I’ve had two car crashes in my life, both many years in my past now. The first one was one hundred percent my own fault. Trying to find the museum center in Cincinnati, I drove all around the base of Union Terminal without ever discovering the actual entry road. I had a passenger, a fellow student at the college of Mt. St. Joseph. We wanted the history museum. I can’t remember her purpose, but I was looking for newspaper images of the 1937 Ohio River flood for a short story I was working on.
I got turned around in this warehouse district. Everything was too close together, I didn’t feel entirely safe, and there was a semi-truck unloading in front of a stop sign. Not seeing the sign, I ran it. Not seeing me in time, a pickup truck T-Boned me. Emphasis – this was my fault. The pickup had the right of way. My little blue car was totaled. The truck had a tiny dent.
No real injuries. But also, my Mom was in Louisville, and I had only just gotten my first cell phone. It was around five hours before we got rescued. I sent the tow truck off to wherever tow trucks go, and we finished our research before Mom could pick us up and drop Angela back at campus. (I went home. The whole thing scared me to death.)
The other time, several years later and having gone on to grad school, I got rear ended in Lexington. I was taking Mom out past Keeneland to see the castle on Versailles Road. A lady in her mid fifties was following too closely and slammed into my tail when I stopped suddenly for a red light. (She was sure the light hadn’t changed yet. I still vaguely fear she was right.) In any case, I was not formally responsible for that one. (Though I’ll always fear and wonder.) My little white car was damaged, but not beyond repair. Her teal blue sedan was totaled. So I guess between the two crashes, I came out evens.
But what I remember, really, is how different I felt about the two events.
In that first wreck, although nobody was seriously hurt, I expected nothing until impact. The car had no airbags, so Angela and I were spared the trauma of exploding cloth in the face. And even though the blue car must have only spun for a couple of seconds, those moments felt like a lifetime, one where I could feel reality intruding on a protective little bubble. Although I never believed in my own immortality, until that moment, I never thought I could die in a car wreck, either. In that single rotation, until I crunched into the light pole, I realized I could die any way in the world. It was the closest thing I ever experienced to an end of my youth.
The second time, I saw the lady coming in my rear view. I told Mom, “Hold on.” She thought I was referring to my too-fast stop. She had time to say “You’re OK, honey.” I didn’t have the seconds to explain, so instead I said, “tight” and took my foot off the brake. I jammed the foot back down again pretty much on impact, and that little bit of cynical readiness, of believing the car in my mirror wouldn’t stop in time, saved me a neck injury. Because I didn’t have time to verbalize what was going on to Mom, she got whiplash. And because the air bags in the car behind me exploded, the other driver broke her glasses and the other passenger broke her arm.
Maybe I didn’t come up evens after all. Maybe I actually came out ahead. Knock wood.