Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The Summer I Wrecked the Van

It was the summer between my Freshman and Sophomore years in college. I had that triumphal feeling that you get when coming home after a year on "your own". Time to hook up with old friends and boast about your adventures and accomplishments. Work a little bit and pick up some cash for the coming year. But mostly, a time for fun. I was also coming off my most successful foray into theater in my short career. I had landed two roles in the New Voices festival at school. I decided to spend some portion of my summer doing community theater...

Luckily, Fall River has a thriving community theater called, unimaginatively enough, The Little Theater of Fall River. I was a little dismayed to find out that the production was to be the musical "1776". There were not many roles for a 19 year old who looked a bit young for his age. There was a courier who delivered General Washington's dispatches to Congress. He didn't have many lines, but he did have a touching solo. I thought that role was my best chance.

Lacking any other materials for audition prep, I watched the movie and listened to the songs. There were some very talented folks that tried out, but the director seemed to like me, so I thought I had a shot at the role. I thought so even more when he asked me to sight sing the solo for the role during the audition. As we were leaving, he pulled me aside and told me he thought I'd be wasted in that role and that he had something else in mind for me. He wanted to know if I could act the part of an old man. Sure! It's just acting. I changed my posture, bearing and voice for him. Success!

I was cast as Caesar Rodney, lead delegate of Delaware. The role would have been interesting enough if that is all there was to say about Mr. Rodney. He was charged with keeping the delegation on its course in supporting independence and with trying to convert some of the more reluctant members of Congress over to his side. No solos, but some good dramatic moments and ensemble songs. The thing that pushed it over the top was that Rodney has cancerous growths on his face and was slowly dying.

My makeup was pretty substantial. Our makeup artist was quite good at his craft. I started out looking like hell and got progressively worse as the show wore on. Every time I had a stretch between stage time, I went to his chair and he added more cancerous touches. Well, the night before we were to open, we had to appear at some local event in costume. We all went from there in full costume and makeup to sing a few songs. From there, we all decided to go out, in costume, and have a late meal.

My parents gave me permission and the mini-van. It was one of the original Chrysler's. It was big, heavy, and not particularly aesthetic. But it didn't matter, because I had wheels. I was on top of the world. That lasted about an hour. I drove home, singing the songs from the show. I was in no hurry. I felt good. I stepped on the gas and rounded a corner. I slowed a bit as there was another light, but it changed as I was turning, so I stepped back on the gas. I didn't even hear the squeal of tires. I heard the crash, though. And I felt the van jump. As I sat there in the intersection trying to figure out what had happened, I glanced up and saw my light change from green to yellow to red. Proof that I had been in the right. For all the good it did me.

I sat there for a few minutes as the driver of the other vehicle got out of his car. I tried to assess. I was not physically hurt. My seatbelt had saved me from any injury. That and the fact that I never saw it coming. So, I didn't tense up. As I looked around, I noticed that I was in the wrong lane. The impact had moved me a full lane. My front passenger door was just about in the passenger seat. The front passenger window had blown out. The car that hit me bounced and swung around to hit the sliding door and rear quarter as well.

I was probably in shock, but I stepped out of the car to see if the other driver was ok. That's when he got a look at me. I was in full colonial garb and made up to look like I was dying. "Jesus! Are you all right?" I managed a weak nod. Apparently, that was enough to convince him and he started in on me. "You know you ran a red light," he said matter-of-factly. I was amazed that he wasn't hurt. I took a look at his car. I'm not sure what kind it was. It was one of those old steel boat type sedans. You know, the kind that come to a point in front. Well, CAME to a point in his case. That sucker was flattened right out. He complained that he had just had body work done. Obviously he was a careful driver. I managed to get back in my car and move it out of the road.

