This is an easy tale for me to tell, I’ve told it hundreds of times to many people. Mostly I recount this story for my own amusement as I watch the faces of those listening contort while I describe the details, but recently I’ve come to appreciate how it affected me and continues to do so.
So here goes.
I was twenty years of age, working at a local restaurant between my recent course at a local college and going away to university. It was a late shift, finishing around midnight. I was a bartender in the establishment and worked most days through the lunch rush and also usually during the evening. This particular day was rare as I only had one shift and for good reason as the Friday night shift was intense.
For completeness, the restaurant was split into two functioning rooms. An alfresco dining experience in front and a more formal dining room in the rear. We would typically try and turn covers twice in an evening, with both sides of the business on a popular night this meant we would serve around two-hundred and forty odd covers in that shift.
On Friday nights we’d have anywhere between six to eight front-of-house staff rostered on, a head chef, several kitchen hands, and the business owner all working full tilt slinging food and drinks to patrons. It wasn’t a very eventful night, but by the end of the shift we were all thankful that the restaurant closing time had arrived and we could slow the pace to finish off the evening.
After we had cleaned and packed down, a select few would hang back to have a chat about work, shoot the breeze, eat a few wood-fire pizzas and generally chill out before going home and doing it all the next day.
I didn’t stay long at all, had a small bite to eat as I was famished from working the shift and soon said my goodbyes and left. Prior that day a friend had mentioned that they would be going to a local night club around the time I was finishing and that I should drop by on my way home.
It sounded like a great idea.
Still alert from such a busy night, I changed out of my work uniform, hopped into my car and drove out of the back lot behind the restaurant. Soon I turned out onto a main street and came to a stop at a red traffic light.
It’s important here to mention how far I’d driven. Where I had stopped was only around five-hundred meters from the front door of the restaurant.
Stopped at the red light I waited patiently, listening to a late night news broadcast on the radio about the events of the day. Suddenly I heard the roaring of an engine behind me, distant at first but growing louder. I wouldn’t usually think much of it but I must have felt something was very different as I quickly looked into the rear-vision mirror of my car.
There was a phenomena that occurred in the city I lived in. Young drivers, particularly males, would accelerate rapidly toward a vehicle stopped at a red light only to sharply move into the adjacent lane and back in again once they’d passed. On reflection, it was clearly the sudden burst of adrenaline and short-term feeling of superiority and power that lead them to perform such dangerous maneuvers in the first place.
I’ll stop here for a moment and give you insight on what occurred to me in those few seconds. I’m not sure how but I knew in an instant that without a doubt the driver of the other vehicle would hit me. Instinctually I’d reached out and braced myself against the interior of my car, simple to do in a small hatchback when you’re over six-feet tall.
I hadn’t prepared for this kind of event, had never been in a situation like this, nor ever before thought about what to do if faced with this kind of life or death moment. Yet I still pushed back against my drivers seat, pressed hard onto the surfaces surrounding me and prepared.
So there I was, staring at a set of headlights in my rear-vision mirror heading towards me at furious pace. My body rigid against the interior of my car.
I can’t recall the exact moment of impact. I am in the firm belief that a function of our memory is to cushion us from the intensity of pain and emotion that comes with certain events. It was only a fraction of a second between looking at those lights baring down on me, to staring at the roof of my vehicle. My incredible fortune had come about when I’d instinctually braced myself against the seat.
Later I would find out from an attending police officer that he estimated the driver had struck my vehicle while travelling at some seventy kilometeres an hour on an inner-city street where the speed limit was only fifty.
To understand just how fortunate I had been is something that I reflect on even today. It was the quarter-inch metal pin that holds the back of a drivers seat in position, made of hardened steel, that sheared under the incredible force of the impact which saved me.
However, had I not also applied additional pressure against the seat it was likely it would not have broken. Without the pin breaking I would have been suddenly thrown back into my seat during the impact, then thrown forward into the steering wheel and as there were no air-bags in the car, probably would have resulted in a fatal injury.
Was it luck, or instinct that saved me? I’d like to think a lot of both are true.
