Driving through a blizzard with Bishop Tutu
As stated in the King James Bible, John the Baptist gave his disciples a very simple command when they asked how to avoid the “wrath to come.”
“Whoever has two tunics, let him give them to him who does not have any.” “
I took this advice in a moment that I will never forget.
Had 10 fantastic days at the end of 1983 and early 1984, definitely my best vacation.
Bobbie, my girlfriend at the time, was the secretary of an Episcopal priest who coordinated that church’s national campus ministries from its headquarters in New York. She was to attend a conference of about 100 young bishops at the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, Colorado. I decided to go with him. We landed in Denver on Christmas Eve, rented a car, joined the other conference planners, and drove to the Y, about 70 miles away.
Let me tell you, the YMCA of the Rockies is not your typical YMCA. Surrounded by the Rocky Mountain National Park, it is beautiful. It not only has meeting spaces, clean and comfortable lodges, camping areas, a “yurt village”, restaurants, an indoor pool and fire pits, but also cabins for rent. Bobbie and I were joined by her friend and this friend’s husband, a large rancher from New Mexico. We rented a two bedroom cabin, with a fireplace and full kitchen, steps from the pool for, if I remember correctly, just $ 45 a night. It was a real find!
I spent my days skiing on fresh, natural white powder with “Big Jerry” or having a few refreshing adult drinks while watching boules in the upscale bars of Estes Park. I particularly remember Penn State’s 13-10 victory over Washington in the Aloha Bowl and Miami’s 31-30 loss to fifth-ranked Nebraska to top-ranked Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. In the evenings, Bobbie and I would join college kids at parties or spend a quiet night in front of a roaring fire. I ate a lot of quality steaks. Only one drawback: the Italian cuisine at Estes Park. It reminded me of Henry Hill’s description of Italian food in Arizona when he was placed under witness protection in the movie “Goodfellas” – “Egg Noodles and Ketchup”. I guess it’s better now.
So, have a good vacation. But that’s not what makes it so memorable. Which brings me back to the words of John the Baptist.
About three days after the start of the trip, almost all of the students had arrived. The next day, the actual conference began, kicked off by its keynote speaker. But then a problem developed.
I got off the trails and headed back to the Y as dusk set in. The organizers were panicking. The speaker, along with three late students, had arrived in Denver. But it looked like they might get stuck in the airport. It was just spitting snow, but a blizzard was hitting it down. The leaders of the retreat were all townspeople and were terrified of driving in the snow.
Now, I was living in Manhattan at the time, working on the floor of the American Stock Exchange. But I had grown up in Vermont and the Adirondacks, so white stuff didn’t bother me. I volunteered to drive one of their vans. OK.
It was easy driving, just light flakes and good visibility. I gathered the students and the speaker, a short black man, bespectacled, middle aged, gentle, quick to laugh, soft-spoken with a sort of squeaky voice that sometimes creaked. We head for the van. It had become very cold and windy and the snow had become much heavier. The speaker, who was from the southern hemisphere, did not have a winter coat. No problem, I gave him my parka, which was way too big for him but warm. I was fine – remember I had just come off the slopes and dressed in layers.
The children piled into the back of the van and immediately fell asleep. The speaker climbed into the passenger seat and we left.
The trip from Estes Park only took about 90 minutes. The return trip took almost four hours. The blizzard had arrived and it was, for all of my experiences whiteouting upstate New York, frightening even to me. There was, at best, 40 feet of visibility; the winds shook the van, the snow was piling up quickly. When we got off the four-lane road and took a narrow, winding mountain road for the last 20 or so miles, the older man’s knuckles seemed to turn white. It was white-fisted training.
The man gave me questions throughout the trip. How did I learn to drive in a blizzard? What were the differences between Colorado, Vermont, and upstate New York? How did I get to the conference? Was I an Episcopalian? What have I done for a living? What was it like working on the stock market? In return, I asked him questions about his native land. A very interesting conversation with a lovely man.
When we finally got to the Y, the conference organizers drew great inspiration. They were worried that we had crashed, and at the time cell phones had no way of calling me. There was an audible noise of relief.
The next day they bought the speaker a winter coat and I got my parka back, the man thanking me several times. Hey I reaffirmed it was okay. Instead of skiing again, I listened to his opening remarks, and they were very insightful.
I went back to my normal routine the next day and enjoyed the rest of my vacation. It wasn’t until months later that lending the speakerphone in my coat really faltered.
I was home from work and Bobbie was really horny. “Guess who won the Noble Peace Prize, guess who won the Noble Peace Prize ?! Monsignor Tutu!
Wow, I loaned my coat to a Noble Peace Prize winner and drove him through a snowstorm! I knew Bishop Tutu’s route well when I drove him, but that was the icing on the cake!
Even now, this memory excites me. How many people can have a four-hour one-on-one chat with a Noble Peach Prize winner?
As I write these lines, Archbishop Desmond Tutu sits in the oldest cathedral in southern Africa, usually in a modest pine coffin as thousands of people, black, white and all manner of shades between two, walk past to honor the man. He was to be cremated and his ashes buried on New Years Day. I wish I could be there to give his coffin a respectful slap.
Tutu was one of the greatest men of the 20th century. He kept the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa alive while Nelson Mandela was imprisoned and, more importantly, led that nation through an extremely dangerous time as the white government of South Africa was replaced by Mandela. . His chairmanship of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which explored in depth the many human rights violations of the apartheid era, was successful. A bloodbath had been predicted by many. It didn’t happen.
Tutu’s life reminds me of another Bible verse, this one spoken by Jesus himself. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “
Archbishop Desmond Tutu has certainly been blessed. And I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to know him.