“Well, he must have a flock of angels flying around him”. I think whoever said that was referring to me. Flock of angels speaks to frequency of being in dire straits and coming through unscathed.
Case in point. I was camping with two friends far north of Temogami. It’s virgin Canadian wilderness, beyond cell phone towers and hospitals. Also far away from any access points. We had long distanced ourselves from any road, having carried our gear and canoes deeper and deeper into the raw shield. We had portaged over about twelve lakes by that point. Bob said introspectively, “Better nobody get hurt out here. It’d be a hell of a thing to have to haul somebody’s carcass back over a dozen portages.” Famous last words. He could have been a prophet.
And portages there were. Over rough boulders, crags and crannies in the rocks, moss and roots, fallen timber, and maneuvering through sheer density of undergrowth and small trees. One realizes very quickly in such circumstances, mistakes in gear. Mine was the use of beach shoes, the shoes you change into in the canoe so that your regular footwear can stay dry. Nothing like a case of swamp feet out in the middle of the wilderness. But beach shoes are flimsy. They are meant for sand and small smooth pebbles, not the rigeur of rough terrain. They are terrible on smooth mossy rocks while carrying a canoe. It means your foot slides off the moss on round stones, and your foot gets wedged in between. You are likely to turn an ankle. But that’s not what happened to me. My fate was worse.
We portaged through a swamp. It was one worthy of superlatives, like “What do you think died here?” It was a slough of sitting water, steaming in the summer heat and boasting to our nostrils of the bacteria slaked in the thick black mud. In terms of disease it was nature’s own petri dish. Someone from long ago had tried to build a wooden crossover point, pounding together timber so that you would have something to stand on. They used three inch ardox nails, the kind with the spiral skewer that keeps them embedded. The bridge had long ago given in to decay. Its black rotted boards were just another skeleton half ravaged by nature. And so we stepped in. I felt something odd and lifted my foot up. Attached to the bottom of my foot, was a piece of rotted lumber. What joined the piece of lumber to my foot, was the three inch ardox nail embedded in my instep. It was not a happy moment. I pulled out the nail, and contemplated its glistening and rusted length. That is what had been buried deep in my flesh.
There was no time to be dainty, as evening was approaching and we had to yet make camp. And so we made our way through the bog and kept on going. When we finally pitched our tents, Bob took out a flashlight and some rubbing alcohol. He washed off my foot off and took a look. “Well, that doesn’t look good” he mused aloud. “That’ll be swelled up like a son-of-a-bitch by morning.” With this comforting thought in mind, We went to sleep. In the morning Bob took a look at my foot again. He scratched his head. “Well,” he said, “that sure is odd. There’s a big hole in your foot. When I shine the flashlight I can see right in. But it’s not infected. It’s red, but that’s about it. How does it feel?” I am not sure how your foot is supposed to feel once you have had a nail in it but we kept on going through three more days of camping. At the end of it my foot was about the same. The only thing I can guess is that the nail slid its way between bones and sinew and didn’t hit any important blood vessels. It was like pounding a nail through a frozen steak, but with little collateral damage. My camping buddies shook their heads and pronounced me teflon.
I heal up pretty good, unfortunately something I can attest to from having been injured repeatedly. I’ve had a few run ins with the table saw. They were not pretty. It puts me in mind of a critical care nurse who shared a photo on social media of a woodworker’s hand that she had sutured after a similar adventure. She was let go from her position because the image was too shocking. Nobody needs to see that, they muttered. My injuries were similar, three times lucky. I still have all my digits. More than that, I healed up so well that you can barely see any scars. It’s uncanny.
Laying in the bathtub and counting scars, I think of my own childhood, pre bubble-wrap generation. There were plenty of times I should have been maimed, or died. I can recall a few times fallling from heights of about thirty feet up in the trees. All it takes is one mossy branch that bends too much. The stories go on. There are lots of them. I have the scars to prove it.
And yet, here I am, still here like the Timex watch that took a licking but kept on ticking. It hasn’t slowed me down. My wife, the critical care nurse hates it. She sometimes wants that an injury should make me more circumspect. I can only conclude that I have a guardian angel, or maybe even a flock of them. I am only half joking. There is some theological basis for this kind of thinking. Origen (one of the early Church fathers), writes in his First Principles that “every human soul is put in subjection to some angel.” Jesus himself, mentioned guardian angels in Matthew 18:10. Speaking about little children, he said, “Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven.” Saint Thomas Aquinas weighed in on this topic, trying to break down how that worked theologically and practically. Still, the Bible mentions angels as ministers of our wellbeing more than a few times. “Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to minister for those who will inherit salvation?” (Hebrews 2:5)
It’s no doubt better to “die another day” as the saying for retreating warriors goes. It’s a cautionary note. Richard the Lionheart died in the third Crusade, after being wounded by a crossbow. The wound itself was not fatal, but it festered. It was the inability to bounce back that got him. He died at age 41, calling his assailant to his bedside to behold one who could kill a king. The archer was a mere boy named Bertram. A saying emerged from this, “The Lion, by an ant was slain”. Richard gave Bertram a hundred shillings and set him free. This clemency did not last long once Richard had died, however. According to the custom of the day, Bertram was flayed, and then hanged (in that order). Richard’s death was one of irony. He had survived many campaigns, never shirked from the worst danger, had been captured and ransomed, and ended up getting done in by some annoying pathogens he couldn’t shake off. Spirit willing but the flesh was weak.
It’s how well you recover that counts. I have been laid low many things in life, and yet am still here to tell the tale. I must have some things left to do. So, flock of angels? On your lookout. I guess your job is not done yet.