A special thanks to Blue Shepard for allowing me to publish his weekly e-newsletter here on Vigilant Wolf. The Blue Shepard is a friend and past guest of Ever Vigilant podcast (episode 43). I personally look forward to his weekly thoughts on Christianity, Manhood, and Brotherhood and I believe you will feel the same.
The inscription above the bier reads, "What you are, I once was; what I am, you will be."
Required Reading: Luke 10:25-37
Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish - Proverbs 31:6
Burns are terrible wounds. Especially large burns. When a patient has experienced third degree burns of over 70 percent of his body surface area, there is generally only one prescribed treatment that actually makes a difference: morphine.
The following narrative is no attempt to enforce some moral or lesson. It is, however, food for thought. Fate and destiny, whatever the extent of their roles, seem to go unaddressed in most modern theological and philosophical discussions. Perhaps someone may benefit from reading this. Regardless, I will share the story.
It was August, 2016. I forget the date. I believe it was a Tuesday. I was off duty. My wife and I were driving down to Lumberton, North Carolina, to the church that her Grandfather pastors to visit the revival meeting. It was hot, humid, and sunny. We were on I-95 South and running early. It was evening and traffic was heavy. Everything was normal.
"Looks like someone's burning off their hay," I remarked concerning a pluming pillar of sable smoke. "That looks more like a house fire," she contended, "or maybe there's a wreck up there." "I don't think there's a wreck, traffic is flowing fine." I would eat those words very soon.
A few minutes elapsed during our approach, but it was soon irrevocably evident - it was a wreck. The lumbering black behemoth towered heavenward as if it were some esoteric totem of mortality. Closer still, and I could discern the image of a semi truck trailer amidst the flames. "Smithfield", read the emblem, under which was displayed the lavish image of a dressed and cooked gourmet ham. There were two individuals in the middle of the two-lane, one-way highway that is I 95 South, wielding innocent, uncertain, and incoherent hand motions, causing confusion for approaching drivers. There were two more, younger individuals near an obscure, dark, formless object near the edge of the asphalt.
"That's a person," I said. My wife, already suspecting what I had just exclaimed, responded in tremulant denial. "No, that's the seat of the truck... or... or something." "No, it's not. It's a person. It just moved," I said in a disconcerted tone. Ghostly pale, and fixedly staring, she made no reply. I pulled off onto the shoulder, backed the car to what seemed to be a safe distance, and opened my door. Clutching my sleeve, she said, "What are you doing?" I stared back at her and pulled my arm away. "You're not going over there!" she said. I became indignant. "Either follow me, or stay in this car, but that man is dying and that truck could blow up any time. If you're staying here, get over here in the driver's seat." She stayed, and I went.
The semi-truck. with it's refrigerated trailer, appeared to have left the right hand side of the highway, traveled down a steep embankment, plowed into some large pines, and burst into flames. The chassis was nearing full involvement as the flames lurched their way up the tree trunks and sank their talons into the refrigerated cargo trailer. The inferno was replete with sporadic explosions, sending bits of shrapnel in all directions. The heat was nearly unbearable form over 50 feet away. Even the tall pines were beginning to arch and moan from the flame and lean towards the roadway.
I quickly made my way past the crash, past the two individuals taking up space in the roadway, and was met by the young man and woman who had been standing near the charred victim. "We just got off the phone with 911. The fire department is on the way. They said not to go near the truck." "What about that guy?" I asked. The young man replied, "Well, we've been praying with him, and talking to him. I made it half way through EMT school, and I have my jump bag with me, but I don't really know what to do." I left them and approached the victim, which appeared to be a small framed man.
A man, I say... The visage in front of me looked more like a ripened corpse than a man. Patches of black, carbonized skin, exposed fat, muscle and tendon, portions of what appeared to be the remainder of a melted red shirt, the heels of some shoes, and the seat of some shorts - all this morbid ensemble fostered the vague apparition of a man. Lying prone, propped up on his elbows, and his face in his hands. "Sir, can you look at me?" A stupid question, I know. All I intended to was ascertain the level of awareness left in this person. The head lifted from the hands, and slowly turned to face my general direction. I caught a fleeting glimpse of eye contact before the mask that used to be his face released it's hold to his forehead and fell loose, revealing a gory, oozing caricature reminiscent of un-dead horror film and television characters. 90 percent BSA third degree burns would have been a conservative assessment. It was at this moment that I came to terms with a reality which I had been denying for a couple of minutes now: Condition Black. There was nothing I could do. I turned away.
I ordered the present four individuals to get away from the erupting truck and its flying fragments, and to take the victim with them. I noticed a news chopper overhead, and told the "helpers" to go ahead and take the victim under the nearby bridge. Media, like any other vermin, will feast on gore, and I was not letting this poor soul's last few moments on Earth turn into live entertainment - although I eventually failed at this as well. But I had to stop the continuous flow of traffic before someone was pulverized by falling trees or shot through with flying shards of steel. I walked out into the middle of the interstate with both hands in the air, palms open and mouthing "stop". Blaring horns, screeching yaws, shaking fists and obscene gestures were the immediate response of the motoring public. "What can I do... What can I do... Badge!" I muttered to myself as the two-ton bullets and their mindless voyagers blasted by me in either lane of travel. I retrieved my badge. Thank God I had my badge. I always have my badge. Now it was an open palm, and a gyrating badge above my head. Another semi was not too far off. When he saw the badge flicker in the evening sun, his thunderous brakes began to sing. Traffic was halted. Nonetheless, individuals were trying with all their wit to squeeze their vehicles past me, and some did.
