A good friend had this quote atop his social media page for awhile, and certainly it makes an impression: Fortuna Audaces Iuvat, "Fortune favors the bold." Audacity isn't really my strong suit, but since my first job on this company web page is to convince potential clients I can do the job, here goes:
Besides the obvious message of the story that I'm one of the world's most awesome drivers, or my already-mentioned serious inner conflict with such boldness, there is a universal message too, one to which most of us can relate. Sometimes, people ask (or tell) us to do something for them, and because we are eager to please, we do it. Then, after things have gone terribly wrong, we realize they knowingly and blatantly disregarded our well-being.
In the late 80s early 90s, I was in my late teens early 20s and working for a company that hauled heavy stuff out-of-town more often than locally. Because of my clean record, machine-like stamina, and the nice little detail that I was cheap, I was their favorite driver. Now that I think of it, the fact I was naive and malleable probably affected their choice the most for this job; the company's custom-made trailer was by many accounts "over-built" and too heavy for a standard pick-up. Incorrectly load it by piling a high stack of cargo right over the axles, factor in Interstate 95's crazy reputation around Washington DC, consider the forecast for rain all week, and anyone could have foreseen trouble. No one else would have gotten behind the wheel of the rig they had set up for me. Oh, and one more thing I didn't find out till later...they knew the brakes on the trailer didn't work.
Light was breaking in Baltimore. I would have loved to have left at 4 am - around DC, "rush hour" is essentially 5am to 10pm - but some trifle at the office delayed me just long enough to ensure that within minutes of leaving, I'd hit the worst of the traffic.
At 7-11 an Indian man was ringing up peoples' morning addictions: coffees, cigarettes, and confections. His smiles and kind words had me wondering for a second what his angle was, but it soon dawned on me he was a Shiny Happy People - no pretense, no scheme – maybe an angel disguised as a Hindu man. It felt good knowing there are others like that. As I got to the register his sudden speechless gaze seemed to say something I couldn't understand. It made me stutter. What was it he didn't say?
Out on the street, the GMC got the load moving easier than expected. Knowing some degree of sway was inevitable, I told myself to not freak out. I discounted how the loaded trailer dwarfed the full-sized truck, and went up the on-ramp anyway. I crept along in the far right lane well below the speed of other traffic. I imagined I was getting lots of stink-eye from busy-bee businesspeople, but can't be sure 'cause I wasn't taking my eyes off the road.
Numbers bumped around in my head: So many times I had made this exact trip in four hours. Once with Leeva in her Lotus-tuned Isuzu Impulse RS, to meet the boys for a night of dancing at Tracks, we made it from Virginia Beach to S.E. DC in two. Not this time. It was going to be 7. It was October 1993, and though the expression “Wrap my head around it” didn't exist, that's what I tried to do. Like silly putty, I stretched my mind and wrapped it around the notion it was going to take 7 hours to get back to Virginia Beach, but every time I thought those words, a snarky voice had to add, “...but it should only take four.” Ironically, I started thinking it was the voice of experience saying it should only take four hours precisely because I had done it at least five times. Twenty-year-olds need to do something only five times to qualify themselves as expert you know.
We should all learn in life, our voices of inexperience talk too much, and are often the idiot. Years later, my friends Devon and Jeremi would say some people “Know enough to be dangerous.” Exactly.
The red stream of taillights skirting Baltimore flowed better than I had presumed it would. Headlights on the left were very thin too; maybe the rain made a few million people call in sick. After an hour with light traffic I got a bit more used to the gyrations of the trailer pushing and pulling the truck - a feeling more like piloting a slow boat in 3 foot seas. I remember thinking that going so much slower than traffic would draw the attention of State Troopers. As long as the the nearest car in front of me was a quarter-mile away, I reasoned, I could bring it up to 50 mph, but I swore to hold it there for the rest of the way.
Since the movie version of this story playing in my head has a great soundtrack, I'll embellish and write that despite my intention to focus entirely on the road, the temptation of 99.1 was too great. WHFS' broadcast was much better radio than Hampton Roads' hot rotten garbage radio. Oingo Boingo Nothing Bad Ever Happens to Me would be playing when I tune in. Certainly, Counting Crows' It's Raining in Baltimore is there too on a morning like this. When Motor Crash by the Sugar Cubes comes on, I laugh, and despite my love for Bjork, I flip her off.
Well into morning, the sky was still a churning dark blueish charcoal. The hiss of tires peeling rain off the highway poured in through the gaping door seams of the old truck sounding similar to an arena of screaming fans. Or a haunting chimera breathing down my neck. The road had taken a long subtle downgrade. There was a small plateau at a bridge or overpass just a bit ahead, but after that, the road dropped off again out of sight. Far in the distance, reappearing on the next long uphill, the highway narrowed to the horizon. All the cars were so tiny they'd all turned black, and then they disappeared into the gray rain.
Seeing it now, it's eerily empty, the space immediately in front of me. Impossibly empty.
Cresting over the bridge, I could then see down the steeper drop-off what the bridge had been hiding. Two hundred yards ahead was a bright red sea of brake lights and orange blinkers just sitting there.
