By Brian M. Howle
Every year around this time, the first hints of yet another seasonal change make their presence known. The constant vigil for hurricanes, the first cool front that teases the sense before returning us to the relentless sub-tropical heat, the shrill call of the whistles on the football field – all signal fall’s impending arrival. But for me, the changes signal the anniversary of my absolute closest brush with death.
September 18, 1971 was my version of Roosevelt’s post-Pearl Harbor speech to Congress and the nation – for me, “a day which will live in infamy.” A year to the day since injuring my left knee while playing high school football, an old friend from grade school days was in town visiting his relatives, when we happened to meet at a convenience store. We decided to get together that evening to celebrate our reunion with a few more friends.
In those days, any reason to celebrate was acceptable on a weekend night in Andrews, our sleepy little hometown. If a particular cause was lacking, well, the fact that is was a weekend night in Andrews was good enough for us.
But now we had a legitimate reason to party, and all the necessary preparations were made in the harmless spirit of “boys being boys.” There was only one hangout for the younger set, Sam’s Drive-In (fast food franchises were still caloric gleams in our eyes, decades from arriving here), and all social itineraries for the under-thirty set were formulated in Sam’s parking lot. It was the nerve center for gossip, a meeting place for hormonal wildlings and the only place in town to get a burger at night. It was agreed we would make it our strategic command headquarters that evening.
Far removed from the social and cultural influences of Haight-Ashbury, there was no drug problem in the Andrews of 1971 due to two very important facts:
(1) There were no drugs (although I later learned one or two locals had ventured out into the world and come back to town “with a brand new plan,” as the Kentucky Headhunters would attest); and,
(2) No one seemed to consider alcohol a drug.
Well, that worked for us.
Obtaining alcohol – whether legally of age or not – was not a big trick. There were more bootleggers than churches, and let me tell you, Andrews has a few churches. The bootleggers were geared more to the after-hours clientele; more often than not, however, we simply drove out to one of several small grocery/gas stations (redneck prerunners to 7/11s) where the owner filled beer and wine orders via young boys who took your money, ran inside and gave the owner the cash and the order, then returned to your car carrying a brown paper bag crammed with clinking bottles. Generous tips ensured your “connection” kept you in good standing and expedient delivery.
So, not unlike many other nights, two of my friends – Leon (the Camaroo Kid; a moniker that resulted from a previous night of cruising around and attempting conversation while buttered) and Van (bassist in my first garage band) – and I stocked up on beer. But, since our old friend, Charles, was in town, we made sure to have enough to last the night. Each of us bought a case, including Charles.
As twilight began to fall, Sam’s parking lot was bustling with activity. The afternoon football games were over, the boats were all trailered back home after a day on the river, and the eternal cycle of boy-meets-girl/girl-meets-boy was chomping at the bit. We recalled days of old, insulted each other, laughed, hollered at every carload of girls that cruised by, and generally just had a large time. Young, alert, bright eyed, clear of mind and strong of body, we were all Spartacus. We were immortal.
The hours passed by and the empty bottles piled up. At some point, a dangerously low inventory of beer was realized, remedied by another quick run to the little store. A few jokes and a courageously fumbled attempt at pursuing a car full of girls later, we were dumfounded to discover our supply again running low. Satisfied that we were nowhere near the lethal parameters of blood-alcohol content, it was decided that the time had come to upgrade our intake. A short trip across town; lights dosed as we slowly rolled to a stop in a dark alley, a light toot of the horn, an exchange of money and product with a faceless silhouette, and the deal was done. We returned to Sam’s to catch up on anything we missed with sanguine haste.
Now, somewhere along the line, I was separated from my buddies. I don’t know why I was, but it was probably due to the fact that I was extremely intoxicated. Informed by others – for days and weeks afterwards – of my actions that night, the scenarios painted for me were not exactly flattering. Yes, I do vaguely remember climbing up on the back of a toilet at the BP station and passing out (wedged quite comfortably, thank you); No, I do not recall carrying on a conversation with a telephone pole for half an hour across the street from Sam’s, while my compatriots rolled on the ground in laughter.
I also vaguely remember something about Leon having a fight with his girlfriend at some point that night, but I think it was when I was AWOL. After my telephone pole debate, I wandered back to Sam’s parking lot and draped myself over the hood of Leon’s champagne gold 1968 Camaro, where I contentedly dozed off.
A firm hand shook my shoulder, and I opened my eyes. The blur standing over me was repeating a slap-back echo chorus of “GET UP!”
“Leave me alone, now, I’m comfortable!” I barked out in disgust at being bothered.
“No, get up, get up … we’re gonna go watch a race!” was the now discernable plea from the darkness.
What’s this? A race? And I’m in danger of missing out?
“Alright, alright, let’s go … but I call shotgun.” I said as I slid off the hood and wobbled towards the passenger door of Leon’s Camaro.
