5:00 PM, St. Augustine, FL…
I start the big F-250 and back down the driveway of my parent’s home, keeping an eye on the tied down metal structure filling the truck bed. It quivers and shakes as the truck rolls out onto the street.
I had spent most of the day salvaging a small, 4 x 6-foot greenhouse frame from my brother’s house. I thought that would be an easy job… the frame is pretty lightweight after all. What I had not counted on were the tree roots that had grown over the bottom frame pieces, effectively tying it to the Earth.
It had taken most of the afternoon to wrench it from the nearby trees embrace, but at last, it was secured to the truck bed and I was heading home.
As I accelerated onto the highway, the rusty, battered old greenhouse frame swayed with each lane change and turn. Before long, a piece of side frame snapped and dangled in the wind. Ugh, this was going to be a long ride.
Little did I know …
The ride home normally takes a little over 2 hours. I passed through tiny communities like Spuds, Elkton, and Hastings, and then over the mighty St Johns River and into Palatka.
Traffic was light and in no time I was beyond Palatka, heading west on State Road 100.
State Road 100 is a 2-lane rural highway and the scenery is mostly pine trees … pine trees in the dark at this point in the day.
I tuned into NPR, set the cruise on moderately fast, but not fast enough to destroy the flimsy greenhouse in the truck bed, and settled in for the long haul. Except for the worrisome greenhouse frame, this was all part of the normal drive home routine.
That “routine” would come to a full stop a few minutes outside Palatka.
A “clank” from behind me made me glance into the rearview mirror just in time to see a piece of greenhouse frame break free and drop into the truck bed.
I looked forward again just in time to see three cars ahead of me doing a simultaneous, seemingly choreographed movement.
One went left, while another went right, and a third went straight ahead. All of them pulled off the road … and one of them went into a ditch. I realized at that moment that I had looked forward from the rearview mirror just in time to see the immediate after-effects of a collision!
All 3 cars were stopped, and no one was getting out.
By now I was on the scene. I slowed, crept past the farthest car, and pulled over. I got out and went to the first car, a black car with dark windows that were up.
I rapped on the window and shouted, “Are you okay?” Through the dark glass, a head nodded yes. The window stayed up.
I left car number one and headed to car number 2,... the ditch car. The front was heavily damaged and steam was billowing out from the crumpled hood. As I approached, doors opened and a young boy and an older woman stepped out. She seemed shaken and a little unsteady.
“Are you okay? The boy nodded yes and the woman did the same, but added, “I’m so sorry.” She had called 911. I left them and crossed the highway to the third car.
Traffic continued to whiz by and no other vehicle stopped during this time.
As I crossed the road, I could hear weeping coming from the open driver side window. The back of the car was crunched pretty badly.
Even though I had not witnessed the actual collision, it was easy to piece the chain of events together through the damage to each car. I’m pretty sure that the older woman struck the rear of the car I was now approaching, which then struck the first car I had contacted.
In the third car, a very pregnant young woman sat behind the wheel crying. Her husband was on the phone, calmly relaying information about her to what I assumed was the 911 operator or EMS. (He was busy, but nodded yes when I asked if they had called 911).
I asked if they were okay, and she looked at me with anguish on her face and weeping, said, “I’m pregnant with twins.” Feeling especially helpless at that point, and knowing they were in phone contact with a medical professional, I went back across the street to check on the older woman who was on her phone and leaning against the car. The middle school age boy said, “We’re okay” and thanked me.
Far down the long straight road, I could see emergency lights on their way, as I walked back towards my truck. At the dark first car, the passenger, a tall woman, was standing next to the car. I couldn’t see the driver, but she said they were okay. She asked about the other folks and I filled her in briefly.
As I drove away, I replayed the events in my mind. I know I was right to stop, even though not another car did while I was there. I felt pretty helpless every time I thought about that pregnant mom to be.
I could not get her anguished face out of my head and knew my wife, Liz, the 30+ year experienced nurse would have known exactly what to do and say to soothe her.
My brain kept playing it all back as I drove and after a while, the drive returned back to normal … almost routine.
I passed through Florahome, Putnam Hall, and Melrose in short order. It was dark now and the occasional street light showed me that the greenhouse was still there behind me.
I slipped through Gainesville pretty efficiently and was now more than halfway home and heading west on State Road 26.
Then, suddenly, somewhere between Newberry and Trenton, “Routine” took another hiatus. My phone rang. It was Liz.
“Hey, where are you?” she asked.
“Just west of Newberry”
“Can you help me with something on the way home?”
She explained that a friend of ours had called her, distraught over news she had just received.
Their adopted “farm dog” had been struck and was dead in a ditch just outside the farm where it lived. The farm is a few miles away from our friend’s homestead and age and health issues prevented either one of the owners from recovering the dog.
The thought of their beloved dog lying dead in a ditch was heartbreaking for them… could we help?
“Can you help me do this?, I know you worked all day at your brothers”
So, true confession … I let out a huge sigh... before saying, “Yes, give me directions, … and bring a shovel and that Ryobi battery-powered work light. I have heavyweight extra large plastic bags in the truck.”
I got to the farm first and slowed to search for the poor dog. She was easy to spot, a big black lump in the green grass by the road. When Liz arrived, we bagged the dog and did a team lift up into the bed of the truck.
At the couple’s home, Liz sat inside with the distraught owners while I drove across the property to a spot the owner had chosen. In the dark, under a spreading Live Oak, I set the work light up and began to dig in the circle of light it cast.
As I lifted each shovel of dirt, I thought about the strange events of this very long drive home.
Weirdly, I had thought a wobbly old greenhouse trying to blow apart in the truck bed would be the night’s challenge. Boy was I wrong…
I widened and deepened the grave until it was a good 4 feet deep and big enough for this good old dog. I didn’t know her, but I know she was loved by the 2 people crying in the house behind me. With the hole dug, I lowered her gently into the ground and refilled the grave.
I smoothed the fresh dirt into a neat mound and said not a prayer, but one last, “Good Girl”... and then the task was done.
At that moment, it seemed like every dog in the neighborhood began to howl. The sound started slowly, more dogs joined in, it rose, and then faded away.
I leaned against the shovel, mouth wide open … Dogs, how do they know?
I tossed the shovel into the back of the truck and the light on to the seat. I texted Liz that I’m done and heading out. She says she’s staying to chat with the couple a little longer as they are still upset.
So again, I am driving home, but this time I’m only about 15 miles away and seriously, what else could happen in the next 15 minutes or so?
… and then my phone rings. It’s Liz.
“Did I leave my keys in the truck?”
“I don’t think so, you really weren’t in the truck.”
I pull over under a street light in Chiefland and rummage around for her big pink key ring.
I call her back. She hasn’t found them either.
I turn the truck around and head back, 6 miles to the couple’s home. We both look through the van but fail to find the keys.
“They’ll turn up tomorrow,” I say as I pull my van key off my key ring.
“See you at the house.”
This time, I actually make it to my own driveway before the phone rings.
Oh hell no …
It’s Liz, and she sounds happy.
“Guess what!” she says.
“I’m afraid to,” I reply.
“ I went through McDonald’s to get an ice tea and the drive-through girl said, “Hey lady, your keys are on the car hood!”
“Well, we didn’t look there,” I say as I open the house door.
Bear is there to greet me with a shoe in his mouth, his tail wagging so vigorously that his sister Coquina is squinting as he whacks her face over and over. I get down on the floor and hug both of them tightly. I can feel routine seeping back into my body.
Home at last.