PlazaJen: Passion Knit

Sunday, January 30, 2005

8 Track Flashback: Upside Down

OK, this is kind of a scary flashback. But it had a pivotal effect on me, and so I'm going to share it.
It's 1985, and we're driving back from Fall Break on I-80, heading back to Grinnell and my roommate, Elizabeth, and I were riding with a fellow schoolmate Amy, a girl from a nearby town. She had a behemoth tank of a car, one of those two-door Buick boats or something, made of steel and sweat and probably iron. We were listening to Sting's big album, "Dream of the Blue Turtles". My roommate was asleep in the back seat, and none of us were wearing seatbelts because, well, it wasn't a law, we hadn't grown up wearing them, and we were 17-18 years old, which meant we were immortal.

I noticed, as we drove along in the right-hand lane, a large semi that kept "hanging out" in the left-hand lane - almost enough to pass, then falling back as we climbed the rolling, sloping inclines. I noticed someone had scrawled "Wash Me" in the dirt on the back panel.

It was when we were neck-and-neck with the semi that the crash started. The semi driver decided to change lanes. And there we were! Right there next to him. The impact of his tire hitting the driver's side actually left one of the lug nuts embedded in her door. Every time I start to tell this story, I think about how unbelievable this must have been to see from the other side of the highway. The physics involved were pretty amazing. The force in hitting us spun us around the highway, and I think the semi started hitting his brakes. What that resulted in was our vehicle, facing the wrong way down I-80, headed straight AT the Mack Truck. How did I know what brand the truck was? As I was flung across onto Amy in the front seat, I looked up through the still-intact windshield, saw the letters "M A C K" and the only thought I had was "I'm falling in front of her! She can't see to drive!" it was all very slow-motion, and then I don't remember any of what happened next. The Mack Truck rammed us head-on, as he was braking and moving still, into the right-hand lane. We were still doing this waltzing-spinning thing, though, so that impact spun us further, and now we were (according to witnesses) once again heading in the correct direction (West), but now on the OTHER side of the Mack Truck. Where we were hit, again. And that is when we flipped into the median. A soft, grassy median, slightly depressed, between the two ribbons of highway. And that is where my consciousness clicked back in. I had traded places with Amy, and was on my hands and knees in glass. My nose was bleeding. Amy was saying, "Are you all right?" over and over. I said, "My nose is bleeding." So, as any good driver/hostess would do, and after all, she was right by the glove compartment now, she opened it, causing all of the contents to fall onto the ground. She extracted a tissue and handed it to me. I said, "Thank you." I had never been in shock, and I guess you're not really supposed to know you're in it, that's all part of the body's scientifically awesome way of shielding you and preserving you. But at that moment, I could have spent the next half hour contentedly daubing my bleeding nose and exchanging niceties with my schoolmate. Then I finally heard Elizabeth. Hell of a way to wake up from your nap, and she had all her faculties in order, and had seen enough movies in her day to be completely convinced the car was going to explode. She was frantically trying to open the passenger-side door. She was screaming at me, "JENNIFER! Try your door! The car is going to blow! TRY YOUR DOOR!" In my fog, I thought,"Hm, yes, getting out of the car, good idea, hm, ok, I'll turn around and find the door."

I could not open the door. I had one second of consternation. And then I looked up, because it was starting to open. I will never, ever, ever, until I die, ever forget their faces. A husband and wife. I remember her face more, it was the first one I saw. Brownish-blond curly hair. But what I remember most was the hard firm line her mouth made. Her lips were pressed so hard together, with the determination and force of what they were doing, which was dragging open a steel car door, through earth and grass and dirt and rocks. Their fingers curled around the bottom of the door and I heard other people shouting, but they didn't spare an ounce of strength on words. They were the Human Jaws of Life. And all I could think in that moment was, "They don't know me and they're trying to save me." They didn't know me. But they were doing this miraculous feat of human strength for me, for us. They were going to save us. And it still makes me cry, because it was that moment when I felt that people, human beings, 99% of them, are born good people. They know in their minds, hearts and guts what is the right thing to do, what is necessary, and unthinking, they do it. Oddly enough, the only thing that really made me angry that afternoon was that the truck driver didn't say he was sorry. I realize now, being older, having had a fender-bender and consulting my insurance card, you're not supposed to talk to the other people except to ask if they're all right. I am sure, if he's still alive, he has never forgotten that day, either. I'm sure a lot of people still remember it. I remember being approached by at least two people trying to give me a pillow or a blanket. ("By god, Ethel, that emergency kit we've had in the trunk, THIS IS WHAT IT'S FOR!") I recall being a little stymied by the pillow offer: was I supposed to lie down and take a nap? I just wanted to stand on my own two feet. I wanted that man to say he was sorry. I wanted my nose to stop bleeding. Cars were stopped up and down on both sides. It was like a movie, and as I try to remember it all again, only flashes and pictures come back.

The ambulance workers were stunned we weren't wearing seat belts. I had the most injuries, with a scraped knee, and bloody nose. We waited for a ride in a fire station in a tiny town off of the highway. Amy's roommate rode along with Amy's boyfriend to retrieve us, and her first question was, "Were you listening to Sting?" When Amy said yes, she dramatically replied, "OH NO." Like the album would be forever ruined, and that was the most important thing to focus on. Her boyfriend thought he would lighten the mood & drive with his knees and try to joke about what had happened every time we passed a semi, and seemed impervious to Amy's scathing reaction. I realize now they were young, just like us, and coping in their own way with what had happened. I mostly sat in stunned silence. All the tears came later, when I heard my parents' voices on the phone, as they realized, and subsequently, I realized, how lucky we were, and how closely we brushed by death that day.

If I could do one thing in the years I have left, it would be to thank that man and woman who wrenched open our car door. I would thank them from the bottom of my heart. For giving me perspective and teaching me, in just a few seconds, that we are all here to take care of each other, to love each other, to even disagree with each other, and to do the right thing when the opportunity presents itself. Even for a stranger.
posted by PlazaJen, 10:06 AM