NOT THE BIRTHDAY I PLANNED
By Kimberly Wagner
It was his birthday. He was 58, and I remember watching my husband’s face as his doctor broke the news gently: “I recommend that you begin filling out paperwork for full medical disability.” We couldn’t even comprehend what he was saying at first.
As Dr. Whorton prepared LeRoy for what he knew was coming, he was gently leading him to prepare for a future that included disability and suffering—and the loss of the ability to provide an income for us. I watched as serious concern for his “new” way of life filled my husband’s eyes, replacing the hope he had when we first arrived at the appointment.
Until that day, LeRoy truly believed his condition was temporary and fixable. He still knows that at any moment God can choose to heal him. But, he also knows that, for reasons sometimes unknown, God can choose to bring life-long affliction (Psalm 119:71, 75).
That was four years ago, and much has happened along the way. Many losses. Much sorrow. Much pain. But, as his 62nd birthday approached, I had a plan and I was super excited about it.
My gift to LeRoy, on his birthday, was to pack him a delicious picnic lunch and clean up our old RV that has been parked for a few years. I planned a day trip to a State Park that included a scenic drive through the Ouachita mountain range. I wanted my dear husband to experience an enjoyable, almost “normal” activity. I wanted us to return to an area of our state that he loves, an area that we’ve hiked in years past.
Hiking was one of our favorite things to do together before he lost the normal use of his leg. We might not be able to hike, was my thought, but hey, at least we can see the mountains from the comfort of our faithful RV. This birthday, I thought, might be the beginning of a new season of day trips, where we can use the RV for modern conveniences—without having the danger of running into Covid at a rest stop or convenience store. We’ll just take our “home on the road” and it will allow LeRoy to have a place to nap if he needs to rest, and have a meal in isolation as safely as we would at home.
It seemed like a perfect plan. We were both excited to give it a try. This birthday was going to be different.
The morning weather felt pleasant. “Perfect day for a picnic!” LeRoy commented as he hobbled (that’s the best word I can find to describe his halting walk as he drags his partially paralyzed leg behind him) toward the waiting RV. I’d washed every window—inside and out—and almost every square inch of the interior. I’d stocked it with plenty of fresh supplies, and added freshly laundered blankets and pillows (in case we needed to nap). The picnic lunch was tucked away in the fridge. Cold mint tea and lemonade in glass mason jars. I even stocked the cupboards with extra paper plates and cups—with hopes of more day trips to come.
We left in the cool of the morning and had reached one of our first mountain ranges—far from civilization and cell service—at mid-morning. We pulled off at a wide shoulder, just to make a quick check of things because we both smelled smoke. The smoke smelled like burning leaves to me, even though there was no fire that I could see in the area. We were on a lonely stretch of road and surrounded by woods. The last house was at least fifteen or twenty miles behind us. We were far from any cell service.
At first, we thought the smell must be coming from some distant fire and we were about to pull back onto the road when I noticed large amounts of smoke coming from under the hood. LeRoy was able, with great effort, to raise the hood—and a large flame was rising quickly.
“Get the fire extinguisher!” I was running to it before he could finish his sentence. I grabbed the red canister from the secure spot where it had rested for twenty years. It had faithfully stood beneath the kitchen sink like a guardian through many mountain miles. It had given me a passive sense of security, knowing it was there but would probably never be needed. Today, I grabbed it like a lifeline and ran.
Nothing. Nothing came from our “faithful” fire extinguisher. Nothing. I ran as fast as I could to the rear of the camper and flew up the steps to grab the half jug of water that I put in at the last moment that morning. By the time I got back to LeRoy the flame had grown even higher, taking over the engine. The water almost extinguished it, but not quite.
LeRoy’s voice was low and steady. “Get my billfold, start gathering what you can, and get it out of the RV.”
I ran. I wasn’t really comprehending what was happening. Surely, he’s just telling me that as a precaution, I thought. We’ll have some engine damage, and this will be a costly trip, I was thinking, but the fire will go out. I didn’t imagine it would actually destroy the motor home, but I complied with his instructions. Mainly, I was just functioning on auto-pilot.
