Thursday, August 1, 2019

Tribute to Honor Ben Swett

This is an encore piece in honor and as tribute to Ben Swett, its author. Ben passed away suddenly this July, leaving many grieving his absence. A brilliant man, retired military, will be interred at Arlington National Cemetery this Fall. When my late sister Jacquelyn MacGibbon and my late mother Lena Carroll travelled to Ontario, we went thru the D.C. area, and Ben facilitated a get together with other former SWC chatters so that we were able to meet in person many we had chatted with online for years. He was caring in that way, wanting people to relax and share memories. He will always be a large part of my memories.

A Warning

During the last semester of my senior year at the University of Arkansas, I arranged my schedule to have no classes on Saturdays or after 3 pm on Fridays, so I would have enough time go see my fiancée on weekends. Wyn had graduated the year before and was working in Houston, so these trips were three hundred fifty miles each way. I didn't go every weekend, but I did go fairly often.

One Friday afternoon when I came home to change clothes and pick up my things before leaving, Mom seemed a bit glum as I went through the kitchen to my room. I got cleaned up and came back to the kitchen with my shaving kit and overnight bag in hand. She said, "There's something about this trip..."

All of a sudden I wasn't in such a hurry.

She said, "I had a dream. And I keep thinking it's about this trip. There's a crash. It's bad. I don't think you're in it, but you easily could be." She paused for a moment, gazing into the distance with that smooth expression she gets when she turns her mind in on itself. "It's like this: You can't see. It's very dark and you can't see. That's where the danger is. The dark isn't the danger, itself, but they come together. There's a crash ... several crashes ... brakes squealing ... and a bus where it doesn't belong. There is a bus that is somehow ... out of place."

I said, "It's going to be dark before I get there."

"No ... it's more than that. I can't think why it should be so dark ... worse than fog ... but anyway, that's the sign. Be careful, and have a good time. Tell Wyn hello for me."

"Okay," I echoed the universal chant of youth-in-a-hurry, "I'll be careful." I gave her a hug and headed for my car.

All the way from Fayetteville to Fort Smith, I kept Mom's warning in mind, easing my way around the serpentine twistings of U.S. Highway 7l considerably slower than usual. After that I forgot about it for longer and longer periods, and eased up to my normal cruising speed. I had made this trip enough times to have it down to an art. I knew the top safe speed for every turn and just where to start closing on the guy ahead to be ready to pass him when the road straightened out.

I was well aware of the little town where a sign said the speed limit was sixty, and half a mile farther, around a tree-blind curve, sat a stop sign and a bloodthirsty cop in a souped-up Oldsmobile. That little set-up cost me a night in jail once. And I knew I could make the trip with only one stop for gasoline, toilet, a hamburger and coffee at the state-line station in Texarkana.

Twilight and then darkness caught me just out of Texarkana. The moon came up to my left ... a full moon ... a big, fat, gold lamé moon ... and right about then my mind went skittering along the miles ahead, outracing the eighty miles per hour shown on the speedometer. I was not thinking about my mother.

It was easy driving. The road was as straight as a pool cue, with wide ditches on both sides, bordered by the Big Piney woods. Like a study in perspective, every line went to the vanishing point, just to the left of the car's hood ornament. A good place to get yourself hypnotized if you're not careful.
Suddenly, without knowing why, I popped out of the reverie. My right foot came down hard on the brake pedal. Something was wrong. What? The sky was clear. No other cars were close to me. Still seeing no reason for alarm, I held pressure on the brake just below enough to make the wheels skid.
Then I saw it. Across the road, spoiling the symmetry of the lines of perspective, was something dark gray ... like a curtain. I saw the tail-lights of a car ahead of me go into that curtain and disappear. This is it! Danger! I did not want to go into that curtain. I pulled off the road onto the shoulder and came to a complete stop.

Why? What is this? It looked like something out of a science-fiction story: a curtain hanging across the road. The top of it was at the same level as the tops of the trees. I could see stars above the top of that dark gray area, but nothing at all through it ... no tail-lights and no oncoming headlights.

A wisp of gray reached out and swirled around my car. Smoke! Wood smoke. But Mom said the dark was not the danger, only the sign. Should I go on now, slowly?

Just then, out of the darkness ahead of me came the terrible sounds Mom must have heard in her dream: a screech of brakes, a death squall of tires, terminated by a crash whose concussion was almost visible. Then another squeal of brakes, higher than the first -- a short, shrill sound that ended with a metallic explosion. "Good God!" My mind flicked out the words: "Chain collision."

The next squall was tortured, staccato, the mark of an expert driver popping his brakes and letting them off to break the skid. It stopped as abruptly as the others, but with no crash. "Made it!" I thought. "He made it!"

In the next second, a great dark shape hurtled up out of the ditch on my right, across in front of my car, slewed onto the highway, and lurched to a stop. I jerked my head back so hard I nearly broke my neck. It was a huge Greyhound bus.

The realization flashed in my mind of what that bus driver must have done. With the weight of his bus and the speed he was traveling, he had no chance to stop when he heard the chain collision happening right in front of him. He went to his left, somehow got a glimpse of the wreckage filling the road, and made a split-second decision. With his own life and the lives of his passengers depending on him, he turned farther left, off the road into the ditch, went through the bottom of the ditch, made a skidding right turn on the far bank, and came roaring back through the bottom of the ditch and up onto the road.

"God bless him," I thought, "He played guts ball on that one!"

I met the shaken, teeth-chattering driver half-way between his bus and my car. "You were stopped!" He yelled.

"When I saw you I thought you were gonna hit me for sure." I pointed past him and yelled, "Run! Stop traffic!"

He went that way and I went the other, as hard as we could run. I went into the smoke, to my right around the piles of smashed vehicles -- the truck carrying logs that stopped when he ran into the smoke, the second log-truck jammed into the logs on the first truck and nearly buried under its own logs, and the sedan stuffed under the logs on the second truck -- and then out of the narrow band of smoke into the moonlight.

I sprinted about a hundred yards before the next car came along. He managed to stop short of the smoke -- after making me jump out of the way as he skidded past. The bus driver did as well on the other side of the smoke-screen, and there were no more tragedies on that particular stretch of Texas highway that night.

Pretty soon there were a lot of people around, plus several police cars, wreckers and ambulances. The passenger in the sedan was killed instantly, but the driver was alive. A state policeman crawled under the second truck and cut the chain with a hacksaw to release the logs before the medics could get the two men out of that truck. They were badly injured but alive.

It took almost three hours to clear the road so cars could get through, because the wreckers had to drag each log out of the pile endwise before it was safe for a bunch of men to roll it into the ditch.
After I was on my way again, I remembered why I stopped short of the smoke. I tried to figure out precisely where I would have been, except for Mom's warning, but there were too many variables. I also wondered -- and still do -- how a dream could preview a future event. I know it happens, but I don't know how it happens.
Ben H. Swett copyright April 1955 URL  

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