It was night already and this decision, though perhaps brewing for some time, manifest itself in a quick, and extremely rash move. It was Spring, Memorial was near. I had felt I could no longer partake because everything seemed wrong: the people, my life, perhaps even the Bible and God, certainly my marriage. I packed my MG convertible and included a full bottle of Valium and a big Buck Knife just in case. I was going to end my misery.
I drove to Joshua Tree National Monument in the California desert about 100 miles away under a full moon. I imagined my death in slumber inside a small tent and then the grisly scene of the discovery of my body. I knew and believed this action may well destroy any hopes I had of a heavenly life. I did not meditate on this because I was quite beyond that now. But, there was something I had not counted on. God Himself!
Joshua Tree is quite popular in the Spring among serious rock climbers from all over the world. The first campground, Hidden Valley, was full. The next one at Ryan was also full. It was about ten o’clock under that desert moon. The MG top was down and in the fresh air I headed toward another campground about ten miles away, Jumbo Rocks.
The narrow, rough road here is a beauty under a nocturnal moon. There are great lunar-flushed rocks to the right beneath Ryan Mountain; and, to the left a flatten desert with great piles of rocks scattered about. All of these monoliths were familiar to me because of rock climbing over ten years among them. I had come here in the early seventies to record the climbs of Tobin Sorenson and John Long. Before JT became so popular with the world of rock climbing, one could go there and be much alone with only the sound of friends around the camp fire as the day’s new climbs were compared, examined and judged.
I drove up the road, anxious to get on with it at the next campground, traveling about 30 miles an hour. I approached a rising curve and a speed limit sign, 35 miles per hour, and I remember my eye checking my own speed. Then with a suddenness faster than the blink of an eye, the small MG was suddenly pirouetting onto its nose and twisting to the left. Bam! Blank!
Up on Ryan Mountain two park rangers were on the trail of some rock climbers doing drugs and they heard the crash far below. They radioed the patrolling ranger making his final rounds and said they heard something like an accident. He was within a minute of the totaled MG pinning its hapless victim underneath, having scraped its occupant across the desert, through cactus and rock and sage brush. Two minutes later, without warning from the rangers above, he would not have seen the demolished MG and the dead body would have been discovered at first light. Unknown to everyone, the driver would have realized his wish: death.
When the ranger stopped by the roadside dust filled the air and the wheels were still spinning. There was no sound coming from the wreck. The driver could not be seen because he was buried in dirt and rock, hidden beneath the car. The ranger immediately called for help.
My first thought was, “O, shit!” My face was buried in dirt and desert grit. My face was turned to the left and I could see feet, dust, and hear voices trying to figure out how to get the car off me. Jacks were tried but they would not hold well in the sand. The voices were panicky. My first thought was my face and when I tried to feel my teeth, they seemed to all be broken loose and gone. I did not know then I had bitten through my tongue.
Then the agonizing pain struck my entire back. I moaned and groaned as I was pulled out and loaded onto a park ambulance. I can vaguely remember a female paramedic. She said: “He is going into shock.” I was freezing cold and shaking uncontrollably. The pain was the most severe I had ever experienced. It was twenty miles to Hi-Desert Medical Center over a rough road.
The “Medical Center” was really just a small clinic. I did not know, nor was anyone else for over two weeks, that I had severe spinal compression in which my height was reduced from six feet to five foot nine. Nor was the receiving physician to realize my heart was severely bruised and leaking blood into the chest cavity. One lung was collapsed and numerous ribs and collar bones fractured. There were other injuries which would be addressed later.
I could make out the clock and I heard someone say my blood pressure was 60 over Doppler. I knew enough that it was serious indeed. However, evidently this admitting physician did not realize this. He called my wife and told her: “Your husband has been in a car accident. He is not serious. You can come and get him or leave him over night.” I was dying right before him and he did not have the training to realize it. I would have been dead by morning, but then what I wanted would have come true. God had other thoughts.
