“Why does time slow down when we fear for our lives?” asks Burkhard Bilger in The New Yorker.
Oh, but it doesn’t—or rather, not only then. Not at all. Anything fantastic enough, witnessed, will do the trick.
I’ve seen it. Following closely behind a vineyard tractor as it slowly chugged down the narrow dirt road that ran along the creek at the bottom of our ranch. Two kids squeezed together on the tractor seat, distracting each other. A car came from the other direction, and the girl suddenly put the tractor in reverse, apparently thinking there was room for anyone to pass. I watched the tractor’s right rear wheel roll to the crumbly edge of the road and hang in air, inches beyond. The edge gave way, and the tractor went airborne, flying into a slow ballet of a complete somersault, as it rolled off the edge and backwards, moving through what seemed like an excess of air, floating in a high and graceful loop. There was no noise. I would never see anything so beautiful again – every color, every outline unnaturally clear. Never know again this eerie pause in the onrush of normal events.
But this was, of course, not normal.It is the improbable-unexpected that jars loose these long, still moments. The tractor bounced off the nearly vertical creek bank and came to rest upside down in the shallow creek, its wheels spinning like the paws of a great beast unable to right itself. I left my car, because you have to have nerve, but found instead of crushed bodies at the bottom, pinned between the huge and pointy rocks, the girl was sitting gingerly halfway down the rocky, loose bank, nursing her shoulder, the young man already scrambling up to her side, both thrown free, lucky souls.
I had a car phone, back then, and called the sheriff. In a short time, the chopper, patched through, was calling me back, hovering anxiously above. But we were hidden inside a cathedral of trees, with no way to see each other, air or ground. I verbally herded them to the field across the creek, telling the paramedics to just head west, no matter what.
We heard them crashing through the underbrush, cursing as they slipped on half-submerged rocks. Soon they came clambered up the bank, insofar as the stretcher, which they still bore, would allow. But no one, as it turned out, needed rescue. By stretcher or by air. The girl and the young man were flown off anyway. Remarkably, they were mostly unhurt—but it made sense, I supposed, that in its wondrous, strange flight, the tractor would have thrown them free.
I don’t have to tell you that time assumed its clock pace again. But the question remains: did time slow down? Or is time far more mutable than, in our daily struggles, we usually ever know.