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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.”

The only sadness he shared came from the lack of movement in his left hand, depriving him of the ability to play violin and mandolin, as he had done almost daily prior to the crash.

At times, the two men grasped each other’s hand, punctuating their affection as they told their story, one they’ve recounted to many groups over the years.

Near-fatal crash

On that fateful night two decades ago, Loukas had just dropped off his 15-year-old daughter and two of her friends at a reggae concert in Petaluma and was on his way back to Sebastopol to pick up his wife to go to the movies.

Backman was doing what he did almost every night, hiding his drinking from people by starting off with a six-pack of beer and a half-pint of brandy at home, before driving to the bars with his cousin and a friend.

A high school dropout, out of work and struggling to pay his rent, Backman said that for many years he got drunk and used drugs — cocaine and speed, anything he could get his hands on — to drown out the world.

On that night, he remembers cruising about 50 miles per hour, getting ready to turn into the parking lot of a bar, Red’s Recovery Room, when one of his passengers yelled, “Steve, what are you doing?”

Next came “a big bang” as he hit Loukas’ oncoming Chevrolet Sprint, which was traveling 55 to 60 mph. Loukas never had a chance to brake.

Backman much later would write a 12-page account of the events that transpired, which he read aloud last week at the 20th anniversary gathering.

He said he was taken to jail after the crash, but instead of the drunk tank, was put on suicide watch because he told police it didn’t matter what they did to him. Things were so dark, he felt no reason to live.

The next day, after being bailed out by his parents, Backman was dropped off at his home in Novato. Then he promptly walked a mile to the nearest store for a 12-pack of beer and a bottle of brandy. He kept drinking.

In the hospital, Loukas was fighting for his life. The crash left him with two collapsed lungs, a ruptured diaphragm, a lacerated liver, a bruised pancreas, broken ribs, a fractured pelvis, shattered legs, internal bleeding and bruising of the brain.

The weeks turned into a month and more, and still he showed no signs of regaining consciousness.

“Twice they tried to get me to disconnect life support,” said Loukas’ wife, Dian.

She told doctors, “I’m sorry. He’s still in there, I’m not going to disconnect him.”

She did “energy balances with a pendulum” on her husband and acupressure on him, in a manner she said was akin to performing last rites.

Bedside reunion

Backman said his life was a living hell in the aftermath of the crash. The drugs and alcohol no longer washed away his unwelcome emotions.

He said he knew he needed help. He went to his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, later discovering it was on the same day that Loukas emerged from his coma — a type of synchronicity that he now views as more than coincidence.

After two weeks without a drink, he read a newspaper article about the man he had hit, his suffering family and the rising medical costs, putting them at risk of losing their home and business.

Backman thought of calling the phone number for those who wanted to participate in a fundraiser. But he was too scared.

“Everyone was telling me to stay away, to let the courts take care of everything,” he said.

But a friend encouraged him to call. After much agonizing, he did.

A friend of the Loukas family answered.

“I said ‘Hello, this is Steve Backman.’ ”

“She said ‘Steve Backman, the drunk driver Steve Backman?’ ”

“I said ‘Yes.’ ”

Afraid of what he might hear next, he waited.

“She said ‘Yes. I’m glad you called. Would you like to see Chris?’ ”

“I suppose that would be a good idea,” he responded.

The woman agreed and said she would find out if the family approved.

The next day, he got a call back saying Loukas was willing to see him.

Backman didn’t know what to expect, and almost didn’t follow through. He knew that if he were in Loukas’ place, severely hurt by a drunken driver, “I would want that person to hang. I would want that person to be punished … a drunk driver multiple times, let’s get him off the road, behind bars where he belongs.”

He remembers a petrifying scene at the hospital with Loukas in a special bed, hooked up to machines and IV tubes, and in traction.

Backman said he stood near the bed, cowering, his head bowed, avoiding eye contact.

“I’m sorry for what I’ve done and if I could change places with you, I would,” he recalls saying.

Loukas replied in a soft voice, “Come closer.”

As he approached the bedside, Loukas reached out and touched him.

“Lean over and give me a hug,” Loukas said.

They embraced and cried, but Backman said the tears were no longer of fear and despair.

“My tears were now of joy and love. This was really amazing,” he said.

Backman instantly felt the weight of the world leave him, a lightness that seemed to lift him off the ground and make everything effortless for the next month.

Asked how he could so easily forgive, Loukas said he never held a grudge against Backman or blamed him.

“I knew that he didn’t intentionally turn that car, aim at me and plow into me on purpose,” he said.

But he knew the younger man “needed to hear the powerful words ‘I forgive you.’ ”

“It was easy just to embrace as if ‘Wow, I’ve got a new friend,’ and that’s how it was, for me,” Loukas said.

