A few years ago, the adage “God takes care of babies and fools” was never more apparent to me. On that fateful day, I found out just how big of a fool I was and how much of a sense of humor God had. I remain forever thankful to Him for letting me live to talk about it.
Fresh from graduating from the Defense Language Institute (DLI) German language course, I had just arrived in Heidelberg, Germany, for my next tour of duty. After settling into my temporary quarters, I was bummed out because I was stuck in my quarters and had no car in which to sightsee in this beautiful city. Luckily, I found out that some good friends of mine from DLI were also stationed in Heidelberg. After getting in touch with me and finding out that I didn't have a car, they graciously offered to loan me one of their cars until I could get my own.
They arrived at my quarters on a Friday afternoon. After handing me the keys, they assured me that the car was very roadworthy and that I could keep it as long as I wanted to. What a sweet deal! I was ecstatic.
The car was a faded banana yellow BMW hoopty, a nickname for autos well beyond their heyday. I noticed no dents or rust on the exterior, and the tires were brand new. I opened the door and popped my head inside to check out the interior. A dense stench of mold plus some other foul aromas assaulted my nose and caused it to wrinkle instantly at the intrusion. I retreated quickly for some fresh air. But the smell was the least of my worries. The interior was clean and the tufted seats looked comfortable. Though the car was not in the best of shape looks wise; I didn't mind its appearance nor its accompanying noxious smell, because I finally had my own transportation!
To take advantage of the weekend, I got in contact with another good friend of mine, who was stationed with me at Fort Polk, Louisiana. I decided to visit her since she was assigned to the dental clinic in Illesheim, Germany and had brought her mom and her two kids along with her on her tour. Though I had no idea where the hell Illesheim was, I looked forward to driving there to see them again.
Before heading out, I checked my map and saw that Illesheim was just a dot in the middle of German farming country and was located a few miles from Storck Barracks, the nearest Army Base.
From that dot, I formed a mental picture of Illesheim as being a quaint medieval-type village sparsely populated by few inhabitants who resided in timber and stone structures hundreds of years old. I assumed that the citizens probably were that old too. I didn't expect to see any concrete sidewalks or paved streets. But greeting me would probably be dirt roads, well-traveled footpaths, and distinct trails made by the cow and sheep herds that the farmers moved from one side of their fields to the other. Naturally, I expected to drive through an invisible cloud of the fresh air from the plowed fields. I also knew that this fresh air would no doubt reek from abundant piles of manure potent enough to knock out a bull elephant within seconds.
With my route carefully planned, I took off at about six o'clock that afternoon. The entire day had been cloudy, and about 10 minutes into my trip, a light drizzle started and quickly turned into a downpour, which pummeled the little hoopty mercilessly. Gotta say that the windshield wipers got a good workout. Though I had highlighted my route on the map, I became increasingly uncomfortable and anxious about driving in evening traffic on the unfamiliar autobahns.
After getting the car on Autobahn 5 (A5) heading south from Heidelberg, I quickly gained confidence in the hoopty's ability to maneuver through the fast pace of the traffic. I felt sure that the hoopty would get me to Illesheim without breaking down.
A5 was heavy with traffic as was A6 heading east towards Stuttgart and Heilbronn. So far, I had been driving for about an hour. From A6, I took Exit 40, which led me to my other exits. The rain-slicked and dimly lit two-lane roads took on a more dismal tone as they led me through more tiny villages that resembled mere ghost towns from the Wild West. All the houses, with no interior lights visible, were locked up tighter than a drum. I refocused on the road, but the unfamiliar two-lane country highways became scarier to me the farther I drove.
A few minutes later, the rain eased up slightly when I arrived at another village just outside of Bad Mergentheim, about 45 minutes from Illesheim. It gave me some comfort to know that I was that much closer to my destination. I slowed down as I approached a railroad crossing, behind which lay a bank of railroad tracks. Since the red and white barriers were up for cars to safely cross the tracks, I continued driving, thinking that I would be on my way to the next village.
For some reason, I miscalculated the road clearance and had erroneously run the hoopty over some type of ramp, which forced the hoopty to go slightly airborne. This action suddenly lifted me up from my seat. I bumped the top of my head on the roof of the car. No harm was done. I settled back comfortably into my seat, but the car bounced and shimmied like a bowl of jello when it landed with a loud thump. Oh, oh! I didn't have a good feeling about this. I was unsure of where the car had landed; I thought it was still on the road. It wasn't.