By chance, late that night, or early in the morning, a physician from Eisenhower Memorial in Palm Springs was making rounds of clinics. He was either Indian or Pakistani, because I can remember his voice screaming at this attending physician: “The man is dying right in front of you and you don’t know!” My wife had now shown up and she realized it was not as the doctor described. The Pakistani physician was working frantically over me, trying to discover the source of the internal bleeding. Attempts were made to get a shunt up the artery in my right arm, passed my collar bone and into the heart; but, they did not realize then how “compressed” my neck and chest were from the spinal compression. The Pakistani told my wife: “It is time to gather the family.” My children, mother, sister, father and some friends gathered to watch over me.
The week passed in a blur of morphine and Demerol. An old friend who had been a congregation servant who years before shared a Kingdom Hall in Santa Ana came to visit and comfort me. Slowly, miraculously doctors thought, I stabilized enough to transport me to Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach. There under x-rays and an angiogram, my true condition was discovered. I remember the technician’s words: “Jesus H. Christ!” I came to believe God had intervened and I was to be taught a powerful lesson by this experience and what was to follow.
Half a dozen doctors worked on me for another week. I floated through a morphine haze of dreams and hallucinations. There were dozens of visitors and well-wishers. None realized what had been interrupted by this accident. I was soon released to convalesce in bed at home in Corona Del Mar. It was to be a year expecting to get better but with deepening pain. I was more or less confined to a reclining chair or bed, heavily medicated with Darvon and muscle-relaxants.
What was happening in my family was quite beyond me. I know I began to return to meetings, but despite my disabled condition certain political intrigues continued and this moment of my weakness was taken to ramrod me out. We changed congregations to one of those we had enjoyed in Fountain Valley.
When any JW moves and changes congregations “a letter of introduction” is sent to the new congregation. This often takes the form of a critique, and in some places, a judgment of the person. You will never get to read this private judgment and if the authors of it has an ax to grind against the person this will be reflected in their “star chamber” letter. Such a letter was to plague me during the year.
This did not matter because I was so disabled I was not much use to any one. However, the whole idea bothered me. In this kind of case, those who love you will reveal some of the contents of this “letter of introduction” so I could get some idea of the political espionage going on in Orange County. Those who may not like you so well will use this letter to either control or manipulate you.
Remember, this is now the period of the so-called “elder arrangement.” Some of these elders, many black, had not been recommended on the first go round. They remembered I was among those who might have “held them back” and some used this opportunity to exercise their newly attained “power.” I was to experience this often: when a man is turned down as an elder or deacon (ministerial servant) he has a tendency to remember this and blame someone. If he ever gets in a position of authority or power, he will turn the tables on any he thinks guilty of this oversight. Clearly, men who think this way, should not be elders in any circumstances. There is this tendency to “kick a man when he is down.” This was to happen me during this year. I was to learn what the Proverb meant: “Beware the slave who becomes a king.”
During this period I was asked to give the funeral for a much beloved brother. There were six- hundred persons present with many standing outside. This was a delightful man from former British Honduras, now Belize. No man was ever sweeter or more caring of his fellows than this very poor man. When I had met him I had immediately discovered his genuine Christianity and had wondered why he had never been made a “servant.” He had always been loyal in everything. I asked him why once. With a warm smile, he said, “I guess I was just over-looked.”
I got the strong feeling there was something racial here. I recommended him as an elder and he served so until he was later removed because he was an “illegal alien” who had been living for years in California. This removal of such a good man seemed wrong to me. The truth is, when it suits the Watchtower Society, any number of “illegal aliens” serve as Branch workers, Bethelites, or missionaries as complete illegals. When I served in Spain I was to learn that many “illegal” workers were helping build Branch facilities in foreign countries, living almost completely behind the walls of the compound, and did so for years beyond their legal visas. When I think of this, I always think of this gem of a prince who could not be the elder he truly was because he was “illegal.” The truth is, he was nobody who could be used by the Society.
During this year in limbo, I was not to do much in the way of photography, but I did give free seminars at some college photography courses. Both my assistant and I would discuss many aspects of photography. There was to be a charming and pretty Irish woman who sat in on these. She is to make her mysterious appearance later.
Nazarene Commentary 2000©
Mark Heber Miller
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