Right place at right time

Published 2:01 pm Friday, May 3, 2024

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By Bonnie Bartel Latino


Tom replaced the nozzle to the gas pump at a convenience store and went inside to pay. “Our first military leave in a year,” he sighed as he slid behind the wheel again and started the engine. “Tom,” I asked, “did you ever think you’d get military leave to go home before pilot training graduation?” He laughed, trying to cover his disappointment. “I never dreamed I’d be medically eliminated much less still be working on base!” I glanced at the Texas road map. “We’ve been through the big metropolis of Post. We’re half-way to Snyder and — I screamed — “Tom! Is that a Texas Dust Devil flying across the median?”

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“Maybe. Looks like something might be in it.” Tom had already pulled over and braked hard. He opened his door and stood. Within seconds he had hurtled a four-foot-high, split-rail-wooden fence to talk to a little boy and girl who yelled, “Mister, help us! Please!” Where had they come from? I wondered. There was neither house nor vehicle in sight. The kids said something to Tom, then pointed toward the swirling red dust. My eyes followed him as he ran toward the distant dust. About 30-yards into the field I spotted a white vehicle overturned on one side.     

The next thing I knew Tom was back at our car telling me to stop one car going in each direction. “Tell the drivers when they get to the nearest house to stop and call an ambulance. Also ask if they have any blankets.” Thank heavens it wasn’t long before I had flagged down two cars. Both drivers agreed to call. Only one had a blanket, which I folded over my arm. Then I had to locate the kids, who had followed Tom toward vehicle in the field when I was stopping cars. I got through the fence where the vehicle had obviously crashed through a section.  Walking briskly, I looked up and saw Tom struggling to help a Texas-sized man get out of a white pickup truck that landed on the passenger side. Blood covered the man’s face and shirt. Suddenly Tom leaned the man against the truck. His eyes scanned the ground in front of the pickup. By then, I was close enough to see shards of glass glimmering in the dirt. I looked again at the pickup. Something had shattered the windshield!

“I found your boy, sir!” Tom yelled as he knelt beside a small redhead, who lay crumpled in the field at least 10-feet from the truck. I assumed he was the youngsters’ brother. As Tom checked  the boy’s pulse, he called him by name. “Rusty, stay with me, boy!” He patted the child’s cheeks, as if he was unconsciousness. By then, the man had stumbled to his son and laid beside him. I handed the green wool blanket to Tom. “I’m sorry it’s the only one I could get.” He quickly placed it on the boy’s torso. I thanked God my husband was an Eagle Scout.

I didn’t want the younger children to get closer. I walked back where they stood in the field and introduced myself. The girl’s name was Sharon, and her brother was Mike. “Rusty’s our brother,” Mike added, “and that’s our daddy.” I took both their hands. As we walked I gradually turned them toward our car. “The man helping your dad and Rusty is my Air Force husband. He’s stationed near Lubbock. He’s also an Eagle Scout.” Their little faces brightened. That info seemed to boost their confidence. “It’s still chilly,” I said, “Maybe we should go wait in our car until an ambulance arrives?” They nodded yes. As we snuggled into the car’s two bucket seats in front, I said, “Tom and I believe in prayer. Would you like me to say a prayer for Rusty and your dad?” Again, they nodded. I asked God for His mercy and grace, plus full and speedy recoveries. Then we talked about their family, I said Rusty must have red hair. “How do you know?” Mike asked. “Just a wild guess,” I fibbed. Mike said their dad was gifting their grandfather, who lived in North Texas, with the shiny new pickup.

Soon we heard sirens! When an ambulance arrived with a police escort, they drove into the field. After preliminary exams of both patients, they loaded them on board. I explained to the kids that they wouldn’t be allowed to ride in the ambulance. “Would y’all like to ride with us? We’ll follow the ambulance to Snyder.” Their smiling faces and relaxed posture revealed obvious relief.

Tom’s arrival at the car heralded more sirens. I got the kids settled in back and introduced him to them. As he drove, he told me about their dad. “His name is Dave Plank, a businessman. They left Houston last night after he worked all day. Poor guy just fell asleep.”

When we arrived at the hospital both patients were already in the emergency room. Tom went with the police to make a witness statement while I told a nurse that Sharon and Mike both seemed OK, but they were in the accident, too. Not wanting to abandon our new little friends, we stayed several hours until their aunt, who fortunately lived somewhere in the area, had been contacted and arrived. After introductions and a brief visit, Tom and I hugged our little friends goodbye.

As our trip continued I reflected on our encounter. Had Tom not been medically eliminated from pilot training when he was, we would have never been on that road on May 10, 1969. Could we have been a part of God’s divine plan for the future of Dave Plank and his family? Fate has a way of putting us in the right place at the right time, often for reasons we don’t understand. We learned to embrace this divine influence on our lives.