Tales from the Garage
Text and Image by Rodney Kemerer
In this Tales From The Garage we stand on the side of the highway, late at night, thumb extended, looking for that elusive ride home. One night, many nights ago, became a night to remember…
In 1965 I had my first real paying job washing dishes in a local restaurant tied to a motel along the highway that ran near my parents home. I had been eager to get a job with a paycheck, but it was not exactly within walking distance. Hitchhiking was much more common then, and a fairly reliable way to get around before the coveted drivers license arrived. As you can imagine, daylight hitchhiking was easier and faster than night time. Once it was dark, you tended to wait longer with your optimistic thumb hanging out in the air.
This was a summer job, so the cool night air felt comfortable enough to wait whatever time it took to catch that ride. The restaurant/motel was directly across the street from an all-night gas station which was still clad in its white porcelain panels with green trim. An original Sinclair Station. This was a well-lit oasis along the highway, which made it the perfect place to hitchhike from, by standing directly under one of the high-pressure sodium lights. I was a well-presented hitchhiker.
Few cars travelled this highway late at night, so I was very aware of any car that went past me, always looking for those brake lights that indicated someone was going to pick you up. You had to run as fast as you could to the car before they changed their minds.
Well past midnight, I heard the distant rumble of a high-powered engine approaching and sure enough, at high speed, a 1963 Split Window Corvette Coupe flew past me with a deep roar. I was a car-crazed kid, so I knew exactly what it was. Hard to miss the 327 V-8 with its foot in it.
The car zoomed past me and, way off in the distance, it suddenly hit the brakes. As I started my run toward the car, it quickly went into reverse at the same speed it had passed me only seconds before. Tires smoking and screaming, the car raced backwards and came to a complete stop right next to me. The passenger door popped open and a voice from the dark interior said, “Where you goin’?”
Startled, I replied, “Ah, home?” More of a question than an answer.
“Ok, hop in kid.”
Now I could see two rather young men inside and also clearly see there was no backseat and no room for me. They both laughed and indicated that I should just squeeze in between them and somehow sit on the console. Okay, I was thinking, short ride, cool Corvette, why not?
Within seconds, I was riding console, the door closed and my driver once again punched the pedal like he was killing a large cockroach. The car leaped forward, almost on its hind legs, the backend broke loose and we smoked the tires. I was, to say the least, terrified. At that point in my short life, I had never been in a high-powered car, never been in a car driven like that, and never ridden console with a stick shift between two guys who, clearly, were drunk.
Much laughter and fun ensued as we raced down the dark empty four lane highway. I was just barely hanging on to whatever I can grab to keep from being thrown about the cramped cabin. As we approach the cross street that led to my house, I told them above the roar that they could just drop me off at the corner. Oh no, they would not hear of it. Had to be “door to door service.” The driver loved skidding to a stop almost as much as popping the clutch on startups.
A few sharp turns later and we were in front of my house and I climbed out over the top of the passenger. More laughter, thank-yous and goodbyes. As they roared off, I just assumed they had awakened everyone in the neighborhood. I stood there watching the taillights disappear over the hill with the heavy smell of unburnt fuel hanging in the damp night air. What a ride.
The following morning I was having breakfast with my family and there was a knock at the front door. My mother looked out the window and saw two policemen. Of the three boys in our family, my mother knew instantly where to look. Yes, it was me.
My mind raced quickly as I tried to recall everything I had done in the last 24-hours to see if anything qualified for two policemen at the front door so early in the morning. I came up with nothing.
Once inside, they wasted no time in explaining the nature of the visit. It seems I was the only witness to who was driving a now totaled Corvette with one dead body thrown across the highway. My breakfast suddenly soured in my stomach.
It happened within seconds of dropping me off. My heavy-footed driver wrapped the Coupe around a tree at high speed, throwing both occupants out of the car. One crawled away, one did not.
As you might guess, the survivor was claiming that he was an innocent passenger and not responsible for the death of the driver. The problem: He was the registered owner of the car. His story needed backup. In the cold light of day he remembered a hitchhiker, and even remembered where they had dropped him off. Which led them to my front door. A drunken breadcrumb trail.
This suddenly felt very adult and very serious. New words were being thrown about our living room – wrongful death, manslaughter, felony, etc. I had no idea. First, I was with these guys for a total of maybe 15 minutes. We did not exactly introduce ourselves. When asked to describe the “driver,” I was clueless. The two men were interchangeable to me and I was no help no matter how hard the policemen pressed me. My mother and father looked on in total disbelief. I still remember the expression on their faces.
Months later I was still being interviewed by more police, detectives, and a pile of insurance investigators. It seemed that serious money was now involved and I was the key to solving everyone’s problem, if only I could I.D. the driver. The problem: I still had no idea. The case did eventually settle without me, and I do not even remember the outcome with one notable exception…
To this day, when I see a Split Window Corvette Coupe, I see a split second between life and death. My own. | GSM