Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Parable

The Accident

The accident occurred at 7:45 AM in heavy fog on the remote and sinuous stretch of interstate that runs between Capon and Norristown. The truck, eastbound with a load of strawberries, swerved out of its lane to avoid a stalled car, jack-knifed across the road and came to rest on its side, Three dozen other vehicles following behind were involved in the subsequent chain reaction. The relative inaccessibility of the spot, in a valley deeply shadowed by towering hills on either side (you are familiar with the area?), and the sheer complexity of the accident itself severely hampered rescue and removal operations so that, by eleven, when the sun had burned away the last traces of obscuring fog, upwards of fifteen hundred vehicles, their engines off, their whistling tires silenced, immobile, stretched back toward Capon in a solid mass, as if frozen in a dream.
At first the stranded motorists were angry and restive. They could not be blamed for this. After all, appointments were being missed, delivery schedules disrupted, business meetings unkept, vacations delayed and all without a word of explanation to those waiting beyond the wreck, for, owing to the high surrounding hills, there was no cell service, no easy means of communication, no way of rescheduling the meetings or saving the business deals or extending the hotel reservations or reassuring the worried relatives. So there were shouts and curses and the broken roar of horns washing over the great line of cars like some gigantic wave smashing itself to pieces on a line of breakers, furious and frustrated at the impenetrable solidity of the obstacle in its path. The cars closest to the huge tangle of wreckage did not behave in this fashion, of course, as the drivers of these could see how serious was the matter, were aware that there were most probably dead and injured and that the mess itself, the massive interlocked metallic tangle, would take some considerable time to clear even after the human effects of the tragedy had been dealt with. These drivers, then, left their cars and did what little they could to give first aid until, an hour or so after the crash, the first medical units arrived by helicopter. The honking and the shouting and the cursing, then, came from farther back along the line, from those cars whose drivers, lacking insight, a clear vantage point, could know nothing except that they seemed irrevocably delayed.
In time this too stopped. Someone up front retained enough presence of mind to start a message on its way back down the line: a terrible accident, some serious injuries, road blocked, a long delay. Each driver left his car and walked back to inform the motorist behind him and so on, relay fashion, all the way down, so that within two hours everyone had at least this rough sketch of the event that had immobilized them. This seemed to quiet their anger and had the additional benefit of starting a flurry of conversations so that the motorists, accepting their impotence to dissolve this frustrating blockage, turned their attention instead to ways of occupying their time.
Some slept, reclining in the seats of their autos or searching out some shaded piece of grass along the roadway. Others, more active by temperament, organized impromptu football games or played a kind of lazy catch with bright plastic saucers. Lovers, some young, some not so young, walked hand in hand in the warm spring air, many of them barefoot, shirts off, pants rolled up to take the benefit of the sun. Older women gathered in small groups to gossip, commiserating with the poor wretches whose bodies lay trapped in the unseen wreckage ahead or exchanging stories about their intended destinations and their spoiled plans or worrying about their grandchildren, who must certainly by now be somewhat alarmed. Card games sprang up. Here and there someone lugged out a guitar or a portable radio and there were little knots of music up and down the line. People read books or magazines or newspapers and chatted and argued (for by mid-day the sun overhead had become quite hot). Some, who had been on their way to one of the picnic spots upstate when the accident stopped them, brought out their hampers and their coolers of beer and soft drinks and had their lunches beside the road or up on one of the small hillocks. Many simply idled about, irritable and disaffected. One old man died of a stroke and another, younger, of a knife wound, perhaps after a trivial argument or something of the sort. In this way the time passed.
By seven that evening the wreck had been cleared away, the road opened and people returned to their vehicles. The long line began to move, like some slumbering animal waking from a hibernation, and within an hour all conditions were normal again. Any impartial observer who had taken note of the day's events and who strolled now among the detritus of papers and scraps of food and discarded bottles and forgotten blankets or shirts or shoes might have been moved to conclude that this multitude of souls, these pilgrims stranded by an inexplicable caprice, had constructed in some dumb, instinctive fashion, a grotesque parody of what might be called a culture, a civilization.