I have not lived a life fraught with peril. I have never been in combat, nor have I been attracted to dangerous activities such as mountain climbing or sky diving, which others find recreational. The physics jobs I had were not dangerous. I was on one demonstration where a man was shot to death by the police, but I was not even aware of it when it happened. Yet, there have been a few moments in my life which have left a lasting taste of possible fatality.
This is not going to be an all-inclusive account. The one serious car accident I was in is not going to be dealt with here. Instead I am going to talk about three times when I was lucky, and nothing serious happened. Yet the thought of those times makes me realize that I’m alive through luck or providence, and thinking about them gives me an uneasy feeling, a bit like having to go through them again. What a short life it would have been! The three incidents have in common the hurtling toward a road, with the danger of death coming at the road. The scenes seem well suited for appearing in a nightmare, and I suppose that may be what makes them so vivid and gives them their lasting power to evoke fear.
The first of these times was when I was quite young, probably eight. To my shame at the time, I was one of the last among my peers to learn how to ride a bicycle. But I got one for Christmas, and I mastered bicycle riding pretty quickly after that. To be more precise, I mastered the balance and pedaling part. I didn’t get braking. This was an old “balloon tire” American bike without hand brakes. To brake such a bike one has to apply pressure to one of the pedals in the sense opposite to that which propels the bike forward. I understood there was something different about the pedal work to brake, just not what. Instead of standing up and applying the back pressure on one pedal, as I had observed others doing, I stood and applied pressure to both pedals, one in one sense and the other in the other, so that I just balanced them and might as well have taken both feet off the pedals. It was coasting, not braking.
I think I knew that method wasn’t quite right, but it resembled what the others were doing to brake. I remember that when I needed to stop, I would run off the sidewalk into the grass to help me slow down, then dismount while the bike was still rolling to pull it to a stop. I was not thinking this through or verifying stopping power. I guess I basically thought I knew how to brake the bicycle just from the looks of things without analyzing the actual effect. It never occurred to me to ask anyone, adult or child, to show me how to brake.
Highway 80 ran right through my small hometown as broad, red-bricked Main Street, whose surface, I remember, seemed especially hot to our bare feet in the summer. This was the busiest street in Eastland, Texas. Given our theme of luck and fate, it’s perhaps worth mentioning that Eastland was named after an early Texas Ranger, William Mosby Eastland, honored for a brave death as the first to draw a black bean, fatal in the “lottery of death” ordered by the Mexican dictator Santa Anna in 1842 to determine which prisoners were to be executed after an escape attempt.
One day I was out riding my bike by myself and rode up by the high school, which was on a hill above Main Street. I rode along the street that went past the high school parallel to Main St. then turned to go down the steep hill, intending to turn right on Main as part of my loop back home. I don’t remember if I picked up extra speed by pedaling downhill, or if my acceleration was strictly due to gravity, but I know that I was going fast as I came to Main Street. Of course, any attempt at braking with my method could do nothing to slow me down.
This is naturally the part of the journey that gives me that uneasy feeling and makes me want to ward off the memory even as I call it up today. I was trying to make the right turn, but I was moving much too fast for that, and I was moving so fast that a driver in a car approaching that intersection would have had little warning time to try to stop. Unable to slow down, I might as well have shut my eyes and trusted God or Fate to get me safely across. I crossed Main Street at an angle, unscathed, then hit the curb on the other side of the street and went on up it.
Embarrassment now became stronger than fear. There must have been people around that had seen me hit the curb. I tried to give the appearance that that had been my intent all along by continuing to turn to the right so as to ride on the sidewalk alongside Main Street. But I was still going too fast to do that either. I ran into a low stone wall, which finally stopped the bike. More embarrassment. I wasn’t hurt; and the bike, though dented, was still rideable. I can’t remember if I walked it home or rode it. It would have been sufficiently uphill for safe riding.
Eight-year-olds do get killed in bike accidents, and I could have been one of them. In those days, I might add, a kid would have been as likely to wear water wings as a helmet when riding a bicycle. I don’t remember telling my parents about the accident, and I don’t remember when I learned how to brake my bike. The accident did teach me not to go down steep hills until I had mastered stopping. Rest assured that I made sure my own helmeted children learned to brake before they went very far on their bikes.
The next time that sticks in my mind was when I was fifteen living in Garland, Texas. My friends and I would ride around in a car almost every evening. This was a Saturday night, and we were out late. It was one of the rare times when I had gotten our family Ford and was the driver for the night. There were five of us, all fifteen or sixteen years old. It was well after midnight, perhaps as late as 2 am, and we were in a heavy rainstorm. Without going into the details here, suffice it to say that we were being chased by a determined adult in a pickup who had good reason, relating to certain decorative auto accessories recently in his possession, to be chasing us. The consequences of his catching us might be physically dangerous, for all we knew, and would likely involve trouble with the law (and of course our parents) for us. It was a living nightmare: I was responsible for making sure we didn’t get caught.
