Monday, February 25, 2013

When Things Get Dicey: Part II (Risk-Taking Gone Awry)

There is Mother Nature. And there is Mother's Nature. The two are very different. The first can involuntarily impose dicey conditions on oneself and one's family while the second does so with the element of choice, at least partially.

Here's what I'm talking about: Last month I got myself into a potentially dangerous situation -- a fine pickle, really -- when I ran out of gas on the highway. As a full-time single mother, putting myself at risk means also putting my two young sons at risk. I had no excuse for such stupidity, but I will explain.

I take chances. Chances others wouldn't take. Chances others only dream about. Chances such as traveling around Great Britain and Western Europe alone. Upping it to Nepal and Thailand then pushing the envelope further by leading a friend across Asia and the South Pacific. Enrolling in a month-long mountaineering course after having only camped a couple of weekends in my life. And more adventures that include hitchhiking, another international border crossing (yes, "another" is the accurate word here), memoir-writing (very scary, indeed!), and getting caught up in a democracy revolution overseas that turned deadly. Quitting jobs without other ones to go to and starting grad school on the eve of turning forty felt tame to me; choosing to become a 24/7 single mother of two children with no built-in support network did not.

My life today as the latter is a risk, no question about it. On a daily basis, it provides me with plenty of mundane chores and the need to bring home the bacon. It does not offer me, however, the kind of chance-taking I relish. (I should add here that, though I have found myself in plenty of scrapes from these adventures -- of course, it is a numbers game after all -- I have never gotten myself hurt or in any serious trouble from them. As a result, I keep looking for more.)

Don't get me wrong. I did not set out to run out of gas on the highway! Absolutely not. I simply pushed the limit on how far one can drive after the gas light comes on. Previously, I had driven thirty-five or thirty-seven miles after first spotting the tiny bright yellow circle on the dashboard of my Toyota 4Runner. On this particular day, I knew I was up there in the thirties range. I remembered the last two digits of my SUV's mileage count when the light came on, and I was in the process of adding the new miles traveled up to the present mileage count when I made the fateful decision to head towards the highway rather than a gas station in my town. I was late for an appointment. While I believed I couldn't make it all the way there, I felt I could get to the first exit where I knew of a self-serve station nearby. (All the stations in my town are full-serve and, if I can help it, I prefer not to pay the extra charge.)

By the time I'd finished adding in my head, it was too late to make a different decision. I was entering Route 128. My count: forty-five miles. Holy crap! About eight miles more than I'd ever pushed it. Now let's not get ahead of ourself. I'd HEARD (or maybe it was some sort of vague recollection) that a driver has fifty miles to play with. I wasn't sure if this was true, but I would be fine if it was. In any case, I launched into a fervent bout of reciting the Lord's Prayer.

You can never pray too much, especially at a time like this!

Shortly, I passed a highway sign saying the first exit was half a mile away. "Come on, come on, COME ON!" I prodded. The car started to slow down (SHIT!), and I hit the hazard-lights button. Vehicles behind me noticed and pulled into the fast lane (GOOD!). I pulled into the breakdown lane. Like Kramer on that hilarious Seinfeld episode when he takes a dealership car for a test drive until it runs out of gas, I felt a certain exhilaration at the moment my car rolled to a stop. But the feeling was mixed with dread, naturally, because now I'd done it. I'd REALLY done it! I was here . . . on the highway . . . stuck between exits . . . with no transportation . . . and all alone. Kramer was ACCOMPANIED by a dealership employee in their FICTIONAL storyline. That was a TV show; this was my real life.

As the impact of what had just transpired sunk in, my mind began to race in a panic. My first thought was that I did not want to wait in the car for help. I did not care to be trapped inside if the wrong person approached. So I got out and started walking. It was around 9 a.m. and warm enough in January that I did not need my hat and mittens. I left them on the passenger seat. My second thought was that I hoped no one I knew from my very small town saw me because I did not want to be the subject of nasty chatter. ("O.M.G. I just saw SHELBY walking along the highway! I don't know what the hell she was doing, but she is such a WEIRDO!") My third thought was that school pickup was at noon instead of 3 p.m. because it was a half day. This ordeal had better be over in time!

