Friday, January 17, 2014

Where It All Began.

The other day I took a trip down memory lane and tried to remember my earliest automotive memory. I recall my dad using the swing-set in our yard to hang the rear end of his VW Beetle from when he replaced the motor. Apparently I wasn't yet a fully-fledged automotive fan, as this seemed like a rather grave injustice, and a serious misuse of a father's veto power over his kid's toys.
Another early memory was that fateful run down 'The Hill' (pause for dramatic effect) near my house with my cousins in my pedal car. Each excursion was more elaborate and complicated than the last, and the culmination was certainly the time we strapped a kid-sized wooden airplane swing onto the top of the car (a wooden copy of a Ford Model T my dad made by hand) and went flying down the gravel road at over 100 km/h (probably closer to 2 km/h)... with catastrophic results!

I was the driver, and take full blame for the accident. That said, the car was more adapted to boulevard cruising than a Baja off-road adventure, what with its 1/4 inch thick wooden disk wheels (a fan belt nailed around the circumference gave some pretense of adhesion, but it was more for show than anything). The steering was a little tricky too, as you turned right to go left and left go go right, and all of this was compounded by the extra 50 pounds of plane swing strapped to the top. It was an impressive prototype vehicle, to be sure, but the trial run would be its first and only.
The sun was beating down as we pushed that monstrosity to the top of 'The Hill'. Ah, that hill. It made Pike's Peak look like a speed bump. The air was thin near the top, but we kept pushing. A little known-fact is that there was a fourth member that day, a cousin named Aaron. Conspiracy theorists have gone wild over the years, with many claiming that the youngest member of the group (he was around four years old at the time) was never even there that day. But he was, and he was installed in the back seat of the airplane, ready to make history with the rest of us. Unfortunately, just before take-off his flight approval was revoked (when his mom drove by and yanked him off his seat and asked us if we were nuts; she gave us full permission to kill ourselves, but not her youngest son before nap-time).

At the top of the hill we turned the car around, pointed it down the hill, and climbed into our positions (me in the drivers seat, Josh in the back, and Matthew on the top, in the plane). With little ceremony, I released the emergency brake (lifted my feet off the ground, Flintstones-style), and we were off. We were thrown back into our seats as the breakneck acceleration got us up to maximum velocity in a split second. Mathew (the navigator, on top) yelled out directions to guide me ("Okay, no cars coming!"), while Josh (the systems specialist, in back) kept me updated as to the critical operating parameters ("I can't see anything!"). Everything was a blur, and I must have blacked out, because the next thing I remember was the car careening off the road towards the ditch. An experienced driver, despite my young age, I expertly counter-steered out of the skid to regain traction, and hung out the rear end to force the pedal car + plane hybrid into a well-controlled power slide (which is to say I held the steering wheel straight and screamed like a little girl).

Alas, I was not able to recover. We bent the laws of physics, but they snapped back, and the car hurtled off the road, coasting silently through the air in a cloud of dust and gravel. The Ford logo on the front of the pedal car hit the pine tree squarely, several hundred feet (maybe more but probably less) above the ground, and the front beam of the car snapped. In the blink of an eye it was over. But it wasn't really over, no...

Matthew, on the top, was hurtled through the air in spectacular fashion, getting 'big air' (that's kid lingo for a jump) before landing several hundred metres (or was that centimetres?) away on a pile of branches. When asked about it nowadays, he gets a far-away look in his eyes, as he thinks back to those long minutes (milliseconds) soaring through the air. He will tell you that he saw his life flash before his eyes, just before his military (GI Joe) training kicked in and he pulled himself into a full tuck position, enabling him to perform an expert barrel-roll thrust-kick manoeuvre to soften the blow and come to a textbook landing in proper crouched-commando position (he landed like a sack of potatoes).

As for me, it is a miracle that I am here today to recount this harrowing tale. I braced for the impact, powerless to do anything. My body slid forward on the plastic seat, and I felt my face contact the steering wheel. When the car came to a stop and the wheels stopped spinning, my first thought was for my fallen comrades ("Oh crap, dad is gonna kill me!"). I looked down to the steering wheel and saw a drop of blood (real blood!). I felt my lip, and there was another drop. Knowing that I only had moments left before my body emptied itself of its blood, I was determined to first save my cousins. I managed to extract myself from the twisted, mangled wreck using some superhuman force I summoned from within (or in simpler terms, climbed out the window)...

I saw Matthew off in the distance (two feet in front of me) where he had landed, and he came and joined me. We knew that Josh didn't have much time left, stuck in the back (he really had to pee), so we forgot our own injuries and tended to him.

Jammed in the rear rumble seat of the Model T, Josh was unable to extract himself from the horrible wreckage. The sturdy cables (twine) holding the plane in place had loosened after the intense impact, and his exit path above his head was blocked. If I recall correctly, he was stuck back there for several hours (minutes), crying and wailing (laughing) due to the agony of a broken leg (he bumped his knee). With the jaws of life (a jackknife), we were eventually able to extract him from the carnage. He put on a brave face, but an experience like that changes a guy, and he was never the same afterwards.
We stood silently looking at the scene of the wreck as the dust settled around us...

It was a long and solemn walk back down to my house (approx 1 minute and 10 seconds), knowing that we had come within an inch of our lives. Luckily, both my father and my uncle were there, and we stumbled over each other trying to find the words to explain our harrowing adventure, though I don't think that we were ever able to fully explain the gravity of that day to anyone ("So you goofballs strapped the plane to the pedal car and crashed it into a tree?"). Our physical wounds eventually healed (my lip stopped bleeding, Matthew got a band-aid on his arm, and Josh took a pee), but the emotions of that day marked us for life.

It has been over 20 years since I have told this story, which has become a family legend. Some of the details have become murky, but it is a timeless tale that needed to be told, and it is one of my oldest and most powerful automotive memories...

EDIT: Thanks to my little sister for finding and sending this photo, one of the few of the infamous green Model T pedal car in action...

Also found picture proof of the misuse of my childhood swing for automotive purposes...

1 comment:

  1. Sadly I have no picture handy of the car, but if I can dig one up later I will definitely add it!


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