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! ;-)