When I saw the taillights glow on the van in front of me, my first thought was, “Hmm…wonder why they’re putting their brakes on?” My second thought was, “They’re putting their brakes on and slowing down a lot faster than I am!”
We were on our way to West Point, NY, for the long-anticipated excitement of Plebe Parent Weekend at the United States Military Academy. I had originally planned this post to be all about our inside look at the life of a West Point cadet, complete with detailed descriptions of our uniform factory tour, lunch with our cadet in the mess hall and the once-in-a-lifetime look at his barracks room. I also wanted to comment excessively about the glitz and glamor of my gown for the weekend’s culminating event and my new highly fashionable West Point parka!
I will most likely get to that in a later post, but today, I am compelled to write about seconds–those ticks around the clock that move us forward in time…those miniscule movements, in between which, a life can be altered.
When I saw those taillights, the hubs and I had been about three hours into the second leg of our journey north. We had dropped off the young one at my parents’ house in Western PA, and, after a good night’s sleep in my old bedroom, we had set out on Interstate 80 toward our final destination. The hubs was dozing in the passenger seat. I was behind the wheel anticipating my excitement at seeing my cadet for the first time in two and a half months. I had moved into the passing lane to pass a slower vehicle and increased my speed slightly to pull away. I glanced in the rear-view mirror for a second to check my distance from the slower car and to prepare to merge back into the traveling lane. The glowing taillights were lighting up my field of vision when I returned my gaze to the front.
I am still stunned at all the thoughts that rushed through my head in those seconds after seeing the taillights–“Slow Down!” being among the first, with “Get Out of the Way!” following close behind. I listened to my instincts, slammed on the brakes and swerved to the right, narrowly avoiding impact with the van that by now had almost come to a complete stop in the passing lane of the interstate!
Apparently, the driver of the van had needed to cut seconds off his trip by making an illegal U turn in the cross-over path reserved for emergency vehicles. We were lucky. I had been far enough from the other vehicles to my right and behind me that my dramatic speed change and lurch into the other lane had caused no more injury than that done to the hubs’ pride at gasping so loudly when he was jolted from his nap.
Less than a week later, nine West Point cadets traveling that same stretch of road were not as lucky.
The cadets, all members of the West Point boxing team, were traveling in a van on their back to West Point after competing in the East Regional Championship competition at Penn State. The driver of the vehicle in front of their van, like the one in front of me, decided that the no U turn sign at the cross-over was not meant for him. He slowed to make the illegal turn, causing the cadet driving the van to slam on his brakes and swerve out of the way. The West Point van rolled over, taking all nine young cadets with it, while the driver of the other car drove off in the opposite direction without stopping to help. (Read more about the accident.)
Two cadets were transported by helicopter to nearby medical centers to be assessed for head trauma. Six others were taken to a local hospital. All have been released. The cadet driving the van was not injured.
To the driver that made the illegal U turn, I would like to know if the seconds you saved were worth it. Did you get where you were going on time? Did the seconds you saved make your life better? How many seconds did it take to come to the decision that continuing your journey was more important than the fate of the people in the van you caused to flip over? The cadets you injured on I-80 have taken an oath to give their lives for you. However, they thought that would be on a battlefield, not in the span of seconds spent trying to get out of the way of your bad judgement.
Seconds are powerful things. They can change lives. One second, you are envisioning the jabs and punches you defended against your opponent a few hours ago; the next, you are bracing for a far greater impact.
Seconds are powerful things. They make you realize what you have. One second, you are trying to decide on which cheek to kiss your son at your reunion; the next, you are thankful there will still be a reunion.
Seconds are powerful things, but they cannot recapture lost time. One second, you’re 10 minutes late for work, so you make an illegal turn; the next, you are still late for work.
Take a second to tell your family you love them. Take another second to make good decisions.