Seeing as the wondrous Lynnster is waiting at home for us Nashvillagers to post something that is NiTworthy, I figured I’d better get to working. After all, she did make it rain in Memphis today and maybe it’ll bring us some precip here in Davidson County.
I know y’all seem to like stories about me in harrowing situations, even if you know that I eventually do survive in the end, so I figured I’d set the Way-Back Machine to 1980 and relate a cautionary tale as we approach the July 4th traveling holiday.
My dad used to be a private pilot. He loved to fly more than anything else in life. Over the course of the first thirty years of my life, I can remember at least 12 planes that he owned as he upgraded to larger, faster and more technologically advanced equipment. But this was still in the low tech period of his flying career.
My dad was a very smart guy, but somehow certain concepts eluded him for a long time. He took years of training and testing to finally achieve his instrument flight rating so that he could fly above the cloud deck. I remember how much it frustrated him to take his test over and over when he had never really failed to achieve in any other endeavor he had undertaken.
So traveling with Dad in his pre-IFR days was a lot like driving. As a matter of fact, sometimes it was worse. Even though we were at 8,000 feet, we still followed interstates and railroad tracks as we leapfrogged from landmark to landmark. All ten of our eyes would scan the horizon for traffic and the ground for waypoints as we cruised along in our four seat Cessna.
Yes I said ten eyes and four seats. Do the math. There were five of us in the family, so that meant that until I was 8 or 9 years old, as the youngest, I had to sit on somebody’s lap. That didn’t make anybody happy. When I got older and bigger, laps were out of the question, so we just crammed three boys in the back seat of a plane whose cabin was smaller than the passenger compartment of a VW Bug.
And if there was a headwind, we often were slower than that VW Bug. The max cruising speed was normally about 80-100 knots, but there were times when the traffic on the interstate we were following was moving faster than we were.
So the upshot was that a trip to Panama City Beach could take as much as ten hours. But Dad loved to fly, so we rarely drove. Instead, Dad would leave a beater car at the private airport instead of renting a car. Even though he paid more to rent a parking space where the salt and sun would destroy the car in between trips, and invariably he would have to pay one of the linemen at the airport to mow the grass around the car and give the battery a jump when we arrived. Go figure.
So all of this is to set the scene of what mental state we were in when we and landed at the small private field in Panama City Beach July 4th weekend in 1980. We had stopped to refuel in Anniston, AL on the way down my brothers snuck across the highway to a fireworks stand to load up a grocery sack of Black Cats, Moon Travelers and Many Happy Family Bang Bang Superiffic Extravaganasplosion Towers. Just in case we weren’t dangerously overloaded enough…
We raced the sunset all the way across north Florida since Dad’s certification technically forbade flying at night. He put her down right at dusk and we taxied to the general aviation hangar. The employees at the FBO recognized Dad, and raced to fire up the lawnmower and battery charger knowing that there was a twenty waiting for the first guy to get to him.
We eventually got the car mowed out and fired up and my oldest brother pulled it around while Dad tied down the plane. This particular POS car was a late sixties/early seventies black and wood paneling Chrysler station wagon with about a million miles on it. Dad had wanted to put a trailer hitch on it so he could pull a big boat, but the stock bumper couldn’t handle that sort of strain. So of course the brute-force solution was to weld a 6 inch strip of pig iron to the bumper and affix the trailer hitch to that. It was perfectly positioned to completely obliterate your shins every time you tried to load or unload anything into the back of the wagon. All of the living members of my immediate family still to this day have dents and scars between our knees and ankles from this sumbitch and you can check them out of you don’t believe me.
We transferred the luggage from the plane to the car at the expense of at least three or four more shinjuries. We were famished, but Dad decided that we should go grocery shopping before we ate. Hell, it was only 95 degrees out after sunset. Why not leave the food in the car as long as we could?
