Wednesday, March 22, 2006

By the Time I Was Fifteen

By the time I was fifteen, my friends and I had been joy-riding for some time. Usually with a family car, but on occasion with construction equipment left for the weekend in vacant lots nearby.

The closest we came to being apprehended was the time we drove a road grader down the ramp into the municipal sports stadium and raced around the track until police cars came rolling in with lights flashing, and we had to abandon ship—every man for himself—running in all directions until we could rendezvous later at the site of our former clubhouse, back at the vacant lot lately in the process of being cleared by some of the equipment we’d been operating after hours.

This vacant lot, incidentally, was the same location where we’d once built a giant, tumbleweed, igloo-style fort, complete with an underground entrance and standing headroom inside. Our pal Bud, whose dad was a uniform patrol cop, burned it down one day when he decided to cook hot dogs inside. That was the first time I remember meeting his dad on duty, but it all kind of blurs together with visual memories of the fire trucks arriving as the forty-foot-high flames of Bud’s unintended conflagration were at their peak.

Mostly, we borrowed Jack’s dad’s car by pushing it down the block in neutral and only starting it up once we’d rounded the corner. We thought this was a pretty smooth maneuver until the time we returned in the wee hours once, all tuckered out from shoving the heavy old Mercury back into its parking spot, and discovering half our parents waiting on the porch across the street.

So it was with great relief when we turned sixteen and could use the Mercury without repercussions, as long as we chipped in for gas and washed it on Saturdays. We had some good times in her, too—going on fishing campouts, hunting ducks and geese, and doing pickup work on Jack’s uncle’s farm or loading boxcars down at the rail yards.

But the most memorable experience was the time we decided—after a few beers--to steal some watermelons from a patch outside town. By the time we got there it was pitch black and the farmhouse lights were off, so we just cruised through the field, bouncing over furrows, until we spotted some nice big melons and stopped to load the trunk.

About halfway through our petty larceny, somebody came out of the house yelling and shooting a shotgun in the air, and we all dove in the car through windows and doors as Jack gunned the Mercury, throwing up a cloud of dust as we exited the field for the dirt road out to the highway. All except for Bud, that is, who’d been in front of the car and had no door to dive through and opted instead for a tentative perch on the front fender, from which he managed to buck off when we hit a small ditch, sending him in front of the vehicle, and into the sandy loam as we ran over him.

When we got Bud to the hospital, he was feeling pretty sore, but he didn’t appear to have any broken bones. After waiting in terror of Bud’s dad, we were greatly relieved to learn his injuries consisted of severe bruising, but no internal injuries. Unfortunately, for Bud, his partying for the evening was over. The rest of us decided to celebrate Bud’s miraculous survival by savoring slices of sweet melon on the curb outside.


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