Wednesday, July 23, 2008


From a few miles back, I could see the plume of black smoke in the air. It rose so high in the sky over the turnpike that, not for a second, did I think it could have been caused by a traffic accident; I was thinking someone's house near the road caught fire, or some yokel was burning a pile of tires in his backyard, when the traffic stopped moving.

As I learned more than five hours later, on the 11 o' clock news, a tractor trailer jack-knifed on the eastbound side of the pike and exploded. I was on the westbound side, a 1/4 mile back from where debris from the explosion had blown across the road, causing the five-car pileup that ground westbound traffic to a halt.

From behind the wheel of my car, I stared out my windshield with the same exhausted expression on my face that I'm certain every other driver on the turnpike was wearing. Within the first ten minutes after the traffic had stopped still, emergency vehicles of all sorts started screaming down the shoulder of the road. Fire engines. Ambulances. Tow trucks. Platform bed trucks. Police cruisers. Undercover police cruisers. They started whizzing past on the other side of the turnpike, too, going west on the eastbound side of the road. Once people saw this-- that traffic had been stopped in both directions--they started trickling out of their cars to try to get a better look up ahead, around the bend where all the smoke in the sky was coming from.

One stout, tan man, wearing an Outback cowboy hat and a U.S. Navy Seals sunglasses band, soldiered forward with his son in tow with the purpose of finding out what had happened. He was back in a half an hour, stopping at any car that lowered its window upon seeing him, in order to inform its driver and passengers what he had discovered about the accident.

I didn't lower my window for the guy. That kind of take-charge personality has always put me off. Very reminiscent of my father's. I looked to his son, wanting to sympathize with him, knowing his plight, but the kid was cut from the same cloth as pop. He was eager to contribute to his father's account of the accident, pitching-in a detail or two that his father had overlooked. Standing behind him-- where I would have had my eyes lowered and my mouth half-open in a yawn-- this kid aimed his eyes where his dad's were and kept a stiff upper lip to boot.

The three guys in front of me-- in a Dodge Ram Charger, Michigan plate, with decals over the tail lights that said something like "Nuw Ride" or "Nuw Skool" in stylized lettering-- didn't get out of their car for almost two hours. Then they all got out together and proceeded to slouch against the east-west divider, talking on their cell phones until traffic started moving again.

The cell phones were out like we were waiting for an encore at a pop concert. People were taking pictures of one another standing in the empty turnpike lanes on the other side of the divider. The lady in the car behind me had her door open, was standing on the driver seat, and was holding her cellphone up as high as she could, taking video of the black smoke in the air.

On Star Trek, I always thought "away teams" looked stupid, waving their tri-corder devices around, whenever they beamed down to a strange planet, and I think the same about people with their cellphones today. I admit to being dumb with my cellphone, too; searching the picture folder on my phone, you will find dozens of random photos-- many attempting badly to be "artsy"-- but at least I'll make an attempt to take my pictures discreetly.

As our traffic stop ran past two hours, a girl in a pair of Penn State athletic shorts, with a pawprint on each asscheek, breezed past on rollerblades. Three cars back, someone had unfolded a sunchair on the roof of their minivan and was catching the last of the late afternoon rays. A young couple (in the car one up, and to the left from me) had gotten out a mini-football and started it passing to one another in the empty turnpike lanes over the divider.

Meanwhile, a 1/4 mile ahead, corpses were being pulled by the jaws-of-life through twisted metal and burning rubber, or so I was thinking, through a mild wine hangover.

As I watched the football rise and fall in an arc between them, I realized this young couple, in all likelihood, would be having sex once they got home. If they could play catch while waiting for emergency personnel to clean up a catastrophic accident, there wouldn't be a chance of him or her saying, "I just can't...thinking of those poor people...I just can't."

She was wearing a denim miniskirt, faded at the buttocks, and I wondered if they would even bother with taking it off beforehand.

With my girlfriend in India, perhaps never moving here, I leaned over my steering wheel, jealously watching the football being passed between them. Suddenly, everyone was racing back to their cars. Traffic started moving, and at slow speed I got to see the remnants of the wreckage. It had been a box (not a tanker) trailer, in three pieces blown open like black, popped popcorn seeds. No bodies, no cars, not even the cab of the truck-- these must have already been hauled away.

Remarkably, the news next day reported that, despite the severity of the accident, there was not a single fatality. Instead of relief, or astonishment, I was mildly surprised and nothing more. I could only think that if I hadn't pulled in-and-out of a rest stop--just to have a few slow rpm moments to cool my hangover in front of my dashboard AC vent-- mine might have been one of the five cars wrecked in the wake of the explosion, and--I don't know why I think this but I do-- I wouldn't have managed to survive.

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