Thirty years ago I bought a shiny new motorbike. The reasons why are possibly of some interest, but for now I want to stick to the main plot for this ride.
It wasn't a very powerful one but it had no problem maintaining a speed 100 kph (60 mph) on the open road over any distance, and cost next to nothing to run. I used it mainly to get around town, and in particular, to go to the university and back.
I was a competent and careful rider, but the big problem with a bike is meeting up with something unexpected – a great pothole that wasn't there last week, an oil slick or loose gravel on a corner, or the idiocy of some car drivers and pedestrians. For unknown reasons, a motorbike just doesn't seem to register as an object on the road, even if it's coming straight at them.
I left the university late one evening, sun low in the western sky. The Arts Building is on a hill, and the road down the hill curved into an arc that took me eastwards across a strip of road separating town and gown. In those days the speed limit on that stretch was 90 kph (55 mph, American friends).
There was a car ahead of me going toward the town, just as I was. When I was about 50 metres behind it, it briefly slowed to a crawl, coming to a gentle stop by the roadside, so I started to overtake it. The driver seemed to glance behind him in my direction, and then wheeled sharply across the road.
Right into my path.
No, this isn't an insurance assessor's report even though it looks like it. That came later and I won't bore you with it. At all.
I knew there was no way of avoiding an accident. 90 kph isn't raceway stuff, but with a car suddenly slewed across your path, there's not much you can do but slam into it.
Now here's what I was leading up to. At this moment, my brain went into completely dispassionate, calculating mode. It takes far longer to describe the reasoning than the second or so I had to think about it, but this was the logic:
No avoiding impact. Where to hit?
It was not quite Hobson's Choice, but close. I was heading for the driver's side front wheel. I had at most a metre of width to play with.
If I chose to hit the car in front of the wheel, I could more easily be run over by that wheel. If I chose to slam into the side of the car, I could be run over by the back wheel.
There was only one spot to aim at, and that was the gap just behind the front wheel. I felt no fear. It was a clinical decision.
The driver had missed seeing me because he was looking back into the setting sun when he checked, before wheeling across the unbroken line in his 180 degree (illegal) turn. He tramped on the brake and I hit my target squarely.
Everything stopped suddenly. Fortunately there were no other vehicles around. The motorcycle jammed firmly between wheel and mudguard.
I simply stepped off the bike, my front wheel wedged where I'd aimed it. It stayed upright, just like a bicycle in a rack.
My purpose in telling you this story isn't about a lucky escape. It's not that exciting, after all. But it did exemplify one quality that I didn't know I had until that moment of stepping off the motorcycle, and that's what I want to go on to talk about.
It's not really about me; it's about this fascinating quality that many people used to dealing with emergencies have.
To put it to you straight, if you do have it, you're something of a psychopath. It can be useful, or it can be deadly.