Friday, July 25, 2008

Part Two: Saying Goodbye

Originally posted Sunday, July 25, 2004

My recruiter told me to stay out of trouble. I was shipping out to basic training in two weeks, and all of the paperwork was done; if I got so much as a speeding ticket, it would screw everything up. I figured I was a pretty easygoing fellow, staying out of trouble should be easy, right?

I tried to have some last minute fun, went crazy and saw some concerts with my friends. Saw Elvis Costello with the Crash Test Dummies, Huey Lewis and the News, and even Kenny Loggins (thanks to the State Fair). Believe it or not, that was great. The last weekend before I was to leave, my oldest friend, Brian, came up with tickets to Jesus Christ Superstar.

Now, Brian and I had known each other since at least seventh grade, when we sat next to each other in band. In all that time, he never expressed any desire to learn to drive or to saddle himself with the expense and bother of owning a car. Until now. We were going to travel across town to Gammage Auditorium to see Jesus Christ Superstar in his brand new - to him - 1978 Honda Civic. He had, inevitably, dubbed it "The Beast."

I lived in my parents' house in the extreme northwest of Phoenix, and Arizona State University is in Tempe, located to the southeast of Phoenix. About 40 miles in The Beast.

We made it, and parked, and waded through the picket lines. Four nuns were marching with signs that said "Don't Make Fun of My Lord" or "The Savior Isn't Silly" in front of the theater. A couple of fundamentalist types were standing off to one side smoldering at the Catholics for trumping their own demonstration. It made me nervous, and I planned to head for exits on the other side of the theater if they started rioting.

The show was great, though they went a little too "campy" during Herod's big scene. It was the scene the protesters objected to, of course. Herod was dancing around in a leather S&M suit, smacking his butt and vamping around Jesus, who stood stoically at center stage. I leaned over to Brian and pointed out that Herod's mockery of Jesus is recorded in the Bible, but you never see anyone protest at the book stores. On our way out, we wondered whether the picketing nuns might have appreciated this point... but this conversation died a quick death when we got to The Beast.

The Beast had developed a problem while we were inside enjoying ourselves: three flat tires. One of them was the spare. After a bit of head scratching, we decided to limp the aged monster across the street to a filling station and try to inflate them for the ride home. Our plan was to see how far we could get before they went flat again, thinking we could leapfrog across town from air pump to air pump. The only danger there was in running out of quarters.

Alas, after filling them up, they were flat again after half a block. We debated turning around to go back to the filling station when I recognized the neighborhood we were in, and suggested that we stop at Bronwyn's place. Bronwyn was my former roommate. He had returned from his summer in South Africa to attend ASU, and set himself up in a tiny little one-bedroom place not far from the campus. We invaded his house, and tried to phone Brian's dad to come and rescue us. No answer.

"It's alright," said Bronwyn. "I'm borrowing a car for the summer. I'll just run you back to Glendale, and you can come pick up The Beast tomorrow." Brilliant!

So, we piled into a tiny little two-door contraption belonging to one of Bronwyn's classmates, an exchange student from Bangladesh, who had left the car, but no insurance or registration documents.

"Well," I said, "just don't get pulled over, because I can't afford any trouble this close to shipping out."

Brian was dejected. His "new" car was a bust, and he was fuming over the possible costs of getting it repaired, towed, and otherwise relocated back to our side of town. As he fumed, he smoked Camel after Camel, flicking the ashes carelessly out the sunroof. Most of them made it out of the car, but I had to duck a few stray cinders that blew back into the microscopic back seat, where I had folded myself up like a very heavy map.

We were cruising down the road, laughing at our own absurdity, when I began to choke on smoke. It didn't smell like cigarettes, though. I looked down, and saw that it was pouring out from UNDER the driver's seat.

Bronwyn noticed it at about the same time, and began furiously changing lanes, trying to get to the side of the road. We careened across eight lanes of traffic, screaming as thickening, blackening smoke poured out the windows. The car finally stopped, and Bronwyn and Brian leapt from the car like it was about to explode, leaving me stuck in the back. I frantically reached around looking for the latch that would release me from the charbroiler I was trapped in, and realized that there was no way out. I heard yelling from outside the car, and heard Brian fumbling around, trying to rescue me. I slipped, and landed head first on the floor of the car, which was littered with papers, and came eye to flame with the smoldering upholstery.

Then I saw salvation: a water bottle!

I unscrewed the cap, and tried to dump the contents on the glowing edges of the carpet, but couldn't fit the bottle under the seat. I tried pouring the water into my hand, but there just wasn't enough room for maneuverability. Somehow, though, I managed to soak some of the papers and stifle the flames. The thick, plastic-smelling reek began to clear, and Brian finally managed to work the latch and hauled me out by the ankles into the relatively fresh air along the side of the highway.

We sat on the berm looking down at the car for a long time, making sure the smoke didn't start up again, and watching for emergency vehicles. Four cops passed us, and didn't notice three smoke-streaked college guys with panic-stricken eyes sitting there on the side of the highway.

Then, since these tragedies happen in threes, Brian asked, "Where are my keys?"

After a brief search of the car, he looked down at the road... And saw there, eight feet down in the only sewer grate for ten miles, the glint of metal from his keys. There was nothing that could be done, but pile back into our illegal firetrap and make our way north.

By the time we got to Brian's place, we were dirty and desperate. We only wanted a drink, and a soft couch to collapse into. My plan was to crash there and call my folks for a ride in the morning.

Except that we couldn't get into the house. Brian's parents were gone, the house was dark, and not one car sat in the driveway. We just looked at each other for a long minute. Both of us were probably thinking the same thing: This will be funny in a few years.

Fortunately, we didn't get caught breaking into his house, since I was supposed to be staying out of trouble.

Next: Six Little Words

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