The first time I really knew for sure was the summer I turned six.
If you were to ask either of my parents, both of them would probably blame the other, each of them for entirely different reasons. But I like to think I was just born this way.
Looking back, it is obvious that I had shown signs much earlier, subtle symptoms and certain tendencies that had gone unnoticed. But somewhere in the summer that stretched between being five and turning six, I grew up enough to realize that I wasn’t like the other kids.
It all started with my dad’s new truck, a secondhand Chevy. Robin’s egg blue, with navy and cream vinyl interior, and an 8-track bolted under the dashboard. Chrome bumpers that flashed silver in the sun, winking diamonds of light when the truck swung around the corner. You could see your face in the chrome; it bent and stretched reflections like a circus mirror.
But what I remember most was the winch, and how it changed everything.
If you look up the word winch in the dictionary it will tell you it is a hauling or lifting device consisting of a rope or chain winding around a horizontal rotating drum, turned typically by a crank or motor. My dad’s new pickup had a winch mounted right on the front grill, just above the bumper. It was made of steel and smelled like oil and rust.
You could do a lot with a winch, he told me. You could tie it to a tree and pull yourself out of a ditch. Drag heavy objects. Rescue people who got their car stuck in mud, sand, or snow. A guy could maybe even save somebody’s life one day, you never knew, just because he happened to come upon a drastic situation where somebody was in dire need of a winch.
The thought of helping my father save the day with a winch both thrilled and terrified me.
What nobody knew but me was that I spent a great deal of time thinking about disasters, usually at night just before sleep took over, at which time I would dream of calamities. My grandmother had unknowingly planted the seed of potential danger in my imagination when she taught me the common bedtime prayer recited by generations of Catholic children: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, and if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
Then she would turn the light off and leave us in the dark. Of course this prayer begged the question of just how death might sneak up on a sleeping child, and I would lay there, sweat sticking my skin to my pajamas, waiting for a plane to crash through the roof, wondering if bears could open doors, or if there was something under the bed. Worrying about lightning, tornadoes, or sometimes poisoned apples.
In the early days of kindergarten, a fireman came to our school and taught us to stop, drop and roll if we ever caught on fire, and to hide under our desks in case of an earthquake. I didn’t have a desk at home, and so I barely slept for the next three nights, until I discovered I was still small enough to fit inside my bedside table, if I moved the humidifier and took the little drawer all the way out.
For Christmas that year I asked Santa for my very own fire extinguisher, and a first aid kit.
I had realized something about myself. I wasn’t really afraid of the dark, or the sight of my own blood. What terrified me were flashlights with dead batteries, or when someone used the last band-aid and put the empty box back into the drawer without telling anyone.
It wasn’t what might happen that scared me. It was not being ready for it that kept me up at night. Knowing I had access to a winch if I needed one brought me great comfort. So did swimming lessons, where we learned to tread water, and give mouth-to-mouth resusutation.
Last week my sweetheart and I got caught in a snowstorm driving home from Seattle. A giant tree had fallen across the highway and trapped us in the middle of miles of motionless cars and trucks. Wind whipped and branches bent and swirling snowflakes strangled what was left of the daylight.
There were abandoned vehicles everywhere, some nose first in the ditches, even more half buried and littering the exits. The guy on the radio was advising everyone to stay off the roads, but had little advice for those of us who were stuck on them.
I did what I have always done when staring down a potential emergency: I took inventory. I had filled up the gas tank just before we left Seattle, so we had plenty of fuel. We had a cell phone, complete with charger and a transformer that plugged into the cigarette lighter. The storage container on the roof was full of camping gear, so we had blankets, sleeping bags, a Coleman stove, propane, pots, coffee, tea, sugar and canned milk.
In the trunk I had a shortwave radio and spare batteries, a down jacket, and wool socks. My friends like to tease me about my Ford Taurus station wagon, until they go camping with me. I’m always the only guy who remembered to bring a battery-operated latte whipper.
I watched the other drivers slide and skid and spin their tires. They gripped their steering wheels, lips tight and knuckles white. They looked scared.
I reached across the seat to grab my sweetie’s hand. While we were in Seattle we had picked up a little something I had been looking for for a while. It was a portable shower unit that ran on propane. You put one end of the hose into a lake or river, fired it up, and toasty hot water came out the other end. I smiled to myself. Everything was going to be just fine.