Tuesday, January 19, 2010
By the end of my junior year in high school, I, along with a handful of my classmates, had completed the highest-level math class that my school offered. And so, for our senior year, the high school made arrangements with the local community college for us to take calculus at the college. Which was cool, and fun, and exciting - getting to feel all grown-up and everything. And the guy who sat across the aisle from my 16-year-old self was a 29-year-old Vietnam vet, which was kinda weird, and interesting, all by itself. . . Taking a class at the college, while still enrolled in the high school (and still taking all my classes but one there) presented a bit of a logistical challenge, in the simple task of getting to and from the college in the middle of the high-school day. The way it got worked out was that our class was scheduled during the high-school lunch hour, so we had an extra half-hour to drive across town to the college, and back, and still be on-time for our next class. It meant that eating lunch was more of a rushed proposition than we might have preferred, but you know - sacrifices must be made. . . I usually rode over to the college with my friend Bob, who lived out in the country, and drove his dad's pickup truck to school most days. Bob was a good guy - very bright, very studious, a terrific athlete, and an almost painfully straight-arrow-type guy, who went on to the Naval Academy after graduation. I don't know if it was part of my thought-process or not, but I was as sure as I could be that Bob wasn't going to pull any vehicular hijinks driving back and forth. The drive across town was less direct than we might have wished, and the first month or so of the semester, we were engaged in experimenting with the various routes across town between the high school and the college, to find the fastest one. We eventually settled on a route that wouldn't have occurred to us at first, but we worked it out on a map, through parts of town that we didn't usually frequent; and it involved us in lighter traffic, fewer traffic lights (yeah, I didn't grow up that far in the boondocks - we actually had traffic lights in our town; several of them, in fact), and consistently got us to the college in the shortest time. We even 'raced' with the other students who took other routes, and we consistently got there before they did. Our route was not particularly scenic; it skirted around the 'back side' of town. After we had settled into it as our regular routine, I gradually became sort-of blase about it, and didn't really pay much attention to the scenery (or lack thereof) as we drove. There was a railroad crossing, about a half-mile or so before we got to the college. To our left, the track went out onto a bridge over the river. It was odd; it was one of those railroad tracks where I really had no awareness of where it went through town. It was just a railroad track that crossed the road on the way to the college, but I had no idea where it came from, or where it went, or how it passed through the town. And, in all the months we drove between the high school and the college, I never saw a train on that track, either. Until one day in December, just before the end of the semester. It was one of those wet, sloppy, slushy-snowy days that you get in the early weeks of winter. Bob and I were in his truck, as usual, skirting along the edge of town. Visibility wasn't great, but it wasn't terrible, either, and, as I often did, I was sort-of idly looking out the window as Bob drove. A light caught my eye, off to our right. "Huh," I thought. "A train; I've never seen a train on this track." And I just casually watched the train as it proceeded on its way, idly calculating in my brain whether we would have to stop at the crossing or not. As my brain worked through the crossing-time estimation, it occurred to me that Bob was not driving as though he saw the approaching train. I sat up and cast a glance over at Bob, at about the time I determined that we and the train would arrive at the crossing nearly simultaneously. I looked over at my friend. "Uh. . . Bob?" I said, very incisively; "The train?" And at that instant, Bob saw the train for the first time. He swiftly ran through his own set of time-to-crossing calculations, which, factoring in the slipperiness of the road, the emptiness of the bed of his pickup truck, and the over-inflatedness of his tires, led him inescapably to the conclusion that we were going too fast to stop before the crossing. But the conditions were too slippery for any very aggressive maneuvers, either. So Bob slowly increased our speed, racing (but not TOO hard) to get to the crossing before the train. We did arrive at the crossing before the train. Since it was coming from our right, I had a very close look (MUCH closer than I'd have preferred, all things considered) at the front of the engine as we crossed the tracks. "Huh," I thought to myself; "I never realized how BIG those train headlights are. . ." And of course, being halfway across the track, staring up at the huge headlight of the oncoming train does not constitute 'beating' the train to the crossing; the requirement for a successful crossing was that we be clear of the crossing before the arrival of the train. Which, boiled down to its barest essence, was measured by the absence of any actual physical contact between our vehicle and the train. Which, as it turned out, was a VERY close thing. As the truck's rear axle crossed the second rail, I checked the rear-view mirror on my side of the truck, and all I saw was train. We cleared the crossing by the thinnest hair's-breadth between us and the train, crossing behind us. We weren't out of the woods just yet, though; in the adrenaline rush of having so narrowly missed disaster, Bob was momentarily flustered, and the truck swerved wildly, fishtailing on the slippery road (which, providentially, had no other vehicles in the vicinity). After a few seconds, Bob regained control of the truck, and shortly, we pulled into the parking lot at the college. For a minute or more, the two of us just sat there, staring straight ahead, not saying a word, our hearts pounding in our chests, trying to calm down, and get ready for calculus. Finally, Bob, who was still white as a ghost, turned and said, "I didn't see it." "I know," I exhaled. "Let's get to class." And so we did. Although our minds might have been less focused on polar integrals that day, than they might normally have been. . . I don't know, if I were a cat, whether I'd have burned one of my lives that day. But at the very least, both our guardian angels earned their pay. . .