July 1972. An unforgettable episode that could have changed my life for the worst in one fell swoop. I was eighteen, cocky behind the wheel and driving west on a local street in Brooklyn in a bug this warm summer day with all windows down. Ventilation was just fresh air as there was no air conditioner. Ahead of me and coming soon was a fire hydrant on the passenger’s side that was turned on with water spewing out of it. A veritable spigot, it was leaking its content with forcefulness and it was overflowing the street, carving a large expanse on a busy thoroughfare, spanning six lanes. The fire hydrant was like a little tree stump on the bank of a river. Kids surrounded the hydrant, frolicking in the water, bathing and having fun. An occasional adult would join them to participate while fully clothed and all wet. The humidity that day was high. Intermittently one of the kids would take an open can and direct the water at oncoming traffic and they were giggling the whole time, having summer fun. A lot of them were milling on the front stoop of the house closest to the hydrant. Other pedestrians were crossing the street to avoid getting their clothes or their hair caught in this whirlwind of aquatic jet flow.
Fearing the obvious danger looming, I put my foot on the clutch and the brake and tried to slow down the VW Beetle by switching gear from fourth to third to second in quick successions. The whirring sound of the engine increased during this action of decompression, no different than an airplane engine making the loud wail when it suddenly lands and brakes are applied causing the forward motion to be abruptly curtailed. This reflexive reaction on my part occurred as fast as a lightning bolt. Unfortunately the momentum of the vehicle was such that the deceleration didn’t occur fast enough and with enough efficiency to reduce the speed of the encounter with the riverbed. As I crossed the water level, brook-size and behaving like a rapids with fast flowing current bordering on fast flooding, hydroplaning started. The swoosh of the moving vehicle as its tires made contact with the liquid underneath, reducing the friction and therefore the traction, in a split second, was monumental.
This interference in stability translated into a scenery of potential mayhem. The car slid and spun out of control, making a wide circle, while I, behind the steering wheel, was trying to steer the car clear of oncoming traffic, trailing vehicles, avoiding pedestrians jaywalking, and at the same time facing the glare of a piercing sun, in the middle of a cacophony of sounds from honking horns, portable radios from passers-by blaring the latest sounds of disco music synchronized to the tune playing in the car radio, the deafening screams of onlookers expecting a serious accident. This happened in a blur. The vehicle came to screeching halt, somehow my feet remaining on the brake and the clutch, allowing the engine to still be running, the inside of the car all wet from the target practice by playing youngsters, my hands shaking uncontrollably, perspiration dripping down my forehead, my nose flaring, my respiration fast. Strange as it might seem, no oncoming car was hit, no rear ending occurred and I remained in the vehicle unscathed. I slowly regained my composure and drove forward, slowly. When I looked at the clock, barely 60 seconds had elapsed from the time of contact with the water till the miraculous and safe full stop. Just thinking about that incident gives me goose bumps.
Reynald Altéma, MD