Nice article in the Atlantic now about the way that the very fabric of reality can be altered by an insignificant, unseen accident of chance. The article refers back to a movie that took up the theme: someone catches a train at the last second, or they miss the train by one second. Everything changes. This is a subject that is close to my heart.
There was a time when I was working at a part time law clerk job in the west valley while attending school in Malibu. I took a couple of evening classes to accommodate the job. Therefore, for a year or so, I spent a lot of time on Malibu Canyon Road between the 101 Freeway and the Coast Highway. It's a beautiful road, without a lot of traffic at the times that I was using it. That stretch is somewhere between seven and nine miles, I believe. Figure twelve minutes or so. Driving it west, towards the ocean, there's a steep hill running up on your right side, and a deep canyon on your left, with a guardrail but almost no shoulder. Not enough over there to change a tire. I'm thinking of one day in particular, in the late afternoon but with plenty of daylight left and no sun in my eyes. Perfect driving weather; beautiful setting; good driving car (1990 Honda Accord, manual transmission); perfect black-top road surface with no gravel or oil. I was having fun on the sweeping turns, but not overdoing it. Then, without warning, there's never any warning, I almost got zotzed.
I came around a right hand turn in the road and onto a straight piece. There was the mouth of a short tunnel about six hundred yards ahead. I covered part of that distance and then I noticed something out of the corner of my eye, to my right. I moved my eyes to focus on it, and saw that it was a boulder about twice the size of a basketball, and it had just bounced off the sharp hillside on its way down to the road. It was going to beat me to its chosen spot on the road. I just had time to begin to attempt a time and motion calculation, addressing the issue of either braking or accelerating to avoid the boulder hitting my car. While I was performing that mathematics I maintained a constant speed. Almost instantly the boulder struck the road about two car-lengths in front of my bumper and took an impressive bounce. Almost simultaneously, I rolled over the debris spot where it had hit, and out of the left corner of my eye, in the driver's side window, I could see the boulder sailing into the canyon, airborne.
This is what we, growing up in Queens, used to call, “I didn't know whether to shit, piss, or throw up.”
The best way to look at an event like that is to shake your head once, smile, and move on. Don't dwell on it. But I've never been one to leave well enough alone, so I dwelt on it for quite a while. A new math problem presented itself, and I tried to identify the variables. I had covered about two/ thirds of the distance on Malibu Canyon Road, so I had driven about eight minutes at about fifty miles-per-hour, before the rock struck the road. It was a fraction of a second between impact and my passing over the spot, so that number would be in thousandths of a second. How much of an increase in my speed would have brought me to the spot at just the fatal moment? The debris spot was in the center of my lane, which would have put the rock in the center of my windshield if had been traveling microscopically faster. I still shudder to think about it.
The Atlantic article focuses on several pieces of alternate-history fiction, books or movies, that have bearing on our modern day politics. The lesson of the boulder, however, for me, is that every person on earth regularly experiences these near misses. There is a terrible randomness to who lives to see tomorrow and who dies today, and this is our reality every day.
Combat veterans feel this most acutely. They often comment on the randomness of who dies and who lives in the combat zone. Real combat is not like it is in the movies. There is a lot more shooting and a lot less hitting anything. Rifle bullets travel faster than the speed of sound, and the little sonic-booms make a snapping sound when they pass close to you. Many of the combat memoirs that I have read mention the sense of wonder that the man experienced from coming through so much danger untouched, and many wonder why they were unharmed while so many other men, similarly situated, were killed. Usually they chalk it up to just being one of those things. If you're in the right place at the wrong time, you catch one.
So here's to being lucky! Bon chance, mes amis! Just another day in paradise, if you made it through yesterday.