Following the impact, my first reaction was to get out of the vehicle. I knew I’d been hit from behind so my greatest concern was that the fuel tank would be pierced and may be leaking. I could also hear the other driver attempting to restart their vehicle which was as you can imagine severely damaged.
I sat forward and reached for the drivers side door handle and pulled. It immediately tore off from my door in my hand. I reached for the passenger side door handle and pulled, again the handle tore away.
I was trapped.
If you haven’t experienced a forceful collision in older-era cars before then it’s hard to appreciate what occurs to the vehicle. Not only does the substructure of the car bend out of place, but the impact force can also ripple the outer metal skin causing the doors to lock in place.
In the rear-pocket of the passenger seat I had a hand towel that I used sometimes to clean the interior of my car. Grabbing the towel I spun myself in the drivers seat so my feet rested against the passenger door, wrapped the towel around the cable where the door handle used to be, pulled sharply on the now towel-covered cable and kicked hard. It took several kicks to force the door open and exit the vehicle, but I was now free.
I found myself standing in the very middle of the intersection, slightly stunned. It was then I realised how incredibly lucky it was that there were no other cars travelling on the road at the same time.
Lets take stock of the situation I now faced.
It was just after midnight. My car was in a recognisable but utterly ruined state which I’d just had to kick my way out of for fear it may explode due to the damage of the impact. About ten-meters from where I was standing there remained a person who had very nearly killed me and who continued to attempt to start their vehicle. Almost certainly he’d drive away from the scene if given the chance.
I’m not sure what other people would have done at this moment.
Rather than any form of anger, an almost deafening silence washed over me along with an intense sense of calm. I can’t relate what this feels like adequately, but I can easily say it was one of the most tranquil moments I’ve ever experienced.
I walked over to the drivers side of the other car, looked at the driver who had his hand on the key relentlessly turning over the engine. I have to appreciate what his state of mind must have been when I stood there.
Here he was sitting in a wrecked vehicle. He’d been travelling down the road at a faster than legal pace, attempted a risky maneuver which failed and he’s suffered a significant collision. After he’s come to his senses and tried his best to get away, he’s witnessed a six-foot two-inch man kick his way out of his own car and walk over to his window to inquire what indeed he was doing.
It was that time I spoke to the driver.
“Mate, what the hell.” I said.
Silence. He stopped turning over the engine for a few seconds before starting again.
“Are you alright? Do you need help?” I asked him.
Nothing. White-hot paralysing fear had gripped him as he continued to turn over the engine.
By this time quite a crowd had gathered on the nearby pavement. A person on the street yelled out “I’ve called the cops and a tow-truck for you.” I turned and thanked the person. Whoever they were I’ll never know but I’ll always remember their prompt action.
Soon the police arrived, took a statement from me and started to attempt to talk to the other driver. I say ‘attempt’ because English wasn’t his first language. It turned out that he had only been in the country for a little over six-weeks, had a document he called a ‘drivers license’ that wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on, and the car was his cousins who had left the country to go home for a short time. Additionally the car wasn’t insured, at least at that time the police believed the owner had no insurance.
A few officers pushed his car off the road and into a nearby empty carpark, as they did so an officer turned to me and coldly told me “You can’t leave your car in the middle of the intersection.”
The tow-truck arrived a few minutes later, as did my parents. We drove to the towing yard following the truck. Before they locked the gates for the night the tow-truck driver let me gather the items that were in my car at the time.
My parents drove me to the hospital to be checked for injuries.
On arrival I walked in to the emergency department and explained to the nurse what had happened. She went white and nearly fainted, not believing that I just walked in through the doors on her watch without assistance.
Quickly I was attended to, before long I was laying on a gurney wearing a cervical neck brace and hooked up to a heart monitor. The rostered doctor who was on shift that night couldn’t have been better. Wolfgang I don’t know where you are right now but damn did you make me laugh.
Armed with a thick-German accent and a light-hearted attitude (and probably a also a little disbelief like the nurse) he took a small amount of blood to screen for alcohol and other drugs for my insurance and wheeled me into a nearby lab to check my neck and spine with high-resolution x-ray. It would take a while to get the results of the results back, so Wolfgang wheeled me back into the emergency bay I came from and hooked me back up to the heart rate monitor.
