By Mike Smolarek
It was the Friday before my brotherís wedding and I was driving home from school to catch the rehearsal. I had to be there because I was the best man and you canít have a rehearsal without the best man. But the best man was running late and best hurry before he misses the rehearsal and he is no longer the best man. The best manís father would raise hell if the best man didnít get there on time.
My car couldnít go any faster. It had a great nickname-- the Soft Shelled Tortoise. It was a big car, an Olds Cutlass, one of the classic eight cylinder engines that despite its massive size, still had no power. It guzzled gas, burned oil, and sometimes leaked green radiator fluid, but it was mine and I loved it just like every driver loves his first car, no matter how bad it may be.
It was slowly getting dark, the sun dropping into the earth ahead of me as I sped down the highway. The road curved to the right then curved back left and I followed it first to the right and then back left, one hand on the wheel and the other dangling out the open window in the whipping wind.
I remember how hard driving seemed before I ever did it. You watch people on TV and they are concentrating and moving the wheel left and right all the time. And who could really know which pedal did what? I was so scared that I wouldn't be able to steer the car, let alone remember which pedal was the brakes, and which was the gas. My driverís education class emphasized the point also, and my teacher never wanted us to forget that driving was not a walk in the park.
"Cars are very powerful and even more dangerous. Cars are not toys." His eyes lit up and I felt like a new recruit, in boot camp with the drill Sargent barking orders at me, and calling me bad names to get me to work harder.
"Cars can kill, if not driven in a safe and proper manner." He walked up and down the aisles, looking only straight ahead of him as he spoke. He clenched his hands together behind his back
"This is not a video game." He let each sentence he said sink in before moving on to the next one. "You are not Michael Andretti. You are students and you will learnÖ or you will not drive." He left a dramatic pause after those words.
"You will learn that driving is a privilege, not a right. "
"Are we clear?" The class was silent, almost afraid. "Good."
I made sure I listened to every word Mr. Wendell said, vigorously taking notes in my blue wireless Mead notebook, underlining the important parts, highlighting the rules and regulations and reading and re-reading the rules of the road. I learned that you need to signal at least 100 feet ahead in a residential zone and at least 200 feet otherwise. I learned that a double yellow line means you are in a no passing zone. And I learned, that no matter what anyone tells you, stop signs with white borders are not, I repeat, are not optional.
The funniest thing about this whole thing was my father. He was just like Mr. Wendell when we went driving somewhere. He wasnít as militant or in my face, but he was always telling me exactly what to do and barking on about how I had to learn responsibility before I could drive on my own. Then heíd tell me about his first care, a sixty-four Bonneville, and go on and on about how I had to take care of my car after I got my license. On and on, droning.
"Son, are you listening to me," he said. "Youíre going to learn responsibilty, or youíre not going to drive." I think deep down my father wanted to be a drivers ed instructor. He should have hung out with Mr. Wendell.
Once I passed my test, once my grade had been turned in, once the picture was taken and my smiling sixteen-year-old face was laminated on a piece of paper with the words "Drivers License" written across the top in big bold beautiful red letters, I completely forgot the word "responsibility" was ever mentioned. I never kept two hands on the wheel, let alone left hand on ten oíclock and right hand on two oíclock. Hell, sometimes I even drove with my knees holding the wheel while I fumbled around the car looking for the Allmand Brothers tape that fell under the seat. I was always low on gas and was often looking around instead of at the road. It wasnít hard to drive at all, and I soon relaxed into all the bad habits every driverís education instructor teaches you to avoid, but deep in your heart you know the instructors do it, too, but only when nobody is watching.
But the thing I remember most from divers education was Mr. Wendellís discussion about the dangers of deer along the road.
"When you see a yellow sign with a picture of a deer on it, you better be on your toes," he bellowed. He always was intense when he talked about driving, but this day he had a fire in his eyes.
