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Jessie Veeder, Published September 22 2012

Coming Home: Looking for a lesson in a near miss

Last week, in the middle of an ordinary Monday, on the corner of an intersection I drive through every day, a semi pulling a frac tank reacted as a car failed to acknowledge a yield sign.

The result sent the truck barreling into the ditch, through a chain-linked fence, clipping a parked bus and pickup before coming to rest 60 feet inside the walls of a small Christian school along the highway.

It was a few minutes after noon, and the students had just stepped outside to play kickball or take to the swing set under the warm autumn sky. Maybe a child forgot her jacket and had just turned around to retrieve it. Maybe the weather enticed a teacher to join the students outside. Maybe a boy worked on homework inside the building, inches from where the truck came to rest.

I don’t know the details. And it doesn’t matter now.

All that matters is that we might have a chance to hear those stories someday, because all of those 19 students and the three teachers who prepared their lesson plans that morning, lived to tell about it.

The same is not true for the driver of the car, the only fatality in an unfortunate turn of events that impacted many lives along the truck-laced highways and county roads of Western North Dakota.

And I can’t shake it.

And neither can the residents of my community who heard the news of the accident through telephone calls, while picking up lunch, sitting in offices, passing one another on the street or finding the news online.

No matter the channel, the method is the same – it’s the grapevine, the rumor mill and the same way news has been shared in my small town since it took up roots on the edge of the badlands almost 100 years ago.

In 100 years, this town has undoubtedly seen its fair share of tragedy, change and growth, but I’d venture to guess that it has never seen the likes of a semi-truck barreling down on the lives of 19 of our most precious assets.

It’s been nearly a week since the incident, and I imagine around dinner tables, in carpools and phone conversations, this story continues to find its way out of our mouths, bringing with it theories on our own mortality.

Minutes.

Seconds.

Heartbeats.

And it could have ended very differently.

A miracle? If you believe in those things.

Luck? Perhaps.

God? Many will say so.

The truth is, no person can comprehend what protected those children on that ordinary autumn afternoon.

And so we are given the gift of moving on while we look for a lesson in a near miss like this. We hold it in our pocket for days when the world is spinning too fast and we’re rushing to push a deadline, make it to work on time, get dinner on the table and be all of the things we set out to be that day.

And I worry.

I worry about that unexpected turn of events that could send my life reeling and tumbling out of the nest I’ve created for myself – a wrong turn into traffic, a bucking horse, a tumble down the stairs or an incurable disease.

It’s thoughts like these that send me climbing to the hilltops on the ranch to look at our unpredictable world from a safe distance. From there I can see it –the trucks kicking up dust on the pink scoria road, the leaves changing on the oak trees to the east, and the tiny mouse I imagine is running for his life as the hawk circles and swoops against the big prairie sky.

From the hilltop all the talk about faith and timing and God is manifested for me under a sky that can promise rain, blinding snow and wind to blow the leaves from the branches, but nothing else.

From the hilltop I understand that in this life, under this sky, the only thing certain is our vulnerably.

And the only way to live in this volatile world is to hold on tight—to our convictions and to one another.

Jessie Veeder is a 28-year-old musician and writer. She lives near Watford City, N.D., with her husband, on the ranch where she grew up. Readers can reach her at jessieveeder@gmail.com.