While laying on my back still wearing the neck-brace and waiting I began to get a little bored. The only form of entertainment I could find was the heart rate monitor. It was attached to the middle fingertip of my right hand, and without moving I could see the digital unit that displayed the results. I could remember the feeling of tranquility I’d experienced standing out on the road only an hour before and wondered if I’d ever be lucky enough to experience it again. Thinking about how I felt I watched the number on the display begin to drop, slowly at first but it seemed if I remained calm and pace my breathing the numbers would continue to fall.
About thirty minutes passed and I was still having fun raising and lowering my heart rate, when Wolfgang rushed over to my bedside furiously checking connections and tapping at the display. He thought that my heart rate was far too low and that I was close to crashing, but I quickly set him straight and let my heart rate rise again back to normal.
After another round of laughter over the monitor, an x-ray technician brought the images of my neck and spine into the doctor who examined them throughly. He was in disbelief that I had no damage at all, nothing to bone, cartilage or tissue.
With a clean bill of health and a clear report of no drugs and alcohol present he discharged me and told me to ‘get some bloody rest, you need it’
But I was a twenty-year-old who’d been denied meeting my friends out, clearly that wasn’t going to happen.
My parents were still with me, I returned to their car and they began to drive towards home. As we passed the restaurant entrance again I could see the lights where on in the alfresco dining area, but everyone had already gone home.
Without hesitation I’d decided not to let the collision and loss of my vehicle ruin my night at all.
I told my parents to turn the car around… I was going out on the town.
Against better judgement (and my persistence) they dropped me off to the night club where my friends had gathered earlier that evening. It was about two o’clock in the morning when I arrived and was greeted by friendly cheers that I was finally there. I didn’t drink anything but water while at the club, the adrenaline that had built up was more than enough to keep me dancing till the club closed near five in the morning.
I had fun, but with the massive impact I’d had and some rather rigorous dancing I certainly felt it in the morning. For the next six weeks I couldn’t sit up in bed, I may have not had any significant damage to my neck but boy did I have a wicked case of whiplash (or Cervical Acceleration–Deceleration for you medical types).
It’s hard to think over the event in such detail and not get at least a little emotional, but then I don’t typically relate the intricacies of this story as I have here.
Eventually the police and justice system managed to arrange an insurance payment to me for the value of my vehicle. Sad that I’d lost my first car to such an act of sheer idiocy that could have been avoided, I set out to find myself vehicle.
Two things truly surprised me that night.
The first was the immense luck that I experienced. Looking back it could have all ended that night, but here I am, still breathing, typing this article.
I often wonder if there is an intangible quality of the universe that manifests itself in great times of need, certainly something gave me the foresight to assess and react to the presence of death rushing toward me at rapid pace.
It’s that moment between the seconds where realised futures and an instinct to suvive combine into innate action that holds me in complete awe.
The second is the moment of tranquillity after exiting my car. I’ve never felt anything close since. As mentioned, I can’t relate to you with words alone what that brief moment was like, but I’ll certainly try.
Imagine your body becoming heavy. I don’t mean that edge-of-sleep feeling, more like your flesh and bone has been replaced with solid lead. The crushing weight rooting you to the ground, the sound of rushing blood through veins filling your ears, growing louder until it is almost unbearable.
Then without warning, silence. The heavy feeling doesn’t just retreat, it leaves suddenly. The state you’re left with is silent… centred… calm.
The motion of breathing returns after a while, and once you recognise the sound of breath inhaling and exhaling the world seems to rush back in, filling the void.
I have no idea what causes it, but in that moment its almost as if time stops to give you a break from the weight of what you’ve just endured.
Today, I remain forever changed and it is for the better. In moments since the event I’ve been able to meet challenges head on, quickly assessing situations and prescribing a course of action that usually results in good outcomes.
I’ve also gained a moment to reflect on to return to a state of calm. If ever stressed or anxious I can put myself back into the moment of standing on that road, and even though it’s nothing like what I experienced that night it still serves me well and centres me.
Finally, I’m thankful that I’m still alive and am appreciative of how a single fraction of time can change everything.
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