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Flipping by woods on a snowy evening

February 1, 2007
by GARY TETZ
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Robert Frost1 was quite a guy. Besides being a poet of some renown, he was one of the nation's early traffic engineers, advising motorists in a widely distributed memo that when approaching a rush hour choice between freeways and surface streets, they should choose the least congested routes.2

He was also an amateur Nostradamus3 and meteorologist, albeit an indecisive one. He suspected the world might end in fire, but had a strong hunch that ice could also suffice.4 Ever since one particular driving mishap that haunts me often this time of year, I’m inclined to agree with him.5

I'll skip the irrelevant details—such as losing control of my Toyota 4Runner on a frozen highway, performing a vehicular triple axel á la Sonja Henie,6 and flipping onto the roof like an obedient but clumsy puppy—and cut right to the part where I’m hanging from my seat belt like a bat in the freeway median.

A lot of things go through your mind in such moments. “Ouch” was one I recall. We’d all like to think we'll act like heroes in a moment of crisis, but my response was more Stephen Sondheim7 than Steven Seagal.8 In the TV movie of this event, the radio will be playing “Send in the Clowns” as I dangle helplessly, frozen with fear.

Finally coming to my senses, I pressed the seat belt button, dropping instantly onto my head. Crawling on hands and knees across the roof, which was now the floor, I peered inquisitively outside as several worried faces stared back. Kicking the door a couple times, I squeezed through the opening and soon was standing triumphantly among them.

We talked. I said I was fine. They seemed to doubt it. I made a joke. They didn't laugh. They were very solicitous, very serious—perhaps a little overly concerned? I didn't think anything of it at the time.

Then the police came, and we discussed the situation, man-to-skeptical-officer.

“Looks like you rolled it.”

“Sure did.”

“Pretty slippery, I guess?” He raised an eyebrow.

“Sure is.”

I told my story vividly and with passion, and he took notes between dubious glances. About then the paramedics walked up, pondered the overturned wreckage, and turned to me with what I realize now were expressions of barely suppressed amusement and pity. “Let's step inside,” they said, pointing at the ambulance. So we did.

“Any pain?”

“Nope.”

“Headache?”

“Not at all.”

“Let's take a look at your eyes,” one of them said, grabbing his tiny flashlight.

“OK,” I responded cheerfully, opening them wide and looking straight at him.

“I can't see them,” he said.

“What?”

“Your eyes. I can't see them.” He gestured to my face.

And that's precisely when the awful truth hit me, followed by a wave of pure embarrassment such as I had rarely experienced, at least not since falling on my face at Foot Locker or my last accordion recital.9

You see, a few weeks previously, my wife and I had spent time in the company of friends whose young son had just returned from a visit to the ophthalmologist. He had been sent home with a pair of those massive, hideously ugly, pitch-black, post–cataract surgery sunglasses.10 The kind you might expect if Stevie Wonder was a fashion-impaired welder.

I took to slipping them on over my regular frames, as a joke, and when we left the family graciously gave them to me. I laughed, said thank you, and tossed them into the glove compartment—and I’m sure by now you see where this is going. At the time of the accident, I was wearing those goofy glasses! And had been ever since.

There in the ambulance, with the flashlight still pointed at my eyes, I ripped them off my reddening face and tried my best to explain. “I can't believe I’ve had these on the whole time,” I stammered, but the paramedics just looked at me sadly. “It was a joke…these friends…I didn't realize…” But the damage had been done.

My credibility was shot. No wonder my rescuers were looking at me strangely. No wonder no one was laughing at my jokes. They thought I was an irresponsible, possibly deranged blind man—out recklessly careening my SUV at dusk down an icy Oregon interstate. And imagine the shock of seeing my face, wrapped in those enormous plastic goggles, suddenly appearing through the cracked passenger window. It should have been enough to make any Good Samaritan bolt for his car.

Fortunately for me, my ignominy was short-lived. I was quickly replaced in the world by a host of other people doing even more embarrassing things, and mine never even made it to YouTube. But since I'm always trolling for a good metaphor, this experience comes in mighty handy right now.

Think about it. Goofy-looking, vision-deficient men and women glibly claiming everything's fine while wandering around obliviously next to the wreckage? Look past me in this picture and you'll see our politicians and, dare I say, presidents at the scene of a long-term care policy accident—little realizing just how ridiculous they look to the rest of us worried onlookers.

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