"We'll never make it."
The creek in front of us stretched no more than 10 or 15 feet to the opposing bank, but the inky blackness of the swiftly moving water seemed to devour the headlights of our small car. Outside, a
darkened wood reached towards the vehicle with brambles and weeds and an occasional limb that hung into the muddy track we had taken off of the main gravel road. The gently rumbling engine
contrasted with the tangible uneasiness of those in the car with me. From the backseat, Cory reminded us once more that he needed to be home soon or there would be hell to pay from his mom.
Duane, riding shotgun, reiterated his initial point, "Yeah man, we'd never get across that."
The little car, a Plymouth Horizon, belonged to Duane's dad. Earlier that night I had begged him to allow me to drive it, taking the three of us, along with Duane's girlfriend, to her home in the
next town over. He reluctantly agreed, but on the condition that we return immediately so that plenty of gas would remain for his 4 AM commute to work. After dropping off Duane's girlfriend, I
had made a slight detour down a remote gravel road to pass by an old rock quarry locally known as "The Rock Crusher." Assuring my friends it would be a shortcut back to our town, at the last
moment I had turned off the gravel road and pulled up to the very edge of the murmuring water.
"Yeah..." I agreed as I pulled the shifter down to reverse and began easing back to the gravel road. I let the word roll out over several moments, betraying more than just my heavy Southern drawl.
Already my passengers seemed to relax. "You're right," I continued as we moved further and further away from the bank, "we'll never make it..."
Just as we backed up to the rise, for a split second time slowed down and I felt hyperaware of being between two possibilities. Deep down I knew my choice, had known it even before seeing the
water, and as adrenaline raced into my body I slammed the shifter back into drive, ground the accelerator into the floorboard, and shouted "... without a running go!"
My friends yelled. Focused on the rapidly diminishing path ahead of me, I was only peripherally aware of Duane turned towards me in the passenger seat, eyes fully open and a panicked look painted
across his face. As we drew closer I sucked in a breath and tensed my body. Unaccustomed to such a sudden demand, the little Horizon rattled loudly and for a moment I doubted that we would have
the momentum necessary to reach the other side. With a final "SHIIIIIIIIIIIIIITTTTTTT!!!!" we left the bank and plowed into the water.
In the instant in which the car impacted the creek, several things occurred to me. First, a lot of water exploded up the hood and across the front windshield. A frightening amount, actually,
leading me to the conclusion that hidden beneath that darkness from our view on the bank waited a significantly deeper pool than I expected. Second, the car experienced an almost instantaneous
loss of momentum and assured me that we were indeed about to sink to an unheralded death in a body of water barely wider than our car. Yet that concern only had a moment to register before an
apocalyptic crash threw the front of the car back out of the water, jarring each of us to the bone and generating my final thought, which was that the imminent destruction of this dying auto would
kill us well before we could drown. Miraculously, the little Plymouth breached the opposing bank with just enough force to sputter onto a flat above the water, where it gave a final gurgling
rumble and died.
Fingers still pressed into the steering wheel and my vision fixed on the enormous cloud of steam emanating all around us, I was momentarily paralyzed between an exultant joy of actually having made
it across and the slowly dawning realization that I had almost certainly just destroyed someone else's car. In that moment, my part-time bag boy salary of four dollars per hour seemed exceedingly
small. I hesitantly turned to look at my friends. Staring back at me with shellshocked expressions, I could see a range of emotions sweep from fear and surprise to growing rage and disbelief.
Stranded in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night, I realized I may have made a mistake.
After enduring the ensuing tirade, I let everyone take a breath and then tried to start the Plymouth. The switch clicked lifelessly. We stumbled out of the car like still-shaky crash survivors
and opened the hood. Even more steam poured out. In my mind I kept repeating over and over "Please don't let the engine block be cracked please don't let the engine block be cracked please don't
let the engine block be cracked". No stranger to catastrophic engine failure, I tried to inspect as much of the guts of the little car as possible in the dark. Crawling underneath, it was too
dark to really get a good idea from the bottom but I could at least determine that no oil, fuel, or coolant was pouring out.
More angry and exasperated statements from Duane and Cory followed as they realized that I would not be able to get the car started again. Walking back down to the water's edge, I wondered what
might be hidden just below the dark surface that caused the car to crash with such force up onto the bank. Looking around at the darkened woods and out into the field ahead, faintly illuminated by
moon and stars, I decided that we should begin walking the four or five miles back to town and the one public pay phone I could think of that would be available this time of night.
"I'm not walking anywhere, this is your fault, you can go tell my dad."
After pointing out that no one would have expected us to come home this way, and that the longer we waited the more trouble Cory would be in with his mom, the others agreed to walk with me, but not
before digging around in the back of the car. Duane found an old golf club, and Cory pulled out a long flat head screwdriver. They both agreed I should not carry anything. Thus armed against
overly aggressive country dogs, we started walking. I tried to make light banter as more and more of that dusty gravel road stretched behind us, but the conversation was forced. We were walking
through the middle of the night, when the latest of the night owls and partiers already slept but the early shift commuters had not yet risen. Dark and peaceful, the night did not mirror my inner
turmoil. My mind raced with schemes and ideas about what could be wrong with the car, and how best to present the situation to Duane's otherwise patient father, and how I could pay for potential
repairs without my own parents finding out. It did not take long to reach a paved road, but with the road came the occasional house place, and the baying of hounds. And then oddly, walking by the
house of a friend of my younger brother, we noticed his father not only awake but inexplicably standing outside in the middle of the night.
The phone call to my friend's father, his arrival and the inspection of the still dead automobile, the constant nagging Duane's older brother, this is all a blur in my memory. To the dad's credit,
he remained outwardly calm and even allowed me to keep the car key so that I could look at it the next day. The night was so late by the time I returned to my own home that no one noted my arrival, and
my anxiety through the night allowed me to get out of the house before anyone was up and about the following morning. A miserable day of classes followed. Another friend of mine, Keith, whose
stepfather owned a body shop, agreed to ride back out to the car with me as soon as school was over. I immediately tried the key, hoping that by some fluke the car would start and this would all be
forgotten. When it didn't, my spirits sank even further. I faced a clock that was quickly running out before my parents learned of the previous night's adventure. In a town as small as ours, there
were 100 ways the story might have already reached them.
Keith and I walked down to the bank, only this time in daylight I could see that the water was no more than one or two feet deep. Retracing our path from the night before, I could now see that just
before reaching the opposing shore a stone escarpment jutted out from a wash just under the surface of the water. The bell of the transmission must have struck this stone, causing the teeth
shattering jolt that lifted us onto the bank. Kneeling down, I could just make out in the current a black cable in the water and fished it out with rolled up sleeves. The cable was severed, and one end contained
some kind of plug I had never seen before.
"What's this?" I asked Keith.
"Never seen anything like that," he replied, "but we could take it down to the shop and maybe someone there would know."
At the shop I held it up for one of the guys to inspect.
"Ever seen anything like this? Could this have come off of a transmission?"
He turned the cable over in his hands and inspected the plug at the end. "This come off of a Dodge? Because it looks like a kill switch cable on a transmission."
My heart leapt into my throat. "So if this was missing, would a car not start?" I asked hopefully.
"Naw, that'd have to be attached for it to start."
Speeding back to the creek, I alternated between praying this would work and calculating how long it would take me to pay off what I valued the car at if it didn't. We arrived just as the sun was
setting. I cleaned the broken end of the cable, peeling back the rubber sheathing as Keith slid under the front of the car.
"Shit man, I think I found the rest of the cable!"
Handing the plug to him, I watched as he used electrical tape to bind the cable back together. It took us a few minutes to find where it snapped onto the transmission, and soon I was seated in the
driver's seat, gripping the steering wheel just as hard as I had the night before, only this time full of hope. Keith watched with wide eyes as I turned the starter over.
Grumble, coughed the little Horizon, and then it sputtered to life. My relief spilled out in a series of alternating "Thank You Jesus" and "Holy Shit"s as Keith laughed in disbelief.
To this day, Duane still uses this story as an example of how spontaneous and interesting our evenings together in high school were compared to what he sees as my stodgy regularity as a middle aged
man. And every time he tells it, all I can think of is my relief when that little car rumbled back to life, which is exactly the part of the story on which a middle-aged man would focus.
Names changed to protect the (mostly) innocent...