“Oh Shit” were the ominous and appropriate words that my nana uttered as she lost control of the car and sent us down the side of the mountain.
Riding in the car with my grandmother are some of the strongest and most entertaining memories I have of her. They were frequent and, while they could at times get a little boring, they were never dull and always led to some kind of funny story.
Anytime she got tired she’d jump on the CB, as this was a time when many non-truckers owned CB’s in their car. She was Rebel, and I was her trusty sidekick Little Reb. And that one thing could keep us entertained for hours on end or keep her awake on extended night trips.
As I’ve said before, destinations were great, but the real point of the trip was the trip itself and it was where she was her most relaxed. Though she could cuss so much that you might wonder just how relaxed she could get.
Late in her life, my grandmother was diagnosed with lukemia. It may have been a devastating blow to her but she remained strong and you rarely would be able to tell that anything was wrong. For her, it just meant more trips up state as that was the closest place to get Chemo treatments at the time.
And it was one of these treatments that I was allowed to skip school to go with her. She told me it was because she wasn’t sure she would make it back in time but really, nana just liked having company on the road.
The trip was from Fort Smith to Springdale in Arkansas going over the Ozark Mountains. There is an interstate running between the two now, but I know my nana would just curse the thought of it and continue taking the traditional roads until she hit a time that she was too tired and just wanted to get home. But at that time, there was no interstate but rather two ‘highways’, 59 and 71. We took highway 59 up that day, she loved that road as it was a little more windy, less traffic, and more scenery, though both have an abundance of scenery compared to modern interstate highways.
On the trip up, she was speeding which, while not abnormal, it wasn’t as controlled as she normally kept it nor as safe. I was actually praying for a cop to pull us over and tell her to slow down and put on a seatbelt which she never wore. And it actually did happen, a cop stopped her about 3/4 of the way there and she grudgingly put on her lap belt. She didn’t really slow down though, so we made record time.
The time in Springdale was nothing noteworthy. I waited rather impatiently (I didn’t have my patience at that time, I was a kid!) for her Chemo to end and then we went to eat. She decided at that time that she wanted to take Highway 23 back home.
Highway 23 was even more windy and less traveled. A smaller highway that went south to Ozark and then we could hop on the highway to head west back home. But it was also a road that she knew less than the others, which I’m sure didn’t help.
You see, it had rained that morning before we left. It was one of the reasons I was praying so hard. But no one stopped us on the way back down. And while most of the road was dry there were many spots, covered by trees and mountainside, that were still wet. It was one of those spots on a curve that she lost control.
For everything happening in the span of about 4 seconds I was aware of a large number of things around us.
Right before she lost control I saw a van parked off the road. It was a large brown van and I noted how weird it was that someone lived on this steep mountainside. Then the car started to swerve and that’s when those only words left her lips. The car crossed the highway towards the side that the van had been parked, our left, and started down the mountain. Almost immediately the car was sliding down the mountain on it’s driver side. Nana against the door getting beat up by the glass that was breaking and rocks and sticks being thrown in the car. It seemed like forever, but it was actually about 200 ft down the mountain that we came to a stop, and we stayed on the driver side. My world was on it’s side and I was panicked.
This is all part of an accident dream moment that I’ve been part of a few times. You remember everything but it’s not reality. It happens slow and sounds seem far off. When reality comes back you’re just in shock at your sudden change in surroundings. For me, it were the sounds that came back the strongest. It was nana, crying out. “JOSH! Oh God JOSH! You have to get out I’m stuck. You have to go get help. You have to climb out. Oh God I’m hurt.” Over and over. Despite my arguing that I couldn’t get out because my door was above me she kept on that I had to get out. And somehow I did. This is really the only part that I don’t remember. I never climbed trees and I was overweight but somehow I pushed open the large door and climbed out and down the car.
Miracle #1, as soon as I was out there were paramedics already there. They were coming down towards us. I would later learn that the van that I had thought was parked at an odd place for a house was actually another driver who had also gone off of the road minutes before us. Someone had seen her and called 911. She was OK. I started screaming that they needed to save my nana.
They had to cut through the windshield to get to her. They kept talking how lucky it was we didn’t tip all the way over.
Miracle #2: A tiny tree saved our lives. As we slid down the mountain we were most likely to tip onto our roof as soon as the car lost momentum. But as it came to a stop it was right next to a tree that was no bigger than my wrist was at the time. The paramedics and cops were astounded that it didn’t break as the weight of the car came down on it. But it held up and kept us on that side. Which could have been worse except…
Miracle #3: A lap seat belt saved her life. She had been wearing that lap belt on and off all day. Luckily this was an on moment. While it didn’t keep her from hitting the window (the shoulder belt probably would have) it kept her in her seat. And that very well saved her life, at least for the time being.
But while she did live a few more months, my grandmother never drove again. And she wouldn’t be around to watch me learn.