I was a Coast Guard marine safety officer. One night in 1984, I was driving home to Astoria, Ore., on Highway 101 and thinking about the marine investigation I was working on — and the recent loss of my dad, Deward Thomas. He had suffered mightily from colon cancer for over 30 years, but now the battle was over. Mom died when I was 10, and now I felt orphaned, as our parents were both gone from cancer detected in their 20s. (My younger sisters and I surmised the cancers were the result of their unknowing exposure to radiation at the Oak Ridge Atomic Bomb project during World War II.)
Dad’s worth could not be measured in dollars, as he had raised his kids as a single parent and instilled in us ethics and fairness, so I was determined to spend my $7,000 inheritance on something very special. Dad was always a stickler for safety and I was a stickler for conservation, and the two could be found in a Volkswagen Rabbit diesel. It had automatic seat belts and got over 50 miles per gallon.
I purchased and used it for work and personal travel. It was a wonderful car and a reminder of Dad. I had just put on the first two-year renewal plates prior to that day’s investigation.
I was driving back to my Astoria office shortly after sunset. I was noticing how the trees, shooting up from both sides of the road, effectively eliminated the twilight, turning it into night. Familiar with the road, I began looking for a place to pass a slow-moving (at 45 mph) car. Finding a suitable place, I accelerated and started my pass.
Almost immediately I knew something was wrong. I could not exactly detect what was wrong, but I knew I had to take drastic action. As I started to turn left, into the trees, my headlights revealed the grille of an oncoming car — a car with no lights on! Impact was immediate before I could get off the road.
Waking up from the knockout blow of a head-on collision, I slowly began assessing the situation. The total front third of my car was destroyed, but the seating areas were undamaged, and my automatic seat belt had worked. The engine had been driven down instead of into the passenger compartment, a safety design the salesman mentioned, which I’d had no intention of testing.
I found myself relatively unharmed except for a bruise on my right leg from an unmounted CB radio and a jammed ring finger that forcefully impacted the dash. I walked away from a head-on collision at highway speed and was OK! I immediately rushed to the other vehicle, dreading what I would find. The driver was conscious and apparently uninjured, but slurred speech immediately exposed that he was intoxicated. As I recall, he was later cited for DWI, failure to provide correct lighting, no insurance and driving with a suspended license. Someone at the Astoria patrol office even called him “a regular.” (How does that happen?)
My elation over surviving in good health was followed by the realization that Dad’s last gift was destroyed. It was a totaled vehicle after only two years of service. Later, I reflected that Dad’s insistence on safety resulted in my purchasing a car with special safety features. Dad’s last gift was not the car; even after his death, Dad likely saved my life.
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