That Moment in Time

We were only about 45 minutes into our 7 hour drive north when the traffic came to a complete standstill just south of Milwaukee.  The highway was in the middle of construction and we were totally boxed in with concrete dividers and rumbling semis; there was no way to peek around and see what was going on.  The midday traffic had been light, so the abrupt halt was foreboding, promptly confirmed by the distant but oncoming sound of sirens. 

 We sat idling for about five minutes, but when the truck driver next to us turned off his rig, we realized that we might as well settle in and get comfortable.  “There’s big accident up ahead of us,” he said, “a south bound semi crashed into the divider and flipped over into the northbound traffic.  There are bodies.  Both sides of the highway are completely blocked off.” 

 The grim news traveled quickly through the trapped traffic, and one by one engines were turned off and people emerged from their cars into the bright sunlight.  I got out to look around and check out our new randomly selected social group.  The truck driver broke all my stereotypes as he stepped out of his van.  He was neat and trim, wearing khaki shorts and a polo shirt, and looked like he would be coaching a kid’s soccer game on Sunday.  Immediately ahead of us were a youngish looking man and woman who looked like they were returning from a business meeting.  They just didn’t look like a romantic couple.  But that image was shattered when the man sat on the trunk of the car, took off his shoes and starting clipping his toenails.  When he began to brush his teeth I revised my first impression and concluded that they had been married for years.  The older man in the sedan in front of them had a back seat filled with boxes of light fixtures.  He said that he had been in many traffic jams over his many years on the road, but never one so close to home.  He said that he could almost see his house from where we were trapped. 

 I thought back to my days of commuting on the El in Chicago from my apartment on the north side of the city, through the business center and then out to the sketchier West side.  When the El would mysteriously stop between stations in a pitch black tunnel, I would have an irrational fear that I might be stuck in the El train for the rest of my life, and if so, who would become my friends amongst this random collection of riders?  The easy choice would be the other medical student, or would I, by necessity, branch out and strike up a conversation with the guy wearing a doo rag and hoisting a boom box, or perhaps with the pleasant looking older women with huge bunions and cracked calluses, or maybe the pretty younger woman whose tongue was currently in the ear of her boyfriend?  The train would inevitably lurch forward as I was scoping out my options. 

 But here I knew I had a lot of time, we weren’t in a dank tunnel, and in fact it was a beautiful day and people began to mill about.   It actually seemed like a perfect setting for an impromptu block party.  I thought how great if we could find a couple of bridge players in the mix, and set up a game on the hood of our car.  A perfect way to pass a couple of hours in the cool spring sun.  Years ago just Nick and I were vacationing in the Caribbean and we put a sign up on the activities board that we were looking for middling bridge players, and were thrilled to see that room 214 responded.  We met our mystery opponents in the lobby that evening and spent a memorable evening playing bridge with an older couple (they were probably about our age now); the husband was a retired engineer who had built airplane bombers.  He slammed back bourbon after bourbon and sniped at his wife, who more than held her own.  Just last New Years we found Phil and Linda on a whale watching trip in the Sea of Cortez.  We had a fabulous time playing bridge with them for three straight nights, and I think that if we had maybe one or two more nights we might have exchanged addresses and Christmas cards and looked them up if we were ever in Oregon. 

 Our son Ned had now returned from his walk up the highway.  “The crash is really close, just ahead, under the bridge.  It’s a mess.  I saw an EMT with an axe breaking a window to get a guy out.  There is tipped over semi that is straddling both sides of the highway.  There are spilled hamburger buns all over the place.”

 I had not realized that we were so close to the accident, and immediately began to think of the series of coincidences that put us at one ripple away from ground zero.  At home, I thought that we were all set to go, and then at the last minute Ned hadn’t finished packing.  When we headed out, Ned took an unusual route to get on the tollway, which probably set us back another minute or so.  These were the most proximate factors that put us snuggled safely in traffic some 1000 yards away from a near death experience, but I probably could come with an infinite number.  Before leaving, Nick took the dogs for a final bio break.  If they had promptly performed instead requiring a couple of laps around the driveway, we could have been the bloodied bodies lying on top of hamburger buns.

 I grabbed my binoculars and started walking towards the crash.  The binoculars must have lent me an air of authority, because many people asked me what was going on.  When I repeated Ned’s story, almost universally, people said something along the lines of, “I don’t mind sitting in this traffic, that could have easily been us up there.”  As I walked further, I felt that I was approaching a bright line for the victims, separating the time before and after the crash.  I could imagine the waves of communications streaming out, sending on tragic news that would forever change lives.  Nick’s mother happened to call, and then she called Nick’s siblings to confirm that we were okay, on the off chance that one of them heard that there had been a major accident near Milwaukee, and the even more remote chance that they knew we might have been in the area.

 It made me think of a book that I had read in middle school called “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” by Thornton Wilder.  This was a popular book since it was on the reading list for three straight years in junior high and thus was a perfect choice when you had to write a book report.  It told the story of an ancient Incan bridge spanning a chasm; the bridge  suddenly snapped and hurtled 5 seemingly random people to a violent death.  The tragedy is witnessed by a monk who then seeks to understand why God made these choices and how he engineered the set of circumstances that put these specific people on the bridge at that very moment.  He never finds an explanation, is accused of being a heretic and both he and his book are ultimately burned in the town square.  So if you strip away the story line, and Wilder’s elegant prose, the book report could simply conclude, “Shit happens, sometime good, sometimes bad.”

 I felt awkward about being a gawker over road kill, so I headed back to our car.  I noticed that other traffic was slowly being rerouted along a side road and realized that cars just a little further back had the good fortune of being able to exit – even though they were just inching along.  These cars were in the second ripple from ground zero, not close enough to the accident to think about near-death experiences, but close enough to our predicament to say, “Boy were we lucky not to get trapped in that traffic standstill.”  Traffic and bodies is a staple of local TV, and soon I heard news helicopters hovering over us.  This distinctive thwapping noise immediately made me think of the Vietnam War, imprinted in my memory from the many hours of nightly news in the 1960s.  With nothing else to do, I pondered on distinctive noises of our most prominent wars.  For World War II, I think of the menacing sound of German shepherds barking as they strain at their leashes, the sound of armies marching on cobblestone streets, and the dissonant two tones of French sirens – I suppose you would call them klaxons.  And then somewhat embarrassingly, the Korean War is represented by the M*A*S*H theme song.

 I snapped out of it when Nick said, “Hey I think that they are making progress.  They must have the bodies off the road, because now they have some device up there removing the concrete barriers.”  And then suddenly traffic starting inching forward; we were rerouted back south and then the traffic fanned out to fill up side roads as we made a big detour back north.  Altogether not a bad 2 hours.  And now we were on our way again, rushing into another infinite set of coincidences. 

The missing words in the following poem are all anagrams (i.e. like meat, mate, team) and the number of dashed indicates the number of letters.  One missing word will rhyme with either the preceding or following line.  Your job is to figure out the words from the context of the poem.  Scroll down for answers.

 Ever since you took your first breath and your life began,

Coincidences and circumstances have determined your life —-.

So don’t fritter away your nights foot loose and fancy free,

Or squander your afternoons taking —- in front of TV.

But also don’t spend too much time wondering what life is all about,

You’ll be wasting time waiting to see if your life —- out.

And don’t worry about making long term investments to get ahead,

Because with a —- of the fingers, shit happens, you may be dead.







Answers:  span, naps, pans, snap

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