Friday, January 12, 2007
This time of year you start hearing talk about black ice. Black ice is thought to be invisible on the road, thus unavoidable by drivers. “What happened to your car? “Oh, I was just driving down the road after church and hit some black ice.” Black ice is believed in around Michiana, and blamed for winter accidents the way Satan is blamed for interpersonal ones.
My dad didn’t believe in black ice or the devil. He figured if you’re driving right and living right, you shouldn’t be too worried about either one of them. I grew up in Olmstead County, Minnesota, where winter ice, visible or otherwise, is a measure of wisdom. Dad worked for a rural electric cooperative, the guys who drive unplowed county roads in blizzards to repair downed power lines. He drove with a light hand and got his travel conditions from the road itself through the wheel, not the radio. He’d point out ice before we even came upon it: on bridges, under the snaking snow tails, at any approach to any intersection. One night my dad drove me out onto an ice rink and taught me how not to use brakes at all in a skid. I learned that when you can’t stop, you can still steer a bit, unless you’re going too fast. And that, on ice, humility is much more important than confidence or power.
Some folks have not learned this yet. After the first good snow or freezing rain in Michiana, look for the red-faced men kicking the snow packed under spinning tires, the irate women in heels on cell phones for the tow truck, all cursing the weather with an impotence unbecoming their fully loaded GPS, On Star, ABS vehicles.
I should talk: despite my father’s wisdom I crashed my first car on ice at 17. One moment I’m confidently taking a corner, the next I’m up on a sidewalk, engine fluids draining onto the ice, my best friend holding his face from the blow to the dashboard. A rude maturity awakening for me, and the beginning of a spiritual one. “How did that happen?” I wondered, stunned from the impact. But the problem was not the tires, the tie rods, the alignment or even black ice. It was too much attitude, and too little respect for winter itself.
Our nation has found itself on the unexpected black ice of war. One minute we’re on the confident road to victory, the next we are drifting sideways, full into a military and political spin that will not end at the place our leaders steered us toward. How did that happen, we wonder, while our leaders reconvene: Maybe we need more troops, more hardware, more power…
I came home from high school one January day to find my dad sitting at his desk, head bandaged, dried blood on his collar and shirt. A pickup truck had blown a red light crossing the highway. The driver told state police he must have hit some…black ice. That night my dad took me to the hospital to see the man. His fractured arm hung in traction, face grey with pain, his clothes and broken glasses in a bag smelling of gasoline. But instead of a proper tongue lashing or a lawsuit, my dad only asked the man if there was anything he could do for him. We drove to his house, and got him clean clothes, a phone list, and spare glasses.
It turns out that on black ice, there’s still one force more compelling than momentum, more needed than justice, and more effective than power.