Charney/My Turn: Brush with 'alligator teeth'

My message machine blinked its red light. It was the first thing I noticed. “Grandma are you OK?” was the message. “I’m worried about you.” I called back immediately, even before I dropped my bags and sat down.

“I’m fine,” I told him. “I’m just fine.”

“OK,” he said, with that sort of incredulous inflection.

“No, believe me,” I said, “I’m fine.”

“OK,” he repeated, “I believe you.”

But was I fine? Had I absorbed the shock of a split-second decision that was, everyone assured me, the right split-second decision.

It had been a perfect summer day. A day at the river with nets and last season’s leaky pails. The children finding pollywogs and minnows or taking short tube rides down gentle currents. There had been a minor mud fight to redirect and a few boundaries to negotiate, but nothing the grown-ups couldn’t handle while maintaining their own interesting conversation. You know those conversations that deconstruct winter’s family dramas, more bearable now in the shimmering light and warmth of a beautiful summer day.

And finally to celebrate our good fortune, we splurged with ice cream cones, red velvet for him and mocha chip for me. And then back into the car for the 30-mile Greenfield to Holyoke trek. To wile away the miles, we played, “Good News Bad News,” a story telling game, in which someone begins on a positive note, then the next person gets to twist the tale with some misadventure. “You start,” I tell my grandson, knowing full well his preference for monsters, zombies and feral beasty attacks, but hoping to set him up with the nonlethal part.

“The good news is that James Willowby Rutherford is going on a trip,” he began.

“But he forgets one of his important suitcases,” I added, my idea of truly “bad news.”

“The good news is,” my grandson continued, “he didn’t forget the suitcase but it had a bomb.”

I started to argue the terms of the game, wasn’t that bad news territory, when I notice something untoward just ahead of me on the highway. Across my lane were large clumps of tire debris. I was pushing the speed limit with fast moving two-lane traffic. There wasn’t time to assess. My split-second decision was to stay on course and hit a chunk of rubber, hoping the car would sail over it. However, immediately on contact there was a loud noise. I didn’t lose control, I felt an ominous grinding drag beneath the car. I made my way to the break-down lane, slowed and pull over unto the verge to a full stop. When I got out to reconnoiter under the car, there was something metal that I could reach but not dislodge. Also there was a suspicious puddle of liquid.

Out came the cell phone. There is no gratitude like the gratitude one feels at that kind of highway moment for the invention of cell phones. And too, the little AAA card I keep in my wallet. I said my little silent prayer that I had paid my dues, despite perennial grumbling about the cost. And felt still more gratitude for the real live voice that promised only a “15- to 30-minute wait.” And then the arrival of the tow truck, ahead of schedule, and the kind driver who ushered us into his monster cab while he hooked up the car. And then graciously waited for the parents to arrive and take my grandson home. Safe and sound, my rescuer and I headed back north to Greenfield.

“We call them alligator teeth,” My rescue driver said. “Know why?”

Why? I ask.

“Hit ’em and they bite,” he said with a knowing chuckle, but then to reassure, added, “but you did the right thing. Worse to swerve.”

“Alligator teeth!” How is it that they end up on the road anyway? The mechanics of this common highway flotsam have something to do with retread tires becoming unglued at high temperatures either due to improper inflation or too much weight especially at high speeds. It does not deter the 10-wheelers one bit, but it does leave a trail.

But for now I am back home. I was delivered to my own doorstep, while my car went on its way to the mechanic. Where it was checked out for damages and back on the road by the next day. And so the good news is that my grandson and I are ready for the next trip. The bad news is that Mr. Willowby Rutherford’s suitcase is still out there with or without (my choice) the ticking bomb. And the other bad news, no one knows when the alligator teeth will bite again.

Ruth Charney lives in Greenfield.

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