An End Game

Summer, my sixty-sixth year, Ripton, Vermont.    

6/25/11 — An auspicious day to begin, as I can now reflect in some tranquility on yesterday’s two potentially fatal moments in traffic. The first, while less dramatic, troubles me more. I pulled out of the drive onto Route 125 directly in front of a van approaching at some speed from the left. The driver swerved to the berm and braked to a stop about ten or twelve yards to the left of where I was still, a little stupefied, blocking his lane of the highway. I tried to catch the driver’s eye and raised my arms in what I hoped would be seen as a gesture of apology, but I couldn’t really see him behind his windshield’s glare, and my gesture might have looked to him like anything, even a rebuke.  None too swiftly, I put the car in reverse and backed into our driveway. The van driver was slow to move forward, and as he passed by, I think he was staring in my direction, but again there was considerable glare and I could only see the mound of his bulk behind the glass. It would not have been inappropriate for him to lower his window and bawl me out, but he didn’t.  

As I made my way down the mountain toward Middlebury—more slowly than usual and with intentional extra caution—I reflected on my lapse in awareness. I was neither drowsy nor, I thought, particularly distracted, although I had been fairly inert, reading at my desk, composing on the lap-top for several hours prior to getting into the car. It would not do, I thought, to be so spacey when I was behind the wheel. It set me to musing on the fragility of my mortality generally. I suppose, considered objectively, that each of my now thousands of runs up and down the precipitous, zig-zagging stretch of Route 125 between Ripton and East Middlebury represents a heightened risk of mishap. The day we moved into the house, six years ago, I drove down to town on an errand and found myself backed up in a line of cars stopped by the police as they completed the gruesome business of carting away the body of a young cyclist who had been killed by a tractor-trailer truck that had veered into her lane. Another auspicious beginning.  

Yesterday’s errands were inconsequential –some salad fixings for dinner and a stop at the golf course to hit some balls and perhaps purchase one of the highly touted new drivers composed of special alloys that supposedly add great distance to anybody’s tee shots. Out on the practice range, I thought I could detect a difference between shots with my old driver and the one recommended by the pro in the pro shop. In size and design, the club reminded me of the kinds of clock radios found on bedside stands at the big chain hotels. For $320, more than twice what I paid for my first car (a slightly tired but much beloved Renault Dauphine), I bought the new driver, with little conviction that it would improve my intractably ordinary golf game. But it makes me laugh out loud to picture slipping its enormity out of my bag, without comment, as my friends and I approach the first tee. The near collision on the drive back up the mountain sent me into a heightened state. As I crossed the bridge leaving East Middlebury and entered the first sharp curve of the upward climb, a file of three motorcyclists was heading down toward me in the adjacent lane. I would guess they were going between forty and fifty miles an hour. I was in mid-reflection on how fast they were taking that final curve when I saw that the third cyclist in line wasn’t able to hold his lane. As he crossed the double yellow line he was, for an instant, headed into the center of my car. At that instant there was no thought, only reflex. I witnessed more than executed flooring the brake and swerving off onto the gravel shoulder of the road.

For his part, the cyclist made a complementary attempt to swerve back into his lane—there was a flap against the door of my car as we passed, saddlebag? elbow?—which took the motorcycle out from under him and sent them both skidding horribly down the macadam. My heart was pounding as I got out of my car and ran back to where the cyclist lay on his back, holding one arm with the other and crying out in pain. My first thought was a kind of elation that he was not dead. There was a small cut on his brow below the rim of his helmet, another on the bridge of his nose. I asked him if he was all right, and he mumbled, “it hurts.” I realized I didn’t have my cell phone with me, but the driver of another stopped car was running up the incline to help, and he did have a phone and called 911. Now half a dozen cars had stopped and their drivers and passengers quickly stationed themselves on the downhill and uphill berms in order to direct single-lane traffic past the accident. The wait for the emergency medical staff and the ambulance seemed endless but was probably about ten minutes. I decided that my role was to do what I could to keep the fallen cyclist from moving, a notion surfacing from some long past instruction in first aid. Then there was a swarm of police officers on the scene, quickly followed by an ambulance and EMT crew, led by a woman of considerable command. She knelt down and put her face close to the still helmeted cyclist and said, smiling, “so what are you doing lying in the middle of the road?” The cyclist’s helmet was gingerly removed as were his ear plugs, and he began to converse sensibly with the attendants. Meanwhile the other two cyclists, realizing miles down the road that their mate wasn’t in sight, had circled back to find him. The fallen cyclist, Bob, now revealed as a cleanly bald man of some girth, told the EMT staff that he thought his right hip and shoulder and collar bone were broken. His cycling mates added, “he knows what he’s talking about—he’s an R.N.” Even before Bob was raised without complaint to a sitting position, I found myself in a state of relief approaching elation. Whatever was broken in Bob, he was coherent, even helpful, able to move both hands and both feet. He was going to be all right. And I was all right, completely all right, if inches and milliseconds shy of being a killer, if not killed. I gave my narrative to a young patrolman who politely sent me up the mountain and home.   It is awfully hard not to read a message in this afternoon’s outing, but what?