The Entertaining Speaker #4: A Dramatic Talk
How many of you have ever been in a car accident? How did it make you feel? Do you still remember that feeling? I was in a car accident 30 years ago. They say you remember things best when there’s emotion attached, and I remember it like it was yesterday.
After we first got married, my husband and I lived in Chicago. There were so many things we loved about Chicago: its improvisational comedy theater called “Second City,” its splendid variety of ethnic restaurants from every continent, and its location on Lake Michigan. We loved everything about Chicago except its weather.
Chicago is cooold and snowy during the winter. It’s nicknamed the Windy city, and it really. Is. Windy. The wind and moisture whip in off the lake. I’ll never forget the year the temperature dropped to 60 degrees below zero. It was so cold that when we opened up our back door, the cold air rushed inside, condensed on our kitchen ceiling, and it rained inside our kitchen!
When it was that cold, if you owned a car and kept it outside, you’d have to start it in the middle of the night to make sure the car battery would work the next morning.
Yet the most dangerous times aren’t always when the temperature is super cold, but rather when it hovers just around the freezing point.
One winter weekend, we decided to go skiing. We’d heard about a good ski resort in southern Wisconsin, a few hours north of Chicago. We didn’t own a car back then, so picked up a rental car the day before, and left early one Saturday morning. I drove, with my husband sitting next to me.
It was still dark out, and the streets were dry. A radio station informed us that the temperature would climb to 2 degrees Celsius that day, then went back to playing The Rolling Stones. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash, it’s a gas.”
Once we got out of the city, we drove through a landscape of dairy farms and rolling hills. Red barns and silos. Dry corn stalks stuck out of a thin layer of snow. The cows weren’t out in the fields, they were huddled together in the barns, staying warm.
It began to rain, a light drizzle that caused the pavement to shimmer in our headlights. I turned on the windshield wipers. Thumpa, thumpa, thumpa, thumpa. I drove on, at a steady pace. As we crested at the top of one hill, I thought I saw a blinking blue light, and instinctively put my foot on the brake. That was the wrong thing to do.
The rain had frozen on the pavement and turned to ice. What I had seen was the flashing light of a police car that was on the scene tending to accidents that had already taken place.
Stepping on the brake at the top of the hill didn’t stop the car, because of the ice. The car started to spin. I felt like I was on an amusement park ride, the twirling teacups. As on an amusement park ride, I had no control. We spun 360 degrees, once, twice, three times, on a road that went down the hill and curved to the right. Except that we didn’t curve. I thought I smelled gasoline. The spinning seemed to last forever, but then BUMP, we hit a metal roadside marker and came to a stop along the side of the road, on the shoulder.
We were OK. Just a few bruises and stiff necks. My husband yelled, “Donna, get out of the car.” We got out quickly, because you never can tell what might happen. Another car could hit you. We surveyed the damage to our rental car. It had a dent on the side from where we hit the marker, but it was driveable. I figured out where the smell of gas was coming from. Our gas tank. Our rental car was missing its gas cap, so as we spun, gasoline leaked out.
We looked around and saw three other cars off the road. One of them had hit a utility pole across the street from us, and brought down an electric line. There was a live wire sparking electricity on the ground. Hot white flashes and crackles. Were we lucky that day. Because if we’d spun onto the other side of the road, leaking gasoline, and come into contact with that live wire…Whoosh! We could have gone up in a ball of fire. I might not be standing here today.
The police car drove to the top of the hill and stopped traffic before any more cars had accidents. We got back on the road, driving slowly, and headed home. We didn’t need to go skiing. We’d had enough excitement for the day.
So that’s the one and only time I was involved in a car accident. It could have been a lot worse, and that gives me the chills, just thinking about it.