I was young once, and as a youth I possessed a certain recklessness that is common to the young. I think we are all prone to this behavior, and I sometimes think it’s amazing we survive those years.
In the summer of 1981, I hung out with some guys who drove fast, expensive cars. Friends who have known me for many years will recognize the players, but to protect their anonymity, I’ll use the pseudonyms Skip and Eskimo. (Don’t laugh: I knew a kid in grade school who actually went by the nickname Eskimo.)
The game was pretty straightforward: shoot a pop bottle rocket into your opponent’s car while chasing each other through the city streets of Lawton, Oklahoma. Skip was driving “his” (meaning his dad’s) Monte Carlo, and Eskimo had “borrowed” his grandfather’s car, also a Monte Carlo. Eskimo didn’t have his own car or a driver’s license because he was just 14.
I was riding shotgun in Skip’s car. The chase was fun, except for one moment when Eskimo threw a smoke bomb into Skip’s car, filling it with smoke briefly and pissing off Skip because it burned a small hole in the upholstery. Once that hurdle was jumped, the chase was on again. Being 14, and being in a car he should not have been driving, Eskimo had fallen behind. Skip ducked into a neighborhood not far from my house and backed into a driveway, leaving the nose of his car about two feet into the roadway, and turned off his headlights.
Riding shotgun, I thought that this move was an odd play at best. What is he trying to do?
A few seconds later, Eskimo came around the corner and hit the accelerator, trying to catch up with us. The result was predictable: Eskimo’s left front bumper collided with Skip’s right front bumper in a cacophony of tires screeching and voices uttering profanities.
At that point for some reason, ostensibly because it was dark but probably so neighbors wouldn’t become curious about the commotion, we drove directly to the nearby Gibson’s discount store to examine the damage. Skip’s car had nothing but a grey scratch on it, but Eskimo’s car had bumper, headlight, and fender damage. For a few minutes we discussed it, then Skip and Eskimo stepped aside and mumbled to themselves. In a minute skip got in his car, and I asked where we were going next.
“The Valley of Shadows,” he answered.
I knew what he meant. In Lawton in those days was a rough, barely-maintained road called Rogers Lane that paralleled South Boundary Road at Fort Sill. (Rogers Lane today is a smooth, four-lane high-traffic road.) In the vicinity of 82nd street on Roger’s Lane was a low spot though which a creek sometimes flowed, causing trees to flourish around it, and causing the pavement to pothole and fracture. In the summertime, the trees darkened this part of the road quite dramatically, and since it was a valley, we called it The Valley of Shadows.
I asked Skip what our plan entailed, but he was vague. It was only after riding 20 minutes and arriving that what I suspected became obvious: we were going to ditch Eskimo’s grandfather’s car and make it look like it was stolen.
I have to say that at point I urged everyone to just come clean, but Eskimo felt his goose was probably cooked if he didn’t cover up this mess, so there was no talking them out of it. Skip got into Eskimo’s car and said, “I’m going to crash it into those trees. Want to ride shotgun?”
My adult readers will realize what an absurd statement and question these were, but even more absurd was my answer, “Sure, it sounds like fun.”
I remember getting in and tightening my seat belt to its maximum tension against my slim frame, then feeling suddenly very nervous about the whole thing. I did not, however, bail. I was along for the ride as far as it would take me.
We drove east a quarter of a mile, made a u-turn, then sped toward the valley. It was simply luck that intervened, since the road was so rough and the potholes were so deep that it slowed us down in a ruckus of banging and bouncing, headlights illuminating the ground and then the treetops. It was so rough, in fact, that we never reached the trees. The car stopped, enveloped in dust and johnson grass. Skip backed us up slightly, and made another run, finally finding the trees but not really crashing into them. At that point I guess everyone was satisfied that the scene looked enough like a crash that we gave up.
Skip and Eskimo pried open the steering column and yanked out a few wires, intending to make it look hot-wired, which it did not. We then drove Eskimo back to his house, where I assume he climbed back through his bedroom window and pretended to sleep until morning.
I imagine when the deputies found the car later that night, they were wise to the scam, but couldn’t really put it together enough to make any kind of concrete report. I remember feeling helplessly worried about Eskimo’s grandfather and how much stress it must have caused him, but I also felt an immense amount of peer pressure to keep quiet about it. I wouldn’t have known who to tell anyway. My parents might have been able to help, but I imagined telling them about it would be fraught with consequences for me.
At the time, I had no idea what an idiotic risk I was taking, and I suppose the lesson I take from this story is that teenagers are unaware, really unaware, of the potential consequences of things like chasing each other in cars, or intentionally crashing them. It’s also a lesson about the relationship between teens and parents, and the way teenagers are afraid to tell their parents anything because parents think of their kids as above the rest and infallible, and make inflexible rules for them as a result. I knew someone who contracted gonorrhea in high school and was so afraid to tell that she almost died. I also knew several people who got pregnant or got someone pregnant, always because they didn’t talk to their parents at all about sex and contraception.
Even if you are a very open and honest parent, which I tried to be when a teenager was in my charge, they are still sometimes disinclined to talk to you, if only because they perceive themselves as alone and un-understandable.