Many years ago, I was in Civil Air Patrol, the Official Auxiliary of the United States Air Force. Among the missions of the Civil Air Patrol is Search, and Rescue.
I’ve mentioned it before, there were other things we did, but one of the very important things we learned was all about Search and Rescue, or SAR.
One the hallmarks of a good search was when the person was found.
One of the things that made that possible was the organization that was part of every search. There was communication (we had an old M-715 military surplus communications truck (mentioned in this story) with radios of all varying frequencies, so we could be a relay to the myriad of agencies that could be part of a large search), there were all the volunteers who showed up, and then there were the people who did the searching. Sometimes the searching was done from the air, but that was to get a general sense of where things might be. The end of a search was often done from the ground. In both circumstances, we would work what was called a grid pattern, so we would always know what had been searched, and what had yet to be searched.
What was drilled into us at the time was that you searched a part of the grid, and if you didn’t find what you were looking for, you crossed that square off, and then moved to your next assigned section. It was almost sacred, how important that was. The commanders had to know with 100% certainty which grids had been searched and which ones still needed to be. Therefore, you did not, under any circumstances, deviate from the grid pattern.
So to practice these searches, and these techniques, we had training. Each squad (two to four cadets) had a map of the area being searched. We each had a compass, and we had our assigned grid sections. And we did everything we could do to be prepared for any emergency, at any time.
And then one day, every member of the squadron got a phone call.
The phone call.
Someone was actually lost.
Someone needed to be both searched for and rescued.
This time it was for real.
This time someone’s life was really on the line.
This time someone needed help, and so with adrenaline flowing like never before, we all did what we’d been training to do for what seemed like ‘ever’. We gathered our pre-packed gear, put on our uniforms, and assembled the squadron to go to find this person who’d completely disappeared. The family was in shock, and for everyone’s benefit, the person in question needed to be found.
We created a command post near where the person was last seen.
We assembled our vehicles.
We spread our maps on the most convenient flat thing around (that would be the warm hoods of cars), got our compasses out, and planned our search. To be honest, it looked very much like an old war movie. The only thing missing was an old Jeep and mugs of bad Army coffee. Actually, come to think of it, the maps were held down on the hoods of those cars with what was probably cups of, by then, lukewarm 7-11 coffee.
After the planning, we were each assigned a section, and the leaders would gather their squads together and give instructions. We’d go out initially in groups of two or four cadets, each squad having one copy of the map of the area divided up into the now familiar and very sacred grid pattern, and we started searching.
In my group, there was Aaron, Bruce, Dave, and me. Aaron had this back problem, so he had this huge brace that he’d wear from his hips to his neck, and we’d always want to be careful that he didn’t hurt himself. The thing we weren’t used to was that Aaron’s view of the brace wasn’t that it was a hindrance, but that it was just part of life, and being careful about it really wasn’t something he was concerned with. So we went and searched the grid area to the northeast of the house, and since this was a real live search, we were going to leave no stone unturned. If this person was out there, we were going to find them. It was a matter of safety for them, and a matter of pride for us, so we put all our training to use, and we searched.
Now one of the things they didn’t tell us about this grid pattern was that if there was something truly in your way, you could walk around it.
In fact, they’d never said we could walk around anything.
I suppose because when they drilled it into us that we were to maintain those straight grid lines, that we hadn’t thought to ask, but when we got to our designated section of the grid, there was this huge, house sized thicket of bushes in front of us. A lesser (or a smarter) group of people would think thoughts like, “If you can’t even part the shrubbery, how could you possibly get there to actually be lost?” – Seriously –the bushes were so thick we couldn’t even get into them, much less get through them.
But remember, this was during a time of youth. This was when we were full of energy, testosterone, and Infinite Teenage Wisdom®.
And Aaron, bless him, said, “Grab my brace and push me through!”
We thought he was nuts. This was like taking someone’s cast off their broken leg and beating off an attacker with it – it just didn’t seem right. But Aaron insisted, and so he got in front, I remember grabbing his brace through his shirt, Bruce had his hands in the middle of my back, and – well, I couldn’t see what happened past Bruce, but on the count of three, we all shoved Aaron into the thicket.
We had to do it over and over, and each time, pushing Aaron a little further into the thicket.
