Focal Point: Ships that pass in the night

Published on Saturday, 22 February 2014 22:12 - Written by Dave Berry

“Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing,

Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;

So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another,

Only a look and a voice; then darkness again and a silence.”

— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


“I don’t know where I am,” she screamed into the dark. “I don’t know where I am.”

With no moon and almost no traffic, that stretch of Greenbrier Road was dark and lonely. Well past midnight, ending a 13-hour day and a hectic election night, I was looking forward to sleep.

I heard her screams before I saw her. But it was the brake lights ahead that brought me to a stop. Another night traveler had run up on her, a woman standing on the center stripe in the dark. Somehow, he slid to a halt without hitting her.

My arrival must have been his cue to leave, for he eased around her and continued on his way. She was alone, hysterical, crying and repeating over and over, “I don’t know where I am. I don’t know where I am.”

It was decision time. Get involved? Or mind my own business. Common sense says be careful. A skeptic says watch your back. Friends would later say I took a large risk. But you don’t leave someone in danger … and she was.

Rolling down my window, motioning her over, I convinced her to get out of the road. “He left me, and I don’t know where I am,” she cried, breaking into sobs. Opening the door to my truck, I invited her in. Somehow, we would figure things out and get her home.

I introduced myself, asked her name and assured her I meant no harm. She calmed down, pulled her hair back from her eyes and wiped away tears. “I can help you,” I told her as I pulled off the road to a safer spot, “but you need to calm down and tell me what’s going on.”

She said her fianc← put her out of his car in the dark. … But why didn’t he come back for her? They were drinking and celebrating a move into their new house … but she said she wasn’t drunk. They were headed home and she thought it was nearby, but she didn’t know the address. They fought, but she wasn’t sure what started it. He put her out — well, maybe she had demanded to be let out. She didn’t know why he was so mad … and she sure didn’t think he would leave her.

More decisions. Call the sheriff’s office and hope a deputy could respond? Take her back to Tyler and see if the Tyler Police Department could help? Or wait there and hope her remorseful boyfriend would return.

I gave her memory more time. She was calm, trying to focus. Finally, a few possible street names. “No, that doesn’t sound right … maybe it was … I’m just not sure.”

One sounded familiar, and it was near … maybe half a mile away. It was a long shot, but we had waited enough. If her fianc← was returning, he was taking his time. I agreed to drive her there. If it wasn’t right, I would call for help.

We pulled onto a less-traveled county road and headed west. “This looks familiar,” she said as I slowed where a rural lane led to the right. “I think this is it,” she said. We turned onto the one-lane path that wound past a frame house, around an unpainted shed and into the woods. “Yes,” she said, “I’m sure this is it.”

Passing a cabin, a couple of well-kept doublewides, a boat shed and some stacks of lumber under a tarp, I wondered: Was this the road that made the news a dozen-or-so years back when an FBI raid uncovered a cache of explosives and bomb-making materials? Yes, somewhere on this road.

But I was committed, and she was sure. This was the road; we kept driving.

The lane went to gravel as we came to the last home, interior lights ablaze, sports car out front. Her fianc← stood on the porch.

That’s when she told me he was just out of the military and still had some anger issues. Thanks, I thought. They were moving to Tyler to get married, but she didn’t know a soul.

They fought, she said, but never like this. Now, seeing him standing on the porch sent her into a rage. She hopped out and lit into him.

“I’m sorry, honey,” he said, coming off the porch. “I was gonna come back for you.” But she was having none of it, denouncing him with a stream of invective topping the hysteria she displayed on the road. She called him a slug in a dozen imaginative ways. He took it, but I wasn’t sure for how long.

Decision time. Could I leave her? Was my commitment over? Was it time to slip away? I thought so … until I realized she wasn’t dialing it back and he was starting to get riled. He went on the defensive, and it was clear their fight wasn’t over.

That’s when road warrior became marriage counselor. Like a fool, I got out of the truck. Any public safety official will tell you domestic disputes are dangerous, unpredictable and often cost officers their lives.

I was committed, and all I could do was raise my voice over theirs. “Stop it, just stop … both of you. Calm down and listen to me.”

To my surprise, they did. I stepped away from the truck and began my lecture.

I introduced myself to the fianc←, then told him what he had done was cruel, hurtful and very dangerous. No matter how mad you are, you don’t put someone out on the highway in the dark. He tried to apologize. She told him to shut up. I calmed her down and continued the lecture. They had some work to do if marriage was in the cards. I urged them to work things out … without anger and harsh words.

I couldn’t leave without knowing for sure she was safe. I thought she would be, but I played my ace. I could have — probably should have — called law enforcement when I found her on the road. I told him there are laws against what he had done. It was a threat, but it got his attention. I told him I knew the sheriff and police chief personally.

I’m not a counselor, but I had their attention, and maybe my peacekeeping efforts were going to my head. Stepping between them, with a hand on each of their shoulders, I asked if they were done fighting and ready to behave. He assured me he was; she said she would be fine. I started to believe them.

So, for another few minutes, we talked about love … what it is and what it isn’t. We talked about respect. We talked about making a mistake and learning from it. Finally, I knew I had overstayed. Don’t push your luck, I thought.

I made them both promise to work things out and make peace. Shaking my hand, he thanked me for bringing her home. She thanked me with a tight hug around my neck. I left them on the porch and headed home.

I knew — from the moment I stopped my truck and invited her in — I was taking ownership of their problem. Now I was handing it back to them and hoping I was making the right choice. I hope they too made good choices.

For several weeks, I checked police logs and sheriff’s call sheets, hoping I wouldn’t see their names. No news is good news, I guess.

If by chance, they are sitting on the porch of the little house at the end of the lane reading this with their Sunday morning coffee … well, good for them.


What do you think? Did I do the right thing? What would you have done in my situation? Write me at Dave Berry is editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. His column appears every Sunday.