My Favorite Car Accident

by Jim Coughlin on October 16, 2013


I was a Theatre Major at the University of Missouri in Columbia. One night, after a successful production of the play Look Homeward, Angel, a group of us from the cast and crew decided to drive out into the woods to a man-made cave. The important numbers to keep in mind are that there were three cars, eight people, and one flashlight.

The eight of us entered the cave which curved a few hundred feet in a semi-arc to the left. Besides me there was Todd, Phil, Matt, Greg, Tony, Vic and Angela. At the furthest end of the cave, there was a chimney like tunnel we planned to climb out of to reach the opposite side of the large hillside. Seven of us made it.

We hadn’t taken into consideration how tight the cave tunnel was compared to the largest member of our group, Phil, who was a big big fella with a little claustrophobia. Rather than go back out the cave and come up with brand new plans, we made exactly the same decision people routinely make in horror movies. We split up.

Two of the nicer guys went back into the cave to accompany Phil back out the cave with the lone flashlight. The plan was for those three to exit the front of the cave then hike around the hillside to hang out with us. The five left behind, including me, would hang out on the hillside with just the starlight to light us. After forty-five minutes of waiting, we decided their mission had failed. We decided with no help coming we would rescue ourselves. I suppose we could have hiked around the hillside ourselves, but it somehow made sense for us to re-enter the cave. In complete darkness.

I pause now to mention that Missouri is The Cave State. My happiest memory from The Boy Scouts was spelunking in Meramec Caverns. A cave is a wonderful place to explore, get lost and/or trapped and die. We convinced ourselves that as this was a man-made cave resulting from a quarry, it would not contain surprise tunnels, crevices, drops or water. I have no idea if this general rule makes any sense. Somehow through group discussion we took a pretty stupid idea and convinced each other that it was logical and good. While I was and remain a sober individual, some or all of the others were drinking beer. This may have altered their decision making abilities but I had no excuse.

Back in the cave, we held hands and tried to make our way back out to the front of the cave. If you’ve never been in a cave, you’ve never really experienced true darkness. It was dark. Next time you have the lights off in your bedroom and you close your eyes, you still won’t know how dark it is in a cave. As we shuffled along we eventually could see some light hitting the walls from the entrance of the cave. And then the entrance itself came into view. Outside we found our three errant men.

Ready to call it a night, we split up one final time. Two of our drivers, Phil and Matt, lived across town–so someone thought with the longest drives they should be spared having to drop anyone off. We would cram six of us into Todd’s five passenger Volkswagen Scirocco. Greg took the front passenger seat, Tony and Vic were seated in the back separated by our lone female, Angela. I’m sure Angela was smaller than me and probably could have sat on someone’s lap, but instead we tried to see if I could lie across her lap and the laps of Tony and Vic. That didn’t work and neither did sharing the front with Greg so I was given the hatch. We hit the road and soon Todd was flying.

A VW Scirocco of the Era

A VW Scirocco of the Era

I should mention that the route home was on curving country roads and that Todd was definitely under the influence. Laying on my side in the back, I couldn’t see anything. But Tony and Vic were issuing progress reports. Tony, on the left, could see the speedometer so I was hearing “you’re going eighty” and “on that turn you were on two wheels!” I make my way in life through honest manipulation, not confrontation. Every time I’ve been the passenger of an unsafe driver, rather than expend energy trying to get them to slow down, I focus on relaxing my body for the potential crash.

In addition to becoming a master thespian, it was in college that I officially gave up religion. If religion was the opiate of the masses, I couldn’t understand how a loving God would choose the Bible as a drug delivery device. Why communicate with people who speak thousands of languages through an imperfect book written in four or five languages? Still, that whole fear of death and carrot or stick of heaven and hell is hard to give up so I held on. Then I read something assigned in a philosophy class written by Epictetus, one of the more famous later Stoic philosophers. He convinced me that what happens after death is out of our control and therefore not worth concerning oneself with.

So I’m laying on my side in the hatch of a VW while a drunk-driver corners turns at eighty miles an hour, relaxing my body, and getting philosophical. The car, I would later learn from those with a view, went off the road to the right. Trying to get back onto the road, Todd turned a hard left, which caused the car to simultaneously re-cross the road in the direction of a pond and turn over on its back. As a car slides upside down across pavement and then dirt at eighty miles an hour it makes a horrible crunching sound. My only thought was “this is it, this is it.” I accepted my fate and nothing else.

The well built German automobile finally halted a few feet from the water. All the windows were blown out. Now I thought “I’m alright, I’m alright.” We all verbally checked on each other. The front passenger, Greg, was still buckled in and couldn’t reach the release. Adding to the urgency, there was a leaking sound. Valuable time studying crashes that occurred in episodes of The A-Team had educated me to the fact that after a crash the driver and passenger have precious moments to exit before the car explodes. They always explode. The leaking sound was almost certainly the front right tire, but who wants to argue with The A-Team? I crawled through the car and reached his release. At this point Greg was muttering “my seeds, my seeds!”

I was sober by my own square choice and I thought he must be afraid the cops would find marijuana seeds. I was starting to second guess the company I was keeping. It turned out instead that in his shock he had fixated on the spilled sunflower seeds he had been eating moments before the crash.

My Ride

My Ride

Angela had gotten some glass in her palm and was in shock. Todd had blood on his face from where his forehead had met his windshield but was otherwise hunky-dory. Tony and Vic were uninjured. I was fine and quite honestly, I was jazzed.

Matt and Phil had been trying to keep up with us but had both lost sight of us. We had time to get out from under the wreckage and back away from the leaking tire and assess everything before they finally caught up. I remember vividly running to tell Matt: “Matt, I was this close to death and I was okay with it.” I was actually proud I had not prayed for some intervention. It was just a few seconds of impending death, but this was my “atheist in a foxhole” moment.

Now Todd went into action in a way that told me that he had screwed up before and had learned how to cover himself. He decided that really only three people had been in the car and that the uninjured would go home in Phil’s car. The injured three would go to the hospital in Matt’s car: Todd, with his no longer bleeding forehead; Angela, with her injured palm; and Greg, who was suffering the emotional loss of some expensive sunflower seeds.

I woke up the next day very sore but somewhat wiser. I’ve never again allowed myself to be put in such a dangerous situation. Instead I’ve volunteered to be the designated driver on many a thankless night of chauffeuring my drunken friends. And in all the years since, I’ve never again traveled in the hatch.

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Jim Coughlin

Jim Coughlin was born in Ohio but raised in the suburbs of St. Louis by a lovely family that lived across the street from his family.

His childhood was much like Mark Twain's, insofar as he was forced to work in a fence painting business at an early age.

He performs standup comedy regularly in the Los Angeles vicinity, hosting "The Jim Coughlin Show" at Henri's Restaurant in Canoga Park, usually on the second Friday.  That is all.

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