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Tuesday, July 5th 2005

12:00 AM

Rail Surfing

July 5, 2005

Fourth of July is my least favorite holiday. There is just something about intentionally setting something on fire to watch it explode that doesn’t seem sensible to me. Add danger loving dads and small children into the mix and it boils down to plain stupidity. My beloved pyromaniac, on the other hand, waits all year for the chance to set something on fire. His eyes light up when the firebomb stands go up. He spend hours determining which box will scare me the most.

Every year it is the same thing. The firebomb stands start popping up and I start drawing the line. Every year I lose. This year I got smart. Independence Day fell on a Monday giving Chad a three-day weekend. Camping is one of our family’s passions, one we haven’t had time to enjoy lately. A few well placed phone calls and everything was in place. We had reservations to spent four peaceful days camping in central Virginia, in a campground that prohibited fireworks! This was going to be the best Fourth of July yet!

I have forgotten how much work it is to go camping. It is definitely less expensive but I spent two days shopping, washing, and packing for our relaxing trip. Our popup camper has been in storage since we moved across the country. It needed to be aired out and restocked. The day after we return home from camping, the kids and I head out to California for a month. Our California bags needed to be packed. Chad adamantly determined the dogs were coming with us, which opened up another whole bag of problems. We recently got a new dog, Rosco, who isn’t the smartest pup on the block. He hasn’t learned to come when he is called, which is irritating but understandable. My problem is that he isn’t housebroken… and he is three! He doesn’t just drop his load anywhere. He has adopted my closet as his latrine. We are currently debating whether Rosco should remain a member of the Johnson Zoo or become a farm dog. I’m sure Rosco would be much happier chasing chickens and cow tipping. Since I haven’t convinced Chad of this yet, the incredible pooping pooch was making the three-hour drive with us. I needed a little R&R after all this preparation.

After much planning, some frantic packing, and a little yelling, Saturday night we hit the road. We didn’t exactly get the early start we had planned. Chad noted our departure time with great irritation. 9:45PM. Think of all the traffic we would have hit getting underway with everyone else. No worries! Besides, tomorrow we could sleep in.

Within an hour, the kids had finished their dinners and snuggled in for the night. Even Rosco settled down in a nest next to Kaleb. I never realized how little time Chad and I actually get to sit and converse with one another. We had two wonderful hours to just chat about nothing. We discussed work, homeschooling, politics, family, and our future goals. It is fun to think that even after eight years of marriage we still have so much to talk about! Two hours into our trip, I noticed gas prices were significantly lower so we pulled into a truck stop and topped off. After a half-hour of potty breaks, Chad took over driving and we jumped back on the freeway. Exhausted from preparing for our relaxing weekend, I slipped off my shoes, snuggled up, and dozed off.

I awoke to the sound of screaming metal. In a matter of seconds, we danced with a tractor trailer and then "surfed" 150 feet of guardrail. Before I fully realized what was going on, someone was opening my door yelling at us to get out. The van was spilling fuel. "Get out!!!" Mommy instincts kicked into high gear. I was able to pry the slider open and frantically started pulling the kids out of the car. I yanked Nate out of his seat and handed him to a stranger who ran him to safety. Faster than I would have thought possible, I ripped all four kids from their car seats and entrusted them to strangers while we struggled to get the dogs out of the van. Rusty followed his "pups" but Rosco had been launched from his nest and slammed into the dash. Disoriented and afraid, Rosco refused to leave the leaking van. Chad finally dragged him out only to have his collar slip over his head. Rosco bolted and ran wild on the freeway. I recoiled when I realized that my kids survived only to watch their get dog killed. Thankfully, emergency crews cornered him under the camper and dragged him away to safety.

Dazed and disoriented myself, I frantically searched among the cars for the kids. Within a few minutes we had found them all, understandably shaken but miraculously unharmed. It was only while I protectively cradled Nate that I realized I was standing on a freeway of parked cars. Blue lights flashed, sirens screamed. I remember Nate’s body trembling as the story spilled out from the onlookers. Two hours before, a drunk had come down the freeway the wrong way slamming head on to a tractor-trailer. The drunk driver was instantly killed and the truck slammed into another before flipping and bursting into flames. The accident had closed the northbound side of the freeway leaving thousands of holiday travelers stranded. Making the best of it, people pulled out their beach chairs and coolers and watched the drama unfold. They watched as ambulances and fire trucks raced down the emergency lanes to extinguish the flames. Every state trooper in the county had been called in to work the accident. People camped out and recorded the drama with their camcorders and cameras.

