“Hi, my name is Dean,” he smiled, as he climbed into my little sports car.
He slid his hand-lettered cardboard sign into the side of his backpack, and then dropped it on the floor of car between his feet, as he sat down. His dishwater blond hair was a bit stringier than it’d initially appeared, and his loose plaid shirt was a bit more worn. His faded jeans fit loosely on a medium tall, spare frame. From where I’d first seen him as I was turning onto the on-ramp to the northbound freeway, he looked like any other grungy college student returning to school after a summer break.
It had slipped my mind that his hitchhiking sign for a college-town a couple of hours north didn’t mean he was going to school there, and the fact that I was starting my college program during that particular week, didn’t mean that college anywhere else had yet begun.
It was the end of summer, 1984. I was beginning my second year in an Executive MBA program. At the beginning and end of each year of this two-year graduate program our approximate 30-member class spent a week in residence. This year we were staying on campus for the week. Our life for five days consisted of intense study and testing.
We were the first class – the “Charter Class” – the business school “elite,” we were often told – of this new program. We’d all become friends through the first grueling year and had returned from a welcomed summer break quite full of our collective selves and ready to reunite.
During the regular school we were served breakfast and lunch on our full day of classes each week. Classes were scheduled so that we “proven executives” could fit a two-year masters program into our busy, full-time careers.
Registration was handled for us, too. Executives don’t have time for lines, they said. Our books were delivered to us at school (lines again, presumably), their cost bundled into the substantial tuition for the program.
Our chairs were heavily padded pedestals for our executive bums, complete with adjustable arms…ergonomically sound well before ergonomics was an acknowledged workplace concern. Heady stuff. Most of my fellow students had the added blessing and affirmation of their corporate employers paying the hefty expense of all this relative luxury.
A government employee at the time, I was there on my own nickel (bags and bags full of them). I fell outside the in-crowd, as a result, but not to worry, it was a familiar, relatively comfortable place.
As I started the new school year…the last program year…I was upbeat. Optimistic. The end-of-summer weather was glorious for our first week on campus. Sunny, clear, ‘top-down’ weather…perfect for my little, bright yellow Alfa Spyder.
On this particular mid-week day I had to return to work a couple of hours up the road for an evening meeting. It was a public hearing at which I was to be the star attraction.
After what had been three-year prolonged granting process involving both state and federal funds, two little towns, called home by just 1,500 people, were going to receive $2.5 million for sewers. The public hearing was to see if everyone thought receiving the equivalent of about $1,650 per resident in essentially free money was a good idea.
I was busy. I was successful. I was pretty important as far as all those people were concerned whose septic fields were failing under their children’s back yard swings. And, on this particular day, I was pretty tired.
Residency weeks at school were high energy, high enthusiasm, late nights, and short sleep. We were young still (well, relatively young in our mid-30’s) and none of us had seen one another all summer. Who needs sleep when there are old friends, coffee, and comfortable surroundings.
So, as I left campus headed north, I had some concern that I might inadvertently try power napping along the drive.
As I turned onto the freeway on-ramp, I saw a young fellow standing along the side with a hand-written sign.
‘That’s the ticket,’ I thought, ‘someone to talk with along the way.’
I had picked up hitchhikers before with no problem. As I slowed to pick him up, it occurred to me that this might not be such a good idea, but what the heck, I was already nearly stopped – in for a penny, in for a pound…and besides, I was queen of my world.
‘Dean’ was returning to work up north, he said. Refrigeration repair. He described how he’d spent the weekend partying and taking too many drugs with his brother and friends. He had a tattoo on his forearm. Poorly inked.
I didn’t know anything back then about jailhouse tats or drug-related violence.
We talked as I drove north. Completely unmemorable stuff. I’ve always found talking about what I do for a living supremely boring to most folks, so I end up either minimizing what I do or using shorthand so we can move on quickly to other subjects. I remember telling him I was headed to meetings and that I had to get back in time to do some last minute prep.
