He’d lived in Ulaanbaatar for 8 years, so why did the cold still shock him when he stepped onto the front step of his apartment? It was early morning, the sun still had not peeked over the dark mountains to the northeast. He felt the hairs in his nose freeze up instantly. His breath just hung lazily in the air in front of his face.
John was hating life right now; all the newness of living in a foreign country had worn off long ago. He’d been an idealist, coming to help, but had grown more cynical over the past two years.
He had to walk ten minutes to the 40-foot shipping container which doubled as warm garage for his 4wd. Ulaanbaatar was a Soviet-built city, not equipped for the tens of thousands of vehicles jamming the city's streets everyday, and there just weren't enough places to park for all of them.
His deep-freeze walk was suddenly interrupted . “Huuueeeey!" - a typical Mongolian hail. To the left of the broken sidewalk he was walking on was a two-foot high heap of dirty snow that had been shoveled away by some of the local school kids on one of their many "work days". John looked quickly over his left shouler to see a blob of black and gray huddled down in the snow, propped up against a scraggly dead tree.
John didn't recognize this guy. He decided on-the-spot to call him “GI Jav”. ,Jav was a typical Mongolian short name, and John thought it was kind of a tragic, ironic play on words. This homeless guy was anything but a GI Joe.
What’s he doing out this early in the cold? GI Jav had a burlap sack full of empty plastic bottles lying at his feet. “Mungu Mungu!” Money is what Jav wanted. John was not in a compassionate mood. John couldn't really think of the last time he'd really felt anything at all for anyone. He was glad it was too cold to smell the alcohol oozing out of GI Jav's pores. John slowed down enough as he glanced at Jav to also notice that Jav’s left boot toe was open, exposing a dirty sock. "How could he still have toes?" John wondered out loud.
Yeah. This was the wrong time to ask John for any more help. He felt like punching someone, or something. A friend of John's had once told him that when people felt anger, the anger was always simply a symptom of some underlying fear, and that once you dealt effectively with the fear, your angry feelings would subside.
"Then what am I afraid of?" he thought. "Maybe I'm afraid of getting stuck in this place for any longer. Maybe I'm doing more harm than good. I've got nothing to give these people anymore.". But even introspecting this way left him feeling drained. John had createde just enough distractions in his life to avoid thinking about the deeper issues and depleting himself of any energy he might have left.
He opened the container doors, unplugged the heater that he used to keep his engine block warm, backed out the truck and closed the doors. He was on automatic; he’d done this a thousand times, and now his mind was only preoccupied with how much he wanted to be anywhere but here.
Today, he was supposed to deliver some medical supplies to a clinic in Darkhan, a few hours drive northwest of UB. His was one of hundreds of aid organizations in this country. John had pretty much concluded that corruption had screwed up the Mongolian political and economic system beyond salvaging. And the lust for worldly gain seemed to be seeping into the DNA of everydone around him; just this week his NGO had found that three of their Mongolian workers had embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars of donated funds.
His anger grew in these few seconds and he punched the gas pedal to the floor as hard as he could. He knew it was a stupid move, and was going to pull his foot back. The back left wheel slid on a small patch of ice that he had not seen, he over-compensated, cutting his steering wheel hard to the right as the back end swung sharply to the right and kept on skidding. He thought that he must have done at least two 360's before he felt the rear right side slam into something and now the truck was at about 5 mph, rolling backwards clumsily toward the right side of the beginning of the bridge he crossed everyday. His quickly tried pumping the brakes, but they were useless now on the off-road ice/snow mixture he was on.
“STUPID!” he yelled. His truck missed the guard rail head at the right and the truck continued rolling backwards and downhill toward the iced-over river below. He thought for a minute the truck would just land on the ice in the middle of the river. A funny story to tell later.
But he didn’t know how far away the bank was from the river’s edge. The 4wd actually gained speed as the incline suddenly became more steep. One of the back wheels struck heavily on some heavy iron beams that had been dropped there from nearby construction and his truck, almost in slow motion, flipped over, hood-over-rear. When everything stopped moving, he realized he was pinned upside down in his seat, with his legs somehow tangled in the seatbelt.
"I’m okay, but I’ll freeze to death if someone doesn’t get me out," he thought. The truck had stalled and was not running; he’d been thrown backwards far enough that he could not reach the horn to call attention. His cell phone was in his left pocket. He tried reaching up for his cell phone with his left hand, but his shoulder wouldn’t move; it felt dislocated. He could not reach his left pocket with his right hand.
For a long while, it seemed, he tried to think of a way out, or of a way to attract attention. He started to yell.
Although he normally used translators, he’d learned enough Mongolian to get around town, and cry for help if needed.
Over the next few moments, his anger slowly turned to remorse. Strangely, he didn’t feel afraid, yet. He felt disgusted with himself. It wasn't just about his punching the gas, not controlling his anger. He knew that he was disgusted with the self-centered man he had become.
His head started hurting, hanging there upside down, and his toes began to throb with the pain of cold.
"I could die here." He began screaming. “Huuueeeey! Tuuslaaaaaach!”
"I could die here. Because of my stinking idiotic rage."
It was dead quiet. He could only hear the sound of his own short, panicked breathing.
"Focus. Pull yourself together. How do I get out? How do I survive?"
He heard a rhythmic squeaking sound. Was it crunching? Footsteps?
"Heeeeelp meeeee. Tuslaaaacheee!"
He knew someone was walking nearby; they must be crunching along the snowy bank.
"What?! they’ve got to hear me."
He screamed again. The footsteps didn’t sound any closer. But the slow, labored pace of whoever it was seemed to be moving behind him from his right to left, along the bank, which he could not see. It was bright enough now, but his front windshield had shattered on the left side, and frosted over on the inside from his panting and screaming.
The sound of footsteps ceased.
He had to have been heard by now.
"Naaashaaaaa ir! Come here, help!"
He paused. He tried to hold his breath to hear better, but couldn’t. He had no idea how visible his truck was under the bridge. How far under, if at all, had it slidden? Finally, he heard the steps again, but now louder, and no longer from left to right. Now they were upon the truck, surely. But there was no hurry… only the slow-paced, labored shuffle.
Now he had to look slightly upward and to his right to try to see the ground outside. The pain in his left shoulder had become excruciating, and to look in that direction made it worse. He felt relief the steps had come around his right side. But the front passenger side window had fogged up, as well, from his breath. The shuffler stopped now. He had to be right beside the vehicle.
"Huuuueeeey nadaa tuslakhgui uu?! Hey won’t you help me?!" he yelled several times.
"Khaaalga ongooooich uguuuuch! Open the door!"
No response at all. And still no movement.
With the back of his right glove, John was able to scratch away a patch of clear window on the passenger side. He could see someone was standing there. He wondered what the heck they were doing? He felt furious again. What kind of stupid…..
He could only see part of the pant leg of whoever it was. He wiped away another patch of clear window and started blinking his eyes hard. He did not want his first assumption to be correct. He thought he saw something and wanted his eyes to be tricking him.
His eyes were wet with tears and from the moisture from his breath mixing with the frigid air. He managed to wipe his right eye clear enough to see through one of the spots he'd made in the window. He could see one of the shuffler's feet. He felt a sinking feeling in his gut. Split-open toe of a left boot, dirty sock.
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