When we were Cub Scouts, we spent months collecting spare change to buy the battleship Massachusetts from the Navy. On the bright August day when the old ship was towed up Mount Hope Bay to its new home in Fall River, my family was one of the thousands aboard the cabin cruisers, trawlers, sloops, catboats, frigates, and tugs that participated in the all-day cavalcade. At one point we came fairly close amidships to the battleship. All I could see was a gray wall of steel rising from the waves and disappearing into the clouds. This memory flashed through my mind a couple of weeks ago when a gray Dodge Ram 2500 towing a trailer swerved into my lane without warning and I drove straight into its passenger door.
The engine died. The air bags didn’t deploy. If they had, I would’ve been trapped. I couldn’t exit through my door because there was a gray wall of steel out there. I crawled out the passenger door and stood, bewildered, on the asphalt, which was littered with plastic pieces from my car. My heart was pounding away and my chest was bruised from the seat belt, but otherwise I was unhurt. Our 2001 Subaru Forester had given its life to protect me.
I had been behind the Dodge and its trailer at a red light. When the light turned green, we had both turned right onto a three-lane highway, the Dodge taking the middle lane, me taking the right. But the pickup’s driver was making a wide right turn over what he thought was an empty road. He almost immediately began his turn to the right for the first cross street. He neither heard nor felt the impact and had no clue what was going on until his dog started barking and he realized that something (my car) was impeding his forward progress.
This was my first car accident. I wasn’t sure what the etiquette was. Should we run away, at the last moment diving for cover in slow motion as our vehicles were consumed by fireballs? Or was I supposed to slug the other guy? We asked each other “Are you all right?” several times. We both were. We exchanged insurance information. His policy had lapsed two years ago. I called 911. My new acquaintance climbed back in his truck, backed it off my car, drove it around the block and parked in front of the derelict house he’d been aiming for, where he had a job as part of the demolition crew. Of course.
I’d been plucked from the forward rush of my day, violently but without harm. I was acutely aware of the gray sky, the smells of spring, the wet pavement. I kicked pieces of my car out of the road and noticed how much of it I couldn’t identify in this new context. Traffic slowed so everyone could study me. I suspect they were reassuring themselves that they drove too well to let this happen to them, because that’s what I would’ve done. I wanted to say “Move along, folks, there’s nothing to see here.” A cop arrived, checked to see that I wasn’t dead, asked me where the other driver was, then returned to his car to call for a tow and to take an extended time-out. The tow truck arrived. The hoist wouldn’t work. The tow truck driver called for backup, shared a few stories from his nine years of hauling wreckage around town, and finished with, “It’s just a car.”
The second truck arrived, crewed by a garrulous old guy and a hip iPhoning young guy who hated the garrulous old guy. Off we went to my mechanic. I sat between them while the garrulous old guy drove and the hip iPhoning young guy who hated the garrulous old guy pretended he was anywhere but there and things rattled off my car in the bed of the truck behind us. The garrulous old guy had plenty of dumb jokes. (“Are you a city boy or a country boy?” “A city boy.” “Well, you might get this one anyway.” I didn’t.) The only thing my companions agreed on was the enduring stupidity of everyone else on the road. From our perch in the cab we could see every mistake every driver in front of us made, and whenever a mistake happened they abandoned the jokes and the iPhoning and together screamed STUPID MOTHERFUCKER!! as if they’d rehearsed it.
After they dropped me and the wreck off, they individually said it had been a pleasure riding with me and that they hoped things would get better. “It’s just a car,” each said, when the other one wasn’t around.
I don’t love cars. If you gave me my choice of any car in the world, I would take a vacation in Paris. But I didn’t expect the emotional jolt of stripping the Forester, which sat in my mechanic’s lot like a broken prop from Transformers: Dark of the Moon. What an ignominious end! That car had never let us down. It took us to and from hikes in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. It took us to work, to the ocean, to the river, to the desert, to our friends, to the movies, to dances and parties. I took plenty of naps in it (while my wife was driving). After 12 years, our car was like another room in our house.
We emptied the glove compartment, the side door pockets, everything in the back seat, and everything under the seats. We removed the jack, the spare tire, two walking poles, three pocket knives, four flashlights, a dozen road maps creased like cuts at the folds, an armload of canvas shopping bags emblazoned with the names of liberal causes, and all the survival gear we’d stashed, possibly for a road trip to the North Pole. I felt like a grave robber.
I agree with my friends in the tow-truck business: A car is just a car. But we humans extend our emotional lives to almost everything around us. When we write we eroticize the landscape. When we meet other dog owners we speak for our dogs. When our computers let us down we become enraged, as if the machines were doing it on purpose. And when you drive a car for 12 years, and it always gets you where you want to go, and one day it gets smashed by something like a dream from your childhood and you climb out of it and you’re not only alive, you’re not even hurt, then you stand by the side of the road and stare at what’s left and guess what? You could almost cry.