In the midst of our national obsession with the automobile, it seems unreal that those of us who are middle-aged can remember a time when most people didn't own one- at least if you grew up in a Brooklyn tenement like I did.
Few people on our block could lay claim to their own set of wheels. There was the reclusive old gent in our building who rented one of the three garages across the street in which to keep his two-tone, meticulously maintained Chevy. I think it was a Belair. There was the kid next store who actually had a powder blue 1963 Sting Ray when it truly merited the name. There were a few others, enough to line both sides of the street, but there was no problem getting a spot in the daily ritual of alternate side of the street parking. Most in the neighborhood just hoofed it or used mass transit. Please note, the price of ride was a dime.
Now Dad loved his cars, although he never had a truly fancy one, unless you count the few years when he would trade in his Pontiac Catalina every three years for a new one. The last one, a greenish turq almendron we kept well into the 70's. I know because I was driving it, when it burst into flame about a half a block from our new house in the 'burbs. Fortunately Abuelo came running to the rescue, having spotted the trouble from the kitchen window. Seems Dad got tired of taking the cover off the air filter every time he had to shove a screw driver into the choke get it started. Remember carburetors?
Anyway, that was but one of many events that should have made me leery of cars, but it didn't. I'm not referring to events like the time Dad's 1959 Buick with the two-toned paint job just rolled to a stop in the middle of the street. I remember looking in the rear view mirror and seeing what even my 5 year old mind knew was the gas tank.
No, I mean driving along the New Jersey Turnpike at 4 in the morning with the fog rolling in on the way back to Staten Island from South Carolina, when between exits 1 and 2, the transmission went on my relatively new Jeep Woody, not to be confused with the time the Mercedes gave up the same ghost on New Years Eve in the early 80's right outside of Sarasota on the way back from Miami. At least that time, the whole extended family was in the car. In New Jersey, it was a thirty something me and a 7 year old. Talk about scary.
Also catalogued as scary was the night, I was driving the same 7 year old, now turned 17, to her college interview in Tallahassee. Pulling off the 75 for gas, I emerge from the convenience store in the middle of nowhere, to see smoke billowing from the engine of my car. Fortunately, it turned out to be....you guessed it- the transmission. Even more fortunately, it was the one interchange that had a repair shop across the highway, next to the tattoo parlor, next to motel, next to the restaurant. The garage was run by a transplant Indian and his young wannabe homeboy nephew. And so, we spent three days sitting in the bay watching the traffic go by before I called the hubster to come get us.
All of this is prelude to what happened two days ago. On the way home to Sarasota from the Tampa airport with the same child, now a 23 year old grad student, I lost control of the car on the 75 at 70 miles an hour. Somehow, I am still here to tell the tale. In one instant, I looked death in the face, not that I thought about it, being too busy trying to react. A simple, aborted lane change, as in some jerk decided to come into the same lane because he didn't see me, led to the scariest moment in my life. I keep trying to think if I oversteered, but I wasn't panicked. I knew I had enough time to get back in my lane. I just cut the wheel, but not particularly much. It's a gesture I've had to make countless times, only this time to my disbelief the car would not straighten out. Instead, it kept going, making a 270 degree arc then traversing back to the other lane, skidding right and left in a scissor motion until it had crossed another two lanes in the opposite direction.
The only experience I'd ever had to compare it to was one night when I had a blowout on the highway, but that was my front tire, and I quickly gained control. Anyway, by this point, I had wrested some measure of control and attempted to steer into the grass on the side of the road, hoping it would slow us down. There was the little matter of some guard posts, which I actually managed to get the car between. As I hit the grass, I felt safe to floor the brakes, which not only finally stopped the front of the car but also caused it to fishtail, hitting the aforesaid post sideways.
At this point, I am shaken, still not believing that we're still breathing, that no one has whacked into us. I'm afraid to even get out of the car, so I get the car on the road, drive to the next exit, figuring I should check out the damage. Damage? Fine scratches, easily buffed out, and a flat tire. I'm pretty sure the flat was the result of guard post. So I'm left wondering. I'm a cautious, experienced driver, so what the hell happened? I was driving my midlife crisis car, a Hyundai Tiburon with low profile tires. Yeah, I know, they were on there when I bought it.
So here I am, suffering from post-traumatic stress, thoroughly shocked that life can be over in an instant, that you can be driving your beloved child home one instant and fighting for your life the next. And extremely grateful for all the years I spent driving in snow, as well the divine hand that kept the tires on the ground and the other cars away from us