That Moment in Time

Forty-five minutes into our seven hour drive north the traffic comes to a complete standstill just south of Milwaukee. The highway is in the middle of construction and we are totally boxed in with concrete dividers and idling semis; there is no way to peek around to see what is going on. The midday traffic has been light, so the abrupt halt is foreboding, promptly confirmed by the oncoming sound of sirens.

We sit idling for about five minutes, but when the truck driver next to us turns off his rig, I realize that we are probably in for a long wait.  I roll down the window to hear the news. “There’s a big accident up ahead of us,” he says, “a southbound 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 newsseems to travel quickly through the trapped traffic, and one by one engines turn off and people emerge from their cars into the bright sunlight.

I give Ned my bird-watching binoculars and ask him to snake his way forward to get an idea of the extent of the accident. I get out to look around and check out our new randomly selected social group. The truck driver breaks all my stereotypes as he steps out of his rig. He looks like a suburban soccer dad, tidy and trim, wearing khaki shorts, a polo shirt and Birkenstocks. Immediately ahead of us a youngish looking man and woman step out of their car. They just don’t look like a romantic couple. Both are wearing business casual clothes and I assume that they are colleagues returning from an off-site business meeting. But the man sits on the trunk of the car, takes his shoes off and starts clipping his toenails. I nudge Nick, “Look at them, they can’t be co-workers.”

“They must be married,” says Nick.

The man reaches into the glove compartment, extracts a toothbrush and begins to brush his teeth. “Married for at least 10 years,” I add.

I strike up a conversation with the man in the sedan crammed with light fixtures. He is a traveling salesman who has driven across several states only to be trapped in this jam within sight of his house. He points ahead to his exit ramp just ahead, totally blocked off.  He sighs, “I have seen a lot of accidents in my travels and I am always glad I am part of the gapers’-block and not the victim, but this seems too cruel to be so close to home.”

This random assortment of fellow travelers makes me think back to my days of commuting on the El train in Chicago from my apartment on the north side of the city, through the business center and then out to the sketchier West side to medical school. When the El would mysteriously stop between stations in a dank tunnel, I would fall into an irrational fear that I might be stuck in this train for the rest of my life, and if so, who would become my friends amongst this collection of riders? The easy choice would be the other student sitting with a textbook on his lap, or given the limited options would I move out of my comfort zone 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? Thankfully, the train would inevitably lurch forward before I had to confront these choices.

But today I’m with my family in the spring sun. It is a beautiful day and people begin to mill about. It actually seems like a perfect setting for a block party. I’m sure that we aren’t the only ones with a loaded cooler in our car and I imagine that we could create an impromptu community by creating a picnic spread on the hood of our car. Certainly there must be a musician somewhere in our midst to provide some entertainment.

Our son Ned returns from his walk up the highway and interrupts my reverie with a sobering jolt of reality. “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. A tipped over semi is straddling both sides of the highway. There are spilled hamburger buns all over the place.”

My idling thoughts shift from random collections of people to the random series of events that has landed us one ripple away from ground zero. At home, I had thought that we were all set to go, but then at the last minute Ned hadn’t finished packing. When we headed out, Ned took an unusual route to get on the toll way, which probably set us back another minute or so. These are the most proximate factors that snuggle us safely some 100 yards away from potential death, but I can probably come up with an infinite number. Before leaving, Nick took the dogs for a final walk. If they had promptly pooped instead requiring a couple of laps around the driveway, we could have been the bloodied bodies lying on top of hamburger buns.

I grab my binoculars and start walking towards the crash. The binoculars give me an air of authority; many people ask me what’s going on. When I repeat the grim details of Ned’s story, people universally say something along the lines of, “I don’t mind sitting in this traffic, that could have easily been us up there.”

Everyone in this jam has their own unique circumstances that have landed them in the exact order that we now find ourselves. I think about the chaos theory symbolized by the butterfly effect – the small quirks in each of our routines that are ultimately responsible for widely diverging and unpredictable outcomes – death for those just ahead of us, near-death for my current peer group and a mere traffic annoyance for those farther back.

