Thursday, November 14, 2013

Remembrances of Panic

Since I waxed so fondly of panic in my last post, I figured I should include a couple of significant panic-related memories in this one.

There's a lot I don't recall about growing up in Mississippi.  Of course I remember being able to run around the neighborhood without locator devices or family radio or any such things--hey, it was many years ago in the South, and such activities were generally far safer than they are today.  At the same time, I remember being pretty much the opposite of affluent, to the point where our pastimes included using a broom handle to hit a taped-up wad of paper in a poor semblance of the sport of baseball, and also chasing each other around the neighborhood with BB guns to play war.

I remember having to walk to school.  Uphill.  Both ways.  Barefoot.  Kicking the dinosaurs out of the way, even.

More to the point, I vividly remember the first time I saw my mother lose control while driving.

It snowed.  Now, such an event was a rarity in and of itself in Corinth, Mississippi, but this time we got nearly a quarter of an inch of the white stuff, and it stuck to the ground.  My father was away from home, and our power had gone out, leaving my mother with two young boys -- I think I was somewhere around 10, which means my brother was somewhere around 4 -- and no way to prepare hot food.

It would have been a foodtastrophe, except that there was a Shoney's in town.

Bravely, my mother piled us all in the muscle car that she and my father loved driving (and that all northerners know is a horrible choice in the snow), and we started down the beautiful white streets (nobody else drove in the snow, either) toward the beautiful, distant building filled with warm coffee and pancakes. 

There's a hill in Corinth -- a famous one to Civil War buffs, at that, because it's where a fort was built since that's what you do on hills when you're in the military -- directly down the road from our old home, and it leads a long sloping descent into the actual town part of town.  The part of town, I will add, that contains such havens as a Shoney's restaurant and even a Piggly Wiggly.  In normal weather it would've been a fun hill for bicycling down, except for the extreme amount of traffic it carried.  On that snowy white day we had the whole road to ourselves, which was a good thing because about halfway down, Mom lost control.

She did all the typical stuff I described in my last post that mere mortals do when they lose control.  She panicked.  She stomped on the brake.  She started screaming something entirely foreign-sounding (no, I didn't mention that tendency of the panic crowd in my last post, but I should have).  Then, when physics finally ran its course and the car came sliding to a stop at the bottom of the hill, pointed sideways across the road, she told us how glad she was that we were all safe.

Then, we went to Shoney's.

It's funny that that's one of my clearest memories of growing up.  There's something about panic, the abject terror that takes over our entire souls for that brief period of time, that remains etched in our minds forever, isn't there?

I had a similar experience about a decade later, this time with my own hands wrapped around the steering wheel.  My West Point cadet company was holding our annual Christmas party, and for that year we'd scored the ski lodge.  It was a nice place, for sure, but to get there you had to exit the gates of West Point, travel down scenic highway 9W, and enter the ski hill's separate driveway.  Of course, only the seniors could drive their personal vehicles on post back then, and since it was too far for a comfortable walk, we used military transportation to get the cadets in our company to the party.

A deuce and a half it was, then.

At least, I think it was a deuce and a half.  The Army has two main cargo trucks, either of which can be seen in various movies pulling up to a group of unsuspecting civilians in a cute little villa and then disgorging dozens of camo-clad troops who've been ordered to kill.  The deuce and a half (slang for "two and a half ton") is the smaller one, as you probably would have gathered without prompting when I said the other one is called a five ton.  The differences between them, other than size, are subtle -- one has an exhaust can and the other just an exhaust hat, and so on -- and frankly I can't recall which model of truck it was on that wintry day a quarter century ago.

It was a standard transmission, I remember that much.  That makes it most likely (though not certainly, as my research since has proven) a deuce and a half rather than a five ton.  Again, not that big of a deal.

It was older'n dirt.  That was a big deal.  The truck had one of those steering columns that would swing one direction by a ways, and then the other direction by a different ways, and yet the tires would continue along the same track as though the steering wheel hadn't moved a bit.  It also had a fairly loose shifter path, which meant that sometimes you hit the right gear, and sometimes you didn't, no matter how expertly you maneuvered the damn long rod.

Hey, most of the trucks they let us cadets drive were like that.

