The Good and Bad in Samaritan

Mark Cleavenger's right sleeve after the incident. | Photo: Mark Cleavenger

In the wee morning hours of February 9 my friend Mark Cleavenger lost his wedding ring. This is not noteworthy. Mark's wedding band is loose and he loses it with some regularity. These misplacings (that always sounds better) cause him some discomfort. There aren't many things Mark is afraid of, but one of them is his wife. I do not fault him for this. Show me a man who at some point hasn't approached his wife with trepidation, and I will show you a man who hasn't been married.

My friend Mark Cleavenger is not fearless, but he is not far off. The early morning events of February 9 illustrate this. But it is not Mark's courage that should interest us (although it might inspire us), it is how he continues to see the world and humankind. The circumstances of Mark's lost ring tell us much about Mark, and maybe something about ourselves, too.

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First the facts. On Saturday, February 9, Mark was driving home from Los Angeles to Ventura. It was roughly one-fifteen in the morning. Just short of the Conejo Grade, not far from the Wendy Drive exit in Thousand Oaks, a car passed Mark. The car was going fast. Mark, who served ten years as a policeman himself, guesses the driver was going at least ninety miles an hour and swerving. Mark picked up his phone and dialed 911. He never got the chance to talk to the dispatcher. Ahead of him the car smashed into the back of a big rig truck. Briefly, the car wedged itself beneath the right hand side of the truck's bumper. The car, wedged beneath the truck, caught on fire.

My friend Mark does not indulge in hyperbole.

"When I saw the fire I thought, 'Oh no, this can only be bad.'"

As the truck slowed, the car swung free. Still burning, it spun off to the side of the freeway.

Mark did not hesitate. Slamming on his brakes he pulled off to the side of the road. This was no heroic conscious decision.

"It was blind instinct. Just boom. Game on." Mark shrugs. "It's whatever makes me go rather than run."

Mark's recollection of events is an odd mix of the supremely detailed and the dreamily vague. Twenty yards away, the car was still on fire. The driver's window was down. The driver was still. Mark ran to the flaming car. Staying low to the pavement, he opened the door. The unconscious driver slumped to the pavement, but his right foot was stuck under the emergency brake lever. Mark reached inside the car and pulled off the driver's shoe.

Mark pulled the driver from the car and dragged him as fast as he could to a spot behind his own truck.

"I just wanted to make sure we were away," says Mark.

Being away proved a good thing.

"Thirty seconds later the truck blows up," recalls Mark. "I could feel the heat from the explosion come underneath my truck, almost like a hair dryer sort of gust. I would have been dead. He would have been dead."

Others stopped. A woman joined Mark, holding the driver's head still. The driver drifted in and out of consciousness. The truck driver stood nearby, mumbling. It wasn't my fault. I was driving the speed limit. Oh my god, you went into a burning car. The driver's pants were steaming. Mark took them off to see if he was burned. Mark has some paramedic training.

"I wanted to get a good assessment of how hurt he was so when the fire and rescue personnel arrived they would know better what to do."

Mark smelled alcohol.

When the firefighters and the ambulance arrived, they took over. Mark and the woman he will likely never see again stepped aside.

The driver was twenty one and drunk, or as the California Highway Patrol report I have in front of me states, "Mr. John Doe was also subsequently arrested by CHP officers for driving under the influence of alcohol." John Doe, of course, is not his name, but I prefer this to remain a private matter between the driver and his conscience, for he is still alive. I include one more line from the report. "A witness to the collision, Mark Cleavenger of Ventura, stopped at the collision scene and was able to rescue Mr. Doe [sic] from his vehicle before it became fully engulfed in flames."

Mark noticed his missing ring on the drive home. He also noticed the pain from burns to his hand. The right sleeve of the shirt his wife had bought him was torched.

When he got home, the first thing he did was go downstairs and put a Band-Aid around his ring finger.

"With all the other stuff, do you think I was going to tell her my ring was missing?"

Mark does not try to pass himself off as a superhero.

"After it was over, I was trembling," he says. "I can't ever remember being so full of adrenalin and scared as I was with this rescue."

Mark, you see, has some experience with these things. Pulling a stranger from a burning car is not entirely unusual behavior for Mark. In 2001, as a Ventura police officer, he leapt off the Ventura Pier to rescue a drowning woman. Again he did not hesitate, although maybe he should have.

"I'm like, 'Whoops, I still have my gun on.'"

For this Mark received the Police Medal of Valor. Few police officers have one Medal of Valor. Mark has two. He was awarded the second medal while serving as a police officer in Hawthorne, for a shooting incident in which he and his partner could have been killed. Mark didn't realize how close he had come to dying until he learned in a subsequent report that the shooter's gun had misfired. Twice. As a police officer in Ventura, he gained a reputation for treating people fairly. This has had its repercussions. Last week, in a Ventura store, the owner said to him, Hey Cleavenger. You used to arrest me. You helped turn me around.

I tell you these things not to laud Mark (although he deserves it) but to raise a more important point. As you have already learned, Mark is not a thinker on some fronts, but he is on others. The boy with the steaming pants, the drowning woman, says Mark, they have a strange effect.

Mark is somewhat antic, but now he speaks very quietly.

"It's as close as two human beings can be. All the superfluous stuff disappears. It was just me and him. It's that moment. Nothing else matters. It puts things in perspective that's for sure."

Has he heard anything from the boy in the truck?

"No."

Sometimes it's a little disillusioning.

"The guy in the car didn't care," says Mark. "The cops who were on the scene didn't care. But I'm okay with it all. I'm going to care privately."

Mark would very much like to meet the boy in the truck. Mark has children of his own, drivers all.

"I want to tell him, 'Care about yourself. Don't do this again. Because next time you could take others with you.'"

Mark has been shot at, spat at, and severely injured in the line of duty; that last injury, and a subsequent three years of recovery, was the result of another drunk driving incident. Had he not moved so fast, this latest drunk driver would have killed him. But Mark doesn't condemn any of them. He came from his own rocky background.

"The take away lesson is good people doing bad things," he says. "Most people have goodness in their hearts. If you can tap into that you can make a difference in their lives. I think we all have meaning."

We are a strange and sometimes beautiful species.

The day after the accident, Mark went back to look for his wedding ring. He didn't have to search for it. He saw it right away.

The sun was shining on it.

About the Author

Ken McAlpine’s latest book “Together We Jump” was praised by Sunset Magazine as “lyrical, evocative and deeply moving…a luminous American novel.” He is based in Ventura, California.
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