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updated: 9/19/2013 12:41 PM

Expect the unexpected out in the world

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My mother was right.

Always wear clean underwear.

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If you grew up in the Midwest, you probably heard the same thing from your mother. Of course, there was more to this warning:

"What if you got hit by a car or fainted from the heat and had to be taken to the emergency room? Would you want them to see your dirty underwear?"

Well, putting it that way actually raised more questions than it answered. What did they do in hospital emergency rooms? As I lay there unconscious, how was it that they would be attending to my underwear rather than my bruises, lacerations or the comatose state in which I had arrived?

Was my underwear destined to be the object of humorous asides in the small town in which I grew up?

Now, it wasn't that our mothers were obsessed with underwear, or with cleanliness for that matter. They were simply trying to impart to us one of those basic tenets of the Midwestern philosophy of life: Always expect the unexpected.

Actually, as slow as I was to grasp the underlying meaning of "always wear clean underwear," I doubt that "always expect the unexpected" would have made any more of an impression on me. There was certainly wisdom in my mother's warning; I just wasn't ready to hear it. At least I remembered her admonition concerning my daily dress (and just in case my mother reads this, I still do wear clean underwear).

The timeless profundity of my mother's warning, its near-universal applicability, finally became clear to me last summer when I was driving south on the Tri-State one hot Saturday afternoon.

Traffic was surprisingly heavy and had all the beginning symptoms of impending "stop and go." Glancing to my right, I glimpsed the beautiful lines of a classic '70s Cadillac convertible. It had been painstakingly restored and looked almost surreal in the midst of the rest of our minivans, SUVs and aerodynamic sedans.

And it was driven by a clown. No, I mean a real clown -- bright orange hair, a green, red and blue checked coat, white gloves, bulbous red nose and full makeup. With the top down, he rode along resplendent in all his clown glory, eyes forward, smile firmly painted, clearly enjoying the spectacle he created.

Not too long thereafter we were in a true, full-blown traffic jam. I lost sight of the clown and his Caddy. Then traffic stopped outright. We inched ahead.

It seemed that something had happened in the center of the three southbound lanes. As traffic tried to break either right or left, a space cleared momentarily. And there, in the center lane was perhaps the strangest sight I -- and the other hundred or so drivers in the immediate vicinity -- had ever witnessed.

As far as I could figure, a worn, faded red Escort had rear-ended the clown car. There was no apparent damage to either vehicle, but both had come to a dead stop.

As usually happens in such situations, both drivers had emerged from their vehicles to assess the results of their unintended meeting. Of course, sometimes such encounters also include a good deal of emotional venting and blaming, which is what seemed to be taking place as I passed.

The presence of a well-dressed clown gesturing vehemently and perhaps angrily -- smile still plastered on his face -- while standing in the middle of the Tri-State Tollway was strange enough. It was the identity and dress of the other driver, however, that took this scene over the top.

Standing toe-to-toe and face-to-face with our agitated clown was an attractive younger woman dressed only in a scant -- very scant -- bright red bikini.

It wasn't hard to imagine what had happened. She had been to, or was going to, the beach or a friend's pool. The car was likely without air conditioning -- hot and getting hotter -- so she had taken off her blouse or T-shirt. The shock of the moment led her to forget the state of her wardrobe and she sprang from her car relatively undressed.

Caught up in their drama, neither actor seemed aware of the scene they created. But I assure you, everyone else was.

Though I found myself laughing out loud, I also felt a good deal of sympathy for those two. He was simply dressed for work. She was simply dressed for play. Who among us would have expected to have to display ourselves thus attired in front of a few hundred strangers in the middle of an expressway? Any one of us could have been caught in a similar predicament.

And then it hit me: Always wear clean underwear! This was exactly what my mother was talking about! I'm not sure she was thinking about clown costumes and bikinis, but, still, the point was the same. Expect the unexpected. Plan on it. Prepare for it. Live with it.

Dirty underwear, clown costumes and bikinis. Who would have thought?

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