I don’t think that I was ever more frightened.
My entire life has been spent in small cities in southwest Ohio. I’ve lived in Germantown, Marysville and Wilmington.
During rush-hour in these cities, we only need to wait for the traffic light to change and we’re on our way. Getting from one side of town to the other may take 10 or 15 minutes. If there’s a fender-bender along your route it might take a bit longer, but I never felt like my life was in danger.
For several years, while living in Germantown and working at Miami Valley Hospital, on the way home at the end of my hospital shift, I often had to endure the mad rush of NCR traffic. In fact, our boss at MVH scheduled our work shift to begin and end 15 minutes before NCR.
If I was running late, instead of zipping down Main Street and crossing the Stewart Street Bridge in just a few minutes, I would end up sitting in my old ’64 Chevy Impala in the midst of the whirl of NCR employees who were fighting to get home. It was nuts.
That only lasted a few years. When I moved to Marysville, I could be at work after a brisk 5-minute walk. I really enjoyed that.
It was about 15 years later that I experienced the horror that some Atlanta drivers go through every day during their rush-hour commute.
My sons, Josh and Danny, and I were returning from an exciting vacation at a remote dive resort in the southern Bahamas. While I explored the coral reefs and undersea life, the boys had made friends with the son of one of the owners of the inn.
Each day they would take off in a small Boston Whaler boat. They had adventures that any young boy would cherish for a lifetime.
It was a great week. Then we flew back to Fort Lauderdale, loaded our still-wet, smelly gear into our car and headed north. About four hours later we pulled into Mom and Dad’s driveway in Auburndale, Florida. My plan was to spend the night before heading to Ohio the next day. The boys entertained Dad and scared Mom with stories of their adventures in the Bahamas.
The next morning Mom insisted that we have a hearty breakfast before we hit the road. So, it was about 10 a.m. before we started rolling. We had nothing but a thousand miles of interstate highway separating us from home. I planned on making it non-stop.
For some reason, I wasn’t even thinking about Atlanta.
Both boys were sitting in the backseat. That kept them from arguing about who would get to ride shotgun. They slept for a while as we crossed the Florida-Georgia line. When we neared Atlanta, they were wide awake, laughing, teasing and having fun.
Traffic was picking up. Instead of the usual crowded I-75 stream of cars, it was getting a lot more hectic. I realized that we would be hitting Atlanta in the middle of rush-hour.
Looking at the old Rand-McNally road map, I made the decision to bypass downtown Atlanta and use the I-285 bypass to get around the city.
That ended up being a mistake.
As I merged into the I-285 traffic, I had to increase my speed to keep from getting ran over by the crazy drivers around me. If I tried to slow to 75 mph, other drivers would zip into the space in front of me. The roadway was packed. It was almost impossible to change lanes.
All four north-bound lanes were packed. It was not only bumper-to-bumper, but the traffic was so close, I felt like we were almost door-to-door. I had to keep up with the speed of the traffic around me.
It was like being part of a herd. If I let my speed drop to less than 85 mph cars and trucks would whip into any open space around me.
The boys were oblivious to the situation. They continued to laugh and tease each other.
Then they started trying to include me in their joking. I had to use my Daddy voice (an octave lower and very stern) and say to them, “Look around. We are flying down this highway at 90 mph. Look at those crazy drivers just a few feet away. If anything goes wrong, we’re going to be in the biggest wreck ever. Sit still. Tighten your seatbelts and be quiet.”
After a quick look around, they realized I wasn’t joking. I could hear seatbelts being tightened. It got strangely quiet in the back seat.
It took over an hour of intense, white-knuckled driving to get north of Atlanta. We merged back onto I-75.
Finally, after several more tense miles of driving, we were back in the normal rush of interstate driving. I told the boys that we were finally out of the really bad traffic.
We decided we needed a rest. So, we pulled over and had a leisurely diner at a roadside diner.
I resolved never to drive in or around Atlanta again. Forty years later, that’s one resolution I’ve kept.
Next week, I’ll share some pet peeves about traffic and whacky drivers we can all identify.
Randy Riley is former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.