This is the seventh in a series of stories related to the tales in Making Things Work. These are new material, not excerpts from the book.
Almost 16 years to the day after arriving in England with my mother and sister, I moved back across the Atlantic to the States. I landed in Florida, where my family lived, and spent a week with them. I’d brought my dog, Oscar, with me; it was precious to see him recognize his father, a bearded collie my mother had found rummaging through dumpsters in London.
I bought a used Ford Escort, and we headed north to our destination: Amherst, Massachusetts. It was either going to be Amherst or the Hudson Valley; both were the closest I could imagine getting to England in terms of landscape and historic architecture.
Shortly after reaching the edge of Amherst I was scanning the Help Wanted ads in a local paper and found one for skilled woodworkers. The people I spoke with on the phone seemed lovely. There was just one catch: The shop was not in western Mass., but near Montpelier, Vermont. After driving up for a visit I decided the people and the job were worth the move.
The workday began at 7 a.m. and finished at 5, with every other Friday off. The shop was about a half-hour drive from my apartment, so I set my alarm for 5:20, pressed snooze, stayed in bed ’til 5:30, then took Oscar for a walk and prepared to leave. Summer had scarcely ended before the nights grew longer than the days. It was dark when we went to work and dark when we headed home.
On my first morning I arrived extra-early and found myself in the company of a fellow early riser, Kent, another recent hire. He was intelligent, handsome, and friendly. We found we had more in common than showing up early for work.
As the holidays approached, Kent asked if I’d like to spend them in Indiana with his family. I was overjoyed. In the meantime, winter had arrived. I had rarely seen snow in England, but by mid-December that year in Vermont we had almost two feet on the ground. The air was so cold and dry it literally took my breath away.
Kent’s parents drove us down the interstate from the airport to Brown County. I was shocked by the number of billboards along the roadsides. Montpelier and its environs had none; local residents had even reportedly said no to an interstate highway. I distinctly remember thinking “Thank goodness I don’t live here.”
After Christmas, Kent was going to spend a few extra days with his family, but I had to return to work. The flight from Indianapolis arrived in Burlington after midnight. By the time I drove back to Montpelier and got to bed it was past 2 a.m. I briefly flirted with the idea of calling first thing in the morning to say I’d be coming in late, but I took punctuality too seriously for that, so I got up, bleary-eyed, and made a cup of coffee.
By this time the snow had been on the ground for at least two weeks. The area got so much snow then that local authorities didn’t even attempt to scrape down to blacktop and melt the residue with salt; they plowed the bulk from the road and dumped it in the Winooski River. Trucks and cars packed down what was left, and highway crews added fresh sand for traction after every fall. That morning I was pushing it in terms of getting to work on time, so despite my hesitation even to approach the speed limit, I set my foot a little harder on the gas. Other people were driving at the speed limit, so why not follow their example?
The car was handling surprisingly well until I reached a long, straight section of road. A truck was heading towards me, and suddenly I was sliding. Despite my frantic efforts to steer, my car was locked on a collision course. For a starkly surreal moment I realized I was going to hit the oncoming truck. Just before impact I turned the wheel even harder, and the next thing I knew my car was spinning off the road, out of control.
“I am going to die now,” I thought, just before the deafening CRASH.
“Am I dead?” I wondered, once I came to. I checked my fingers on the steering wheel; I checked my toes. Miraculously, I seemed fine. Less so was the front wall of the coffee shop/country store that had blessedly stopped my slide. A huge dent now creased the façade. I got out of my car and went inside, apologizing to the woman at the counter who’d just set down her coffee pot, startled by the impact. A couple of patrons exchanged a look that said “damn flatlanders.”
“May I use your phone?” I stammered. “I need to tell my foreman I’m going to be late.” A policeman showed up a few minutes later. After taking down the details he drove me to the shop.
Less than a year later I was living in Indiana. I’ve been here ever since. And these days I worry a little less about being a few minutes late to work.