I was 18 years old - a freshman at UGA - and invincible. My buddy needed a ride home - to Macon - and I had my mother's car for the weekend. The fact that it was almost midnight on a Saturday night seemed totally inconsequential. I invited a friend to go along for the ride. She was still in high school and may have even asked permission of her mother.
We made to Macon and almost back to Covington. Almost.
I don't remember much about what happened. I know that we had been running parallel to a train at some point, just south of Jackson, and could hear the whistle of that train when I stopped to make a right hand turn onto highway 36, right in front of the Heart of Jackson motel. I also remember wondering, as I lay upside down in my mother's car, my chest pinned between the dash of the car and what was left of the roof, if I had somehow made the terrible mistake of cutting across that train's path.
I hadn't. I hadn't done anything, really, except be at the wrong place at the wrong time. The place was a stop sign that the drunk driver behind me didn't see. The time was about 1:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning.
I survived that crash, but my chest, which is crisscrossed with scars from multiple surgeries stemming from the events of that ill-fated night, resembles a tic-tac-toe board. Every time I look into a mirror I am reminded of how lucky I was that night. My companion, thankfully, escaped with minor injuries - a pinched nerve in her arm, I think.
For a long time when I thought about that night I thought about the pain and suffering the potentially fatal accident caused me. I thought about the month I spent entertaining the night shift nurses at St. Joseph's Hospital in Atlanta. It seems that, even then, I had a penchant for telling funny stories and those stories apparently got pretty funny around shift changing time, when I got my nightly dose of pain medicine in conjunction with a pretty potent sleeping pill. And I thought about the quarter I missed from school. It was spring quarter, too. Most of us were only allotted four springs in Athens back then, and I spent one of mine in the hospital and recuperating at home.
I made it up by commuting from home during the summer. Trust me. It ain't the same.
What I didn't think about, for a long, long time, is how my mother and father must have felt at 2 a.m.. on a Sunday morning when the Newton County deputy knocked on the front door of their little mill village house to tell them that their baby boy had been in a serious accident. Yes, at 18 I was still my mama's baby boy - and if she were alive, I would be still.
I didn't think about the drive they took from Porterdale to the little Butts County hospital where the ambulance took me. I didn't think about the horror they must have felt as they wondered what they would find. I didn't think about them at all.
And then I had children of my own and those children eventually grew up and learned to drive and after that happened, often when I looked at my scar-crossed chest in the mirror, I would think of my parents and the ordeal I must have put them through that night - and of my friend's mother, who trusted me enough to allow her daughter to ride with me to Macon in the middle of the night.
I now have three children who, most of the time, seem to be away from home in an automobile. My greatest fear is that I will get a phone call or a knock on the door - that I will hear that they have been involved in a wreck, serious or otherwise. A lot of prayers go up every time one of my kids leaves the house that that phone call or that knock on the door will never come.
One night last summer I was home alone. My lovely wife, Lisa, was at the hospital, helping someone give birth. A Rockdale deputy knocked on my door at 11 p.m. and my heart leapt into my throat. Every bad thought imaginable flashed through my mind. She just wanted me to go and help her find a cow that she thought might have gotten out of our pasture. It took me 30 minutes to quit shaking.
So far that bad news knock hasn't come for me, but it did come for two families in my community this week and my heart goes out to them. Two good kids left the house Wednesday night and somehow wound up on I-285 and never made it home. It could have been anybody's kids. It really could have.
If you have children, I don't need to remind you to cherish every moment with them. And if you are a teenager who drives a car - please slow down. The life you save may be your own and the heart that you keep from breaking may be your parents'.