To this day, I’m not sure if the Trans Am rolled once or twice before rocking back onto its tires in the middle of that field in Oakland.
We had been trucking down Fairfield Street at twice the speed limit, beers between our legs, when some fool suddenly slowed in front of us.
Brakes screamed. The rear end wagged from side to side like the tail of a fish. Off the road we went, over a sharp embankment and into a sea of tall grass and cow manure. The car rolled and when the Trans Am was upright again, we looked at each other with wide eyes and hanging jaws. What luck! We were unhurt and our beers hadn’t even spilled in the tumble.
We drove up out of that field and a day or two later, we had mostly forgotten about our brush with doom. What was the big deal? We were young and almost certainly immortal.
Memories of that Trans Am crash invariably segue into flashbacks of the many other stupid things we did. Like the time we hauled those giant wooden spools, swiped from the Central Maine Power yard, to the top of the famously steep Abbott Street Hill in Waterville.
Three of us went down at the same time, wrapping our bodies around the inner spool and letting gravity do the rest. Gravity was generous that day — I don’t have any way of proving it, but I swear we hit 30 mph before we were halfway down the hill. Two-thirds of the way down and we must have been close to light speed.
We hadn’t thought any of this out. There was no exit plan other than physics alone.
Rusty’s ride came to a halt when he barreled at near warp speed into a fat elm tree, sending shards of wood and pieces of Rusty flying everywhere.
Keith went straight down the hill and rolled across May Street, generating a cacophony of honking horns and shouting neighbors. My ride, on the other hand, was cut short when my spool, possibly spooked by all the noise, veered wildly to the right and crashed into the side of old man Dostie’s Subaru Brat with a delightful thud.
In the aftermath of the Abbott Street Hill affair, we did what any respectable kid will do when things go horribly awry. We ran, giggling and bleeding, surer than ever that we were immortal.
My God, but we did some dumb stuff. We played with fire, we jumped like cats onto speeding trains, we did backward somersaults off 60-foot cliffs into cold quarry waters.
They say God favors drunks and fools, but I think you have to add idiot kids to that list. I grew up in a tribe of idiot kids and we’re all still here today because God rolled his eyes and allowed us to escape premature doom over and over again. We escaped it by mere inches or seconds in most instances, but here we are, alive and well enough to tell funny stories about our youthful shenanigans.
We were lucky and convinced that our luck would never expire.
Every time I read about kids who drown at the beach, who perish in car wrecks or who die in freak sledding mishaps, I wonder why God’s gift of inches and seconds is not universal.
Last week, a high school senior died and his friend was badly hurt when their snow tube drifted off a Sunday River ski trail and into a tree.
We all wish these boys had not gone onto the ski trails at night. And we all know they were misguided in believing that snow tubes could manage a trail meant for expert skiers. But come on. These boys were teenagers, and teenagers will have their rites of passage, even if they have to vault fences and break laws to get them.
Where was their gift of inches that night on the hill? Why were they not saved by bare seconds and lucky bounces?
Whenever I hear stories like that, I think of Rusty and Keith and Randy and Ritchie and all of the moronic things we did to test our theories of immortality.
Do you boys remember the night our cabin in the woods caught fire while we were in there splitting a case of beer? Recall the time Rusty’s sleeve got caught on the truck bumper when he was hitching a ride during that monster snowstorm? Recollect the day Keith slipped at the top of The Crusher and then flopped 60 feet to the hard water below?
Any of us could have become headlines a thousand times over, yet it never happened. We were granted that gift of inches and seconds, although not one of us had done anything in particular to deserve it.
It is the kind of good fortune that can only be appreciated in retrospect, with decades separating the man from the reckless child of his past. There isn’t a lot of gratitude or clear-headed reflection in youth. Near misses only embolden a lad, and that sense of immortality grows stronger with each near-death experience.
I feel keen sympathy for the family of David Kohlhase, the teen who died in the middle of the night on that Sunday River ski trail. I wonder if his father is reflecting on risky things he might have done in his youth, and why the gift of inches and seconds had not been passed along to his son.
I wish someone had an answer for him. The capriciousness of the universe is a mysterious thing, at times generous, at times cruel. It’s an absolute marvel how often things work out in spite of bad decisions.
Which makes it that much sadder when things do not.