Sunday, February 26, 2012

You almost died. Shouldn't you be crying?

It happened exactly thirty years ago—Saturday morning, February 27, 1982, sometime between 7:30 and 8:00.

I'm going to tell you a story, but the thing is, I'm not sure it really is a story.

Stories generally have a beginning, middle and ending—this one has no ending and the climax occurred at the beginning.

Stories usually proceed along an ordered series of occurrences—in this case, each event spewed sloppily from a tangled mass of chaos and splattered, exposed on the slowly thawing asphalt.

My two college roommates and I shared a few traits back then, the most glaring of which was our communal naivete. Three worldly nineteen-year-olds, having never skied, had convinced ourselves of an exceptional aptitude to learn in the course of a few runs down the bunny hill and quickly advance to the more difficult challenges.

Whether the product of sound reasoning or youthful folly, we'd never find out.

Having opted to rent our equipment Friday night in Seattle rather than the more expensive ski fare at the resort area, we hurried back to the dorm room to try on our toys. Gary was first to cinch on his boots, surprised and amused at his lack of mobility when circling the small living room.

Mike briefly left and returned barefoot, clutching a roll of wool socks to achieve a more realistic feel for his dry run.

As our planet is divided between those who employ the "sock-shoe, sock-shoe" method and the others who roll with the "sock-sock, shoe-shoe routine," Mike revealed his preference, propping one fully socked and booted foot onto a chair as his other naked foot chilled below.

Shifting most of his weight onto his booted foot to wrench the buckles, the plastic shoe slid with a shuddering spasm off the chair and planted its heel into his exposed big toe nail.

Mike howled as crimson filled the underside of the nail and swelled the surrounding flesh. He hopped and swore, executing a highly-choreographed river dance of profanity.

His injury, necessitating an emergency treatment at University Hospital not uncommon to medieval barbers, had scratched Mike from our inaugural ski trip even before he could model that second boot. Trying his best to assuage our guilt through the fog of pain medication, he prodded us to embark without him.

And so we did. Early the following morning, Gary and I schlepped our rented skis, boots and tire chains to his Mustang which sat frozen in the parking lot down the hill from our high rise dormitory. The car fishtailed slightly as we accelerated onto the interstate and ascended the Cascade foothills into the mountains.

The sun projected a crystalline sparkle onto the lightly traveled road, buoying our spirits as we approached the ski area. Looming high above the tall snow drifts which obscured the shoulder and rendering any distinction between road and non-road impossible, an electronic sign proclaimed chains mandatory.

Gary pulled the Mustang as far off the freeway as he could. We exited the car and assessed our proximity to passing traffic which was uncomfortably close due to the snowdrift-clogged shoulders. We decided that Gary should pull forward about twenty feet to a slightly wider off-road space.

Remaining outside while Gary maneuvered forward, I noted a small, maroon pickup truck pulling off into our previous position. Gary crouched with the chains at the rear driver's side tire while I gazed down.

The last thing I remember before it happened was how cold the pavement smelled.

And the sound of a horn, low and close.

I looked up and absorbed it with calm clarity—no panic, not even an adrenaline boost.

The pickup driver was standing behind his door. He was looking right at me when the school bus hit him. But it looked like a light tap in the back. He'll be okay.

Gary and I pressed against the side of our car as the bus approached us; no escape. The huge vehicle skidded to a stop, pinning us against the car. My hands rested on the coach's grill, its driver gazing down upon me with a dreamy glaze.

So calm for a moment.

And then the screams. From Gary. From the kids in the bus. Oh my God, someone else was in the pickup and she's holding a little dog. She's screaming, too. Why is everyone screaming?

I looked down again. The man whom I believed the bus had barely nudged lay behind our bumper, next to the bus's front tire, his head flattened and bloody. His body formed a triangle with the bus and the car, enclosing Gary and me as if we were huddling for a touch football game.

Further mayhem. People. Everywhere. A man attempted CPR on the lifeless body, finally rising up, his blood-caked face betraying a mask of horror and heroism.

At length, my paralysis subsided and I extracted myself from the triangle, walking alone down the side of the freeway. I stared up at the brilliant blue morning sky and gazed directly into the sun.

You can go blind. I don't care.

You almost died.

If you hadn't moved the car, you'd be dead and not that guy with the girl with the dog.

You're only nineteen. You can't die. Oh, yeah? You almost did, you idiot.

Should you be crying? Should you be screaming? Should you be freaking out like everyone else is?

I don't know.

What if Mike hadn't hurt his toe? Would he have been killed?

I don't know. I'll never know.

You almost died. Did God have something to do with this? I don't know. Why would he kill that guy and not you? I don't know. Maybe he likes you better. Why should he?

It was thirty years ago. The last thing I remember is looking at the dead man's glasses. They were embedded into a pink slush which seeped out from the triangle as the morning temperature rose. It looked like a cherry Slurpee.

Like I said, this story has no ending.

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