on Interstate 95

My life was recently ended—almost.

Ironically, my demise almost occurred in conjunction with an award of an honorary life membership I’d received some few hours earlier.

I was driving south on one of our most infamous Interstate highways—I-95—about 1:00 A.M. en route home from Northern (or Occupied) Virginia.

(I’d just overtaken, or passed, another vehicle in the middle lane.)

It was raining; not heavily, but steadily. I had set the cruise control of my Tacoma at 70 mph and I was cruising south in the left lane I had a CD playing Baroque music in the stereo and had just set my coffee mug down and drawn on my cigarette when…

The rear of the pickup truck started swinging to the right, into the middle lane. I compensated by turning slightly into the skid.

My vehicle reacted angrily, swinging back toward the left-lane guard rail with greater force.

I turned into that, but the truck swung back so quickly and violently that I found I was turning completely around and around again, crossing the three lanes of the Interstate. So…

I gave up the attempt to steer out of the skid. Instead, I gripped the wheel and practically stood on the brake pedal. My Tacoma came to a stop angled across the right-hand lane. I don’t remember thinking to do so; I just pushed in the clutch and re-started the engine to move off onto the right shoulder. Almost as soon as I moved there and stopped, again, a convoy of semis (articulated lorries to any Brits or Scots out there) came screaming past.

Not until then did I feel it; the thump in my chest as my heart either stopped or re-started. Perhaps what I felt was, instead, the sudden release of adrenaline. I don’t know. I just sat there, looking around with the dome light on, looking for something or nothing.

Death can come slowly or quickly, you know. Although the entire incident probably took not much more than a minute or two to elapse, time and motion seemed, to me, to slow to a crawl. I just couldn’t—can’t—believe that I had not hit either guard rail or any vehicle. (For which I am most profoundly thankful, by the way.)

I finished another cigarette (or two) and realized that I had no more coffee. Coffee became the essential element for me right then, so I eased out onto the Interstate and drove into Fredericksburg in search of it. My search was successful. I thanked and thanked the thin waitress despite her apologies for the black gold she claimed was too old and too strong to be served. That’s okay, I explained, I was in the Navy and that’s the way I like it. (I have to tell you, I don’t know how anyone can be as thin as she and be alive, too.)

My life did not flash before my eyes. The only white light I saw staring down at me came from the headlights of other vehicles and trucks, refracted by the raindrops on my windshield. I didn’t feel fear, either; not until, that is, I had parked—safely—on the shoulder of the road. So, why was I there, so late and so far from home?

Because Hell had frozen over.

I knew this was true the moment John called me and asked whether I wanted him to accept for me an award from my trail club or if I would receive it at the annual dinner meeting.

  • First, I thought it improbable that the club would vote an award for me. After all, my desire is to be known as the resident curmudgeon.
  • Second, everyone, including me, knows of my aversion to the Capital Beltway.

So, despite these, I surrendered to my all-too-human failings of self-pride and self-worth and decided to attend the annual dinner meeting. I regretted it as soon as I approached Quantico, Virginia, where I saw only one long—endless—line, three lanes across, of brake lights. Another evening; another accident on Interstate 95.

It took over one hour to inch my way north to the exit at Occoquan. From there, more time spent going northwest on Route 123 to the Fairfax County Parkway to the Dulles Toll Road and (finally) the site of the event.

Of course I was late. Not so late that I missed the rubber-chicken dinner, but late.

It was really a pleasure to see so many whom I haven’t seen in years and to “catch up” with them. I strongly advised Charlie to not retire from the club, but he knows best. Charlie has been so active over the years constructing trail shelters and cabins on club properties; he was an outstanding president during his term, too.

There were other friends, too: George & Diane, Carolyn & Jack, Pat, and Mel, to name but a few. And, there was that award, necessitating some words to the assemblage by me. (No, I don’t remember exactly what I said, fortunately for you…)

That award was an honorary life membership in the club. A membership for a life that almost ended five hours after I received it.

I have thought long and hard about that night, and I’ve concluded:

  • I shall never, ever, use the cruise control again when the road is wet.
  • I will not challenge those who do not believe in God but, for me, I have had my “Martin Luther” moment and I believe more strongly.
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