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Driving Lesson 

Quickly forgetting danger

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I'm approaching I-89 in Waterbury, grateful to finally be leaving Route 100 during Vermont's first real snowstorm of the winter. I'm almost halfway home and the weather is getting worse. It is beautiful, mind you. I imagine I'm following a flatbed tractor trailer loaded with used feather pillows, the tops of which were sheared off when the driver ignored a "low clearance" underpass warning. The wet, heavy flakes come at me through the headlight's aura, a cannonade of white down.

The headlights on my '96 Ford F150 pickup are coated with road scum, which creates a translucent windshield "rash" and distorts much of the road's visibility. The cracked rubber wipers have picked up so much ice that they only clear a small arc near the bottom. I crouch down and peer over the steering wheel to see the taillights ahead. After a couple of desperate pumps, the windshield washer emits a random drizzle that helps somewhat.

I am listening to a debate on the radio about whether the war in Iraq has, in fact, become a "civil war." The daily body count of Iraqi citizens in Baghdad has been averaging well over a hundred a day for the past few months, and the "civil order" that the "coalition of the willing" has managed to impose pales in comparison to the internecine slaughter we have unleashed between Shia and Sunnis. Is this a civil war yet?

I turn onto the Interstate ramp and ease into a line of slow-moving traffic in the right lane. Drivers are letting people in - a courteous artifact that has somehow survived the onslaught of "me first" behavior. I am grateful.

The line of lights looks like an endless artery of steel corpuscles streaming to their destinations. I am one of them, moving relentlessly at 35 miles per hour - easy, though the passing lane on the left occasionally tempts me. It is filled with wet, heavy mush and laced with a few tire tracks.

I'm pleased with myself that I had my snow tires mounted the week before, and am riding on 2-season-old studded Cooper Weathermasters. I forgot, however, to add the requisite sandbags in the back, and without them I sometimes fishtail. I am transfixed by the red taillights 40 feet ahead, and the swirls of snow coming off the cars' ski racks like mini cyclones.

I turn my attention again to the radio, and the news that our president is miffed the British press corps did not rise when he and Prime Minister Blair entered a press briefing, and furthermore that the journalists persisted in asking "follow-up" questions. Surely they must have known that George W. Bush does not "allow" them. I wonder if I would stand up for the president. I was taught to be courteous, but also to maintain a healthy skepticism for royalist pretension. An Australian journalist once commented that in his country, not only would they not stand up, they wouldn't even dress up for their prime minister. I have always admired Australians for their healthy response to self-infatuation.

I see lights in the left lane approaching. Someone is passing. It's a Jeep Cherokee, with a full complement of skis on the roof and a bevy of seemingly insouciant young people inside. They're gone in a flash. An old pickup with a contractor's rack and ladders also roars by, and then a Saturn. Then the passing lane is dark again.

A UVM policeman pulled me over once when I was a student and told me I was "a moving snow bank." I was late to my job that evening and in a desperate hurry. It had snowed well over a foot. I'd cleared a porthole in my windshield through which to see the road, and pulled out into the line of traffic on Pearl Street without removing the rest of the snow from my Bug. I was not formally charged, but the officer stood over me and made me remove enough snow to ensure visibility through all the windows - and so that other drivers could see the outlines of my vehicle. He chatted me up amiably while I brushed the snow off with my bare hands, then wished me well and drove off.

Back on the highway, another car shoots by and I weigh the risks of following, but decide against it. I'm old enough to know better; and besides, the news is holding my attention. Several critics of the president's stay-the-course Iraq policy - whom he has accused of "helping our enemies" - are for some reason defending themselves on the radio.

Further down the road, I see in the median what look like spotlights piercing the night sky. As I approach, I see the tire marks in the left lane widening, weaving and then leaving the lane altogether. Passengers are emerging from a car that lies on its side pointing slightly upwards. No one seems hurt, so I wave and chug on by.

On my right I pass something resembling an oil refinery, but it turns out to be a raised ranch with a manic array of Christmas lights still blazing from every architectural element, bush and shrub. Global warming in Bolton Flats.

Another set of lights askew in the median. By the time I reach the Richmond exit, I've counted seven cars that have run off the road. The median strip is not routinely plowed and some of the beautiful rock outcroppings were removed more than a decade ago - presumably to make travel there less dangerous.

The human mind has a way of quickly forgetting danger, whether the threat is icy roads or a military offensive. Caution gets left behind at the scene of the accident. Each year, the first-big-snow lesson has to be relearned. Global warming aside, we can be sure that winter in Vermont will bring frozen precipitation. And that snow is slippery when it is new and relatively warm. Even our four-wheel-drive vehicles are useless on ice - though they may be helpful for towing a student from New Jersey out of the median strip.

On the radio, the president is reacting angrily to questions that compare the quagmire in Iraq with Vietnam. I stay in the right lane as my own exit nears.

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