Born to Hang

The Irish have a saying: if you're born to hang, you can go to sea in a basket. I guess my wife, Nancy, and I were born to hang.

On the day before Christmas Eve we were on our way to a memorial service in Stockbridge, Massachusetts when the accident happened. The service was for a colleague who died last August. His name was Nick Clements. He was one of those gifted people who always seem to die too soon, like Stieg Larsson or Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson. The service was to be at the home of Nick's sister, Julie.

Minutes after the accident and on the advice of the local policeman, I called my insurance company. The claims agent identified himself as Nick.

“Can you tell me what happened?” Nick asked.

I knew he wasn’t interested in what really happened. He just wanted the facts. Here is what really happened. It was snowing and cold and there must have been a patch of ice on the road because when I braked at the stop sign, my 2002 Lexus LS430 behaved as if it had a mind of its own and was bent on suicide. Slowly and inexorably it slid out into the center of the T-junction and into the path of a huge Sterling snowplow. There was absolutely nothing I could do but be an observer at my own extinction.

What they say about accidents is true. Nancy was next to me in the passenger seat. We both felt as if we were dancing the p
as de deux from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker with the snowplow as the nutcracker. Everything was in slow, slow motion.

The blade on the snowplow was lime green. Nancy remembers it as yellow. It came at us at right angles from the left. I remember it as a single blade angled across the front of the truck. Nancy remembers it as shaped like an arrow. Whichever it was, as it loomed in my driver’s side window, I had this sudden image of myself as a surfer ducking down and heading into the tunnel of a gigantic breaking wave. (That image still won’t go away.) The crest of the wave passed behind me. Just when I thought we were home free, there came the thick, crunching thud of the blade edge hitting the driver side rear door just six inches behind me. Six inches earlier and this would have been a serious accident; that is, one where someone gets hurt. As it was, the only casualties were steel, plastic and glass.

Nancy remembers me saying, “I can’t stop,” and then “It’s going to hit us,” and then after it struck, “I think we’re O.K.” She also remembers—and I agree completely—that we were never frightened. No screaming or clutching or “Oh, God!” or “Oh, Shit!” Just “Will you look at that? So this is how it happens.”

Oddly, the first thing I did, even before I was out of the car, was to call Nick’s sister. I didn’t want them to delay the service waiting for us. I don’t quite know what to make of that. Here I am in the middle of an accident and I’m thinking of obligations and inconveniences to others instead of obligations and inconveniences to Nancy and me. The right stuff? Maybe. But maybe it’s what someone does who doesn’t have his priorities sorted out. Or maybe those two aren’t incompatible.

I couldn’t tell any of this to Nick, the claims agent, though I could have to Nick, the deceased. So I told Nick number two the basics. We came to an icy patch. I lost control. My car was badly damaged. The snowplow was undamaged. No one was hurt.

An EMT who just happened to be passing by stopped to administer first aid. His name was Mark Wysocki. Thank you, Mark. A woman in a car behind us who had just missed being part of the accident herself was at my window asking if we were all right. I wish I had gotten her name. Then came Brian Shaw, the Stockbridge policeman. He took charge of the scene. I crawled across the armrest and out Nancy’s side. My door was jammed. No sooner was I out than Tom, the driver of a flatbed truck, took the car away and with it all signs that there had ever been an accident. Barely half an hour had passed.

A man came up to me and said he was called Barney. He was very friendly and seemed to be taking a sincere interest in my welfare. The caring character of the citizens of rural Massachusetts was beginning to move me.

As Barney walked beside me along the verge of the highway I wondered who he was.

“So what do you do?” I asked. “Are you a lawyer?”

“I’m Nick’s brother-in-law,” he said.

He had come to take us back to the house for the service. We were only 19 minutes late.

This was the first non-serious serious accident of my 74 years of life. When I think back on what might compare with it, I think of the four lionesses who came within a hair’s breadth of tearing me to shreds in the South Luangwa National Park in Zambia. Then, too, everything was in slow motion. Then, too, I didn’t think I was going to die.

What do the two near brushes with death have in common: that a world without me is inconceivable.

But that, I think, I have in common with everyone.

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