It was 2:00 AM on a hot and humid night and I was driving home after spending an evening with friends. The heavy and dank air kept fogging up my windshield and no amount of fiddling with the A/C or rolling down the windows would alleviate it. Even with the windshield wipers going full tilt my visibility was limited.
The problem was compounded by my headlights. Being a Dad with a mortgage I bought a used car a while back and it was now pushing twelve years old. Due to age the lights had yellowed from oxidation, diffusing the light output and cutting down the headlamp’s range. My wife told me there was a product that would restore my headlights but, being lazy, I didn’t follow up on it.
Zipping along the middle lane of the highway my mind barely registered that I had entered a stretch of road devoid of streetlights. Frustrated with my fogged up windshield I looked away from the road and fiddled with my A/C again. When I looked back up Death waiting for me. Caught in the pale cast of my headlights a dead and dark car was at a complete stop in the middle of the road.
Travelling at 75 mph I knew my body now weighed over several tons. The force of the impact would’ve scrambled by brain and internal organs a split second before the collapsing frame of my car squeezed me out like a tube of viscera toothpaste. Closed casket for sure. Without looking I slalomed my car to the left, not caring if I hit an innocent motorist in the other lane. The lizard part of my brain had already decided my survival was worth killing anyone who got in the way.
As I passed the disabled hulk the disturbed air from the near miss punched my car’s body like a huge fist. After almost spinning out I regained control of my vehicle and eventually coasted onto the shoulder and stopped. As my heart hammered in my chest I thought I was going to die of a heart attack then and there.
“Jesus H. Christ!” I yelled.
I read somewhere that once your heart rate goes past a certain point your critical thinking skills take a nosedive. That’s why drill sergeants train new recruits until their martial reactions become second nature They know new grunts won’t be thinking when the bullets start flying. Sitting in my car I knew I was experiencing the “fog of war” and tried forcing by brain to get into gear. Are you safe? my brain eventually screamed. I couldn’t see the offending car in my rear view mirror so I figured I was out of shrapnel range and clicked on my hazard lights.
Get help was my second thought. So I pulled out my smartphone and dialed the cops. It took me a minute because my fine motor skills had degraded to the point where my fingers had trouble manipulating the touch screen. iPhones suck for making urgent calls. Eventually I got an operator on the line told them where I was and what happened.
“We’re on the way,” the operator said.
Other people are in danger,” my brain then said, rebounding from the stress, “You must warn them! So I pulled out the 1000 lumen flashlight I keep in my glove compartment for emergencies and activated the strobe mode. Jogging towards the scene I aimed my light at the disabled car, trying to alert my fellow motorists of the danger lurking in the darkness.
When I reached the car I found another motorist with a flashlight trying to do the same thing. As we stood in the middle of the highway we both watched as tractor trailer barreled towards us.
“If that guy doesn’t stop we’re jumping into the ditch,” I said.
“You better believe it,” the man said.
Luckily the truck shuddered to a halt and turned on his hazards. Then other cars slowed to a halt and soon we had a good traffic jam going – their collective headlights illuminating the scene nicely.
I left the other Samaritan to do traffic control and walked over to the wrecked car, fully expecting to find a dead body. As my light probed the wreckage I worried about the psychological ramifications of finding a mangled corpse. Luckily the driver was alive and functioning – sort of.
“Dude,” he said. “You got a cigarette?”
“Sorry,” I said. “I don’t.”
“Fuck,” the man said, pulling a crumpled pack of Kools out of his pocket. I watched agog as he fished a half smoked butt out of the pack and tried lighting it.
I took the lighter out of his hand. “There’s gasoline all over the ground. Bad idea.”
“I want a fucking smoke man!”
The man got out of the car and promptly collapsed onto the asphalt. Skinny, young and unkempt looking, I was worried he was bleeding to death on the inside. But when I flashed my light into his eyes I realized he was stoned.
“Let’s go over to the shoulder,” I said, helping him off the ground. “You’ll be safer there.”
“I want my fucking phone!” the kid said. “Where’s my fucking phone?”
“Are you hurt?” I said.
“My neck is killing me.”
“Sit down here.”
The kid sat on the guardrail and looked at me with raw hostility. “Gimme my lighter.”
I gave it to him and, to my utter amazement, he pulled a blunt out of his pocket and tried lighting it. His BIC was out of fluid but he manically kept trying to spark it into life. The felony smoke, I thought to myself. Trying to get in one last high in before he went to jail.
The police arrived and within seconds their demeanors went from concern to deadpanned hostility. They knew what was up. The kid was relieved of his blunt and they pulled all sorts of paraphernalia out of his rusted shit box of a car.
“You see what happened?” an old cop asked me. I told him how I almost bought the farm.
The cop laughed. “Tonight’s your lucky night, sir.” Then he flashed his light along the guardrail. It was smashed to pieces. “Guy nodded off and hit it,” he said. “He’s lucky it’s one of the new ones. If it was the old guardrail he’d be dead.”
“What’s going to happen next?”
“Oh this gentleman’s going to be arrested soon,” the cop said. “Hang out here.”
Before long the kid was prone and getting handcuffed. Craning his head upwards he said, “I want my phone! I want a smoke!”
Anger surged inside me. Another fucking useless junkie I told myself. His getting high was more important than my life; more important than my child having a father or my wife having a husband. This asshole could have killed a whole bunch of people. Don’t ever tell me that drugs are cool, that they make you creative or open up your consciousness to a higher plane. They turn you into a self-centered moron. Seething, I imagined myself crunching that kid’s neck under my boot. Problem solved.
I didn’t indulge my homicidal feelings, however, and gave my statement to the police. When I was done the cop thanked me and the other driver for stopping to help. “You probably kept a bad situation from getting worse,” he told us.
Not feeling very heroic, I walked back to my car and went home. My wife was up so I told her what happened. “What a shit,” she said. “I hope he’s in jail for a long time.”
“He’ll be out before you know it.” I said. “Guys like him are a dime a dozen.”
The next morning, I found a package in the mail. My wife had ordered that stuff to clean my headlights. In the cold light of day I realized that, just like that junkie, I had also been irresponsible and selfish. If my headlights had been up to spec I might’ve seen that car sooner. My laziness could’ve been my undoing.
So I spent an hour washing, sanding and compounding my headlamps until they gleamed like new. Amazing how a brush with death will motivate you.