The police eventually showed. They thought I needed an ambulance. I mumbled that I was ok. Then they began their interviews. Fall River's finest. They used some excellent police work to recreate what happened. They asked the tough questions. "What happened?" I told them that I believed that I had a green light as a traveled north through the intersection and that this other gentleman believed he had a green light. I didn't know what I was supposed to say. He followed up with a clever one to try to catch me. "You ran a red light, didn't you?" "No!" I said "I didn't."

Once they had reached their conclusions, they sent the other driver on his way and wrote me a ticket for running a red light and determined I was 100% at fault. I was 19. I just wrecked the family car. I was numb. I was scared. I didn't even know how to stick up for myself. Show them the evidence. They explained to me how they arrived at their conclusions. elementary my dear Watson.

1. The other driver did not mention the possibility that I had the right of way, while I did raise the possibility that he did. So, they nailed me on semantics after my first accident ever. Like I knew what to say.
2. I did not answer as confidently as the other driver. Great. I'm in shock. That couldn't have anything to do with it, could it? There's no possibility that he's used to having to talk to the police, is there?
3. My personal favorite. They asked if I tried to stop. They didn't see any skid marks. I responded that I hadn't. The other driver tried to stop. They pointed to his skid marks, which were at least 20 feet long. Clearly, he was trying to avoid the accident and I wasn't.

Had I not been so traumatized, I might have had the presence of mind to use the following response, which did not occur to me until 24 hours later. Ahem. "Why would I try to stop if I had a green light?!?" I also might have tried to point out the speed the other driver must have been traveling at in order to cave my door in at least a foot and move me over a lane AFTER braking for a good 20 ft. Of course, I just sat there numbly, asking if I was supposed to pay now. I'm surprised they didn't arrest me for bribery, astute as they were. As you can tell, I'm still not over my treatment at their hands.

I got in my parents' mauled mini-van and drove ever so slowly home, still in a fog, but determined not to make any more mistakes. I got home and walked in, still looking like a half dead founding father. My founding father cheerfully walked in to greet me and asked me how the evening was. Ha! I didn't respond. I stood there still looking shell-shocked. He asked what was wrong. I managed one word: Accident. To my everlasting relief, the only thing he wanted to know was if I was all right. When we determined that I was physically fine, just traumatized, we talked about the ticket. I told him I really didn't think I had run a red light and we talked about the intersection where it happened. He knew it well. The lights in the direction I was going were synchronized. I was stopped at a red facing east. When that changed and I turned north, the light at the fateful intersection also changed in my favor. The two intersections were about 50 feet apart. Then we went to look survey the damage. His first words when he saw the damage were, "How fast was this guy going?" I didn't know and said so. "Did he get a speeding ticket?!?" I said, "No. The police told me I was completely at fault." Well, he was pretty pissed about that. He never once mentioned the damage or the cost or the insurance hit or anything like that.

After I cleaned up myself and the glass, we set about assembling evidence. We were contesting the ticket, he told me. "You can do that?" Absolutely. We got pictures of the damage from multiple angles. We went down and timed the lights at various times of day and verified that each time, they were in synch in my direction. We photographed the skid marks.

On the day of the hearing, Dad went in with me. We presented our case. The man we were presenting to had such insightful things to say as "Why did you say 'I believe' when you were describing the events?" I said, "Because that's what I believed." He came back with, "Nobody talks like that." Dad asked who he was to say what I do and don't talk like. He pointed out that I had never been in that experience and was pretty shook up. We trotted out the pictures. He studied them and asked, "Was the other driver given a speeding ticket?" Nope. He checked a box on the ticket, gave me a copy and said, "Case dismissed." We won!

Well, sort of. I would have liked them to analyze the evidence and figure out that the other driver HAD to have been at fault and driving at a dangerous rate of speed. It would have been a moderately simple physics problem to get a rough idea of the speeds from the positions of the vehicles after impact, the size of the skid marks, and the damage to the vehicles. Still, the accident was declared as no fault, the insurance paid for the repairs, and my rating didn't go up. The only lasting effect was that I developed an intense dislike of being in the car. A dislike that persists to this day.