First there’s gravel, then you die.

Uncategorized September 8, 2014

As ominous as that sounds, it was actually a funny line a friend said to me the other day about walking the Grand Canyon trail as a ten year old, fearful that any minute she’d slip over the edge and fall to her death.  At one particular spot, she focused on the loose gravel.  Doom!  Her step-father not having much patience, badgered her.   “First there’s gravel, then you die,” was her thought.

I realized the profundity of that statement as a metaphor for so many of us each time we come to some crossroad and hesitate.  What propels some forward and yet holds others back?  A few years ago I’d watched a documentary about people who choose to live, in this case, surviving a ship’s sinking.  Interviews with the survivors, not surprisingly, showed they were people of action and yet not all from the outside, appeared to be born leaders.  In this particular case, after the crew abandoned this luxury liner off the coast of South Africa, it was the lead singer of the rock band headlining the cruise, who called in the mayday distress and helped passengers into the rescue baskets of the South African Coast Guard.  He talked about how some people resigned themselves to their fate, sitting covered in a blanket on a chair, the thousand yard stare frozen on their faces.   First there’s gravel…

Men and women going off to war, in the second world war, went off naive and full of bravado and determination.  In The Great War, later known as World War One, “shell-shock” was the term applied to soldiers who’d lost the ability to function, the incessant earth-shattering pounding that literally blew up the world all around them, body parts flying, drove some to madness.  In World War Two, talking to many veterans, it was the same thing. The horror of war.  Don’t want to talk about it.  But some do.  Last week talking to a docent on his 91st birthday, he talked about a C-47 landing with wounded troops onboard.  The cargo door opened, Robert climbed up and was hit with the stench pouring out -a wave of blood and feces.  “My GI boots slipped on the slime rolling down the aluminum floor.  I made some stupid comment to the nurse who’d flown in with them.  I was eighteen,” he said. “She looked me squarely in the eye and said, “Soldier.  You need to get on with your job and help me remove these men.  She had shamed me into growing up in that moment.”

Robert went on to talk in quite angry terms about the futility of war.   “DAMN IT!” he said. “Doesn’t anyone learn from war?  How many times do we have to waste so many lives?”  He was sitting at a table with four other men, one a combat bombardier in that war, the others younger.  All remained quiet.  I looked at their faces.  None wanted to respond.  It was uncomfortable for them to hear this.

There’s a lot of gravel left out there on the trail.  My friend Kat who’d uttered that statement obviously made it past that dangerous spot.  She still faces many questionable paths.  I laughed at her ten year old wisdom because she’d synthesized fear so clearly.  We all can relate.  We all have fears.  Ironically on the drive to the airport today, Kat in back, her husband Malcolm driving, we encountered flash flooding and standing water of close to a foot.  Cars sat, unmoving.  We made the command decision to move forward slowly, seeing beyond the deepest part and finding our way onto higher ground.  No one in our mirrors had moved.  I chuckled, recalling Kat’s line and blurted out: “First there’s gravel, then you die.”  Kat laughed.  The two made their flight and took off under clear skies.



For over three decades my profession was as an author and illustrator of children's books. Firefighters A to Z (McElderry Books/S&S) was chosen as a "Best Book" by the NY Times (2000). Over 100 titles are attached to my name. In 2011 my life changed the moment I saw a photo of a WW II fighter pilot. Nineteen year old Griffin Holland, P-47 pilot stood erect on the wheel of his plane, staring off into the distance, cocky as all get out. The need to paint that photo and Griff's tearful reaction to it as an 88 year old man set this journey in motion.

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