As a boy driving through the South Dakota countryside with my father, I used to see these signs in the ditch with a red X and the word THINK followed by an exclamation mark. The signs indicated that at some moment in the past someone had died in an automobile accident at that spot. Sometimes the signs appeared in groups like little families. These markers didn’t really honor the dead. They said don’t be like them. Don’t be stupid!
I tried not to be stupid. I didn’t want to die. My father laughed and spoke to himself as he drove. Sometimes he failed to notice things like semi-trucks loaded with cattle pulling out onto the highway because he turned his blinker on too soon. I was always vigilant enough of these hazards to warn him in time and avoid a collision.
The THINK! signs proved to me that sudden death was not only possible but commonplace. I would look at the accident site and try to envision what had happened: no glass or blood, just wind-swept grass under so much empty sky. Sometimes the THINK! signs were decorated with sun-faded plastic flowers like gravesites on the highway. People remember what the land forgets, history like barbwire connecting the fenceposts.
Once my father and I were pheasant hunting together and got caught in a blizzard. The gravel road was buried in fresh snow and the car felt like a marble on a plane of glass. The flakes came horizontal–the sky, the road, the ditch all blurring together in whiteness with only the shelterbelts just visible. I remember him scared, his head stuck out the window as the wipers streaked madly across the frosted windshield. Things lightened up towards town and I relaxed knowing we would be all right. His beard was covered in icicles. I watched them melt as he drove us home, dripping like a spring thaw.
As an adult–a father of two boys myself–I keep my hands at ten and two with everyone buckled up. When making a left turn, I error on the side of caution. Sometimes the thought of being T-boned with my children in the backseat enters my head involuntarily. There is always that element of fate beyond your control, that aspect of chaos some call dumb luck.
We are passing a pothole crew on the highway when the car slams into us from behind.
It happened near Worthington on a monotonous stretch of interstate that I’ve travelled countless times–our preferred path on endlessly repeated journeys to grandma’s house in Sioux Falls. I used to go that way to visit Emily in Minneapolis when she first started grad school. Then I trekked up it again, a one-way trip this time, with her beside me in a U-Haul when we moved there together. The rented truck broke down mysteriously in St. James. I kept repeating the phrase “dead in the water” to the U-Haul customer service agent on the telephone. Every time we pass the rest area there I repeat the phrase–the staleness of the joke by now the joke itself.
We watched Emily’s brother get married this time. The back of his vintage suit was wet with rain as the ceremony was performed. Emily’s brother is a forklift mechanic–a man of large, grease-stained hands and flannel shirts. He had driven to Larchwood with the windows down because the heater was out in the ’76 New Yorker he had restored to basic functioning. It was touching to see a man of silence, predisposed to self-exile, find someone to share his life. We let the boys climb around in the car before the wedding. I located the gas cap behind the rear license plate. The seats in the white car were wide like leather couches with a trunk big enough to store a Kia. Miles cried when Emily’s brother popped the hood to show me the engine and he didn’t get to see it.
I was jubilant just before the accident, having endured a formal family function with two young children. Miles refused to wear the button shirt Emily purchased for him, but otherwise the kids were great. The collision wasn’t severe enough that I worried about anyone being hurt, although Emily said she felt it more than the rest of us. I pulled over with my hazards flashing ahead of the roadcrew and the silver Toyota behind us followed suit. I turned and asked the boys if they were ok. At first, I couldn’t see my son’s bike on the carrier in back and I voiced my concern that it had fallen off somewhere on the road. Miles cried out in emotional pain and then I saw it still hanging there by a bungee cord on one side. I instructed my wife to call the highway patrol while I got out to survey the damage. Cars whizzed by. It was a perfect day, hardly a wisp of cloud in the blue sky. I gritted my teeth and had a look at the other driver. She was a young female: glasses, long blonde hair, hooded sweatshirt, phone held to her ear. The hood of her car was severely rumpled. My own bumper was just slightly dinged, but the plastic molding underneath was all deformed. Her econobox definitely got the worst of it with her front-end wedging under our light SUV upon impact. My son’s bike was fine. The car had missed his smaller tires altogether. My frame, sprocket and cranks appeared unblemished, but when I gave the front wheel a spin it had a decided wobble.
Both of our bicycles had just been stolen on Father’s Day. These were replacements that I had brought on the trip to ride together. We weren’t having a lot of luck with bikes. I always regretted buying anything. The woman put the phone in her pocket, so I went to her with a forced smile on my face and asked if she was all right. I half-expected her to blame me for the accident. Situations like this never bring out the best in people. She immediately burst into tears. I’m not much of a hugger, but I hugged her anyway and told her the kids were fine. It turned out she was a SDSU freshman on her way home to Blue Earth. I got back in my own car and waited with my wife. The kids were squawking about the delay. The road crew passed us as we waited, eventually disappearing behind a hill.
I sometimes wonder if, by some unknown aspect of relativity, the living might persist like THINK! signs beyond their death. Does the past exist and what of the future? I scanned the horizon for the flashing cherries of the highway patrol, like some vacant-eyed ghost awaiting passage across the river Styx.