Shopping hungry is never a good idea. Shopping hungry with three young boys was just stupid. By the time we loaded the groceries in the wagon (Thump-Crap! Thud-Shit!) there was barely room to move, much less see from the front seat to the rear window.
Now Dad decided it was time to go eat. We normally went to a place near the airport called Joby’s Seafood, where my Dad was apparently enough of a regular to be treated like Tony Soprano every time we walked in. It wasn’t until years later until I realized that my father had been going to Florida with coworkers, customers, vendors, friends and girlfriends ten times a year for decades when I just thought he was going on business trips. He was truly the Mac Daddy of the Redneck Riviera.
For some reason this particular trip, Dad didn’t want the royal treatment. Maybe because he had brought his wife instead of his girlfriend. I don’t know. But since we were in Florida, it only made sense that we get some seafood. So Arthur Treacher’s Fish ‘n Chip it was. At that point, I would have eaten the newspaper they wrapped the fried batter shreddings in.
The car, the coolers and the family were all full, so we were ready to start the hour long trip toward the vacation house in Inlet Beach. Mom and Dad rode in the front seat while the three of us boys sat in the back seat with our hairy, sweaty, sandy knees abrading each other and our feet shuffling around in an inch of sawdust and sandspurs which had fallen from the stuffing beneath my parent’s butts.
We were no more than five minutes from dinner when we found ourselves in the turning lane to transition to the Front Beach Road. For you Old Heads out there who might remember PCB before it was one long flip flop, henna tattoo, head shop strip mall, we were right in front of Petticoat Junction, the amusement park that predeceased Miracle Strip by about a decade.
I could barely see through my coke bottle glasses under the best of conditions. But wedged down in the bench seat with the glaring lights of traffic and neon signs streaming in through the side windows, I really couldn’t see shit. So I never saw it coming.
My dad did. He shouted, “Ohmigodhe’sgonnahitus!”
Normally, I was a fairly inquisitive kinda kid. I always wanted to know the whats and whys of anything. In retrospect, I was probably pretty much a pain in the ass. Even if you didn’t have to have me sitting on your lap or crammed into a seat between you and your other brother. In this case though, I didn’t ask anything.
Instinctively and instantly, my brothers and I reached out our arms and intertwined them across each other’s chest. Seatbelts? We didn’t need no steenkin’ seatbelts? We never wore them. I’m not even sure if the wagon had them. We relied completely on the “Mom’s right arm” seatbelt method.
But it was obvious that it was gonna take more than that in this case. I managed to catch a glimpse of what looked like a freight train coming right at our hood ornament, so in addition to our interlaced arms, I was also able to pull my feet up and brace them against the top of the back of the front seat.
Then the world exploded.
No, exploded isn’t the right word. Nothing sounded like it blew up. Instead it sounded like encasing your head in glass like a scorpion paper weight and having Thor crush it with his mighty hammer.
The impact was spread equally over my whole body as we were knocked over fifty feet backward despite the fact that my Dad’s foot was crushing the brake. As my head snapped forward, I saw my glasses receding into the dim, fuzzy distance headed toward the windshield thanks to that cruel bitch, Momentum. That same momentum broke the entire front seat off from its metal brackets and deposited it on top of my two brothers’ feet. My knees were pistoned backwards into my now blind eye sockets leaving me with two shiners that made me look like one of the Lil’ Rascals for a week.
In the passenger seat, my mom’s head cracked against the windshield. Luckily, as was the style back then, she wore a hairpiece to accentuate her bouffant/beehive so I’m pretty sure that cushioned the blow and saved her from serious injury. Unluckily, that hairpiece rebounded off the windshield and hit me in the face just as a ballistic bottle of Hawaiian Punch flew past my ear and broke against the back of the seat. My first conscious thought from the input that my 20/400 vision was allowing was that I now had the bloody head of my mother in my lap. Oedipus Schmedipus, that messed me up big time!
