Thursday, May 22, 2014

War Stories - Episode 20: It's not a good idea to kill your boss.

Early 1990s.  I'm working as "Mechanical Engineer - Locomotives".  I love my job.  That made it a stupendously bad idea to almost kill my boss.

Quite often, I had to travel to Altoona to visit Juniata Locomotive Shop.  Often it was to participate in some testing at the Technical Services Lab there.

That Spring, I was spending a few weeks there, commuting home on weekends.  Toward the end of this period, I managed to come down with my annual spring cold and sinus infection.  A nasty thing that arrived like clockwork each year and managed to make me and everyone around me pretty miserable for several weeks.  The traveling and living in a hotel for a few weeks probably didn't help things much.  I felt kinda punk, but managed to complete the last week of testing, heading home on a nice Friday afternoon.

This particular trip home, our department head, Gerhard Thelen, was at Hollidaysburg Car shop for the day and wanted to catch a ride home from me. As he lived on the Main Line and I lived in NJ, it was pretty much on my way home, so no sweat. Would I have said "no" if it wasn't?  "Sorry, boss, it's a bit out of my way.  Good luck getting home!"  Ummmm, I don't think so!

Little did he know, I was about to almost kill him.

I usually would have left about noon to try to get home before the Friday weekend shore traffic got too terrible, but Gerhard wasn't ready until 2:00 PM or so.  I swung by Hollidaysburg and picked him up.  He hopped in the front seat of my relatively new 1989 Ford Probe.

I almost always enjoyed driving this car.
Torquey 2.2 L four + 5 speed transmission + comfortable seats = fun

Now, the sensible route home would have been the US 220 expressway south to the PA turnpike, but I liked to take US 22 through Huntingdon and Lewistown.  It followed the railroad, more or less and I would often use my scanner to do some "sharp-shooting" railfanning on the way.   There were lots of good spots and since the speed limit was 55 mph on both routes, and route 22 was shorter, it really didn't take much longer.  Or, that was what I told myself, anyway.

Here are some shots taken along the route on various trips.

Spruce Creek

East of Newport


East of Tyrone

Mount Union

There would be no railfanning today, however, for obvious reasons.  But, I still decided on taking route 22.  I was familiar with it and Hollidaysburg was convenient to it.  

Off we went.  It was smooth sailing.  Traffic was light.  The weather was nice.  Everything was great except for my sinuses - headache and fever rarely add enjoyment to travel.  After we passed by Mount Union, there was a long, straight stretch with farms on both sides.  I was moving along about 60 mph in a 55 zone and was coming up on a slow moving early 80s Lincoln Town Car.  

We were right in the middle of a big, long, passing zone.  I don't want to slow down one bit and just blast right by him without breaking stride.  Zoom! Like a Metroliner passing a Marcus Hook local!  Just before I make a move to pass, I glance up at my rear view mirror, then the side view mirror.  Nothing coming.  I start to signal and move left just as I finish my mirror glances.  Textbook two lane pass.

Except for two things.

One, I am closing at too fast a rate for a safe pass - better than 20 mph difference.

And, two. While I was busying checking my mirrors, he was slowing down and is nearly stopped.  He has his left turn signal on.  He is going to turn into the nursing home on the left side of the road - the only building for miles.  


We were going to occupy the same space at the same time in the very near future!  I hit the brakes and swerved hard right. 

I almost missed him.  


My left front fender catches the right rear corner of the Town Car's massive chrome bumper.  It shreds my left front fender which gets pushed into my left front wheel.  The front wheels lock up and my car skids to a stop on the shoulder.  There was a guard rail along the shoulder.  This was good news because it kept me out of the drainage ditch.  This was bad news because I hit it.  The right front fender gets nicely gouged and just as the car comes to a stop, the right rear wheel tire valve clips the leading edge of the guard rail and it pulls out of the rim.  Pssst.  Flat tire!

The cars are at a dead stop. My heart going a million miles an hour!

It could have been a horrible disaster if I'd continued the pass or swerved left instead of right and broadsided the Town Car.  People could have been badly injured or killed.  All of us, boss included!

Gerhard is looking rather calm and, in his German accent, says only, "I thought you were closing in rather fast."

Wow.  I thought I was going to get a thorough chewing out at least.  It's not every day you almost kill the boss in a car wreck.

I get out. Check on Mr. Orvis Snook, the octagenarian driving the Town Car.  He's fine.  We check his car.  It's almost fine.  Red paint on the bumper and a broken taillight lens.  That's it.  Not a dent or bend or wrinkle anywhere else.  My car is nicely shredded.  We exchange info and he departs.

Ovris Snook's car looked a bit like this one, except his had a splotch of metalic red paint on the corner of the bumper and a broken taillight lens
(photo from

Now, back to my car.  We have to change my right rear tire and put on the space-saver.  We manage to pull the left front fender away from the tire.  Mechanically, the car is otherwise okay. We limp toward  Mattawan, the next town down the road, where we find a garage that fixed up the flat tire and off we go.

Silence rules the rest of the trip.  I navigate to Gerhard's house and drop him off.  "See you Monday."  That's the extent of the conversation.  

It's dusk now and I turn on the headlights.  I get a glow from the edges of the hood.  It looked kind of cool, but was totally useless as a headlight.  The wreck had jammed both pop-up headlight mechanisms.  I had no headlights.  

This is a job for "jury-rig man"!

I pull over and rummage in the hatch and find a coat hanger.  I yank up one of the headlights and, using my mad Mechanical Engineering skills, jam the coat hanger around it to keep it propped up.  It jiggles up and down on every little bump in the road, but gives me just enough to find my way home, slogging my way along the Schuylkill Expressway and Walt Whitman Bridge into South Jersey and home.

Monday comes and I head to work, wondering what the fallout from Friday's adventure will be.

Will I get reprimanded?  Fired?  Demoted?  Sent to Altoona permanently?

Luckily, none of that.  But, at the next staff meeting, Gerhard has a big stack of AAA defensive driving booklets for everyone...and I got a good bit of ribbing from the other guys in the department for quite a while after.

To this day, I blame the cold and fever for my poor judgement.  That's probably only a small part of it.  But, if I'm honest with myself, driving too aggressively was the biggest part.  

I'm older and wiser now, and I've made it my policy to never, ever, come close to killing my boss again!

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