Rant of the Week

Brush With Death

In September 1977,  I was headed back to Chicago from Calgary after working for the summer for United Grain Growers.  I was driving a two-door 1965 Dodge Dart.  It took about 37 hours to drive from Calgary to Chicago and, like any crazy teenager, we usually drove it straight through.  Who could afford a motel?

I liked that Dart, with it's reliable but noisy slant-6, and push-button transmission.  I miss it.  I painted it bright red with a big white maple leaf on the hood.

I can't remember why, but in late summer 1977, I was driving alone. 

In the previous year, by the way, 1976, I had driven back with a friend of mine, Sid Bakker, who owned a Chevy van, and another friend, Charles Kooger, who took turns sleeping in both vehicles.  At one point, Charles took over driving for a bit while I snoozed in the van. 

In the arid, hot summer sun, the Dodge overheated, the temperature rising ominously on the dashboard guage.  Rather than slow down and drive together, Sid and I went on ahead and Charles stopped for a while to let the Dodge Dart cool.   Seems a tad unsociable now that I think about it, but it made sense at the time: why should both of us be held up?  It wasn't a serious problem with the Dodge: you just had to stop and let it cool down every so often.

Eventually, Charles discovered that if he removed the front grill, the engine cooled more efficiently.  It wasn't a flash out of the blue: I think someone in his family had previously owned a Dodge with the same problem. 

Later on, we realized that you could also just turn on the heater (with the windows open).  The heating system removed heat-- of course-- from the engine and channeled it into the cabin radiator through a rubber hose, dissipating it.  You just had to keep the windows open, of course, to keep from suffocating.  End of digression.

Next digression: in 1978, I drove back from Calgary with Karin Schat, who had her "beginner's" license. 

I believe that Sid was working in Ontario for the summer, to hang out near his girl-friend, Irene Vermeer.

Karin drove part of the way, but instead of letting me sleep, she insisted I had to stay awake to keep her company.  At one point, somewhere in Montana, I believe, a number of police cars went flying past us with lights flashing-- but no sirens.  They were looking for an escaped prisoner, because they had a road-block set-up which we had to pass through.   End of second digression.

Back to 1977.  I was cruising along, in 1977, south of Calgary, with very little traffic on the road.  As I approached an intersection from the north, I saw a pickup truck approach from a side road, west, and come to a stop at the highway.  I seem to remember that I thought there was something odd about the way he was just sitting there.  And as I think that, I think I'm probably just projecting.  There might have been something-- the way he allowed the truck to roll forward slowly as if he didn't anticipate having to actually come to a full stop-- who knows? 

Anyway, he didn't just sit there.  He waited until I was upon him, at 65 miles per hour, 120 kilometers an hour, and then he pulled out right in front of me.

I was pretty sure I was going to die.  There was no time to swerve or stop.  I slammed on my brakes and waited for the big, big crunch.  My car went into a wild, clock-wise spin, and a few seconds later I seemed to "come to" at the side of the road, facing the wrong way, staring out at the peaceful highway.  In the east, I noticed a cloud of dust on the gravel road down which the pickup truck was moving rapidly.   There is no reasonable chance that he did not see what he almost did, and very little chance that he didn't think he might have caused my death.  Hit and run.  Except we didn't hit.

I have no idea how I missed him.  He might have come to a sudden stop, and my car might have danced around him, in it's clockwise spin, and swung by him.  I doubt he could have gotten out of the way fast enough for me to have avoided him on the right, but it's possible, but the car was into a clockwise motion, so it seemed unlikely to me.

Now, the car went into a clockwise spin for a reason.  During the summer, the right front tire had blown.  Being a cheap, poor student, I went to a junkyard to buy a used replacement tire.  I saw a lovely one with very good tread and I do remember that the manager told me it was a radial tire and I shouldn't use it unless all of my other tires were radials.  I was stupid and assumed that this was one of those items of folk wisdom one could safely disregard and I bought the tire anyway and had it put on the rim and off I went.

What happened when I slammed on the brakes when that truck pulled out in front of me was this: the front right tire grabbed the road with a good deal more traction than any of my other tires, which caused the car to jack-knife around the pick-up truck. 

The radial tire saved my life.  Of course, in other circumstances, that radial tire might just as well have killed me.

I resumed my trip.  I never really thought all that much about it until much, much later.


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