Tuesday, November 22, 2011

I REMEMBER - Thanksgiving Day and the largest car wreck in the U.S.

It was Thanksgiving Day in about 1959.  My mom (Grace Whitlock at the time), my sister Sharon and I were heading down Hwy 80 to San Francisco.  We were traveling in a 1958 Chevy Biscayne (bright yellow) that my Mom disliked intensely.  My dad had bought this car with money we didn't have and then left the family and headed out to parts unknown.  We are in fairly dire straits financially, but Mom had decided to splurge a bit and take us to San Francisco to have Thanksgiving Day at Fisherman’s Wharf and trek through Chinatown. 

We were living in Folsom (near Sacramento) and departed early in the morning, so we could make the day of it.  It was a cold and crisp day, but sunny and cloudless.  We knew we were going to have a fantastic day.  We got dressed in our best Sunday-go-to-Meetin’ clothes and jumped in the car and off we went (note – there were no seat belts : The world's first seat belt law was put in place in 1970, in the state of Victoria, Australia, making the wearing of a seat belt compulsory for drivers and front-seat passengers/Wikipedia).

We started noticing fog.  The closer we got to the Bay area, the foggier it got.  By the time we reached the outskirts of Vallejo, the fog was so thick you could barely see a few feet in front of you.  Traffic slowed to a crawl.  We were mainly concerned about getting to San Francisco in a reasonable time, as this was supposed to be a day trip – down and back.
There was a new bridge in place at the Carquinez straits that had opened earlier that year, but there was still remnants of construction and lane widening about.  We were going about 15 miles an hour, following the taillights of the car in front of us.  Then he stopped.  There was a lot of crashing and metal grinding noises from the other east-bound side of the freeway.  Perhaps he thought he was on the shoulder, not in the slow lane.  Apparently he stopped to see if he could help with the accident occurring across the divider from us, got out and ran over to “help”.  Mom wanted to pull over and get off the freeway out of traffic, but we couldn’t see two feet in front of us.  It was worse out the side windows, because there were no headlights to cut through it.  We knew were close to the bridge, which meant close to the cliffs overlooking the Carquinez Straits (The Carquinez Bridge refers to parallel bridges spanning the Carquinez Strait, forming part of interstate 80 between Crockett and Vallejo, California. The name originally referred to a single cantilever bridge built in 1927, helping to form a direct route between San Francisco and Sacramento. A second parallel cantilever bridge was completed in 1958 to deal with the increased traffic – Wikipedia).

The car behind us stopped also and started honking his horn along with us to get the guy ahead of us to get going. That was about the time the first car hit the car behind us – shoving him into the rear of our car.  I will never know why people drive so fast in bad weather, but they do.  Then a pile-up started, one after another.  Cars were spinning out and crashing into each other.  It was an odd raucous symphony of tearing metal (cars weren’t plastic then – and gas was about 25 cents/ gallon) and blaring horns.  We could also feel the constant reverberation, as the cars behind and to the side of us got hit also.  We discovered later that one of the cars behind us had several bags of potatoes in their trunk and they flew out upon impact.  Cars were skidding around in the potato-strewn freeway. 

It seemed like it would never end.  The repeated shocks of cars crashing into each other got fainter and fainter as the cars continued to stack up behind us.  Soon, the fog lifted a bit where we were and we could see there was a huge turnout about ten feet away from us - enough to park all the cars involved in the accident.  We just couldn’t see it.  It could have been the edge of the cliff also. When it seemed safe to do so, Mom had us get out and run over to the turnout, to get out of the way of the automotive mayhem going on all around us. 

Between the car pile-up opposite us and the car wreck behind us, there were over 100 cars involved (according to an article published later in Popular Science, it was the largest car wreck in the U.S. at the time).  Miraculously, there were no fatalities.  About the worst injury was a guy who got out of his car and tried to run across the freeway, slipped on the potatoes and had his legs run over by skidding car.

When it cleared and the police arrived, we were the only car able to drive away, as we hadn’t hit anyone and there was no damage to the front end of our car. Accordingly, it appeared to be our entire fault, for stopping on the freeway.  Fortunately, there were witnesses that also saw the original car that had stopped, drive away as the accident started in the west bound lane.  He had apparently been on the opposite side of the freeway, looking at the other accident and came running back when our side of the freeway started having collisions and drove away.

We did not go to San Francisco.  We did not go to Fisherman’s Wharf or Chinatown.  We did not have Thanksgiving the way we had planned in The City by the Bay.  Instead we drove back to our little house in beautiful-weather Folsom.  The grocery stores were closed for the holiday.  We had not stocked the pantry for Thanksgiving.  We became the Old Mother Hubbard poem:

Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the cupboard
To get her poor doggie a bone,
When she got there
The cupboard was bare
So the poor little doggie had none.

There was however, in the back of our cupboard, a large can of Yams and a half bag of dried up marshmallows.  Note: dried marshmallows can be reconstituted and when baked on top of canned yams with butter…becomes a most delicious Thanksgiving meal.  

We were safe, warm and healthy.  A bit crunched in her rear-end, the poor old yellow Chevy could still drive.  Fifty two years later, times are much better and we have much to be thankful for.  It doesn’t have to be a big turkey on the table to be witness to the real bounty:  family, health and friends.  Happy Holidays.


No comments: