Night Ride

by Robert Lanz, LCSW

Deer at night

Geez, I thought, these are the scientists who put guys on the moon, dune buggies on Mars and who actually went back up and fixed the giant Hubble telescope. I once had a chance to take care of one of them in the emergency room and he took the time to tell me how they did it. Amazing.

The space program is one of those environments in which you almost need a graduate degree just to be a secretary, a place where a guy with Asperger’s can still make friends. It’s one of those kind of workplaces. A total brainiac roster fed frequently by students from the local technical college right nearby.

There are probably not a lot of places on earth staffed with that kind of brainpower. Probably not a lot of places on earth with more security cameras other than Fort Knox. Nobody tries to break into the space program campus, either. Tucked up against the San Gabriel mountains, it is the kind of place where you can walk around any time, day or night and feel totally secure. And if you wanted to, and you knew the right people, you could get access to the giant telescope and take a peek at a streaking meteor or comet or some enormous piece of faraway space junk that some day, just for practice, might get blasted with one of those secret space rays they are probably developing over there.

The center is safe as safe can be unless you are a PhD engineer cycling downhill on one of the many dirt trails around campus. Despite the fact that you are riding a totally tricked out, do-practically-anything mountain bike, a three-hundred-pound deer in the trail on a blind curve, an entirely earthly organism, can end a perfect ride.

His co-workers told me he needed to blow off a little steam after 12 hours in the lab working on a project they avoided talking about. He got on his new mountain bike, put on his helmet and took off for a vigorous yet relaxing off-road spin, except this time a giant slab of venison stood across his trail, a barrier impossible to go over, under, around or through. Perhaps the only equation a few hundred PhDs on campus couldn’t solve.

When this young PhD came to the trauma center, it looked like this would be an equation we wouldn’t be able to solve either. Sometimes I think it would be better for us if some patients were dead on arrival, especially when they were so much like our own team: bright, dedicated, driven. No one wants to get an up-close view of the lingering death of someone who shared the kind of life that we did. All that training, all that energy and hope ends with everyone standing around feeling hopeless, including us. And it all just falls apart. Emotionally treacherous.

Of course, many of the other scientists showed up in the ER, organizing an information tree so that everyone would know everything all the time. No denial with these people  who were all smart and connected and hopeful. I sure as hell wasn’t going to be the guy to tell them that this mission would be scrubbed. Not then.

The young man survived the ER and got upstairs where he would die the next day. Someone else would have to be responsible for bringing sadness and disappointment to the young man’s friends and co-workers, some of the brightest people in the country.
All caused by a deer. Nothing cosmic. Nothing complicated. No leaking valves or shredded heat tiles or failing space parts, just bad luck and a deer on the trail with the same right to be there as a scientist on a mountain bike. It changed all of those guys up there forever because they had never thought to enter such a thing into any of their equations. They always assumed any bad things happening would happen, well, out there, not down here.

I still can’t hear a space-related story or drive by the space center without remembering that night and how sad I was.

A couple of months later, when I was driving home at two o’clock in the morning, going about 60 miles an hour and not too far from the space center, I came over a little rise in the freeway, and there she was, standing in my lane locking her eyes onto mine like Bambi. I used to live in the mountains and I knew what to do. Don’t hit the brakes and swerve. Hold the steering wheel steady and duck down as far as you can in case the deer comes through the windshield.

Broke my headlight and crushed my fender. Effing deer. Could have killed me too…I phoned it in and went on home.

When a Highway Patrol officer I knew arrived in the ER a few days later on a routine accident followup, I told him about killing the deer on the freeway.

“Happens all the time, Bob”.

A couple of weeks later I noticed there was a “Deer Crossing” sign on a shiny new pole next to the freeway where I hit the Bambi deer. The sign featured a nice looking buck jumping in the air. I guess it was sort of a tribute to me hitting the deer that night but it didn’t feel like one. For the next nine years every time I saw the sign, it was just a sad reminder of how fast it can all turn out to be fatally different.

Dividing line

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About robertjlanz

Author and health care professional.
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