by Rick Baber
When you’ve been around for a long time, experiencing the world for what it really is, you eventually quit believing in things like Santa Claus and angels and fairies and karma. And miracles.
In the words of Jackson Browne, “I passed that point long ago.”
Tornadoes don’t skip over your house while wiping out the rest of the neighborhood because of the Grace of God. The iron beam that fell off the truck on the Interstate doesn’t bounce over your car and destroy the people behind you because you’re “blessed.” The bullet misses your heart by two inches only because that’s the trajectory that was set for it when it left the gun. You can give a starving homeless old lady your last ten bucks and still have a flat on the way home. Field goal kickers sometimes hit those long ones, in the last second.
Shit happens. Sometimes it’s good shit. Sometimes it’s bad shit. That’s all.
The Oxford Dictionary defines “miracle” as “A surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and therefore considered to be the work of a divine agency;” also “A highly improbable or extraordinary event, development, or accomplishment that brings very welcome consequences.”
And, as I said, I quit believing in them long ago. But there’s still this one, nagging little thing…
While the events, themselves, have remained crystal clear through half a century, the dates and circumstances have become cloudy. It must’ve been around 1973, a late-summer Saturday, I think. Becky was working and I didn’t have anything to do, so I rode my motorcycle out to Midwest Lime and collected my paycheck for the previous week – around $132 for working the scales at night; then over to Cooper Lanes Bowling Alley around mid-morning to shoot a little pool. There was nobody around to play with, giving me the opportunity to hone my skills alone. I was knocking it out – bank shots and jump balls – and everything was dropping. Top of the world. Minnesota Fats.
Then, Ben Dodd came strolling through the room and spotted me. “Hey Baber. Play me for a qwatta.” Ben liked qwattas.
I played a good first game, but Ben beat me, sort of shattering the illusion of myself I had built up over the previous hour. But I could beat him. So we went double-or-nothing. And that kept happening. Always close. Never enough. Double-or-nothing, starting with a quarter, nightmarishly turned to another close game wherein I had lost $64 to Hustler Ben, and he was ready to quit. He tossed his stick on the table and demanded his money. I checked my billfold and calculated that I had exactly enough left to cover one more bet, IF I didn’t have to pay for the time spent on the table. So I told him “One more time. You win you pay for the pool.”
Ben Dodd wasn’t going to pass up that opportunity.
Grinning like a shit-eating possum, he graciously allowed me to break. I got two solids and ran the table until finding the 8 ball stuck behind his 11. Regaining my confidence, I walked around the table, chalking up, and called the corner pocket near the door. It would have to be a perfect two-bank shot, because all those remaining stripes were blocking every other path. But I was in a zone. I took the shot. Not too hard. Not too soft. The cue ball was true, narrowly missing the obstructions and landing just right against the 8. It rolled slowly toward the corner, then it just … stopped.
Ben went to work, and in no time at all he had cleared the stripes off the table, leaving the 8 at about the center of one end and the white ball directly opposite it on the other end. Determined, I guess, to climax in the slam dunk that short guys like him never got in basketball, he shot hard, and the 8 crashed into the corner pocket he had called. He turned immediately and shouted “Gimme my money!”
His back was to the table and I was already reaching for my wallet. Then, looking over his shoulder, I said “Wait a second…”
The cue ball had taken a rail. Then another. And some more. And it was still slowly rolling toward the same corner the 8 had fallen into. And it sank. He slammed his cue onto the table and stormed out the back door without saying a word.
And THAT was not the “miracle” that occurred that day.
I paid way more for the table time than I had figured on, and, relieved, decided to take a celebratory ride on my bike. Before long, I found myself riding the trails through the woods at Arkansas College, near my (parent’s) home. Back in those days, the area between what is now Lyon College and the subdivision called “College Heights,” including the land that now hosts the baseball and football fields, was heavily wooded. And winding through those woods there were many trails made by Batesville’s finest Hell’s Angel wannabes; and used as escape routes after harassing the out-of-towners who lived in the dorms; or just running from the police for other general reasons. A biker could enter those woods at any number of places, and there weren’t enough cops in town to cover all the exits. Once you reached the woods, it was almost a sure bet you were going to get away.
In time, some of the “Yankees” who lived in the dorms got wise and ventured out there to place trip wires across some of the trails – about neck-high – to exact their revenge. Lots of guys, like me, learned what a calf felt like being lassoed; and got to watch their motorcycles bouncing off the trees as their butts slammed into the ground. It was all part of growing up in a small town.
So, there I was, cruising along, at peace, with no other sound than the gentle rumbling of my pipes, when I noticed the absence of the lump in my hip pocket. Somewhere, at some point, my wallet, filled with my $128 victory money, had vibrated out and fallen on one of those trails. So many trails.
Of course, I started looking. And I rode. And I rode. Never getting out of first gear; always surveying the ground ahead of me for the little chunk of brown leather. Hours of searching; trying to remember which of the trails I had taken.
As the sun was about to set; feeling like it was a lost cause; I was cruising from north to south along the east side of the pond – figuring I’d exit the woods behind the gym onto 23rd Street and go home to lick my wounds, suddenly, a beautiful solid-white horse that had been lying in the tall weeds on that trail sprang to its feet directly in front of me. I hit the brakes without having the presence of mind to pull in the clutch and my bike engine died. The horse had been facing me. It turned as it stood, and ran off in the opposite direction.
What the hell?
I’d been riding those trails for years and had never seen anything bigger than a rabbit out there. Not even a deer. As far as I knew, there was nothing around there but suburban neighborhoods. Certainly no farms within any reasonable distance. I simply could not fathom how or why that majestic animal had appeared, there, of all places. But it was a beautiful sight.
Exhausted. Depressed. I laid my head atop my folded arms on the handlebars, staring at the ground.
There it was!
My wallet was three inches from my left foot. Just lying there, waiting for me to pick it up.
It seems like this should be the end of the story. And from that moment on, I was a believer in miracles. Because, certainly, there was no other explanation for that occurrence. But, it’s the “why” I can’t get passed. Why would a miracle be wasted on a young idiot who had foolishly, almost, gambled away a week’s pay? I didn’t have to have the money. I wasn’t going to starve. I still lived with my parents. I wasn’t going to donate it to some worthy cause to save the life of some Ethiopian child, or buy Toys for Tots. I was going to spend it on gasoline and beer and cigarettes and PizzaBurgers & fries at Tommy’s Kingburger. And I’m sure that’s what I did with it. So …why?
I brought up a satellite image of Lyon College on Google Earth. The pond is still there, fifty years later, and I know exactly where I found that wallet. Next time I’m in town, I’m going back there to see if I can find the answer.
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