It’s rare when a father gets the chance to spend a couple hours of hang time with his newly 18-year-old son, but that’s exactly what happened last Tuesday afternoon, and beautifully so, when my boy Henry and I headed out to the Midtown Exchange DMV to renew my driver’s license and secure his state ID.
Having quickly exhausted the topics of weed, women and work, I asked him if he knew what day it was. He didn’t, and I could feel his eyes simultaneously rolling and looking out the window for an escape hatch. I told him it was the 10th anniversary of the United States’ invasion of Iraq, the most bogus “war” of anyone’s lifetime.
He took the bait. As we motored north down 35W toward the Lake Street exit, he said he has lots of friends who just want to shoot guns and protect their country, and what’s wrong with that if that’s what they want to do with their lives? I had him captive in the passenger seat, so I seized the moment to do my fatherly duty and talk Leo Tolstoy and America’s long-held culture of brainwashing young people into dying for causes, flags and countries of old people’s making.
He defended his friends and countered with another definition of brainwashing as I changed lanes to exit. It was 4:30, and rush hour traffic was thick. The sun was out. The city was coming to life, with the first day of spring just hours away.
I was thinking about my son’s future, our future, and the open letter I’d started the day with, by dying Iraq War veteran Tomas Young to former president George W. Bush’s administration, which began, “I write this letter because, before my own death, I want to make it clear that I, and hundreds of thousands of my fellow veterans, along with millions of my fellow citizens, along with hundreds of millions more in Iraq and the Middle East, know fully who you are and what you have done. You may evade justice but in our eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes, of plunder and, finally, of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans — my fellow veterans — whose future you stole,” when a blur of confusion flared in the rearview mirror.
In slow motion, a taxicab and a minivan caromed off each other and now the minivan was bearing down on us. I cussed, accelerated, and tried to get out of the way, but the van plowed violently into our minivan’s bumper, whiplashing me and my son and shaking the contents of the van like lottery numbers in a wind-up bowl.
His backpack, stuffed with his birth certificate and every modern kid amenity imaginable, flew from the backseat to the front. Coins from the cup holder on the dashboard erupted to the ceiling, the rearview mirror flew off the windshield and landed in the back seat, and my workbag with my laptop bounced from backseat to front seat and back again.
I got control of the van and eased off the exit ramp, while the driver of the van behind us zigzagged across the lane, air bags deployed and driver’s side door swung wide open and careening and finally jumping the exit ramp curb and coming to a crashing stop, courtesy of the cement freeway wall and fence.
I pulled the van over and took off my seat belt.
“You OK?” I asked Henry, patting him on the chest.
I was. Shook and a little sore, but we were both safe. Henry called 911. We got out of the car, checked the damage to our back end, and sprinted up the ramp to see how the other drivers were doing. The cab was intact, the cabbie talking on his phone. The minivan’s front end was smoking and crumpled like an accordion, and several freeway good Samaritans were tending to the driver, a 39-year-old Somali woman from Eden Prairie who was seven months pregnant, and her sister, whose leg was scratched.
Both women were stunned and in shock but physically OK, or would be, after an ambulance carted them to the Hennepin County Medical Center emergency room. The State Patrol took our insurance information, the fire department and Minneapolis police came and went, and after a few minutes more of surveying a scene that one state trooper characterized as “a cluster—-,” we were on our way to complete our Midtown mission.
“You’re obsessed with this, aren’t you?” asked Henry, when I checked in on him that night, and again the next day. We’d both shrugged it off. I said I’d been hit harder playing in my regular basketball game earlier in the day, but as the realization of how close we all came to much worse settled in my bones, I felt the mortality of all concerned.
He’s 18. He’s operating under the invincibility of youth, even though he’s lived long enough and through enough to know that life can change dramatically in a single moment, and that people don’t always walk away from car crashes without a scratch.
Me, I can still smell the smashed minivan’s burning rubber, can still see the frightened faces of the rubberneckers, can still feel the warmth of the unborn baby poking my palm through the driver’s stomach, and the tremble in her hand when I shook it goodbye.