“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”-Joshua 1:9
There are days in our lives that have a way of becoming memorable. Those days that make an indelible impression upon our beings; building character and proving to ourselves just what is possible when we are pushed to a point of no return.
Yesterday was one of those days that it seemed as if everything that could go wrong did.
It began early on when I found that the bitterly cold weather we had a few weeks back had weakened a below-ground valve behind the Refour House. As I rounded the corner of the building, water was shooting three feet out of the recessed fixture into the yard. “Great,” I thought, “so much for spreading the new pile of compost today.”
That was number one: the leaking valve.
I eventually found the main valve for the leaking line in the large underground control vault. There, nearly six feet below the surface were a myriad of valves and pipes, none of which were labeled. In addition, there was nearly a foot of water already in the bottom of the vault. “Odd,” I questioned, “hopefully this isn’t a sign of something else.” Next, it was a matter of finding out which valve shut off the line to the leak. So, methodically I began turning off one valve after another. Whether it was a premonition of things to come or not, the handle of the first valve I grabbed crumbled in by grasp. It had corroded into red, rusty dust. It was not a good feeling. As I continued working my way down the maze of plumbing one of the main line brass fixtures hissed and squirted water, but then stopped. “Oh great, what else could go wrong,” I silently mused to myself. I cautiously continued on until I happened upon the correct valve and turned off the water to the leaking line. In order to speed up things, I figured I’d jump on the golf cart and zip down to the far end of the Trail. When I opened up the garage and turned on the golf cart, I noticed the battery level was nearly dead. Knowing I had put it on the charger the night before, there was definitely something wrong. I plugged the charger back into the slot on the cart; nothing.
Great, this would be number two: the golf cart was not charging.
A few hours later after returning from the hardware store where I found everything I needed to fix the water issue, my wife arrived, “This must be the day for bad news,” she chuckled.
“Great, what now,” I said, my shoulders sinking as I felt the weight of the day growing.
“We’ve had a death or two at the chicken coop,” she replied in a solemn tone, “possibly as many as three.”
I shook my head and headed out for the valve issue, “One thing at a time,” I silently said beneath my breath.
We were now up to bad thing number three; dead chickens.
“Bad things come in threes, right,” my mind concluded as I began repairing the broken water line.
Well, one thing and then another and soon I had a water line repaired. The battery charger confirmed good at the golf cart shop. Finally, some confidence began to return. However, life had taught me many lessons and one very important lesson was that one should never become too over confident. Call it Lutheranism, call it Midwestern, I almost felt a little guilty at my slight joy of success.
Lessons are often learned for a reason.
The next day, after allowing the glue on the valve fitting to dry over night, I climbed down into the vault for one last time, or so I had hoped and turned the water line back on. There was the sound of rushing water within the pipes and soon it was silent. No further leaks or drips in the vault, all seemed well.
“So far so good,” I said under my breath, as I headed back down to the opposite end of the trail to check the valve for any signs of water; nothing, all clear.
“Not bad,” I smiled inwardly. “Time for a quick cup of coffee and then back to my compost pile,” my thoughts confirmed.
After my brief respite, I headed back out. The weather on the horizon looked daunting. Dark clouds were forming in the mountains and headed our way. The air had the feel of icy precipitation to it. There were already reports of snow in Asheville. As I rounded the corner of the building, my mind froze on the image before me. The vault, the main control room for the entire Trail was no overflowing with a river of water.
“It can’t be,” I thought, trying to force the image out of my consciousness. “The hiss, the water in the bottom, the signs were all there,” I thought as I ran back inside emptying my pockets as I ran. I reached the office door where my wife was working and yelled, “Quick, come with me, we’ve got an emergency.”
“What now she responded,” as she jumped up to follow.
We both raced outside and once again met the torrent pouring out of the underground vault.
“What in the world,” she screamed in disbelief. “How do we turn it off?”
“There is only one place I know of,” I replied, “down there,” I said pointing into the swirling, muddy abyss.
In many ways, it is easy to become dismayed and overwhelmed, drowning in our own self-doubt and anxiety. But when we meet the challenge without giving our actions a second thought, when we tackle the obstacle that is impeding our progress head on without reluctance, we overcome those insecurities and become one with our destiny.
So, without hesitation, I stepped down into the icy water. As I moved deeper into the frigid liquid, I prayed to God to give me strength and protection. It was as if I was suddenly enveloped in a protective layer of skin. I could sense the freezing water, I knew that time was of the essence, yet there was a certain calm.
Around me was a world of browns, grays and earth tones. Death was everywhere as the landscape had yet to come back to life from its winter slumber.
