90: The Boots That Saved My Life

90: The Boots That Saved My Life

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Dreams and the Unexplainable

The Boots That Saved My Life

We want to feel we are in control of our own existence. In some ways we are, in some ways we’re not. We are ruled by the forces of chance and coincidence.

~Paul Auster

I’ve never hunted and have never been interested in the sport, but my friend, Matt, became a devoted hunter. Matt and I were college friends. He lived in the New York City area and I lived in upstate New York, and he would often come stay with me to hunt in the woods around my house. On the days he hunted, he would be up and out well before dawn. He would leave me a note about where he was heading — longitude and latitude — and where and when he expected to emerge from the woods.

My job was to find him there and bring him back to my place. This routine worked well every time, and I liked the challenge of working from numbers on a map to pinpoint where I’d find him, reading whatever book I had until I heard the snap of a twig under his boot.

He called me one time, though, and said he’d be bringing along his friend, Kevin. I knew Kevin and liked him, but as soon as I heard Matt’s voice on the phone telling me this, I felt uneasy. I had no idea why I should feel that way. Matt asked if I could meet them at a certain spot — longitude and latitude — some distance from my place and pick them both up to drive them back to their hotel. I agreed, but, even as I did, I felt an odd tightening in the pit of my stomach.

The day of the hunt, I went about my usual business and then got into my old clothes for hiking, including my old boots. I was just about to leave, my hand on the doorknob, when I felt the very strong — and strange — sensation that I should change my boots. I’m not big on fashion and don’t spend much time thinking about what to wear, so I couldn’t understand why I was feeling this way. My wife, Betsy, had recently bought me a new pair for work — not for stomping around fields or woods — and the ones I was wearing were my traditional go-find-Matt boots. There was no reason to change my boots, but when I tried to shake off the feeling and leave the house, the sensation was so strong I couldn’t resist it.

New boots on, I drove the forty minutes to the pickup spot I’d calculated and pulled in by the tree line off a back road. I grabbed my book and walked down the road, consciously keeping from the sides where my boots might scuff on rocks. Scanning for a suitable reading spot, I noticed a green hill and wandered over to it. This hill overlooked a ravine lined with stones of various sizes and shapes. The sun was dropping down low, and the small valley was illuminated with a bright orange glow that sparkled among the large granite and smaller quartz far below me. Looking around, I figured this was pretty much the perfect spot since they would see me on the hill from whatever direction they came. I sat down and read my book.

It wasn’t long before I heard a shout and saw them coming down the road. They weren’t carrying any deer or any other game, just their rifles. I called out, “No luck?” Matt shrugged and smiled, but Kevin was clearly angry and shouted, “Nothing! Out all day and — nothing!” Matt just shrugged again, saying, “Next time,” and we all sat down on the hilltop, Matt to my left and Kevin to my right.

Matt was talking about the day while Kevin checked his .30-06 rifle and kept shifting the bolt. Kevin was complaining about how he wanted to shoot something, had come on the silly trip just to shoot something, and hadn’t had a chance all day. Matt told him to calm down. Kevin continued on — he’d been ripped off, the stupid deer had it in for him, the day just wasn’t right for deer hunting anyway — and all this time I looked across the ravine and down at the last light of the day sparkling among the stones.

Suddenly, as I was looking down, I noticed a splotch of mud on the toe of my left boot. And here I’d been so careful! As I noticed this mud, I heard Kevin’s voice louder beside me as he yelled, “I don’t care. I don’t care! I’m shooting something, whether it’s living or not!” As he said this, I leaned forward to flick the mud from the boot and heard the loud crack of his rifle fire next to me — heard the ping of the bullet hitting stone. And as I leaned down, my finger touching my boot, I felt the bullet whiz through the top of my hair in ricochet. If I had not leaned forward at that precise moment, the bullet would have gone right through my forehead and, with the hollow points Kevin had in his weapon, would have completely blown out the back of my head.

He couldn’t apologize enough, but my heart was beating so fast and loud that I could hardly hear him. Sure, I was angry, but the main sensation I had was awe. I thought of Betsy, waiting for me back home, of my mother and my brothers and sisters and friends and all the lives that could have been changed in a moment if I hadn’t bent forward to brush some mud off my boot — a boot I shouldn’t even have been wearing that day. Something, somewhere, had saved my life, and ever since I have been quite conscious of that fact and always very grateful.

The memory of that day has come back to me many times since — every anniversary with Betsy, when my daughter Emily was born, and so many days with them both since. When a friend or student or anyone else has thanked me for some assistance, or when I publish another story, the memory stirs. All the years since that day have been possible because of one single moment when I listened to and trusted what I felt, even though it made no earthly sense at the time.

~Joshua J. Mark

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