My older brother Chris taught me how to drive when I was fourteen years old. We were supposed to be at church, but instead I was grinding the gears of my mom’s little brown Honda station wagon on the winding back roads of Glastonbury, Connecticut, Chris riding shotgun beside me, a mostly distant but unflappable tutor.
After decades of driving, it’s hard for me to remember what those Sunday mornings felt like, first picking up the bulletin from the church vestibule to prove where we’d actually been, then getting right back in the car and riding past apple orchards and old shuttered Nike missile sites and strange subdivisions where we’d never been before and didn’t know a single soul because our bikes never took us that far. But I do remember thinking that my learning how to drive was a sin. Literally. We were supposed to be at church, supposed to be keeping the Sabbath holy, but instead I was out breaking the laws of both God and man, driving without a license in places that were close to home but new and strange. And, being raised Catholic, I thought that one day I would almost surely be punished by dying in a horrible car accident. As a kid, it didn’t just seem likely — it seemed inevitable.
Here’s a memory that’s been haunting me lately.
It was between 10 and 11 o’clock at night and I was getting ready to pull the semi off the highway and get some sleep. I was on I-76, a desolate stretch of highway that runs between Big Springs, Nebraska and Denver. The traffic was light and I was pretty much alone, no headlights in my mirrors, no taillights ahead. It was dark, the kind of dark it gets when there are clouds blotting out the moon and you’re in the middle of somewhere big and open and unimproved. No sodium lights above the highway, no haze from city lights in the distance. Just dark.
The radio was off. I listen to the radio a lot, but then at some point I can’t listen anymore. I listen to famous shows like This American Life and Radiolab, but I also listen to lesser known shows about philosophy and health and money. I drive and listen for hours and hours, about what happens to the babies of women who give birth while in prison, about the 60 word sentence that’s been the legal basis for U.S. strikes in places like Yemen and Somalia, about utilitarianism and the rights of animals. I listen and then, at some point, I get full of listening and I turn the radio off and the silence feels good. I just listen to the sound of the tires against the pavement and the steady thrumming of the engine and the gentle rocking of the tractor on its chassis and that’s plenty.
I was climbing a very gentle grade when up ahead in the darkness I saw red hazard lights flashing. I couldn’t tell for sure, but it looked as though the car was pulled over in the breakdown lane. I was in the right hand lane so I decided to get over to the left to give the car some room when I passed by. Sometimes people who are stopped aren’t pulled all the way over; sometimes they’re squatting beside the car right on or even just over the white line, trying to change a tire. You never know what kind of carelessness you’ll be witness to on the side of the highway. It’s best to just get over.
I put on my blinker, looked again in my mirrors, and then started to bring the truck slowly into the left lane. I try to make no sudden movements when I’m driving the tractor-trailer. Everything I do is slow, deliberate, so that everyone can see what I’m doing very clearly before I do it. As I approached the vehicle with its hazards on, though, something began to bother me. I was still slowly making my way into the left hand lane, but now I sensed danger, but I couldn’t really say why. It was just a feeling of something not being right, a dawning awareness at the back of my brain that I needed to figure something out and do it quickly.
I started to look more closely at the stranded vehicle with its blinkers, but it appeared to be well to the shoulder. That’s when I thought I noticed something in the middle of the highway, not far from the car. Was it some kind of debris? Did the car blow a tire? Had it gotten into an accident?
I must have slowed down some, but not enough, not nearly enough. Suddenly, just forty yards ahead of me, there was a black SUV sitting perpendicular to the highway entirely blocking the left hand lane. I caught just a quick flashing glimpse: no lights on at all, the driver’s side smashed from front to back as if it had rolled over and come to rest back on its wheels. I was halfway in the left lane and had no time, or just a fraction of a second, to avoid running into it, over it, and killing whoever was inside. I pulled the wheel to the right and the truck and trailer lurched and I braced myself for the impact, the sickening and unimaginable feeling of all 70,000 pounds or so of my truck hitting a vehicle at dead stop.
But somehow, by the simplest and purest luck I’ve ever been fortunate enough to experience, I didn’t hit the SUV. I must have passed within an inch or two of its rear bumper. The trailer did a sickening kind of shimmy that made me feel like the head of a dog being wagged violently by its tail. And then I was driving straight in the right hand lane again, untouched. Nothing had happened, not even a scratch.
I pulled to the shoulder. Only a few seconds had passed, but when I looked in my rear view mirrors I saw that 2 squad cars were already on the scene, blue and red lights flashing. I waited a few moments, not sure what to do. I remembered to breathe normally, to breathe.
And then I pulled away, completely shaken by what had happened, or what hadn’t happened. It wasn’t that I had almost died that bothered me. It was that I had come a hair’s breadth away from killing someone, or killing however many people were sitting there stranded in the SUV.
That night I couldn’t really sleep, not because I couldn’t stop thinking about it, but because I couldn’t stop feeling that sickening full body feeling that something horrible and life altering is really and truly about to happen. When you come that close to tragedy, your mind knows the tragedy didn’t happen, but your body takes a lot more time and convincing. The next night I parked the truck and went to bed and dreamt that armed men were at the doors, trying to break in. They were searching for money, and they were angry, and they were surely going to shoot me as I lay in my little truck bed in my boxer shorts. I woke up exhausted and depressed and glad that I was safe.
But it didn’t happen, you say. But I say to you, the only reason it didn’t happen was pure chance. The fact that I was getting over into the left hand lane slowly; that the black SUV was in the left-hand lane and not in the middle of the highway where I almost surely would have struck it; that some small pieces of debris in the highway glinted in my headlights and caught my eye at just the right moment. The world seemed to conspire against me that night; that black SUV lay in wait for me in the dark an almost inescapable trap.
Pure chance. Dumb luck. That seemed to me the only thing standing between me and killing someone that night on the high plains of Colorado. I could be as careful as I wanted to be, but if the trap was set just right I’d be a killer, or dead. Or both.
I once heard a story on the radio about people who have survived fatal auto accidents. Psychologists say that people who kill someone when they’re drunk or speeding or texting, find it easier to move on from their accidents than people involved in fatal accidents but who aren’t at fault. The reason? The people driving badly know there’s something they can do to avoid an accident in the future. They are still in control.
But the people driving well, being vigilant, careful, cautious? They have a much harder time moving on. They know that the world can lie in wait for you. And when the trap is set just right, there’s nothing they can do but smash right into it. And watch the old familiar world go up in smoke.