One minute everything is fine, and then…
Twice in my life I have been momentarily convinced that a total stranger was about to kill me. Given my sheltered upbringing and habitual avoidance of risky behavior and potentially unsafe scenarios, it seems an unlikely statistic. Both incidents occurred when I was a college student engaged in the most humdrum of pursuits. One moment I was just another Joe Average going about his ordinary business, and then suddenly I was staring death in the face. Or so I thought.
My first brush with mortality happened on an otherwise dull September evening. I had moved into my dorm room a few days earlier than most students due to required training for my work-study job. As a member of the dormitory security staff, I would be expected to know what I was doing by the time the rest of the residents arrived. I didn’t mind getting a head start on campus life, especially since it was easier for me to move in while almost everyone else was still out.
An unusually quiet atmosphere transformed the boisterous dorm with which I was familiar into a strange and contemplative place, a tranquil chamber with echoing halls that fostered deeper thinking and even some serious reflection. It was the dawn of a new academic year, I mused, the beginning of three more quarters’ worth of new ideas and opportunities. Like the final hours of New Year’s Eve, the circumstance called for resolutions and a renewed commitment to self-improvement. An investment in sound nutrition seemed like a good place to start. Yes, I resolved, it was time to cut out the chips and fries and fill up instead with fruits and vegetables.
Determined to embark on this course of action before my enthusiasm could wane, I immediately pulled on a jacket and bounded down the stairs. A gentle autumn chill wafted through the early evening darkness as I strode purposefully across campus. There were no grocery stores nearby, but a United Dairy Farmers was conveniently located just a short walk away. I was fairly certain that I had once spied a tiny amount of produce in one of their refrigerated cases, and with any luck I would find their kitchen gadget shelf stocked with vegetable peelers. I envisioned myself back in my dorm room, setting forth on my journey to better health to the resounding crunch of raw carrots.
The shortest route to the convenience store included a trip through a covered passageway that connected adjacent buildings with the same roof. Though its path was entirely above ground, we were in the habit of referring to the narrow space as a tunnel, as its dim interior produced much the same effect. By day it was merely unsightly, but nighttime lent it a vaguely sinister air. Even so, plenty of students used it at all hours. It was much quicker than walking all the way around the block.
On this particular evening, I happened to be the only soul using the popular shortcut. Its emptiness made me just the slightest bit uneasy, but I moved forward briskly with the confidence that I would soon reach the other side. Nearing the end of the passageway, I made out the silhouette of a lone figure standing there motionless, as if waiting for someone. The person was of small stature, and I checked my flight reflex with the counterargument that my sudden fear was only silly paranoia. After all, there was nothing particularly threatening about this stranger, save for his loitering spot. I picked up my pace to pass him quickly, and that’s when he darted forward to intercept me.
He was a young man like myself, clad in jeans and a light jacket. He stared at me with disturbingly intense eyes, and his voice was a grim monotone that befitted his grave countenance. “Do you believe in life after death?” he demanded in an aggressive manner far more intimidating than his size would suggest. It never occurred to me not to answer.
“Um…I don’t know,” I stammered, true to my agnosticism of the time. Then came the kicker.
“Would you like to find out?” He reached into his jacket, and I felt the sort of adrenaline rush that accompanies close calls in rush hour traffic. I didn’t exactly see my life flash before my eyes, but I was dumbstruck with terror and simultaneously overcome by the irony of it all. Oh my God! I cried out silently, somewhat unfaithful to my agnosticism. He’s going to kill me! I’m going to be shot and killed because I decided to walk to United Dairy Farmers for a bag of carrots! It’s not like I was going to indulge in unhealthy snacks, either – I was going to buy carrots! This is what I get for trying to be healthy?!
And then he pulled out his gun. Only it wasn’t a gun. It was a small pamphlet entitled Are You Going To Hell? The words were printed in a bold red font above black line art of a man’s face contorted in agony. The evangelistic thug had to know that he had just scared me nearly unconscious. But he said nothing more, so I stuffed the fiery tract into my pocket and continued on my vegetable quest. Somehow the relative nutritional merit of one food versus another seemed rather insignificant in light of my brief flirtation with nonexistence. But I bought the carrots anyway, and my trembling hands found a peeler as well. As for the pamphlet, I found its message less than persuading.
My second not-so-near-death experience happened not long afterward, this time not on campus but rather among the grassy hills of a city park in my hometown. I had a summer job with the parks department, and I was entrusted with the mowing of one of our larger properties. It took about a week to mow the entire park, by which time the section that had been mowed first needed to be mowed again. As dull as the routine was, I enjoyed the independence I was given. Someone from the parks department would drop me off at the maintenance shed every morning and come back to pick me up in the afternoon, and it was up to me to stay busy in between.
One sweltering day after lunch, I had taken the riding mower up into the northwest quadrant for a few more hours of grass cutting. By this time my tasks had become so repetitive that I found it necessary to keep myself in a state of preoccupation in order to make it through the day. A portion of my brain guided the mower along its course as the rest of my mind was far away, usually lost in an endless mental loop of whatever music I had been listening to recently. We were required to wear jeans on even the hottest days, and so my senses were further dulled by the oppressive heat.
The park to which I had been assigned had a reputation for attracting odd characters. Its acreage included many tall trees and undulating hills, affording visitors seeking seclusion a number of unpopulated options. This gave it tremendous potential as a venue for hide-and-seek, but it also created the dependable lack of bystanders that is craved by nefarious types. I was told that it was unwise to trespass its grounds after dark, but I always felt safe enough fulfilling my parks department job there. I was mindlessly turning the mower around for another pass when I caught sight of a shirtless man walking toward me.
I stopped the mower, wiped the sweat from my brow, and tried to discern whether or not what I thought I was seeing was real. I had heard of strange people roaming the park, and this man certainly fit the bill. He wore only ragged cutoffs and sandals. With his long, matted hair and unkempt beard, he looked like a Woodstock refugee who was unaware that it was no longer the Summer of Love. The incredible part, though – the thing that chilled the sweat on my back – was his posture. He was walking toward me with his arms stretched before him and his hands clasped together. In fact, he was obviously pointing something at me. Oh my God! I panicked irreverently once again, he’s pointing a gun at me! There was nowhere to run, the riding mower was far too slow to effect an escape, and so I simply stared in helpless horror as the crazed hippie drew closer. To have survived the menacing evangelist only to perish like this!
Whereupon it suddenly became clear to me that he was, in fact, holding a squirrel. Yes, a squirrel, and apparently an injured one at that. This latter-day St. Francis had found the poor animal and was seeking aid, although precisely what was wrong with the critter was unclear to me. When he saw me astride a riding mower in my official parks department green t-shirt, he assumed that I represented the nearest thing to a naturalist authority that he had yet encountered. But I was just a college kid sweating through a summer job. I didn’t know anything about squirrels.
“What should I do with it?” he asked.
“Um…I don’t know,” I stammered, true to my veterinary ignorance. He looked at me for a moment with disappointment in his eyes, and then he wandered off with his squirrel. How should I know? I thought to myself indignantly. Good God, I’m just lucky to be alive!