Pushing my luck has never been a big problem

Pushing my luck has never been a big problem
                        

When you’re 16 and it’s summer and the radio’s cranked and the road is open and flat as far as you can see, you feel invulnerable.

That’s me behind the wheel of a 1970 Ford Country Squire, a station wagon that gear heads used to call “beaver cars” because of the faux wood paneling on either side and the tailgate.

I’m not thinking about dying.

I’m thinking about flying.

How I took it into my head that it was not only cool but essential that I push the gas pedal until I’d reached 100 mph isn’t the point, though an argument can be made that it ought to be.

No, the point is why not.

As I’ve said, at that age you’re not particularly interested in differential physics or load displacement or aeronautical ratios.

You feel you’re beyond the reach of mere mortality and that those hundreds of feet of asphalt you’re covering each and every second are not any more real than those Saturday morning cartoon shows you grew up watching.

There’s more than a little Wile E. Coyote coursing though your veins as the needle leans farther and farther to the right, like some freaked-out compass trying to find your true north.

The funny thing is I wasn’t much of a daredevil as a kid. About the only reckless thing I ever did was pocket a packet of Sweet Tarts from the drug store shelf and walk out, though I returned in a matter of minutes and replaced the item.

Catholic guilt is a strange and wonderful thing.

But when it came to big-ticket items like wanton vandalism or physical assaults, I was never at the front of the line. There was nothing appealing about risky behavior that involved jail time.

Which brings us back to that bronze blur of a beaver car tearing down that stretch of country road back more than 50 years ago.

It’s hard not to flash retrospective warnings in front of my 16-year-old eyes, difficult to try and penetrate that wall of stupidity, impossible to undo what’s already happened as if nothing had.

This was no random stunt pulled out of thin air, something woven from the ether of a momentary sunstruck daydream. On the contrary this was the culmination of days and days of careful, calibrated reconnaissance, the kind of intricate research that made “The Great Escape” one of my favorites books that summer.

In it the POWs in a German camp are all assigned vital jobs, each one’s success building on the next one’s contribution as the tunnel lengthens and hopes rise. There was no room for hurt personal feelings, for exhaustion, for excuses as to why some vital function had to be delayed.

It all hinged on precise planning.

Anything less could prove fatal.

It’s a great read, and I found myself right down with those guys as they burrowed and laid tracks, battled the clock and their own limits of exertion, all the while sitting on my bed trying not to go too fast, to enjoy the way the prose flowed, a fine experience.

And much better than the movie, though I’d probably be in the minority on that score, visuals being easier to consume than words.

Civilian clothes are sewn, documents are forged and timetables are created, each and every man responsible for some aspect of the collective endeavor.

It is, if you’ll pardon the pun, the best kind of escapist reading.

Summer was a great time for that kind of diversion; still is, if you haven’t given up on the habit.

“After three days without reading,” a sign above the chalkboard in my third-grade classroom proclaimed, “talk becomes stale.”

There used to be such things as summer reading clubs. You’d finish, say, “Homer Price and the Doughnut Machine” or “Emil and the Detectives,” give an oral report to the children’s librarian, and if you had done your job well enough, a star would be added after your name on a poster that hung from the wall.

Ten books a month was considered outstanding. My brother, I think, racked up 30 in July when he was like 10 years old.

That probably explains why his words are housed between hard covers and mine line bird cages.

But that’s fine.

He’s a better writer.

But I’m a better driver.

I spent the week after my college graduation with my girlfriend and her family in Norfolk, a Virginia city nearly 600 miles from my hometown. I kept delaying my departure because that’s what love does to you when you’re young and nothing’s impossible.

So instead of pulling out of the driveway of their three-story townhouse bright and early that Sunday morning — knowing I had to report to work at 7 a.m. the next day — I dallied. The longer I lingered, the more daunting the drive that awaited me became.

“Michael, love,” my girlfriend said in her pretty Southern accent, “ya’ll best get going.”

And then I stayed another half hour, just sitting with her in a front-porch glider where we’d spent so much time together.

By the time I drove away in my gold 1969 Chevy Impala, the sun was low in the western sky, and I drove straight into it as the shadows lengthened and night slowly fell.

It had taken us more than 12 hours to get there. I made it back home in about eight.

The satisfaction I derived from that drive pales, however, whenever I reflect on that summer afternoon six years earlier, the day I decided I would hit 100 mph.

I had done my research and selected a stretch of roadway out there in what I thought of as “In Cold Blood” country: rural, remote and nearly unpeopled. There were corn fields on either side, but planting season was long past and harvest time was months away.

The needle inched past 80 and slowly crept up on 90 as the beaver car stayed straight and true, my eyes never leaving the road as the DJ cued up “Brown Sugar” and I turned up the volume as the Rolling Stones pushed me past 100 mph … just perfect.

As I decelerated and the wind inside calmed, I said a quick prayer and then thought to myself, “No one ever has to know about this.”


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