Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Dodge In Winter

When I was a kid, my father bought our family’s first new car, a white 1966 Dodge Dart. The Dart was the Cadillac for the working class. However, never to indulge, my father purchased a model with only basic standard equipment, manual transmission, with no AC or radio. The only extra was a cigarette lighter, which my mother did her best to wear out. However, the car was plenty roomy for the four of us, and the smooth nap-inducing ride made it possible to tolerate our marathon vacation road trips. During those trips my father would drive with Zen like focus, while my mother sat next to him, simultaneously reading and conversing. In the back seat, my brother and I played games and waged endless sibling battles, often ending with my father’s backhand slashing over the front seat like a catapult. Thirteen years later, I took possession and the keys from my father and drove from St. Louis to college in Carbondale Illinois. Despite rust along the fenders, an oil burning engine, and mandatory weekly spark plug cleaning, the Dart was a reliable old friend. One Friday afternoon, during my senior year, I left town for spring break. Just after sunset, I passed through Nashville Illinois heading north. I was tired and anxious to get home. At the far end of town, I came up behind a van as we approached a railroad crossing. The warning lights were flashing at the intersection, but the van continued over the tracks, casually, without hesitation. In this life altering moment of weakness, I was just tired and distracted enough to believe it was safe to follow. From my perspective, the crossing gates had not lowered and there was no train was in sight. In reality, there were no crossing gates at all. There was also an unseen second set of tracks. On those tracks, just out of view, was an oncoming freight train. As my car reached the end of the intersection, with open road just a few feet away, I looked up to my left. Out of the darkness, the engine rolled up like the Titanic. I remember reacting, but nothing more. The train slammed into the back door of my Dodge Dart, kicking us, like a tin can, to the other side of the tracks. Several minutes later I woke up to the conductor yelling at me through a shattered window. The next day, my classmates Jean Kracher and Barbara Lang drove 50 miles from Carbondale to pick me up at the hospital. Dressed in my finest blood soaked sweater and jeans, we drove to the local tow yard where I collected my scattered belongings. Barbara took photos as I stood beside the remains of the family car. Rather than crumple beneath the locomotive, the Dart’s steel body had taken the hit, like a champ, staying in one piece as we spun around. That morning, I stood there, feeling like a crash test dummy on his luckiest day. Smiling through my stitches, I thought at least I’ll get some good pictures. I never saw the photos, but I’ve been blessed to see 30 years since the family car saved my life.

Friday, December 10, 2010

At Your Service

I ran into this old acquaintance on Halloween. We use to hang out a lot. It was always a great time, but I never failed to get a hangover, run out of money, loose a job, or girlfriend, or find myself in some unfortunate situation. The last time I saw him was over a year ago. We’re driving to work, and some nut starts tailgating us down a side street. Suddenly the car roars past us, like the speed limit isn’t good enough for him. My friend says, “You gonna let him get away with that?” So I punch the gas and we race to a traffic light. It was red, so I made the stop, but the nut ran the light, leaving me behind all pissed off at 7:00am on a misty Monday morning. I flashed on a few consequences - accident, fistfight, injury, insurance, police and lawyers. So I say to my friend, “Dude, this isn’t how I want my day to go, alright? I’m dropping you off and you can ride with someone else after this.” My friend didn’t get upset or anything. He just shrugged it off and said no problem. So anyway, we chatted on Halloween. He’d had a good year apparently, with all his work paying off in the coming election. “Hearts and minds and Fox News,” he said proudly. Then he went on and on about the Tea party, his clients in the Senate and bla bla. By then I was losing interest, so he leaned close and whispered, “Evil is out, ignorance is in. It’s an easy sell.”