For ten minutes one afternoon in 1986, I thought I had killed a little girl.
This is my story. It involves a van, the military Hummer, and 25 80-pound buckets of frozen glue.
I worked my 19th summer for my aunt Betty’s delivery service. Her small company shuttled papers, packages, and supplies for industrial clients all over northern Indiana and southwestern Michigan. She did a good business with maybe a half-dozen drivers and an assortment of cars, vans, and straight trucks. She issued me an old Ford Pinto for most of my runs, but I got some experience driving the vans, too. Most of her vans were new heavy-duty Fords tricked out for delivery, with rub rails in the cargo area and a wall behind the front seats. She had an older van, too, a used-up, rusty regular-duty Chevy that lacked the wall and rub rails. It sat idle most of the time.
Betty’s biggest customer was AM General, which designed and built the Hummer for the US military. (Yes, I know, it’s Humvee; the Hummer was the consumer version. Well, in 1986 in South Bend, everybody called them Hummers.) They used a particular glue somewhere in assembly, and it was kept frozen until needed. Betty’s company delivered the glue from the supplier, a company called Artificial Ice. All the pro drivers were on other runs one day when AM General called so Betty sent me, the driver of last resort. And all the Fords were on runs so I had to drive the unloved Chevy, the van of last resort.
I drove to Artificial Ice in downtown South Bend and loaded 25 80-pound buckets of frozen glue into my van. It was a hot day, so frost on the buckets immediately began melting into puddles on the van’s metal floor.
I headed out with my thawing 2,000-pound payload. Seven miles lay between Artificial Ice and the Hummer plant in Mishawaka, all on one long road with many stoplights. It took a long time for that loaded van to get any speed. Stopping that much weight was a real problem, too, as I learned when a light changed to red and the van plowed through the intersection as if my braking were a suggestion.
I was treading slowly and carefully across South Bend’s east side when a little girl stepped off the curb right in front of me. This was the first time I experienced how time slows down in a crisis. I was able to think, “I’m about to kill a little girl, and there’s nothing I can do about it,” sink my foot into the brake pedal, and gasp as I watched her take that first step away from safety.
Unfortunately, the bucketed glue was traveling at 25 miles an hour on a nearly frictionless surface. Wham! Buckets slammed into the back of my seat. As I felt the wind leave me, I watched the passenger’s seat pop off the floor, smack the windshield, and bounce around along the tops of some of the buckets.
I managed to get the van stopped. Still trying to get a breath, I hopped out to look for the little girl, but she wasn’t there. I even checked under the van, because with all the excitement in the cabin I wasn’t sure I would have felt it if I had hit her. She had simply vanished.
I sat for several minutes, shaking, until I was sure the urge to vomit had passed. Then I crept at ten miles per hour the rest of the way. To hell with the cars honking behind me.
I was still very shaken when I pulled up at AM General’s loading dock. The guys there steered clear of me and unloaded the glue without a word. They laid the passenger seat on its side in the cargo area, but didn’t ask me about it. Betty didn’t send me on any more runs that day. She never had the passenger seat reattached.