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Inside looking out: A lesson learned

I couldn’t have been more than 19 years old at the time, still a new driver with 17 being the age in New Jersey for getting your license.

I remember there had been three days of torrential, nonstop rain. Flooding was everywhere. Drains were overflowing. Neighbors were bailing water by the bucketloads from their basements. Many roads were closed. Barricades were placed in front of underpasses where you could literally float a boat through to the other side.

Still, there were drivers who drove around the barriers and attempted to motor through the rivers of roiling stormwater, only to have their vehicles stall. Stranded and panicked, they opened their doors, letting the riptides inside and wading chest high through the muddy current to get to higher ground.

I was driving on Route 287, at least that was my intention. The road was deadlocked with traffic as far as the eye could see. With no cellphones back in the day we had no way to communicate to our jobs or to our homes. What we didn’t know and found out later was that all the exits for miles ahead were closed due to flooding at the bottoms of the ramps.

Drivers stood in the middle of the highway complaining about the standstill. I sat behind the wheel of my Plymouth Duster and tried my best to lose myself in the music on the radio.

Then without notice, we had started to move again. Everyone jumped into their cars. I must have rolled about 10 feet ahead when I had to brake to a stop. All of a sudden, my head lurched forward as the driver behind me smacked into the back of my car.

“Jesus!” I said aloud to myself. “Where does this idiot think he’s going?”

With traffic frozen again, I pushed open my car door and jumped out. I stormed toward the culprit. I could see that his window was rolled down. Before I got face to face, I let it go.

“Hey you idiot!” I shouted. “Where the hell do you think you’re going?”

I got to his window and raised my hands. “Can’t you see what’s going on here? Nobody’s going anywhere!”

I looked into the car. There sat an elderly man with both of his hands vice-gripped to the steering wheel. He didn’t look at me. His eyes were staring forward. His arms were shaking and sweat was running down his forehead.

“Hey are you OK?” I asked. He glanced up at me with the look of terror in his eyes. A thought raced through my mind that he might be having a heart attack. Immediately, my mood changed. I reached in and gently placed my hand on his wrist.

“Hey, buddy. It’s OK. I shouldn’t have yelled at you. Don’t worry about it. You weren’t going fast enough to do any damage to my car. You gonna be OK now?”

He turned his eyes back to the road. He twisted his grip upon the steering wheel. His knuckles were white.

As I walked back to my car, I looked down and I saw one small scratch on my bumper. I looked over at his front fender and saw no damage at all.

After I had climbed back into my car, the traffic started moving again. I remember having to get off the highway five or six exits past mine and that it had taken me three hours instead of the normal 40 minutes to get home.

I thought of the old man that night and, of course, I’m thinking of him now. What if he had had a heart attack right then and there? There was no way to call an ambulance, and how could one have navigated quick enough through the traffic? What if he had died? I would have spent the rest of my life believing I helped cause his death, just because I let my anger get the best of me and I wanted to vent my frustration.

I learned a lesson that day that has remained with me since. Whenever I get behind a slow-moving car and someone in front of me is going 15 miles under the speed limit, I remind myself of that old man. The driver in front of me might be someone around his age. Perhaps it’s a man coming back from his once-a-week grocery shopping. Maybe it’s a woman going to church in her 1998 little Chevy that barely has 40,000 miles on the odometer. You want to say they shouldn’t be driving? Tell that to the nearly 5 million Americans over the age of 80 years old who live alone.

Sure, I can hope he or she turns off the road soon, but I’m not going to tailgate. I’m not going to flash my headlights or blow the horn or double line pass and scare the driver onto the shoulder of the road.

I have learned to become more patient with anything I cannot control. If I get to where I’m going later than I had anticipated, at least I got there alive and didn’t cause any harm to anyone else along the way.

I just might be a very old man someday and I could be the driver who bumps into a younger driver’s car that is stopped in front of me. I hope I can settle myself enough and say, “Please don’t be angry at me. God willing, you’ll get to be old someday and then you will understand.”

Rich Strack can be reached at richiesadie11@gmail.com.