Inside Uwe's office were two vintage motorcycles, a big screen TV and a black leather couch.
It was the summer of 2011 and after months of prodding he'd finally agreed to meet. I was new at the bank and had taken over his accounts so I wanted to meet him in person. Dressed in a white linen shirt and faded jeans he laughed at me from the door as I approached, sweating profusely through my suit and tie. Ever the gentlemen, Uwe invited me in, offered me a bottle of water and instructed me to sit. I thanked him and asked for a second bottle as I soaked in my surroundings and awkwardly sank into the overstuffed black leather couch. It was August and it was hot.
His flowing blond hair framed his strong, square face and the black glasses he wore gave him an air of sophistication. His dress and presence were quintessentially European and the casual way in which he folded his hands over his crossed leg while he sat in his large desk chair put me at ease.
The pristine motorcycles rested on the hardwood floor in the corner of the room. Both were immaculately clean with glistening chrome and deep, shining black leather seats. Their soft rubber tires appeared to have never met asphalt but I couldn't imagine that to be the case.
The TV in the background was tuned to CNN. The patriarch of 24 hour cable news was breathlessly reporting on the ongoing unrest and demonstrations in Greece during that turbulent summer. The host's message was clear: we should all panic.
Uwe and I made small talk while I drank the cold water from one of the plastic bottles and cooled off. Upon finishing the first, I nonchalantly opened the second and took a swig, only briefly interrupting our conversation. We discussed the situation in Greece and throughout Europe and the continued sluggishness that seemed to be slowly strangling the U.S. economy. I laughed at the irony of it all as I lay bare my own personal experiences and plans for the future. We'd just met but his demeanor and the comfortable surroundings made him easy to confide in. I told him how I'd recently started a new job at the bank and much to our surprise, my wife and I had just found out we were expecting our third child. He laughed in amazement when I divulged that we'd sold our house and were building a much larger, much more expensive home on the top of a hill overlooking miles of oak and cedar, all to make room for the baby.
Uwe's baritone voice boomed and echoed off the hardwood and chrome. In his thick German accent he said "You Americans, you're always charging ahead with your chests out and your eyes closed." He shook his head in befuddled amazement and continued to chide me for taking unnecessary risks during a time of such uncertainty. I gently fought back and told him that's how we survive. If we paralyze ourselves in fear, in the unknown, we never advance. We'd never improve our lot in life, or in the lives of our children. It's human nature to not cower in fear of the terrible things that might happen. We charge ahead through layoffs and recessions and riots and unrest and painful but necessary change because that's who we are.
The discussion (argument) continued for a couple of hours and while he never agreed to invest in the stock market or that my personal roadmap was anything but idiotic, I felt a sense of begrudging respect from the careful German when we parted ways. Hydrated and cooled, I heartily shook his hand and walked outside with him. "That's a nice big truck too," he said, chuckling and retreating back into the safety of his air conditioned office.
On the drive home I thought about Uwe's words of caution and wondered if those magnificent motorcycles had in fact ever been outside the safety of his well kept sanctuary.
Trust isn't logical
According to Section 3A.05 Widths and Patterns of Longitudinal Pavement Markings, the specifics for the dividing lines are as follows: A normal line shall be 4-6 inches wide and ten feet in length. The gap between each shall be no more than 30 feet and for a two way road the lines shall be painted yellow. Depending on a variety of circumstances, the thickness of the lines rarely exceeds 1/32nd of an inch. So, for millions of miles of roads and highways, the barrier separating traffic traveling in opposite directions from one another is less than the thickness of a standard, U.S. Treasury issued dime.
Yet every day millions across the nation and around the world strap into vehicles and travel at excessive speeds along those roadways, completely trusting that those barriers, those broken yellow lines, will keep the danger at bay. And in the grand scheme of things those infinitesimal deterrents perform their jobs beautifully. An overwhelming majority reach their destinations safely without thinking twice about the trust and controlled chaos involved in the events that incessantly continue every second of every day. In two ton machines of steel, chrome and rubber we roar past each other only inches apart, often without even paying full attention.
We are only reminded of the unnaturalness and inherent danger in our routine when tragedy strikes, as it did recently for Texas Tech alumnus Michael Miller, his wife and two children. The heartbreaking story was posted in the Denton Record Chronicle on August 9th:
LeAnn Miller, 48; Michael Miller, 47; Zoey, 12; and Miles, 7, were killed instantly when a pickup collided with the family's van on U.S. Highway 550 about 20 miles south of Bloomfield, New Mexico.
The truck's driver, Brian Lee, 24, became fatigued while driving north and crossed the center line of the highway, crashing head-on into the van, according to New Mexico State Police. At the time of the crash, police said, Michael Miller was the only one in the van wearing a seat belt.
The Millers were on a family vacation, living their dreams, charging ahead. I didn't know Mike but thanks to my friend Dan, I now know who Mike was. He was a husband, father and Sigma Chi. He was a business owner and proud Red Raider. He helped his son earn Cub Scout badges and, along with the rest of the family, was an animal lover.
Last Friday night Mike and all the family members lost were memorialized by Dan and their fraternity brothers at an event organized to comfort family and friends and to raise money for a park in Argyle in the Miller name. Dan and his brothers told college stories and presented Mike's 17 year old daughter with a Sigma Chi ring in memory of her father. It's what they do.
The funerals for the Miller family were Saturday, bringing with each unbearable grief and an overwhelming sense of loss. But on Monday morning Dan charged ahead and drove his oldest son to Lubbock from DFW with a carload of boxes and memories in advance of his freshman classes starting at Texas Tech next week. Thirty years ago Dan and Mike pledged together as fraternity brothers and now Dan was passing the Red Raider baton to his first born child.
I asked Dan about the timing of it all, and how he's dealt with that harsh pendulum of emotions during the last ten days. "Tech is where you go from being a boy to a man," he said. "We lost a really good man who loved his time at Tech. But I've had a very strange peace walking around campus, knowing that this is where he will become a man and we'll have that link for as long as I live," Dan said.
"And then I think about Mike, who was taken way too early. Those memories, this place, they will stay with me forever."
Believing that things will be ok defines us. Never cowering, never giving up, makes us who we are and propels us to continually seek a better place. Life's dangers give us pause but we can't be paralyzed by them. It's not fair to all those kids so full of promise and hope and so eager to take the baton from us. If nothing else, we owe a fearless seizing of life to them and their dreams. We charge forward with a house on the hill built for them. We do everything we can to clear a path for them. And when they are ready, we swallow our pride and emotion and shove them gently forward, burying our fears with theirs. It's what we do.
So as I think about Dan and his son unpacking his bags at Gates Hall, I think about my own child who will fearlessly start kindergarten next Monday. With his Super Mario Bros. backpack and perhaps a few tears, he'll walk into a classroom for the first time and we will leave him there with his teachers and nurses and janitors and lunch ladies, trusting all to take special care of our precious baby boy. And as Dan says, the line of demarcation will forever change. Nothing will ever be exactly the same again.
And when I think about Mike Miller and the beautiful family that was so tragically taken away, I think about my own wife and kids and everyone who has the quiet courage to continue charging forward even during the scariest of times. I'm reminded of those immaculate motorcycles still safely tucked away in a room of controlled air conditioning and hardwood. Both so safe and perfect, so pristine and protected.
And yet so out of place, never given the opportunity to do what they were built to do.