LIVING ON BORROWED TIME

I’ve written before about living in Europe during the early 1960s when I was a civilian auditor working for the U.S. Army, and about some of the close calls I had, death wise. I was thinking about some of those experiences the other day, and about how many of us continue to exist in spite of having had similar close brushes while avoiding entrance into the afterlife. Others, of course, not so fortunate. Their close calls with death did materialize in the real thing, along with a free eternal subscription into the next dimension. Random acts of events of which turn out favorably for some fortunate souls, and not so good for others. The lack of any apparent or obvious design on the part of the universe as to who lives and who dies.

In any event, the most vivid of my memories goes back to the time that I was assigned to an audit of a large Army installation located in Orleans, France, which was about 80 miles south of Paris. The most distinguishing feature about Orleans was… that it was only about a one hour drive to Paris. At least in those days, when there were no speed limits on French roads. That, and the fact that Joan of Arc had led the French to some great victory over England in Orleans in the 15th century, in one of the never ending wars the French and British conducted through the ages. (I also later worked in Poitiers, France, a town about 300 miles south of Paris, where Joan of Arc was subsequently tried as a heretic, and condemned to die by being burned at the stake. It was amazing how we kept running into each other.) But back to Orleans and my little escapade. The Army installation where I was assigned as a junior auditor was outside the city limits in an area we affectionately called the boonies. I was part of a team of about 10 auditors and we were evaluating the cost-effectiveness of the base’s supply operations, which were, to put mildly, plain awful. Which meant that we, as auditors were having a field day writing reports about all their screw-ups.

It just about never snowed in France, at least in the 3 years I lived there. But one morning it did snow in Orleans. Not much, maybe 3-4 inches. But just enough to cause havoc for an inexperienced driver commuting in a featherweight car. When I first arrived in France it became apparent that most of my assignments would be well outside of our Paris headquarters. In the beginning, I was able to bum a ride from Paris to the audit destination (and back to Paris on the weekends) with a fellow auditor working on the same job. But that soon became a drag, so it became obvious that I needed to buy my own car. That did not turn out to be a simple matter. Until then the only car I had ever driven was with automatic transmission. But in France, in those days, to afford a car with automatic transmission one had to be a direct heir of Louis IV or Marie Antoinette, or a descendent of some other French aristocrat. So it meant learning how to drive a car with stick shift. Which, in turn, meant having to go to a French driving school to learn how to shift manually. What a joy that was. I could write a whole other blog about that experience. Suffice to say, there was a lot of screaming going on between me and the instructor.

When I finally learned how to shift, I went shopping for a new car, and found the only auto in my price range (which was basically zero to one thousand dollars) was the French made Simca. It was identical to the Volkswagon beetle, except, maybe, it was even smaller and lighter than a beetle. The only option it contained was a heater. It didn’t even have a radio. But the price was right, all of $950. (When I left France 3 years later, I was able to sell the car to a newly arriving auditor for $800. My kind of deal.) So, in this small Simca, I went tearing through the French countryside, often at speeds of 80-85 MPH, especially when I was anxious to return to Paris on the weekends. Anyway it was in this Simca that I was driving to work that morning, generally oblivious to the new snowfall. I always took the back roads through farm country to avoid traffic.

Now the thing about the French countryside, at least in those days, was the fact that there were massive 8 foot high concrete walls at the edge of each property where it met the road. I don’t know why; maybe they were trying to spare motorists from observing how ugly their hayfields or farm houses were. In any event, these walls went on into infinity, or so it seemed. So there I am, driving obliviously in the freshly fallen snow. Suddenly, the car, whose tires were about the size of those on an average bicycle, started to skid on the snow or ice. In a panic, I jerked the steering wheel in the opposite direction. Which, being an inexperienced driver, was exactly the wrong thing to do. The car then lurched into the direction I had turned the steering wheel, and with a gallop, began heading straight into the concrete wall. Remember, that in those days there were no such things as seat belts, so if I had hit the wall at that speed, I would have been flattened like a pancake.

For some inexplicable reason, there was about a 10 foot gap in the wall at that point. There was no accounting for this gap. It was by the same ugly hayfield as the rest of the landscape in that area. But it was this gap that I went shooting through, landing in the middle of the hayfield. Neither I nor the car were damaged. The driver of a car up the road coming in the opposite direction, stopped dead in his tracks, and watched my antics as I tried to maneuver my car back onto the road. He stared at me in disbelief, as I tried to appear nonchalant, as if saying-no big deal, this happens all the time. Even as my heart was pounding like a sledgehammer. When I arrived at the office, and told everyone what had happened, the Auditor-In -Charge turned white as a sheet, even as he berated me. Not out of concern for my safety. It would have been a blow to his career aspirations and chances of promotion, had someone died in a car accident on his watch.

So the way I look at it, the last 50 years or so of my life has been lived on borrowed time. I haven’t done anything extraordinary like, say, find a cure for cancer. But I raised a family and had a moderately successful career with the Government. And I never shot anyone or held up a bank. Now I’m the same age as the newly elected Pope Francis. (It’s purely conjecture, but I’m guessing that I wasn’t one of the men being considered for that position.) And I never cease to marvel at the randomness of events unfolding in the universe. Especially when it comes to choosing who gets to live and who dies.

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