Written 23 April 1999
For the first few years I had my driver's license, I must admit that I was not a very good driver. I don't think I sped much (though the '78 Chevy van I drove didn't really have a working speedometer, so it was hard to tell), but I managed to get into accidents of one sort or another at the rate of about one a year. This is the story of my second accident, which was my first major one. It took place in the mid-to-late eighties.
I was in a band at the time. We were pretty bad, but it was fun. I was the keyboard player for a while; then we got someone who was a far better piano player than I, and I switched to tenor saxophone. Since I had access to the big Chevy van, it often fell to me to ferry people (and instruments) around.
One day we had been practicing at our drummer's house. (The second of our many drummers, if I remember correctly.) I was driving the bass player and guitar player back to their respective homes. A Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee tape was playing on the stereo. We were chatting, and I wasn't paying nearly as much attention as I should have been. We came to an intersection at which I was to turn left; the light was green, and apparently I reasoned that this meant I could go. However, by doing this I took myself into the path of a '77 Chevy van who was going straight through the intersection in the opposite direction.
At this point the memory is somewhat faded, but I remember having a vivid memory of hearing the bass player shout something, then turning to look to the right and seeing--and this is trite but accurate--in slow motion the other van hitting the side of mine and the large glass window in the side door shattering inwards.
The van came to a stop, and the engine did likewise. The tape continued playing. I turned off the ignition (a thought crossed through my mind that this might make a fire less likely) and inarticulately apologized to my passengers. (I think my exact words were something like "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, Jesus Christ I'm sorry...") The bass player was bleeding; his head had come into contact with the rear-view mirror. The guitarist looked relatively unscathed, though I think it turned out that he had hurt his knee.
I got out of the van and went over to the van I had collided with. It contained a couple and their young daughter, who had been on the wife's lap and whose head had hit the windshield. I attempted to apologize but injected enough profanity that it may not have been evident exactly what I was trying to say. One of them yelled at me, but I'm not sure who.
Ultimately the police showed up and took my statement. Everyone was taken to the hospital except me (I was also the only one in either van to be wearing a seatbelt), and all were released the same evening.
Both vans were totaled, of course. We went to the junkyard to check them out afterwards, partly to look at the damage but also to retrieve the tape deck from our van.
At this point we discovered that the part of the accident I remembered the most vividly, which was seeing the side window of the van implode, could not possibly have happened. For one thing, none of the windows of the van were damaged in the least. For another, you could see exactly where the vans had hit each other--the front right corner of the van, pretty much where the headlight was. The other van hadn't been anywhere near where I had thought it was. Talking to the passengers confirmed that what I had thought had happened, simply hadn't.
Occasionally one reads that eyewitnesses are more likely to be incorrect the more vividly they remember the events they witnessed, but I'm not sure how many of us internalize that knowledge. I certainly hadn't before the incidents related above. Now I'm sure that despite my best efforts even the sequence of events I've given above is rife with inaccuracies.