Jim was a tough kid, a lost boy. His father had disappeared early on, the lure of alcohol trumping the pleasure of family. His mother, “Ma” as I called her fondly was a stumpy woman, very short, very thick and very hard in many ways. Jimmy was fond of expressing his displeasure with the life he was given and by the age of 13 had developed a career as a petty criminal.
I was a member of a juvenile motorcycle club when we met, two punks with a communal delinquency disorder. It was inevitable that we’d have “a moment”.
One late October afternoon while I was alone in the upper floor of a neighborhood brothel my gang used as a clubhouse and “living” quarters, Jimmy drove up in a fairly new Buick Skylark. As he was just fifteen at the time without so much as a license much less a job, and his mother the retired truck driver was too poor to buy a sporty car, I assumed it had to have been stolen; and I was right. Jim loved cars, and he took one whenever he had the urge.
He thought it should be stripped it of its valuables, so he’d come to the house for assistance. Sadly, I was never a mechanic; I have always been more ponderous than productive. As he listed off the items he wanted to salvage, it occurred to us that had we actually removed the tires or the carburetor, the wiring harness or the shift console and controls, we’d have a disabled car on our hands, with no way to move it into someone else’s space where the police might be mystified as to who the culprits might be. So we decided on the radio; that could be removed without making the car an albatross and it might sell for enough money to buy, say, a carton of cigarettes or a case of beer!
We wrenched and wrestled. We crowbarred and hammered; and nothing we did would remove the radio from the sporty dashboard. Jim was saddened by our failure. He thought the only way to cheer us would be to take a long joy ride before dumping the vehicle, and I could hardly disagree. Actually, I could disagree; though I was a full-fledged charter member of the “gang”, I had never enjoyed the criminal part of our routine. I didn’t mind intimidating people into staying out of my way, but as for physical violence or destruction of property, I avoided taking part as often as I was able. Still, a joy ride seemed innocuous enough, and I didn’t know Jimmy well enough to fear him; I’d thought he was troubled certainly, but in all other respects quite sane.
The drive was uneventful in the main. Plenty of tire rubber was left at various intersections, the streaks all pointing west and into the suburbs we both knew well enough to risk having to race down back roads with coppers in hot pursuit. It was fun, there was adrenaline pumping through every pore of my body, it was one of the highest natural highs I’ve ever been on. And then the ground opened up and swallowed us.
New York Mills road is a windy twisty thing, barely navigable at 25 miles an hour. Jim figured we were in a sporty car, we may as well act sporty; so he took the curves at something near 75. There were a few “whoohoo”s shouted as we stood the vehicle onto two wheels, but then we hit a sand patch and spun wildly out of control.
We hit the ground right side up, but we’d kicked up so much dirt and dust the air was visually impenetrable. So Jimmy did what he thought was right; floor the gas pedal in an attempt to regain the highway and get as far in the direction of home as was possible. We weren’t moving, though we were throwing up an entirely new layer of dirt curtain. It seems we had left the road in mid spin so as to float over a ditch, taking a few mailboxes along for a few meter ride, and had come to rest nose deep into an upward hill. All Jim was doing by gunning the engine was to throw sod a few hundred feet into the air, and slowly dig two ruts in the direction of China. Eventually the air cleared enough to note that we had destroyed a below road grade front yard, and a few people were peering from their windows trying to see whatever they could of the action.
Jim tossed the car into reverse and after another slight struggle, backed the car out of the ditch and onto the pavement, facing into the direction from which we’d come. A few things were obvious; the suspension system was broken, the car’s body wobbled on its frame like a blob of currant jelly on the bald pate of an elderly marathon runner. One headlight was pointed toward the sky, a definite negative if one’s plan was to sneak back into the big city without rousing suspicion. And, judging by the number of house lights that were flicking on all around us, our flight and errant landing hadn’t gone unnoticed.
Logic said one of two things; dump the car and run like hell right now, or take it easy and try to get as far as you can without further injury. Fear trumps logic. We were many, many miles from a safe house and we knew the cops had been called. Jim slammed the car into drive and away we went, bearing down on certain doom.
We didn’t get but two tight curves down the street before we again began to spin as if we had been stuck through the center by a pencil and given a twirl by the hand of God; only this time… As the world lit up I watched the rear wheels and axle pass by, headed for a lovely cape cod with almost perfect landscaping. We had dropped onto the gas tank and were still doing perhaps one revolution every two seconds. It must have looked spectacular, presuming anyone was lucky enough to have come to their window just as the twirlygig flew by.
