The great poet Carl Sandburg, in one of his works, tells the story of a young girl named Anna Imroth who died in a factory fire. Sandburg ends the poem with: "It is the hand of God and the lack of fire escapes."
My neighbor Bob takes out a thick family photo album and flips to a few newspaper clippings. One shows two piles of twisted, shapeless metal that, I am told, were once small airplanes. It’s hard to tell what the other one is just from the photograph, but Bob explains that it’s an overturned big rig, and somewhere mixed in the fire and rubble are dead things.
As he tells the stories I marvel in silence at how he glows with pride, as he displays these pictures of negligent homicide right next to those of marriages and family reunions.
Several years ago, he and his buddy Joe were herding horses, flying over ranchland in small, single-engine planes. Thinking he would play a trick on his friend – and knowing that the noise of Joe’s plane would drown out the sound of his own – Bob came up in such a way that he couldn’t be seen. He was flying much too close, looked away for a moment to scan the countryside below, and caused a mid-air collision. Both planes spiraled to the ground and crashed. Bob was in the hospital for months, recovering from his injuries. Joe was killed.
The next accident occurred four years later – Bob was driving his motorcycle down a highway with his girlfriend on the back. The road ahead of him was empty; there was an RV behind him, and behind that, a big-rig truck hauling a load of sheep. The truck pulled into the left lane to pass the slow-moving RV.
At that moment, Bob remembered something he needed, but had left at home. He was in a hurry and made a U-turn to get onto the opposing road, didn’t bother to look, and turned directly into the path of the oncoming big rig. The truck-diver swerved to avoid hitting him and the big-rig overturned, catching the back of the motorcycle as it fell.
Bob, once again, survived with serious injuries, but his girlfriend, the truck driver, and all the sheep were killed. Fortunately, there were no other vehicles up ahead, because the heavily laden big rig, as it went slewing on its side down the road, would have taken out anything in its path.
He finishes these stories with a self-satisfied smile. I tell him how lucky he is that he survived all those accidents. He tells me how it was no accident, it was God – God’s will that he live, live, and live again, and not those other people.
I say, as politely as I can, "I guess God didn't care so much about your friend Joe, your girlfriend, the dead truck driver, his bereft family, and the sheep."
Bob’s doesn’t seem to notice my sarcasm. He smiles proudly and says, “Yes, it was just meant to be.”
Later, trying to sleep, an image stuck with me, refusing to let go – the sheep, all those sheep stuck in their pens, rolling along, until suddenly – terrific pain, uncomprehending suffering, and a clamor like hell as they tumbled and crashed, this premature butchering. I didn’t get much sleep.
Bob was killed today in an accident. I overhear someone mention it at the grocery store, one aisle over from where I’m standing with my shopping cart. They move out of earshot before I can hear the details.
I stand, looking at rows of canned peas and green beans, stacked exactly as they should be. I have the sudden urge to knock them loose and send them crashing.
When I get home, I dump the grocers and call up a neighbor, one that knows Bob’s family well. It seems he fell to his death. The rotted rung of a wooden ladder gave way beneath his feet, perhaps eroded by the swarms of termites already known to live in the floors and walls of his house.
Bob had other, metal ladders – bright and shiny aluminum ones – but on this day, to replace a broken garage light, he chose the wooden one. It was an old ladder and didn’t have metal bars placed beneath each wooden step, like the ones manufactured today do. it splintered, the fall broke his neck, but it was his head hitting the concrete floor of his garage that ultimately caused his death. He was still alive and conscious when his wife returned home from work and found him gasping in pain on the floor. He didn’t make it to the hospital in time
This accident probably was the result of termite destruction and the failure to perform proper tool, equipment, and home maintenance...or perhaps it was something else.
At Bob’s memorial service, I overhear his wife say how he always favored that old ladder because of its height. He felt it brought him closer to Heaven.