I’m truly hoping to be able, over time, to share angel stories of all sorts with you, and I encourage you to please send along any experiences you may have that you are willing to share with the rest of us. To kick off this weekly feature, it seems only right that I should share the story of how I first became aware of my angels in a very dramatic way.
I was about four-and-a-half, when one of Daddy’s friends gave him a used Mercury outboard motor, and, being the true child of the Depression that he was, he spent an entire winter building a 14′ fishing boat in his workshop – a converted basement garage under our house – so as not to waste the gift. Consequently, for months on end, we all anticipated the day when his work would be finished and we would all enjoy a fishing excursion on Brushy Creek, just down the road from our house.
Since he worked hard as a forester all week, the only possible times for boating were all day Saturday or in the window on Sundays between morning church and evening church. Unfortunately, when the designated Saturday for the launch of his boat – now sporting a shiny coat of white paint with fire-engine red trim – finally arrived, it rained cats and dogs all day, so the excursion was postponed till the next afternoon. After spending months to build it, Daddy was not about to wait another entire week for some gratification.
So, the next day, he hitched a borrowed boat trailer to the back of our boxy, new ’54 Ford and, with Mama’s help, pushed the shiny skiff over the rollers and strapped it in. We climbed into the car and soon were on our way to a makeshift fisherman’s landing about fifteen minutes away where the road that ran in front of our house crossed the creek. If you go there today, County Road 63 still crosses the Brushy Creek, but you will not find the landing because it is deep under water. In the early Sixties, the Alabama Power Company flooded thousands of acres in the area behind a hydroelectric dam, and the Creek’s banks were transformed for much of its length into lakefront property. Today the creek flows imperceptibly and the new bridge is far longer and higher than old one, which was only a hundred feet long and just far enough above the water to allow trawling fishermen to pass underneath. Built in the ’30s of poured concrete, its rudimentary design included “battlements” sticking up on either side to prevent people from driving over the edge – a guard rail without the rail. Over the years, the bridge had weathered to the point that cabochons of pea-sized quartz poked out from the dull cement and shone in the sun like golden pearls on the day when we were there.
There was a turnoff to the right, just before the bridge, that went down to the landing. Daddy turned us around without too much difficulty and then backed down the slope until the stern of the boat was deep enough to float off the trailer. He told us to wait in the car while he tied it and made everything ready, and, after a few minutes, he called to us to join him. We piled out to walk down the incline to the boat, and that was when I saw it, and the fear started moving up my spine.
Most days, the water of Brushy Creek ran unhurried through a dense wonderland of overhanging trees and lichen-covered cliffs. It was, most days, an ideal choice for a Sunday-afternoon outing. But, not that day. That day, the Brushy Creek that suddenly had my full attention was one I had never seen before: a roiling, violent torrent the color of butterscotch that was so swollen from the previous day’s washout it lashed the bridge with tongues of water as it roared underneath; so much higher than normal that Daddy had actually tied the boat to the first concrete post on the bridge, which on any other day would have been much too far above and behind us to be used for that purpose.
Perhaps that should have told him something, but he was determined that we would have our family outing, and the fact that the force of the rushing water held the boat fairly steady against the side of the abutment made it possible to board directly from the bridge. It rocked back and forth, but not too badly, as Daddy got in first, then took Mama’s free arm (she had Mimi, who was about 18 months old, in the other) to hold her as she stepped over the side and settled into the center seat. Next, he turned back and told me to step onto the prow, where the plywood cover gave me a place to stand, then he would be able to take my hand and help me into the boat from there. I was only four, remember, and a skinny slip of a boy, so I can’t imagine my stepping onto it had any effect one way or the other, but in the instant I moved from the edge of the bridge onto the bow of the boat, I knew – knew, not thought or suspected or felt or had an inkling, but knew – that the boat was going to capsize and it was going to do it right that instant. Simultaneously, some clear and compelling inner command said, “TOMMY! JUMP! NOW!” So, I did. In all, I couldn’t have been on board for more than half a second, which was a good thing. A full second could have been fatal.
The best I can figure, as the boat went lower in the water from the weight of all the Wilsons, the strong current pushing against the upstream side ran underneath the canted bottom and gave it just enough lift that the water being pushed up between the solid bridge and the downstream side was able to spill over the edge. As a result, by the time I had regained my footing back on the bridge, that boat had completely vanished. The raging water had just been too much, and, in a flash, it had flipped and tossed everything in it – including Mama and Mimi – toward the bridge before completely surrendering to the pull of the rushing torrent toward some unknown destination. Quicker than you could say “lickety-split,” it was gone, utterly gone.
As it threw them into the water, Mama had managed to grab one of the bridge stanchions with her left arm even as she held Mimi in her right, and I will never forget that image. The current was so swift that Mama’s legs were being sucked completely horizontal up against the bottom of the bridge as she held on in a death-grip, all the while yelling to Daddy, who had jumped back onto the roadway as the boat went over, to come and take Mimi out of her arms. I’m sure I wasn’t much use at that point since I seem to remember jumping up and down and screaming wildly for him to help Mama, who was only hanging on by the sheer force of her determination to save my baby sister and, if possible, herself.
I am very grateful for the athleticism of both my parents that day since Mama was saved in the first place by her own ability to grab onto that nubbly concrete post and hold it fast for the – seemingly eternal – seconds required of her, and then saved a second time by the sheer brute strength of my father as he struggled against the current to pull her out from under the bridge. There is no doubt that Mama saved Mimi’s life that Sunday afternoon, nor that that Daddy saved Mama’s. But it was something else, entirely, that saved mine.
To tell the truth, I don’t remember anything about the ride back home. If I had to say, I would conjecture that it was a pretty quiet ride except for the rattle of the empty trailer still hitched to the car. We all learned some lessons that day, and they weren’t particularly happy ones.
As for me, there were new grains that found their way into my truth-thimble that day. The first of these was related to trust, because, if I couldn’t depend upon my bright, devoted parents to be aware and vigilent in even the most extreme, life-threatening situations – much less, much lesser ones – how could I trust anybody? We all, I believe, become disillusioned with our parents at some point, but my reality-slaps came early and required a new mindset altogether. If I couldn’t trust Daddy not to put me in mortal danger even when it was obvious on its face, then I pretty much couldn’t be absolutely sure of anyone, anytime.
But do not weep too much for my lost innocence. All this disillusionment might have been the first step toward hard and heartless cynicism, which would have been tragic, but it didn’t turn out that way because there was another grain of truth I had discovered in my half-second on that boat to conclusively inoculate me against it: that in my aloneness, I was not alone. They say God never closes a door without opening a window, but that woefully understates what began in my life that day. Yes, I gained an important understanding of the limitations of trust in humans, but I was also allowed to glimpse the limitless possibilities of trust in God. When that unmistakeable, clear, authoritative voice literally whisked me off the boat, the veil was lifted just enough for me to get a glimmer of the Light, to confirm absolutely that something, someone, some something, was in my corner and had my back. This had been, however brief, a close personal encounter of the third kind.
We’ve been through many decades together, now, my angels and I, so I can say with some conviction that they were behind the “urging” that moved me back to the bridge. I have no doubt that they saw the danger well before we even got out of the car, and were primed, alert and cleared to do whatever was required to keep me safe (even as the angels attending Mimi, Mama and Daddy were all, in the end, equally successful), but, however all that may work, the spiritual connection I first discerned on the prow of Daddy’s boat was undeniable, and my relationship with my angels was born. It would grow much stronger over the coming months and years, but it all began – this journey of discovering what I believe – in that instant when my life hung in the balance. They said “jump!” I jumped. And with that step our dance began.