"Cartoon deer are cute. Everybody cries when they see Bambiís mother die. But when you are in a car, deer are deadly." Mr. Wendell emphasized every word of that sentence and you could hear it echo off the back wall of the room and reverberate all over. He then showed us slides from accidents involving deer. Shattered windshields with deer fur mixed among the shards, smashed front fenders with small drops of blood, busted radiators with big hoof prints along the folds of metal. If a deer had been in an accident, Mr. Wendell had had a picture of it.
What came next was Mr. Wendellís famous physics lecture. He went on and on about momentum and force, furiously scribbling equations and scratching out drawings on the board, the entire class a sea of arms waving around as they struggled to get all the information into their notebooks. His face was both grim and stern and he explained how a deer could destroy a car if the car was moving fast enough. Amid his raving, we wrote down every word, but no one among us really understood what he was talking about.
Every time I saw Mr. Wendell after I had my license, he always asked me if I had been in any accidents or gotten any tickets. Luckily, by the time I earned my diploma and had walked down the aisle of the gymnasium in a cap and gown, I had avoided all tickets and accidents.
I do remember my first ticket, though. I was going eight-two in a sixty-five, not a major infraction, or at least not in my book. At the time I was happy that the Tortoise could go that fast. I was pulled over by a state trooper and he took my license and looked at it for a minute while he leaned towards my window. "Iíd let you off son," he said, "but there are a lot of deer in these parts and itís just not safe to drive that fast." He walked back to his car to write up the ticket and I sat in my car saying to myself," A deer? He gave me a ticket because there are a lot of deer in these parts?"
"Have a nice evening, and slow down a bit, son," he said when he returned with my first ticket. I drove on, every once in a while whispering to myself, deer. Deer.
I got a seventy-dollar fine and six months supervision from that ticket, and after supervision was over it was wiped off my record, like it never happened. I still have the ticket hanging on the wall of my bedroom, right next to my third place ribbon in jump rope from fourth grade. My father had it framed for me, telling me that it was just another step in growing up.
I tell you this because it was along that same highway where I got that ticket that I was driving that Friday in the Tortoise, on my way to the rehearsal for my brotherís wedding. The ticket was a few years back, but it is never the same driving past a spot once you get a ticket there. My friend got pulled over three houses away from his, and now he always goes down his street the other way to avoid that spot.
I tensed up a little as I sped near the mile marker where I got my ticket. It was an easy mile marker to remember, because I was going eighty-two at mile marker eighty-two. I gripped the steering wheel tight with both hands. I looked into the oncoming traffic searching for the lights of a police car peeking over the roof, like a rabbit peeking its head out of its hole before it bolts out. I watched the mile markers as they counted down, moving slowly towards the magic number. Eighty-eight, then eighty-seven. I slowed the car down trying to blend into the few cars around me. Eighty-six. I turned down the radio, thinking that maybe I could hear the police car before it could pull me over. Eighty-five. There were only two cars in front of me, both going about the same speed. Eighty-four. A brown Citation was two cars in front of me and a red minivan, one of those that looks like a fat bullet, was directly in front of me. Eighty-three. I was almost there, doing my best to blend in with the minivan and the citation, keeping an even distance between us. My eyes flashed over to the oncoming traffic, but there was none. I glanced into my rearview mirror and saw nothing. I looked at the road in front of me again and saw a small short line up on the horizon on the right. It was the mile marker. My hands started to sweat as the line turned into a small green sign and on the sign two numbers became visible, a shiny eight followed by a shiny two. I breezed past the marker. I kept my speed and looked in mirror again; still no one behind me. I looked into incoming traffic; still no one there.
My body relaxed and I place my left hand back out the window. I ushered out a big sigh, turned the radio back up and smiled. I had made it. I drove on for a few miles, slowly slipping back into the bad habits I always used, my senses dulled after their brief heightening.
I wasnít fully focused when the little brown citation swerved from the right lane into the left lane, but as soon as it straightened out, I was alert. I took my foot off the gas pedal and threw my hands back at ten and two. The bullet minivan slammed on its breaks, the red lights flashing my eyes, telling me to do the same. I slowly moved into the left lane, the path of least resistance, as the tortoise slowed, just knowing deep inside that Mr. Wendell was grading me, his red pen and his clipboard in hand. And then it happened.
