The voice of God on the highway

By Jocelyne Despatis

It’s a glorious July day. I’m in my late 20s and high on life as I drive my sleek Valiant convertible through the Laurentian countryside that I love. Three nephews aged six, seven and eight are enjoying the ride from their belted-down positions in the back seat.

I’m feeling solid as a driver after months of practice on all kinds of roads and in all kinds of weather. I’ve attended skid school, mastered parallel parking and completed the defensive-driving course.

The toll autoroute ended some miles back, and we’re now on a gently winding two-lane highway. We head into a curve, around an escarpment on the left and along a deep ditch on the right that separates the road from a flat open field.

Suddenly there’s a car in our lane speeding toward us. Horrified, I freeze for a split second and hear the voice of God the Father thundering, “Nothing is worse than a head-on collision!” I can actually see his mighty presence splitting the sky. I press on the accelerator and drive off the road, clearing the ditch before stopping abruptly in a bone-shaking encounter with the uneven surface of the field.

A man and a woman appear out of nowhere. He tells me to turn off the ignition and urges me to get out of the car, while she tries to calm the howling boys. I realize that something’s wrong with my neck and upper back when I swing around to check on them. I climb into the back where the boys are immobilized by seat belts, shock and fear of broken glass. I unfasten the middle one who clambers over the trunk of the car with me pushing and the helpful strangers pulling – then the second boy, the third and me.

We’re out, lurching away from the car, stumbling and bloody but all moving on our own steam. The police arrive and then an ambulance. We’re given first aid and taken to a hospital. Between the four of us, we have a good number of cuts and bruises, a dislocated shoulder and a few sprains. But, miraculously, nothing serious.

We learn from the police that the driver who forced us off the road has been arrested thanks to a middle-aged couple, who not only witnessed the incident but also followed the offending car, got its licence plate number and reported to the police. They had done all of this after depositing their two passengers, who turned out to be the good Samaritans at the scene.

A whole lot of serendipity led to this happy outcome. The convertible, with its low centre of gravity, didn’t roll. My early adoption of seat belts, long before they became compulsory. The four witnesses, not only helpful but also willing to testify. And most of all, the defensive driving course given by a charismatic female instructor, who had drilled her mantra into my head: “Avoid a high-speed, head-on collision at any cost.”

So why did my life-saving instinct, created in me by a woman, manifest itself in a man’s voice? And not that of a mere man but of my culture’s highest personification of male power and authority?

At various stages of my evolution as a feminist over the intervening half-century, I’ve often wondered if in another life-threatening event of similar intensity, the authoritative, commanding voice would still be masculine. With luck, that question will never be answered, as I have no desire ever again to experience such fierce, indelible panic.

Jocelyne Despatis came to Ottawa from Montreal 40 years ago and had a rewarding career as a consultant until retiring in 2005. Her memoir was written during Anne Le Dressay’s Zoom-based memoir-writing class at Abbotsford.

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