As a young teenager, I felt that I was leading a pretty normal life. My two, older brothers were driving their own cars, as were my brothers’ friends, and I was a regular tag-along in the back seat. Mostly, I went where they went. Both of my brothers would drive pretty fast, but for the most part I felt relatively safe driving with my brothers. Not so with some of their friends, or later on, with some of my friends either.
Thinking back on my experiences, I can only attribute great luck or divine intervention for my having escaped death or caused death or serious injury in the many crazy, automotive shenanigans I witnessed as a passenger or as a participant. I say “participant” because my flirtations with automotive death began around age 12, in the sloped field behind our neighbour’s house.
The boys in the neighbouring family lived a life that was largely untouched by feminine influence. After a divorce, the mom had moved on, leaving all of the semi-grown children with the dad. He was a tall, thin, intense, slightly brutish man, with very little education, who, because of his work, knew much about pipes and pressures, force and resistance. During the strong construction growth of the baby-boom era, he was also making more money than he could put to what many people would regard as “constructive use.” He had attracted a cadre of friends who were all fascinated with building and racing stock cars. Many was the time in our home, a scant 300 yards distant from their home, that we would eat our supper to the background sounds of an unmuffled engine roaring to life, thereafter to roar repeatedly, as carburetion linkages were freed and lubricated, timing was checked and adjusted, etc.
A by-product of all this tinkering with race cars was that the neighbour dad had a habit of buying older cars in anticipation of needing them whenever his current race car would be permanently put out of use. So, we had the situation where there were three adolescent boys living at our house and three adolescent boys (and one very unfortunate and lonely girl) living at their house, and an ever-changing number of old, but working, cars parked on their acres of private property, alongside old drilling rigs, stacks of pipe, etc.
A mature, responsible adult brain would see at least a possibility of some undesirable outcomes from this scenario. Others might even see a recipe for disaster. “You take six parts pure, unrestrained, adolescent testosterone, mix with several hundred horsepower, on open, private land, where there are no “rules of the road,” and what do you get? You get doughnuts – of a sort.
Doughnuts, of course, can refer to the deep-fried pastry concoction that many people enjoy with their coffee. Doughnuts can also refer to a dramatic automotive manoeuver, in which, the car is caused to spin around in place, leaving a trail of its passing that resembles a doughnut shape. So, each of us in turn, would drive one of neighbour dad’s old cars through a slick-as-grease, sloped, field of grass, building up speed, then turning the steering wheel sharply enough to, “pull a doughnut,” while one or two boys attempted to hold themselves, affixed, to the roof of the car! This was our favourite activity for at least part of one summer. All survived. The car never rolled. No one was seriously injured.
Our family moved away from that neighbourhood, and our friendships of proximity and convenience didn’t withstand the separation. We mostly lost touch with that family. But my brothers just seemed to be magnets for crazy-boy drivers, and there was to be no shortage of seriously deranged driving stunts in my young life.
Among my more frightening experiences at the hands of these fellows, I can recount a time when a boy named Ray was driving my brother Bill’s car. Ray, Bill and I were driving, in the middle of the night, on part of the then newly-constructed Interstate 91 in southern Vermont, heading for north-central Vermont. Ray was driving because Bill had worked late, and he needed some sleep. I (age 14) sat alone in the back seat, watching the speedometer, as the speed finally stopped increasing at 95 mph. Okay. It was past midnight, on a wide-open, nearly empty highway. I wasn’t too concerned. For me, this was only a few miles per hour above the ordinary.
Suddenly, inexplicably, Ray, the driver of the car, was clambering over the seat into the back seat, saying, “Here Jim, you drive for awhile!” leaving the car tearing down the highway, driverless! I honestly don’t even remember exactly how I launched myself at the steering wheel, but I was there in a jiffy, cursing Ray loudly, unreservedly, as I went. Then, as the car began slowing, I felt that I might just be able to negotiate the long, sweeping curve ahead. We might just survive Ray’s idiot move. My brother Bill, in the front, passenger seat, grogged himself awake enough to inquire about the sudden commotion in the car.
“Jim’s driving!” Ray happily announced, to Bill, from the back seat.
“You okay, Jim?” Bill inquired.
“I’m okay for now,” I said, with white knuckles gripping the wheel and the white knuckles of the grim reaper gripping my heart, “but I’d rather have you drive.”
Bill patiently coached me, guiding my movements much the way ground-controllers can guide someone, who has never flown an airplane before, to land an aircraft. We found a nice, straight, open part of the road and very gradually pulled aside to change drivers.
As much as other of their friends, including Harvey, Moe, and Tom engaged in similar death-defying stunts, the most memorable close-to-death experience I had was with an acquaintance of my own. My brothers had nothing to do with this one.
I was 15 years old, still not a legal driver. And, to my credit, I did not engage in a lot of illegal driving, though the offered opportunities were many. A crazy boy named Jim had come into the lives of me and my friends. Well, he wasn’t truly crazy in the strict (certifiable) sense of the word, but he drove crazily, and he had a lot of horsepower to do it with. Jim’s dad had bought him a Rambler Rebel (small car) with the largest engine available on the market at the time. It was fast.
So just past midnight one night, Jim says to me, “Hey, let’s take a trip. Let’s go to Newport, RI. Do you wanna see Newport, RI?” We were in a cottage just north of Danielson, CT at the time.
I replied, “I’ve been there, but I gotta admit, it’s pretty cool.”
Jim said, “I’ve been there too, but so what? Let’s go!”
We scrambled into his Rambler Rebel and off we flew, into the night, on our way to Newport, just for the fun of it.
Approaching Newport from the west, along route #138, one must pass over two bridges. I don’t honestly remember whether it was the Jamestown Bridge or the Newport Bridge where we almost literally “flew” off the bridge, into the water. From the passenger seat, it was difficult for me to accurately read the speedometer at any given time, but Jim was a speed demon with lots of horsepower at his command. Trust me, we were going very fast. The light rain that had been falling had not given him any special cause for concern. Lightly wet pavement was the same as dry pavement to him. But, as we discovered, the lightly wet metal grating at the apex of the bridge was much more slippery than pavement, and at some very high speed, atop this arched bridge, the car began to fish-tail wildly on the slick surface. With almost professional driving aptitude, Jim repeatedly cut his wheel back into the fishtail that went one way, then the other, back the first way, then repeating until the car was straightened out and we continued on our way, slowing down briefly to not more than 20 mph or so above the speed limit.
Once in Newport, we drove to the beach, parked the car, and caught a little sleep before sunrise. At dawn, we arose and drove slowly, almost like two grandmothers, along the beach area of Newport. We spied a few luxurious mansions, though not the most famous ones. We stopped at one point and Jim said, “I got something to show you!” At which point, we got out of the car and he made me close my eyes. He led me a short walking distance over crunching gravel, then he said, “Keep your eyes closed and tell me what you hear.”
I heard him briefly scrabble in the gravel that we were walking in, then I heard the clear sound of falling water. It sounded like a time-limited, babbling brook. Then I opened my eyes to see a small, concrete and stone cairn, little more than waist high. The cairn had been made roughly cone-shaped and had small, thin rocks stuck sideways into its concrete core. When handfuls of gravel were dropped onto the cairn, it sounded briefly like a babbling brook as the gravel fell, bouncing and pinging, over the jutting rocks of the cairn. Cool.
That experience was to be but a brief moment of respite from the on-going experience of tempting automotive death. Back into the Rebel we hopped. Jim says, “Is this Saturday? Holy shit! My old man’s gonna kill me! I told him I’d work for him this morning. Man! I gotta be home by 9:00.”
Jim was strung pretty tightly even when he was relaxed, so this new pressure to perform, which I am convinced he intentionally brought upon himself, was intractable and seemed to require a human sacrifice or something very close to it, as atonement for his sin.
Off we flew once more, on maybe two hours sleep, under intense pressure, to drive a long distance in a short time, Jim angrily cursing his own inept forgetfulness, determined to pay any price to relieve himself of this burden. On this trip though, unlike the night-time, road-bound flight to Newport, there would be traffic on the road.
Jim settled into a fairly easy, flat-out pace, driving mostly in the passing lane on two-lane roads, dekeing, whenever absolutely necessary, back into the travelling lane, usually angrily slamming on his brakes to accommodate the speed-limit-observing traffic and cursing such turtle-inspired drivers for their lack of concern for his needs.
It happened when we were into a very long stretch of driving in the left lane, in the process of whizzing past about our sixth car without returning to the travelling lane, trying to get to an opening up ahead before an on-coming car, already in view, got too close. Then, an impatient and slightly inattentive turtle-driver, who had not checked his rear-view mirror, suddenly pulled out, in front of us, to pass another car. Jim had to slam on his brakes to avoid impact with the other passing car’s rear end. The other car decelerated and pulled back into the travel lane without passing. But then, with the approaching car still bearing down on us, Jim decided that he would not be able to safely re-enter the now tightly-packed travelling lane because he was moving way too fast to fit in, but he had to do something or else we would shortly be involved in a head-on collision. So he pulled to his left and continued to travel, at passing speed, on the opposite shoulder of the road, as the approaching car passed through the eye of the needle that Jim’s actions had created.
I can still see the faces of the people in the front seat of that on-coming car, lit, as with a spotlight, by the sun rising in the east, their eyes and mouths wide-open in anger, fear and the expectation of impending, violent death. Looking, I suppose, like the audience in a movie theatre might look to a movie monster, if only the monster could see.
“Whew!” said Jim, “That was close.”
“Jim,” I said, “I think your dad would rather have you late than dead.”
“You don’t know my dad!” Jim said as he tromped once more on the accelerator.
But as we approached our home town, I noticed that his driving became increasingly close to law-abiding. And we did indeed, both survive. I never rode anywhere with him again.
Once I got my own driver’s license, I drove my own brand of crazy for a few years, though I am convinced that I never drove as crazily as that, to which, I had been exposed. I am glad that none of us hurt anyone else and that we weren’t forced to learn the experiential “hard way” about the need for automotive safety.
Today, I tend to drive slightly on the slow side when I am on the highway. People from my present hometown of London often insist to me that Toronto is just “a 90 minute drive,” but I know that such a trip always takes me two hours. On the highway, after I’ve set my cruise-control, I find myself passing about 20% of the cars sharing the highway with me, while about 79% whiz past me and 1% moves with me at a matching pace. I just hope that I never have to experience the outcome of meeting a driver who, like my friends and my brothers’ friends, enjoyed the thrill of tempting death on the roadway. After all, how long can one keep getting lucky?