Teen On Speed

I was just a little over seventeen years old the day I threw a backpack into my brand new four-on-the-floor, tri-powered Pontiac Hard-Top, and drove non-stop from Hollywood California to Valdosta Georgia in a little under 30 hours. Given the distance (around 2,800 miles), my average speed would have been approximately 93 mph. A large part of which resulted from my driving at top speed* through the 1500 miles of straight, nearly empty highways stretching through Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

And why the hurry? In essence it probably wasn’t much different than what motivates the flight of a young bird as it steps from the nest for the first time, flapping its wings wildly…as it falls straight down to the ground. But in this case the object was ostensibly to help my brother move from Moody AFB (in Valdosta, GA) to his new assignment at Lowery AFB (in Denver), where he would begin teaching a course in radar-operated fire-control systems (i.e., shooting down planes using radar-controlled missiles).

It wasn’t but a few days later that we were packed up and heading off to Denver, towing my brother’s spotless little Austin-Healy behind us. And that’s when I got my first taste of what its like when you first ‘hit the ground.’

It was in the middle of nowhere Texas, on a stretch of divided freeway (the lanes separated by the width of a football field), that was perfectly straight and level as far as the eye could see. The only other traffic was an old pickup well ahead of us, and a farm tractor moving slowly along the side of the road some distance ahead of the pickup. My brother was driving at the time, at a pace much slower than would have been the case had I been at the wheel. But still he was going a little too fast for safely towing a vehicle behind…which we quickly discovered as he began to change lanes to pass the pickup we were about to overtake. Apparently the driver hadn’t noticed us behind him, because at that very moment he decided to drift into the left lane in order to give the tractor a wide berth. My brother had no choice but to immediately slam on the brakes and turn hard left to avoid hitting him. And that action caused the Healy to immediately begin to jack-knife behind us, pushing us into an uncontrollable spin.

Off the road we went, spinning several times into the broad open area separating the lanes of the freeway. My instant reaction was to bend over and put my head between my legs in case we flipped…which seemed quite likely given the speed we were traveling, and the rough nature of the field we were spinning into.

Fortunately we didn’t flip. But the moment we quit spinning I could see that the Healy had broken free of the hitch and was continuing on (now going backward) at a very high speed toward the other side of the freeway. It crossed the opposite lanes and then smacked dead-on into one of the waist-high concrete cable-supporting posts that lined the outer edge of the freeway along that stretch. Somehow, breaking through the post and cable, it continued over a slight incline and down through a barbwire fence that bordered the adjacent field. It didn’t stop until it had rolled nearly a 100 yards into the field beyond.

By that time both my brother and I were out of the car and frantically running after it. Fortunately, aside from the Healy’s badly bruised rear end (an understatement), both vehicles had survived the mishap without any significant damage. With the help of the fellow driving the tractor (who had stopped to enjoy the show), it wasn’t long before we had towed the Healy out of the field, reattached it to the back of my car, and were on our way once again. But this time, traveling a bit slower.

* * *

The above experience was just the opening prelude in a series of grounding events that I was about to experience over the next year or so, as I transitioned from the “speed” of a teen to the more thoughtful pace of an adult. And that’s when I joined the Army (to avoid the draft).

* * *

*That model of Pontiac was advertised to have a top speed of 120 mph…which I effectively ‘validated’ on an almost perfectly straight 100 mile stretch of highway between Clovis, NM and Lubbock, TX, which I traversed in 51 minutes…producing an average speed of 118 mph! ;-)


11 comments on “Teen On Speed

  1. Sounds like one of those experiences when your life flashes before your eyes, and you wonder forever how you survived. I’ve had a few of those moments, a few of them in vehicles…skidding on ice over Vail Pass, and again on a stretch of interstate outside Grand Junction, Colorado…hate those “grounding” events! But if you learned from it, then maybe it wasn’t so bad after all? Anyway, glad you lived to drive another day! ~ Sheila


    • Ah, yes…I know exactly what you mean. Idaho Springs to Grand Junction (or the reverse) can be a very slippery trail in the winter months. I still have some hairs that stand on end every time I recall the (several) ‘unguided’ moments I’ve experienced while crossing the Rockies! ;-)


      • Yes, that’s the stretch! You speed through the mountains at your peril! The views are worth the drive though…our son just moved back to Colorado, so I’m excited to have a reason to be in that state again soon. And we’ll drive carefully over the passes.
        Safe driving to you too! ~ Sheila


  2. Amazing the power of hormones and invincibility. Those pontiacs! With yours, you lost an Austin Healy. With mine, I lost my virginity. You got the A-H back!

    Thank goodness you didn’t maim yourself or anyone else!

    One spring, in B.C., I hit a stag at 80 mph as he was bouncing up an embankment at 7:30 a.m. after his morning drink. He was in the air when I hit him, killing him instantly . I then flew over the embankment, spinning, and stopped by mature evergreens before the river. Thankfully, I fainted and thankfully there was an RCMP behind me or no one would have known I was down there. The Bronco was flattened, not a speck of glass remained in the car and numerous tools had all flown out of the vehicle. I ended up with one small bruise on the top of my hand. Go figure.


    • Another example of ‘perfect timing,’ both bad and good. Had the stag jumped just a moment earlier or later, or the RCMP been just a few moments ahead or behind you, there’d be no story to tell…or ‘survivor’ to tell it. Perhaps the devil and god playing chess? If so, I’m glad god was on your side…and not the stag’s. (Or so we like to think.)

      I’m reminded of the several times I’ve had ‘near misses’ traveling from Vancouver to Prince George to Prince Rupert to catch the ferry to Ketchikan. Quite a beautiful drive, but also can be quite deadly in that regard. And often is.


  3. Oh boy, the Highway of Tears! I’ve driven that road numerous times, also, and in every season. Had the radar detector on the dash, contracts in my hind pocket and praying for no flat. I could have legitimately displayed a handicap sticker in that regard!

    Off to where? Up #97 to Cassiar, Whitehorse. Out to the Queen Charlottes (now Haida Qwaii). Into the sea of black lava fields heading for New Aiyansh (Nisga’a). Or just staying on Highway 16 to buck the blizzards to Terrace or Burns Lake.

    From the Gulf Islands, ferries were familiar. But not like the one to QC – waiting for the weather to break – as the shallowness of Hecate Strait made for murderously rockin’ waters – whipping cream in cartons sitting in Mac Truck containers. No ferry? No groceries for the people. No supplies. No government experts spilling out spewing their urban flaws.

    But you probably know about that, William – after trips South where old credit card swipes would be so plentiful the numbers wore off.

    Life’s pretty simple with only earthquakes and a power outages for threats? :)


  4. It is actually a blessing when one experiences something like this without anybody getting hurt, because you learn a vital lesson without having it on your conscience for the rest of your life, if you survive and if somebody else is seriously handicapped or killed. A story well-told, by the way. You sustained the suspense. :-)


    • I agree! And that experience did have a huge impact on my driving habits. I immediately became much more conscientious regarding speed, keeping a safe distance from the car ahead, etc., and haven’t had an accident since. That’s partly due to luck, I’m sure. But mostly I think it has been a direct result of that episode, and the decision to drive sanely and safely from that moment on. (Which I still do…mostly. ;-)


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