The windshield wipers on the car were of the type that completely stopped working whenever you accelerated, which meant a lot of driving blind, given the circumstances of the heavy rain and frequent acceleration. We were sliding around like crazy, fishtailing as we turned corners on the slippery streets. The part I remember most vividly is our approach to a major thoroughfare we would have to cross. The chances of a car coming down that street were much lower so late at night than during regular hours, but still not zero. There might be some other speeding teenagers! Before we came to the street someone shouted “Don’t slow down!” so I flew across the street without slowing or looking. The street had been empty; we had won that round of automotive Russian roulette. Soon after that, however, we realized we were not going to shake the guy anyway, so that we had better stop and throw ourselves at his mercy.
Playing the mental tape of the approach to that intersection at full speed gives me the same quasi-panicky feeling as remembering that uncontrolled street-crossing on the bicycle years before and makes me want to put my hands out in front of me to stop it. The difference between the two times, during the actual events, was that I remember being scared of a crash at the time I crossed the street in the car. I was conscious of the possibility that I might be in my last seconds of life. Now I wonder what in the hell were a bunch of kids that young doing out that late in a car? That was the fifties in Texas.
The third incident occurred sometime later while I was in high school. Near the town I lived in there was a 3M plant. Next to the plant was a street that mainly served as a way for workers at the plant to enter the plant parking lot. The street, which was probably less than half a mile long, ran between a major street and what amounted to a country road. It was straight and wide and had very little traffic except when workers were coming to work or leaving. The 3M plant was on one side of this street, and the fenced backyards of houses that faced away from the street were on the other. This broad side street was regularly used as a drag strip by area teenagers, illegally of course.
A drag strip needs to be a quarter of a mile long plus sufficient additional track length to enable the racers to stop or slow down enough to turn after crossing the finish line. The object of a drag race is to accelerate from a complete stop to the quarter-mile line in the fastest time. Improvised drag races along the 3M strip were head-to-head matches between two cars that raced side by side for a quarter-mile. I don’t recall what landmarks were used for the start and finish lines, but I assume there must have been some. One kid would stand in the middle of the street in front of the two cars and signal the start of the race with a dramatic gesture. The cars would accelerate to the finish line and then start braking because the street’s end was not far ahead. Even beyond the obvious danger of speeding, each race would have been something of a gamble, as the street was not marked as being one way, so an unlucky driver could have turned onto the drag strip from the country road to meet a speeding car head-on. Drag races were usually late at night when that danger was minimized. In addition to accommodating two-car races, the 3M road provided a place to see what speed your car could reach in a quarter of a mile.
I don’t remember any of the circumstances of the next event beyond the fact that I was once again driving the family Ford and that I had two passengers in the front seat beside me, Bobby and Jim. Bobby was a year ahead of me, Jim in my class. I recall that it was broad daylight, most likely on a Sunday. Probably at their urging, I drove to the 3M “drag strip” to see what the car could do in a quarter. I should mention again that I didn’t drive all that much, usually relying on one of the other members of our group to get his family car or, in the case of a couple of them, drive his own personal car, to cruise around in. I really didn’t share my friends’ fascination with cars and speed. Somehow I had ended up running around with a certain group, starting with a couple from my neighborhood, despite my not feeling a very deep connection with them or sharing their tastes and opinions on much of anything except music and sports. It did provide me with a group identity, something to do, and a certain status, since a couple of the group were known as being very tough in a fight.
Anyway, there I was at the wheel of our Ford, ready to make a test run. The car had an automatic transmission. I revved the engine up, while holding the brake down with my left foot. The back wheels spun slowly, squealing a little, but without propelling the car forward until I took my foot off the brake and the car surged forward “burning rubber.” There was no gear shifting required on my part; all I had to do was keep that gas pedal on the floor as we raced up the strip, checking the speedometer to see what speed we’d reach in the quarter. I believe it was about eighty miles an hour. We continued speeding on. On down the straight road, pedal on the floor. I must have seemed transfixed.
“Bob! Bob! Shut off!” Jim’s voice broke through to my blanked-out mind to alert me to the reality of the danger we were in, as we rushed toward the road at the end of the street. I don’t remember what was on the other side of the road, probably a ditch and a barbed-wire fence, but we would not have wanted to go flying into it at ninety miles an hour. I managed to slow the car down, without a panic stop, just enough to make the turn onto the road. Fortunately, there wasn’t a car on the country road approaching the intersection at the same time.
I don’t know what was actually in Bobby’s mind, but he was merciless in ridiculing Jim for having been so afraid as to cry out. I was still in a daze, weak with relief and residual fear, realizing how close we had come to a terrible crash. I didn’t join in Bobby’s razzing of Jim, but I also didn’t let on that we had been in danger because of my freezing at the wheel. And I never thanked Jim. I was weak, and in my weakness I didn’t want to acknowledge weakness. I haven’t seen Jim in close to fifty years.
Jim Allen, I hope you have had a good and interesting life, which you are still enjoying. Thank you for speaking up that day when seconds truly mattered.