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Columns : In My Sights

Ode to the Belt

I walked away from a horrendous patrol car crash thanks to luck and buckling up.

March 21, 2014  |  by Dave Smith - Also by this author

Illustration: Sequoia Blankenship
Illustration: Sequoia Blankenship

I once had the distinct displeasure of meeting a cow on US 160 in the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona. The female bovine did not survive the meeting, which left my patrol vehicle smashed and filled with manure. As I crawled out the window of my totaled Chevy Impala almost entirely covered in fresh fertilizer, the citizens who crowded around my vehicle were as shocked as I that, while suffering deep humiliation, I was otherwise unscathed.

Over the years I have often reflected on the entire sensation of the collision and on the effect fear has on one's perception of events and time. On that day, in slow motion, my hood raced up to the windscreen and the massive rear end of the future road kill crashed through my driver's side window, spraying great gobs of green.

I remember hunkering down at the last second and bracing my arms on the steering wheel as the event unfolded in a few terrifying seconds. I recall having an odd random thought that this must be like when a grenade goes off under your hood.

The cow skidded down the far emergency lane, and my vehicle creaked and scraped down the other. I couldn't see out of my windshield due to the now obstructing hood and my vehicle was still moving. Worse, just before the twilight-darkened impact I remembered seeing headlights that had blinded me to the rapidly approaching cow. I slammed on the now stiff brakes and my Chevy ground loudly to a stop, steaming and groaning while I waited for the impact of some approaching vehicle.

Twisting out of the wreck, I could see vehicles stopping all around me. I found my only working radio was the Navajo DPS one, so I promptly asked Shiprock to notify Flagstaff of my "incident" and get units en route. After shocking the bystanders with my dramatic exit from the ruined vehicle I immediately sent one citizen to set up flares in both directions while I returned to the vehicle to dig out my flashlight. Leaning in, I was stunned by how plastic the nature of our vehicles are when struck so violently. And yet miraculously I had been uninjured as things bent around and bowels voided upon me.

I waited for responding units, got traffic moving, and guided folks on their way through the debris field of my little adventure. Our squad had been set to rendezvous in Chile at a Tribal Rodeo and Dance anticipating bootleggers and DUIs. Therefore, it wasn't a big surprise when, shortly after starting my poop-soiled traffic control, my sergeant pulled up beside me.

Looking at my vehicle, the flare-illuminated cow, and then at my oddly green stained uniform, McNeff shook his head, laughed, and said, "Only you, Smith!" Only me? I didn't put that stupid cow there and I was feeling a little grossed out by the strange gooey feeling permeating my uniform; I could have used a little sympathy.

But McNeff's way was the way of the comedian and so jokes became the order of the day and I was not allowed to have a pity party. Later my co-workers made me a silver crash helmet with a propeller on top and thought "Crash" would make a great nickname for me.

At the scene the good sergeant was a quip a minute as he noted the amount and freshness of the manure and he mused about all the damage on the driver's side and none on the driver. He did a great job of making a deeply violent and unusual event seem very normal and somewhat amusing, and that kept me from worrying about blame or mortality. It "wasn't open range," he reminded a fellow who mused the dead cow might belong to him and could require a large compensation to replace.

"If it's yours we will need your information and have to find out how it got on the highway," McNeff said with the authority of a fellow who actually graduated from law school but followed the warrior's path. The man decided upon further reflection that it was, in fact, not his cow, and we never did find out who actually owned the beast.

A month later I was teaching PT and DT in the academy. But I will never forget Sgt. McNeff's words that night as we were walking to get in his vehicle to head back to my trailer. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Thank God you were wearing your seat belt!"

"Amen," was all I could say. 

Dave Smith is an internationally recognized law enforcement trainer and is the creator of "JD Buck Savage." You can follow Buck on Twitter at @thebucksavage.


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