I had only walked maybe thirty feet when a car pulled over in front of me. It was dark red (same color as mine); a Toyota (same make as mine); and a Prius, which told me the owner was environmental (hallelujah!). The driver, whom I shall call N, got out and watched me approach. She was far enough ahead that the distance gave each of us a chance to check the other out. She saw a blond woman with shoulder-length hair in a turquoise down jacket and brown casual pants; I saw an attractive brunette a little younger than myself and about the same height dressed in black from head to toe. N looked cool, not dangerous. We spoke as I got closer, and I made a split-second decision that she was a good person with good intentions. Please, Lord, let me be right! She offered me a ride, and I happily accepted.

Let me stop and say that had the driver been male, I'm not sure what I would have done. Would I have gotten in his car? I don't believe so. Probably, I would have politely declined the ride and kept walking. It was about a quarter-mile to the exit then another one to two miles to a Mobil gas station. I hadn't had time to think through my course of action. Call a friend? Call AAA? All I knew at that point was that I didn't want to stay in the car. I wasn't going to be a sitting duck.

No way, no how.

N was friendly. We immediately clicked and assured one other of our intentions: she wanted to help me, and I needed help. She called her husband on her cell phone to tell him she'd picked up a strange female on her way to work and promised to report back to him in ten minutes. I knew it was her insurance policy in case I turned out to be a nefarious chick masquerading as an innocent-looking suburban damsel in distress. I got it and was fine with it, though I was still too pumped with adrenaline to think of taking out my own coverage on her. N said she stopped because she saw me walking in the breakdown lane (practically hugging the metal guardrail, to be exact) and didn't think it looked right. She works at Harvard doing research in a women's center, so she is arguably more aware than other people of women seeming out of place in certain situations and more concerned than other people when she sees them. While it is always disconcerting to see someone (anyone!) walking alone along the highway, I can imagine that the sight of Darien, Connecticut-bred little ol' me -- you can take the girl out of Darien, but you can't take the Darien out of the girl -- doing so gave her pause. She felt compassion, if some trepidation because she did not know me, and pulled over.

I expressed to her how grateful I was, how I hadn't formulated my plan of action yet, but how I just felt I should start walking. Truthfully, I wouldn't have been at all surprised if I'd ended up hoofing it the entire two-something miles. (It's always useful to be a hiker and to wear comfortable shoes.) Or I might have hitchhiked -- selectively choosing, as I have in the past, whose car I would get into and whose I would not -- once I reached the street where the gas station is located. But I didn't have to further contemplate these alternatives because N had come to my rescue! She was my hero. I instructed her on how to get to the Mobil station I knew from my years taking my sons to a preschool in that neighborhood. I would get (if they loaned me one) or buy (if they did not) a gas can, fill it up, then have her drive me back to my SUV.

Problem solved, easy as pie. Right?

Not so fast. I found a bright orange plastic number in the station's store. The elderly male cashier showed me how to position the spout so I could affix it properly to the can once I got back to the highway. It seemed rather simple. I filled up the can at the pump, paid for the can and gas, and headed back to my vehicle in my savior's Prius. She and I decided it was wise for her to stick around until I got the gas in my 4Runner.

Let me tell you: It's hairy being in the breakdown lane -- inside or outside of a car -- on a major highway! Vehicles whiz past only feet away at fifty-five miles per hour or more. One tiny snafu in the regular flow of speedy traffic, and I (or both of us) become instantaneous roadkill. Nonetheless, I was very grateful for a number of things: the not-too-cold weather (didn't have to deal with THAT annoyance/safety concern), the prominent location of my vehicle on a slight incline following a fairly long straightaway, and the clear visibility of the day.

N parked a couple of car lengths behind my SUV. That gave highway drivers even more reason to see us on the side of the road and keep their distance. (We were very strategic, you see.) I got out of the Prius and attempted to pour the gas from the can into the tank of my Toyota. Now I was standing mere inches from the right lane and less than two feet from passing vehicles! Come on, hurry, hurry! But nothing came out, not even a measly drop. I walked to the back of my vehice to a slightly safer spot and fiddled with the spout. Nothing. Then I retreated to the Prius, and N got out to take a look. She fiddled with the spout. Nothing.


