I needed answers. I had lived with a theological limp for years. Bible college worsened the hobble. Being in ministry meant that I had to hide the hitch in my step. I had one last hope. I imagined, as naive as it may seem, seminary would be the hospital that could finally apply the healing bandage to my bewilderment. By now, I was crawling toward a fork in the road. It was like I had broken bones that had healed back together incorrectly. I would either get my confusion set right, or I would take another path in life.
My dad worked at the junior college I went to, and my mom was employed by the university from which I received my bachelor's degree. That meant that college was free of charge from my first class until they handed over my diploma. I didn't have any family members that worked at a seminary, so the only way to enroll was to either win the lottery or marry a rich widow. Neither seemed likely.
I didn't have the money, and I didn't want to take out a loan. Fortunately, I was working at one of the largest churches in Tyler, TX. I don't remember how it came about, but the administration of the church offered to pay for me to attend the seminary of my choice. I collected the $1000 from the church and enrolled in my first class at the seminary, which I considered the most prestigious. It was in Dallas, about two hours' drive from where I lived.
I enrolled in a single class, Evangelism. I had hung my hope on this new educational pursuit. This evangelism class would finally set things right for me. Unfortunately, there was only one time-slot that I could take Evangelism. I was on the roll for the 8:00 AM session. Since I lived two hours away, this meant I had to leave my house at 4:30 AM twice a week. This departure schedule would allow for Dallas morning traffic and a stop at MacDonald's. It didn't bother me. I was motivated. This class was going to be my rehabilitation.
The first class was on a cold day in January. I bundled up like the kid in A Christmas Story. I let my 1994 Jeep Cherokee warm for a few minutes before I hit the road. In the dark morning hours, the streets were abandoned. By the time I was nearing the outskirts of Dallas, I had noticed a strange environmental phenomenon. There was precipitation, but it wasn't wet. Little particles were flying through the air, but they didn't splash on the windshield as I expected.
I know it sounds like I'm exaggerating, but I didn't realize it was snow. Being a Texas boy, it just didn't compute. I thought it was strange that all of the other cars on Interstate-20 were creeping along far under the speed limit. I zoomed past, feeling the exhilaration of the first day of school.
Near the Forney exit, my wheels became unacquainted with the pavement. It happened so fast I didn't have time to react, except to shout out, "Lord, save me!" The Jeep was still moving at seventy miles per hour but was now turned entirely perpendicular to the road. It's a good thing that it was only 5:20 AM because I certainly would have hit another car on my trajectory had I been in traffic.
I slid across two lanes, the shoulder, the grassy median, and smashed into the center divider. The collision sent my car spinning in the opposite direction only to stall out 100 yards down the road. I was stuck in the middle of the ice-covered highway. I glanced sideways and saw headlights bearing down on me through the driver's side window. I reached for the keys and tried to crank the engine. It groaned like a dying donkey, not because it wouldn't start but because it was still running. That's what I love about a Jeep. It's built for war.
The lights were on top of me now. They had lost all stopping power on the frozen road. I pressed my foot to the floor, something I would never do unless my life depended on it. The moment qualified for maximum thrust. I had to get my Jeep off the road in a hurry, or I would be reduced to a bloodstain in the snow. The back tires whined as they ground into the smooth ice. An inch at a time, the Jeep fishtailed as I did my best to guide it toward the adjacent ditch. I narrowly escaped the road as an eighteen-wheeler zoomed by at fatal speed.
It had happened in a matter of seconds and my body had responded almost entirely without my conscious mind taking it in. I breathed for a moment now that I was semi-safe in the ditch. I jumped out of the car to survey the damage. Stepping back, I let out a shout of joy.
"Whoo, hoo!" Fist pump. "Thank you, Lord!" I ran my fingers across my open mouth. Oh good, I still have all my teeth, I thought. I was glad I hadn't sustained a life-altering injury, but my Jeep was in a sad state. The back window had popped out intact like the lid to a Tupperware in the microwave. The full sheet of glass was lying on the ground but was still connected by the rubber gasket that had previously held it in. The front right quarter panel had imploded on contact with the median, and the back hatch looked like wadded-up foil. I would find out moments later that the impact had somehow broken the heater. I thought this was a strange irony at the time.
I put the Jeep in four-wheel drive and rolled slowly toward the next exit. Too scared to get on the highway again, I kept my wheels on the grass as I puttered forward. When I finally got to the paved overpass, I reluctantly pulled onto the cold hard surface and headed up the exit ramp. It took me another few minutes to identify the grinding sound. The missing window dragged along the icy blacktop by the remaining rubber gasket. It would have been perfect for a snow day sled. The heaterless jeep was turning frigid, and I was now missing the back end of the car. That fifteen-minute ride was the coldest of my life.
Forney had one small hotel near the highway. My car limped into the parking lot like a scene from a Griswold movie. The snow was thickening and I determined that I'd have to spend some time in this little town. It wasn't until the clerk had reserved my room that I realized I didn't have my wallet. Had I forgotten it? Had I lost it in the crash? I was beginning to wonder if God didn't want me to go to seminary.
After all the effort to arrive on time to my first day of class, the seminary was closed for snow. I drove back home at 15 miles per hour. Weirdly, this was not the first time I'd made a multi-hour trip at such a slow speed. I was in a ponderous mood. Did it mean something? Was it God? Was it Satan? Or was it just weather?
My Jeep was no longer roadworthy. Once home, a mechanic friend convinced me to buy another broken down Jeep and use it for spare parts for the repair. For four hundred bucks, I found a blue Jeep that was only a few years older than my red one. It would ultimately take me months to get my vehicle back in good enough shape to use on the road. It would wind up being a very patriotic blend of red and blue body parts.
Word went out among my parent's friends that I had a wreck and was sans transportation. Mrs. Bellous, a sweet octogenarian who still gave piano lessons to kids in Kilgore, had a 1987 Buick Lesabre that she no longer could drive on account of her failing eyesight. Through the grapevine, she notified me that I could use the car as long as I needed it. She was thrilled to help out a seminary student.
It was originally gold but had greyed from the years of oxidation. It did not like going anywhere near the speed limit, which was fine by me considering my near scrape with death in my previous vehicle. By the next class day, I was back on the road. My 4:30 AM drive went off without a hitch.