I’m not even thirteen yet and I almost died, I mused inwardly. Outwardly, I couldn’t contain my laughter. The giggles wracked me from the belly to the chest, cramping the muscles around my midriff and making my eyes water.
“It’s okay,” my mother soothed, “we’re all right. Everything’s fine.” Problem is, I didn’t know if she was trying to soothe us or herself.
Ryan was uncharacteristically quiet in the back seat. I figured he’d be screaming his considerable guts out, making his usual drama-queen presence felt. Then again, maybe it wasn’t drama.
I was turned backward staring out the rear window of the big Olds Cutlass while it sped away, watching the steam drift lazily from the front of the Triumph TR-7 as we left it behind.
In the ditch. Where it crashed.
See, this was one of those times when the event seems funny later, but at the time it was sort of scary. My mother, my brother and I piled into the car that afternoon to go to the grocery store. For most people, going to the grocery store was a pretty uneventful trip. They go, they get their groceries, they leave; no big deal. For us, it was a life-threatening experience on more than one occasion … never mind the trip to and from school. That could be a thrill ride like no other, too. On this occasion, we were going to the Kroger in nearby Fort Oglethorpe, GA. It was a few miles away. I always called it “Fort Ugly-thorpe.” I was a jerk like that at 12 or 13.
To get there, though, the most expedient route was to take State Line Road. Logically enough, State Line Road is the borderline between Georgia and Tennessee. It crossed the north end of Bell Avenue and stretched away east and west, rising and falling in rolling hills. It was a tiny, narrow, two-lane band of blacktop that rose up a small crest just west of Bell Avenue and then dropped again as it divided the town and the states from each other. I had never seen roads so narrow before; and I never saw roads that rose and dropped like that. In my native California, there were LOTS of hills and mountains, of course, but they were larger, and didn’t cause the dramatic peaks and troughs the way the tiny hills bumped the older roads of the deep south. I guess Georgia didn’t have the land moving equipment available to flatten the roads the way they did in California. Or maybe it cost too much. Or who knew why, but there they were — roads full of little dips and valleys that would give your stomach a tiny roller coaster thrill if you were going fast enough.
They could also be a bit dangerous, if you were going fast enough.
See, the dips were relatively deep; deep enough so you couldn’t see the cars in front of you in certain places. Those dips were sometimes high enough that you didn’t see the other side of them until you’d crested the rise, and cars on either side of the hill were invisible to each other.
As a kid, who cared about that stuff? That was the adult’s job; they were driving. All we had to do was enjoy the ride.
Knowing how my mother drove — we got a real feel for it when we transferred from public school, within walking distance of home, to a private Catholic school across town, requiring a ride from either Mom or Dad every morning — there was no “enjoying” the ride. You learned to keep your eyes peeled and be ready to cry out if something bad was going to happen. I don’t know why, we couldn’t have done squat about it except yell, but I guess that was our plan. Yell just before you die. Just like in the movies.
So anyway, that afternoon, we were headed for the Kroger. We backed safely out of our driveway — not as mundane a task as you might think, but that’s another story — then headed north on Bell Avenue to the intersection with State Line Road. So far, so good.
You look both ways before you turn, then you look both ways again. There’s no way to necessarily see the oncoming traffic, like I told you. And there was a pretty steep rise not too far west of Bell Ave. So, Mom watched carefully (she wasn’t drunk yet), then turned out onto SLR and headed west.
The car was huge — a ’70 Olds Cutlass, baby blue with a white Landau top. Yeah, it was older, but it had a big motor, and would get to speed pretty quickly if you asked it to. It’s throaty V8 would growl threateningly and push you forward, sucking passengers back into their seats when you goosed it to get on the highway or something. When we got onto SLR, my mother squashed on the pedal a bit and the car began it’s obese, inertia-laden climb up the speedometer.
As we crested one small rise and headed for the big one, passing the grassy fields, lawns and thick-trunked trees separated from the pavement by the deep open drainage ditches on both sides, something moved quickly out of the corner of my eye, just to the right of the car on the north side of the road.
As quick as a blink, a big, fat gray squirrel darted into the middle of the road.
My mother’s a weird one, if you haven’t gathered already. She hates mice and rats, opossum and things like that, with a passion. Screams bloody murder, jumps on furniture, hides behind my dad — you know, the whole “femme fatale” thing. But squirrels, chipmunks, hampsters … they’re all okay for some reason.
So, when she saw that fat, lazy-ass, well-fed squirrel skitter himself onto the road, she didn’t want to hit it.
“OH! A squirrel!” The words were spilling out of her mouth while she yanked the wheel hard left, tires barking and screeching in protest, pulling the car into the left lane. You know, the one for oncoming traffic.
Now, this is like 1977 or 78. ’78, I think. There weren’t any seatbelt laws, and we didn’t wear ’em then. So, I didn’t have one on, and my brother in the backseat didn’t have one on either. That’s partially why my head went slapping against the window, thunking like an empty gourd, knocking my glasses all cockeyed and crooked on my face. And it’s why Ryan, sitting in the center of the back seat to see more clearly out the windshield, went toppling with limbs akimbo like a chimp tumbling around its cage at the zoo. I knew we were going pretty fast, but that little exchange with G-forces let me know how right I was.
I was trying to push my glasses back onto my nose and sit up when I saw a car crest that big rise, just ahead of us.
It was a tiny sports car — I knew from my mom’s youngest sister that it was a Triumph TR-7, one of her favorites — and he was really cooking when he hit the top of that hill. He was moving along so fast, in fact, that his tires left the road at the top of the hill. I know, because I saw the air beneath them from our viewpoint, along with the underside of the car in flight. He didn’t get real high, but high enough that he couldn’t steer. Not with no tires on the road.
The driver’s face, a young man with dark glasses and hair, went ashen white through his windshield as his mouth dropped open to form an obscenity. I heard a sound, something along the lines of “Oh no!” from my left, and then suddenly, viciously, the car ripped to the right again, once more barking and squealing the rubber on the asphalt as the lumbering hulk of metal and glass yanked back to the right lane, spilling me face-first into the bench seat between my mother’s ass and mine.
I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the tiny sports car when I sat upright again. The wheels hit and grabbed, and the driver pulled simultaneously on the steering wheel.
To his left, of course. Right into our path again.
There was precious little distance between the two cars as they hurtled toward one another, and the eyebrows of the driver in the TR-7 rose up above the tops of his sunglasses, his mouth wide and gaping, looking like a snapshot of surprise you’d find in a first year psych book. He tug
ged again, harder, and there may have been a gasp from my mother, but there was no more reaction than that — straight on she barreled, and suddenly the little black sports car vanished.
I spun in my seat, looking out the rear window to see what had happened. My jaw dropped in shock at the sight.
The TR-7 was perpendicular to the road, his hood on one side of the deep drainage ditch on the north side of the road, his rear wheels spinning uselessly above the other side. The driver’s door was open, and steam was rising from the front end of the V-shaped car, which buckled just before the windshield when it smashed against the drainage ditch. It looked like a sad gypsy’s accordion, sagging, broken and clicking across the wide ditch. The driver had his arm hanging out of the open door, shaking his head in stunned disbelief with his eyes closed. I don’t think he ever saw us, and didn’t open his eyes to catch a glimpse as we climbed that rise.
So, my mother accelerated. We hit that rise and went down the other side and rocketed along State Line Road like never before.
She was still cooing to us that we were okay, everything was fine, and please don’t tell dad about this, nothing happened, we’re all fine, when we finally got to Kroger.
We stayed there for a really, really long time. I don’t remember when I stopped laughing.
And I still don’t like squirrels.