My second automobile accident occurred to me as a driver. It was January 3, 1984, a rainy night in Upland, California. Darlene’s mom had given us her car, and it was a beauty — a 1967 Ford Mustang, cream-white, low mileage. It had one of the smaller V8 engines made, and offered 289 horses under the hood of a fairly light vehicle. I loved that car, and got it up to 140mph once on a straightaway. (I have to admit it was downhill on a lonely canyon road between two mountains. Of course that was before I had kids.)
Nathan had just turned a year old, a week earlier, and I had him strapped in his car seat. Thankfully by this time they had car seats! But of course back then, there were no airbags, and hence no problem strapping car seats in the front seat, facing to the front.
Nathan’s car seat was small and had an upper limit of 1 year in age. So I was pressing my luck using it. But we were pretty poor at that time.
I don’t remember where I was going, but I was heading west on W. 8th St. in Upland, approaching Benson Ave. As you can see from this overhead view, there is a set of apartments on the southeast corner which effectively blocks your view of traffic coming north on Benson toward the intersection. I had the light green my direction (I recall that it had been green for a good 10 or 20 seconds, at least), but fortunately I slowed down to about 20mph or so entering the intersection, since there was a good dip there where the water was running downhill along Benson.
I remember very clearly thinking, about a half-block before the accident, “This car is so cherry! I love this car so much.” I had just finished decking it out with fancy chrome rims and such (which might explain why we were so poor?), and was really proud of that car.
So, the irony was not entirely lost on me when, heading into that green-light intersection, I saw rapidly approaching on my left a large Cadillac, doing about 45 mph northbound on Benson, and not showing any signs of slowing despite the red light. I hit the brakes and hydroplaned into the intersection, without slowing significantly.
Fortunately, slowing to 20 and hitting the brakes was not entirely futile, and probably saved my life, and possibly Nathan’s. The Cadillac plowed at full speed into the front of my beautiful Mustang, striking the left front wheel well and pushing the wheel into the engine compartment behind it. Had it hit my driver’s door, a scant 4 feet further back, that would probably have been the end of me.
The force of the collision spun the Mustang around about three times before we came to rest in the middle of that intersection. But a lot transpired during that spin, and the split second before the collision when I knew it was inevitable.
They say when you are confronted with a near-death experience, you see your life flash before your eyes. I now understand why they say that. Time does seem to slow to an incredible pace and somehow your brain has time to process a wide variety of thoughts and images in that split second.
I don’t remember exactly WHAT I thought about, but it seemed like a lot: My life to date and what I had (or hadn’t) done with it, and the people closest to me, especially my wife and son.
An instant before the collision, I remembered turning to look at Nathan, there in his car seat, blissfully unaware of what was about to happen.
And then there was the incredible “BANG” when the two cars met, and the stunning force of the rear left side of my head smacking against the window glass. (Fortunately, not hard enough to break it! But I did see stars.)
However, the most unusual thing I saw was my 1-year-old son, lurching forward against his car seat restraints … and then the restraints breaking away, and his body flying headfirst like a little projectile right into the space above the dashboard where the dashboard and the front window meet, and just wedging there.
After what seemed like an eternity the car came to rest from its spinning. Before I had any sensation of relief or gratitude that I was still alive, I remember staring at Nathan’s small body where it was wedged there on top of the dash, and wondering in great fear whether or not HE was still alive.
As I stared, and prayed, I heard a squeak come from my son. And then he began laughing! He said: “Big bang! Do it again!” He apparently thought it was all a game of some sort.
THAT was when relief and gratitude flooded in. The car didn’t matter. Whatever happened to the occupant(s) of the Cadillac didn’t matter at that moment. My ringing ears, my splitting headache and the stars swimming across my field of vision didn’t matter. My son was alive, and apparently unhurt! I gingerly, carefully picked him up and held him to my chest, as he continued giggling.
At that moment there was a sharp rap at my window. I turned to look, and a young man I had never seen before was standing there in the rain, gesticulating nonsensically. “Oh, my god!” he shouted as I cracked the door open (surprised that it would even open, considering the condition of my car), “THAT was amazing! Are you okay?”
“I think so,” I assured him. “How about the other car? Is anyone hurt?”
He went over and checked. There was a young woman sitting in there, behind the wheel, stunned. “I think she’s okay,” he called over to me. “Let me go get some help!”
But someone had already seen the accident and called it in, and a police car arrived soon after.The young man told the officer that he had been approaching the intersection from the opposite direction when the Cadillac sped in front of him and struck me. He had locked up his own brakes and narrowly missed the Cadillac. “That light was green our way,” he confirmed.
For a reason I’m not sure of, the officer at the scene decided to take the woman home, and me and Nathan to the hospital, all three of us in his patrol car. She told us in the car, in an apparent effort to explain why she had run the red light, that she had taken cold medicine and was feeling pretty foggy that night. But the officer never indicated he was going to cite her, and did not do so, to my knowledge. (Fortunately, she was insured, and so her insurance paid for the damage.)
After dropping the woman off at home, the officer took Nathan and I to the hospital to be checked out. Darlene was working that night and came to the emergency room to meet us. Other than my splitting headache, they said we were fine and very fortunate.
The Last Car I Ever Loved
As I reflected on this accident, and how grateful we were that neither Nathan nor I were seriously hurt, a verse that kept coming to me was this one: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). One moment you can be whizzing down the street, thinking how in love you are with a fancy car, and in the next intersection your life is passing before your eyes.