I grabbed the milk crate that I’d used early that morning to carry out supplies. I found his cell phone and billfold, my purse, grabbed the Bible and devotional book we’d brought along, and ran down the steps to carry them to the wooded bank. As soon as I sat them down, I looked back to see flames rising into the tree limbs above the RV. I could not believe what was happening. I moved the milk crate further away and wished that I had grabbed more things.
Why didn’t I grab bottles of water or drinks from the fridge? Why didn’t I grab our picnic lunch? Why didn’t I grab the pillow or blankets? There was no time to grab our nice camp chairs stored beneath the couch, but at least I might have grabbed more than what I did. I just had no idea it would actually burn.
What I most wish I would’ve grabbed was the handmade picture from our oldest grandson. He was only five when he drew our RV, a wobbly version of it, but still quite recognizable and brightly colored. It was hanging not far from the “not-so-trusty” fire extinguisher. Why didn’t I notice it and grab it? I just didn’t believe it would actually burn.
We stood watching our little camper give up its life on the side of the mountain.
I moved the crate into a shady spot, far from the fire, so LeRoy could have a place to sit as I took off walking to find cell service so I could call for help.
The first car to come by pulled up alongside me, a sharp sports car, and the young man rolled down his window asking if it was my camper on fire and if I needed help. I let him know that yes, it was, and that I was trying to get to cell service to call 911. He promised he would get up the road as fast as he could and make that call for me. He asked if I needed anything else before he sped off. He was kind.
I kept walking because I needed to call my folks to come and pick us up. I knew I needed to get LeRoy out of the heat and to a comfortable spot to rest. I kept walking. Occasionally, I would look back to see the large plume of smoke still rising above the horizon from the spot where I’d left LeRoy and our camper.
The next vehicle to pull alongside me was a pickup truck with a couple and their dog. When I told them I was walking to find cell service and call for help, they kindly offered to give me a lift. They said they were on their way back to Louisiana, they’d fled hurricane Ida, but were heading back to repair the damage to their house and take supplies to people in their area. I thanked them and climbed into the bed of their truck.
As we flew down the road, my heart was with LeRoy, sitting on a milk crate on the side of the road, watching his RV go up in flames. This birthday didn’t turn out as I’d hoped.
Fifteen miles later, we pulled into the parking lot of a water bottling facility—the first sign of civilization. Sure enough, we’d reached cell service. I jumped out of the bed of their truck, and walked to the far end of the parking lot, clinging to the hope that Verizon wouldn’t let me down.
My folks knew we were on a day trip, and the day before, I had jokingly told them that if we ran into any trouble we’d call on them to rescue us. So, when I called, they thought I was teasing. They laughed when I said, “No, really, this is a real emergency. We really do need you to come pick us up.” They didn’t believe me until I sent pictures of our burning RV to my mom’s cell phone.
As I was talking to them, trying to explain how to find us in the middle of nowhere, I was watching a man coming toward me on a forklift with a massive box filled with gallons of water in plastic jugs. He pulled up beside the truck that brought me. The couple who picked me up had gone inside to use the facilities and told the office personnel the story of the RV on fire and the woman (me) they picked up on the road. They also told them their own story of heading back home to a disaster zone in Louisiana. And, characteristic of people in our area of the world, this group of neighbors immediately came to our aid. They started filling the back of the pick-up truck with gallons of water.
The receptionist put in a call to the Sheriff’s department and he told her that he would pick me up and give me a ride back to my husband. I made my way to the entrance of the parking lot, standing as close to the road as possible so the sheriff could easily see me. I was carrying two large gallons of water with a bag of bottled water that the kind people at Crystal Geyser gave me.
I could hear the Sheriff’s siren blaring long before I could see him. He was flying as he approached, climbing the mountain as fast as his vehicle could climb. And he was still flying as he flew past me. I could not believe he didn’t see me. I tried to run after him, but of course, I didn’t get far carrying two large gallons of water and a bag of water—up a mountainside. I could not believe he forgot to pick me up.
