What’s that in the road? A head?
by Jack Popjes
It happened too fast to fully understand. My reaction was instinctive and instantaneous—and it saved my life.
For several months during the year between completing high school and starting Bible school, I worked as a pick and shovel man. I dug up water and sewage lines, except on those days when I “lucked out” with a plugged sewage line. Then I left my shovel on the truck, donned a pair of rubber boots, pried the cover off a sewage manhole with my pick, and had the privilege of clambering down into its odiferous depths to clear the pipes of material that should never have been flushed down a toilet.
It was almost quitting time that fateful day when I finally cleared up the stinking mess and my partner let down the end of a fireman’s hose. I flushed the pipes, making sure everything was moving readily downstream, then sprayed some water on my boots to rid them of at least some of the stench, and hollered up to my partner to shut off the water.
I climbed up the steel U-shaped rungs and poked my head out of the manhole in the middle of a city street. Thankfully taking a deep breath of fresh air, I squinted as the sunlight glared off a massive chrome bumper on a car speeding towards me. “Another punk!” I thought, “just trying to scare me again.” As I climbed up another step, I suddenly realized this car was coming too fast. It was too close to swerve aside! The left front wheel was heading directly for me!
I reacted instinctively, let go of the rungs, and dropped. I heard a crash, felt a knock on my head, and landed awkwardly on the wet floor of the manhole 10 feet below. I groped for my aluminum hard hat and examined it, half expecting to see a dent or the black mark of a tire tread. I climbed painfully back up and cautiously stuck my head out again. There was nothing to see, no barricade, no tools, no pails. I turned the other way and saw a car slewed sideways in the road, the driver shakily climbing out, staring at me white-faced and open mouthed. Splintered barricades, dented pails and miscellaneous tools were scattered everywhere.
As I climbed out of the manhole the driver rushed up to me shouting, “You’re not dead? I thought I had killed you! I was blinded by the sun when suddenly, there was this head! Right in the road! I felt this crashing bump, and thought for sure I had killed you.”
My partner ran up to us spouting more information. “I looked up when I heard a car coming! All I saw was your head right in front of his wheel! Then the crash and stuff went flying everywhere. I was too scared to look down the manhole. I expected to see blood and a headless corpse.”
A decapitated cadaver is exactly what he would have seen if I had stuck my head out a few seconds later. The same if I had come out a few seconds earlier and been too far out of the hole to drop back down to safety. It only took a split second to get this whack on the head, but the lesson learned stayed with me for life. Someone out there wants me dead, but Someone Else wants me alive, and He is ultimately in control.
Why am I alive?
After the manhole incident, I remember asking myself, “What does God want me to do with my life? What did He preserve me for?” For starters, I confirmed my decision to go to Bible school. That began a chain reaction of other choices and decisions: marriage, pastoral ministry, then a move to Brazil culminating in the completion of a Bible translation project for the Canela people, followed by a missions leadership ministry, and now service as a public speaker, writer and author.
I took the hit on the head as proof that God had something major for me to do. He did. And He reconfirmed that fact periodically throughout my life. I can list at least eight other occasions when—not through my own carelessness or fault—I was in extreme danger, but escaped death. Each time it happens I remember what David Livingstone wrote, “I am immortal till my work is accomplished.” I take each escape as God saying, “Jack, I still have something for you to do.”
Let’s see, the last narrow escape was just before I published my first book. The third book is coming out next year. Hmm? … I wonder what’s next?
The article above was featured in the January 2010 issue of SEVEN magazine.