The Americans call it a windshield; the British, a windscreen; the Italians, a parabrezza. But the Germans call it a Windschutzscheibe. And was I ever glad I knew that word one cold November night on the German Autobahn as I was driving furiously north to Frankfurt. I had been in Austria on a preaching mission with my boss from Continental Teen Challenge, who abandoned me and my fiancée, Beth, with his wife, and two ADHD kids; leaving instructions to get the family back to Frankfurt, as he had to go on to another speaking engagement in St. Gallen, Switzerland.
The three adults all wanted to stop in Innsbruck, that charming Austrian ski town in Tyrolia. The kids were in despair.
“Ahhhh, do we HAVE to go to Innsbruck?” they whined.
I learned years later about kids’ agendas. They had no interest whatsoever in stopping in a boring little town on the River Inn, no matter how charming we all found it. The adults won out. But another thing I learned ... kids can make adults pay for it. They were little monsters all the rest of the way home.
I drove like the wind, after we dragged an eight-year-old and a six-year-old kicking and screaming through the cobblestone streets of Innsbruck. I just wanted to get this torturous trip over with. We blew past Munich and Stuttgart in a whirlwind on the no‑speed‑limit German Autobahn. I was really getting tired of those kids by that time. The bickering, fussing and crying, and kicking the back of my seat were beyond irritating by that time, when suddenly the whole world seemed to explode.
There was a tremendous crack! I saw a huge ball of fire, and the hood of a jeep flew up. I saw palm trees and heard guns. We had hit a land mine! I was back in Viet Nam. I threw my arm up to protect my eyes from the blast. Then nothing. Silence. Then a shower of a million little pieces of glass tore past. I felt it stick in my hair. Then silence again, and darkness. I was still hallucinating about the war. “I must be dead,” I thought to myself.
Then the mental illusion was over as another shock rolled past me. The heat and noise of the explosion and the hot Viet Nam day gave way to a super-cold blast of frigid air. The brain works at the speed of light really, and in comparison, even very fast-moving events in real life seem incredibly slow by comparison. "But what is this arctic wind all about?" I wondered. I had closed my eyes against the blast, and when I finally opened them – it seemed like an hour later – reality really hit. "Hey wait a minute," I thought, as I attempted to snap out of the unreal dreamlike vision. "I am not in Viet Nam." We had not hit a land mine. We were still racing down the Autobahn at very high speed. Oh, my god… I needed to drive! The icy winter wind was pouring in through what had been the windshield.
A passing truck had thrown a rock that had hit our windshield at high speed, and had blown it out in a second. This, I later learned, is a common experience of those who have crashes at high speeds on roads and freeways. The brain can’t record or interpret the events, as they happen so fast. Instead, the brain sort of freaks out and hallucinates. Later, it takes a time for it to begin registering reality again.
The reality was that we were still on the Autobahn, and I had to pull it together and just drive, making sure I was still in my own lane. No one spoke. No one could. I think I finally yelled through the rushing wind something like:
“Is everybody okay?” Beth and Pat both weakly squeaked, “I think so.” The kids were still in shock, and it took them a full minute or two to come around and snap out of it.
I slowed way down and we drove on in stone silence as I took the first exit off the freeway – Heilbronn. I was never so happy before to get off the fast track and onto quiet city streets as I was that night. Too late to get things fixed by then, we checked into the first hotel we found. It was hard to eat. The kids were like zombies. Beth and Pat managed to get the kids to bed somehow while I recounted our adventure to a very polite and helpful concierge, who made an appointment for me at a local garage that could replace the windshield in the morning.
But the trip from hell couldn’t just end so unceremoniously, could it? As we got back onto the freeway, we were all so relieved and even sort of giddy. We tried to recall what had happened, comparing notes. The adults had all had visions. The brain often shuts down the short-term memory during and after an accident, and the kids were still sort of in blackout.
As we passed the welcome exit to Darmstadt, we knew that we were less than an hour from home. Suddenly we heard a loud pop, and then a whooshing sound accompanied by clouds of white smoke. I knew what was wrong. The radiator cap had blown.
“Oh, dandy…” I thought. “Just what we need!”
Well, I was right. And the radiator had blown all sorts of hot brown fluid all over, but the cap was nowhere to be found. Suffice it to say, we all looked all over. It could have rolled off into the grass somewhere... But at the point of despair, just when we realized that it would be impossible to go any further, I noticed two flashing yellow lights pull up behind us.
I had for years noticed those cute little yellow VW beetles cruising up and down the Autobahn, helping motorists in distress. Strassenwacht means “road watch” ... and I always thought that the States should have something like that as well. I really believed it after that day. I didn’t have to explain the problem to the two guys in their matching yellow coveralls. It was obvious. I just whined that the cap must have fallen out and rolled off into oblivion. They seemed unperturbed. One got out the replacement fluid and the other smiled at me – a most peculiar smile, with a hint of mystery in his eyes that I could see, but could not figure out. He walked back to the little yellow VW, rattled around a bit, and walked back grinning. From behind his back, he produced the exact right‑fit radiator cap, which he screwed on with flourish. I was in awe.
“How did you ever happen to have that?” I asked incredulously.
“About four years ago there was a terrible crash right here, and when they were cleaning up, I picked it up.” He said in that matter-of-fact German way. “I just figured that it might be needed some day.”
Well, that surely was the day.