Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Last Day of July

Another piece of memoir...

The Last Day of July

On the last day of July 1979, my summer was more than half over. My senior year at the University of North Dakota would start in less than four weeks. The evening shift was over. It was a few minutes after midnight. The day’s heat had faded but the humidity persisted. There was a slight breeze from the west which helped to clear my nose of the cloying odor of sticky sweet cotton candy, caramel corn, and spilled Coca-cola on sun-warmed asphalt. We left the back gate and walked toward the employee parking lot. Crickets and cicadas chirped and whirred. It had been an unremarkable day at my summer job as a security supervisor at Valleyfair, an amusement park located on the bank of the Minnesota River south of Minneapolis. The park was quiet behind us except for the occasional safety tone of maintenance trucks as they were thrown into reverse...wheep, wheep, wheep. Four of us walked down the right side of the poorly lit gravel road, a co-worker Dave, my sister Kathy, and my girlfriend Paula. A fresh load of coarse gravel had recently been poured on the roadbed. Some of the rocks were fist sized. I watched the ground in front of my feet as I walked so as not to turn an ankle. I was in the lead by a step or two. Paula was walking behind me. My sister and Dave were behind her.

“Here’s a car that’s going to hit us,” Paula said in a matter of fact deadpan.

I raised my head. I was about to turn to her and see what sort of joke she had in mind but I was interrupted. The sound of wheels crunching gravel – yeah, large gravel – arrived at my ears at exactly the same moment two headlights – one to my left, the other to my right – registered as ovals in my peripheral vision. My reality split. Two tracks diverged, one in an excruciatingly detailed slow motion, the other in real time. I’ve encountered this a couple times since. Others have called it the Ohnosecond; that moment when you realize that something really unfortunate is about to happen and that there is nothing at all you can do about it. My left knee hit a solid wall. My hands snapped to a stop on something hard and narrow. I flopped forward from the waist in a tight arc. My face was rushing toward the light colored hood of a car that suddenly occupied the space I had intended to step into. My nose was pushed out of shape – flattened like a snout – against cool sheet metal. “Just like Porky Pig,” I thought to myself. The pressure built until the metal buckled – kaPUNK! Like an engineer watching a gauge creeping into the red, an internal narrator calmly reported “You know if this keeps up your nose is going to break.” And then it did, with a quiet pop. “Told you.” The narrator reminded me. Then the pressure on my nose, the hard edge that had smacked the backs of my hands, and the wall I’d rammed my knee into were all suddenly gone. A car receded below me. The night sky whirled above me. Trees cartwheeled. The coarsely graveled road made a lazy circle. I was flying. Someone was cursing a blue streak. It was me, flying and cursing. Then the road came to me. My landing was not graceful or controlled. Gravel. Rolling. Gravel, air. Grit in my mouth. “A car!” my narrator shouted, “You were hit by a car!” Rolling. Gravel, air. "Where’s the car?” I pleaded to no one who could hear me. Flopping. Gravel, air. Ow! “You flew through the air!” My narrator was impressed. “Where’s the car?” I begged. Brakes squealed and wheels ground to a stop on gravel. “The car stopped!” My narrator reported gratefully. “You won’t get run over.” I gasped. Numbness flooded through my body as the slow motion track came to an end and the world rushed back in.

The normal speed track was a blur, a thud, and a scream.

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