Saturday, September 7, 2013

Good Judgement vs. The Other Kind

Recently both a friend's experience and a recent local news story have highlighted once again the dangers of driving while tired.

Good judgement comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgement. Lest I appear to be holier than thou, I offer the following cautionary tale.

After having finished approximately six weeks of desert maneuvers in the garden paradise that is Marine Corps Base 29 Palms, we returned to Camp Pendleton, and germane to this story, on a Thursday. The plan was to return to work on Friday, clean up everything, and then enjoy a long Memorial Day weekend. Like my charges, I was to clean up, get a good night's rest, and awake refreshed and ready to confront the one-day blitz of work before a well-earned 72-hour liberty.

I, however, was invincible and immortal, and had a fiancee only a short hour and a half north in the greater Los Angeles area, not to mention friends and family in my home of record therein. The fact that I'd been awake 22 hours a day for most of that six weeks meant nothing but that I could surely make the easy drive home, enjoy home cooking and a real bed, and return early and refreshed to supervise the de-crudding of trucks, howitzers, men, and personal gear, thus having my cake and eating it too.

Thus it was that I set out, attired in PT gear and flip-flops, for a journey in sunny SoCal pre-summer broad daylight, for a trip much shorter than the S.S. Minnow's "three-hour tour", and which, in realty, was to be about as eventful.

I headed northwards along a relatively lightly-trafficked stretch of I-5. My trusty steed, a vintage Ford Escort, hummed along doing 80 in the fast lane along the center divider, and just about at the halfway point, nearly adjacent to the I-5/I-405 split, nature took its course.

I was on a straightaway, trying to stay between the inevitable clots of traffic, in the empty stretch in between two herds of cars. And then, the Nap Monster tapped my sleep-deprived tender head from wide awake to out like a light.

Probably for only a split to at most a full second, whereupon I awoke, drifting gently but inexorably towards the only other vehicle anywhere around me, the old green pickup truck in lane #2. Being as young and stupid as any 25-year-old, my brain immediately commanded a full-on goggle-eyed spaz attack, and a panic stab of the brake before I hit the truck a few feet further along.

And now, Physics made an appearance, as the rear of the car made the decision to try and pass the front end, where the engine and drive train was located, the weight therein making it slow down more firmly that the lighter rear wheels.

Fully awake now and stone-cold brilliant, I deftly did exactly what one should do, having made at least two other mistakes already: I got off the brakes, and gently steered the wheel to the right, into the skid the rear end was attempting. And by cracky, it worked! Steve McQueen couldn't have done as well as I did in arresting the skid before it became catastrophic. But being less experienced than Steve, I had mildly overcompensated, and in short order, the rear end now tried to pass me on the left.

It was less urgent this time, and I steered into that skid as well. And once again, it was working. Car still doing 75, and brains doing 190, things were looking pretty good at this point. I worked a couple of smaller corrections in, and things were settling down, but Physics wasn't quite done with me for the day.

Because all this correcting had used up the last thing I didn't quite have enough of, which was space. In this case, between my car, and the adjacent, brand new, concrete barrier rail in the center divider.

Which is when, for an incredible moment time stood still, or at least moved with glacial slowness.

The left front tire kissed the edge of the barrier. Now, a steel barrier would have simply meant grinding metal, slowing, and an annoying slow-motion crunch. But CalTrans had cleverly decided that concrete barriers don't need replacing from accidents as often and expensively as metal barrier rail. And the new concrete barrier was wider at the bottom than the top, with an ever so graceful curvature to its profile.

The result, as wheel kissed concrete, was that I become the newest stuntman on the Dukes Of Hazzard Ride on the I-5. The concrete, instead of slowing me down, merely became the fulcrum to redirect that 75MPH of forward energy, and turn me into the most amazing Flying Corkscrew one could ever witness or experience first hand.

I am now airborne, still headed forward, and starting to spin clockwise.

At this point, the most glaring deficiency lighted the final caution light on my brain's Master Warning Display: seat belt not fastened. Well, FML.

No gibbering moron, I knew what that meant. Impending projectile status, followed by pain and agony, and probably a mangled end to a brief life. Because, pursuant to driving on several military posts, I'd dutifully attended and watched all the mandatory  Blood On The Pavement-esque matinee training films thrown at me, and knew with exquisite clarity my chances outside the vehicle at the speed it and I were currently travelling. Realizing at the last the magnitude of this error, I made a hasty bargain with God: He could, indeed, kill me at His pleasure, but I assured Him that were it so, t'would only be thus if the steering wheel were found at the scene firmly clenched in my lifeless hands, snapped off at the bolts from the steering column from which my trajectory had wrenched it. And so I spun onwards towards Eternity holding the only thing that mattered in a literally death-defying grip.

I'd like to say I saw everything, or that I clenched my eyes and saw nothing, but the truth is somewhere mixed between those options. But I absolutely heard every sound. And it went like this: metal-metal-metal-rubber-metal-metal-metal-rubber, as the car slid on the side, the roof, the other side, the wheels, and continued thusly, all the while as I sat, crouched over, seatbeltless, on the passenger seat, in a washing machine of broken glass and all the other items inside the car, until, after somewhere between 2 1/2 and 4 1/2 twists, we - I, the glass fragments, the debris, my belongings, and my trusty Escort, all came to a simultaneous stop.

And, Sweet Jesus, I was alive and unharmed!
Guardian Angels 1, Senseless Mangled Demise 0!!!
And the crowd went wild!

I braced, in sudden unnatural silence, for what I was sure would be the counter climactic impact with a semi truck hitting me and shattering me into a thousand pieces.
I counted to ten silently.

