Many Thanksgivings ago, I received a gift. However, it took the guiding grace of God for me to understand it––years later––in the context of a spiritually bankrupt life.
Ninety seconds isn’t a lot of time. Nonetheless, an event can grab each second by the scruff of its neck and slow its progression as if one goes from gliding on ice to walking in tar. Such a time warp happened to me.
In a minute and a half over the bustling city of Oakland, California, I was confronted with three possible outcomes: life, death or the harming of innocent souls. The irony is that the best result for me, that I would live, could mean that someone else dies.
When I arrived at my first squadron in Yuma, Arizona, I stood on top of the world. As a young lieutenant, I was cocky, indestructible, pure warrior. Inexperienced yes, but it didn’t matter. I was a Marine Harrier pilot, the chosen one. As training is the constant theme for all Marines, within the first month I departed on a cross-country hop to Naval Air Station Alameda, California. Even though I was a fighter pilot, I was still required to log enough instrument flight hours to keep my rating current.
The flight proved uneventful, it was early evening with a partial moon and haze, and I was going to land amid the adjacent lights of Oakland as planned. Therein lies the problem. The lights were everywhere––a Liberace cloak of sparkling, indiscriminate brilliance that yielded zero clues about my landing point. I couldn’t see the airfield in spite of my navigation gear indicating that I was on top of it. Telling the tower I did not have the runway in sight, they wisely vectored me around the field a couple of times so that I might get a visual.
To this day, it remains inexplicable to me that I couldn’t see it. A metaphor for my life? God in plain view but I was blinded by my disordered, ungrounded existence?
Then another complication popped up as well. Predictably. I’d started to run out of gas, dangerously so.
Not a steely-eyed veteran, I began to lose it. If I had removed my helmet, visor and oxygen mask, one would have seen a strained but focused countenance. But deep within, emotions were churning with Krakotoan intensity.
Starting to taste panic, my sight became tunnel visioned, my flying somewhat erratic in terms of holding airspeed and altitude. The airfield tower had me in view at one thousand feet but I didn’t see them or the airport. They told me to keep it coming, maintain my turn; the runway was at 10 o’clock.
Then, as if I was blindsided, flashing lights erupted from the emergency panel and warning sounds screamed at me. I needed to land my jet. My ninety seconds had begun––that’s the approximate time I had before I would flame out.
With no visual discernment of the runway, I could eject safely but the Harrier would crash where people were watching TV or eating dinner or reading to their children. Magnificent lives were on the brink because of me. I had never had a thought so unspeakable and overwhelming until that moment above the streets of Oakland. I was about to destroy lives.
No. As long as the engine roared, I wasn’t going anywhere. And I kept it coming. And looked. But I never prayed. You see, the supernatural was unacceptable to me. Until this insanely foolish moment, I never thought I would make a mistake––I was god in the cockpit. This omnipotence bled into all aspects of my life, I was the arbiter of everything.
And look where it got me.
No, I needed help.
Blindsided again, in a Where’s Waldo moment the runway lights abruptly appeared and I dove for the deck. Touching down at 160 knots, I stomped on the brakes and skidded to a stop. Not even attempting to taxi off the runway, I noticed my fuel remaining––there didn’t appear to be any––and shut down the engine. I landed on fumes. Seconds were all that separated my touchdown from a crash scene. I was both stunned and hypoxic as they unceremoniously towed me to the flight line.
Everything was going to be okay.
Was it a miracle I landed safely? I’ve generally characterized miracles as either subtle––the wonders that filter through happenstance and are only understood when contemplated retrospectively––or heaven rending. The stuff of Moses. So was it providence something calamitous was averted?
I really don’t know.
Nevertheless, miracles happen; too much evidence to state otherwise. I’ve learned that in my own dramatic journey to God. At that time in my life however, they weren’t part of my worldview.
Therefore, God gave me the gift of time. To find Him, to slough off spiritual emptiness, to understand love, to discover meaning, to recognize purpose, to grow wise, and to share this story with others.
Lord, thank you. I know what you did for me.
On that night.
In all things.
For all time.