A Second Chance

The violin gets to me every time.  And so do the very good questions Diane Wyzga asks in her walking stories. She walks all over – both literally and figuratively – with her 60-sec Stories from Women who Walk. 

In one recent episode, she asked if you had ever gotten “a second chance to say thank you” after a brush with the Grim Reaper. As I heard about her friend’s very nice car getting T-boned, my mind wandered back to my high school days; a snowy evening with a friend on our way to a party.

The students in my school came from far and wide. Consequently, the parties we went to were also held far and wide.  And for this particular party, just before Christmas in our senior year, everybody in our group of friends brought sleeping bags to spend the night in one of the homes of those fellow students who happened to live in this particular little town 20 miles west of our school. 

I was picked up by one of my friends who had borrowed her parents’ car and we loaded it up with my gear and the ingredients for making a birthday cake the next day.  Eggs, sugar, flour, milk, almond macaroons, jam, vanilla, chocolate, marzipan, and a bottle of port (I make pretty good birthday cakes.)  Then we set out on just about the least direct route to said town because I am an idiot.  I had seen a sign to the town when I was out for a weekend walk with the family, so if we just went there again and followed the sign, we would end in the right place.  

Or we could have taken the freeway. 

Needless to say, the freeway was pretty straight compared to the meandering country and forest route we applied.  Ours was for sure the more pretty, and the more it snowed, the prettier it got.  Eventually, the road ended, as far as we were concerned, in a 90 degree very late marked turn where my friend did the absolutely correct thing to do when a car is skidding.  Instead of tumbling down the embankment hood, roof, and perhaps trunk, we came down the passenger side, roof, driver side.  Shocked, both hanging in our seat belts, we checked that the other was all right and unbuckled. I got the passenger side door open – against gravity which is a feat in itself – and we climbed down on the field upon which we had made this unplanned and sudden stop.  One never knows if a crashed car will start leaking fuel, so we didn’t hang around for long but walked towards the farmhouse whose lights we could see at the end of the field. 

The farmer and his wife were kind enough to let us borrow a phone. So my friend called her parents. And the local AAA – who had a waiting list of 36 cars out on – and off – the freeway from the same black ice we had encountered.  Then we called our host to tell our friends we would be a little late for the party. 

By the grace of whoever doles out grace to challenged teenagers, the car was hardly damaged. Yes, a light was broken and there was a little bump in the roof, but it was not aflame.  The farmer suggested that perhaps we could give it a push the last quarter turn back on its wheels.  We could see the car from the house.  We had turned the lights off but the blinkers were on and it was obvious from the speed of the traffic on the road that the other drivers had seen the signal to go slow.

The push worked. Thus again provided with a vehicle, we profusely thanked our hosts and set out across the frozen field and onwards to our party. 

Obviously, my friend’s parents knew what had happened and that we were all right. My parents were out for dinner, even further away, and I didn’t even think about trying to reach them. 

Great party!  Our host met us with a medicinal glass of brandy which supposedly is good if you have had a shock.  We ended at 3 am or so – and then we all walked to wherever we were supposed to sleep. It had been snowing all evening so it was a cold and pretty landscape as we trudged to our friends’ houses.  And the next morning everything was covered in three feet of glittery white under a pale northern sun.  

We were not going to take the car back but would try to catch the train. It turned out to be the train that should have left an hour earlier as the train traffic was also a complete mess.

When my driver friend and I stepped out of the train, there was my mother. Oops, how would she react to my nice coat that had been sliding down that side of the car which normally was close to the road and consequently pretty dirty – not to mention oily? 

My mother was just as surprised to see us as we her.  So surprised that she didn’t even notice my coat, somewhat hidden behind my sleeping bag and overnight duffel. Just like we had been waylaid by the snow, so had the party they had gone to.  There had been no taxis to be called, and my parents who were driving had offered to take some of the guests part of the way to see if it was easier to catch a cab the closer you got to the capital. It wasn’t.  Consequently, they had had guests for an unplanned sleepover and mom was at the station because she had just delivered their guests to continue with the very same train we just had gotten off.  We drove my friend home – both of us youngsters very quiet in the car.   

While both my friend and I had been afraid my mom would blow a gasket when she saw us (and my coat) and heard we crashed a car, sometimes our parents are better than we give them credit for.  It probably didn’t hurt that they, too, had been out driving under the same very difficult conditions and had seen how many cars had gone off the road or hit into one another.  They were just thankful that the fallout was nothing more than a trip to the garage.  Had my friend veered just a little from what she did, we would not have been able to walk away – even less go dancing all night.

Did I mention that we spend a little of the morning making a cake?  All the ingredients had slid into a blanket when the car started skidding and all made the 360 without breaking. Not even the candles.

Some people think a 360 is just the car spinning around on its wheels. To me, however, the expression carries memories of when I got “a second chance to say thank you.” 

And thank you, Diane, for helping me put my story into a perspective that my invincible teenage self never really considered. 


Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp is an organizational psychologist who counsels international transfers, immigrants, and foreign students in overcoming culture shock. Originating from Denmark, where she worked in organizational development primarily in the finance industry, Charlotte has lived in California since 1998. Her own experiences relocating lead down a path of research into value systems and communication patterns. She shares this knowledge and experience through speaking and writing and on her website Many of these “learning experiences” along with a context to put them in can be found in her book Building Bridges Across Cultural Differences, Why Don’t I Follow Your Norms?. On the side, she leads a multinational and multigenerational communication training group.

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    • Thank you, Ali. Naturally I never forgot the story – for years afterwards whenever a car slid on ice, water or mud I had flashbacks.
      You know the expression that to get over a trauma you have to go through the mud. There is no easy way around. In my case it was literally: It helped once I had been behind the steering wheel on a mud track.

    • Thanks, Larry. Part of me asks “why would anybody care?” – but I cared listening to Diane’s story and you never know if it lands with somebody who look at their close call a little differently.