Joined lives

Loukas did ask one thing of the contrite man — that he never drink and drive again. And he would go on to ask a judge to spare Backman a three-year prison term.

As a result, the younger man was sentenced to one year in county jail, but was allowed to do his time in home confinement, which ended up being six months due to good behavior.

Backman said he was given a new life because of Loukas’ magnanimity.

“Why would this person have concern for my well-being when he’s been in the hospital for a month and a half and I devastated his family and devastated his life?” Backman said. “He put all of his energy towards me and it changed my life, that compassion from one being to another. That’s the gift. We all have that gift to give one another when we allow it to emerge from us.”

He used to think that “people like Chris were weird, free-loving hippie-type people. I’ve since learned, I was the weird one.”

Doctors would credit Loukas’ speedy recovery to good medical treatment, his positive attitude and spiritual beliefs.

“Sometimes you have to believe there’s some spirituality in medicine. I feel this is one case,” one of his doctors told The Press Democrat almost a year after the crash.

Within a short while of being discharged from the hospital, Loukas was recounting a classic near-death experience he had while in his coma, complete with a bright white light, and dead relatives who seemed to be guides in another dimension, before they turned him away with the words “It’s too soon, you must go back now.”

By Christmas in 1995, Loukas had recovered enough to clamber up and down a ladder putting up decorations at his shop, The Crystal People, an eclectic gathering place on Sebastopol’s Main Street replete with symbols of Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism.

The shop offered crystals for healing and “amplifying energy,” along with lectures on spiritual topics and meditation sessions. Loukas and his wife closed it three years ago after a 17-year run.

At one of the store’s meditation sessions, Backman met his wife-to-be, JoAnne. They were soon married in a small Sea Ranch chapel by Loukas and his wife, who also is ordained in the century-old Universal Church of the Master, based in San Jose.

The church’s mission is to foster service and people’s growth, according to its website, to help enhance a personal journey that “is alive to compassionate awareness, to the continuity of life and love, and the connection between the physical world and the world of the Spirit.”

Loukas said his medical bills — totaling more than $500,000 — ended up being covered by Medicare and Medi-Cal, but Backman helped raise money for some of the expenses and did maintenance work on his house and at The Crystal People.

The two men talk regularly on the phone and spent time together in Hawaii, where the Backmans lived for a while before moving back to Santa Rosa. They attended a Giants game together last year. And every year, around the anniversary of the crash, they reunite along with their wives for dinner, to “celebrate in the way we met.”

Love’s ripple effect

At the commemoration last weekend, friends and relatives on both sides took turns speaking about the significance of it all, including Backman’s mother and cousins, and Loukas’ two daughters, one of whom is pregnant with his fifth grandchild.

Some said they weren’t as quick to forgive Backman, but they eventually did.

Dian Loukas spoke of the pressure she had from prosecutors and the group Mothers Against Drunk Drivers to testify against Backman.

“I said, ‘No, I have to forgive him,’ ” she said. “If I carried all that hatred. I would probably end up sick and Chris wouldn’t get well.”

Backman read the “Prayer of St. Francis,” the one that asks to be made an instrument of peace, which he used to recite daily in his early recovery.

“It is in Giving that we Receive.

It is in Pardoning that we are Pardoned.”

Some at last week’s gathering spoke of how acts of compassion and love can ripple out to change people’s attitudes.

“If a certain percentage of us finally accept it, or receive it into our society, then all of a sudden it becomes acceptable,” said Mark Hill, who used to run a crystal shop in Bodega. “By working on ourselves, or changing ourselves, we affect everybody we come in contact with.”

Others spoke of how the litigious nature of U.S. society makes it harder for people to forgive.

“You have to hang on to your pain if you’re going to litigate,” said Eric Fransen, Backman’s cousin. “You have to live in that pain and that despair of whatever happened. You have to foster it, keep it and nurture it. And that’s a lot of energy.”

“In reality you’re hurting yourself, because you’re harboring that grudge forever,” he said.

Fransen said he had tried unsuccessfully more than two decades ago to halt his cousin’s seemingly unstoppable downward spiral of addiction.

Turning to Loukas at the head table, he expressed his gratitude. “By your grace, Chris, you gave my cousin back.” And looking at Backman, he added, “Glad to have you back.”

For his part, Backman said it’s important to forgive yourself, as well as others. But he also said that once he began “to take responsibility for everything in my life, everything became easier.”

Loukas noted that “the power of forgiveness is incredibly healing.”

“I can attest to that,” he said. “I’m still here on Mother Earth.”

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@clarkmas.

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