by Frank Lewis
To help Dobama Theatre celebrate its 50th anniversary and its first season in its new home, we asked readers to send in essays about 10 minutes in Cleveland that changed their lives. We received a wide range of entries, including some that adhered closely to the guidelines and some that took liberties but still made for good reads. All three winning entries will be read by actors following an upcoming performance of 10 More Minutes from Cleveland, by local playwright Eric Coble (who also helped choose the winners). Here's one:
FIRE AND ICE
By George Radak
It was raining. Not your rock and roll thunderstorm, just a cool, steady downpour, something to knock the leaves off the trees on a quiet October night. The year was 1983 and I was sitting at the bar of a strip club on Clark off West 44th next to the firehouse. I was working for the RTA back then and had been sent over to the west side to see if the weather would break so we could perform some needed track work. Standard operating procedure was to wait one hour, then call the boss for his instructions. In those prehistoric, pre-cell phone days this involved using the nearest land line. Mine just happened to be in a place where girls did acrobatics they’d never learned in gym class. After the third call my boss said, “Forget it. Go home.” I liked that idea because three beers was my limit and I was already on number seven.
Driving east on Clark I stopped at West 25th (silently cursing the city for demolishing the Clark bridge), I turned south to Harvard then east again through Newburgh Heights and on to 77 South. I had just crested the hill that led down to Independence when … OK, here comes my ten minutes.
I saw the semi first. It was parked in the middle lane with its four-way flashers glaring. Adjacent to the big rig was a pickup truck that had pulled off the highway. Directly in front of me were three figures in my lane facing south. The object of their attention was a late ’70s model Chevy Malibu that was about a hundred yards further downhill. The Chevy was in pieces, the largest of which was on fire.
I got out and approached the trio. Not a scratch on ’em. That didn’t jibe with the scene in front of me so I asked the obvious question: “Where’s the driver of that car?” Maybe they were in shock because they just looked at each other but didn’t say a word. I figured I had my answer so I started running towards the car to find out for myself.
They say conscience doth make cowards of us all. If by conscience Shakespeare meant thinking, he got that right because just when I was within fifty feet of my objective my mind dredged up this fun fact: One gallon of gasoline is equal to the explosive power of five sticks of dynamite. I stopped dead. Fear had me shivering and the rain didn’t help. I didn’t stand there long. I had a moment of clarity. Someone was hurt and needed help and there damned sure weren’t going to get it from the Greek chorus I’d left behind. I started for the car again but this time I walked.
As I came up on the wreckage a new fear gripped me: What kind of carnage would I find? The Chevy was a convertible but it hadn’t left the factory that way. It was chopped off from the windshield posts to the trunk. The passenger door was missing. I looked inside and thankfully found the driver in one piece. I thought I saw a young black male wearing a Mickey Mouse T shirt. His bucket seat had broken on impact so he was lying half on it and half in the rear seat. His face was three inches from the flames and was beginning to blister. I grabbed a fistful of Mickey with my left hand and opened the driver’s door with my right. His limp body hit the rain slick pavement and I readjusted my grip. I grabbed an arm dragging him uphill as fast as we could go.
A stranger appeared next to me and grabbed the other arm. I thought one of the trio had come to his senses, but no, they were just where I’d left them. We pulled until we thought we were clear of any explosion. The new guy must have had some medical training because he started examining the driver then checked for a pulse. I quit breathing about that time. Maybe I was praying. I just know time stopped until he turned to me, smiled, and said “Alive.” “He’s alive” I repeated. He looked at me quizzically and said “She.” I looked down at where he was staring. The t-shirt had ridden up and had exposed a dirty white bra. Indeed, I’d saved a girl. Then I heard the sirens.
I got a quick mental picture of me explaining to some hard-eyed cop through beer breath why I shouldn’t be arrested as he snapped on the bracelets. I got in my car and went home.
How did this change me? I became the person I’d always wished I could be. Every young man has Walter Mitty daydreams of rescuing the princess or landing the jumbo jet when the pilot's been incapacitated. The dreams always end with the unanswered question, “Would I have the guts?”
Having faced death I knew the answer and it affected every aspect of the rest of my life. How you face extinction is how you face living. One of Steven King’s characters told a young girl, “All the hard days are coming.” In the three decades since that night in Cleveland I’ve found those words to be true. The courage that I found that evening has carried me through divorce, job losses, quad bypass surgery, and God only knows what’s next. I hope it holds out but I think I found the core of me that night and I’ve got a feeling it won’t change.