So anyway, I don't recall why I ended up driving that night.  I do recall that there weren't all that many folks who would admit to having a valid military permit to drive the big trucks, and/or admit to having their wallets with them.  Whatever reason, though, I was the driver, and the required passenger was a plebe who, likewise, had drawn a short straw of some sort.

He and I will always remember that night together....

No, no, nothing like that.  We were just transporting the cadets of our company to the ski lodge from the barracks, that was it.  It took two trips.  Trip one was made with as little incident as possible -- no incident, in fact, if you don't count the constant harassment the driver of any such vehicle has to endure from the peanut gallery in back.  After a while I learned to not hear the "grind it till you find it" catcalls and the "easy on the shifting" growls, though, and so I didn't count that as incident.

Without incident, then, it was.

I pulled out of the ski lodge on my way to pick up the second set of cadets, my trusty TC (the plebe) sitting in his seat.  It was snowing, and it was dark, two factors that probably should strike fear in the heart of anybody driving an unfamiliar, cranky, old vehicle down a relatively unfamiliar stretch of highway, but hey, I was bulletproof back then.

I was bulletproof right up till I missed third gear, that is.  Then I did what most people would do, I like to think: I looked down at the shifter assembly.

As soon as I looked down there, though, I ended up steering the truck off of the highway.  I felt the right tires go thunk and drop to the gravel of the shoulder, and then I did what most people do in Loss of Control situations: I panicked.  In my panic, I completely forgot what I'd learned in my physics classes and yarded the steering wheel around to swing the big truck quickly back onto the friendly pavement.

The friendly pavement which was, I should remind everyone briefly, quite slick with new-fallen snow.

The truck spun a graceful 180.  It was -- it was beautiful, man.

Now, I've done 180's in vehicles since.  I've done plenty, in fact.  There's something special about a big old Army cargo truck executing that maneuver, though.  In addition to the panic, you feel kinda like a mash-up of Rambo with The Joker doing a waltz spin that would make Ginger Rogers proud.  I mean, it's a big truck.  It doesn't look that big from outside -- or maybe it does, to some people -- but from the driver's seat, it's huge.  And when it's spinning in relation to the rest of the world, well, now, that's panic, my friends.  Slow, graceful, elegant freakin' panic.

We did stop, though.  Amazingly, there wasn't a lot of traffic; all I could see were a couple of headlights way out in the distance.  I felt the bumper knock up against the safety rail in the middle of the highway, but when I looked later it hadn't even dented anything on the truck.  All in all, it was a moment of pure unadulterated terror that ended very, very well.

And that was when I did something really stupid.

See, the reason the "TC" -- the second person in the vehicle -- is required to be there according to safety regulation, is that anytime you back up one of those monsters you're supposed to have someone to regulate the flow of everybody else around so that you don't hit anybody. I knew that.  I'd been through Army trucker training, man. 

So I looked over at the poor plebe and told him to get out and regulate the flow of everybody else while I backed us up and around and got going straight again.

Hey, it was safety regulations I was following.  But really?  Later on I replayed the scene in my head, and watched the poor guy pull his fingers out of the dents that his panicked hands had clawed into the dashboard, then climb dutifully out of the safety and warmth of the truck cab to stand in the blowing snow -- with no light! -- stopping traffic so that we could turn around, I realized what a dumb and dangerous move that had been.

Dumb, dumb, dumb.  Dangerous, dangerous, dangerous.

Yeah, okay, it is awfully damn funny, too, now that it's been years and nobody got hurt, but at the time, it was just dumb.

He did a great job, though.  He leaped right out into our headlights and took up a position that was a mixture between parade rest and stop -- you know, one hand sticking straight out, palm outstretched, in the unmistakable (when visible) pose.

Now, luckily once again, New York drivers are many things, but they're generally not stupid.  The ones behind us never even got close, as they'd obviously seen the tall lights of the truck do a pirouette move in front of them, and they wisely slowed way down.  It also didn't take me long to back the truck out, turn it around, and -- after waiting the moments it took the poor now-semi-frozen plebe to clamber back into the warmth of the cab -- drive off.

And I never looked at the floor board in a snowstorm again.


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