Peter Oster emerges from his parents' west Omaha home at 9 a.m. sharp, backpack slung over his shoulder.
“Ready to go?” he asks.
He strides to the driveway, climbs into the driver's seat of his 2007 Toyota Camry, buckles himself in.
He throws it in reverse, throws his arm over the seat, cranes his neck and carefully backs onto Grover Street.
We are going to Lincoln today, a simple hour's drive west, so Peter can attend the summer class he is taking at UNL. It's no big deal. Peter makes this commute every day, just like thousands of other Omahans.
It is also a very big deal. It's a big deal precisely because Peter makes this commute every day just like thousands of other Omahans.
“So much has changed after it happened,” the 19-year-old says as he steers us out of his parents' Armbrust Acres neighborhood. “It is hard to explain the impact of it. It is always right here.”
Peter takes one of his hands off the wheel and points his index finger at the back of his head.
He steers us onto 168th Street, pass Gretna's Palisades Elementary, toward Interstate 80. As he drives, he steers slowly into his story, the reason I'm riding shotgun today, the reason that he's constantly scanning for other cars.
“We are in a steel-and-glass cage going at a high rate of speed,” he says after he merges onto the Interstate and sets his cruise control at the speed limit. “I don't think people think about that. But I do.”
On June 11, 2012, a year ago today, Peter steered his steel-and-glass cage out of a west Omaha neighborhood where his girlfriend, Zoe, lives. They were headed to buy dress shoes. Peter needed dress shoes. That's at least what people told Peter later — he doesn't remember.
And then Zoe realized she had forgotten her cellphone. Peter turned around and steered back toward her house. That's why they were driving north on 192nd, Peter thinks, but he can't be sure.
He can't really remember.
Peter started to hang a left at 192nd and L, a left that would take them back into Zoe's neighborhood, which is named White Hawk. A car popped over the hill headed south. It was coming too fast. It was in the middle of the road. It was swerving and braking too slowly. It careened like a steel-and-glass missile right toward the passenger's side door.
Peter saw the car and swerved back right, attempting to avoid the oncoming car. The other car, driven by a man named Christopher Sima, also swerved.
The sound of glass and steel crunching. Silence. Then the wailing of sirens, police and ambulance.
These are likely the sounds that Peter would have heard. But he can't remember.
This is what he remembers: He remembers waking up in a bed in a bright room. He remembers his mom hovering over him, a worried look on her face. He remembers the questions.
Where am I? What happened?
Is Zoe OK?
He was at Creighton University Medical Center.
Sima, who was legally drunk, had plowed into the driver's side door. The impact had crumpled Peter's car like a discarded paper cup.
And yes, thank God, Zoe was OK. She had injured her ankle and her lower back, and she would be on crutches for a bit, but yes, she was OK.
Peter was not OK.
The impact had fractured both his ankles. His pelvis had cracked.
He had lacerations on his tongue, lungs and liver. He had slight hemorrhaging in his brain.
Later, when a judge saw photos of what the impact had done to Peter's car, he would tell the family: This is the worst wreck that I have ever seen anyone survive.
“The side air bag,” Peter says as we cruise down I-80. “It probably saved my life.”
It is interesting to watch Peter drive now. He doesn't white-knuckle the wheel or get panicky with the brake, as you might expect. He drives with one hand, relaxed.
But when we hit traffic around the Greenwood exit — a car blocking our path forward, a semi on our right boxing us into the left lane — Peter doesn't speed up and try to hit a small gap in the right lane.
He slows down. He lets the semi pass. He steers into the right lane. He resets his cruise.
He resumes driving, one arm on the wheel.
After the accident, Peter spent the summer in a wheelchair in his parents' house. He found himself forgetting words and phrases he could have summoned easily before the accident.
The former Millard West cross-country runner couldn't jog. Even worse, he couldn't even drive.
But slowly, the physical therapy began to work. His memory returned. His fractured ankles began to heal.
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
He switched to crutches. He started to walk tenderly on his own.
And one day in the fall, he went outside and jogged a mile around his parents' neighborhood. The trees looked more beautiful than they ever had before, he says.
See, Peter decided a few things as he lay immobile in a hospital bed for the better part of three weeks last summer.
He decided he would look at the trees more. It turns out the world is beautiful, as long as you take the time to notice, he thinks now.
He would let go of the hatred he felt toward Sima. This one hasn't always been easy.
It wasn't easy the day Peter attended Sima's preliminary hearing. That day, Peter couldn't stop staring at the man who drank too much alcohol, climbed into his car and came within maybe a mile an hour, maybe an inch or two, of ending Peter's life. (Sima was convicted of a felony offense related to the accident and is now in the Douglas County Jail.)
“I felt it boiling over,” Peter says. “I had to remind myself — I still do — that most of all I'm just thankful that I'm still here.”
The most important thing Peter decided in that hospital bed was this: He would take the glass-and-steel wreckage, and inside his mind he would twist it into something useful.
So yes, he would resume jogging even though it hurt a little at first. Yes, he would take summer classes to catch up with his freshman-level classmates at UNL. Yes, he would intern for Sen. Rick Kolowski, the state senator who was once Millard West's principal.
Yes, he would drive to Lincoln to do this. Yes, he would drive to Lincoln every day, just another nameless face on the Interstate. Maybe you have passed him and glanced over, never knowing that the kid driving the speed limit in the right lane is summoning his twice-a-day act of courage to do so.
Yes, he will make a joke after he clicks on his blinker and steers toward the Lincoln skyline: Memorial Stadium, the new basketball arena, the Nebraska State Capitol.
“Don't judge me, but I do park in handicapped spaces now,” he says, and he wheels the car into a parking lot east of UNL's student union. He smiles as he pulls out his handicapped sticker.
“After all this, I feel like I've earned it.”
And yes, on the way home sometimes, he will take the Gretna exit and steer over toward 192nd and L.
“The first I came back here, I thought about everything,” Peter says as we pull up to 192nd and L. “I thought about how I had survived. And I felt like I had won.”
He slows a little, completes a left turn into White Hawk. He turns around. He glances again at the intersection. And then he drives away.
Contact the writer:
402-444-1064, email@example.com, twitter.com/redcloud_scribe