Archive for December 13th, 2006

Yesterday Jim and I went off down to Springfield to take another dancing lesson.  We are baby ballroom dancers in the process of learning the two-step.  Yesterday we learned how to properly execute 180 degree turns and spins.   We are really having fun with this, we even practice. 

On our way to Springfield, traversing the wilds of Interstate 44, we had a near death experience.   As I was overtaking a pair of trucks, the truck that I was passing decided that he needed to pass the one that was first in line.  He put on his left turn signal, thank God he decided to use his signal!  I immediately started blowing my horn so that he might possibly notice my presence next to the back wheels of his tractor.  Alas, his diesel was too loud and apparently his rear view mirror was not functioning either.   I could see his face in it, but his eyes were focused on the road ahead.   I knew in that moment I was in trouble.

His blinker flashed twice, and then he began to move over;  into my lane, into us.  I didn’t wait to panic.  I continued laying on my horn as I did an emergency braking maneuver and started steering towards the shoulder.  I did not particularly wish to go into the median, since in that part of the highway the DOT has completed their “safety project” of installing cables and posts at the edge of it, which if you hit them generally throw you back into traffic in a rather uncontrolled fashion.  My left wheels went over the rumble strip and dropped down onto the shoulder as I decelerated precipitously. 

As the inattentive asshole completed his move into the fast lane, the end of his trailer crossed in front of  the hood of my car with inches to spare.  I gently steered my vehicle back onto the road and began to speed up to the flow of traffic once more.  I ruefully report that by then the air of the car was thick and blue.  My husband started breathing again and told me, “Well done.  You did a great job.” 

As we continued along our way, I did a little ranting.  But then I reflected on why I was so alert to the potential danger that truck posed to us.  What made me able to immediately react and perform a maneuver that kept us from being involved in a nasty accident and probably getting killed?  Generally, when car meets semi-truck, the occupants of the car do not come out of the encounter well.

I grew up in the 60s.  Out in rural Colorado, where I was performing this feat, there was no such thing as Driver Education.  Oh, down in Boulder you saw cars with “Student Driver” signs on them, but not up in the hinterlands of the high mountains.  My driving instructors were my parents.

Mother performed the essential training in stopping and starting a massive steel behemoth equipped with a manual transmission.  She took us out to the Haul Road, a gravel road that had been built down to a gravel pit which was used in hauling fill when they built Highway 119.   It was a pretty good road, but a dead end and had NO traffic whatsover.  She would take the child whose legs were long enough to reach the clutch and brake and who was tall enough to see over the wheel of the 1955 Ford sedan out there, and we would practice stopping, shifting, starting on a hill using the emergency brake, and turning around. 

When I reached the magic age of 16, I got my learner’s permit.  It was then that Daddy took over the co-pilot’s seat, and the training in defensive driving began.  Actually, Daddy took the philosophy a step farther.  His attitude was that you should not drive defensively so much as paranoid.  He tried to ingrain this statement into my brain:  “You should assume that they are ALL idiots and they ARE out to get you.”

I had a job doing alterations and repairs at a cleaners down in Boulder that summer, and my parents and I commuted down Boulder Canyon every morning.  I drove, my father criticized and my mother cringed in the back seat.  Every day, I would be tested verbally as we drove:  “A car is coming around that curve in front of you.  He is in your lane. What do you do?” my father would bark suddenly, as we were tooling along through the beautiful morning.  He postulated all sorts of disasters, and made me recite what my plan was. 

Later on, as my skills increased, he would instruct me to drive over to the edge of the road and let my wheels drop off the pavement so I would know how that felt and what to do when it happened.  He encouraged me to go into empty, icy parking lots and make doughnuts, practice skids, and recovering from them.  He taught me how to use the sightlines of the car to tell exactly where my wheels were on the road. 

If we were proceeding down a city street, he would point out the potential dangers.  “What is that guy doing in that car?  See his head in the driver’s seat?  Is he going to pull out in front of you, is he going to open his door?  Watch him!” he would yell at me.  Or we’d be driving along and he’d bark, “I haven’t seen your eyes move for two minutes.  You must always stay aware of what is around you.  Scan, scan, scan, check your rear view mirror.”

All this made learning to drive very stressful for everyone in the vehicle.  But the habits that got ingrained into me have saved my bacon more than once in my life, and I am grateful for the lessons now.

A few years later, when I was in college, I had a boyfriend who had a white Datsun 240Z (with a red interior), back when Datsun was Datsun and not Nissan, and the 240Z was the most cool of cool sports cars.  He was a road rally driver, a member of the Fairbanks Sports Car Club, and did ice racing in the winter.  He was also a cook in the US Army and made the best peanut brittle I have ever eaten.  He used to take me out to a beautiful bar made of logs out along the Chena River and ply me with excellent vodka gimlets, all purchased with his poker winnings.

It was Ron who honed my already considerable driving skills.  He let me drive his cute little car, which he had tuned up so that the speed it “liked” to go was about 85 mph (137kph).  He took me out on the frozen lake where FSCC had an ice track, and taught me how to “really” drive on ice, not just how to deal with the occasional fish tail or skid. 

Those lessons have stood me in good stead all my life.  When mother nature turns the highways around here into a skating rink, I know how to get from point A to point B without getting in trouble.  Of course, it is better to stay home, but if you HAVE to go, go with knowledge and skills and that will help keep you safe.

After I learned about ice, he taught me about speed.  No, not amphetamines, the joy of maneuvering your handy little sports car around curves and down straightaways faster than you imagine is possible.  How to judge a curve, where to enter it.  How to apply the gas as you go around it to keep your vehicle from being pulled off it by the centripetal force.  

My “final exam” was a trip from Fairbanks to Chena Hot Springs for dinner and a swim in the pool.  At the time this was 60 miles of curvy gravel road with some wonderful straight-aways.  I drove while Ron kept a lookout for moose.  We got there in 42 minutes.  I won’t force you to do the math:  we averaged 86mph.  

I still love driving fast, very fast.  My tire replacement guy can testify this is true by the wear pattern on my tires.  I try not to do it when there is a passenger with me.  I don’t believe I have the right to endanger anyone else’s life but my own, and I don’t enjoy the moans and gasps from the right side of the car if I let my lead foot fall too effectively on the accelerator.  Besides, it is distracting.

I could tell other harrowing tales of how I avoided being creamed.  There is one that involves ice, the little hill below the Bunnell Building and Wickersham Hall and a car that was never going to stop for the stop sign there.  Because of my father, I saw what was going to happen.  Because of Ron, I had the skills to drive over the curb and berm of snow there and behind him as the  other driver slid gracefully through the intersection.

I am thankful for the lessons, and grateful to be alive and whole today.  I owe it all to Ron and my father.  I just wish I had that little Z-car.  I loved that car!

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