It’s 8:00PM on Christmas night and it feels like midnight. Which is not to say that I had a bad day overall. Quite the contrary, actually. But a few important seconds of it really sucked.
Driving home from my uncle and aunt’s house in the country near Forest Grove, Oregon, about an hour away from Portland my car suddenly slid on a patch of black ice. It had snowed at their house for several hours, but the main roads seemed to be relatively snow and ice-free (although it was accumulating in the shoulder) as I began the drive home. But as I was driving about 45 miles per hour down a straightaway (about five or ten miles under the limit due to the conditions), out of nowhere I came across the icy portion.
First I began sliding one direction, turned the wheel, and began sliding in the other direction. Ultimately I did a 360-degree turn and slid into a ditch. I wasn’t hurt, thankfully, and I was in cell phone range, and was able to call for a tow-truck. My sneakers submerged with icy water as I stepped out of the car, which was slanted with the driver’s side in a ditch. I also have retained this tactile sense in my mind of the feeling of coarse but icy, snow-covered tall grass on my hands, which I at one point was pulling out out by handfuls in hopes of wedging under the left back car wheel, the one stuck in a half foot of ditch water. But icy appendages were clearly the least of it compared to the accident I watched happen a few seconds later as I was on phone for the tow.
What really pains me is that it probably started because someone had slowed down to see if I was alright. I had the hazard lights flashing and was standing next to the car on the side of the road. A second car slowed behind the first car, and then I saw approaching a car that was, despite the snowy conditions, seemingly going at close to full speed. (But then again, so was I.) We often think we see accidents about to happen, or at least I do. There is that surreal moment when you believe you in a millisecond that inevitability of a crash, but there’s no time to do anything to stop it. And thankfully 999 times out of 1,000 they don’t happen. This one happened, in that same mind‘s eye slow motion, at least until you see and hear the crash.
The next thankful thing is that no one seemed to be too seriously injured. According to one of the firemen I talked to on the scene later, one person had chest pains and another had some lower back pain. But having been in a collision fifteen years ago that I walked away from relatively pain free, I know that down the road pain can suddenly arise. In my case, it’s stuck with me for much of those ensuing years in the form of recurrent head and neck pain. Certainly it wasn’t my fault if those people have any kind of mental or physical pain. But it’s still bothersome being even tangentially connected to it.
When the two fire trucks and an ambulance arrived on each side of me as I stood beside my ditched BMW, I was reminded of that familiar, maybe even cliché description of it being like a movie. The lights flashing on either side, the crunched metal, the freezing rain coming down amidst a handful of firemen who looked to be in their twenties. I thought of the slow-motion shot of flashing police-car lights at the end of Taxi Driver when Travis Bickel goes on his shooting spree. And since I’ve been at home, I comforted myself with a glass of wine and a high-volume listening of my favorite album of the moment, “Friend and Foe” by Menomena, which in many of the songs has this baritone saxophone in the background that I totally love, but also hearkens back to Bernard Herman’s heavily brass and horn-infused score for Taxi Driver. Thankfully the accidents tonight weren’t that violent. Worst-case scenario, somebody might eventually need a few chiropractor visits.
Incidentally, the lyrics from one of those Menomena songs seem fitting:
Should my soul should survive this fall,
Then I pray if I pray at all,
That I can catch my breath and,
Come away unscathed,
To have been in an accident on Christmas night in the snow and ice, and then witness cars crashing into each other as they slowed to survey my scene, and still wind up at home in my sweat pants and slippers, with my beloved fat cat Ruthie now plopped on the top of the easy chair I’m writing this from, not to mention a more or less completely intact car, is in my mind extraordinarily luckily. I even had another uncle and aunt from the Christmas gathering in a car lined up behind the accident scene, ready to give me a lift home had my car not been drivable. Still, when I close my eyes, as I did sprawled out on the sofa just now with the hideous tattered leopard-skin blanket I’ve had since early childhood, I feel dizzy as if I’m still spinning. I still feel the car doing its 360 into the embankment.
But maybe there could be some good to come out of it. As anyone who rides with me knows, I tend to drive way too fast. Although I try hard not to cut off or otherwise annoy other drivers, on any multi-lane freeway or other road where you can go 55-plus, I feel alive weaving in and out of traffic and getting past the car in front of me. Tonight I wasn’t driving like that. I was driving slow and through no fault of my own I hit some ice, did a whirling-dervish routine and slid off the road. But whenever I’ve had a driving trauma like this, however unharmed physically I may have been afterward, it’s always been a bit like reset button that, even if temporarily, shocks me back into more prudence behind the wheel.
Naturally it’s way too early to tell, but I also can’t help but wonder if this could be the marking point I need to sort of turn the page on this period of the past few weeks. As I described in my previous “Steve and Dennis” post, it’s taken a long time to come out of the psychological, emotional mire after first losing a loved one to cancer (the first of my generation from the family), and then having the Ducks football team whose fortunes my emotions (including many non-sports-related ones) are so intricately bound to suffer its most tragic season in 113 years of play...Well, frankly it’s really sucked.
Believe me, I’m not saying this accident was anything pleasant. But such a jar to the system, even one ultimately so benign, is cause to reboot my system of tendencies, assumptions, and ways of seeing my little world. I think of the petty hostility I felt toward a Beaver fan who told my sister she was going to laugh in my dad’s face. Wasn’t that the same thing I’ve been doing to Michigan fans for the past few months when I see them? Who the hell was I to get righteous?
With the reset button deployed, though, I feel shaken up, which overall is not good, of course, but it reminds me not to worry about what Beaver fans or other people think. Things may feel fragile right now, but still something to cherish. In fact, all the more for having been through this wintry spin cycle on Highway 47.
I've already started to feel better, though, here at home again. I was comforted by some of my Christmas gifts, not because they were material objects but in spite of it. Two favorites had personal meaning, too. One gift, from my 90-something grandma whom we visited in Eugene on Sunday, was a 70-year-old certificate commemorating my grandfather's crossing of the Equator for the first time while in the Navy. Apparently it's a rite of passage. It was a kitschy certificate, signed by Neptune and with lots of faux-Ye olde type of writing in calligraphy. But it commemorated a moment that's quietly breathtaking to imagine, of my grandpa on July 14, 1937 at not only the Equator, but also at its precise intersection with the International Date Line at 180 degrees longitude in the Pacific.
And as if all that weren't enough, the whole thing happened while his ship was at sea as part of the search party for Amelia Earhart.
My other gift is slightly self-centered, but authentically meaningful. On Shutterfly.com you can upload your own digital photos and collect them into a bound book. I did so with just over 75 photos from my recent trip to Beijing. Getting me the book stressed out my poor mom because I deliberately chose a blurry photo for the cover (of a Mao Tse Tung portrait in Tiananmen Square), but she thought it was a mistake, and thus spent hours on the phone to Shutterfly in addition to printing out a bunch of 800 numbers I could call to fix it. After the accident tonight, I felt myself flipping through the photo book over and over again, as if to remind myself that if I hadn't been so lucky as I was tonight with my car losing control, at least I'd been able to put a few very memorable pins on the proverbial map.
And tonight's being Christmas is not insignificant. I like to think of the hopefulness that a birth represents. Certainly given how I came through the off road adventure with scacely a scratch, I didn't undergo anything resembling real suffering. I think it was more like our cat Ruthie when she gets startled (which happens about every three or four minutes) and, as Valarie and I call it, fluffy: her hair standing up so she looks inflated, electrocuted or just in from a hurricane. (Actually, she always looks inflated now that I think about it.) I guess I got fluffy tonight, and the fluffiness takes longer to work itself out of my mind than the actual experience was.
Really I just need to be more like my friend Paul, who in high school during snowstorms would happily drive us all over in his beige Volkswagon bus, even deliberately spinning us wildly back and forth diagonally across the road, howling with laughter as the rest of us saw our lives flash before our eyes to the tune of Van Halen songs booming out of Paul's prized Kicker brand speakers.
Oh, and here's one other cool part. It turns out my car had a tool kit for just such a roadside emergency, as if Batman is designing cars out in Bavaria. The tow-truck guy just unscrewed the little toolkit from the inside of the trunk lid, took out a big screw with a circular ring on the end, screwed it into a little port on my car's back bumper that had been hidden by a little plastic flap, and hooked it to his truck. The work-order description on my pink customer-copy receipt says it all: "Winch out of ditch." And there aren't too many ways in which I've been more enthusiastically willing to fork over $73.
This is the part where I think of a clever way to wrap this all up, but I'm afraid I don't feel like it this time. I'm sleepy, but my feet are now dry and there is a Looney Tunes DVD awaiting liberation from its shrink wrap.