We both got back in her car and returned to the gas station. I took the can in and showed it to one of close to a dozen or so construction workers who happened to be there working on a project inside the store. He fiddled with it, took it outside, and tipped it to pour. Nothing. He grabbed another gas can off the shelf, swapped the spout for my spout, and walked outside to try that one. Still nothing.


More construction workers got in on the act as well as the manager of the station. Nothing. No one could figure out how to get the darn gas to come out of the spout! It was like the old joke from my childhood: "How many [fill in the blanks] does it take to screw in a lightbulb?" Only this version was, "How many construction workers does it take to screw in a gas-can spout [and get it to work]?" The answer is: It doesn't matter how many you have if the spout/gas can is DEFECTIVE. Yes, that's right. I bought a defective product.

Next up: Plan B.

N had the brilliant idea to pour the gas out of the can through a funnel into the tank. That sounded doable, yet I wasn't sure if we could obtain a funnel small enough to do the trick without spilling gasoline all over the place. I went inside the store and found a stack of paper funnels. They were the flimsiest funnels you ever did see! I could have made them myself. I grabbed a bunch and took them outside. The hole in the bottom of each inverted cone fit nicely in the gas tank opening of her Prius. Great. I wondered, however, about the gas soaking through the thin paper, creating a big mess. For that reason, I felt we should use a thick stack of funnels to contain the gas. N pointed out that the holes in the cones didn't line up properly the thicker the stack became. She held the stack in front of me, and I could see that she was right. She believed only about three funnels would suffice AND would hold back the gas from leaking through the paper if we poured quickly enough. I said okay, so we experimented on her car. We poured in a small amount of gas. Success!

N sure is one smart cookie.

Ready once again, we drove back out to the highway, a small stack of clean funnels in hand. We parked then walked to my SUV. With N holding the funnels steadily in place, I carefully though gingerly poured the gas into the tank. All of it went inside, and not a single drop ended up on either of us or the pavement. We disposed of the empty plastic container and used funnels in a giant black garbage bag I put in the back of my vehicle. N went to her car, and I got in mine. She followed me back to the Mobil station, our third time there. I handed over the garbage bag and got a refund on the bum spout/gas can (they gave me the funnels) then thanked and said goodbye to the wonderful N who has since become a Facebook friend and blog follower. She told me picking me up was the craziest thing she'd ever done. I listened appreciatively but did not respond because, well, um, being picked up by N was not even close to being the craziest thing I'd ever done! After she drove off, I filled up my tank. The whole adventure -- made much longer on account of the poorly made spout/gas can, ahem! -- took one hour and forty-five minutes. I arrived at my appointment very late yet still had plenty of time before school pickup.


I felt both extremely blessed that it had worked out all right and profoundly humbled by the kindness of my rescuer. The situation could have ended very badly, indeed. Instead, I was as lucky as I could have been under the circumstances. Still, I felt quite shook up. I passed the rest of the day in something like a state of shock.

The next morning I woke up teary-eyed. I spent the day in a blubbering funk of the kind only a mother truly knows. I call it my "Tipper Gore Depression." It's a melancholy that strikes a mother after she feels like she has failed to keep her child or children safe. In the former Second Lady's case, I do not know specifically if she felt this way. This is just what I call MY feeling as I imagine what she must have gone through after her son, Al Gore III, was hit by a car as a child. My highway adventure did not involve my children. Yet, indirectly, it did IN A VERY BIG WAY because I am their mother, their sole parent, in fact. I need to keep myself intact, healthy, and out of dangerous situations as my sons rely on me every single day.

It was irresponsible of me to run out of gas, especially on a highway, in this day and age when gas lights warn drivers they are nearing EMPTY. It was foolhardy of me to tempt fate by continuing to drive well past the number of miles I knew was doable. It was a boneheaded move. That's for sure. But I am human, so I make mistakes and take chances at times when I probably shouldn't. Fortunately, my miscalculation didn't end up costing me.

Thank you, Lord! I will try to do better next time.

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