Marooned by Pride

"Lord, wash away my iniquity. Cleanse me from my sin."

The priest says these words during Mass as he washes his hands in preparation for the Eucharistic Prayer. This part of the rite reminds me of forgiveness. It also echoes the water of baptism, which, too, is about removing the stain of sin.

You might think the last place to be reminded of this would be while marooned in a sand dune on a coastal island. I might have thought that, too, until a recent Friday.

Sign Said 'Stop' but I Said 'Go'
My wife and I were enjoying a getaway in the lovely seaport town Newburyport, Mass., north of Boston. Lying off the coast of Newburyport is Plum Island, a seven-mile finger of land featuring one of the world's most important nature preserves, famous for its migratory birds. Surf and sand mix with flora and fauna in a rejuvenating poetry of soul and senses.

As part of our stay, we drove to the preserve. We paid our $5 entrance fee to the young park ranger and slowly drove along the road. To our left, we could hear the roar of waves crashing the shore - the Atlantic Ocean, singing, at high tide on a wild and windy day. To our right stretched the salt marshes where the Merrimac River meets the ocean. The beauty is stunning.

About a half-mile onto the island, a small, unpaved road juts off the main thoroughfare toward the beach. A stop sign restricts access to all vehicles except those with a proper permit. Such a sign would stop most people, especially those who might be driving something less than a four-wheel-drive monster - me, for instance, piloting a front-wheel-drive Ford Focus.

Sand is Smart
As we stopped in front of the sign, I told my wife, Paula, that it might be fun to drive in and watch the fury of the ocean smashing the shore. She pointed out the stop sign.

"It'll be OK," I said, with the confidence foolish pride inspires.

We followed the road in - "road." Actually, it was little more than a sandy path winding through the dunes, wide enough for one vehicle. We took a humpback turn right, splashed through a large puddle, and all seemed fine. Then the sand got deeper. That's when Dale Earnhardt Jr. here noticed the steering wheel being pulled by forces beyond his control.

Sand is smart. It obeys the discipline of nature. When it meets a heavy object such as a car, it draws it in. The large sucking sound I heard was my ego being swallowed.

Nellie, my trusty car, kept moving. A small hill told Nellie, though, that she wasn't going any farther. Nellie has no ego. She obeyed.

"No problem," Mr. Bigshot Driver said. I put Nellie in reverse and started backing out. We got about 10 feet and then, at the bottom of the small rise, the wheels began to turn. Only nothing was happening.

"Big wheels a keep on turning. Proud Danny keeps on burning."

My wife looked at me with a "Why didn't you listen to me?" look.

My pride bubbled up like oily crude. Not wanting to admit we were stuck, I went to work. Plan B: I put on my Superman costume and donned the role of hero. I would show Lois Lane that the Kid had everything under control. I shoveled sand from around the tires. I placed blankets under them for traction. I posed like a muscleman. I began to push, with my wife behind the wheel applying the gas.

Nothing.

The more we tried, the deeper we sank. I was, literally, pounding sand.

"You're going to have to go back to the ranger and say we need help," Paula said. I had heard that tone of voice from moms and school principles,

This isn't what a guy likes to hear, especially regarding anything to do with cars. Why do you think men drive through streets like lost souls rather than ask for directions?

P-R-I-D-E.

My wife was justifiably angry but held off the "I told you sos." She's not that type - Paula is far too sweet, kind, compassionate, and good for that.

Traipsing with a Heron
We traipsed the half-mile back to the guard hut, a walk improved by spotting a large heron feeding in the marsh. We explained our situation to ranger Jody Uering, a capable young man. Ranger Jody got on the phone to the towing service. Jody was friendly, trying to make me feel like less of a fool.

"We had a car last week who tried the same thing," Jody said. "Got stuck. Then the week before, a truck got stranded in that same place."

Wow, I thought, I'm going to get off without a lecture - other than the one I had received from my wife ("This should teach you to be obedient," she had said. "That sign is there for a reason"). Then federal officer Christopher Hugsen entered the guard hut.

He looked the part: a wiry man of median height, tight military haircut, aviator glasses, camo outfit, and service boots. He gave me The Lecture.

Suddenly, I felt like Beaver Cleaver after his dad, Ward, catches him playing hooky from dance lessons having wrecked his good suit. Officer Chris began asking a series of rhetorical questions: "Did you read the sign? Do you think that sign was put there for a reason? [Just what my wife said!] Do you know you're blocking access to the beach? Do you know I couldn't get in there in an emergency?"

No Excuses
The talking-to was well deserved. I made no excuses and owned up to my mistake. I graciously took the ticket he handed me, and, with Paula, walked back to Nellie to wait for the tow. After a short while, Gerry Volpone's Ram-tough truck pulled up. Gerry works for Volpone's Towing Service, run by his mom and pop.

After analyzing the situation the way a grandmaster might ponder a chess problem, Gerry - a friendly, affable sort - went to work. Armed with winch and pull, muscle and Ram-tough horsepower, he towed us out. I then thought of the words: "Lord, wash away my iniquity. Cleanse me from my sin." I'm glad this came to mind, and not Pat Boone's "Love Letters in the Sand." It shows there's hope for me yet.

I had no malicious intent in taking the road less traveled. That wasn't the sin. The sin was pride. I thought I was above the law. I thought that I could drive that sandy road in a vehicle that had little chance of doing so. Once stuck, I thought I could get us out without having to ask for help.

Pride: Topping the 'Capital Sin' Chart
Pride, the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us in its "Glossary," is "one of the seven capital sins. Pride is undue self-esteem or self-love, which seeks attention and honor and sets oneself in competition with God."

That's me. That's my struggle.

Pride is a "capital" sin because it causes other sins. In the seven biggies (the others are avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth), pride is listed first. There's a reason.

It's funny, because six days prior to Paula and Dan's Adventure on Plum Island, I had gone to confession. I confessed to being in the grips of pride. The priest gave me wise advice, then absolution. You wouldn't know it judging from the sand-dune incident, but I'm making progress - not enough to keep me from driving where I shouldn't, but enough to publicly confess to being a fool.

I have faith that believes that when I ask God to "wash away my iniquity," He does. I asked. He did.

We love Newburyport and Plum Island. We hope to enjoy many more trips there. I will not, however, be taking any more "off road" left turns.

Dan Valenti writes for numerous publications of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, both in print and online. He is the author of Dan Valenti's Mercy Journal.

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