Tragedy Interrupted

Horrible accidents that unexpectedly take beloved family members, friends, or lovers happen every day. I’m not sure we ever fully recover from such losses, particularly when they could have been avoided or prevented. I believe that God can— and sometimes does—intervene in such situations but I don’t know why He doesn’t do so more often. I do know that we all grow spiritually and emotionally from our complex and diverse experiences, even when they seem dreadful at the time. I also trust in God’s wisdom and believe such experiences have a divine purpose.

When I was a young teenager, my father and I took a routine trip to the store that could have resulted in a tragic loss that would have negatively impacted the rest of my life. How grateful I am that in this case God intervened. I was thirteen years old in 1961, living in a lower-middle-class family with two hard-working parents and my nine-year-old brother, Rob. We’d been a one-car family my entire life, and the car was usually a much earlier model than the current year. In 1961 we owned a relatively new 1957 Ford Fairlane (later to become a classic collectible automobile).

We lived in a modest three-bedroom ranch-style home in a neighborhood in which the homes were very close together, separated only by driveways leading to detached two-car garages behind the houses. In our self-contained and somewhat isolated Midwest neighborhood, we knew most of our neighbors quite well. It was the post-war baby boom era and our neighborhood of twenty-five or thirty similar homes was always bustling with children of all ages. Most families had three or four children and some even more. We often played in the street since there was very little through traffic in our small residential community. No one locked their doors at night; it was a comfortable and safe environment and a nice place to raise a family.

Almost every day of the entire year, regardless of the season or weather, the boys of the neighborhood could be found playing baseball, football, or basketball. I had no sisters, so I don’t recall what the girls of the neighborhood were doing while the boys were on their makeshift athletic fields, but I know they were also engaged in playful activities almost daily. It was the children that really tied the families of our neighborhood together and represented the social nexus and vibrancy of the community.

I couldn’t imagine a better place in which to grow up or a place I’d rather call home. But none of us could have known that unspeakable tragedy was about to strike at the heart of our idyllic communal environment.

The Steggles family lived next door to us and though their children were mostly younger than my brother and me, we knew all of them well. There were four children, three boys and a girl, ranging in age from two to ten. We often interacted with them as they played in the back yard or as we exchanged friendly conversation over the chain-link fence that separated our yards. The two oldest Steggles boys were nearly daily participants in whatever sport we were playing each day, and the youngest received a great deal of attention and affection from everyone in the neighborhood.

One very hot and humid midsummer day we had just finished a competitive nine-inning baseball game. I returned home dripping with perspiration and covered in dirt. It was too hot and uncomfortable to continue our game but I was sure we’d return to the field as the temperature subsided in the late afternoon. Michigan evenings provided daylight until after 10 P.M. and we usually played until it was simply too dark to see the ball.

At thirteen I was unaccustomed to showering in the middle of the day, even if I was sweaty and dirty, so I simply relaxed in the small living room and watched a soap opera on the black-and-white television. We had no air conditioning but a small fan managed to keep the air circulating.

Worn out from our energetic game, I found it difficult to remain awake. As I dozed off, my dad asked if I’d like to go to the store with him. I jumped at the opportunity because I rarely got any time alone with my dad, who worked extremely long hours to support the family. This was an opportunity I simply couldn’t pass up.

I shudder now to think what could have happened if he hadn’t invited me or if I had remained asleep and declined his offer. And as I remember what happened next, I know God intervened in what could have been an incomprehensible tragedy.

Our car was parked in the driveway, and we approached from the front of the vehicle. Dad got into the car on the driver’s side and I jumped into the passenger seat from the other side. Dad turned on the ignition but before he backed out something told me to check behind the car. I didn’t hear a voice, I wasn’t thinking about any possible problem, and I hadn’t seen anything unusual as I got into the car. I had gone on rides in the car countless times and had never before sensed that something was amiss.

Just as dad was putting the transmission into reverse, I yelled, “Stop!” Startled by my outburst, he instinctively forced the gearshift lever back into Park. I told him I needed to check something and quickly jumped out of the car. Not knowing what I’d find, I rapidly walked behind the car and looked underneath. To my shock and amazement, the Steggles toddler from next door was sleeping under the car. His position had protected him from the hot sun—and his head was directly behind the rear tire on the driver’s side!

Shaken by what had almost happened, Dad scooped up the baby and gently cradled him while walking next door to explain to the baby’s mother what had happened. We were all so relieved that a life-threatening accident had been avoided that we didn’t even bother to ask how the child had possibly gotten into such a precarious situation. We were simply grateful to God that the child was now safe.

I have no explanation for the warning I received other than God’s intervention. I can scarcely comprehend what could have happened and how horrible it could have been for the Steggles family, for my dad, and for me. I am certain my own life would have evolved much more differently had I struggled with the guilt of such a disaster. There is no question in my mind that God chose to intervene in saving the life of this sweet child on that hot summer day in 1961.