Close Calls

9 Nov

During my teens, it seemed to me that my parents had to think I spent an awful lot of my time in trouble. In later years though, I realized that my father, at least, forgave most of my transgressions fairly easily, with a token amount of parental anger. I was continually getting in trouble for fighting, drinking and reckless driving, and while he would discipline me, as he should have, I could tell that his displeasure was less than I expected. It was years later when I finally learned the reason for this.

My father, after his retirement from the Navy, went to work as a “double-dipper”. In other words, he entered Federal law enforcement, where his 20 years of military service gave him some degree of instant seniority, as well as a hefty leg up on full retirement benefits. In his capacity as Officer in Charge, he came into contact with every variety of smuggler, snitch, junky, derelict and hardened criminal one could ever hope not to see. Consequently, he saw, almost daily, young men of my age who were involved in activities he detested with a passion. I can only suppose that he must have felt some sort of relief that my extra-curricular activities were tame, in comparison. While the sons of his coworkers were being busted for weapons charges, or for peddling dope, I was getting rousted for things like drinking, drag racing and fighting. I occasionally had cause to realize, however that he was keeping a watchful eye on me, lest I decide to seek greater thrills.

An example of this was an event which took place when I was about 15½ years old. I had just recently received my driver’s license, and my mobility was entirely dependent upon my mother’s willingness to lend me her ’59 Bonneville. She was understandably hesitant, but she also understood a teenager’s need to enter the world at large with some semblance of independence, so one evening, I was granted the use of Mom’s Pontiac, with certain stipulations.

The “date” in question was a triple. My flame of the day, Kathy, and I were going eight miles away to El Centro, with two other couples, to the drive-in movie. Since one of the other couples had no car, they were riding with us, while we followed a friend’s car, via country roads, in order to avoid the highways.

Before I received the coveted car keys, my parents twice reviewed the Who, Where, What, When and How. It was my full intention to follow all the rules, and thereby not screw up any future opportunities.

However, as we all remember, there lives in every town, a Demon, whose express purpose is to draw innocent teens into situations beyond their control, and then abandon them, watching the fun from a safe distance.

We set out with Kathy and me in the front, and our friends, Gus and Melissa in the back, following Robbie and his date in his Corvair Monza along numerous dark, dusty ditch-bank roads toward El Centro.

Anyone who knows the Imperial Valley area will remember that a major portion of the Colorado River was re-routed via canals to irrigate the fertile, arid Mojave Desert. The obvious inconvenience of this otherwise admirable project was that the combination of canals, drainage ditches and railroads created an obstacle course of some 50 square miles that present a challenge even to an accomplished Baja racer.

We were doing fine until Robby led us down a ditch-bank road that was especially dusty, and I was immediately blinded by my headlights in his dust. In a rare moment of wisdom, I actually decided to slow down, and let his dust settle ahead of me. After a mile or so, I saw his distant taillights top a slight rise, and then turn right. It was obvious that he had come to the bridge he wanted, and had turned to cross the All-American Canal.

I only bother to mention the name of this particular canal, because of its significance. Approximately 2/3 of the flow of the Colorado River is captured in Arizona and re-routed to the Imperial Valley, via this canal. It averages around 20 yards across, and 15 to 25 feet deep, running around 25 miles per hour.

You may be getting an idea of where this story is headed, no?

As I neared the rise where Robby had made his turn, I slowed, carefully nosing my mothers “battleship” up onto the bridge. I then began a slow right turn, with my headlights pointed skyward. The only thing I could see was Robby’s lights on the far side, apparently waiting for us to catch up.

Enter, the Demon

About this time, it becomes very difficult to recall an accurate sequence of events. However, more or less simultaneously, I heard Robby shout “NO!”, I felt my mom’s pride and joy (the car, not me) plunge downward, I was treated to a breathtaking view of a manmade maelstrom, and Gus’ girlfriend, Melissa, began beating me on the back of my head with her hands, purse, and at least one of her shoes. As the car slid slowly down the bank with my foot and the brake pedal all the way to the floor, I told everyone not to move, as it seemed that car might stop before reaching the water. Kathy had the presence of mind to carefully roll up her window, while Gus tried, with very little success, to restrain Melissa.

When the car finally stopped sliding, the hood was only about half submerged. I remember commenting how surprised I was that the headlights were still on, since they were under a couple of feet of water. It was at this point that Melissa decided to get my attention by reaching around the front of my face, grabbing my far-side ear, and rotating my head sharply, 180 degrees, looking deeply into my eyes, and quietly telling me to “open the fucking door”.

I opened the door.

Once Melissa had both knees on the ground, and one hand firmly woven into the grass, she released my ear, and the rest of us climbed out, and waited for the car to slide the rest of the way to my doom. It finally stopped about halfway, with the dashboard submerged.

By now, we were at the top of the bank, safe, dry and, except for me, relieved. Then I heard Robby, close behind, utter, “Far out, man”.

I really think that if Melissa hadn’t brought her considerable skills to bear, I would have killed him that night. Gus and Kathy certainly had no luck pulling me off of him until she stepped in.

When we got to a ranch-house to call a tow truck, I also called my sister, Susie, to see if I could borrow the $25 it would take to get the car out. She readily offered it, in spite of the fact that she really couldn’t spare it, and I really didn’t deserve it. While we waited for the truck, I reviewed my options. Since that took only about 30 seconds, I was left with about an hour and a half to feel sorry for myself, pray, and give Melissa dirty looks. Robby had wisely departed.

The tow truck driver succeeded in rescuing the car from the clutches of the canal, snickering the entire time. I had him tow the car to my sister’s trailer park, where the four of us performed a miraculous cleaning and drying job.

We never saw the movie. In fact, now that I think about it, I never saw Kathy again, either. I managed to get home a few minutes early, and my parents never found out a thing. At least, that’s what I thought, until about 10 years later, when I told my Dad about it. His only comment was “Yeah, I knew about that. The damned thing smelled moldy for 6 months.”

I never did figure out how he found out about that, or why he chose to wait ten years for me to tell him about it, rather than calling me on it. I do know that my sister never told him.


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