A tractor-trailer on the southbound side of the freeway had slowed to five miles an hour to take in the carnage. The freeway spectators were all commenting on how this rubber necker was going to cause an accident when we came up behind him. At one in the morning, our side of the freeway was pitch black aside from the truck’s running lights. He never hit his breaks. Chad slowed to fifty miles an hour because of the emergency activity on the northbound side but had no idea that the truck ahead of us was virtually parked on the road. He saw the running lights, went down a dip, and popped back up right behind the truck that hadn’t moved. By this time, we had the complete attention of the northbound side. The state troopers said they still don’t know how Chad reacted fast enough to miss the truck. If we had slammed into it, the camper we were pulling would have crushed us and we all would have died. Chad swerved, missing the tractor-trailer by inches. If it had just been the van, we might have pulled out of it but the trailer jackknifed, first left then bounced around and slammed into the passenger side of the van. The impact of the camper pushed the van up over the guard rail. The weight of the camper kept us from flipping completely over into the river below but our momentum carried us 150 feet down the guard rail. The impact of the camper blew out three tires, crumpled Bekah’s compartment, shattered her window, and slit the full gas tank.

While there is never a good time to dance with death, our accident could not have gone more right. Every imaginable type of emergency worker was already out working the northbound wreck. We had hundreds of witnesses, at least one of whom captured the entire thing on film. In those thousands of stranded travelers, a Search and Rescue team was stuck on their way home after a week long training course. They were sitting on the tailgate next to their bags of equipment when we started to swerve. Before we jumped the guardrail, they were already running toward us. Chad immediately hit the lights so we wouldn’t spark the fuel pouring out of the van, but it left the dark camper vulnerable to another impact. Two troopers make it to the scene and divert traffic before anyone hit us. The stranger who ran Nate to safety was a EMT in a party dress and pearls who had gotten stuck on her way home from a party. Within minutes, hoses from the fire trucks were ready to extinguish the van if the fuel ignited.

Fearful of an explosion, we stood across the median and tried to grasp the reality of our situation. Two and a half hours from home, we were now without transportation. All of our belongings, food, insurance information, and clothing sat inside a van that threatened to blow. Barefoot and shaking, I realized I didn't care if my Betsy blew. God had protected our family in a miraculous way and we walked away from the crash as a complete family. I have never felt more grateful in my life. Even as we waited for the van to spark, I knew that we had been protected. Spewing fuel, we took out ten guardrails and never ignited. The reality of how close it had been began to sink in.

Most of the spectators watched from a distance, but one wonderful family came forward. The woman wrapped her arms around me while her daughter, "big" Becca, entertained the younger kids. People came and took pictures of the boys dressed up in rescue gear. The fire marshal told Drew what a lucky young man he was and delighted him an explanation of the equipment they used. Food, drinks, and blankets appeared while the men headed off to retrieve what they could from the van. Animal Control brought a van to take the kids, dogs, and I to a hotel while Chad stayed at the accident. As much as I wanted to get away from the gas fumes and flashing lights, it was very difficult leaving Chad there. The tension was broken when Kaleb stopped and tearfully asked about the fate of his new water gun, still inside the camper. We all laughed heartily. Chad scooped Moose up and assured him that he would have a water gun to take to California. If missing water guns were the worst of our worries, we would surely be all right.

By the time we arrived at the hotel, the jitters had set in. Some people panic in the middle of a crisis; I break down after I know everyone is fine. The driver stayed with the kids and dogs in the van while I went inside to get a room. I was thrilled to learn they accepted dogs. I smiled to think that God was even looking out for our crazy mutts. My peace evaporated when the clerk told me I had to pay right then. Everything was back at the accident. I tried to explain but she remained steadfast. It finally occurred to me that I don’t carry a purse. Chad is forever riding me because I stuff my cards in pockets. I had bought dinner at the truck stop and left my main ATM in the center console of the van but relief washed over me when I discovered our backup credit card in my pocket. In my anxiety, I mispunched my pin. I fought to keep my composure while the attendant called her manager. The manager cleared the machine and I punched the right pin this time. The manager then informed me she would not provide us a room. They have a limit of five people per room and we are a six pack.