The smell of gas, transmission fluid and $200 worth of groceries snapped some of us to attention. Dad was still pretty groggy and my oldest brother to my left was moaning because the front seat had landed on his feet, messing up his ankle pretty badly. My mom, who it turns out, was not actually part of some Ichibodesque nightmare, turned around to check on us. My middle brother on my right was already entering superhero mode and was out of the car before Mom could ask how we were.
He has always had a bit of a temper, but in this case he fairly flew over to the car that hit us. Admittedly, it was a short flight since both cars were now joined at the firewall.
The other driver was sitting dazed and bleeding in the front seat of his Oldsmobuick with at least a twelve pack of empty beer cans rolling around on his floorboard. My brother yanked him out of the car and started screaming at him, calling him everything but a white man. (Which he was by the way…)
My mom said, “Go get help!” and I saw my brother take off like a shot toward a convenience store. I know I’m not making this up because several people marveled at the fact that he cleared a chain link fence in full stride like Edwin Moses running the Olympic hurdles. It was not until years later that I realized that the primary motivating factor behind his Promethean effort was that he wanted to hide the quarter bag of weed that he had in his pocket under the trash can at the Jim Dandy before calling 911. Hey, whatever it takes…
By the time the police and ambulances arrived all of the victims were out of the vehicles. My oldest brother and the driver of the other car were not ambulatory, so they sat in the middle of the carnage on the asphalt while EMTs checked them out. My father and I unloaded the car and tried to separate our luggage from the groceries, but everything had pretty much turned into a mélange of clothing and food.
Trying to be helpful, but actually being stupid like only a precocious 12 year-old boy with very little common sense can be, I wanted to make sure that my brother had the fireworks which we had all so looked forward to detonating as part of our holiday fun. So I set the bag next to him on the ground next to him as he lay on the ground on a gurney amongst the puddles of flammable liquids. They hooked him up to an oxygen hose through a nose clip and started to put an air cast on his ankle.
That’s when he decided he needed a cigarette.
No, no. You know how this ends. I’m still here typing this with all ten of my fingers intact. (Even though I really only use about four of them to actually pick and peck my way around the keyboard.) The ambulance driver saw what was going on and dropped his clipboard as my brother pulled out his Cricket lighter. I don’t know if being tackled by a 200 lb. guy made my brother’s injuries any worse, but it sure kept the rest of us from becoming an early “News of the Weird” or Darwin Awards entry.
It turns out the guy driving the other car was higher than a monkeyfish. The folks at the hospital said they couldn’t get a coherent word out of him for most of the night. They took his blood and his BAC was over .20. But the police forgot to get any samples for themselves.
We finished our vacation in a decidedly low-key fashion. I think Dad was mainly pissed because he actually had to rent a car. Plus my brothers were stoned most of the time, bless their hearts. I never got to go back to Petticoat Junction again because my family wouldn’t go near that intersection for years. The defense attorney managed to move up the trial of Mr. Monkeyfish without our being notified, so he skated free without us there to press charges. It’s not like we were looking for revenge, but it was a something of a travesty.
We were lucky. Very lucky. Five people in a car hit at 55 mph by a drunk driver with nary a seatbelt in use and the worst injury was sprained ankle. I have worn my seatbelt religiously since that day. And I don’t mean like how I floss religiously…every Easter and every Christmas.
I admit that I didn’t always wear my seatbelt in the back seat until I heard that Derrick Thomas of the Kansas City Chiefs was killed after he was catapulted through his driver’s side window during a rollover crash in his SUV. If a finely-honed athlete like him can’t keep himself in the vehicle in a crash, then I need every advantage I can get to stay strapped in.
So let’s be careful out there, people. You never know what sort of a drunken monkeyfish may be hurtling your direction as you sit there minding you own business. And we don’t all have the advantage of being surrounded by 3500 lbs. of American steel anymore. I may be rethinking this whole SmartCar thing…