Car Crash Grammar

by Glenda Stark from Ottawa, ON
Jan 10, 15

In the summer of 1967, I was 16 years old, the youngest child of a pair of high-school teachers living in Sudbury, Ontario. My dad taught Math and Physics at Sudbury High and was, from my perspective, uncomplicated: 2+2=4; safety first; do-unto-others; don’t break the law. That was Dad. Mum taught English and French at Sheridan Tech and was, even in hindsight, complicated. But in one area, Mum was as consistent as she was insistent: in her family, the English language would always be spoken correctly.

That summer, most Ontario families were heading east to Montreal to take in the wonders of Expo ’67. My parents quietly packed up the car, tent-trailer and only remaining teenager… and headed west. They wanted one last family trip and they wanted to see the Rockies.

Well, the thing that you never want happening on a road trip… happened. We were driving through the mountains one morning near Banff, Alberta, all of us in the front seat with me in the middle. And we were bumping through some construction when Dad suddenly swerved to avoid an obstacle. The tent-trailer jackknifed, and the car and trailer plunged like a broken elbow over the cliff and into the Athabasca River. 

The cliff was about as tall as a 3-storey house: high enough to kill; low enough to survive. The car had done a complete U-turn and was bashing its way sideways down the cliff-face, “driver’s side down”. Dad’s door sprang open and his seatbelt, which he always buckled, kept him from flying out and being crushed. We landed on our side in about 7 feet of water, with the driver’s door still ajar and propping us up. Underwater, Dad undid his belt and launched himself out the door… a second before it snapped off. The car settled. Dad surfaced and the rushing rivers sucked him out to the channel. He fought across the current and finally dragged himself ashore some 400 feet downstream. He started clambering on the rocks, diagonally, to return to us.

I saw most of this happening because instinct – plus the remarkable reflexes of youth – had carved an early exit for me. While we were still crashing down the cliff, I had braced my feet against the dashboard, swerved around to face the back seat, opened the back-seat window on the “up” side of the car and was kicking my way out the window as we hit the water.  

Kneeling on the side of the car, just up to my waist in water, I felt the jolt as the driver’s door broke off. Terrified, I screamed until I saw Dad’s head bob to the surface. At the same time, my body was working on autopilot: reaching back in, fishing for Mum, grabbing her and pulling. Mum’s sweater snagged on something just after her head broke the surface. She was unconscious, but able to breathe, as I fumbled to untangle her.  

Finally, she came all the way out. Twisting around, I sat down on the side of the sunken car and held her, half-floating, in my lap… and looked up. 

By this time, Dad had made his way back and was parallel to us onshore. Several motorists had stopped to help, and some of them were restraining him from diving back into the river to get us. So, Dad directed the rescue.  

“There’s deep water between the shore and car,” he shouted. That man has to wear the rope, not just bring it, or he’ll drown!” … “Wait! He has to move at least 30 feet upstream before he enters the current, or he’ll miss the car!” … “Hey you! – at the end of the rope! – you have to move upstream too!” … “Tie the rope under my wife’s armpits, not around her waist or she’ll flip head-down!” Dad was frantic but his Math and Physics were solid.

So there we all were: generous strangers braving glacier-fed waters; Dad shouting instructions; Mum drifting in and out of consciousness; and a teenager who, to her horror, was pretty sure she had kicked her mother square in the head, while saving herself. Oh, I was desperate for Mum to stay awake. As the rescuers swam towards us, I talked non-stop: “You’re doing good, Mum! Come on! Wake up! You’re doing really good!” Mum’s eyes fluttered open for a moment and she spoke, only once: “The word”, she said, “is ‘well…I’m doing well”.

And at that moment I knew she’d be fine.