It’s a moment I can re-witness any time my heart desires, in slow motion, in reverse, in Technicolor or sepia tone. Jim had taken his hands off the steering wheel as there was little point in trying to aim a juggernaut. At the moment of sparks flying we both turned to each other, our lower jaws dropped as far as humanly possible, our eyeballs escaped their sockets and our breath was held and compressed into a teeny tiny corner of our lungs. The word “wow” was meant to be said, both of us were attempting sentience and yet, we were overwhelmed. It was as if we were sitting within a fireworks sparkler, or more obvious, like we were sitting in a tub while someone used a grinder to bore a hole through the steel plates in our heads.
Eventually of course, what remained of the sporty car came to a stop, facing in the correct direction if you must know, but missing a few of its most necessary parts. We laughed. We roared actually. We were lucky we hadn’t wet our pants, and the magic of staring into the face of death and waving it buhbye had made us quite giddy for a moment. That is until we heard the sirens.
We had an idea where we’d landed, though our expertise rested on being in a vehicle on a road and not tearing through back yards in the dark. Still, we boogied, East, in the direction of the city where we’d better blend in at midnight. The first house we passed by, the aforementioned lovely cape cod, stood lightless; a good thing in that before our eyes adjusted to the dark we’d run into a few noisemakers like garbage cans and a particularly vicious clothesline that nearly turned Jimmy into an Ichabod. There was tall reedy grass ahead, and the base of a forested hill. If we could make the cover we’d be able to slink a bit and maybe throw off the FBI that was sure to be on our tail at any moment.
I pride myself in being an outdoorsman. Even at that age I’d camped many a time, could identify dozens of trees and a small book’s worth of plant life. So why it didn’t occur to me that reed grass doesn’t grow just anywhere, will forever remain a special secret to me. I remembered though, the moment I was knee deep in Minnehaha creek.
I wasn’t particularly cold until I was wet. I believe I immediately turned blue and for the rest of the night fought hypothermia by shivering my skin across my bones as if I were trying to build an internal fire the Boy Scout way.
The highway patrol car sounded much like an incoming rocket. He’d cleverly turned off his siren so as to sneak up on the perpetrators of this crime, and then sucked so much fuel through his four barrel carburetor that he woke the neighborhood dead. It was no matter, we were well away, nearly atop the hill and quickly moving out of one in a million random glance range.
For the next five hours we crawled and dodged from house to garage to car to mailbox to spruce tree to fencepost and so on; each block of progress taking what must have been 20 minutes. Every light we saw was assumed to be a searchlight carried by a posse of rotted toothed men carrying clubs and the leashes of coon hounds who were howling in anticipation of having a little tender teenaged meat for breakfast. Every neighborhood dog that barked made us drop to the ground, as if a dog, whose eyes are generally an inch off the ground already, wouldn’t notice us if we hugged the earth.
We ran perhaps two miles in all, there was far too much dodging to make any distance. Tired, less cocky and a bit unnerved, we soon found another wooded section surrounding another turn of the creek as it meandered its way toward the Mississippi, and there we rested, waiting to either be flushed out by the bounty hunters, or until sunrise when we thought we’d be safe to cross highway Seven, enter an all-night restaurant and call anyone that might consent to rescue us from a 25 mile hike on frosted streets in wet clothes.
We did find someone home an hour later, and he bought us breakfast in exchange for the tale. Once home I swore to myself I’d never again take a zip in a stolen car, and if I could help it, never again come within 20 feet of Jimmy as he had now made the top of my list of craziest and most dangerous human beings on the planet.
I stayed in contact with Ma, helping her move during the next year eight times in twelve months, a record I think compared to all those I’ve helped in my lifetime. One of the moves was precipitated by Jimmy’s arrest for drug possession and assault on his family while in a speedball stupor. He was sentenced to the juvenile correctional facility at Red Wing until the age of 21, time he assumed he could use to relax and plan his future petty criminal lifestyle.
Ma asked me after a year had passed to take her to visit her son; the wounds of his attack well healed and her motherly instinct pressing. I had no desire, but I did as she asked. She was pleasant enough to spend time with, and I was scary enough to protect us from the thugs we’d need to wade through to speak with Jim. But the surprise visit itself never happened. We’d probably passed each other in transit as Jim and a few ne’er do wells had “escaped” the minimum security campus and had hitched a ride with another of the group who had been let go earlier that month. As far as the guards could tell us, we were an hour behind him, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t see his mother grin, for just a second or two.
He’s long dead I’ve heard recently, passed during a liver induced coma at the age of 32, his alcohol content so high they likely didn’t need a mortuary as he was already pickled. I’d feel badly for him if I could, but he was in control of his destiny, he was a rush junkie and never stopped driving down windy, twisty, sand covered roads oblivious as to who he might run over. His mother on the other hand, God rest her soul. She was a good woman who did her best, she made a gentle mark on me I’ve never forgotten.