Tuesday, July 22, 2008

While We're At It: The Official Van & Moose Story. . .

. . .as first published in the Register-Guard in 2001 and then in Ordinary Days.
We notice here that I am posting a lot, a sure sign that I have three major deadlines in 9 days: a column to write, a speech to prepare, and a trip to leave on. It's so much easier to get inspired to blog-post when there are enormously more important things to work on.

Yesterday was an ordinary day. I brushed and braided my daughters’ hair and drove the children to school, then stopped in to visit an elderly friend. After school, Amy, our 12-year-old, checked out an 18-inch stack of books from the library in Harrisburg. Second-grader Ben emptied the mousetraps and earned a quarter toward his next Lego set. Paul, my husband, figured out his taxes. Jenny, our busy toddler, unrolled 6 yards of toilet paper and dumped Cheerios on the floor. I helped 10-year-old Emily with her homework and wondered if she will ever quit making her a’s look like o’s. Matt, the tall teenager, poked me in the ribs to hear me shriek. That night, I snuggled next to my sleeping husband and listened to an owl hooting across the creek.
And I kept a promise I made seven years ago.
We lived in Canada then, near a Mennonite-run camp for Native American children and families, a hundred miles north of the Minnesota/Ontario border. With our four young children, we had traveled to Oregon for Christmas. On this particular night, January 16, 1994, we were on our way home and had only 25 miles to go. We were all tired of traveling and eager to get home after our 4000-mile journey. Behind our van, we pulled the trailer that was to carry our belongings when we moved back to Oregon the following summer.
It was 10:30 at night and bitterly cold, probably 20 degrees below zero, with a light snow falling. The isolation of this hundred-mile stretch of road was unnerving enough in broad daylight, but at night it was almost hauntingly empty. We passed a gas station at the forty-mile mark; otherwise there was nothing but rocks, lakes, and trees. The last vehicle we had seen was a car we met just after we crossed the border almost two hours before.
Paul was driving, and the children slept. We felt safe and cozy, close together in the warm van, pushing a round ball of light ahead of us through the darkness and the falling snow, mile after mile.
I saw it first, a shape appearing out of the darkness. A young bull moose trotted down the middle of the road ahead of us, hemmed in by guard rails on both sides. Paul stepped on the brakes and the van slipped and swerved on the snowy road. But we were unable to stop and we hit the moose with a gentle thump, like bumping your grocery cart into the one ahead of you at Safeway.
The van lurched and slid but stayed on the road. Paul eased the van on down the road a few hundred yards, where the guardrail ended and he could pull off the road. We checked to make sure everyone was ok, and Paul got out to inspect the van.
"It’s not damaged that badly," he said when he came inside. "We hit it by the headlight, and the fan might be pushed in a little bit, but I’m going to leave the engine running to keep it warm in here. I think I’ll go back and make sure that moose is off the road. Watch this gauge here, and if it starts to get hot, turn the engine off." He pulled on his fur hat and mitts, and left.
I sat in the driver’s seat to watch the gauge, feeling calm and unafraid. Paul would soon be back and he would get us all home safely. After a while, I smelled something hot, just a whiff. I checked the gauge; it was fine. "I’m going to look in the engine," I told the children, who were now awake.
When I peered under the hood, nothing seemed abnormal. I walked on around to the passenger-side door of the van, opened it, and froze in shock and horror as I saw little flames shooting out of the dashboard. I couldn’t think or move. Then, like a slide coming into focus on a screen, I was able to think one clear thought at a time.
"Fire. This van is on fire."
"I’ve got to put it out."
I grabbed a sports bottle of milk by my feet and squeezed it at the fire. Nothing happened, but I inhaled black smoke that burned all the way down.
A new thought: "I’ve got to get my children out."
Three-year-old Emily appeared in front of me, and I carried her out and waded through the snow to set her on the trailer behind the van.
Another thought, another child. I lifted out Amy, age 5, then Matthew, seven.
Another slide appeared on the screen in my mind. My baby. I reached through the billowing, burning smoke and unbuckled 5-month-old Benjamin’s car seat. I pulled him toward me, grabbed his blankets, and waded back to set him on the trailer with the others.
As I did, I heard my children screaming: terrible, terrified screams that were swallowed up by the endless night and cold. And I realized I was alone, all alone with these helpless children in a world of malevolent horror, blackness and flames. Paul was gone and we were the only people left in the world.
Another thought penetrated my dazed mind: "It’s cold. I’ve got to keep my children warm." I yanked open the back door of the van. There on top was the big suitcase with their boots, ski pants, and extra wraps. That morning it had been heavy and bulky. Now, I pulled it out and tossed it far down into the ditch as though it was a basketball. Then, with mindless determination, I dug for the extra blankets that I knew were in there somewhere. The flames were almost to the back seat, but I hardly noticed. I had to get the blankets or my children would freeze.
A voice called me; a breathless, rasping voice. "Dorcas, run!" I couldn’t run. I hadn’t reached the blankets yet. Paul appeared close to me. "It’s going to explode! Get Benjy! WE’VE GOT TO RUN!" Oh, yes—that gas tank under the back seat. I had forgotten.
I grabbed Benjamin in his carseat, Paul carried Emily, and with Matthew and Amy we started running, into the night, away from the van.
For the first time, I actually felt the cold. I looked down and saw my shoes, sweater, and skirt. "I’m going to freeze to death," I thought calmly, and kept running.
Suddenly, out of the endless darkness around us, lights appeared. They were real. Headlights. What vast, glorious relief to see a pickup truck pull up beside us and a man jump out. He welcomed us into the truck and set the children into the wide space behind the seat. Ahead of us, the moose struggled to lift his head from the highway. Behind us, orange flames leaped from every window of the van. And in the warmth and safety, I counted our children, over and over and over.
The next evening, while Paul answered calls from friends and relatives, I sat on the living room floor and read to the children. I could think clearly again, and felt the full horror of our experience wash over me, again and again. At the same time, I was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude and wonder: we were all there. All of us. Together, whole, warm, safe, and alive.
It was the first time I really sensed how close we walk to death, and I had a new awareness of the preciousness of the people I love. Too often, I realized, I had taken my family for granted and complained that my life wasn’t exciting. Now I began to understand that even the most ordinary moments are treasures, priceless and fragile. So I promised myself that I would never lose that sense of wonder or complain that my life wasn’t exciting enough.
And last night, lying in bed and listening to the owl, I kept my promise and thanked God for the incredible gift of an ordinary day.


