Most days human beings are idiots at best. Occasionally we have shining moments of capable thought and decision-making abilities but usually we are just moving through our lives in a series of bumbles, misunderstandings and bad judgement throughout our daily grind in what seems to be a poorly written, badly directed, and terribly acted play. Men, especially, seem to be exceptional at perpetrating crimes of extreme mental density and an acute lack of situational awareness. Simply put, we can’t “read the room” for shit. Even though rarely resolved in a constructive manner, most of these things are harmless; they dissolve into a sea of missed opportunities as we dog paddle on to the next seemingly unavoidable act of miscommunication.
But, sometimes, we can read the room. We have fleeting glimpses where – while rather short – we demonstrate a clarity and brilliance that can be lifesaving. As clouded as our minds tend to be throughout our daily lives, our instincts and ability to recognize a deadly situation can be crystal clear.
Once upon a time in Panama, Josh Gregory, Jeff Croci, and I were moving from one town to another on a spearfishing adventure when we got ourselves into quite a situation. Stuck in the middle of the country, we couldn’t seem to find any space on the buses travelling to our desired destination. After sitting in the hot sun at the station for hours, I started to notice a few small cab trucks with four doors and small beds. It only made sense to at least try and negotiate a ride to the next “sure to be magical but at least better than the last spot” territory in one of these golf cart size trucks.
As luck would have it, the first guy was more than willing to take us on the three hour ride for a mere eighty bucks. AND, as luck would have it, his English skills were equivalent to my “order a beer and ask where the baño is” in Spanish. As limiting as this was, we were able to determine that he wanted to pick up a buddy to keep him company and share in the driving chore on the way home. We loaded our gear and with our SporTubes sticking a long way over the tailgate, were off, smiles and high fives. I should have recognized his eagerness as a bad sign.
Within minutes we pulled into a residential neighborhood to pick up his pal. He squeezed in directly behind Jeff, onto the rear bench seat, sandwiching Josh between me and my spot directly behind the driver. After a couple quick introductions and chuckles about our close (stuck together) proximity we started the long leg of our arduous sardine can journey.
The relief of finally escaping our mid-country-nowhere-near-ocean-spearfishing doldrums rapidly changed. As we headed back towards what we thought to be the main road, the driver made a sudden turn into a large, tall grass field. The hackles on my neck immediately went up. Seconds after, Josh said, “Guys, this isn’t right” to which I replied, “Nope and here’s what we’re going to do.” My adrenaline snapped me into a hyper-sensitive state I had never experienced before. “Josh, when you see me reach forward I want you to hit the guy next to you as hard as you can in the face with an elbow. I’m going to choke out the driver and Croci is going to grab the keys.” After an “Are you guys serious?” from Jeff, a unison response of “YES!” from Josh and me, and followed by a “F#ckin’ A! All righty then!” from Jeff, we drove down into a dry creek bed.
I knew that this was where it would all go down. Josh knew, too. I could see every tendon, sinew, and muscle in his arms twitching with readiness in what would be a battle for our lives. The truck slowed to a crawl as the driver took his seemingly unexpected “marks” into the flat ravine. I could see everything perfectly within the space of the vehicle, including Jeff who started to show tiny rivulets of sweat as he slowly rubbed his knees in an apparent attempt to somehow ease the tension. I could see the surrounding fifty yards in all directions of the exterior. Every leaf in the trees desperately awaiting water at the dry river’s edge, every bird jumping from branch to branch chirping and unaware of the impending blood bath.
As we reached the halfway point I saw the que. The friend he had called to ride with him (and who had obviously, in turn, called the other guys lying in wait to participate in the ambush) reached into his right pocket, the one near the door, to pull out his knife or gun. And that was when it happened. His hand came up and with a fluid motion opened the flip-phone in order to say “Hola!” to whoever was calling him. In the same instant, the truck started its ascent up the other side, into the other half of the field, and onto the main road that would take us to our next paradise.
So there we were. Left with an amazing sense of relief but still mired in our self-created “sea”. Yet another mis-read that only, through indescribable luck and fate, didn’t result in something that could have actually been deadly. Most likely in the form of rotting away in a Panamanian prison from amebic dysentery and repetitive slightly less-than-safe non-consensual relations. But, in our defense….after an hour of shock and silence, followed by a careful explanation of what we were literally a fraction of a second from doing….it was pretty nice to realize that men of all languages swim in the same sea of idiocy, clearly demonstrated by the white faces of our brown-skinned brothers, now doused with perspiration.
EPILOGUE: That is 100% a true story (as Part II will be as well). Obviously glad he didn’t, but I’m not sure to this day why Josh didn’t make the move. I like to think that it was because he was waiting for the discussed signal but maybe it was because his spider senses are obviously as sharp as mine were that day and he also saw the cell phone come up instead of a weapon. Regardless, because of that story (and others) I’d travel anywhere with that guy. Jeff Croci, too. He might have been a tad slow on the uptake, but once he snapped to, I knew I could trust him to the ends of the universe. As for the cabby and his bro, they were just a couple of guys just like us. And, like us, they were just as humbled and embarrassed as we were when the moment was understood. I hope at the very least that those guys have the same reflection, humor, and “holy shit, what could have been” view when they tell the story. I like to think that maybe the moment we all realized the bullet we had just dodged was the actual moment of clarity and brilliance for all of us.
Next Issue: Once Upom A Time in Panama Part II