Emergency services arrived and began to contain the hazards just as the trailer was now starting to flash over and expel hot shards in every direction. People were stopping and gathering all around, taking photos and videos. Some even posed for selfies with their new-found freak-show in the background: a zombie, an alien, whatever you want to call it. but there was no humanity to them. Human beings are cruel, vile, sinful, irreverent creatures by nature, and that nature was showing through despite our false sense of "civilization". Spores of rage germinated within me.
A helicopter came and transported the patient to a nearby hospital where his suffering finally ceased. I spoke with respective authorities, and we then proceeded to Lumberton. We arrived at church about 10 minutes before the service ended. Some individuals asked why we were so late, and after I and my wife explained to them the cause of the delay, and after they commonly responded, "Oh, we saw that but we couldn't stop and help because we would have been late for church"... After about a dozen of such exchanges, I could take no more. One individual, and her the final blow my boiler could withstand, approached my wife in the common area and said, "We passed y'all out there, Why'd y'all stop with that wreck and not come on to church?" with a kitschy grin on her face. "Why didn't you?" I indignantly retorted. "I had more important things to do," she spewed through that insufferable grin. "Oh so you just HAD to come to church and sit in your comfy pew and sing in your little choir like everyone else?!" The grin was gone, which seemed to give me a great deal of satisfaction. "Well, uh, I, uh, um..." I interjected with something. I don't fully remember what I said at this point, but I am certain that it was loud enough for third parties to have heard what I said. I made the young lady cry, embarrassed my wife, and stirred the wrath of my mother-in-law. I regret nothing. Sometimes you really do have to set everyone - I do mean everyone - straight.
A wise man once said, "Of the lesser of two evils, choose neither." This is not universally applicable. Two things continued to chafe me: the apathetic, stagnant morons who questioned why anyone would stop to help someone that they didn't know when they really needed to carry on and proceed to church on time, and that I turned away. Primarily the latter. That man was probably in shock. I really doubt he knew the full extent of what was happening. I hear people talk about being bothered by sights, sounds, smells... gore in general. They're right; there is no smell like the smell of burning human flesh. There is no presence like the presence of death. But all of those seem so selfish and foolish in the light of the most tragic event of the entire affair: I turned away. I walked up, assessed him, determined him to be less than salvageable, and forsook him. Whether he knew it or not, I forsook him. I have seen his face many times since then. I have smelled his smell. I have felt the heat of the flames and the shock waves of the blasts against my bearded face time after time. I initially wrote the draft of this story over a year ago, and even as I edit it for this email I can feel the smell of his flesh sticking in my throat. But none of these memories carries as much weight as the decision I made that day. If I could have gone back, I would not have done anything differently. However, I still chose to let him die. That fact remains, and there is nothing anyone could have done to change it.
Many of us go through the horrendous experience that is life. No matter how far we distance ourselves from it, reality has a way of reminding us that life is inevitably a summary of struggle and suffering. From the writhing infant in pain of his first breath, to the old man, who with every laborious breath, realizes he has a few seconds less to live than he did a few seconds ago, each struggle is a minuscule grain of sand in our hourglass. In order for the plant to live, the seed must die and it's body must be broken. In order for the deer to live, the plant must die and it's body must be broken. In order for man to live, the deer is slain, it's blood spilled, and it's body broken. In order for the soul to live, the Second Adam had to die, and, like the seed, break forth for the procurement of life. It is the way of man to embrace this suffering, and to resolutely accept the finality and solace of a righteous and glorious death, in the hope of resurrection to eternal life and full communion with God in Paradise.
Sometimes, however, we need to sound off in order to reach this place of acceptance and solidarity. It is part of our quest as men. As a chaplain, the most common complaint I have heard form married men suffering from post traumatic stress, whether in law enforcement or the armed forces, or other personal experiences, is that their wives are incapable of fully participating in the ministry of presence. This goes back to what we have discussed about iron sharpening iron. "I've got to say these things or it will come out other ways, but when I talk to her, she starts crying and says she can't handle it." "She just doesn't understand that I don't need her to judge the things I done like they were right or wrong, I just need her to hear me out." "My wife says she wants me to talk about what I feel, but I love her too much to put her through that. Besides, I think she thinks of me differently when I tell her all the things I've done." Whether it's an older, wiser man who has already waged warfare against the demons whit whom you now contend, or a total stranger who is simply willing to listen, we all need a chaplain from time to time.
Regardless of your background or what thoughts haunt you, you can always reach out to me. I may not share your experience, but I am at least experienced at listening. Feel free to reach out to me here, or to ask for my phone number.
The Blue Shepard
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