Some things are bound to happen due to genes, some things are made to happen because of events…and then some things just occur in a thickened millisecond with no history at all. My daughter Deirdre and I had that happen on a hairpin curve one day. We were headed uphill on a switch-backed road coming home tired from sailing on Puget Sound. Suddenly a drunk in an old car came roaring downhill and careening around that hairpin curve ahead of us, taking up both lanes and closing fast for a head-on collision. To our right there was a very thin shoulder and a steep cliff with no guardrail. Dodging away was just as deadly as hitting the drunk head on. There was no way out…except to accelerate straight toward him.
My father died piloting a B-17 when I was 2 years old, and my mother remarried and I grew up wondering what he was like and how he died. Luckily, he wrote a lot that I could read when I was older. He won a city essay contest at Central High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, beating out future communicators Paul Harvey and Tony Randall at the same high school. I also read his flight log/diary when he was flying 15 missions over Germany. I felt I knew him from these writings. He sounded eerily like me when he wrote.
When I was seventeen, I hitchhiked around Europe and visited his grave there for an afternoon. Margraten is a U.S. National Cemetery with 8000 graves on rolling farmland in a slim southern tip of The Netherlands. After World War II, the people of that area around Maastricht, Belgium, were so grateful to these soldiers and airmen who had run the Nazis out of their country that every grave is “adopted” by a local family. To this day second and third generations bring flowers to their adopted saviors. Walking through the rows and rows of graves, I noticed both Jewish and Moslem headstones which were mixed in with the crosses – all of equal size, and with no special placement together, just at random, possibly as they fell.
The custodians there keep an account of the circumstances of death of each of the buried soldiers. I read my father’s, which said “Lieutenant Hon – flying alone – veered from an exploding crash ahead of him into another craft in flames and diving.” I did not take down the actual words, but it appeared as though he had ordered his crew to parachute out, and as pilot he was still trying to get the plane back across the channel to England. The B-17s at the time flew without fighter escorts after the English Channel. The scene of their attempted return from a bombing run over Germany — with the sky filled with burning planes and blown away wings — can only be imagined as a Hell in three dimensions. My mother always told me that my father was looking down at me from heaven as I grew up.
Sometimes it takes a lot longer to describe what happened than for the thing itself to happen. My daughter Deirdre did not have time to scream, for ahead was a drunk bearing down on us at about forty miles an hour on the two-lane road, taking up both lanes. There was no time to stop and only a sliver of a second to veer off the slim shoulder over the cliff or to take the head-on smash from the car coming down on us.
What I cannot understand is how Deirdre and I survived. It seemed to me as if I had been to a rehearsal, and the stage manager had laid out the precise dimensions of almost certain death either way. Yet in slowing down the scene and carefully examining it, there was one possible chance to survive, a chance that took precision driving (at which I was no expert) and perfect timing and instinctive recognition of every deadly factor, all within a fraction of a second.
Somehow in that millisecond or two I understood everything; that if I accelerated straight at him, rather than braking — and then cramped the wheel as I braked hard, my car would spin sideways onto the narrow shoulder. If perfectly done we would not plunge over the cliff, because exact timing would allow the drunk to nick my rear end and spin my car back forward onto the narrow shoulder. Each few inches were crucial to salvation. I swear this again and again: How I deserved to comprehend the solution — and then squeeze its execution into a mere sliver of a second — is beyond my pay grade as a human being.
As if a guiding hand was on my shoulder, I took one millisecond to plan and a second millisecond to execute, as cool and deft as a stuntman. My foot was already on the gas. I barreled straight toward the oncoming car, and jammed the wheel skidding sideways. The drunk’s car in our lane just clipped my rear bumper and spun us until my car straightened out on the right lane and shoulder — as his car roared past. The hit stopped us completely. Death had passed us by, clean and cold.
I cannot but wonder to this day if there was some connection to how my dad died up there, veering to his right, and my chance – and his granddaughter’s chance – to live so many years later. Does love, persisting through some surreal ether, provide the opportunity to rehearse a do-over, and to get it right this time?