I took my G35 Coupe to a body shop today. After paying the owner $1250 for some damage that I inflicted on a Dodge Magnum a few weeks ago, the owner took pity on me and said he would paint the little panel behind the rear license plate on my Infiniti a flat black for me–for nothing. He either admires me for fixing my friend’s car or feels sorry for me for writing out such a big check, I’m not sure which… He’s painting the area that encompasses the exhaust pipes, and I thought it would look kind of cool, personalizing the G while breaking up some of the wall-of-stone mass the butt of the car possesses, so I took it over there and waited while they did their work.
While I was there I killed time looking at some of the cars he had in his yard, awaiting repair. There was a rough-looking Caddy CTS with a serious side bash and a BMW 5 Series with a trunk that will never open again, but what REALLY caught my attention was a blue 350Z Coupe (almost like what I once had) with the front end smeared sideways and the headlights almost touching the passenger’s door. The driver’s door moaned metallically as I tugged it wide and the interior was coated with sodium oxide from the airbags, so all I did was peer inside. I got a whiff of WRECK though, that never-forgotten odor and it sparked an auditory deja-vu. I got a weird and distant “there-but-for-God’s-grace-go-I” feel. As I reflected on that, I flashed on all the wrecks I have had…
I started young.
While in High School, I ran smack into the back of a car that was stopped, in the dark, no tail lights, at a railroad crossing. The signal hadn’t gone off yet, but he had decided to just wait for the train by parking on a highway at 10PM.
I bunted him across the tracks ,and moments later, before anyone even got out of their cars, signals began chiming, lights flashed and a train shot through. I broke my shoulder that night, putting me OFF the basketball team for Life.
Later, a friend bought a new Pontiac Bonneville and came by the house to celebrate. He had just come from the Dealership. Myself and another friend piled into the front seat and off we all went, seeking beer and women. As we were driving down a snow slick street, the traffic light changed to red, the slick turned to black ice and we slid, brakes full on, into a Grandfather Elm at 40. We hit it so directly head-on that the headlights completed an “X” on the other side of the tree. I broke all the fingers on my right hand that night. The driver had to buy new teeth, so he NEVER got another new car for years. The other passenger, my best friend for 15 years, went through the windshield and got tiger-stripe cuts all over his face. We were just talking about it last week. It was the anniversary of the Bonneville Wreck and he called from San Francisco to tell me about his scars and to dig up ghosts.
Still later, I was in my Dad’s Cadillac stopped at a traffic light in downtown Rochester when a guy blew in from the freeway exit nearby, couldn’t make the turn and hit me head-on. My car was full of friends and we were all on our way to party on and Disco out. His car was full of beer cans and smelled like New Orleans. Two got hurt. I was OK. The Caddy was toast. The other guy was so drunk that he produced a Library Card as proof of insurance. My Dad was so unreasonably pissed at me that I never again drove any of his cars. After I graduated High School, I got my own cars, so my parents had a peace dividend for awhile. Except for a few shunts into snow banks–inevitable in a Western New York Winter–and a terrifying deer strike that tore the windshield header off a Ford Galaxie convertible, I didn’t have anything near a wreck for years. (We both ducked and it saved us from decapitation, but we were covered in warm guts and glass and the Ford went into a stone wall.)
Until I kissed my Firebird goodbye, I didn’t have a serious wreck in years…
…It was my first 4th of July back home in three years. I had just driven in from Dallas and my friend Norman and I were at a beach party at Conesus Lake, South of Rochester. It was almost all people I knew and we partied on all day, skiing and swimming and having a hell of a time. Some people were emptying a keg; fortunately, I wasn’t at THAT part of the party. One of the guys noticed my ’67 Firebird 400 and started bragging about how his GTO could eat my car, but I ignored him. I’d had The Bird for three years, since it was new, I had driven it cross-country four times and I had modified it a lot. In those street-racing Pony car days, I had eaten a LOT of Goat. I knew my car well.
The car had a Holley 650 CFM progressive carb (I installed it myself), a cam, a set of aluminum headers, electronic ignition and a Posi-traction rear end, among other goodies. I could beat almost anything. I ran Sunoco 96, almost racing fuel. Despite the miles on it (85,000 ), the Bird was sharp and clean, dependable and fast. I had just put a set of Goodyear Wide Ovals on it.
The party grew dull, so my buddy and I left for the City around 4 to catch the Downtown Fireworks. On an empty two lane farmland country road a few miles from the Lake, suddenly there appeared in my mirror a GTO convertible. It was the guy from the party and he was throwing down the gauntlet. He blew past me at 60. My buddy said “Don’t let him get away with that”, so we fastened our (lap belt only in those days) seatbelts and I punched it.
Man, we were flying.
As I caught up to him as I shouted out our speed to Norman–“100, now 110, I’m gonna BURY it!!!”…as I pulled out to pass the pesky Goat, still accelerating–I KNEW I had him–a car pulled out from a farmhouse a few hundred yards in front of us!! As I braked, I swung back into my lane, but the guy in the GTO was also panic stopping and I hit him. We were both sliding together at about 100 as the farmer whooshed safely past, then I hit dirt and the Firebird did a serious lurch. The Bird rolled once, went nose-down into an irrigation ditch and hit the only thing out in the field, a phone pole–the LONG WAY. The pole had stopped us from doing a pancake flip, then landing on the roof with the impact of a sledgehammer.
I hung suspended, disoriented, facing the ground through a shattered windshield. The motor ticked and hissed. When I looked to my right, I saw the headliner. The roof was caved in, right down the middle. The smell was overpowering, that horrible combination of rubber, brake dust, oil, gas and fear. Somehow, despite the terrible punch-in-the-gut feeling I was experiencing, I seemed OK. Norm was already asking if I was OK. We clicked the seatbelts, clumsily fell forward and clawed our way out, then jumped the 10 feet to the ground.
Smoke still hung in the air. The smell of Sunoco 96 was overpowering when the wind was right. The GTO was gone, but the farmer, who was in the middle of his part in this drama, was running across his field. The Bird sat balanced on its nose, propped up by the snapped-off phone pole, the tailpipe looking at sky. Norman and I, save for some minor glass cuts, were perfectly OK, a fact that the State Trooper who showed up later couldn’t believe as he wrote me a boatload of tickets. The Bozo driving the tow truck said that he’d buy the car from me as he tied a chain around the rear axle and brought the Bird back down to Earth with a seismic “WHUMP” and a cloud of dust. He was the farmer’s son. The next day I had a purple-black bruise across my abdomen and I was prone to barfing, but that turned out to be my only injury….funny, but the Firebird had been my All-Time Favorite Car until my Z came along.
The body shop guy interrupted my reverie and I turned away from the wrecked Z…”there but for God’s grace…”.The Infiniti was done and they were taking the Painter’s tape off the rear end. It looks good, just like I thought it would. As I walked back to his shop, I thought I caught a whiff of Sunoco…
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