenth time, I again relived one of the most bizarre episodes of my life – from thirty years before.
I was in college at Harding, and having the advantage of a huge 1968 Olds Ninety-Eight on loan from my dad, I’d drive my roomies and our occasional dates down to Little Rock from Searcy on the odd weekend. One was a bit more odd than the rest.
The Friday night before the anticipated Saturday morning trip, I awakened suddenly in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. I had just dreamed, very vividly, that I was barrelling down a highway and suddenly became aware of a car coming straight at mine. In the dream, I jammed my foot down hard on the brakes. In my sleep, I jammed my foot down hard on the end of the bunk and woke myself up.
My three roomies stirred at the banging sound – there were four of us in all in the suite (which we had made into a four-bunk bedroom separated by bath from the four-desk study lounge) – but they didn’t awaken. I, however, didn’t go back to sleep for quite a while.
In the morning, I almost couldn’t remember the dream at all; I could only reliably recall having a really bad dream, maybe about cars.
So we gathered and breakfast, then piled into the Ninety-Eight and headed for Little Rock. The others were in pretty high spirits, and even though I was on my first date with a really cute lass with a gorgeous voice and short blond curls, my mood was kind of subdued.
We did the usual date things we were stuck with doing on the cheap back then: an inane movie and lunch at Casa Bonita (the earlier incarnation of the recently re-closed Casa Viva), squandered some time at some bookstores and some money at Farrell’s ice cream parlour of McCain Mall and headed back for home pretty early, way before dark.
It hadn’t been a banner date. I was not very communicative or attentive, let alone affectionate. I was just deeply troubled inside, and I didn’t know why. One of my roommates insulted my date at lunch, and I had the presence of mind to kick his shins pretty hard under the table a few times until he apologized, but the slim likelihood that she would never go out with me again (or that I would ever ask her again) didn’t have very much to do with my gloom.
For one thing, I was having one of those “deja vu” days, when you know good and well that everything happening to you could not possibly have already happened before, but you remember it anyway – just a second or two before it happens.
The others chatted and chided quietly, listening to the car radio while I silently drove them back hours before dorm curfew – having insisted like a cranky mother hen that everyone fasten their seat belts before we left – and we zoomed along at the legally-allowable speed of seventy miles per hour, until …
… Exit 22. It’s for the town of Ward. Going north on 67, you come around a little blind curve, with woods too close to the highway for you to see the exit or its sign coming clearly, and you happen upon a little rise in the highway right at the exit.
And, that day, we happened upon a car which had missed the exit and was backing up at full tilt up the rise to take it anyway – just as we crested the hill.
There wasn’t even a half-second to brake – and I didn’t try.
I swerved into the passing lane so fast that even a solid old horizontal Ninety-Eight had to beg me not to tip it over on its left wheels, so I swerved back into the right lane almost instantly, having left the idiot in the reversing car of doom far behind.
Then I put on the brakes. Fortunately – blessedly! – there had been no traffic in the passing lane. I certainly hadn’t had time to look.
I went to the shoulder under the overpass at Exit 22 and pulled off. My arms were locked straight ahead, hands gripping the steering wheel for dear life.
“That’s what I dreamed,” I whispered. “That’s what I dreamed last night and couldn’t remember today. That’s why I’ve been such a grouch all day today.” I looked over at my date, squeezed between me and the roomie who had insulted her. Her eyes were wide behind her wire-rims. “I’m sorry,” I said.
She just looked incredulous, and a little short of terrified. Pretty much like everyone else, as I looked around to check on the rest.
“It’s okay,” she managed.
So I put the old tank into gear, checked carefully behind, and eased back out onto 67.
I don’t remember anyone in the car saying anything else all the rest of the way back to Searcy.
When you’re twenty and you think your whole life is ahead of you, and it only takes two or three seconds to prove you could be incontrovertibly wrong about that, it takes some of the fun out of an evening together with your friends.
Of course, I wondered then as I wonder now: Did I get a warning in my sleep? A “stop a head” from God the night before? A heads-up that saved my life and the lives of my friends?
The couple in the back eventually married each other and had three kids. My insulting friend – long forgiven and still a crazy treasure of a pal – married and had three of his own. I haven’t the slightest clue how many might belong to my poor, sweet date on that very strange day.
In the intervening years – through a painful divorce, the loss of the ability to father children of my own, the deaths of cherished family members and dear friends and some career hopes and countless other tiny setbacks – I have sometimes also wondered: If He did give me a sneak preview of the end that might have been, have I made His effort worthwhile in my own life?
Now when I remember my adopted two kids splashing together in the surf on our recent trip, their mom looking adoringly on – or see Laura and Matthew awkwardly saying goodbye to each other as we leave him at Camp Tahkodah, unable to avoid or do better than a quick hug, I have my answer.
He’s made it worth my while.
In four days I celebrate birthday fifty-one. It’s been quite a ride with Him so far. I’m inexpressibly grateful for the blessings He’s sent to fill this old life of mine, and the years that He’s added to it.
And maybe most of all, for the signs along the road to remind me that way out ahead – or closer than I think – it all comes to an end.