Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

On my emergency trip across the Atlantic during the Thanksgiving weekend I’d had to suffer two broken ATMs to make sure I had no money in my pocket, a lack of places to eat in O’Hare airport except for a tavern serving cold sandwiches, a seat with no floor space next to a guy who liked to talk with his elbows (and it was a pretty boring conversation; all he could say was, “Back off!”); a minor malfunction of the airplane’s control systems requiring a special procedure that was in no way an emergency even though the flight controllers at Heathrow cleared all the other planes from our flight path and reserved an entire runway for us to set down on, and finally an uncomfortable moment at the customs gate as I tried to explain why I had left the country and was trying to get back in without proper leave papers.

But all that was over. At long last, I was back. There was no more welcome sight I could imagine than My Darling B’s glowing face at the baggage claim. After all the weirdness I’d been through, I didn’t even care if my bags showed up on the carousel or not. B greeted me with hugs and kisses and other happiness, then listened as I told her about the non-emergency that delayed our flight while we waited for my suitcases to be vomited up by the stainless steel baggage mangler. We scooped them up the moment they appeared and bolted for the door. The claim area was surprisingly close to the parking garage and B had even managed to snag a spot on the bottom floor. And luckily for me, she agreed to take the wheel for the first leg of the drive out from London. My brains were still woolly from jet lag and sleep deprivation. I never could manage to sleep on a plane, only jerk and snort through periodic dozing that’s a lot of fun to watch when other people do it, but agony when it’s happening to me.

Dusk was falling as we left Heathrow but the airport, urban London and the six-lane M25 motorway were all brightly lit by a tall picket line of sodium lights bathing everything on the road in sepia tones. We turned off the M25 to the M1 and followed it north until we hooked up with the A1, also a well-lit highway. It probably wasn’t until we were in the neighborhood of Alconbury, were we knew the back roads well enough to make a few short cuts along country roads, that I noticed how difficult it became to see the road when B dimmed the headlights.

“Does it look to you as if one of the headlights could be burned out?” I tentatively asked B.

She flicked the lights from bright to dim a couple times. The high beams were fine, but when she switched back and forth it became obvious that the low beam on the driver’s side was out. That whole side of the road disappeared from view each time she flicked the switch.

“How about that?” B said, not at all as amazed as I was that another mechanical gremlin was messing around with me. “It worked fine yesterday.”

And the little bugger was just getting started. As B steered the car through a roundabout, she ran over something in the road. The sharp turn around the island, together with the blind spot she had to deal with while she used the low beam through the busy intersection, made it impossible for her to see whatever the piece of discarded junk was until she was almost on top of it, way too late to avoid it. She swerved in the hopes of maybe straddling it, but a telltale bump-clunk under the car announced she hadn’t quite managed a clean miss.

Right after that, our engine exploded, or sounded like it, anyway. If you’ve never heard a car that’s lost its muffler, that’s exactly what it sounds like. My Darling B looked at me with terror in her eyes. I looked right back at her with “I can’t believe this is happening to me” in my eyes. The roar was so deafening that I leaned over to make sure B would hear me when I shouted, “We lost the muffler!”

“Should we stop?” she shouted back.

“There’s nothing we can do about it,” I answered. “Keep on going!” She didn’t appear to be very happy with that answer, but there really wasn’t anything we could do about it. There was no chance we would find a garage anywhere along our route that would be open at such a late hour, and I would never have dreamed of attempting a roadside repair, which would have required lying on my back in the gravel while trying to fit together the hot exhaust pipes by touch as cars and trucks roared past us on the highway. The only thing to do was grin and bear it, which wasn’t too difficult for me at that point. All I wanted was to get home, pop open a beer, slouch back in a chair and flip the bird at the angry gods when this trip was finally over. No way the gods were going to let me off that easy.

On a stretch of back road that was just a half-hour’s drive from our house we came to a full stop behind a queue of three or four cars waiting at a signal light. Just beyond the light the opposite lane ended and an impressively deep trench took its place, snaking out of sight around a sharp corner. Road crews often dug up stretches of country roads this way and, when they knocked off at the end of the day, they left automatic signal lights standing sentinel over the yawning holes. The light would change in a few minutes and we’d be on our way.

B glanced into her rear-view mirror as a car slowed to a stop behind us, and again as the headlights of the next approaching car appeared in the distance. She didn’t look away from him, though, because he didn’t slow down at all until he was way too close to stop safely. I missed all of this, of course, and she had no time to warn me except to say, “Oh, shit,” as she fumbled for the gearshift.

I perked up. “What?”

She turned around just in time to see the oncoming car swerve into the open lane, the one that was dug up, trying to avoid the line of cars we were in. When he saw the yawning hole ahead of him he swerved back again, and somehow he missed us. The car that had stopped in line behind us left just enough room for his car to slip between our bumpers and, against all odds, he did exactly that. Not only did he manage to not hit us, his car didn’t even give our car a peck on the cheek as it went by, and to make it even more jaw-droppingly amazing, he even missed the car behind us. If you had seen it in a movie, you wouldn’t have believed it.

After making sure that Barb was all right I jumped out to see if I could help. So did almost everybody else waiting in line, and we all stared open-mouthed along the side of the road as the driver climbed out through the window of his overturned car, stood beside it for a moment with his hands on his hips, and looked over the situation wearing an expression that said, “Well, dammit! Now how am I going to get home?” Then he dug his cell phone out of his pocket, dialed a number, and held the phone to his ear as he climbed up the side of the ditch to get to the road.

Our small crowd gathered around, repeatedly asking if he he was okay and watching him to see if he would collapse in a heap, felled by an aortic aneurysm or, at the very lease, nervous exhaustion. He seemed a little shaken but there wasn’t a cut or bruise visible anywhere on him. In between dialing numbers on his cell phone he kept assuring us he was all right, and eventually the crowd broke up and drifted away when it became apparent he wasn’t going to topple over and die.

His cell phone appeared to be giving him quite a bit of trouble, though. “The battery’s going,” he said to no one in particular, sounding a bit lost.

B had joined us in the road by this time. “Here, use mine,” she said, digging her phone out of her purse.

“It’s a long-distance call,” he apologized.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said, then turned and held the car keys out to me. She was looking a lot more shaken than he was. “Would you mind driving home from here?” she asked.

We waited by the side of the road for the driver’s friend to pick him up, making small talk as he chain-smoked. When his friend arrived he thanked us again for the use of our cell phone, then we climbed into our respective cars and drove off, his friend’s car purring quietly, ours rumbling like a dragster. We were less than a thirty-minute drive from home at that point and there was no chance I would fall asleep. I wasn’t even worried about jinxing myself by saying that aloud. At that point, so many other shoes had been dropped that the most outrageous thing I could think of that could have happened to us was, we would get home without another incident. And as crazy as it sounds, that’s just what happened.

heading home #3 | 2:15 pm CST
Category: daily drivel, My Darling B, My Glorious Air Force Career, O'Folks, story time, travel, work | Tags:
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