The Kipling poem is so well known that it is constantly in danger of being received as parody. But it turns out it can also wind up as surprising literal. For example, that line about keeping your head when all about you are losing theirs.
Not long out of college, so new to journalism that the ink stains were still damp, and fresh from various part-time jobs that one way or another involved assisting folks who’d gotten hurt, I had a Wednesday off. Wednesday is a lousy day to have off, because pretty much everyone else is at work, but this particular Wednesday was a fresh April Wednesday in the Midwest and the Whitewater River in nearby Brookeville, Indiana beckoned. Without meaning any slander to the majesty of Indiana’s wild reaches, suffice to say that the Whitewater is an ambitiously named watercourse. I enjoyed a leisurely solo paddle on an empty river and was back on the bike by early afternoon, having faced no greater adventure than spooking a couple of otters, having suffered no great exertion than damp knees, and having braved no white water at all.
I was headed south and east on Indiana’s State Road 1, which winds lazily through the hills in the bottom right corner of the state and offered a pleasingly indirect way home to Cincinnati – the direct route holding no appeal on a motorcycle on a fresh Midwestern April Wednesday. I was leaning comfortably into a bend just south of Guilford, when I saw one of those very large over-the-road cement trucks stopped two-thirds of the way across the highway.
As I slowed and straightened up, I saw why.
Wedged under the truck was small sedan, a ’67 or ’68 Rambler. The car had run under the truck at such speed that only a bit of the trunk lid and the rear bumper could be seen from my side. Although not a convertible, it had no roof, or at least it hadn't any more. The crumpled remains of the roof were on the road behind the car.
If you’ve been to enough of them (and I had by then) you know that car accidents have a smell – oil and heat and coolant and gas and blood – and the smell ages in a certain way. This wreck was fresh. The truck driver was sitting in the road near the front of his vehicle, his head in his hands, but unhurt. When I walked around to the far side, where about half of the Rambler had emerged from under the truck, I could see there were two victims in the car. The driver was an elderly man dressed in a dark suit, a shirt that might once have been white and narrow black tie knotted smartly at his throat. He was lying to his right across the front bench seat and he was horribly injured. Next to him, sitting straight up, was a petite figure in a flowered cotton dress, her hands still folded primly in her lap atop her sensible purse. She didn’t appear to be hurt at all. Except that her head was in the back seat of the car.
I've always figured the driver saw what was coming a split second before it happened, and instinctively dove to the right. His passenger -- his wife of nearly 60 years as I'd later learn -- must have been looking at the passing landscape.
By this time another driver had stopped. This was long before cell phones and I sent him up the road to a volunteer fire house I’d seen. I did what could be done, treating the driver in place, stanching some bleeding, trying to reassure and comfort him as he drifted up into brief moments of lucidity. Once he asked me if his wife was OK. I said she was fine. He didn't realize that she was right there, but covered with my jacket so he wouldn’t look up and see her state. Later, the rest of the ride home was cold without my jacket.
Folks who don’t know any better tend to look down on volunteer fire departments. That’s a mistake. The one in Guilford,* like so many, had excellent volunteers, the first of whom showed up maybe 15 minutes later. Within a half an hour, there were half a dozen well trained paramedics and EMTs and a nicely fitted-out rescue truck on the scene. The old man was alive when they transported him. One of the volunteers called me the next day to say the fellow had died over night. The volunteer didn’t know if the man had ever learned that his wife would be waiting for him.
I can’t say I did the man much good, but over the years and decades, and long after I stopped getting paid to patch people up or pull them from the water, I have had a tendency to come upon the accident that has just occurred, or the fellow having a heart attack in the crosswalk, or to be healthy in a camp full of mission workers down with dysentery in remote Honduran mountains, or to be there when a shooting competitor falls out with a heat injury. And – not, I hope, from a place of vanity, but certainly with some pride – I can say that I am the guy you want in those circumstances. [Well, assuming, of course you couldn't have a trauma surgeon or a currently trained paramedic, or really anybody but a lawyer who rode a rescue squad 30 years ago.] But you understand what I mean; it’s another place where Mindset Matters Most.
This morning it was chaos in our house. I woke up late because of an alarm glitch. My little one was home, not dressed for school, and not inclined to be so. The wonderful woman who helps with the house twice a month was there and had a lot of questions about laundry that I couldn’t answer. There was no coffee. So a lot was out of hand, but since no one was bleeding, I was stymied.
Then, lacking only a fanfare of trumpets and a skirl of pipes, my darling bride arrived on the scene. In moments, bitter chaos became sweet order. (Although there was still no coffee.)
“You know,” she pointed out, “You can handle any emergency. But something like this . . .” The rest went unsaid as I covered her mouth with a passionate kiss.** She’s right, of course. And I’m OK with that.
After all, Kipling said if you can keep your head, etc., “you’ll be a Man, my son.” But Harry Callahan made it equally clear that “a man’s got to know his limitations.”
* It’s called the Miller York Volunteer Fire Department .
**At least as far you know.