Luckily, this wasn’t a briar patch, or images of Brer Rabbit would have been quite appropriate. No, this was just a thicket of bushes, along the side of this country road that was on our grid.
Eventually we made it through the other side of that thicket (which was really deeper into the woods), and this may not come as a surprise, but we didn’t find that our lost person was in there. We radioed that our grid was clear. We were ordered to split up and I was given another grid with another cadet. This time we were to be walking on public roads, so we were issued bright orange vests to go over our fatigues. That way it would be safer, and our presence would be obvious from some distance.
We walked some distance on that road, making some turns and such, following the instructions on the map we’d been given, but again, didn’t find what we were looking for, so we were able to successfully mark that grid clear. We were invited to come back to the command post for a break, and so we headed in that direction, but while the map seemed to show us that we were heading back, the countryside looked quite unfamiliar. In fact, we had walked quite some distance, and because we were to cover all the ground in our grid, had taken some turns we weren’t expecting, turns we didn’t see until we got there to take them, and eventually, unintentionally, had walked off the edge of the map, so to speak. We had to backtrack a good bit, and were coming back in from a direction we hadn’t planned on coming back from.
Eventually we started seeing familiar territory, and I decided to call the command post on the radio and let them know we were on the way in, and I heard a voice on the radio say something that I still remember to this day.
“Understood. I’ve got you in sight”
Have us in sight?
How could they have us in sight? For that matter, how long had they had us in sight?
We couldn’t see them, how could they see us?
It turns out they had binoculars – and because we’d gone off the grid, we were late coming back, and they were looking for us. In fact, they’d had some hot food and something to drink ready and waiting for us, and had been keeping track of all of us for some time as we were walking back… Those orange vests we’d thought were so funny earlier were actually turning out to be pretty useful, and even then, it got me thinking. How many times do we wander off on our own merry way in our lives, going places we really don’t have any business going, that don’t make any sense at all?
It made me wonder how many times we actually work hard at doing the stupid things we do in our lives, either allowing ourselves to be pushed, or even enlisting the help of our friends to push us into places we really shouldn’t be.
And sometimes we end up completely off the grid, in places we didn’t expect to be at all.
How many times, when we should be paying attention to being where God really wants us to be, do we end up getting ourselves lost, even when we have a map we could use to guide us, or better yet, have a radio we could use to simply push the button and check in?
And how many times, when the light finally comes on, so to speak, and we do check in, do we hear, “Come on in, I’ve got you in sight?”
I’ve pondered that over the years, wondering how often God simply watches us through His binoculars, to see how long it actually takes us to come to our senses, and start heading home, back to the command post, where He’s got hot dogs and cokes waiting for us.
We learned later, after we told the story about the bushes, that we actually didn’t have to walk through things on the grid that were in our way. We had permission to walk around things that we couldn’t walk through as long as we got back onto the grid again. Sometimes that kind of stuff happens. Things get in the way. You step around them, get back on the grid, and move on. It turns out that takes a lot less energy than trying to fight your way through something that’s bigger and stronger than you are.
Ironically, had I used the radio I had clipped to my belt to ask about that at the time, I would have gotten a very quick answer right then that would have saved us (and Aaron) a lot of trouble, but we were so busy ramming Aaron through the bushes that we didn’t think of calling in and asking for advice.
Of course, given that we were operating with that ever popular “Infinite Teenage Wisdom®,” that would have made far too much sense.
Over the years, I’ve found myself wondering if there’s an adult version of “Infinite Teenage Wisdom®”. (I’m sure there is)
I wonder how often we do things like that when we grow up, how often we stray from the map, and get off the grid in ways we really don’t mean to, only to get pushed around by things that are bigger and stronger than we are.
I wonder how often we do that and don’t realize that we could just walk around them instead of spending all our energy trying to fight them.
I still wonder how long they had been watching us, and I wonder about that radio I had on my belt, the one that when I used it to let someone know we were on our way back, broadcast the words, “I’ve got you in sight…”
And I wonder how often, in life, even if we stray off the map, we might actually hear God saying words like that if we were really paying attention.
It turns out – both on that search, and in life, we weren’t completely lost.
He’d known where we were all along.