“No, sit in the back, I already called it,” growled back the voice.
“Alright, but if you don’t open door when I say to, I’m probably gonna throw up on your neck.” I replied as I pushed the seat forward to crawl into the tiny back seat.
“Um, hey, wait a minute … OK, you sit up front.” He wisely capitulated.
After he squeezed into the back seat, I plopped down and started to shut the door when I suddenly had the overwhelming urge to begin inquiring about someone named Ralph. The other occupants quietly congratulated themselves for allowing me quick access to the door.
As we made our way out of town, I became aware that there were now six of us in a car designed for two people and a loaf of bread. Besides Leon, Van, Charles and myself, two more friends – Greg and Ricky – had stuffed themselves into our ride. As we rolled along, steadily picking up speed, Ralph was on my mind again, and I tried to keep my eyes closed so that he would go away. I opened them after a few minutes just as a sign flashed by my window.
“Hey, that was Johnson Swamp bridge?” I asked out loud, my attention drifting as I noticed the telephone poles clicking by like a metronome gone berserk. “Where are we going, anyway? And who’s racing out here?”
“It’s out past Williamsburg High School,” came a shouted reply above the blaring 8-track tape and the loud attempts at conversation between those around me – and the growing whine of a small-block Chevy nearing full song.
The pace of the telephone poles slowed suddenly, and I was pressed hard against my door by a quick left turn. Greg, who was sitting on the shifter console between the front bucket seats, added to my G-force discomfort with his considerable added weight.
“Hey, I still don’t know who’s racing,” I hollered out again.
A voice from the back seat cut through the noise. “I think we are.”
It was at that exact moment when I realized that no matter how drunk you are, your parents’ common sense will still surface through the fog. Their constant warnings of the consequences of back-road street racing came to the fore of my awareness. That, and the fact that over a two year period, eighteen young men had died around our area in high-speed crashes.
As we made another hard left turn, I recognized a house that flashed by. I had dated a girl who lived on this road, and I knew that about two miles ahead of us there was a 15 MPH left-hard curve. I also knew there was no way we were going to make it.
In the company of my peers, I tried to be cool. I leaned over to my left to look at the speedometer as the needle passed 80, and then I sat back.
”You know, there’s a bad curve up here,” I stated loudly.
No one seemed to hear me as Leon shifted into top gear, foot glued to the gas pedal.
“I said, there’s a real BAD curve up here!” I repeated louder, growing increasingly nervous as we scalded down the worn blacktop.
I looked at Leon. He was hunched down on his seat, eyes fixed straight ahead, hands welded to the steering wheel.
“I SAID, THERE’S A REAL BAD CURVE UP HERE! YOU MIGHT WANT TO SLOW DOWN NOW!” There was no more false bravado. I wanted out.
The little yellow diamond-shaped 15 MPH sign loomed ahead as our headlights picked up its reflective paint. In an instant, it flashed by me.
I never bothered looking ahead again. I literally reached down and locked my arms around my legs, and tucked my head down between my feet. The paralyzing fear I had experienced for the previous minute or so disappeared. It was probably just a nano-second, but a warm calmness swept over me as I mused to myself, “So this is what it’s like to die.”
“Take the inside and you got it made,” Greg yelled, elbowing Leon in the ribs with his left arm while raising his beer for another swig as we entered the curve.
Or, as a mathematician would have said, “as we failed to maintain the radius and dissected the apex in a straight line.”
As the 8-track prophetically pounded out 3 Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me Not To Come,” Leon realized what I had been saying. He slammed the shifter down into first gear. Eyes closed and still tightly in my fetal position, I heard and felt the transmission explode as a result. We left the road at well over 100 MPH, clearing a small ditch that ran alongside the curve. The impact back on earth ripped the dual exhaust pipes from underneath the car. The noises were demonous.
We cut through an old barbed-wire fence, taking out rotting fenceposts like toothpicks. The doomed Camaro made a valiant attempt at following the outline of the curve for about fifty yards.
Then we hit a telephone pole, clipping it cleanly at the ground and snapping it again about ten feet up. That ten-foot section sailed right through the windshield – directly above me – and peeled back the roof almost to the back seat. Even though this all occurred at high speed, I was trapped in a Sam Peckenpaw-like film sequence, where everything seemed to be rolling by in super slow-motion. There was a bright blue-white flash that pierced through my closed eyelids as the transformer on the pole exploded. Then a very hard “WHUMPH!” – followed by swirling silence.
We had impacted a large dirt mound behind the pole, left behind by a power company crew as they cleared a right-of-way for the power line. The Camaro hurtled up, end over end and spinning, clipping the smaller saplings left behind by the crew. During this silent flight, I ran my tongue over pieces of teeth that were filling my mouth. I knew my dentist was going to be upset with me.
