THE BLOG
08/24/2012 11:22 am ET | Updated Oct 24, 2012

Cornfield Creek Diary: Collision and Solidarity

There was a boating accident right off our creek this week. I'm surprised we didn't hear it, it was that close. Two powerboats collided head-on, just around the point on Sillery Bay. It's said that one boat emerged from the creek at high speed, and when it rounded the point, came bow to bow with another, carrying several children and pulling one young rider on an inner tube. The driver couldn't veer off in time. One boat broke in half and sank. A neighbor who saw the crash said that one of the boats, and some passengers, flew into the air at impact.

Nine of the boaters were seriously injured, including five kids, according to reports I read this morning. We should have known something was amiss, because jet skiers were zipping up and down the creek. The creek is a no-wake zone, and neighbors generally respect that rule and keep it quiet, so the speeding jet skis were unusual. Soon after, we saw flashing lights of the emergency vehicles -- six of them -- and all of the neighbors started gathering outside, exchanging what little information anyone had. Some of us walked down onto the lawn where the neighbor had witnessed the accident. Police boats were already patrolling the waters, and three helicopters flew overhead.

All we had were questions, and fragments of answers. Someone thought that a neighbor named Randy was out in his powerboat, and others believed he may have had his grandchildren with him. We're new to Cornfield Creek, and don't know Randy, but we learned that he lives a short way down Grandview -- the guy with the yellow Lab. Just this morning, a neighbor said, she had been looking at photos that Randy posted on Facebook, photos of his visiting grandchildren having fun in the creek. Another neighbor reported that rescuers were still pulling the boaters out of the water, and that only one uninjured was the child on the tube.

There was quiet when emergency workers gently rolled a gurney through the crowd, with the slight body of a young boy strapped to it. He was immobilized, and blood trickled from his nose. We learned later that he was rushed to Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore, and others were taken to other local hospitals, one to a shock trauma unit. All are in serious condition, but nobody died in the accident, and nobody drowned.

We learned later that Don Dwyer, a Maryland state delegate who lives on the creek, was piloting one of the boats, and that he had been drinking heavily before going on the water. But the neighbors weren't discussing legalities, questions of right and wrong. The boating accident will be investigated, and fault will be assigned, but by someone else, elsewhere. Here, tonight, all that mattered was that all boaters had survived this harrowing event.

Neighbors lingered a long time on the lawns and street, long after the emergency workers and police had left. There was nothing we could do to help, and we had all the information we would be getting for the time being. But nobody seemed quite ready to give up the sense of solidarity that emerges around such threatening experiences.

I know a little about the psychological dynamics of such events. We all carry around, in our heads, some deep-rooted habits of mind. When primed by our immediate experiences, these old habits click into action, often with mixed results. Think about scarcity, for example. When we know something is in short supply, we automatically value it more. This is as true of gold as it is of time. When an event -- like a serious boating accident -- reminds us that life is short, we immediately begin treasuring the time we're given. We think of life as more meaningful, and have more zest for simple pleasures, like neighbors and community.

Our thinking and emotions are also shaped by another powerful cognitive bias. The idea of death is always with us; we know that our short periods of existence will inevitably come to an end. This would be a terrifying thought if we dwelled on it constantly, so the mind has developed a protective mechanism to keep us from being paralyzed by this existential angst. When threatened with reminders of death and oblivion, we automatically start reaffirming our values and beliefs. These might be religious beliefs, or they might be secular values, like neighborliness and family devotion. I think these ancient habits of mind kept us out on our lawns last night. Randy and his grandkids had a near-death experience, and we all, unconsciously but rapidly, started reaffirming what's good, including our little community on the creek.

This psychological dynamic can have a downside, however. Reaffirming core values can go too far, making us circle the wagons and protect what's ours. The threat of death can make us overly cautious, fearful of losing what's meaningful to us. I experienced this just a bit last night, in the privacy of my own thoughts. Seeing that bleeding boy wheeled by on the gurney, I immediately started thinking of my grown sons. Where were they? Are they safe? These young men are adventurous. They ski down mountains and camp alone in the wilderness and jump out of airplanes. I always worry when I know they are doing these things, but I also celebrate them for their gusto. I don't want to lose that feeling, but admit that Cornfield Creek is feeling a bit threatening at the moment.

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