My composure crumpled. Didn’t she know that we had almost died? Didn’t she know that if she turned us away, I didn’t even have a car I could sleep in? Didn’t she know? How could she turn us away at three in the morning after all we had been through? I decided she couldn’t. With determined exhaustion, I explained that she was going to give us a room. Nate hasn’t even had a birthday yet so he couldn’t possible count. He was zero! Bekah is so small she could only count as ¾ a person at max so by my count we were only at 4 and ¾ people, well within their five person max. She just stared at me. She must have sensed my desperation because she accepted my twisted logic and handed me a room key.

I herded the kids and dogs into our room just before 4AM. Chad still wasn’t back from the accident and I was feeling worn. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to drop from exhaustion or call my mom and cry. I was still deliberating when I suddenly noticed a raunchy smell in the room. The kids yelled with delight when they discovered that Rosco, the incredible pooping pooch, had managed to poop in the trash can. Kaleb proudly declared that was the coolest thing he had ever seen. Once we had recovered from the stench and got everyone settled down, we realized we were hungry. Starving. Famished. Dancing with death apparently gives one an appetite! We were discussing this fact when Nate woke up and I discovered I had no bottle, no formula, and no diapers. Chad walked in as I succumbed to helpless sobs.

After everything that we had been through, the next hour was the longest. We were trapped in the middle of nowhere without a way of appeasing our children’s hunger. I can’t imagine living in countries where this is a daily fact of life. I felt incredibly helpless. The grocery store was closed. The vending machines were empty. Chad walked all the way to McDonalds only to find that they really wouldn’t serve him in the drive-through. They said he had to have a car. He managed to scrounge up a pack of crackers at a nearby gas station. Everyone drifted off to sleep a little before five.

Two hours later I stood waiting for the grocery store to open. I decided I would make up for last night’s hunger. For the first time in my life, I bought my kids sugar cereal. I found the biggest, chocolatey-est box I could find that had the "75% less sugar" stamp. I still had to get these kids home! I picked up donuts and grapes, milk and juice. When I got to the register, I discovered that I didn’t have my money. Sleep deprivation doesn’t aid one trying to suppress emotion. I slinked back to the hotel, grabbed my money card, and then walked back to the grocery store. By the time I arrived back to our room, I was burning with injustice. Why does everything happen to us? What were we supposed to do now? Money is already unbearably tight and now this. How much more do we have to endure? Chad just kissed me and held me while I cried. It is wonderful to have a life partner who knows exactly what you need.

My grandparents came down and rescued us. There is a reason I don’t buy sugar cereal. My grandparents walked into a noisy room of bouncing boys, exhausted parents, and barking dogs. It is amazing they didn’t turn right around and hightail it out of there! We packed up into two cars and headed over to the wrecking yard.

I was shocked to see the condition of the van. Had the accident really been that bad? How had I opened the slider? It took everything Chad had to yank it open. How did we all walk away? Bek’s compartment was crumpled and the entire backseat was littered with shards of glass. Chad climbed under the van and came out shaking his head. My injustice was replaced with shame and gratitude. We have been blessed beyond measure. As difficult as it was going through the van, I can’t imagine doing it while grieving the loss of a family member. Our cuts and bruises are so minor. All it would have taken is one spark. We slid 150 feet, metal on metal, without a spark. Who cares if we are down to one car that won’t hold us all? We are all alive. We are all unharmed. God is so good.

In that day they will say,

Surely this is our God;

We trusted in him, and he saved us.

The is the LORD, we trusted in him;

Let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.

~Isaiah 25:9

It has defiantly been a Fourth of July to remember. Now I am really ready from some R&R! Before we leave tomorrow we are going to follow Kaleb’s suggestion and have a celebration dinner. Tonight we celebrate our safety, God’s providence, and family members who accept collect calls at three in the morning! Maybe next year we will just stay home and let Chad play with fireworks…

Your Exhausted but Abundantly Blessed Zookeeper,



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