Wednesday, August 17, 2005


In Which Our Story Shifts Into High Gear...

It was late in the summer I turned 15, not too long after my stint as a snack-bar boy.

The season was winding down and my brother was starting college soon. My mom and I were heading back home in about a week.

The week before you leave camp and head back to your life is one that's both exciting and melancholy. There's lots of bustling about and wrapping things up, as you put away the dishes and drain the pipes and hoses and make arrangements for mail and electricity to be turned off here and turned back on there. You start to look forward to all those things you couldn't get away from fast enough back in June, such as school. But you're already missing something you haven't quite left yet. In my case, it was the mountains and forests of New Hampshire. The days spent exploring the strange underside of the village, as only my uncle, the town trash collector, knew it. The nights spent walking around the lake, soaking in stories of my wacky family, as told by my aunts.

And of course, I was already missing that intangible sense of promise and adventure that summer always seemed to offer when you're of an age where your primary obligations and responsibilities are largely seasonal, tied to the school year. Soon, I knew, I'd be like my brother, working both to pay for school and to pay my dues, to earn credit in whatever it was I was going to plan to do for the rest of my life. I was working now, of course, but my work experience had been something I could safely file under the adventure category, and adventure was something you could never get enough of during the summer (this was how I felt despite my eventful few weeks with the crazy snack-bar manager who tried to bite my nipple off. That wasn't adventure. That was adversity).

As we came to the last couple of days at camp, I began to feel that perhaps I hadn't done quite enough, hadn't had quite enough adventure to make my summer truly memorable. I craved one last...thing. Some event, some exploit to truly make the summer stand out in the mind.

And so it was that I began to beg my brother to teach me to drive the truck.

My brother had bought it at the beginning of the summer. It was a Chevy pick-up truck that had led such a hard life I was always astounded when its engine would turn over. My brother needed some kind of vehicle to take him up to his job at the restaurant where he worked (there was no way in hell he was going to bicycle the 10 miles up the hill to the place and back, especially at 1 or 2 in the morning, when he usually punched out), and this was all he could afford (in fact, I'm not entirely sure the previous owners didn't pay him to take the truck).

Pretty much everything that could go wrong had gone wrong with this truck. The tires were bald, the transmission and exhaust system were shot. The foot pad on the gas pedal was broken in half and the one on the brake pedal was missing entirely. The bench seat in the cab was a loamy garden of ripped green vinyl, bits of foam and rusty springs that could find your rectum with scary accuracy whenever you sat in the truck. There was no rear view mirror. And if there had been, you'd have had a pretty clear view of the road immediately behind you because the "truck" part of the truck was missing. The pick-up bed had long since rusted away. In its place, my brother would ultimately bolt a few two-by-fours to the frame, but you could still see the undercarriage of the truck without the aid of X-ray vision.

Rust was probably the most pronounced feature on this truck. I swear, when it was parked in the shady grove near our summer camp, you could hear the rust flaking off it, and wherever my brother went, it always left some of itself behind. If it was parked anywhere for longer than a couple of hours, you could pull away and see the faint dirty-orange outline it had deposited. The first week my brother had the truck, he rolled the window down on the driver's side door, and watched with dismay as the mechanism came loose and the pane of glass shot down into the interior of the door. He was even more dismayed when he opened that door and watched the pane fall again, this time out through the rusty hole in the bottom of the door. It landed on the tarmac and smashed into tiny glass kernels at his feet.

But like every vehicle my family owned, this one has a manual transmission, with the shift-lever located on the steering column--the old three-on-the-tree configuration. Or so we thought. Late in the summer my brother discovered a theretofore unknown fourth gear from which he could not downshift, rendering the truck virtually inoperable for several days. Then one morning, my brother got up to take the trash out and saw the truck several yards down the hill from where he had parked it the previous evening. Inexplicably, the truck had shifted itself back into neutral during the night and, since there was no emergency brake on it--not anymore, anyway--the truck had gone for a bit of a roll.

Naturally, I thought this was the perfect vehicle to learn to drive in. I certainly couldn't do it any damage, could I?

Well my brother, being my brother, ignored my requests until pretty much the day before we left New Hampshire. We were leaving the truck behind. As an incoming freshman, my brother was not permitted to have a car on campus, and even if he was I'm not entirely sure the thing would have been street-legal. But rather than junk it, my brother--who is just as afflicted with C.R.A.P. as the rest of his family--decided to prep the thing for winter and put it up on blocks.

This meant a shit-load--possibly as much as two shitloads--of work. Draining the oil (or changing the oil. I forget). Removing the tires (like they needed preserving) and jacking the thing up onto blocks. Covering over the open driver's side window. Filling the radiator. It was a long list for a worthless truck.

Naturally, my brother got me to do pretty much all of this work. In return, he promised, he would let me drive the truck. After we put fresh antifreeze in the radiator, he told my mom we needed to take it out for a drive before putting it up on blocks so that the engine would run long enough for the antifreeze to fully circulate. For all I know about engines, this could have been pure-D bullshit, but my mom swallowed it and off we went.

