The roads in Georgia are hilly. The rains in Georgia are heavy. That means that, from time to time and in some places, rain is going to collect into small and isolated pockets of water in the troughs and valleys between the hills and peaks of the roads: puddles.
The rain came down steadily, but it wasn’t the “toad strangler” or “frog choker” of earlier that day. That’s what my dad called heavy rains: “toad stranglers” or “frog chokers.” I had no idea why an amphibious animal would “strangle” or “choke” in the heavy southern rain; seemed to me if that were true, there’d be no more frogs or toads in the southeast in just one season, because it starts raining and the storms can come often and heavy. Any beast subject to strangling or choking in that kind of weather would surely die or split for better climes.
Anyway, that day the rain was coming down steadily. Earlier that morning, it had been the gushing, almost opaque sheets of water from the sudden and violent storms that sprang up from nowhere. The drainage ditches on either side of Bell Avenue were brimmed with the run off from the torrent, and didn’t show any sign of receding as the day wore on.
Time to go to the grocery store.
Anything could happen on a trip to the grocery store with my mother. You might avoid a squirrel and narrowly miss injury or killing someone. You might end up in that beckoning, gaping drainage ditch. You could slide down an access road into the parking lot, avoiding oncoming traffic only because God wanted you to. Who knows what adventures awaited on a trip for bread, milk and butter. You took your life in your hands every time you climbed into the car … and that was when she hadn’t been drinking.
The slate-gray sky was an unbroken sheet of marble that hung low over us and stretched away beyond the rolling horizons on both sides. Onto Bell Avenue the huge, baby-blue Olds backed, and then lumbered away down State Line Road toward Cross Street. So far, so good.
The car came over a rise and my mother gasped; from the back seat (it was Ryan’s turn to ride shotgun), all I saw as the car tipped forward was what looked like a river snailing its way across the narrow, two-lane road. The front of the car surged into the water and parted it like the prow of a tugboat, launching white walls of water over the top of the vehicle on both sides. I flipped around quick as a wink to watch the water rush in around the hole the car plowed through the enormous puddle, and saw those high-arcing rooster tails crest over on themselves to either side of where we’d been. It was like watching a scene from The Ten Commandments, with Charleton Heston parting the Red Sea. As we rose up another hill, the water pooled back into place, foaming where the walls of water had collapsed beside the pavement.
It was spectacular. The water must have been two feet deep or more, but it was no match for the heavy GM behemoth. I turned back to face forward.
“That was bad,” I grinned in my sassy 13-year-old way. In those days, “bad” was “cool.”
My mother laughed, but I could tell it had scared her; the car probably hydroplaned over most of that puddle, and had it been any deeper, we could’ve stalled.
On we rolled, finally turning left on Cross Street to take us south to Fort Oglethorpe. The Kroger was down this road a few miles, and that’s where we went when it was major shopping time; for smaller, quicker trips, the M&J Market was closer. Since we were bound for Kroger, I suspected this was to be the shopping trip for the week’s supplies, and we’d be gone for some time.
Tiny dips in the road were filled with puddles that sputtered and hissed loudly against the bottom of the car as it crushed through them, scattering them into mist and ripples before they could recollect and regroup. Once in a while, a larger puddle would put up more of a fight and the car would drag and slow as it ripped through the deeper water, sometimes sending miniature versions of those initial rooster tails away from the car at window height. My brother and I laughed and “whoa”’d through the bigger ones as we made our way toward the store.
I noticed then something I hadn’t before; a stretch of road that gave no puddles to destroy. A slow, steady rise up a gentle hill. The car’s own weight tugged at it and my mom goosed the accelerator slightly. The car cleared its throat and then growled meanly up the slope, which was so mild I’d never even noticed it was there before.
“Oh my God!” I heard her exclaim, in that “I’m freaking out but don’t want you to know it” voice that parents use to say things around their kids.
The car breached the top of the hill like a whale breaches the ocean’s surface, and started the descent toward the valley beneath it.
Which, naturally, was filled with water.
The puddle was a pond, spreading across both lanes and swallowing the helpless drainage ditches on either side; they were completely overrun. The smooth, unbroken water’s surface reflected that marbled gray sky at us like a mirage, and stretched far ahead until the asphalt emerged from it’s depth like a sea serpent slithering from Loch Ness. The opposite side of that mini-lake seemed to be light years away and we had no way to know how deep the water was.
I looked across that huge pond just in time to see the tan-clad figure step out of the State Trooper car and swagger his way over to the poor sap he’d stopped along the side of the street, just beyond that lake in the road. He didn’t see us hurtling toward them as the driver rolled down his window and the trooper adjusted his dark aviator’s sunglasses lazily to check the documents.
“Cop!” I shouted in panic, “Slow down!”
“We can’t!” my mother breathed, and mashed the gas pedal. The car obediently lurched ahead while Barney Fife in his Smokey the Bear hat, carefully draped with a plastic bag, took the ticket pad and his shiny silver pen from his shirt pocket. Ryan whined.
The big Olds hit the surface of the water with a thunderous splash and slowed a bit, but pushed forward anyway, the blunt front end pounding against the water’s surface and bulldozing it backwards.
On each side of us, those really cool, really high and really white walls of water careened off the car doors and fenders, shooting higher and higher, far over the car, the tops eventually curling over to fall slapping onto the ground somewhere behind us.
We cruised through that puddle so fast the car didn’t have time to stall; it hit the water so hard none of it could flood into the carburetor or distributor cap or whatever the hell makes a car stall in deep water. And just behind the rear view mirrors, just in front of my door, the walls of water launched themselves skyward and outward, like the car was trying to grow wings and fly over the landscape.
The roar of the engine and the white-water rushing sound of the retreating lake around it made the driver turn to see what was coming. Barney Fife was busy studying the man’s driver’s license, standing at the open window of the car. When that moving violator saw that runaway comet of blue metal and white watery tail rocketing toward him, he grimaced in panic and began to frantically roll the window up, right in the cop’s face.
When he saw what the driver was doing, Barney seemed stunned for a moment. Then he saw us in the reflection of the car’s window, and he turned around slowly in stunned disbelief.
His face went slack, sinking as he figured out what was going to happen.
If that cop was six feet tall, then the water was twelve feet high. It towered over him like a proud Hawai’ian surfing wave, rising up as we whipped by and then curling down, forming a hollow over his head before it came crashing down on him.
I jerked hard to turn around in my seat, my jaw open and eyes wide, giggling like a maniacal hyena as I watched that wave melt over ol’ Barney, the car he’d pulled over, his own vehicle with its driver-side door standing open, and crested off into the field beside the road where the gravel shoulder disappeared into trees and grass. It sloughed off the broad bill of his trooper hat, his clothes dark and clinging, sopping wet, his ticket pad drenched, his face and arms dripping water in sheets as it flowed off him.
He never looked up, never made a move to go back to his car; he just stood there staring at himself soaking on the side of the road, shaking drops and rivulets off his hands. As we shot up the other side of the rise and down again, out of the line of sight, the driver was rolling his window back down, mouth agape with his laughter.
We finished our shopping – which took a really, really long time – and went home without passing that cop again.