Monday, January 11, 2010

Dumb Luck on a Country Road

I stoked the wood-burning stove. I fed the mouse-catcher (who has been eating a ton of food). I did yoga after a trying exchange of text messages with a friend. I started the car so that it could warm up. I considered putting more air in the tires; the winter chill reduces the air pressure, but then convinced myself to do it when I came home. Though I knew the main highway was clear, I wanted to have a slow drive through the country to see how beautiful the winter white had left things. By turning right instead of left, my entire day changed.

There are two hills and two blind corners to negotiate on the road that runs west. I eased out of the drive (since I'd shoveled it primarily for left-hand turns), and let the front wheel drive do the work on the slight incline. My car made it up and down the first hill without problem, and I noticed that the road grader had bladed half of the road, which had turned up some gravel (traction) in the lane going the opposite direction, but not in mine. The approach to the first ninety-degree turn is a slight downhill run, and I immediately started to pump the brakes and slow down; the western setting sun had done its work here, turning the road into an unblemished glaze of ice all the way into the turn. I'd gotten the car down to a manageable fifteen miles per hour when I began to turn the wheel... and got no resistance from the road; the car continued straight.

At my speed, and given that the outside lane had been plowed, in the worst-case scenario, I would have slid to a stop well before the bank on the other side. I never touched the brakes, for I knew that doing so would only prolong the slide. In most cases, probably ninety-nine times out of one hundred, there would have been no oncoming traffic. However, on this day, I slid into to the other lane, and right into the path of an approaching SUV.

I saw the surprise on the face of the female driver as she suddenly found a small black Honda in her path. My front wheels caught the plowed lane and I jerked the wheel to the right, missing her front bumper by inches, eyes diverted quickly to the side view mirror as I expected a tap on the hind quarter panel, which might have transferred enough of her momentum to cause an uncontrolled spin, but with no spin, I recognized that I was heading for the creek on my side of the road, and turned the wheel back to the left to stay out of the snow bank. My slowed pace made the vehicle easy to control, so I edged over the bridge and pulled to a stop in order to catch my breath. Two hands on the wheel, averted disaster, and a deep breath, until I looked in the side view mirror again.

The SUV had slid sideways into the ditch, which also happened to be the creek bank on the west side of the road. An image of kids in the truck flashed into my memory, so I opened my door and ran to the vehicle. The driver had rolled down her window enough to hear me coming, and when I approached, I recognized the look on her face as one I knew well, a strange balance of soma and adrenalin that paralyzed for a moment before instinct pushed a plan of rescue into action.

Many years ago, I was driving home on Christmas morning after a night of partying with friends. Because I was going to college in California, my best buds and I had started having an annual get together on Christmas eve where we'd put back a few beers (or shots of tequila) and get caught up on life. While driving home the next morning (not too far from where the incident I'm describing above takes place), I emerged over the top of a hill, at a speed only a few miles an hour over the fifty-five mile per hour limit, and found a small truck and trailer stopped in the middle of the road. Christmas morning. CHRISTMAS MORNING! Who is out on the roads--pulling a trailer, no less--on CHRISTMAS MORNING? "OH SHIT!" burst from my lips as I instantly recognized that there was no choice, because the choice between passing on the left into the oncoming lane was better than the culvert on the right. So, I squeezed into the left lane, and just as I did so, the truck and trailer began to execute a left turn, without signaling, I might add. The space between the edge of the road and the edge of the truck tightened, too tight, in fact, and my left front tire slipped off the asphalt and into the dirt, which jerked the car sideways. In the next three seconds, I'd crossed the highway out of control, into the ditch hood-first, sheered the axles, and packed a ton of Missouri mud into the exhaust system. Two hands remained on the wheel and I gasped for air when the car came to a stop (this was the exact look that I saw on the female driver of the SUV), and I thought, "Turn down the radio," and then sat there wondering what to do next. As it turns out, I was fine, despite a ruined Christmas. The driver of the truck with the trailer never stopped, it executed the left turn and kept moving right on down the road. F*&ker. Coincidence is a strange beast, even on a country road on Christmas morning, you might run into someone that you know. The very first car that passed was a gentleman that I'd graduated from high school with, and we were far from our school district. The one quote I remember best was from the officer that stopped to record the incident, who said, "Lucky you never hit the brakes, 'cause you woulda rolled it, son."

The woman in the white SUV said, "I have three kids in here," and we both knew that the forty-five degree angle of the truck might become a greater degree at any second. As I carefully pulled open the back door, a young boy of about four years old had a shocked look on his face, but he was listening to orders being handed out by both me and his mother. He unbuckled his seat belt so I wouldn't have to add weight to the precarious situation, and I grabbed him under the arms and lifted him onto the road. "Don't go too far," I said, "Stay right here." The daughter was next, slightly older and more nimble, she crawled from the far seat and I hoisted her to safety, as well. The eldest, a boy of twelve-ish, hopped out, not needing much assistance. Finally, we extracted the mom from the front seat, counted fingers and toes, then all took a deep breath.

The rest of the story is quite ordinary: the truck never continued its slide, the tow was uneventful, we shook hands, since we were neighbors that had never met, and everyone retired to the warmth of their homes; a story filed away to be told for the rest of our lives.

Like I said, coincidence, or just plain ole bad luck, can really shape a day. Here's to life, and health!