In the first week of December 1984 I received a horrifying phone call from the San Antonio Police Department that my wife and (at that time) infant daughter had been in a serious automobile accident.
But this story begins a couple years earlier and half a world away. Fresh out of college, and commissioned as a 2Lt in the Army, my first duty assignment was at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. Brenda, my new wife, and I didn’t use seat belts often. Laws mandating them were much less common then, and accidents happened to other people. A couple of years before the incident, when that daughter was still but a gleam in my eye, a new meddling, busy body Post Commander came in with his own stick his nose in your business agenda. He announced that all would wear seat belts on “his” post or lose the privilege of driving on his post. Muttering at his sticking his nose where it didn’t belong Brenda and I buckled up.
In September 1983 our first daughter, Bethany, was born. We didn’t have a car seat for her on the day she was born. That turned into a problem because, only after her the birth, I discovered the hospital had a policy (the state had no law) that no baby delivered there could leave unless it was put in a car infant carrier when leaving. I hurriedly went out and bought one at the Post Exchange (or “PX”). I didn’t have a chance to shop around and had to buy an expensive, top of the line model, that the new Lieutenant could ill afford. It had a heavily padded bar that pulled down to securely hold the baby (while common now only the best, and most expensive, infant carriers had that then). I was quite bitter about this unexpected, major expense.
In June 1984 I was transferred to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Tx. Bethany had her first birthday in September. My wife’s parents lived in New Braunfels, only about half and hour away. Towards the end of the first week of December my wife and her mother made plans to meet in Universal City (just a few miles from our house) and go Christmas shopping.
We were no longer under the oppressive General in Hawaii, and Texas had no seat belt law at the time, but the General’s edict had gotten us in the habit, to the point where one felt odd if the seat belt was not on when you got in the car. So, we continued to buckle up out of the habit he created. My wife got in the car, strapped Bethany into that expensive infant carrier in the back seat, and buckled herself in.
Just a couple of miles from home, Bethany made a noise and Brenda looked back at her. The right tires of the car went onto the shoulder of the road. Brenda figured this was no big deal as she steered the car back onto the road, hey, this has happened to everyone a hundred times, right?
To this day we don’t know what went wrong and why the car did what it did. Witnesses driving behind her say it looked like the car just suddenly leaped into the air and flipped onto its top. After the accident we did find that the right rear axle was cleanly and completely broken.
In any event, the car did jump into the air and flip onto its top. It then slid upside down across the road and didn’t stop until it smashed into the curb on the opposite side. The barely year old Nissan Sentra hatchback (with its final payment made just the month before) would be declared a total loss by insurance.
Brenda found herself hanging upside down in her seat belt. She was fine, but the new mother in her panicked with one desperate thought. “Where was the baby?” There was no noise coming from the baby, just complete silence in the back seat and in her awkward upside down position Brenda could not look back to even see Bethany.
Releasing her seat belt, Brenda desperately crawled her way out the shattered driver’s side window and sustained her only injuries, minor cuts treated with band aids from crawling over the broken glass. She got out of the car and with all the worst thoughts of what she would see running to her mind crouched to examine the back seat of the car . . .
There was Bethany, hanging securely upside down in that oh so expensive (but suddenly worth every dime) infant carrier, grinning ear to ear and looking happily at Mom as if to say “that was fun, do it again, do it again.”
A relieved Brenda desperately started pulling the doors to get Bethany out, but the frame of the car was so warped she couldn’t open any door. However, in short order, a good Texan came along with a tool box in the back of his pick up truck. With a large crowbar he forced the door open and mother was united with the completely uninjured and still happily smiling daughter.
After that phone call from the SAPD, I came flying onto the scene. Veteran police officers were still shaking their heads in disbelief that nobody, particularly an infant, had been seriously injured or killed. An incident that could have shattered my life, and that of my family, is now something we joke about. We speculate that it was an early sign of Bethany’s love for roller coasters.
Bethany is now 33 years old and about to have her own first child. The person whose life once hung by a quality infant carrier is about to make me a proud grandfather. She is an exceptionally beautiful, bright, gifted, talented, and compassionate woman with a sparkling, fun personality that lightens the day of all she associates with. It was all nearly taken from this world in a fraction of a second.
Please people, I beg you. Seat belts have made such a difference in my life. Buckle up, and put any babies or toddlers in your car in the best of carriers for them.
And somewhere out there, is what is likely now a retired Commanding General, who has no idea what a difference his “meddling” made to me and my family. I don’t even remember his name. And a policy at Wahiawa General Hospital, that I at the time I cursed for my inability to afford it, saved the life of my daughter.
Sometimes discovering that you were really, really wrong about something can be such a relief.