I didn't know it at the time, but the hoopty was straddling the railroad tracks just off to the left side of the road. This driving maneuver miscalculation immediately killed the engine and drove the hoopty into a deep, cosmic shock. And how did I know this? Because when I tried to restart the car, it failed to come to life. Instead, it produced a high-pitched whine, which sounded like I had just run over a cat. I looked to the right out the passenger window and saw rain vigorously bouncing off the slick, black road where the car should be. DAMMIT! I took in a deep breath and exhaled it before resting my head momentarily on the steering wheel. Two seconds later, I snapped upright and came to my senses as I mentally assessed the situation and asked myself, ”What the fuck just happened”?
I tried to start the engine again, but it just sputtered and coughed like an old man with a bad case of emphysema. So I decided to wait a few seconds before trying it again. Suddenly, I found myself in the midst of a frightening, impending disaster. The adrenaline pulsed through my body like an oil slick on fire when I saw the red and white barriers come down in< front of the road, and the red warning light started furiously blinking to indicate that a train was on its way. Dammit, I was hemmed in. Since the hoopty was straddling the tracks to the left of the road where it should be, I knew that I needed to move my ass before the oncoming train smashed my friend's car with me in it to smithereens.
Amazingly, I kept my cool and didn't panic just yet. I tried the engine again, but its sound told me to just 'fuck off.' SHIT! I looked to my left and saw the white light of the train's engine as it slowly headed towards me on the tracks where the hoopty was sitting. DAMMIT TO HELL! I tried the engine again, but it was still deader than Chris Christie’s political career. My mind went blank for a split second, but the impending disaster snapped me into thinking, "How the hell am I going to explain the damage the approaching train would undoubtedly make to my friend's car? There's no way I could I account for this. Thinking that this could be the end of my life as I knew it, I realized that I wouldn't need to explain anything to anybody because I would never survive a crash of this magnitude.
Suddenly, a calming peacefulness enveloped me. I turned my head to the left again and focused on the engine's white light, which grew bigger and bigger as the train approached. Strangely, I didn't hear any train whistle that I'm sure the engineer would have engaged if anything was on the tracks blocking the train's path. I remember sitting in the car, frozen in the seat because my legs became numb and immovable. I clearly remember seeing that the train's engineer had stuck his head out of the window, no doubt to verify what he was seeing: an idiot sitting in a car on the adjacent tracks. With my mouth open wider than the English Chunnel, I felt my eyes momentarily spring in and out of their sockets like I was starring in some freakish cartoon. I became more anxious when I felt the hoopty tremble as the massive steel horse continued heading towards me. The train’s engineer still had his head stuck out the window, probably both curiously shocked and highly amused at my bizarre but harmless situation, which he could clearly see and I couldn’t.
I didn't scream. I didn't pass out. With my ass plastered to the seat from the shock of the impending disaster, I gawked in stupendous awe at the imposing black engine and its cars chugging towards me. I prayed, braced myself, and waited for the crash that never came. Incredibly, the train passed on the tracks behind me. I just sat in silence as the train noisily rolled by, mocking me as it clanged, "SUCKERR! Had ya fooled, didn't we!?”
At that moment, the disaster that almost happened was too serious for me to laugh at. But I knew instantly that God really, really had a wicked sense of humor. I sat in silence for a few more seconds, wiping the sweat which had accumulated all over my face, deciding not to tell a living soul about this huge screw-up, not even my good friend. Only God and I knew what an idiot I proved to be, and that's the way it's been ever since then.
With the tracks clear, the red and white barriers retreated, and the red blinking lights faded away. I looked to the right to watch the train disappear down the tracks. As if adding insult to no injury, the caboose had nerve enough to wave goodbye to me.
I turned the key in the ignition and thanked God that the car started up right away. Divine intervention? Perhaps. I tried a few times before I could successfully rock the hoopty out of its position and move it off the tracks on to the road, which lay to my right.
After driving a few minutes more, I winced at the fresh sewer-like air from the farmers’ fields filling the car. That's when I knew I was close to my destination. I finally arrived in Illesheim about 20 minutes later. My friend and her mom and kids welcomed me with open arms, hugs and kisses.
When my friend asked me how my trip was, of course, I lied and told her I had no problems whatsoever.
Though I didn't drink hard liquor, my friend, and her mom stared at me as I headed to their liquor cabinet and quickly guzzled down three shots of 40% proof Asbach-Uralt (German bourbon) to calm my raging, electrified nerves. My visit with them was great and a welcome relief from the initial boredom of being single on another Army tour. But before leaving, I checked the hoopty to make sure it sustained no damage from its side trip on the tracks. And for my return trip to Heidelberg, I made damn sure that I drove during daylight hours.