A few fender benders in the distant past notwithstanding, The Observer (knock on the fake plastic wood of this desk) considers himself to be a fairly good driver. No speeding tickets in years, seat belt always buckled, tires checked for pressure, us usually putt-putting along at the posted limit and never driving angry except when the legislature is in session. A bit of a shock then, that The Observer and Spouse almost took a trip to the ER or the morgue on Saturday due to a vehicular brush with death.
We were motoring north on Interstate 30 at the time, crossing the bridge into North Little Rock, road warriors zooming past us as we approached the tee where I-30 runs into the concrete and asphalt ribbon of Interstate 40, JFK Boulevard continuing on up and over Park Hill.
Just before the I-30/I-40 split, there was a young man walking down the edge of the interstate, ambling along there in the sun. We glanced at him, and had time to think he would be having a chat with Johnny Law soon for walking along the interstate. When we glanced back at the road, all we saw were taillights: a silver Honda Pilot, big as a barn door, engines full stop, smack dab in the right lane, 35 feet off our front bumper, us still rolling 65 and closing fast.
The Observer remembers hearing the bark of our own surprise. Spouse's corresponding scream. White knuckles. Thousand-pound foot finding the pedal and trying to push it through the floor, and thank God for the modern miracle of anti-lock brakes. When we saw the distance between the ass end of the Pilot and sure death wasn't enough for our brakes to grab a toehold, we hauled the wheel to the right, the car diving, nose heavy and rear light. For a blink, the rear end broke loose, got squirrely, tires howling, the retaining wall to our right looming. Spouse's little SUV Black Phillip braced for impact with something, hard concrete or the silver Pilot, lady or tiger. But in the midst of it, we heard our father's voice, telling 16-year-old us to come off the brakes when in a skid, son. To turn into it and let the car right itself.
We dropped our foot from the pedal, cranked the wheel the way we wanted to go, hit the gas and prayed, fingers gripping the wheel so tight that they still ache now, as we type this. We like to imagine that a look of calm, Mario Andretti-like determination came over our face at that moment, but we probably looked more like a man recently doused with a bucket of ice water.
Somehow, though — good advice or dumb luck —we made it. The Observer flipped the wheel once, twice, and then Black Phillip flew straight, so that by some miracle we squirted through the needle eye between the wall and the still-perched Pilot.
It was only as we blew past that we saw the reason for the near disaster, other than our own momentary and stupid inattention: a sedan stopped in the middle of the inside lane, the occupants inside visibly arguing over which way to go at the 40/30 tee: left or right, Atlantic or Pacific, North Carolina or Barstow, Calif. We've been there, friend, though not while parked in the middle of oncoming traffic.
It is, if you can believe it, actually the second time in our Central Arkansas driving career that we've seen a driver pull that stunt at that particular interchange, full stop in the middle of the lane while trying to figger out their east from west. The last time, some years back, the driver in question flipped us the bird and sped off toward Fort Smith when we honked to let him know he was about to be the hood ornament of the big rig then growing in The Observer's rearview mirror. You're welcome, wherever you are.
A near miss like that can really monkey with a person's head. The Observer's curse is that we can never stop thinking about the maybes. Spouse, too, to a lesser extent. That night, before bed, she jokingly said: "What if we're in the hospital right now, and this is all a coma dream?"
Not willing to add to our growing list of maybes and might-have-beens after a scare like that, we opined that if this is all a dream, you'd think there'd be more beer and better stuff on TV.