Cook: A risky, right turn

Cook: A risky, right turn

June 22nd, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

As he got out of the car, Tom Kunesh's heart was pounding, and he wondered to himself: Am I about to die?

It all began three miles earlier.

He was driving his red Honda down Market Street, his daughter Wenona in the passenger seat. They were headed to Chattanooga Center for Creative Arts -- she's a rising sophomore -- to do some summer volunteering.

Near the Choo Choo, traffic got congested. Kunesh was in the left lane. From the right, a man in a van tried to merge, accelerating up close. Too close. As Kunesh swerved left, the van cut right alongside him.

Then it happened.

"I turned to look at him," Kunesh said. "And he flipped me the bird."

Kunesh is not a hothead. He's the father of four daughters and the former state commissioner of Indian Affairs, a man one part calm and two parts wise. Kunesh did what he should have done.

Nothing.

He drove on.

But the van followed.

All the way down Market Street.

Over the bridge.

Across Frazier Avenue. Past a bank, the shopping center, the post office, this side road and that one. Wherever Kunesh went, the van was right behind him.

"We pull up in front of the school, and he's still on my tail," Kunesh said.

All these thoughts start running like wild bulls through his mind.

Should I just keep driving until the guy quits following us?

What happens if I get out? Will he punch me? Cuss me? Try to hurt Wenona?

Does he have a gun?

His daughter's telling him not to get out. His adrenaline's telling him to fight or flight. Then, in his subconscious, a memory stirs:

Last year, Kunesh had gone to a program at East Side Elementary, where his daughters Tashi and Ceallaith attend. Instead of the usual dads-and-doughnuts hour, administrators brought in two men from First Things First, who spoke about what it means to be a father.

"They stressed how dads were necessary because dads teach kids to take risks," Kunesh said.

Not macho-foolish, hold-my-beer-and-watch-this type of risks, but a fatherhood courage of mind, body and spirit.

"That you can stand up when you are in the right and you can take whatever other crazy people throw at you. And to take it," Kunesh said. "A person should be able to look their accuser in the eye and reason through something."

So Kunesh pulls into the school and stops his car.

The van stops right behind him.

Kunesh unbuckles, turns off the car and steps out.

He walks toward the van.

Then it happens.

The man in the van leans out the window and hits Kunesh with something he never saw coming.

An apology.

Sorry, the man in the van says. I want to apologize. I thought you were cutting me off. I really shouldn't have flipped you off, especially with your daughter in the car.

He waves at Kunesh.

Kunesh waves back.

That's all I wanted to say, the man says. Have a good one.

And he drives off.

"That's when I realized how fast my heart was beating, how shallow my breathing was," Kunesh said. "That my muscles were beginning to shake, the tension and adrenaline coursing through me."

He knows it could have ended differently, even violently. Knows that getting out of his car was a risk. Knows that cops and safety experts would have told him it was wrong.

"But two wrongs made three rights," he said. "It settled it for him. It settled it for me. It settled it for my daughter, who got to see her dad being brave."

Maybe masculine bravery comes from trusting in a world -- despite all the movies and headlines -- of decency and goodness. Maybe fatherhood means we get out of our locked doors. Refusing to buy into a dangerous-world paradigm, we approach each other, not with middle fingers extended, but apologies.

For all our collisions and crashes, maybe the risk we need to take is to walk toward one another, not away.

"This is what men do," Kunesh said. "They take risks."

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.