Challenges can also be great motivators

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Francis Holland
  • 509th Medical Operations Squadron commander
There I was ... riding shotgun as we flew down the highway in rural Alabama. It was Mardi Gras week in New Orleans, March 1984, and my college roommate and I were on a road trip. We had rented a red Plymouth Reliant and were headed home; he to Philly, me to the D.C. area.

Some residents of New Orleans spend all year preparing to celebrate Mardi Gras, others flee the crowds and debauchery. Steve and I were runners; our spring break would be occupied by training and races. This week would be our only opportunity, this semester, to visit family and friends back home. The debauchery would have to wait.

We were on 59-North about 400 miles into the 1,100 mile trip. We had just filled the gas tank, obtained provisions and were back to cruising at 65 mph. It was late afternoon, the sun was shining and there were fields with a few scattered trees for as far as the eye could see. Life was good, but I thought it odd that Steve would be slowing down in the middle of nowhere. I also thought it odd that the music from the radio had suddenly stopped playing. I turned to ask Steve what was going on. He had a perplexed look on his face and stated; "We have no power!" He demonstrated this by stomping up and down on the gas pedal to no avail. He then muscled the steering wheel to the right so the car drifted out of the traffic lane and came to a stop at the side of the road.

Steve tried the ignition a few more times without success. We sat there for a moment looking at each other, having no idea what our next move would be. Keep in mind this was long before cell phones. We did not have long to ponder our next move. Smoke started pouring out from under the hood. We jumped out of the car released the hood and lifted it. As if by magic, but more likely due to the addition of more oxygen, flames erupted from everywhere. We could see no engine, only flames. We promptly dropped the hood. No good, flames were now spouting from the front grill and every gap between hood and car body.

"Bleep!" we said in unison. "I'll get the luggage," I said. Steve said he'd get anything we left inside the car. As the flames spread we went to work. I hauled the luggage from the trunk of the car to the large grassy median on the far side of the two lane highway. As I returned to the car I noticed the entire dash board was burning. Steve was halfway seated in the passenger seat with one leg outside the car, clutching the items he had just grabbed. He had a dazed look on face as if someone had just slugged him. I grabbed him by his shirt collar and pulled him to fresh air. After a few gulps of clean air and trotting across the highway to the median he was clear headed again.

As we sat on our luggage, about 75 feet away, we watched the car burn. It was very impressive. Initially a couple cars drove by, but when the flames reached about 10 feet in the air, traffic began to back up. Car fully ablaze, the tires blew one by one. With a loud "pop" the gas cap rocketed off of the tank and a stream of fire burst 25 feet into the air from the tank's fill spout. The recently filled tank burned for quite some time projecting a stream of fire halfway across the highway like a flamethrower. We sat transfixed. Traffic backed up for about a mile.

Eventually, the car was a blackened shell. It bore no resemblance to the vehicle that had brought us to this spot. It was at this point that the state trooper arrived. He took our statements, directed traffic around the charcoal car frame and arranged for a big-rig driver to give us a lift to the nearest town 15 miles away. The kindly trucker dropped us off at a hotel. Steve and I remained in a state of disbelief and disappointment. We were in the middle of nowhere, with no transportation, our well-planned trip home all but over. However, Steve had always been a shrewd extrovert. Amidst the maelstrom Steve had managed to save the rental car agreement. Now he was a provoked shrewd extrovert. He called the rental company and let them have it. While Steve described our near-death experience and further explained how incredibly inconvenienced we were I scouted out the bar.

In the end we received free meals, lodging and at 8 a.m., the following morning a rental car agent brought us a Lebaron, free of charge, for the remainder of our trip. By 8:15 a.m., we were back on the road, with a great story to tell our friends and something to joke about for the rest of our drive home. We both enjoyed our visit with friends and family that week and returned to school uneventfully.

As I reminisce upon personal experiences such as this, I am reminded that life is filled with adversity and challenges. That seven days forward and one day back can still get you to your goal. That your response to adversity will directly affect the outcome. That addressing the task at hand is the best way to a solution; and, that what initially appears to be a setback may end up being a valuable and enjoyable life lesson.

Since that fateful trip so many years ago, I have faced my fair share of adversity, some of it less arduous, some more so. A while back, I went before a Medical Evaluation Board. The last paragraph stated that due to my medical prognosis, over the next several years, my fitness for military duty would be unattainable. That was eight years and six perfect fitness tests ago. Challenges can also be great motivators.