“Go. Go! Go!!!” I shouted aloud at the huge Mercury in front of me even though I know he can’t hear my pleas. I’m alone in my truck, fuming. Seconds ago, I was calmly driving along in my service van on the way to my next customer. I’m running a few minutes late, but that’s par for the course here in Orlando. The local population exploded in the decades since “The Mouse” arrived, and it seemed that every new person brought a car. Or two. Orange County has been playing catch-up ever since. Every major road has been widened at least twice, while the interstate and the turnpike seem perpetually under construction. Add to that millions of tourists – I mean “visitors” – and one realizes it’s never going to get any better.
It all adds up to stress. No wonder road rage is a growing problem in America. I remember as a kid my dad would take us on drives in our Dodge Dart wagon (he always bought a Dodge for some reason). On Sunday afternoons, we’d head out in any direction from our home in Kissimmee and soon find ourselves in the middle of nowhere; such was Old Florida. Past orange groves that are now shopping centers and by pretty lakes and springs – just for fun! We’d stop for soft-serve ice cream at a roadside stand along the way. Even though the car had no air conditioning, I don’t think it bothered us. Ignorance is truly bliss. Nowadays, it’s windows up with the AC blasting to block out the world. I can’t imagine driving anywhere near here “just for fun”. Driving is a chore; a necessary evil of modern life.
The left-turn arrow has been green for a while now, and the three cars ahead of the Mercury are already through the intersection while he still has his brakes lights on. I’m trying hard not to be impatient with the driver in front of me, but he is trying my nerves. I hate when people behind me beep when I don’t take off lickety-split when the light changes, so, to be a more courteous driver, I give my fellow travelers some leeway. One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand. A little grace period for the senior citizen before me. I assume he must be retired; who else would drive a gold Grand Marquis? But he remains firmly rooted to his spot as the lane clears in front of him, and my blood-pressure starts to rise anyway. My hand is inching for the horn, and just before it makes contact, his brake lights release, and he starts to move. Relief!
Unfortunately, he drives like my dad on those Sunday jaunts without a deadline in the world. I see the left-turn arrow change to yellow, but there is no rushing this guy. Everybody knows that a yellow light means speed-up and get through the intersection quickly or else be rear-ended by the joker racing behind doing the same thing. Better gun it or get run over. But he’s from a different era.
It soon becomes apparent that even he won’t make the light. I honk angrily. Well, if I must wait another cycle, at least he will too. Calm down; count to ten. We’ll be buddies, just sitting around here waiting on traffic lights together while I grind my teeth. The light turns red just as he approaches the white line, but instead of stopping, he continues on his merry way. What! The bastard! I thought you were my friend. He somehow maneuvered his land yacht safely across, oblivious to some fancy defensive driving skills of another service van like mine. And I’m now stuck for another round while my appointment clock keeps ticking. If I ever see that Merc again, why I’d…I honk again out of frustration.
As I simmer through the next light cycle, I think about what-ifs. What if this 90 second delay means hitting all the rest of the lights green and waiting was a good thing? Or I could get stuck behind a dump truck that would have already been gone in the next minute or so. What if I made that light and was already on my way? The traffic patterns would change imperceptively. My interactions would be with a whole different set of vehicles on the road – for better or worse.
Miles farther on this event is fading into irrelevancy as I continue doggedly toward my customer appointment. Even though I knew I’d be fashionably late from the outset, I was now stretching that definition. I had one eye on the clock as weekday afternoon traffic continued to mount. Luckily, traffic is flowing and I’m almost there. A quarter mile from the jobsite I approach a railroad track. One last hurdle to jump. A few hundred feet before the crossing, the lights on the crossbars begin to flash. Not now, please! The cars in front of me show no signs of slowing, so I don’t either. Just get though and I’ll be home free. By the time I’m ready to cross the tracks, the arms are beginning to descend. No problem, I’ll be gone in seconds.
Suddenly, traffic stopped dead. I slammed on my brakes and barely avoided rear-ending the car in front of me. Someone up ahead was trying to make a turn across traffic and had blocked my lane. I glimpse a gold car. Wait, can it be? It’s a Mercury Marquis all right, but the same one? That would be too much of a coincidence. The surprise of seeing my old nemesis temporarily distracts me from my current predicament. If I had made that light earlier, I would now be up ahead by him. Instead, I’m stopped in the middle of the tracks with a train coming! A fast approaching Amtrak.
Going forward is not an option; I’m already at the bumper of the next car in front. I begin to panic. My hand clumsily reaches for the shifter to put it in reverse. Every little move seems to take forever, and my arm barely wants to respond to my command. I miss reverse and accidently put it in neutral as I floor it. The engine races but I’m standing still. I bump the shifter into gear again and the van lurches backward only a few feet before hitting the car behind me who had stopped short as well. I’m trapped in the path of a speeding train; it’s loud warning blaring. I’ve got to bail! NOW!!
How does something so simple as unbuckling a seat belt become such an insurmountable task? It normally takes seconds; I do it every day. But not while staring down death. Everything is in slow motion now: fumbling with the seat belt, groping for the door handle, pushing open the door. The chalk-on-blackboard screeching of iron wheels skidding on steel tracks raises to a fever pitch. One last look and oddly noticing the pattern of shiny rivets on the engine as it loomed outside the passenger window. I was halfway out the door when the sledgehammer struck the tin can. The door slammed shut on my body pinning me in place. The impact ripped the van in two and the cab and I are being whisked down the tracks at an alarming rate of speed. The wail of the train horn could barely be heard over the din of grinding metal.
I’m helpless; at the mercy of the gods. The view down the track made me flashback to riding in the front seat for a roller coaster. I used to do this for thrills! The same adrenaline rush of going over and down that first drop, except with the element of imminent death. The van twisted to the left side and briefly brought me parallel to the engine. I registered the shocked expression of the engineer looking through his window. As the train slowed, what was left of the van broke free and rolled over into the driver’s side, crushing me to the ground. I can’t breathe. The last thing I remembered before total blackness – I’m going to be late.