Suddenly I recall a book report that I had written in middle school about Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, the story of an ancient Incan bridge spanning a chasm; the bridge suddenly snaps and hurtles five innocent 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. The book remained on my reading list for several grades, so I kept revising the same book report over the next several years. Each year my repurposed report probed more deeply with discussions of the unhappy intersection of religion and the random nature of tragedy.

I  feel like I have a reasonable grasp on my life – chores, to-do lists, moving from point A to point B. But these are just sign posts, and if I look more closely I will see that the distance between them is filled with infinite random events – will I find a parking spot or who will I run into at the grocery store? Most days these details are nothing more than mindless filler, but on some days this filler coalesces into a distinct event – the perfect parking spot, timely networking at the meat counter, or even better, a life-changing event. Nick and I first met at a party neither of us was invited to. In a huge seething mass of people, we just happened to stand next to each other.

I ascribe these happy coalescences to luck, but recognize that randomness can also coalesce in a fatal way. On this beautiful spring day, an overturned semi is the Incan bridge – instead of random bodies plunging into a chasm, they are splayed out on the hot pavement midst far-flung hamburger bun . Luck and fate separated by nothing more than the gentle flap of a butterfly’s wing.

For those just ahead of us, the crash with be a bright line separating before and after.  Years from now a family will try to pinpoint an event and will ask, “Was that before or after the accident?” For us, one hundred yards back, this moment will be only an evanescent fleck on our timeline.

I feel awkward about being a gawker over road kill, so I head back to our car. The traffic further behind us is now being rerouted along a side road. These people are in the second ripple from ground zero, not close enough to the accident to think about near-death experiences, but close enough to react to our predicament. “Boy, we are so lucky. If we had left five minutes earlier, we would have been in that standstill. At least we can get off the highway.”

I turn to Nick. “Hey, I was just thinking. All of us are all guaranteed one real death experience, that’s a given. But don’t you think that in everyone’s lifetime there will be at least one near-death experience? Do you think this is ours?”

Nick and Ned are deep into their smart phones and don’t answer. I am left to my own ruminations. Hmm, let’s see, there was that city bus that almost ran me over and that cliff that almost did me in on a mountain hike. That puts me way over quota with a total of three near-death experiences. However, the first two were totally my fault, a product of impatience and carelessness. I decide to make a separate category for the random acts of a sloppy God. So now maybe I am booked for the rest of my life – I’ve got my near-deaths out of the way. At the very least, it is a soothing premise to live by.

We are approaching the two hour mark and boredom is settling in. I don’t have the energy to organize a block party and tallying near-death experiences has run its course. I lean back on the hood of the car and feel the radiant heat directly on my flat shoulder blades as it seeps down the small of my back. I close my eyes and listen to the sounds around me. Above me the distinctive thwapping noise of the news helicopter reminds me of the Vietnam War. With nothing better to do, my mind meanders to the distinct noises of our most prominent wars. For World War II, I hear 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 think they are called klaxons. I’m stumped by the signature sound of the Korean War, and am ashamed that I can only think of the M*A*S*H theme song.

The novelty of the standstill has worn off. I am not alone. Ned and Nick have tired of their smart phones and their conversation about the Chicago Bulls’ play-off possibilities has petered out. The truck driver has gotten back into his cab and rests his head against the wheel. My toe-clipping neighbor and his presumed wife sit motionless in their car. No one is milling around anymore.

I close my eyes and wonder if anxiety is now souring the initial relief at our good fortune – now people are probably cursing their missed airplanes, dogs needing a walk, babysitter logistics – the next waves of communication are likely focused on frantic work-arounds. We have no  time constraints – I know we will get to our point B, the only question is when. Suddenly Nick says, “Hey I think they’re making progress. They must have the bodies off the road, because there’s some sort of tractor removing the concrete barriers.”

I hear ignitions firing up and the rumble of the semi next to me. Traffic starts to inch forward; we are rerouted back southward and then the cars fan out to fill up side roads as we make big detours back north. Altogether not a bad two hours considering the proximity of death. We are on our way again, gratefully accelerating into another blind flurry of butterflies.

The missing words in the following poem are anagrams (i.e. share the same letters like spot, post, stop) and the number of asterisks indicates the number of letters. Your job is to solve the missing words based on the above rules and the context of the poem. Scroll down for answers.

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

Butterfly wings has 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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