The Darwin Award
I’m a believer in natural selection and always enjoy a good Darwin Award story. That one about the guy ice fishing with dynamite and his hunting retriever? Or the guy who strapped himself under his buddy’s moving vehicle to diagnose a noise and wound up getting caught in the driveshaft? True or not, they all involve some genius taking himself out of the gene pool in the most hilarious way possible. It makes me wonder how during my early driving days I didn’t wind up the subject of a cautionary Darwin Award tale—or at the very least riding the school bus due to loss of license. I could write a whole book of warnings for parents of foolish young teenage drivers if I had the time. After all, I was an expert.
License, please: I was honking down an empty highway in my mom’s ’82 Mailbu wagon and got the genius idea to see if it could crack 100 mph. It couldn’t, but it did attract the attention of a Massachusetts state trooper. It was my first time getting pulled over, and as he was hopping out of his cruiser I thought I’d impress him by having my paperwork all ready when he got to the window. I made a fast grab into the glovebox and pulled out the black folder containing the registration and insurance info, but when I looked up, instead of smiling cop face the only thing I saw was a huge leather-gloved hand clutching a holstered sidearm. I got one hell of a chewing out at full volume, as well as a hefty speeding ticket. If you know Mass Staties, you know they can be a tad tightly wound. Apparently, he was a millisecond away from shooting me.
Fire, both meanings of the word: I worked as a pizza cook at the Red Wing Diner as a kid. Every young employee there was enamored with fast cars and burning rubber. My winter beater was a ’79 Grand Prix with a pathetic 301-cube V-8 that couldn’t spin the tires. By easing the front bumper against the block wall of the restaurant and mashing the throttle, I discovered it could be coaxed into spectacular smoky burnouts. So spectacular, in fact, that the bar adjacent to the wall filled with smoke. The barflies all ran out to investigate, but by then we had beat feet back inside. I woulda gotten away with it if not for the trunk and interior of the Grand Prix still bleeding residual tire smoke. It took a lot to convince my boss the car wasn’t burning and that he shouldn’t call the police and fire department—or fire me.
Death by air cleaner: My first car was a ’69 Cutlass with a dual-quad 455, ported heads, and a huge-by-stupid camshaft. It ran low 13s in the quarter mile with horrendous 60-foot times, so it was legit-fast for its day. I had just swapped air cleaners and didn’t check the carb linkage clearance. On my testdrive the power of mullet compelled me, and as I jumped out into traffic the carb linkage bound on the bases of the new air filters. In a wink, I was accelerating like a scalded monkey right towards a red light intersection. I was doing close to 90 mph in Second gear straight for a line of stopped cars before my brain said “Shut it down, dummy.” I killed the ignition and stood on the brakes as hard as I could, but the factory power-drums with no vacuum (remember that stupid-big cam) did little to slow me down. I somehow avoided the traffic and coasted to a stop in the middle of the intersection dazed and unharmed.
These are just the ones I’ll admit to. There was the incident on two wheels. The incident on three wheels. The Clark Griswold jump. The train track jump. The great wheelie experiment. The hairpin off-ramp 360. The high school Rockford file. The Catholic school headmaster incident. And so many more. Yeah, I believe in evolutionary Darwinism—both biological and vehicular. Despite my own best efforts, I made it through my early years and evolved into a more vehicularly responsible adult. But looking back on how unevenly I stacked the deck against myself, I also believe in angels. I just about wore mine out.