Special occasions, and life in general, often don’t go as planned. Sometimes things go awry, sometimes in a bad way that can turn out to be funny, but usually in hindsight.   

The Situation   

Ellen and I celebrated a wedding anniversary eight years ago that went off track before it was over. We had gone to a special restaurant with a view of what is now known as Lady Bird Lake in downtown Austin. We had a wonderful meal and celebrated in an intimate setting.

On our way home, we had driven only a few blocks, passing behind Austin’s new, architecturally unique City Hall. As we passed, going west on 2nd Street, we had a green light at the intersection of Guadalupe Street, at the northwest corner of City Hall.

As we entered the intersection, a large SUV as big as a bulldozer was coming through a red light as we saw the vehicle coming straight at us. I braked and swerved to the left as the front of the SUV struck our car inches in front of Ellen’s passenger door, basically tearing the front off the car except for the engine and wheels, leaving us facing south, unhurt.  The SUV had minor damage to the left front.

Ellen's little red car before it lost face. (Photo source)

Ellen’s little red car before it lost face. (Photo source)

A car that was following the SUV pulled over and the nice lady from Ohio got out and told us she saw everything and stopped to be a witness for us. Her son, about seven years old, was getting a live civic lesson on doing the right thing.

Fact Finding

It took the driver of the SUV a little longer to get out of his vehicle. He was a large, muscular eighteen-year-old boy who seemed at a loss. In complete sincerity, he said to me in a low, scared voice, “Did you have a green light?”

I replied, “Yes, we did.”

While I talked with the young, rattled driver, a young female got out of the other side of the SUV and went to the opposite street corner. The driver crept away to call his father.

A police officer arrived within minutes, began preparing a report, interviewed both drivers, and the witness from Ohio. During my interview, I told the calm officer that the teenager had just asked me if I had a green light when I entered the intersection. After the interviews, Ellen and I thanked the Ohio driver profusely for stopping and serving as a witness.

We examined our damaged car and it was clear it was not drivable. We called friends to come pick us up, as the teenage driver’s unhappy father arrived. They stepped over to the building beside our car and huddled in low voices. Those of us nearby stepped away to give them some privacy. From the father’s body language and gestures, he was telling his son some very unpleasant things. The son began to visibly wilt.

Reflecting on What Happened

After a tow truck took our little red car away and necessary details were gathered, our friends drove us home. On the way, Ellen told us about an observation she had made that had completely escaped me in all the commotion.

She said the young woman who got out of the SUV had an impressive figure, had a very low-cut blouse on, and that several inches of deep cleavage were highly visible. It was hard to believe I had not noticed this, but I was just too busy.

Here this story goes from fact to interpretation, to speculation.

My best guess is that the teenage driver was somehow distracted by his passenger’s appearance to the point he never knew he was approaching a traffic light. The young driver seemed like a good kid—kind, respectful, contrite, and deeply upset with himself. His father was upset. Ellen and I weren’t too happy with the son either.

Before long we began to think about “what ifs.”

            What if we had paused for a kiss in the car after leaving the restaurant, just long enough for the kid to run the red light seconds before we passed through safely?

            What if we had been three feet further into the intersection at the time of impact and the front of the SUV came through Ellen’s door?

            What if she had been seriously injured or killed? Either could easily have happened.

Then I began to wonder about the kinds of “what ifs” the young driver might have pondered.

            What if he had not been seeing double at the time of the crash?

            What if his girlfriend had been wearing a T-shirt that evening instead of a very low-cut blouse? Then he might have stopped properly at the red light.

            What if he had not called his father? Would he have appeared manlier to his girlfriend, instead of a cowering, unnerved boy?

No one knows the answer to these speculative questions. They may not even be based on the correct assumptions.

But I know Ellen and I were lucky that night. Even the teenage driver was luckier than he thought. He didn’t maim or kill anybody that night. For that I hope he is eternally grateful, as we are.