Adventures in Travel, or Three Down, Six to Go

FULL CIRCLE

My first car was a Renault Dauphine – remember the Dauphine?  Pale blue or green, depending on the light, a glossy finish when new, I’m sure, but flat and chalky when I acquired it.  As gas was expensive I drove it sparingly, with one exception – it knew the way to New York and my girl friend’s house better than I did.

One early November day Dauphine and I were on the Merritt Parkway, the roadway patchy with wet leaves from an overnight rain.  Motoring along in the right lane, I kept my speed down and took care not to stomp on the brakes, avoiding clots of leaves or skating over them.

Somewhere this side of Stamford, down a hill and around a curve, with no warning at all I began to skid.  Snow experience kicking in, I turned the wheel the opposite way, but still I slid toward the center guard rail.  Passing one-eighty I had a good view of the road behind and was relieved to see the nearest vehicle at some distance.  Three-quarters of the way around, the tires started to grab, and as we passed full circle I was able to straighten it out.  Now traffic was closing fast so I moved over to the right lane and stopped at the next rest area to walk around and medicate with a candy bar and a cup of vending machine sludge.

Back on the road, I must have replayed those few seconds a hundred times.  What if a bunch of cars had been right behind me?  What if I’d gone through the guard rail?  As it was, I used the whole width of the road.  Molly wondered why I chugged that first beer so fast.  When I told her what happened she threw her arms around me and held on a long time.  Moral of the story: near-disasters can be fine…but leave the real thing alone.

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A TRIUMPH OF SORTS

My next car was a Triumph TR-3B, light blue for sure – the photos prove it.  During the Sixties, the British sports car fad was in full swing, and Triumph produced one of the most fun to drive.  The pecking order was MG, the TRs, Austin-Healy, finally the Jaguar XK series crowned by the magnificent XK-E.

Quick and responsive, popular for sports car rallies, the TR-3’s gears compensated for its underpowered engine.  It was so low to the ground that leaning out the window you could file your fingernails on the roadway, if you were so inclined.  Triumph and I traveled everywhere, price of gas be damned (by now I had a decent job), in what seemed a manic attempt to touch every state in the U.S.

One dark evening in heavy rain, I had just crossed from Missouri into southwestern Illinois.  Near the Mississippi, parts of Illinois are quite hilly.  I’ve studied the map since and can’t swear exactly where this happened, though a good guess would be somewhere around Quincy.  I had been visiting friends in New Mexico and was bound for Chicago for the same, then home to Boston.

Straining uphill on a two-lane road in the downpour, I was stuck behind a very wide truck which, popping out into the left lane, I saw was also a very long truck.  Finally the way looked clear, though the bad visibility kept me from being absolutely sure, and so with less than complete conviction, I decided to go for it.

I pulled out and in a few seconds could read the name on the side of the massive vehicle – Coca Cola.  Even with the accelerator (sic!) floored, the best I could do was inch forward.  Suddenly in the windshield a pair of headlights loomed up ahead.  After a moment of indecision I decided this was a losing game and I had better get out of it, right now.  My only option was to decelerate and duck in behind the Coke truck, but now it seemed to be slowing down too.  Had he applied his brakes to let me pass?  Didn’t he know I’d changed my mind?

With the headlights a lot brighter, I glanced at my speedometer – down to thirty.  Little by little the Coke truck gained on me.  Now I could see the silhouette of the oncoming truck and I hit the brakes…hard!  Twenty…fifteen…at last Coke’s last set of wheels pulled past me.  I turned sharp to the right and cut in behind him.  Oh happy sight, the back end of that truck which only moments before I had never wanted to see again.  Warm, happy nest.  Our Lady Refuge of Bad Drivers, pray for us, Queen of the Highway, pray for us.

Shaking, I planted both hands on top of the steering wheel, thinking I would like to lean my forehead on it but I’d better not.  A moment later, with a roar and a plume of spray, the headlights rushed past and an eighteen-wheeler rocked my little boat in its wake.  In a moment we were on top of the long incline, cresting the hill I had so badly mismanaged.

