Thursday, August 7, 2008

Proximity to Tragedy

Last week, as I drove home from court in an outlying county, I caught an NPR interview (link to older interview) with Laurence Gonzales, author of Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. What first caught my attention was Gonzales’ view of what most often gets men into trouble when their survival depends on them making no false moves. What gets us into trouble? Sadly, Gonzales says, it’s testosterone, inexperience with the outdoors and even testosterone. We often fail to think, when we truly need to, and often assume unnecessary risks that make us, well, dead. He describes, in an earlier article:

Accidents are bound to happen. But they don’t have to happen to you if you recognize your role in a system. Driving bumper to bumper at highway speeds, waiting for someone to tap his brakes and start a chain reaction accident is one example. Having a retirement account heavily invested in the stock market is another. A small move by a few investors can send everyone stampeding for the door. Being aware of such systems and analyzing the forces involved can often reveal that we’re doing something much riskier than it seems.

As I was driving at the time, likely talking on my cell or navigating my ipod for that one special song or podcast, what also caught my attention was Gonzales’ description of how dangerous driving truly is. He also said of driving:

- If it was invented today it would be outlawed tomorrow due to the number of deaths and injuries.
- If we weren’t so used to the risks, we would drive with helmets, thus at least reducing the risk the way we’ve begun to do with bicycles.
- When we invent a safety feature, like anti-lock brakes, we tend to over-rely on its effectiveness, thinking that technological advances allow us to take more risks rather than eliminating existing risks.

At night, I’m sometimes awakened by the sound of revving engines on what I think of as “donor bikes.” My friend, the doctor, told me that’s what the employees in the organ donor departments called them, and the term was hard to forget, as well as the source. He also told me he was surprised to see doctors wearing boots, the high kind farmers wear to irrigate corn, and then found out they were the surgeons who harvested organs and did transplants. Another image that’s difficult to forget.

So, with Gonzales’ descriptions of the risks of driving as a lead-in, and with the subtitle “Who Lives, who Dies and Why” in mind, I ordered the book from the library. Last night I went to pick it up, letting my 12-year old ride in the front seat, despite the air bag risk that usually had me making her sit in the back. We were only going a couple miles and the risk would be worth it, I assumed.

Everything’s fine; we made it home o.k., but, as we waited at a stoplight, I heard, and then saw, two of these “donor bikes” flying down the street that we waited to cross. One burst out ahead and the other came on even faster, trying to catch his friend. This burst of speed made his shirt fly up his back as he crossed our windshield. Then, as he went over the hill, his bike began to shimmy, as if he’d lost control. His friend had slowed in front of him, just as he sped up and, as he steered away, he sat up, off the bike, as it shifted back and forth, violently, on the verge of going down hard.

At first I thought he was having fun, scaring his friend, but he kept it up too long, shaking back and forth too far, just as he went over down the hill and out of my sight. I didn’t think, I just yelled what came to mind, “Oh God, No, he’s going down!” I saw the friend turn and look ahead, where I couldn’t see, seemingly alarmed too. My daughter screamed back at me, asking what I saw, unused to having to look at other cars as we rode. I screamed, “No! No! No!, shocked, thinking that I’d just seen a kid turn from having fun to becoming a road stain in seconds. I thought that down that hill lay a rolled bike, a skinny kid wearing a sleeveless tee and shorts become at least a severe road rash victim on his way to the hospital. Perhaps worse.

But no one else was around. No one had really seen anything, it seemed. As we sat there, in the right hand lane, unable to turn and go down there, screaming back and forth, trying to explain what we thought we’d just seen, the cars came up from behind. I looked at the driver beside me but he’d arrived too late, hadn’t seen anything. I saw cars begin turning in the kid’s direction and wondered what kind of horrors they would see ahead. I wanted people to stop, but they kept going, oblivious and distracted.

I saw several cars going that way and thought that while I should go down there too, I’d likely arrive too late to be any help. (What was I going to do, lecture them on the law? Defend them for reckless driving? Tell them not to incriminate themselves Post-Miranda?!) And I thought of my daughter and not wanting her to see the blood, to have to remember what speed and risk could do to a kid.

So I went straight, not knowing what else to do. I hesitated, though, still shocked at how quickly fun can turn into pain. And then I saw her. The woman in the white corolla right behind me, shaking her hands at my face in the rearview mirror, telling me to get my ass in gear. I pointed to place the kid had gone, thinking somehow that she’d figure out, perhaps from the reactions of the cars going down there, what I’d just seen and why I wasn’t moving fast.

But she screamed even more, her hands flying up at her windshield, yelling at me for holding her up for those few seconds, those few car lengths of time. I went forward a block and turned onto the first side street, to get out of her way and collect my thoughts, to decide whether to go back, describe what I saw, or just take my kid home.

But as I turned, my jaw still open from the likely wreck that cut across the screen of my windshield, the lady in the white corolla pulled beside me. She raise any fingers, but she had a lot of words for my daughter and me, none audible through the layers of glass that held our voices inside.
I just looked at her, stunned, hoping she might see what she just missed, that a guy was likely dying and that we’d witnessed what she narrowly missed.

She drove on and my daughter demanded that we go back, saying she had to see if he was alright, if there was anything we could do. She promised to close her eyes if it was bad and we went back, turning slowly down the street, expecting sirens, people stopped, even blood-stained streets.

She kept her eyes open though and we saw nothing except some moving cars and two bikes going over the next hill slowly. She wondered if they were the same ones, but it had been too long, unless they’d stopped in the meantime.

There were no stopped cars and no wrecked bikes. I guessed the kid had pulled out of his near wreck somehow, or slowed enough that he could get right back on. I wondered if maybe he was just having fun, making it look like he was going down, messing with the people in “cages” (as the real bikers call cars) just messing with his friend and those looking on. But he was just a kid, so I guessed that he’d just been lucky, pulled out of it, perhaps learning a lesson in the near miss.

We drove home in silence and, arriving, couldn’t recreate the scene very well, both finding that our words didn’t do the live event, the shock, justice.

But when we talked later about having fun and balancing risk, she listened hard. When I read the book later, I hoped the lesson had sunk in and that she could understand a little more about “who lives, who dies and why” and get through those years when kids tend to think it won’t ever happen to them.

But the lady in the white corolla will drive on, oblivious and angry, unaware of her proximity to tragedy and of how those few, insignificant seconds she still stewed over were almost the difference between life and death for a kid on a bike and a unforgettable image for those looking on.


Mark Bennett said...

I blogged Gonzales's book here and here. I promised "much more later", but haven't yet delivered.

I would say that Gonzales's prescription for survival includes being in the moment. I'll be interested in your reaction; it may inspire me to deliver the much more I promised.

Sometimes I catch myself being the lady in the white Corolla: impatient, not in the moment. I wonder how often I don't.

shg said...

Very strong post David. It's hard to blame the lady in the white corolla (who looks remarkably like Bennett), when she didn't understand or experience what you and your daughter did. A second later and the entire landscape looks different.

David Tarrell said...

Thanks for the comments. The truth is if I would have arrived a few seconds later I might have seen it just like the lady did and acted the same way.

I wish I could blame stuff like this on "those people" but I've been one of "them" before too. Wasn't it Pogo who famously said "we have met the enemy and he is us?"

Caped Crusader said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Caped Crusader said...

Yo bro,

This is some heavy reading to take in. It's amazing how a few seconds can impact our reality. Mark has commented on Gonzalez's book a while back but for some reason I just can't find the time to read as much as you guys do!!!

Hope all is well and looking forward to your next post.

TLC '08