by julie swanson
Yesterday while giving our almost 16-year-old son some extended driving experience on the highway while traveling to his soccer game, we had a terrifying incident. My life flashed before my eyes. I’m not sure how we came away from it without a scratch, much less alive. I don’t understand how it was that none of the other cars or trucks on the highway behind us crashed. Our car is filthy and covered in mud and grass and has clods of dirt stuck in the wheels and every crevice–I don’t think there’s a square inch on it that isn’t get splattered–and yet nothing happened to it (that I’m aware of yet).
I’ve never felt so lucky to be alive.
We’d been on the highway about 45 minutes and were going about 70 (in a 70 mph zone) and S was trying to switch lanes when he noticed a car in his blindspot, or that he hadn’t checked both mirrors well enough, so he tried to quickly correct (and over-compensated; we were really in no danger of hitting that car–I think he just got kind of scared, was surprised by it). Which sent us into a series of swerving fishtails, four by my count. I just kept quiet in that awful in-gasping and then holding your breath way, tried not to panic him further by saying– What? what would I have said? Goodbye. I love you. Don’t look, we’re going to die…? We were going 70 and severely out of control in fairly heavy traffic all going the same speed. It felt like we were going to flip. Or cause a multi-car pile up. We went back and forth and back and forth between lanes, and then just when I thought he might pull it together and straighten things out, we shot off the highway, toward the grass and gully and the woods on our right. The trees in the woods were big and mature, tall and straight with thick trunks, oaks, tulip poplars, loblolly pine…
I saw the woods fast-approaching and focused on a particularly big tree trunk that I seemed to be in line for. Well, this is it, I thought, I’m about to die. This seat belt isn’t going to help. In those seconds, I imagined my head bashing into the window, and I worried for my son, without me to help him–I thought he might make it, but that I certainly wouldn’t.
And then S turned the wheel and we were sliding in the grass and muddy soil (we’ve just had a week of heavy snow, no power, no school, so the ground is sodden), and we were headed for one of the green highway signs along the road. OK, I thought, a sign is much better than a huge tree. The two metal posts holding up the sign looked to be those skinny ones like the road reflectors are on–good, I thought, we’ll hit the sign, flatten it, and in the process be slowed down some by the contact, but not severely hurt. The car will be damaged but maybe not totalled.
And then S turned sharply again and we slid in the mud and began shooting back up out of the gully and toward the highway! Oh, no, I thought, not back into the traffic where we’ll hurt even more people than we might’ve already left behind us… We were going slower but my son seemed to have forgotten he had a brake pedal he could push (I’m glad he didn’t slam on the brakes on the highway), so I said something to him, something simple like, “Stop. Stop now.” And he did. With the nose of our car over the white line on the side of the road.
A dangerous position, but we were both shaken and glad to be still. I patted S’s back and told him it was OK, he was OK, we were OK, thank God we were alive. Then I told him to get out and let me scoot over and deal with repositioning the car, which he was glad to do–he said he was done driving. As we were making the switch a Prius pulled up behind us and put its hazards on, and an older man got out and walked toward us. His reaction was so cute, so comforting. I don’t even recall what he said, but he shook both our hands, grabbing them with both of his and squeezing warmly. It was like he just knew we both needed comforting, human touch. He told me to get out of the car and he would reposition it, asked if we had four wheel drive. He asked us to wipe his window off so he could see when there was a break in traffic and he could pull out on the highway–the entire car was covered in a splattering of mud and grass, clods of dirt. We wiped the windows and windshield. I pulled some sticks out of the rear wheels and from the clods of dirt stuck between the wheels and the mud-flaps and fenders. About this time it was just registering with me that the sign we’d narrowly missed hitting was not the type of sign with skinny metal posts–it was a big huge major highway sign with virtual steel I-beams holding it up. We would not have flattened it; it would’ve flattened me, my side of the car. I asked the man if he’d seen how close we came to hitting it and he held his thumb and forefinger about half an inch apart. I went down and looked at the deep tire tracks in the mud: sure enough, the tire track was about a foot from the post. I thought maybe the rear end did hit the post–how could it not if the tire came that close?–but I went and checked and there was no damage. So lucky!
I’ve been in accidents before, but never one going that fast, never one with so many twists and turns, where you could see the awful possibilities so far in advance. Never one that came up so suddenly from out of nowhere, with seemingly no reason for it: no rain, snow, mechanical failure, etc. Just one second you’re fine and the next, Whoa! And then to come out of all that without a scratch? We were stunned. The long deep gouges of our tracks through the grass and dirt looked terrible. The whole sign got splattered brown with mud.
The man easily pulled the car out onto the highway without needing 4WD–the rear wheels were in soft ground but not the front–and drove our car to a safer spot along the shoulder and got out and told us he lived about a mile off the next exit and we should follow him to his house and he’d spray our car off with a hose. I said I thought we should just go to a service station at the next exit and take a look at the car to be sure it was ok (I was worried about the large sticks I’d pulled out from around the wheels, what kind of damage they might’ve done). He said, OK, follow me, I’ll take you to it. Our car drove fine, seemed to have no damage, and I thought we were OK to just continue on, muddy or not. But when we got off and were about to turn off the ramp, he stopped his car right there in the middle of the road before the stop sighn and got out and came to my window saying he really thought we should just come to his house, that the service station really didn’t do much other than gas and he would hose us off. But I didn’t want to be any later than we were going to be for my son’s game, and my son was shaking his head slightly as if we-don’t-even-know-this-guy-and-we’re-going-to-his-house?
How do you tell an older man who seems to be incredibly nice, who has a hearing aid and drives a Prius and has just put himself in harm’s way to help you because he knows you are shaken, No? You just really helped us and went out of your way and I know you want to help us even more, but NO. I reached out of the window and grabbed his hand in both of mine like he’d done to us, and I told him, thanks, I really appreciate what you’ve done, and your offer, but, no, we’re going to go on–we’re alright. All I could do was shake his hand and smile and hope he understood.
Thank you, God, and thank you kindly gentleman.