I reached for shutoff valves and their handles that were unfortunately beyond my grasp. They were deeper than I could reach while keeping my head above water. My breath was growing short and I could barely stand, let alone function much more. I had to emerge from the bitterly cold water and take a break before going any further.
As I stood gasping for breath while leaning against the wall of the building, tiny snowflakes began to fall around us. My body was numb as I watched the deluge of water continue unabated.
“Is there another place we can turn it off,” my concerned wife said, now frantic as she watched my body begin to shiver uncontrollably.
“No, this is it.”
I headed back toward the vault, “I’ve…got… to to try again,” I shuddered as I sank back down.
As I submerged back down and once more tried to find a valve within reach. The pressure of the intense cold water soon had me crawling back out.
Pausing, my mind raced back to the previous day and to the location of the pipe that had hissed at me. There below that point was the main valve, but it was nearly at the bottom of the vault.
I only had one choice at this point.
When I was in high school, we decided one day to dive in the old rock pits south of Ft. Myers. There was a hole so deep that when you swam over its untold depth, it was almost a blue-black. Many had tried to reach the bottom unsuccessfully. However, after a few days of practice, we had finally built up our courage and strength to feel that we might finally be able to achieve the impossible. I remember the four of us taking those last few breaths before going down.
None of us knew the dangers of deep water diving.
Not one of us had any clue as to what we faced.
So with that last hyperventilating gulp, we dove into the dark abyss. I can recall one by one, my friends peeled off and headed back up, unable to continue down. Unwavering in my quest, I continued to kick. My legs were strong and my lungs at their peak. Running countless miles had prepared my body for this moment.
“Go gentle into that good night,” my mind whispered as the darkness seemed endless. I reached my hand before me not knowing what lay ahead.
Just before reaching the bottom, my lungs began to quiver for air. There wasn’t much time left. It was then I hit the white sandy bottom. There have submerged in the sand was an ancient beer bottle. I turned, hit the bottom with my legs, and shoved off for the surface kicking with everything I had. Before breaking the surface, I had already begun to go into oxygen debt convulsions. It was just as I burst through the top that I had no choice but to suck in. Thanks be to God that it was air and not water.
Thankfully, whether we realized it or not that day, God was with us.
“To be strong and of courage, for He is with us always,” is often hard to remember when disaster faces us head on. So many years ago, there was no urgency in that day, there was no dire threat of impending doom, there was only a choice I had made to take a risk in order to explore a forbidden depth; a place we feared as much as we wondered about. Once again, unwelcome, dark water awaited me, but unlike before, this was no choice in this matter.
Back down into the black hole, I climbed. I looked to my wife once more and before going under said, “Call someone if I don’t come back up.”
“Could something down there suck you under,” she questioned scared and frantic?
“I won’t’ know until I’m down there,” I replied and took one last breath then dove.
There have been times that I’ve snorkeled in muddy, disgusting water, but never had I been in water that was trying to suck the air out of my lungs through my body. As my hands frantically reached for the pipes and followed them like a blind person reading Braille, my mind worked out the image before me. Continuing to pray as I worked, there was a calmness about me I cannot explain.
Down, down I went, feeling pipes and valves as I along the way toward the ultimate goal, the main valve. The air in my chest didn’t seem to matter anymore as a special numbness began to overwhelm my consciousness.
“Go gentle into that good night,” my mind whispered once again, an echo from the past.
Water rushed past my frozen fingers; turned the handle.
Water still rushing.
Followed the pipe further; turned another handle; nothing.
My hands walked along the plumbing trying to make sense of the maze of fixtures. Somewhere a voice said, “Stop, there, now.” My nearly frozen digits had discovered a handle. “Turn it,” the voice said, and I did.
The water stopped flowing.
“Must find the surface.”
I don’t recall taking the first breath of air.
I don’t recall how I got my legs up and out of the hole in the metal plate that covered the vault.
All I can remember is crawling onto the cold, wet ground and collapsing. There was no cold, no numbness, only swirling white feathers falling down from heaven.
Slowly, my faculties returned, as did the pain of exposure to my limbs and digits. My wife and I worked quickly as a team to strip the wet clothing and to find towels enough to get my body dry and warm before hypothermia set in.
The numbers of all the things that had gone wrong seemed to disappear as warmth reclaimed my soul.
There are days that make impressions upon our minds that we will take with us the rest of our lives. There are places we once feared to tread, but nevermore shall we when we go fearlessly into that dark night.
Yes, rage, rage against the dying of the light, and go fearlessly into that dark night.
“Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” -Dylan Thomas