Then, realizing the ride had come to a full and complete stop, I exited. Upside down, I disentangled my bare feet from amongst the pedals, removed my hands from the steering wheel where, I was certain, one could find my fingerprints pressed into the very plastic to this day. And I crawled out through a much smaller than normal passenger side window to face the day. I emerged, facing upstream in traffic, to a phenomenal sight.

From left to right, there were five lanes of traffic, completely dead-stopped, about 40 feet away from my car, now resting all the way over on the right hand side. And behind each wheel of every car as far as I could fleetingly note, every driver, white knuckles on the steering wheels of their cars, and three huge black "O"s on their face: two huge eyes, and one gaping black mouth, all like giant donuts.

I should have done a quick circus bow, having survived my stunt with such aplomb. Instead, I looked down, saw the handy white line to my left, and stepped approximately three feet over, to now stand off the actual driving lanes of the freeway. I'd crossed 5 lanes in about as many seconds, and ended up upside down and sideways. Driving between packs of cars had evidently given the following traffic time to stop and watch the show without joining in.

My military duffle bag, with six weeks of nasty clothes, had been sitting in the back seat. The ruckus had strewn it across 5 lanes of I-5 for 300 yards. Out of nowhere, a pickup truck with a couple pulled up on the right. They got out, handed me a full duffle bag, and said, "We saw your stuff go flying, so we got out in the stopped traffic, and put it all back in the bag." Which they plopped next to me. "You okay?"

"Yeah. Thanks!" I said.

"Our pleasure!" they replied, jumped into their truck, and were gone, that fast.
{Wherever and whoever you are, God Bless you.}

Traffic now picking it's way around my car, after suitable gawking, I decided getting my other items was in order, so I got down, reached inside, and retrieved my wallet, keys, flip flops and Timex watch from among the glass shards now resting on the roof of the car. Everything important had stayed with the car! The Timex, which 3 years of Marine Corps service on three continents had not broken, now had a shattered crystal, finally killed in a way military service couldn't accomplish. Then I started brushing and picking glass from my hair, eyebrows, and clothing.

Less than 30 seconds post exiting, the unheard off: CHP officer pulls up, looks at me, looks at the car, and asks, "Any survivors?"

"That'd be me."

"You were driving?"


"Didja have your seat belt on?"

"Oh, yes, officer, that's the law!"

He looked inside to assure himself there was no other headless blood-dripping corpse inside, then returned to his car to radio for a tow truck.

Less than a minute later, the local fire truck and ambulance are there. (Nota bene this is a good ten years pre-cellphone era.)
They look at the car, look at me, and ask "Any survivors?"


The paramedics see to me, make sure I haven't suffered some hidden calamitous injury.
Learning I'm an off-duty Marine (the high-and-tight haircut, and red and gold PT gear with obvious EGA emblem sort of let that cat out of the bag) "Are you sure you don't want to go to the hospital? The base is right there." And they point to MCAS El Toro over yonder, from which the occasional jet is taking off and landing nearly overhead.

{Why yes, off course, sir. Please take me to the El Toro Base Naval Hospital, thus insuring that I'm in trouble there, and with my CO once he's informed at the speed of telephone that I elected to drive home, crashed my car, and was in all probability going to drive about 20 miles beyond the overnight liberty limits for my post, because I'm not only a lousy driver, but stupid, and I'd like a court martial to go along with my wrecked car, and soon to be jacked insurance rates. Because hey, since I can't drive anywhere, I might as well get a bust in rank and a pay cut plus a gratuitous kick in the junk to go with my misfortune, right?}

"Uh, no thanks sir, I'll be fine once I get the car towed away."

He looked really disappointed not to be able to help me, then his eyes lit up. "Hey, you're bleeding."

I had, in fact, acquired about a 1cm scratch through my t-shirt onto my right shoulder, barely skin deep, as I crawled out of the shattered glass passenger window. Still refusing the hospital ride, he wordlessly rummaged in his jump bag, handed me a band-aid, and an alcohol swab, and the fire department departed.

Now I was left to consider my car. All four wheels folded in flat against the undercarriage, it was, clearly, deader than canned tuna. And in looking at it, I was the one-in-a-million guy: if I had been wearing my seat belt, I'd have been belted upright in a car where the roof was now smashed down to about my collarbone level, and I too would be as dead as the car, and still happily strapped right behind the wheel, with my head helpfully folded out of the way down to the shoulder blades. Kids, don't try this at home!

The tow truck was in reality one of those flat-bed things, that lowered the bed, winched the dead car carcass onto it, strapped it down like an upended turtle, and proceeded to the nearest wreckatorium.

The drive over surface streets was what really drove home my great fortune in being alive, as pedestrians would stop and do a triple take, then stare at us as we made our unescorted procession to the car cemetery.

I finally got to a phone. My fiancee was relieved, because she'd heard there was a terrible accident on the I-5, and she knew how much I hated being stuck in traffic.

Breaking things to her gently, I told her I had good news and bad news. She elected for good news first, so I asked her, "You know that new car purchase we've been thinking about after the wedding...?"

In total, there were anywhere from 3-7 different highly improbable circumstances involved, which having been the recipient of, I have no shyness about calling miracles.
I should have been dead, then and there, several ways.

Instead of laughing about it at home a couple of hours late, as I did my laundry, ate pizza, and arranged to borrow a car to drive back in the morning.

So please, learn from my then-stupidity: If you're tired, pull off the highway and take a nap, or do whatever you need to do to be more awake. Don't drive tired, because it leads to dead with incredible rapidity, and it's just pointless. I don't ever risk it now, because I figure I've used up my share of miracles for one lifetime.

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