Suddenly, the slow-motion roll snapped back into real-time with a spine-jarring “THUMP!” Although the car had come to a stop, the silence was deafening, broken only by the angry hiss of steam from the mortally wounded Camaro.
Eyes still tightly shut, I heard Van call out from behind me, “Someone turn on the light!”
“Yeah, I can’t see anything, turn on the light,” another voice repeated.
I opened my eyes slowly. I was sitting upright, looking straight out over what used to be the front end of the car. Although I had accounted for at least two others by voice, I would not look to my left for fear of seeing one of my friends dead. And then there was a third voice from behind.
“Hey … I smell gas.”
That was all it took. I glanced quickly to my left as I started to extricate myself from the twisted mass. Leon was standing outside the car, just standing and looking at the remains of his beloved Camaro. Greg was hanging over the driver’s door; head, arms and torso outside, waist and legs dangling inside, trying desperately to climb out.
And then I was standing outside, too, frozen in awe at the sight before me in the dim moonlight. It appeared as if pages from a book were hanging from all the limbs around us; in actuality, they were the plates from the car’s battery, which exploded during the telephone pole incident. The sensory input was overwhelming: the strange, odorous brew of swamp, oil, gas, blood and beer permeated the cool night air. As Van was making his way through the rear window, I heard Charles and Ricky. I could not believe it. We had all survived.
Just then, I heard a car approaching. But from where? We couldn’t see the road; in fact, we couldn’t even tell where we had come from. A huge pine had stopped us from making another roll, and a heavy growth of trees and underbrush surrounded us after we sailed from the life-saving confines of the powerline clearing. Then, as the car drove by, I saw its headlights flash through the trees. Although I had accounted for everyone, I still didn’t know the extent of their injuries. Getting help was all I could think of, so I took off in the direction of the lights.
I bounced off of several trees in the darkness, but kept forging on at full gait. I saw the car’s backup lights as they slowly reversed, searching for signs of our car. They were just around the curve, in front of us, when they saw our headlights pinwheeling through the air. It was taxing for them, as they were also trying to avoid the power lines that were now draped across the dark highway at a 45˚ slice, lightly touching the pavement before rising back into the darkness, spitting out sparks with each swaying breeze.
Within thirty feet or so of reaching them, my legs were cut out from under me by the barbed-wire fence, enacting its revenge for our annihilation of its brethren in the field back where we left the road. Relatively unscathed by the wreck, my right knee would now join the left in providing me a lifetime of pain.
But the adrenaline levels at such a moment masked the pain, and I continued on. The folks in the car reeled back in startled surprise when I bounded out of the woods at full gait.
“Get an ambulance, get an ambulance!” I shouted at them as I ran in circles in front of their car. “No, get two ambulances … maybe three!” I rambled, as I started to wonder why none of the rest had joined me. I began spitting out my teeth, only to find it wasn’t teeth at all, but little chunks of safety glass from the side window, which I had slammed into during the multiple rolls.
“Hey, y’all follow my voice … Come to me!” I yelled.
“Brian? Where are you, Brian?” Charles was the first to answer.
“I’m on the road, come on out, follow my voice, but be careful, there’s a barbed-wire fence between us and the power lines are down in the road!” I yelled back.
“OH GOD, BRIAN WAS THROWN OUT ON THE ROAD!” Charles cried out, “KEEP HOLLERING, BRIAN, WE’LL FIND YOU!” He began weeping loudly.
“No, Charles, no; I’m alright, don’t worry,” I tried to assure him.
“THAT’S RIGHT, YOU’ll BE ALRIGHT, JUST KEEP HOLLERIN’ … I’LL FIND YOU!” Charles persisted. I hadn’t seen him most of the night, but apparently he was even more drunk than I had been.
I say “had been” because the moment that car stopped rolling, I was dead straight sober. For me, alcohol was no match for life-affirming brushes with the Reaper.
Everyone eventually made their way out of the swampy woods, and we gathered in the glare of our rescuers’ headlights to give thanks for our lives – and to whip up a real good cover story about the circumstances surrounding our attempt at flight. The pasture we plowed through before hitting the pole was home to an old sway-backed nag, who frequently stood at the fence while grazing. The old “Officer, I swear, it looked like the horse was standing in the road so I swerved to miss it” defense was employed and agreed on by all. That was our story and we stuck to it.
The ambulances and the Highway Patrol finally showed up. Ricky was the only one to go to the hospital, treated and released that night for a severe laceration on his hand. Besides ruining my knee on the fence, I had a small piece of chrome molding from the door impaled in my thigh (which I didn’t discover until the next morning). The others escaped virtually unscratched.
All these years later, as I watch all those sixteen to nineteen year-olds heading out for a night with their friends, I can only give them my prudent voice of experience: Don’t drink yourself into stupidity and then drive or ride in a car with someone who has, and don’t allow your friends to, either.
And don’t ever, ever get into a Camaro with Ralph – or Leon.
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, September 9, 1999.