Dread crashed on me in hot waves. Lightning quick, my foot hit the brake before my brain had a chance to give the order. I felt the lurch as tires gripped momentarily and heard a low groan of brakes, load straps stretching, and the old truck flexing. It shuddered all through everything like the death rattle of a woolly mammoth. Then a little pop as the tires were overpowered and let loose, and suddenly we (truck, trailer, and me) were in a terrifyingly quiet slide. Between split-seconds my head threw out a boggling array of observations: The pedal was firm beneath both my feet – I was surprised to realize my left foot too had joined the fight, this one too not needing a brain to tell it what to do. I was perplexed: Were the brakes working? The voices - MY voices - in my head concurred with each other. "The brakes are definitively not working. Great." I was sliding toward the dead stopped cluster of cars at nearly the same speed as 6 seconds previous. "Is it ice out there?" Beginning to feel a slight sideways movement, I realized I was beginning to slide sideways. Within a second or two I was going to definitely jackknife, and then I understood clear as crystal. The brakes on the stupid heavy trailer weren't working. At all. It was pushing me with relentless force downhill and would continue to do so long after I'd gone into a game-over jackknife. Again, it was surreal how many things I was able to think in nano-seconds. The last cars in the cluster, the first ones I was going to smash into, were about 100 yards down now. I knew that skidding, even on dry asphalt, takes more space and time to stop than not skidding. Skidding in the rain!?... There was no way. And once I jackknifed, nothing else mattered; any chance of regaining control was gone. I had to overcome the panic, that well-documented typical petrified reaction to freeze and hold a skid for 5 long seconds until you smash straight into that thing that's going to break every bone in your body. I had to think. The truck by this time was sliding at a sharp angle. The instant I let off the brakes, the tires began rolling again and regained a jolting amount of grip. The truck yanked back in line like a 13 year old boy whose Mama just snatched him by the neck. I tried to find that sweet spot of grip again and again. I'd pump the brake, but every time, the probably-bald probably-shitty tires would grip for only a second until the trailer weight rammed us and they'd pop free. It had been 300 feet and I'd barely slowed at all. Even at 35 miles per hour, I knew this truck and trailer were going to do some damage - to the car I hit, and the next, and the next … I started to resign to fate and pity myself. I had exercised caution, given a commendable effort to stop, and yet I was about to hurt some folks. But I kept pumping, locking up, sliding a second, and repeating.
I pictured making the call to the office and already heard their ineffectual condescension. I loved the predictability of the lilts attached to one particular word per sentence that lifts that one word out of the monotony of all the rest when they'd say, “You knew it was raining. You should have drove slower.” [sic] Even though they weren't there to see how slow I was driving, or just how badly the thing gyrated with every ripple in the road, I knew they'd try to put this on me.
In one of the 80s' most awesome arcade games, Asteroids!, there was a button called “Hyperspace” that instantly transported you from the tight spot you were in to another random place - could be better, could be worse, but when you are in a spot like this, it's worth the gamble. There was about 50 feet left, and I was still skidding quietly downhill at about 25mph. Up to that point, the “Emergency Lane” hadn't seemed like an option. It didn't look wide enough for even a small car, and was bordered with a foreboding concrete barricade wall that continued upward as it turned to exposed mountain. With exactly two seconds till impact, though, I hit the hyperspace button. Didn't know what was about to happen, but it couldn't be any worse. I yanked the wheel right, but continued sliding straight because big surprise, we were still sliding.
Releasing the brake dealt another huge jerk sideways and low frequency roar of everything pushed to its limits. But then a jolt exponentially greater than anything I had ever felt hit me. The sound alone was a shockwave. It disoriented me until I felt myself hurtling upward. The seat belt bit into my shoulder as it pulled me back down and another bang and another vault upward and crash down. With its wheels still pointed to the right, the truck was slamming into the sloped barricade, riding three feet up the wall and slamming down, over... and over... and over. Unlike the previous few seconds in which I was hyper aware of so many things, this part was a blur of being beaten by forces I'd never known existed.
Countless miles I had been in cars with all that potential violence passing all around me, under me... heaven forbid, passing "head-on" right next to me in the opposite direction. Never had it unleashed on me.
I was stopped.
I was probably there a while before I knew I was. My head floated and swayed right and left. There I was in the emergency lane. Next to me a sea of cars floating in red and orange light. Peoples' faces stared at me as their cars crawled by. A man in the driver's seat of an expensive car was motioning me to roll down my window. I don't know how the window got down. “Shit man, that was some amazing driving!” My stupor must have told him I didn't know. “You didn't hit a single fxxxxxg car! How'd you do that?" I didn't know.
A woman with too many kids not wearing seat belts bouncing around inside a minivan like wild animals in a cage gave me a hideous face. I had frightened her while wrestling this juggernaut of death off the road and saving her kids. Sorry.
Other drivers inch-wormed past as I sat trying to wrap my head around the previous 20 seconds – the amount of time it takes to find your key and pass through a door. To find where you need to sign a document, and sign your name. To kiss your love and say, “I love you. I will see you later."