As we neared the final leg of our journey, he said, “Why don’t we take the coast road?”
And, indeed, on any other day, that might have been a welcome detour. The route he was referring to is a winding two-lane road along the north coast of Puget Sound with lots of trees and desperately beautiful vistas looking West out over the water at nearby islands and inlets.
But, “No,” I said, “I’m on a clock. I’ve got to get to town and meet with folks and make sure everything’s ready for tonight’s meeting.”
Sometime over the next couple of minutes – it had to be minutes, because it only takes a couple to get to the next exit beyond the coast road cut-off – he reached down into the zippered part of his backpack for something. I didn’t see what, at first. Then, I noticed him cleaning his fingernails with a pocketknife.
As I try to recall the course of events that followed, it’s always been as though time began to move in slow motion.
He continued to make what my brain translated as suggestions for finding someplace to have a picnic. I can remember just thinking of him as another young person who didn’t understand what I did or who couldn’t appreciate that anyone’s commitment to their work could possibly be so great as to pass up a nice sunny afternoon.
The next thing I knew I felt something sharp in my side and he said quietly, “Take this exit.”
“No,” I said. (I still didn’t get what was happening.) “I’m sorry. I can’t.”
“Take the fucking exit!!” he screamed, as he pressed the knife into my side.
‘Oh. My. Dear. God.’ I thought, ‘Now I get it. Now what?’
As I looked out over the exit ramp, I still couldn’t process that I was any real danger.
“Are you going to rape me?” I asked.
‘Really!? What a stupid thing to ask. Maybe he wouldn’t have thought of that if I hadn’t said something. Well, that’s stupid, too. Of course, he would…he did!’ Oh my gosh (my mind suddenly seemed to click back on), he’d just answered yes to my question. Now the hell what?’
I was dazed and felt frozen in time. He was telling me where to go, where to turn. I could tell he didn’t know the area and was making it up as he went.
As we drove – him looking for someplace appropriately deserted, I guess – I remember looking up at the side of the cliff embankment off to my left.
I felt as much as saw the image of an angel. She was shaped very much like the large, bottom-lighted cross we had just passed, which had stood for years like a beacon to all northbound freeway travelers. For me, the cross had always been a comforting, reassuring sign of hope, up there on the hill, watching over the nearby farm country.
My angel’s wings were outstretched. She was white with a sort of golden glow about her and I filled with this warm sense of reassurance that I was okay. I would be okay. I wasn’t alone.
“Calm your breathing”…but, who are…”don’t be afraid”…but, how can I…”shhh, I’m with you. You’re not alone.”
That was it. Not a momentous set of events when reduced to words, but an experience that changed my life.
Several years later, after my hitchhiker-rapist allowed me to take him to the authorities, after which he then jumped bail, fled the state, was picked up on a traffic violation, and extradited back to Washington, I eventually testified against him. I felt then and continue to feel today a sense of sadness for him and the whole situation. It’s coupled with frustration with a world and a social and criminal justice system in which there seem to be no good answers for young men like him. I didn’t understand rapists’ behavior then – what drives them to do what they do – I still don’t. Nor to I know what society’s answers should be for them. But, what a waste.
Still, nothing to do with the rape or the rapist is what’s important here.
What has become increasingly significant over the years was the peaceful calm I felt as I saw my angel. The sense of knowing that I was not in charge, but more important, knowing that neither was the guy with his knife in my side.
Something else – sensed, but unseen (was that angel real or just my imagination?) – was with me and whatever it was, it was in control. Also, something or someone loved me and would protect me. And, amazingly, someone wanted so much to comfort and reassure me.
Over the years looking back, I’ve grown increasingly certain that God was there, working even in this terrible situation. He was able to take the awful circumstances of violence and fear and use them to help me see how much He loved me, how much He wanted me to know Him better. He even sent me my own special angel to carry His message, assuring me He was in control and that I need not be afraid.