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Published by Tom Matlack
"Crash & Learn" is my first person essay featured in THE GOOD MEN PROJECT, a book of 31 first person stories on manhood by men of all walks of life that I edited. It's available on Amazon: http://bit.ly/6BPrC
"Crash & Learn" is my first person essay featured in THE GOOD MEN PROJECT, a book of 31 first person stories on manhood by men of all walks of life that I edited. It's available on Amazon: http://bit.ly/6BPrC

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Published by: Tom Matlack on Nov 03, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Crash and Learn
By Tom Matlack I woke to the sound of metal scraping against pavement. Sparks brightened that otherwisegray winter day in 1991. I was hanging upside down inside my girlfriend’s baby blueFord Escort, suspended by a seat belt as the car hurtled at sixty miles per hour along thewesternmost section of the Massachusetts Turnpike.I was twenty-six at the time. I had been in New York City with my girlfriend the night before, taking a break from my grad studies at Yale and drinking until dawn. While shetook a train home to Albany, I had gone to class in New Haven, still drunk, and then setout for Albany myself. On the thirty-mile stretch of the Mass. Pike between Exit 3 inWestfield and Exit 2 in Lee you see nothing but pine trees and the occasional white-taileddeer. Somewhere along that span I drifted into a peaceful sleep.I remained calm as the car slid along on its roof. There was nothing to do but waitand see what would happen next. The sensation was familiar. I had long been a humanmissile with no guidance system. One summer evening, just for fun, I’d lifted a love seatover my head and tossed it out an eighth-floor window of a UCLA dormitory; one NewYear’s Eve, just before midnight, I was thrown through the plate glass window of amidtown Manhattan restaurant, to the horror of the foursome whose dinner I landed on;I’d been accepted at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and then was thrown out, before attending my first class, for lying on my application; and I had developed a habitof blacking out from drinking.I felt a searing pain as the roof of the car, slamming against the turnpike an inchfrom my head, crimped around a clump of my hair and yanked it from my scalp. Theseat belt dug into my chest, drawing blood that stained my shirt. At last, the car stopped,leaving a wake of scrapes in the pavement. I unbuckled, fell on my head, and screamed,“Fuck!” After forcing the door open with my shoulder, I sprinted away from the car,afraid the gas tank was going to blow.We have a remarkable ability to respond instinctively to life-threatening danger.The problem comes after that initial, instinctive response: The body shuts down. A state policeman found me shaking violently on the side of the highway. I still can’t remember 
what happened after I got out of the car. I could have been standing on the side of thehighway for thirty seconds or for thirty minutes.“Son, you’re one lucky son of a bitch!” the trooper screamed while shaking hishead in disgust. “I’ve seen plenty of Escorts flip, but I’ve
seen anyone survive. Idon’t like having to pull dead bodies out of wrecks, so how about being more careful?”His words didn’t register. I had beaten death again.****In my budding business career, as the stakes grew bigger, I brought the same sense of invincibility and calm that I had felt hurtling along upside down in the Escort. At twenty-nine, I became chief financial officer of the Providence Journal Company, a huge andfiercely private media conglomerate. The company’s other executives, most of themtwice my age, thought I should be getting them cups of coffee. I spoke only when spokento. I sat attentively with my boss, the chairman of the board, as he drank scotch andsmoked cigars, rarely saying a word except to nod my head in agreement. And yet, once Ihad become his most trusted adviser, I needed just ninety days to take the oldestnewspaper company in the country public and then negotiate the sale of the business inan Atlanta hotel room for billions to a bunch of cowboys from Dallas. The chairman hadinitiated the contact but never thought I could negotiate such a good price. When I did, hehad no choice but to proceed, despite the firestorm it would cause among shareholders,employees, and the community. I stood to make several million dollars and be creditedwith pulling off the impossible.My calculus at work had been flawless. After the sale, I appeared on the cover of the
Wall Street Journal 
, a blond-haired wunderkind. What I had failed to calculate werethe risks I was taking at home and how much I had to lose. I had two baby children, and Iwas about to learn how precarious my relationship with them really was. It was as if thecar crash had put the emotional part of me into suspended animation. I was fearless in my professional life but unable to feel anything in my personal life.****
Christmas that year was agonizing. My soon-to-be-ex wife had kicked me out of thehouse for good. My nine-month-old son, Seamus, and two-year-old daughter, Kerry, wentto Albany with their mom. I was not invited. I packed a huge red fire engine in mycompany car, got on I-95, and drove to my parents’ house in Washington, D.C. OnChristmas morning I gave my brother’s oldest son the fire truck and tried to soak up hisenthusiasm. It didn’t work. All I could think about was my own children waking upwithout me, on Seamus’s first Christmas. My brother and sister and parents all wereunderstanding and overly friendly, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how I would never have the chance to live with my kids.The next day, on my way back to Providence, I stopped in Manhattan to smokecigars with some college buddies. I had been trying to stop drinking without muchsuccess. That night my friends and I ended up in a SoHo restaurant with a mirrored bar that let all the beautiful people enjoy good views of themselves. It wasn’t my worst nightof drinking—I didn’t flip any cars or fly through any plate glass windows—but I wasrude and more than a little lecherous.I woke up the following day with a pounding headache, the smell of cigarettes inmy hair, and the taste of cigars on my tongue. I spent the morning contemplating how Icould kill myself quickly and painlessly. But later in the day, as I drove back toProvidence, I convinced myself that neither Seamus nor Kerry deserved the shitty father Ihad been. They certainly didn’t deserve a dead father who didn’t have the guts to face hisdemons.That was the last time I had a drink, but sobering up was just the start. I had tolearn how to take care of my two babies by myself. When their mother moved back toBoston, I knew I had to follow. But I had trouble finding a place that felt right to me, because moving out of my week-to-week hovel in Providence would mean that this wasto be a permanent condition: I really wasn’t going to live with my kids.I eventually found a penthouse on the corner of Commonwealth andMassachusetts avenues, a killer bachelor pad to be sure, but not the dream I had in mind,so it took quite a while for me to settle in. The bathroom had a skylight over the tub, andoften, when I couldn’t sleep, I would take a bath and gaze up at the stars. The apartment

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