Life As We Know It: November 25, 2013

         I met a new friend a few weeks ago – on the Ohio Turnpike of all places. It was a brief relationship. For that matter, we never really introduced ourselves. But for about 100 miles or so, we were a caravan of two vehicles, traveling in the center lane at exactly the same speed, and I found myself playing a now familiar game.

          Who are those people, I wondered. What are their life stories? Where are they going? Are they off on vacation or returning from one? Did they travel out of state for a wedding? A funeral? Will they break off our “friendship” first by exiting the toll road or will we?
          It’s a strange phenomenon. I guess you’d have to call it the opposite of road rage, and it is comforting when it happens.

          His car, bearing Michigan plates, led the way; ours followed perhaps five or six car lengths behind. When he passed slower traffic, so did I. And when he was ready to pass another vehicle, he didn’t begin his pass unless I had time to do the same without somebody else’s vehicle getting between us.

          On those occasions when another vehicle would slip into our lane and between our two cars, he slowed down enough that the interloper would think better of hanging around.

          I felt safe with my friend with no name ahead of us; he felt safe with the anonymous couple in the car behind him. Had he developed car trouble, I would not have hesitated to stop and offer help, and I’m convinced had he noticed in his rear-view mirror that we had pulled over, he would have done the same.

          To my surprise, when it was time to exit, we both got off the turnpike in Perrysburg. Friendly waves were exchanged. Then he headed north on I-75, presumably toward home in Michigan; we headed south. And that was that. In all likelihood our paths will never cross again, and even if they did, how would we know?

         It’s an innocent exercise, and over the years it has happened many times. Occasionally I wonder if our little caravan of two cars sticks together in the belief that we are somehow less likely to get pulled over for traveling 5 miles per hour or so over the speed limit. If so, it seems to work.

         Sometimes the other car is a family with small children, who peer out the back at us as we roll along together. They giggle and make faces; we signal with our smiles and our thumbs up whose facial distortions are the most impressive.

          I remember a vacation drive to Florida many Novembers ago, and another car with Michigan plates tagged along with us for at least 200 miles through Kentucky and into Tennessee. It happened to be the day of the annual Ohio State-Michigan game. Obviously their car radio was better than ours because his wife kept updating the score by holding up a piece of cardboard to her window. She took special delight in posting the final score — Michigan 24, OSU 10 — before falling back into the traffic lane behind us.

          Eventually they were gone. I wonder where they are today.

          Every time I have an encounter far less pleasant on the highway, every time somebody cuts us off or zips past us on the shoulder rather than sit in a traffic jam, I remember the anonymous driving buddies we’ve traveled with over the years and I feel a little better. Road rage is certainly out there – you probably don’t want to know some of the things you’ve been called by other drivers, even when you did nothing wrong.

           But road friendliness is out there, too. If character is defined by what you do when nobody’s watching, kindness is defined by how you treat total strangers.

         I’m sure that in retirement my wife and I will have many such anonymous and reassuring encounters on the road. Maybe now they’ll happen in the slow lane. But you can bet that if we’re out there on the road again next Saturday on Game Day between the Buckeyes and the Wolverines, and Ohio State prevails, I’m going to pull alongside the first Michigan car I see and start spreadin’ the news.