Have you ever seen a deer fly? Not like Santa Clause and his reindeer, but just your ordinary average everyday forest preserve type with cute eyes and a white tail. I hadnít either, so when I saw a deer flip twenty-five feet into the air off of the red minivan, I was lucky I was able to move at all. I slammed on the breaks hard, the screech from the rubber tires piercing my ears and shattering me back into full consciousness. The minivan jerked to the left and the deer spun in the air, itís feet reaching to the sky and then falling towards the pavement. It hit the pavement hard, so hard that it bounced back up a little before stopping in the middle of the right lane. I pulled past it on the left still slowing down, my finger so tight on the wheel that I cut my palms with my fingernails. The red minivan pulled to the side of the road, and I pulled behind it, hoping the driver was okay.
I stopped my car and got out. I looked behind me to the deer in the road, assured that it was dead. Nothing could survive a collision at sixty miles an hour, and then a flip, and a fall back to the ground. But the deer was lying on its side in the middle of the highway, its back legs wildly kicking the air. What happened next shocked me more than what had already happened. A semi was rolling down the road, unaware of the deer in the road. I think the truck driver saw the deer at the last second, but it was too late to swerve out of the way. The sixteen-wheeler shook as it rolled over the crippled animal, and I turned away, cringing. After it had passed, at that was left of the deer was scattered all over the road, few parts distinguishable from all the others.
I walked to the minivan, which looked undamaged from the back. When I got to the front, though, I could see the shattered glass of the windshield. Modern technology made it so the windshield was completely smashed but still in one piece, held together by some sort of coating. The passenger side window was gone though, only a few shards handing from the frame.
"Are you okay?" I asked the driver. She was a young woman, turned half-white from fear. Her face had gone pale and her white T-shirt had small perfectly round spots of blood scattered all over. Her hands were still gripping onto the steering wheel and she was breathing heavily.
"I, IÖ. Iím okay," she staggered. I opened the passenger door and got in the van. She seemed fine, only a few small cuts on her arms and face, nothing bleeding heavily.
"Itís okay," I said.
"A . . . a . . . deer," she muttered. "IÖ I Ö just hitÖ" she trailed off.
She slowly released her hands from the wheel. Another car pulled in front of the van. A big man got out, holding his cell phone. "Iíll call an ambulance," he said and dialed right away.
"Donít move yet," I told the woman. "Wait for the ambulance."
It only took the paramedics about two minutes to get there and they were quick to assist her, moving me out of the minivan and away from the shards of the window that I sat in but didnít notice. I couldnít speak at all. I just quietly watched.
I moved to the front of the minivan, and saw where the car had hit the deer. The front end was now a foot shorter, the red bullet losing its tip, and the fluorescent green coolant mixed with the dark red blood of the deer. A patch of fur hung on the hood ornament, a marking of where the living flesh of the deer met the cold metal of the minivan. I wondered if Mr. Wendell had a picture of this one, complete with me looking on, too stunned to speak.
The paramedics took the woman away to the hospital. She had only a few cuts and a heavy case of shock. She would be fine. A tow truck took her car to the service station in town, while a state trooper moved the remains of the deer off of the road.
I climbed back into the Soft Shelled tortoise, and drove off, away from the flashing lights and noise behind me. I turned the radio off preferring to drive in silence. "A deer," I whispered. It was now Friday night, and I was still driving. I was still driving home, driving home to the rehearsal for my brotherís wedding and I was late. The best man was late for the rehearsal dinner for his only brotherís wedding and boy he better have a great excuse for being so dam late. I could hear my father saying this already. You better have a good dam excuse for being so late, heíd say. Maybe I should speed up, go about ninety miles an hour, just to get there on time. But then I remembered back one last time to Mr. Wendell and drivers education.
"Donít drive faster," he said. "Leave earlier."