Recently reading a piece in the New Yorker by staff writer John Seabrook about his “black ice” near-death experience, my own very similar, and also almost fatal experience, was resurrected with a jolt and begged to be memorialized in writing.
I have often reminded my son Conrad that fate (or God, if you wish) is watching over him and is saving him for some very special achievement, for already in his young life he has survived three potentially fatal experiences, where only a slight change in circumstances would have resulted in his death. Looking back at my own much longer life, I fortunately can recall but one such experience for me – and that is the one which I am about to describe.
“Black ice” is the common term for the thin layer of ice that forms on pavement when it is raining and the road surface and ambient temperature are at or below freezing. Of course the ice that forms under these conditions is not black but is so named because it doesn’t appear as the more visible packed-snow type of ice that also presents a challenge for winter driving. This you can see and can deal with; however, black ice is usually a surprise, covering a roadway invisibly, while the black surface of the road is still clearly visible – hence its name. Also, when driving in snow, or in snow packed so thoroughly on a road surface that it becomes ice, your vehicle’s tires can still retain a bit of traction – control of your vehicle is a challenge but enough is retained for at least some traction and steering. On black ice, however, there is absolutely no control – traction required for acceleration, steering or braking is lost completely.
I must have been about 35 or so, then living by myself in the house at 7 Brook Street in Plympton, Massachusetts, which my brothers Richard and Glenn had built for me. On one late winter evening I had spent a pleasant hour or two with a female friend living in neighboring Kingston, intending to drive home afterward, get to bed and rest up for the next day’s work at my job as elementary principal in Duxbury. I had shared a delicious dinner with her but had drunk no alcohol of any kind, so I was pleasantly sober and alert.
I was then still driving my Volkswagen camper, described in my previous article about the cars I have owned. Now, any VW bus of that vintage, including the much more spare and simple Kombi and the heavier camper with its convenient Westphalia trappings, is a notoriously poor handling vehicle – very unwieldy and top-heavy, woefully underpowered, and, with so much more weight in the back where the engine and drive train were located and so little up front, rendered dependable steering under any slippery conditions, somewhat challenging.
In addition, the VW bus positions the driver and front seat passenger right up front, over and a little in front of the front axel, without any of the crash protection of the protruding front engine and axel of a standard vehicle. Even the steering wheel on this vehicle was a bit awkward to handle because it was almost horizontal. Of course, in spite of the vulnerability, this seating afforded great visibility for the driver and front passenger, if it mattered at any time.
Well back to my story. Snow had been forecast, but when I left my friend’s home I noted that is was cold and raining lightly but not yet snowing. I recall that I could hear the sound of my tires on the wet pavement during the initial segment of my trip home. Having experienced the challenges, threats and risks of winter driving in New England for some years, I was comforted by this sound – it was wet pavement, not ice, upon which I was driving. As I left the village of Kingston behind me when I turned up Route 80 toward Plympton, I could still claim to be driving on wet pavement because I heard that reassuring sound. But as I proceeded up the several miles of the darkened and isolated stretch of the road leading toward my home, one of the last things I remembered was that the sound of my tires on wet pavement had changed – I could no longer hear it. That’s when it happened. I guess I was driving at or below the speed limit, maybe 40 – 45 miles per hour, when I realized that my VW camper was slowly rotating, spinning down the road at the same speed I had been driving, totally out of control. I was absolutely helpless – there was no steering, no brakes, no control of any kind. That’s the last thing I remembered until waking up in the Plymouth hospital the next day, with terrible pain in my chest and my aching, pounding head bountifully bandaged.
Later discussing my accident with the policeman who found me, I found that after spinning totally out of control on black ice, I had struck an electrical pole, effectively putting out people’s lights for miles around. The impact was on the right side of the front of the vehicle, the passenger side, which was crushed in clear to the seat. If I had struck the pole just a little more to the left, I would likely have died instantly, crushed by the pole and the steering wheel. As it was, my body had evidently struck the steering wheel, breaking several ribs and my head had struck the windshield, giving me a severe concussion and multiple cuts, the former of which had rendered me senseless until I woke up the next morning. The policeman said that he had found me moving and apparently conscious, lurching around the interior of my bus trying to extricate myself while bleeding profusely from my head wounds. An ambulance he had summoned had taken me to Plymouth hospital, where my cuts were treated and I was put to bed until I recovered consciousness.
I don’t remember returning to work immediately after my accident. Perhaps it had occurred during our winter break and I had sufficient time to recover before returning. I do remember that the head cuts healed quickly and completely but the broken ribs were another matter. For a long time I had great difficulty even breathing without significant pain and a cough or a sneeze made me cry out, so this injury required a much longer time for recovery. My first contact in the hospital was with my friend and her two children, who showered me with attention and concern which I am sure hastened my recovery.
Well, that was my one and only near fatal experience. My son is two up on me and I hope it will stay that way. I certainly don’t want any more for either of us. But “black ice” is always a concern for me in winter driving. I am in Vermont now as I write this and even though it’s April and springtime should be here, it’s unfortunately still winter, with conditions perfect for “black ice” at night. It’s been snowing and raining with temperatures hovering around 30, sometimes in the high 20’s at night, and a little above freezing during the day. Needless to say, I am staying at home, well provisioned by the groceries I bought last Friday on the last leg of my journey. I refuse to go anywhere until a general rise in temperature arrives this weekend. And perhaps I should conclude by injecting this otherwise serious piece with a little humor from Comedy Central’s Key and Peele and their discussion of “black ice”, alluded to in the afore-mentioned New Yorker article.