That’s when it happened.
For the first time, through all of the crazy RV-burning-event, tears started sliding down my face. I have to get back to my husband is all I could think. I had to get to LeRoy and see if he was alright. Here, I’d brought us on this dangerous adventure, and taken off and left him all alone with a burning vehicle that might have exploded, or burst the woods on fire, while I was trying to find cell service. I had to get back to my husband!
I started trudging up the long hill. How could I walk 15 miles up this mountain terrain? But, I had to get back to my husband is all I could think. I hadn’t gone far when my new friends from Louisiana pulled up beside me again. “Get in!” the woman called to me. “I can’t believe that sheriff blew past you and didn’t pick you up!” I’m sure she saw the tears on my face.
“I have to get back to my husband” is all I could say to her as I climbed back into her truck. “My husband is very ill and I left him alone at the fire, I’ve got to get back to him and make sure he’s okay. He needs this water, too.” That was said through tears.
My new friend, Sissy, said “I’m getting you back there, you don’t worry. I can’t believe that Sheriff didn’t see you. We’ll get you there, though!” And off we flew back up the mountain.
LeRoy told me later that the Norman Volunteer Fire Department arrived about an hour after I’d left to find cell service. They depleted the entire tank of water, all that their big red fire truck held. I wish our grandson, who loves firetrucks or trucks of any sort, could’ve seen this. I took pictures as the men were putting out the last remnants of the fire that totally engulfed and ravaged our little home on wheels.
Later, I walked around looking for remains in the ashes. I saw no sign of the tackle box I’d bought LeRoy on another birthday, many years ago. I had safely secured it beneath the kitchen table. How I wish I’d grabbed it on my way out the door.
That morning, I’d given LeRoy a small pair of binoculars to view wildlife as we traveled. He was so excited about them, said he’d never had such a good pair. He had put them in the door’s side pocket. I found them in ashes, just the metal frames that circled the glass was all that remained of his gift. He looked down sadly at them, “My binoculars.”
Why didn’t I notice them and grab them? I’ve asked myself that a hundred times since the fire. I know it’s just a temporary, earthly possession, but that RV represented the “hope” of day trips and maybe even camping again one day. It was another blow, another loss.
LeRoy told me later, that after I’d gone and he was there alone watching it burn, that it was like a visual picture of all the losses we’ve experienced this past year, a visual of hopes and dreams going up in flames.
Our folks did come and rescue us. The kind State Trooper who took our statement told us that most likely, especially since the fire first smelled like leaves burning, there was probably a pack rat’s nest beneath the engine that caught fire. He said it’s a common occurrence. Who knew?
I’d never ridden in the back of a squad car before, so that was a first. The State Trooper could tell that LeRoy needed to get out of the heat, and he offered to take us to meet our folks while they were en route. The Norman Family Dollar store was the perfect spot. We thanked the kind trooper for the ride. While filling out the report, he looked at us and asked about insurance. Just liability—that’s all we could afford on our very limited income with a vehicle we’d kept parked for years.
It turned out to be a very expensive birthday picnic. Not only did we lose our little RV, with no insurance to recover it, but we also had to pay the work crew to clear it from the shoulder of the highway. It cost much more than I would’ve ever dreamed.
That evening, as we had our regular prayer time together, LeRoy voiced his gratitude to God for protecting us. It could’ve been much worse. Neither of us was harmed physically. As we talked, prayed, and worshipped, we confessed our sadness, but again, we thanked God for His goodness.
I’ve often heard LeRoy say through the years—usually behind a pulpit—that “If nothing else good ever happens to me again, I’ve been blessed far more than I deserve through Christ’s work on the cross.” He meant it then, and he still means it today. In his physical suffering, his many losses, his emotional pain from personal family losses, through it all, his position of gratitude never wavers.
We know that God is God. He is sovereign and rules over all. He is good. He proved His love for us at the cross. And He is worthy of our worship—no matter what.