  1. Your procrastination, our gain...

    I was totally riveted to this story in the book. Not something anyone would choose to go through - but, Oh! What a story!

  2. I just wanted to let you know that your blog has inspired me to start one of my own. You help us all to see the beauty in "ordinary days." I have decided if an Amish-born Mennonite Mom on the west coast can blog, so can this Amish-born Mennonite Mom on the east coast. :)

  3. Great story! What happened to the van? Did it light up the snowy tundra with a massive fireball? Or did the heroic cowboy in the F-350 douse the blaze with the fire extinguisher he carried in his truck? :-)

  4. Interesting questions, Hans. Around here most people ask, "What happened to the moose?!"
    The van burned to a crisp but never exploded. The rescuer didn't try putting out the fire--it was too far gone.
    As for the moose, a policeman shot it and we butchered and ate it. And no, I did not take a meat mallet and pound the daylights out of each roast as my brother recommended.

  5. Hmmm! I never knew you ATE the moose! ~ribbit98

  6. And Dorcas.. tell what you found several years later when you came by and stopped to 'remember'. That's a special ending to this story...

  7. Alright enough of this! From the moment I read that headlights were headed toward you I started to cry. It really was like God sent an angel! Thanks for the story.

  8. our family lived in I. Falls at the time. i was only 13 and didn't know your family, but remember the story. so good to read the details here and remember God's protection on you that night!

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