Karl has the Hummer’s accelerator pinned. The engine growls and hammers, propelling the seven-foot wide metal beast through the channels of the wadi, Arabic for dry river bed. The fat rubber tires munch up a steep sand hillside, sending us into a moment of zero G as we hit the crest. In the rear of the vehicle, two of my colleagues struggle to stand like drunk water skiers, their hands clutching the roll bar, feet straddling the open bed for stability, while Karl wrenches the wheel sideways and sends us skidding into a tight turn.
Relatively at ease, Karl holds the steering wheel with one hand; in the other, he has an unnecessarily large cup of coffee from the mess hall. There’s no lid on the half-full container, so he is holding it aloft, tilting it this way and that to keep it level as the Hummer rises and falls around us like a boat on a wild sea.
Far from the region where the term originated, this wadi is in rural Arkansas, on the grounds of a 777-acre military and law-enforcement training center called T1G (a “one-stop solution for multi-echelon training in weapons & tactics, operational medicine, breaching, and on/off-road driving,” according to the website). Karl, a retired Green Beret and T1G instructor who’s helping me and a film crew produce a video here, steps out with his coffee cup still half-full, minus the couple of sips he snuck along the way.
“And that, gentleman, concludes our tour of the wadi,” he says.
Karl is tall, broad-shouldered, and barrel chested. He has a wide, white-toothed smile, and a neat coif of dark brown hair atop a high forehead. He reminds me of Buzz Lightyear, minus the space suit and plus a sadistic sense of humor. He throws around phrases like “Mixing metal with meat” and “Opening the bad guys’ minds to new worlds of opportunity,” the latter accompanied by a hand gesture mimicking an exploding head.
“Come to think of it, I’ve never killed anyone with a spear, either,” he says at one point, àpropos of I’m not sure what. It is impossible to determine his level of seriousness.
That evening, as we tear down an empty stretch of dirt road on the way out of the training grounds, Karl does something kind of funny: he pulls his Jeep over and starts plugging away at his BlackBerry’s doll-sized keyboard.
“I never text while driving,” he explains. “It’s a pet peeve of mine.”
As he says this, I notice Karl is wearing two hearing aids. Over dinner I learn these are the result of a rocket attack that blew out his eardrums. This guy who’s been in scores of firefights, who chooses his seat in public places with a strategic view of the ingress and egress points, who teaches special forces guys how to shoot, drive, and think like warriors… the thing this guy doesn’t mess around with is the same thing your mom hounds you about.
I understand that pet peeves aren’t usually rational. They’re just little things that get under your skin for some idiosyncratic reason. Still, Karl’s passing statement forced me to reassess my cavalier use of a smartphone while piloting a motor vehicle. And once you start thinking about it, it’s hard not to feel like a douchebag for putting lives in jeopardy simply to tell someone “sup 2nite lol.” I mean, whiskey tango foxtrot?
I recently read an interesting article by Jared Diamond about something he calls “constructive paranoia,” or the idea that we should pay heed to “hazards that carry a low risk each time but are encountered frequently.” Driving is precisely such a hazard. On any given day, your likelihood of getting into an accident is relatively low, but since most of us drive every day, and multiple times a day, the odds… well, things start to add up.
I try remind myself of this every time I start to reach, zombie-like, for my phone buzzing on the dashboard. It’s not as if someone just sent me a message: “Reply in 30 secs to abort nuclear launch.” Or even, “Reply in 30 secs to claim your free latte.” It doesn’t happen. Hands at 10 and 2, people. For Chrissakes, just let it wait.
That’s not to say that by not texting, you’ll be safe. Not at all.
Driving — along with smoking and the fast-food-and-TV lifestyle — is still one of the riskiest things we civilians do on a daily basis. All the more reason to practice “constructive paranoia.” And look at it this way: at least checking replies on your most recent Facebook status won’t be the thing that turns your innocent trip to the grocery store into a case of metal mixing, painfully and bloodily, with meat.