As the light was turning yellow, the car in front of us went through the still-green light and was T-boned by another car going full speed through the intersection. The T-boned car went careening into a breakaway sign across the intersection, whereas the other car spun 180 degrees and stayed in the intersection. Glass, bumpers, and plastic littered the entire intersection. Neither one of the cars was going to be driven again.
I had already slowed to a stop. Angela and I looked at each other to make sure we were okay and to register with the other that we both actually saw what just happened, and in a half-second of unconscious communication, we formed a plan.
“I’m calling 911,” she said. I had already put our Xterra in park and thrown the hazard lights on, and was out the door.
I ran up to the first car while holding my hand up to the one-way traffic from the intersecting street in the universal “stop” signal. The car was a mess from the outside, but the middle-aged woman inside seemed fine and was already trying to open the door.
“Are you okay?” I asked. She nodded as she pushed her door open. “Stay inside your car for now. My wife is calling 911. I’ll be right back.”
Good. There were no kids in the car.
I could hear Angela talking in the background so I knew there’d be police, EMTs, and firefighters on the way soon.
As I approached the second car, I was relieved to see yet another solo driver. He was a young man between sixteen and twenty; it was hard to tell more than that with all the blood running down his face.
“Hi, I’m Charlie. Are you okay?” He looked at me, dazed, and his head had the weeble-wobble thing going on.
“Y-yes. I think.”
Okay, good. He was talking. But the weeble-wobbling head bugged me.
“What’s your name?”
“Alex,” he said after a quarter-second pause. He was looking at his face in the mirror and wiping the blood out of his eyes.
“Can you see?” He nodded.
“Okay, Alex, you’re going to be okay. This wasn’t your fault.” He kept wiping at the blood on his face.
The smell of leaking antifreeze triggered me to look over the hood of the car. The sign he had run into had fallen on his car, so I couldn’t see much, but I didn’t see a fire or smoke coming from his engine. I still didn’t trust it, so I tugged on the mangled mashup of metal and plastic that used to be his door. It wasn’t moving.
I ran to the other side of the car and that door wouldn’t open either. Either the window was open or the glass was out, so I asked him to unlock the door. He weeble-wobbled his head toward me after fumbling with where the button should have been on his door and I then saw that I’d have to unlock it myself. Luckily, it had the mechanism on my side, too.
We were in luck. The door mechanism was still working and the door would open. We could get him out unassisted in case the engine caught fire.
“I’m going to be right back, Alex.” I wanted to get him some bandages from the first aid kit in the back of our car.
Luckily, a police officer had heard the crash from a block away and was already on the scene.
I ran back to Angela to let her know what was going on. She told me to move our car out of the intersection. I jumped in and parked on the opposite side of the intersection, on the edge of a parking lot.
I had a momentary panic when I remembered that a few days earlier we had taken our first aid kit out of the car to restock it for an upcoming camping trip. But then I remembered that Angela had put the car first aid kit and another restocked one back in the car earlier that day. Phew.
I found the biggest bandage we had and noticed an unusual danger sensation as I looked at the quarter-block of open space between our Xterra and Alex’s car. The sensation was the anxiousness of having to maneuver from one location to the next without cover. I then realized that I had been combat-maneuvering in and around the cars – ducking here, scanning there, speaking firmly and concisely so as to both control the situation and keep moving. I was running the scripts and drills programmed into me decades ago. This particular drill was the tactical medevac scenario, except that I wasn’t on a battlefield or in a training scenario, and didn’t even have any real authority to be doing any of this. I was just some random dude in Portland running around an intersection trying to take care of people until professionals arrived.
I snapped out of my momentary reflection and darted from my Xterra back to Alex.
“Here’s a bandage. Try to find the source of the wound and place pressure on it. Don’t wipe – press. You’re going to be okay.” The routine was running again.
I heard more sirens in the background, and a few more police officers had arrived to direct traffic. It bugged me that no one was talking to the lady in the other car. It’s terrifying to be stuck in a car, injured, and not know what’s happening. But the uniforms were there, so I was more hesitant to do something about that.
The police officer who arrived first asked Angela and me if we saw what happened. After we told him, he asked if we’d hang out so that another officer could come by and take a statement. We both nodded yes.
The fire department and EMTs arrived, so Angela and I stepped back to let them do their jobs. They braced Alex’s neck, got him out of the other side of the car onto a stretcher, and rolled him to the ambulance. Angela yelled “Take care, Alex. You’re going to be okay.” She’s such an angel.
They had to call another ambulance for the other driver, which took another 5 minutes or so. When they got her out and onto the stretcher, we noticed that she was wearing scrubs. Damn. She was probably going home after a shift, only to be going back and sending another person there with her.
A while later, another traffic cop took our statements and information. We had done all that we could do and all that was needed, so we walked back to our car.
“By the way, I hope you’re okay with me driving a little slower on the way to dinner now,” I told Angela as we got near our car.
“Sounds good to me”, she said reassuringly. As the adrenaline and programming started to subside, I felt a huge sense of love and appreciation for her. I somehow snagged a good woman who can be so soft and nurturing while simultaneously being a straight-up trooper. She continues to be my teacher on that front.
“It seems more and more that the only thing that matters in life is not wealth or poverty, pleasure or hardship, but the nature of the human beings with whom one is thrown into contact, and one’s relation with them.” –Doris Lessing, A Small Personal Voice
This happened on Sunday, a day before Angela’s birthday. We had gone out on a hike and were three-quarters of the way through a joyful day in celebration of her birthday. It was a great reminder of how precious and fleeting life is.
If I had made just a few different mundane decisions in the minute before getting to the intersection, we would have been in front of Alex and it might have been our car that was totaled and us in the hospital. We’re still recovering from the car accident we were in back in 2012, and that one was minor compared to the one we were driving away from.
We’re much more aware of how interconnected we all are after our accident and the reset from a few years prior. I’m not sure who Alex is, but it’s going to take him a while to recover, so his life is going to be on hold in a way. Whether he was in school or new to the workforce, that’s a student or coworker disrupted for a while. And the lady in scrubs will have a similar journey. There are patients she won’t be able to serve and someone else will have to. It ripples out from there.
Just as I was a random dude running around the intersection, they were just random people who happened to collide in an unfortunate way, and their lives – and the people whose lives they touch – will all be altered. We’re all just random people colliding into each other and the world, sometimes in fortunate ways, at other times in unfortunate ways. And the thing is, we never really can tell if what seems to be unfortunate today turns out to be fortunate later or vice versa.
All we can do is do the best we can to take care of each other in the fleeting, precious, and beautiful time we have. Today. Now. With whatever weird programming we have, in whatever collisions we find ourselves in.
Get out there and stand tall while you can. 🙂