That evening I had a stern talk with myself.  Never again would time pressure trap me like that, exasperation either.  I would respect my vehicle, demanding from it no more than it could give.

A few months later I traded in the little Triumph for a Porsche.  Result, a thinner wallet but a lot more peace of mind.

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EVEN PEDESTRIANS GET THE BLUES

Some years later I moved to New York for a job.  In my spare hours I roamed the  neighborhoods, bistros, out-of-the-way joints.  Concerts and plays, too, mostly Off-Off-Off-Broadway, with the occasional splurge for a Cats or Chicago.  But museum-going came first.  I won’t say I was an intellectual, which sounds pretentious because it is until you’ve produced something notable which to that point I had not, but communing with the greats and their work on museum and gallery walls was at once encouragement and solace.

One day a friend and I were on our way to the Frick, my favorite New York museum, and exiting the Metro we realized we were much too early.  At the corner of East 70th and Madison, standing in front of a bakery window, we debated where to stroll to kill a few minutes.  Jenny was at the left end of the window, facing up Madison.  I was across the sidewalk, my back to the intersection.  Suddenly I felt myself falling!  I stuck out my hand but landed hard on my shoulder and rolled over.  When I looked up, the back of a yellow cab was sticking out of the bakery window!

Jenny!  As I got to my feet and saw her coming around the taxi, picking her way through the shattered glass.  “Thank God you’re all right,” she cried.

“What happened?”

“That cab!  It hit the window.”

“It must have blown me over,” I blurted, as if waking from a very bad dream.  “It didn’t hit me, I didn’t feel anything or hear anything.”

“What happened to your shoe?”

I looked down.  My left sneaker was missing.

By now people were milling about.  The cab driver was waving his arms, yelling that somebody cut him off.  A police cruiser roared up and two cops got out.  In the distance I heard a siren.  One of the cops went into the store, the other had the cab driver cornered and was grilling him.  I saw a crowd of people inside the smashed storefront as if somebody in there might be hurt.  The siren grew louder.

Then I noticed him.  A middle-aged man in a grey suit and a bow tie, red with a yellow stripe, came up to me.  “You are one lucky soul, I must say.”

“What happened?  Did you see it?”

“I certainly did.  The cab was speeding up Madison as they always do, suddenly he veered and ran up on the sidewalk here.  He didn’t miss your friend by much, either.  If someone hadn’t pushed you out of the way you would have been flattened.”

“Pushed me!  No wonder I fell.”

“It could have been a lot worse for you.”

“Do you see him now?” I asked.

The man looked around.  The crowd had grown considerably. “No, can’t say as I do.”

“What did he look like?”

“Tall, slim.  Oh, yes he was wearing a green hat with a feather.  Tyrolean – you know the kind.”

I scanned the crowd, saw no one looking remotely like that.  “You’d think he’d at least stick around to see how I was.”

The man smiled.  “Five gets you ten, that was your guardian angel.  As I understand, they tend to avoid display except when necessary, if delivering a message, for instance.  And I daresay he knows very well how you are.”

“Just did his job and left, is that it?”  I looked at Jenny.  “I guess I’ll count this is a wake-up call.”

“Well, carry on.  By the way, you’ll be needing this.”  He handed me my sneaker, “it was under the cab.   Have a good rest of the day.”

With that he strode away.  I watched as he approached 70th.  Just before turning the corner he stopped, pulled something from his pocket and put it on his head.  A hat…a green hat!

“Hey, wait!” I shouted.  “Stop!”

Just as I started after him a cop stepped in front of me.  “You the guy almost hit?  You okay?  You need medical assistance?”

“I’m fine.  Excuse me,” I said, trying to get around him, “I need to talk with somebody.”

“It can wait.  I got to take a statement,” he said, pulling out a pad of paper.  By now the man was out of sight.

Oh well, I thought, those guys are quick, I probably wouldn’t have caught him anyway.  Besides, flying was never my strong suit.

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