Relearning To Fly

Part One:
A Clean Break

My black Toyota RAV4 began to hydroplane at fifty miles an hour. I looked ahead and felt my heart skip.

Hydroplaning itself wasn't the problem. I'd experienced it before and knew what to do: Nothing. Simply take your foot off the gas, hold the wheel straight, and wait for the wheels to catch, which they usually did in a second or two. Only problem was, the 405 North was curving to the left, and I was headed in a straight line off the right side of the road.

It would have been easier to deal with had it not been some of the worst weather Los Angeles had ever seen. Heavy, thick rain, with wind gusts blowing the showers sideways across the road. At 1:30 in the morning, at the top of the notorious, mountain-snaking Sepulveda Pass, it was as bad a road condition as Southern California could conjure up. But missing Griff Peters and Jackie Daum's show in West Hollywood wasn't an option. Not after what we'd just been through together with Wes.

I felt the car cross lanes. Two more to go and then I'd be barreling off the shoulder. I was going to have to do what they tell you not do to when you're hydroplaning: Try to steer out of it.

Gently, I pulled the wheel to the left, no more than a clock-hour's worth. The car's weight shifted, still gliding on the thin layer of water on the road, and the rear end began to fishtail out to the right. I felt the tires break through the water layer and catch pavement intermittently, enough to get the car going in the direction of the road again. But not enough to stop the momentum of the rear of the car.

I steered back to the right, hoping to catch the road changing directions as it reversed its turn and neared the summit. I now had the car's fishtail going the other way, the rear pushing out left. For a brief, shining moment, the car and the road shared a horizon point. But inertia made that impossible for too long, and a third correction was going to be necessary. Quickly.

It happened in an instant. I pulled the wheel back left and the car entered a 360-degree spin. The rotations were happening really, really fast. They say these things happen in slow motion. This felt like a Tilt-A-Whirl. I didn't know whether I was spinning left towards the center divider or right towards the soft shoulder, but surely I'd find out soon enough.

BSSSSSHHHHHHHHHH! Looks like I was spinning left.

BSSSSSHHHHHHHHHH! I don't get it—how could I hit it tw—



The car was facing directly forward in the left-most lane. Somehow the rotations left the car in perfect position to continue driving. I checked myself. Nothing seemed broken. All my limbs worked. I could drive this car out of here.

It was still running, but when I hit the gas, the car just revved. The gears were destroyed. The RAV4 bucked like an angry bull, raising itself up off of its chassis, but wouldn't go anywhere.

Then I noticed that there was no shoulder on the road. The center divider was a foot away from the driver's side door, and the car was sitting squarely in the fast lane, at the very summit of the Sepulveda Pass, at the end of a curve in the road, in pitch black night, in a driving storm with wind blowing the rain sideways. My stomach sank and flipped as I looked back and realized that, if a car was coming up the road in the left lane, it wouldn't be able to stop from hitting me, even if the driver saw me at the earliest possible moment.

My hands reached frantically for the seat belt release, missing the latch five times before hitting the button, like a girl in a horror movie fumbling the keys as the killer struts towards her, axe raised. Once free, I opened the door to escape the marooned vehicle, and rain poured in as if someone threw a bucket of water. Cursing wildly, I yanked the door back shut.

I looked across the freeway. Five lanes. Or was it six? Could I run for it and get to the side? What good would it do in that howling wind and rain? A 911 operator would never hear me. And I might not even make it across without slipping.

A plan appeared in my head. Call 911 and get help. Open the door just enough for my leg to hang out the side. Look back the whole time. If a car came up the left lane, jump out, hop over the divider onto the other side of the freeway, wait for the impact, and when the metal stops crunching, hop back over the divider. Repeat as necessary. In the meantime, hope and pray 911 picks up and sends a cop soon.

911 put me on hold for a minute. Two minutes. Three minutes. A car approached, perilously close to the left side. Is it close enough? Do I get out?

I didn't. It missed by a car's width. Do I really have the balls to jump over the divider?

Four minutes. Five minutes. My neck was cramping up from craning back. I gave up on 911 and called Colin Keenan, Wes' best friend and next door neighbor. We'd been hanging at his place after Griff's show just before I left for home. I screamed the situation into the phone, more to rise above the din of the rainstorm than out of panic, but it was a scream nonetheless. He said he'd try to reach 911 for me, but that it's probably busy because, most likely, there were lots of accidents on the roads. I hadn't thought of that. Idiot.

Six minutes. Seven minutes. I was back on hold with 911. How long could these odds hold out? My feet twitched, like a sprinter on the blocks, heart pounding, ready for the odds to even.

Eight minutes. I saw a car coming up the hill, weaving wildly across the freeway, from the leftmost to the rightmost lane. It was just what I wanted to see. This is what they call in California freeway-speak a "traffic break," when a police cruiser cuts off all the traffic behind it from passing by executing this maneuver. I didn't know it could be done in such terrible weather, but this cop was doing it to perfection. Traffic behind him had slowed to a crawl, then stopped.

The cruiser pulled up behind me, fog lights gleaming. The cop spoke over his loudspeaker. "Can you move the car?"

I opened the door a little further, letting the rain pound my head and face, and shook my head in exaggerated fashion as I shrieked. "NO!"

"Get in the car. I'm going to push it over to the side."


I slid back in and slammed the door shut. He approached the back of my car slowly. I could see him positioning the two battering-ram metal posts on his front bumper. I felt them touch the car. He revved the engine.

My car went nowhere. As before, it bucked straight up. My heart sank.

Then he really laid into the gas pedal. The sound of a properly tricked-out Police Interceptor engine rose violently over the rain and wind and gnashing metal, and the RAV4's jammed, broken gears gave way. The car jerked forward two lengths, then stopped again in the middle of the freeway. Once again, the cop nestled in behind it, and this time he floored it so hard the RAV4 literally bounced up and down while getting shoved all the way over to the right shoulder. It came to rest with a shuddering thud.

The cop exited his car and came over to my window. "Are you hurt?"

"No," I muttered, shaking my head, "I'm OK."

"Would you like me to call you a tow truck?"


* * * * *

Forty-five minutes later, at 2:30AM in the early morning of February 21, 2005, a truck arrived. It would be after 3:00AM until I got home and wrote this to a close friend:

I totaled my car on the way back from hanging at Colin's after the gig. Pouring rain, smashed into the divider at least three times...don't remember all of it. I'm fine. No other cars were involved. I just started hydroplaning and that was it, I lost control. I just got home—it's after 3AM.

What part of the trapeze is this?

I'm physically OK, just a little sore. I'm lucky I'm alive. I guess I knew that better already this month than I did last month, but now I know it...even...more?

The next morning I saw the car parked in my apartment lot. I take pictures of just about everything, but this I skipped. It looked like death. Every crumple zone was crumpled. If my mother ever saw it she would have passed out. It really was a miracle—and a testament to the engineers at Toyota—that I lived through it.

It was, however, a death in the higher-plane sense. That car, the    RAV4 I leased back in 2001, was mine because working for SWR was getting more and more lucrative. The vanity license plate (this is California, after all) read "MO BASS," the name of one of our amplifiers. And I'd just paid it off in full a couple of weeks before, thanks to a nice end-of-year SWR bonus. In fact, the brand new, I-own-this-fucker-outright title had just shown up in my mailbox two days before.

Of course the car was a total loss. Somewhere in my mind I'd already let it go, perhaps even before I got on the freeway.

* * * * *

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