The road trip had begun mere hours before. The Lovely Lady and I, along with our two children, the oldest almost ten, were headed to California. My parents were living out there, caring for my aging grandfather, so we thought it would be nice to spend a week with them. My sister was going along also; we would pick her up along the way, since she was flying up from south Texas. We had done this once before, but there was a new wrinkle this time. The children had made a request. They wanted to visit Carlsbad Caverns “on the way”. Even though the caves weren’t really on the route from Arkansas to California, we decided that we would do it. Actually, we led them to believe that it wouldn’t be possible, but planned to surprise them. For this to work, we would have to travel all night, since these bright kids couldn’t be fooled if there were road signs along the way indicating that we were approaching the area. An all-nighter? Sure. For a nighthawk like me, that would be no problem. So, off we went.
After picking up their aunt in Oklahoma, we headed down the road. As the sun went down and darkness fell, the kids started to nod and before we knew it, they were sound asleep. The Lovely Lady had opted to sit in back with them, leaving my sister to ride beside me in the front passenger seat. Finding the correct highway to detour off the interstate we were on, we cut south from the westward route, heading for the Guadalupe Mountains of southeastern New Mexico. There was very little traffic, especially as we got into and past the middle of the night. The ride was somewhat boring, but I had no problem staying awake, even though it appeared that everyone else in the car was sleeping. The two-lane highway widened into four lanes, and I dutifully moved into the right lane. But, after several miles of rough expansion joints and too many patches in the pavement, I decided, since there was no other traffic around, that I would move into the left-hand lane and ride on the smoother pavement there.
My illusion of everyone being asleep suddenly disappeared as the rider in the passenger seat reached over and slapped me repeatedly on the shoulder and arm. I nearly shouted at her in my surprise. “Why did you do that?” I was expecting to hear that she had had a bad dream or possibly, being awakened by the rough road, had been disoriented, but that wasn’t it. She had been awake the whole time and, noting that I had moved across the lane marker with no vehicle in front of me, assumed that I was asleep at the wheel and needed to be roused immediately. Oh, I was roused all right! Eventually, my heart rate returned to normal and the trip proceeded with no more excitement.
We laughed about the event and, after a very satisfying visit to the caverns, continued on to our ultimate destination in the San Joaquin Valley of California. A week later though, that event was brought back to mind in a surprising way. We were headed back home to Arkansas on Interstate 40, somewhere in Arizona, when we were passed by a car moving much faster than we. This wasn’t all that unusual, but what was unexpected was the fact that, as the speeding car approached a curve in the road up ahead, the driver didn’t turn with the road. Instead, he plowed into the median on his left, leveling the reflective markers as he went. Several broke off and went flying into the air. I was hard pressed to dodge them, but managed somehow. Mere seconds later, the errant car came to a stop dramatically, the rear end rising up in the air as the front bumper plowed down into the earth. It didn’t flip, but the car had sustained serious damage. We quickly pulled over and ran to check on the driver, who admitted that he had fallen asleep at the wheel. He was alone in the car and accepted a ride to a gas station less than a mile away, but refused any further help and was reluctant for me to call the highway patrol, which I did anyway. When I turned away from the phone, he was nowhere to be seen, perhaps like my friend of last week, having reasons known only to himself for avoiding the police.
I have had time since that trip, many years ago, to think about sleeping at the wheel and the advantage of having a big sister. Or anyone else, for that matter, who will ride along with me and keep their eyes peeled for danger signs. You see, I really didn’t need her to slap me and wake me up, but I’m glad to know that she was there. She read the signs wrong that time. Perhaps the next time, I will actually need the help. The driver of that other car certainly could have used the extra pair of eyes. The surprise that I experienced in my car as my sister attempted to help was nothing compared to the look of stark terror I saw in that man’s eyes as I opened the passenger door on his totaled car to see if he was injured. An early warning system could have saved him a world of trouble, from the loss of his car to potential deprivation of his freedom, if he was indeed fleeing from the authorities.
I complain frequently about warning systems. The seat belt buzzer annoys, the dashboard lights warn of non-existent issues. The smoke alarm at my house is set off by scorched food (an infrequent occurrence here) and the metal detector at the airport security checkpoint is frustrating in its lack of accuracy. As much as we don’t like to admit it, all these and more are intended to help and not to hinder. Their over-vigilance irritates, but when they do the job they are designed to do, all of them are invaluable. We are grateful when they warn of imminent danger.
I think frequently of the Creator’s words, as he explained the need for a companion for the first man. “It is not good for him to be alone.” God knew that the man needed help, not only to assist in bearing burdens, but also to be an “extra pair of eyes”. I’m fairly certain that the pair were supposed to keep each out of the original trouble too, but they certainly flubbed that assignment. We’re still bearing the consequences today. Perhaps that too, should be a word to the wise. We should be looking out for each other, giving each other warning of impending danger. When we are silent as our family and friends rush headlong into jeopardy, we bear some blame. Our responsibility to aid and counsel each other is clear. The instruction to love our neighbor as ourselves isn’t just about touchy-feely emotions, but is about tangible, palpable care for others around us.
I’m grateful for friends who have had the courage to warn of danger ahead, even when I was determined to ignore the warning signals. I’m also thankful for family members who care enough to stay awake with me and watch.
The slapping, I can do without. Maybe we can work out a better warning system before the next time.
“Two people are better than one, because they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble.”
(Ecclesiastes 4:9,10 NLT)
“One timely cry of warning can save nine of surprise.”