Do you believe in miracles, or do you call it fate? When the inevitable is unexplainably avoided, Is it luck, Karma, grace, or just the roll of the dice?
In the mid-1980s, we set out to drive as a family from San Antonio, Texas to Las Vegas, Nevada. That’s 1,295 U.S. miles (2,084 kilometers) by the most direct route. At that time the national speed limit in the U.S. was 55 miles per hour on the open highways and less in built-up areas. Luckily, there weren’t that many built-up areas there. With gas and rest stops the drive was planned to take about 28 hours of otherwise continual driving. My wife and I planned to take turns driving while the ‘off-duty’ one slept—our car was equipped with a big, reclining seat for the front-seat passenger to make sleeping a bit easier. Our three kids would have the back seat with pillows, blankets, snacks, and Mario Brothers and Donkey Kong on a crude hand-held Nintendo to occupy them. And fighting. They always had fighting amongst themselves for entertainment.
We left San Antonio just after sunset on a Friday evening planning to drive across the West Texas flatlands in the cool of the August night. The gas stops are laid out across that stretch of Interstate Highway 10 West to allow stops every couple of hours and there’s always food and coffee as well as restrooms available at the gas stations. I had enjoyed a long afternoon nap, so I felt fresh and took the first driving shift. Even after our second gas stop, I still felt great and wanted to continue driving. I had a cold Diet Dr Pepper (heavily caffeinated carbonated beverage) and my ‘tunes’ to help me. I had wired a headphone jack into the car’s audio system so that I could listen to Men at Work, Toto, Bonnie Tyler, and Spandau Ballet on the car’s built-in stereo cassette player while the family dozed with only the highway sounds to lull them.
By two in the morning, we were a few miles east of Fort Stockton, Texas; 300 miles and six hours from home. The wife was curled up with her seat reclined, a huge pillow between her head and the passenger’s side of the car, another pillow wrapped in her arms. It had been silent in the back seat for many, many miles. There wasn’t even a green glow of a Nintendo screen visible in my interior mirror. Traffic had become as sparse as lakes in the West Texas desert. The car’s engine hummed; the tires smoothly sang their highway song. The cruise control was set at 55 mph. I planned to make a fuel stop in Fort Stockton and change drivers so I could sleep. I sipped my Dr Pepper and sang along silently to Total Eclipse of the Heart for the seventh or eighth time. I congratulated myself on planning such a stress-free family car trip. All was well. I thought.
A sudden and very loud WHACK got my attention. My eyes popped open (when did I close them?) We were no longer safe on the smooth pavement of IH-10. The passenger side wheels were in the gravel on the road’s shoulder. My training as a driver allowed me to avoid panic—fortunately—I did not slam on the brakes. Statistics and studies show that is the worst thing to do when a car’s passenger wheels leave the pavement. Rather I quickly but gently touched the brake pedal to cancel the cruise control. Then, steering very, very slightly to the left to avoid going further off the road but not to lurch the car back onto the paved surface, I began to apply the brake gently but in earnest. The car came safely to a stop. I couldn’t see ahead of the car from the dust thrown up by our wheels as we ground to a halt. I put the transmission in Park, killed the ignition, and turned off the headlights. The stop, and the WHACK, of course, awoke the family. By the time we were stopped, everyone was like, “What?” “What’s going on?” “Why are we stopped.” I couldn’t answer. I was too busy shaking and trying to breathe, wondering why we were all still alive and not broken and bleeding out on the harsh desert floor.
After explaining to my wife and the children that I had dozed and run off the road, but we were stopped and all safe, so not to worry, I stepped out of the car with my flashlight, a 3-battery MagLite, to survey the situation. I first looked at the car for damage. There was some: The passenger’s side door mirror was gone—just gone! I could see no other damage. No dents, no scratches. Walking back alongside the road about 200-300 feet, about 60-100 meters, from the way we had come I found an upright steel roadside marker post, its reflectorized top badge bent in the direction of our travel. Shining the flashlight around further from the road, I could see fragments of broken mirror on the desert floor. A miracle! We had apparently left the paved roadway at just the right time and at just the correct angle for that roadside marker pole to wipe the passenger side mirror off the car, make a huge WHACK sound to awaken me, and do no other damage. I momentarily marveled that we had not only survived unhurt but still had a sound and usable car not having rolled across the desert floor or shattered on boulders. As I walked back toward the car, I raised my MagLite beam to shine ahead to see if we had an easy route back onto the paved highway. What I saw caused my heart to stop and I fell to my knees. My breath just wouldn’t come! I thought I had been frightened and shaking when I first controlled the car to a stop. Now I was in shock. Not twenty feet (<4 meters) in front of the car was a solid concrete abutment making up the base of a highway overpass to allow a secondary road to cross over the top of IH-10. Miracle, indeed! If…if…
If our car had drifted off the highway a second or two later…if the highway roadside marker had been six inches further from the roadway…if…if… We would have gone head-on into that concrete abutment with the cruise control set at 55 mph. While we were seat-belted, automotive airbags had not yet been invented, and in any case probably could not have saved us from certain, sudden death. I don’t know how long it was before I could stand and return to the car. I didn’t tell or show my family the truth of the situation, but I did tell them we were very ‘lucky’ that the roadside marker had awakened me and done minimal damage to the car. Apologizing to all for my failure and assuring my wife I was now more than wide awake, and that I’d drive the very few miles into Fort Stockton, after which she could drive, I started the car, engaged the gear, turned on the lights and left flasher and bumped back up onto the roadway.
Call it what you may. We must surely owe our lives to some type of intervention.