When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." -Fred Rogers
I heard it before I saw it.
The deep, threatening growl of an unmuffled car traveling at high speed.
* * * * *
Gracie and I had just headed out into the soft sunshine of a spectacular spring day, and the sudden danger of this angry beast snapped me out of my sweet reverie.
The car was coming toward me, on the opposite side of the street. It's normal for drivers push the 25 mph speed limit along this stretch of quiet suburban neighborhoods, but this bullet was far beyond normal. As the car blasted around a curve and flashed into sight, I caught a quick glance: a mundane dark-colored sedan, slightly dusty but also traveling in a cloud of oil smoke, barreling straight toward us.
* * * * *
Adrenaline surged. Quickly, I assessed my leash-free pup, who was casually strolling along just a few feet in front of me with nary a care in the world, oblivious to this oncoming assault on our senses.
Apparently she's got the ideal temperament for a Formula One pit crew member.
In the split second before the torpedo came upon us, I urgently coaxed Gracie, "Come!" She happily trotted back to me, and I safely snapped her leash on just before the car flew by.
Now I don't spend a lot of time walking along the shoulder of the German Autobahn, nor do I sit in the front row at Nascar races, so it's difficult to assess exactly how fast this car was traveling.
At least 60 mph. Easily more.
Thank God, it was gone. Breathing a sigh of relief, I released my dog to her independent pace and listened as the raucous throttling monster receded into the distance.
But what's this? The snarling engine reasserted itself, complete with screeching tires and the unmistakable smell of burning rubber, and I turned to look back down the street. At a small three-way stop intersection, the car was spinning through the last few degrees of what must have been a 540. Most of the street was in deep afternoon shade, but sunlight struck the car and eerily illuminated the surrounding cloud of deep, swirling smoke. I stared for a horrible instant, and realized that with a menacing snarl, the car was streaking up the street, fishtailing and skidding with irrational speed, clearly faster than before.
And this time, it would pass within a foot or two of the sidewalk where I stood..
Thankfully, the adrenaline surged through my nervous system again, now with exponential force, and called me to act.
Gracie had drifted maybe ten or fifteen feet ahead of me. Much too far. Trying to disguise the panic I felt, I again called to my dog with the cheeriest tone I could muster, and prayed to sweet Jesus that she would obey.
Forget about hooking her up to the leash. As soon as Gracie was within reach, I grabbed her collar in one hand and threw us both up the small incline on the far side of the sidewalk. Pinned in from further retreat by the six foot cedar fences that run along my neighbors' backyards, I still felt vulnerable and very scared.
But then I remembered. We were among the trees.
Giant trees, Douglas firs, the kings of the Pacific Northwest forest, stand in a long row between the sidewalk and the fence, and in an instant, I tucked my dog up against the safety of one of the massive, craggy trunks, opposite the trajectory of the incoming arsenal, and folded myself into the same tiny pillar of protection.
In a blur of irrational hostility and blind rage, the car passed.
It was all over in an instant.
Gracie and I stepped out from behind the tree and onto the sidewalk.
A different car - a sleek and sparkling vintage Jeep Jeepster with an immaculate red and white two-tone paint job - had approached from the opposite direction and was now making a smooth Y-turn in the street. The man rolled down his window, clearly shaken and aware that I was too, and said, "I'm going after them."
"Good," I said. "Please do."
I watched as he drove off, his beautiful car shining in the sun, traveling at a crisp speed but clearly within posted limits. And I felt, somehow, safe.
Now as Gracie and I returned to our normal pace, I felt the trauma reaction set in. My body trembled from head to toe, I felt spent and weak. Hot tears burned behind my eyes. I wanted nothing more than to turn around and run back home. But Gracie, I knew, would be a better companion for the rest of the day if I allowed her to exercise. So on we walked.
I was scared that the car would come back, though my rational mind reassured my fight-or-flight center that I would certainly hear it ahead of time. But terrifyingly, I did hear off in the distance an assortment of brutal mechanical sounds that may (or may not) have been this same raging machine. At least three different times, I considered calling my husband to come pick us up in the car. But I decided to face my fears and push on.
I'm glad I did.
Because as we were almost home again - funny, we stopped in almost the exact same spot on the sidewalk as before - the man in the two-tone Jeepster came back, although this time he was driving an equally clean and sporty white vintage Jeep Wagoneer. He slowed as he approached me, rolled down his window and said, "The police are looking for them; they won't get far."
"Thank you," I returned. "That was terrifying."
"Yes, it was," he agreed. "They were going at least 120 mph. No doubt in my mind."
I managed some sort of socially appropriate closing, thanked him again, and staggered home.
As I walked under the lengthening shadows of the Douglas firs, still silently towering above me, protectors and friends, I realized that I'll never know for sure exactly how fast that car was traveling, or why they were so hell bound on a sunny afternoon, or even whether the police ever caught them, though I may do a bit of scrolling to see about that.
But what I do know is that Mister Rogers' mom was right. Whenever scary things happen, there are always helpers.
Sometimes they are people. People driving beautiful vintage Jeeps.
And sometimes, they are trees.