On a flawless July afternoon, I backed Pam’s boat trailer down an access ramp on Big Sturgeon Lake while she directed me from the water’s edge. As the rollers submerged, I tapped the brakes to launch the boat. The pedal slumped to the floor — nothing there — and my truck pursued the trailer into the lake.
Pam yelled something. It might’ve been, “Stop!”
“Lost the brakes!” I responded, slamming into first gear, trying to power out. No traction. The boat was fine, the Toyota Tacoma was sinking. I later asked a friend who launches his boat all over northern Minnesota if he ever thinks about such a mishap. “Every time,” he replied.
After an initial jolt of fear, I thought, “Well, it finally happened.” Then, “I wonder how far the truck will sink?” Apparently the latter was also on Pam’s mind because she was urging me, “Get out! Get out!”
I’d trained in water/ice rescue on our local fire department, and was aware that water pressure against a vehicle door makes it impossible to open — until the interior floods and pressure neutralizes. What I learned in the next moments was how little water it requires. When I tried the door it was only a few inches below the surface, but wouldn’t budge. Incredulous, I mindlessly plucked at the mechanical door lock, even though I saw it wasn’t pressed down.
By then I’d chilled out. The water was warm, the truck was settling leisurely, the window was fully open, and I wasn’t in serious danger. I thought it would be interesting to wait until the cab filled and see how easily the door opened, but sensing Pam wouldn’t share my curiosity, I hoisted myself out the window, plopping into water past my waist. Oops — cellphone in the right pocket.
I waded ashore and called 911 for a wrecker. Fortunately the phone didn’t expire until later, though there was no shortage of phones in the vicinity. A half-dozen boats had already arrived like ravens to roadkill; photographic documentation and social media posts were in full swing. One guy asked permission. I grinned, “Have at it!” I did loudly announce to the crowd, “Brakes went out!” just to plead innocent of being a clutz or a drunk.
The truck, its horn shorted out and plaintively blaring, finally reached bottom, about 80% submerged, and the horn mercifully died. The trailer was cocked at a 90-degree angle, its uprights just below the surface — easy prey for an outboard prop that ventured too close — so I remained on guard to keep admiring spectators at a safe distance. I convinced Pam to head out on the lake and enjoy the splendid day with her fishing pal.
I feared I might be on station until dark so was relieved when a tow truck arrived within 40 minutes. But when the wrecker man surveyed the scene, he shook his head. “This might be tough; all that water weight.” So he hooked to the recovery rings on the front of the frame and lifted before he pulled. When the doors were clear he opened one and water gushed out. He brightly announced, “Your floor rugs are really clean!”
Truth is, I’d realized a year before it was time to replace the corroded, 16-year-old truck, but procrastinated. Engine and drive train were fine, tires good, and most — but not all — brake lines were replaced. I log fewer than 1,000 miles per year on truck-necessary missions, and vehicle shopping is tedious and ultimately expensive, but now here was a moment of utter clarity: It was over.
A young kibitzer at the access, a mechanic apparently, launched into an unbidden soliloquy about what I must do to resuscitate the Tacoma, and was waxing authoritative about flushing the transmission when my facial expression shut him down. I was thinking, “Are you nuts?” so I guess that’s what my face said, too. Assuming he meant well, I spoke gently, “No, it’s time to retire it.” Two days later I donated the hulk to Minnesota Public Radio, whose representative professed gratitude — as did the recorded voice of Ray Magliozzi, surviving Tappet Brother.
When the truck returned to land, the audience cheered — about 40 witnesses by then — and I was thrilled to see the boat trailer was undamaged. I also understood I could’ve lost the brakes at a time and location that was tragic — say, a child on a bicycle swerving in front of me.This was merely an irritation, and for three dozen people, entertainment.
A firefighting colleague e-mailed me later and said I could now scratch “submerged in a vehicle” off by bucket list. Well, such wasn’t listed, but it was true: been there, done that.
While awaiting the wrecker, contemplating my problem and wondering what we’d do with the boat if the trailer was twisted, a neighbor walked up. I explained, and she recalled that another neighbor had sunk his truck there years ago.
“You two will have to decide who’s president of that club,” she said. I chuckled and told her the truck was obviously history, but I had hope for the trailer. If it wasn’t usable, she assured me we were welcome to secure the boat at her son’s nearby dock. Smiling, she gazed at the sky and said, “Isn’t it a beautiful day?”
I agreed it was. I recalled her husband was seriously ill, and as if reading my mind she said, “He’d be here to help, but it’s hospice care now. He’ll be gone in a few days.” My challenge was instantly recast. I was stressed by the accident, but my neighbor’s perspective underscored its triviality. It’s one reason I later laughed when the wrecker man noted how clean the floor mats were.
Just being alive demands coping with stress. Regarding that, Dr. Robert Eliot famously wrote: “Rule Number 1 is, don’t sweat the small stuff. Rule Number 2 is, it’s all small stuff. And if you can’t fight and you can’t flee, flow.” Easy to say, and I submit that not all the stuff is small. A dying spouse, for example, is big. But the broader point is fair. Fighting, fleeing, or flowing is what everyone must practice daily. Everything ends, everything changes, but how fast it happens is crucial. Too many losses, too many changes too quickly, and we can be in deep psychological/physiological trouble.
Much is changing today, but there also exists a dangerous illusion of rapid change due to 24-hour news platforms, social media posts, and the general barrage of information at your fingertips — literally — if you choose to indulge it. Much of that information is preliminary, incomplete, inaccurate, exaggerated, biased or simply false. This is not routinely nefarious, but mainly the problematic nature of human communication. “One of the pervasive risks of the information age,” wrote statistician Nate Silver, “is that even if the amount of knowledge in the world is increasing, the gap between what we know and what we think we know may be widening.”
We’re mostly “full of it” much of the time, and as a result are stressed by irrelevancies, have a distorted sense we’re being overwhelmed by events, and believe the nation and the world have never been so terrible. In 1965, folk singer Barry McGuire had a hit song, the chorus of which contemptuously chided any skeptic: “You don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.” As an anxious teenager I certainly did believe, but 54 years later we’re in many ways better off.
Are there too many warnings? Too many prophets of doom? Maybe. But it’s not necessarily that Barry McGuire and other admonishers were wrong. Perhaps people heeded and acted and things changed. Today’s loud alarm might be tomorrow’s case study of success. We fight and win, or at least mitigate the worst of it.
At the moment the Tacoma’s brakes failed I thought I was having a bad day. In fact, I was just collecting a good story and dubiously enriching social media posts. I’m not blithely saying “don’t worry, be happy” — there are crucial issues worthy of our attention and action, and it’s our duty as citizens to engage with them. Just choose your worries — and your prophets — carefully. The small stuff will quickly pass without fuss, unless you choose to magnify it. Identify the big stuff and sweat it.
Peter M. Leschak, of Side Lake, Minn., is a 36-year fire service veteran, both wildland and municipal, and author of “Ghosts of the Fireground” and other books.