NARROW ESCAPES - Wherever there is danger, there lurks opportunity; whenever there is opportunity, there lurks danger. The two are inseparable. They go together. ~ Earl Nightingale
After the UU conference in Nashville, we stopped in Carthage, Al Gore’s hometown. Shop windows and sides of buildings with donkeys and "Vote for Al Gore" and "Prosperity for American Families" announced pride in Gore's race for US president. Outside the village, we drove past the entrance to the Gore homestead and waved at the policeman sitting guard at the end of the white-fenced drive that led to the gracious stone house perched on the hill. We continued through the countryside, visiting out-of-the-way places, enjoying rich southern cooking: homemade biscuits, grits, bean soup, and cornbread - then headed to Columbia, the Mule Capital of the World, to see what all the mule fuss was about.
Farm and horse fields opened out on either side of us. A sense of relaxation pervaded the car. No responsibilities. Nowhere to go or to be. The radio set to country music – hard to avoid in the South. We sang along with Shania Twain - "From This Moment On." The expanse of rolling hills merged with the sky at a horizon of purple haze. A misty sun filtered into the trees and built halos around the branches. The wind danced with the leaves, turning up their white undersides. That meant rain.
We traveled beside the property contours of meadows and farmland. Deep trenches lined the two-lane road, the wide gullies dropping several feet directly off the shoulders. "Must be for irrigation or drainage," Ed said. "Wouldn't want to land in one of those," he chuckled.
Laziness made me sleepy. A corroded water truck traveled ahead of us at a steady speed, its red bulk obscuring a view of the highway. I studied the back of the truck. Trouble? Call 911 painted across the rust. I thought about that and wondered who'd call 911 from a car. Girl with a flat tire? People who land in the ditch?
Ed switched the radio to a religious station. He liked to keep up with the competition. I laid my head on the backrest and looked him. He smiled when the preacher shouted, "I yam Dock-ter Fixit. Lemme fix yeur pa-in." Ed mimicked the preacher's twang. "Y'awl, pay 'tenshun now!" I laughed and thwacked his shoulder in good fun.
I saw it coming at us through the front corner of Ed's window. Rolling - at breakneck speed - at us. A white Ford Explorer. Twirling and bouncing. Rolling. Toward Ed. Toward us. I sat up and gripped the handle.
It's true that events and thoughts happen in slow motion when peril invades the brain. I flashed the hazards of Ford SUVs - that if you jerk the steering wheel you lose control, that people get killed when creamed by one of these.
Slow motion turned into single frames. Pictures flashed in clicks. Explorer. Looming. Suspended. About to strike. Water truck. Ditch. Hands on door handle. Clear-headed, yet terror-struck, I knew what would happen. We'd die. In that ditch. After a head-on collision.
Neither of us spoke.
Then, from nowhere, a road appeared - to our right - where the ditch had been - a skinny dirt road on a hill. Ed cruised up and out of the way. He turned around in a driveway and stopped the car on the shoulder facing the intersection. We sat there, horrified and silent, looking at the gruesome scene of crumpled mass sprawled on the road where our car had been seconds before.
I started to shake. Ed turned off the car. My trembling increased. "We almost died there," I whispered.
The SUV sat upright in the intersection, smashed beyond repair. The once smooth, white metal now a crinkled lump, streaked with road scrapes. Front doors scattered across the road, back doors thrown open. Roof caved in, stripped away from the broken front window. Rear view mirror gone. Smoke rose from the exposed engine and drifted into the weeds.
A young man, tossed like a rag doll, lay stretched across the flattened passenger seat, his bloody feet and right arm hanging over the car runner. His shoes thrown on the highway as though someone had flung them into the air to see where they'd land. He looked dead. Several feet away, a middle-aged woman sat on the pavement. She tried to move but seemed injured. Her shoes gone, her clothes and skin bloody. The driver of the water truck walked toward them.
I called 911.
"Let's go down there," Ed said.
We approached the woman. Ed bent to her and placed a hand on her shoulder. "Help is coming," he said.
She didn't respond. I wondered if this is what shock looked like. Clammy and pale, blank expression, slight shudder. I thought we should find a blanket. I didn't want to touch her because we could compound her injuries, but mostly because of the blood.
My cell phone was still in my hand. "Would you like to phone someone? Do you have a family member or friend you'd like to call?" She nodded. The man in the SUV remained lifeless. Blood had seeped through his pants and shirt. The woman didn't ask about him. She spoke to someone on my phone and handed it back to me. She stared at her knees and moaned, picking dirt out of an open wound. I grabbed a handful of gravel and wiped off the blood.
When the police and ambulance arrived, the EMTs went right into rescue mode, and the police officer asked for information. The truck driver pointed into the highway. "They were coming down the road awful damn fast. I think they caught the lip of the shoulder and skidded in the gravel. That's when they lost control 'cause all of a sudden it started wobbling. I saw it roll over through the mirror," he explained. "Could've killed those people behind me! They're damn lucky."
We told the officer what little we could - that a Ford Explorer rolled at us and we drove up a hill. It didn't sound like much when we explained it. So matter of fact and ordinary - not a horrific close call - not a brush with death. No mention of lingering fright or that I still had the tremors. We went back to our car and sank into our seats.
Being so close to horror knocked common words out of my head. Unsettled and nervous, physical sensations were hard to control. My stomach muscles constricted, making me nauseous. Blood throbbed through my eyebrows. My whole body quivered, as though my bones had palsy. As we watched the accident commotion unfold, we repeated the almosts: Almost had a head-on collision. Almost drove into a ditch. Almost stopped being people on earth.
I looked at the barn and farmhouse and wondered who lived there and who planted those zinnias and who played on that tire swing. Maybe the farmer was milking the cows. Maybe the mother was watching TV while she waited for the laundry to finish. Or maybe she was at Walmart buying placemats and coffee filters. Were their kids still in school this late in June? I hadn't seen a school bus all day. "We almost died," I said again.
The scene looped in my head - a slide show with one slide - a white Ford Explorer rolling at our car. Ed drove into the village, but I didn't notice the scenery. Instead, I saw a white Ford Explorer ready to hit. We bought Chinese food and ate it in our motel room, and the SUV appeared - ominous and clear. The what-ifs and the almosts disrupted my sleep.
"I don't want to drive for a while," Ed said the next morning. We walked through the village and looked in store windows. We held hands and sat in the park. We stopped at a pharmacy where I disinfected my phone.
After a few hours, our rational selves began to repair the pervasive anxiety that tried to build nests in our brains. Little by little, the awe and marvel of good fortune overruled the residual fear of imminent death.
"Where did that road come from?" Ed asked after we drove out of town. "It just appeared. From nowhere. Like a miracle." He rubbed my hair. "We're ok," he said. "We're ok."
"We're damn lucky," I answered and smiled. "Thank god - or somebody."
Ed turned on the radio and I checked the map.
Although the vision of our near miss remains clear and palpable, the dread of impending danger dissolved - and in its place grew euphoria and appreciation of the ordinary. We almost lost control. We almost lost the awareness to pinch ourselves - to experience the exquisiteness of dull and dreary - to taste the sweetness of banality and boredom - to welcome the comfort of headaches, the splendor of weeds, and the melody of crying babies.
We almost lost all that. But we didn't. We kept all that.