The two men gathered for a potluck with their families and friends in a Bennett Valley townhome clubhouse festooned with balloons and ribbons and once again shared the extraordinary story of how they met, two drivers whose cars and lives collided on a rainy night 20 years ago in almost predestined fashion.
The subdued festivity a week ago — the New Age music, a couple of playful toddlers running around under their mom’s watchful gaze, and through the windows a green landscape with splashes of dappled sunlight between rain showers — belied the dark, terrible circumstances that brought Steve Backman and Chris Loukas together.
Backman, 39 at the time, was a bar-hopping, habitual drunken driver, an unemployed construction worker who saw little reason to live.
Loukas, then 64 years old, was the owner of a Sebastopol crystal shop, the embodiment of west county sensibilities — a healer who does “energy balancing” for people and is an ordained minister in the Universal Church of the Master.
The near-fatal crash on Highway 116 near Cotati on Jan. 28, 1995, what the two men would refer to as “the incident … because there are no accidents in life,” forged an unlikely bond between them, becoming a tale of redemption and the power of forgiveness.
Loukas, who now lives in Sebastopol, was so badly hurt, there were doubts he would survive the injuries that put him into a six-week coma, let alone walk again.
Backman, the intoxicated driver whose Ford Bronco slammed into Loukas’ compact car before landing on top of it, walked away with little more than scratches. But he was a broken man inside, verging on suicide, up to his fifth arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol.
Instead of anger and resentment, Loukas showed a saint-like ability to pardon Backman when the younger man sought him out in the hospital two months later to apologize, against the advice of his attorney and family.
The two men would go on to become like family. And just two years after the crash, Backman met his future wife in one of the meditation classes conducted by Loukas, who married them.
“He’s like a spiritual son to me and has been for 20 years,” Loukas said.
Backman said he will mark his 20th year of sobriety next month — with no relapses — attained with the help of 12-step programs and the forgiveness and love that Loukas showed him.
Now lithe and lean from the 8,000 miles he averages per year on his road bicycle, an earnest, bright-eyed Backman last week spoke of his transformation after the crash and the gratitude for life that he feels every day, from the moment he awakens.
Next to him sat the white-bearded Loukas, his trademark Greek fisherman’s cap adorned with a crystal cross, revealing no clue to his past as a Marine sergeant and aircraft mechanic during the Korean War.
Asked whether he has any lingering pain, or physical problems from the crash, Loukas pulled up his pant leg to show a reporter a gnarled kneecap and the scarred leg reconstructed with “nuts and bolts” that was almost amputated after the crash.
“No, I never had any pains relating to this thing whatsoever,” he said, adding that he heals through spiritual energy, “complementary to Western medicine.”