We puttered off up the hill and drove a couple of miles around the lake. When we got to the opposite shore, my brother pulled into a little picturesque turnout. Here you could see the whole of the lake--if you squinted you could even see my aunt's cottage and our camp on the far side. The road on this side of the lake was a paved county lane that was seldom traveled, so traffic wasn't going to be a problem. From this spot, it was a straight stretch of road about two miles to The Corner. At The Corner, you could turn left and head to the state highway that led to Concord, or turn right and complete the circuit of the lake, down a leafy road that was largely uninhabited, except for a few year-round residents and one or two summer folks heading to their camps. But most of these people had already left for the year. It was, in short, a perfect place for me to practice driving.

Assuming I could even get out of the turnout.

After giving me a few pointers on the eccentricities of the shifter, I set it to neutral, started the truck, then clunked the shifter into first. We stalled, which wasn't cool, because you never knew if the truck would start up again or not. This time it did, though, so now I pushed in the clutch, then put it into first. The clutch on the truck was much easier to use than the one in my parents' Jimmy. After a couple of bucking near stall-outs, I actually got it moving and we rolled along the turnout. Heading straight for the lake.

"Nowsagoodtimetopullontotheroad," my brother said in a calm but rapid voice. I swung the wheel and we veered away from the lake and onto the road. I gunned the engine and it roared vehemently. My brother opined that second gear was a good gear to try after first, so I thumped the clutch and rammed the shifter into second. We jolted ahead as though we'd been given a great invisible goose.

"Here goes third!" I hooted, and shifted into the next gear. We surged up over a hill and down the county road. I was doing it! I was driving!!

The engine strained again, so I kicked the clutch in and shifted once more.

"NO, NOT FOURTH!" my brother suddenly screamed in my ear.

We were going along at a good clip now, so when he suddenly went apoplectic on me, I jerked the wheel and we did a merry high-speed fish-tail for a moment before I got us back in our lane. My knuckles were white on the steering wheel as my brother not-so-silently swore to himself.

We were coming up to The Corner rather quickly. The Corner was a T-junction, so unless I wanted to take us straight up into Sam Howard's woods, or try to take a sharp left or right at 55 miles an hour, I was going to have to slow us down. I took my foot off the gas and the engine immediately began to buck and make stalling noises. My brother began making noises himself--indistinct bleatings to the effect that I shouldn't let his truck stall, so I gave it the gas again.

"WhatdoIdo?" I asked.

Having already stalled once, my brother feared that we might never get the thing going if it happened again, so he said, "Try to downshift."

I pushed in the clutch and pulled on the shifter as hard as I could. It wouldn't budge. My brother leaned over, took hold of the shifted in his mighty hands and yanked. Nothing.

We were coming up the mild incline to The Corner, just 100 yards away.

In a panic, I let off on the clutch, but my brother was still pulling on the shifter. Miraculously, but with a great grinding of gears, the shifter suddenly moved and we downshifted. From fourth to first.

The engine whined like a siren and my brother and I briefly buffed the windshield with the tops of our heads as the truck shuddered to a sedate 25 miles an hour.

"Okay, okay, turn right, and keep giving it gas," my brother said, regaining his composure. Shaking, I began slinging the wheel to starboard as we came to the top of the small incline on which The Corner sat. The engine bucked.

"Your foot's off the gas again. Give it a little to make the turn," my brother said. So I gave it a little.

At one time, the truck may have had power steering, but those days were long past. So once I had made the turn, it took me rather a bit longer than we had estimated to straighten the truck out. We were drifting on the right shoulder of the road now, heading towards an old stone fence and a yellow sign. God help me, I believe it was a "Children Crossing" sign.

My brother yelled some instructions in quick succession. One was "Turn.Turn!!TURN!!" But I was turning. I was cranking that wheel back for all I was worth, but all it meant was that we were now heading for the stone fence at a slightly different angle. A split-second after issuing this order, my brother evidently made the command decision to abort the mission, because he said, "Nevermindstop.Stop!STOPPPPPPPPP!!"

I took my foot of the gas and mashed down on the brake pedal.

Or rather, where the pedal would have been, had it not gone missing ages ago. Instead, my foot hit the thin metal stem of the brake. And promptly slipped off it and back onto the accelerator.

A screaming roar filled our ears. The yellow sign post disappeared beneath us as quickly as if a trap door had been sprung on it. With a terrible grinding noise and a spray of rust, we slammed into the stone wall...

OMG... you are so lucky you both are alive...

That truck must have disintegrated on impact, right?

Great story--my heart's still pounding!
That story reminded me of the '56 Studebaker that we had the first year we were married. We were married in '67 so there was lots of rust and a very large hole in the floor on the drivers side. When it rained the backs of my legs would get muddy and wet. It was a shift on the column and I wasn't very good at stopping on hills. Everywhere I went I avoided stop lights on hills. Thanks for the laughs.
You and Shane with these CLIFFHANGERS!!!

I've decided that I'm never getting into a vehicle with either of you, k?
No kidding Colleen! I gotta tell ya, except that you are here to write about it I would be worried about what the next part might bring... Great story telling!
you died?

am I blogging to a specter?
I'm so glad you write these stories. I can always count on you to give me a chuckle, grin or a whooping LAUGH every morning. Thanks again.
Since there is no comment from big bro....I'm guessing you are right on the money.
Is this what I have to look forward to when my son gets his permit in a year? No way in hell he's getting behind the wheel of my new car!
Wow am I the only one who didn't know about this blog. Magazine Man you are hilarious. I read some of your archives and about pissed myself. Thanks for the link Cute Little Box
the suspense is killing me... I'm guessing it didn't kill you though, since you are still alive and well enough to blog all these years later... :D
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