Within days of arriving in Michigan, I landed a job testing car airbags. I was responsible for gathering all the parts and making sure they were installed and tested correctly. I had seen the tests on TV, but now I knew the ins and outs. The accelerometers and sensors, the ATDs (anthropomorphic test devices) – the dummies – and the bucks.

A buck, or sled, is basically the interior of a car built inside a steel frame. It saved the company hundreds of thousands of dollars. Instead of spending time and money to build prototype vehicles and launch them into brick walls, they would simply load some seats, an instrument panel, and a couple of dummies into the buck and blast them down a set of rails. After the tests, I analyzed the data charts and watched footage of the crashes over and over again, one frame at a time. It was heaven: There was finally some destruction in my life that I actually enjoyed.

One night at the end of my third week I was running a series of sled tests at the Proving Grounds. I'd put forty hours in before lunch on Wednesday. Now it was Friday and I was out of my mind with exhaustion.

We were setting up the last test of the series – the last test of the week – and things were going terribly slow. I went to the vending machines for dinner. When I got back, the dummies – a male and a female – were being loaded through the top of the buck using ceiling cranes attached to hooks screwed into the tops of their skulls. I smiled. In my sickened and weary state, I imagined at least one of them was involved in an adulterous affair.

Once the dummies were in their seats – the technicians used lasers to record the exact positions of the dummies for each test, as an out-of-position occupant can drastically change the effectiveness of the safety equipment – I checked over my stuff, then went over the checklist the passenger-side engineer had given me. Everything was good.

I went back to the viewing area and took my spot on the three-foot-tall cement block that's used to hold the air cylinder down when it shoots the buck down the track. As exhausted as I was, I began to get excited. This was an NCAP test, the granddaddy of all simulations – thirty-five miles an hour with no seatbelts, only the airbags. I'd never seen one before, just the bent up parts afterwards, and they were nasty.

The countdown began. Explosive gases filled the huge air cylinder. At the count of five, the bank of lights angled on either side of the test set-up clunked on. It reminded me of playing a night football game back in high school. At three, the high-speed cameras, capable of handling 60-G impacts, whirred on, spinning at a thousand frames per second. They sit on perches jutting out at angles all over the vehicle, pointing to where the dummies will hit. BOOM! The cement base shakes. The buck moves. The squibs fire and then, Houston, we have a problem.

The fifth-percentile female in the passenger seat shoots out the side of the buck when the bag hits her and flies fifteen or twenty feet through the air – way the fuck up there. Then she smacks down face-first so everybody hears it, but before her legs have even landed, the umbilical cord of wires that monitors the test above her butt catches and drags her down the track.

The cord is made up of all these multicolored wires so it looks like she's being dragged upside-down by the nerve endings at the base of her spinal cord. It's the wildest fucking thing I've ever seen. All this shit – the whole test – happens in milliseconds. So I just stare at it. Then the test ends and I realize that everyone around me is open-mouthed.

Finally one of the old union guys – a dude who had been there forever – said, "Well, I've never seen that happen before," and we all cracked up. Most of the guys left for the weekend, figuring we were done. I still had to make my post-test observations before I could go party with some friends. Sure I was tired, but come on – it was Friday and I knew a guy with a fresh stash of Jimmy weed.

You're supposed to wait at least ten minutes for the airbag-inflator chemicals (sodium azide) to clear the air before you go into the test facility. I waited two, and decided I'd just deal with the burning stench. The first thing I noticed as I walked out was that the dummy's head had left skidmarks on the other side of the track. It was a little too lifelike, to be honest, but I kept going to the tech's cabinet and grabbed the Polaroid camera. It was heavy. My feet were dragging, and I was just hoping everything on my side was normal so I could take a few standard snapshots and examine my crumpled components more thoroughly next week.

I made it to the driver's side of the buck and looked inside. The male dummy was positioned with his feet between the front seats, leaning toward the passenger side door with his arms outstretched, hands reaching, as if he was still screaming, "No-o-o!"

I laughed, then – and I'll never forget this – my internal narrator said, "It's like he's completely unaware that he's been in an accident of his own."

At that moment my knees gave out. My feet ached from eighty hours of concrete. My lungs hurt. I bent over with my hands on my knees, hoping I wouldn't throw up, and thought of the wife I'd left in Minneapolis. All along I'd blamed her drug use, her inability to cope – her – for our breakup. Yet I was having arguments inside my own head. It had been months since I'd gone a day without a drink. And I'd actually convinced myself that I had stopped smoking weed because I smoked alone, every day.

I was just wrong on so many levels. I had lost my house, my wife; my entire life was starting over from scratch and none of my friends or family had said anything. It was this fucking dummy that told me. Here was this inanimate object showing more concern for his trashed female friend than I had for mine. I knew there was nothing I could do for her. She had made her choices. All I could do was try to better myself. The next morning, instead of my usual Saturday wake and bake, I got clean.

Nowadays when I talk about that test, I tend to leave out the personal stuff. But I've never forgotten the real lesson I learned that day. And it had nothing to do with an inadequate checklist or forgetting to attach a Plexiglas door.

What has your job taught you?