home |  

The Big Rollout

I hear the cry of the masses calling for stories of cheer, encouragement, and bliss. Here's one that immediately comes to mind: how about the time I pushed my wife out of a moving car merely because I didn't want to come to a complete stop. It happened so long ago I strain to remember the details. The year was 1981. But Melissa enjoys hearing it told so often that I finally must regale (or is it bludgeon?) you with it again. You'll agree it loses little in the repetition.

We were newlyweds, married for about a week as I recall. We were wed one fabulously gorgeous late August Saturday morning, and the next day, a duplicate weather-wise, we moved from Ann Arbor to Farmington Hills, Michigan. This was half way between my new job at U.S. Steel in Troy and Melissa's job at Norton's Florist, Ann Arbor, where she was an award winning designer (First Place in a Party Arrangement competition at the Michigan State Florist Association Convention). We were a poor, not so young, couple--truly, madly, deeply in love. A love which would see its first real test within the week of the nuptials. And because we were poor the cars we were driving were seeing their age. Not really so much the Camaro that Melissa owned, though that would die a death-by-winter soon enough, but referring more to the Volkswagen Beetle that I had purchased that summer. I feel sure I had been scammed somehow by the seller. But my dad and I checked the car out as thoroughly as we could and I bought it. And aside from some "irregularities" concerning acquiring the title, a title the guy reluctantly but finally released to me after numerous requests, the whole experience seemed like a normal "for sale by owner" deal. It wouldn't be long before we found out otherwise.

Maybe I should have been a little wary. After all, I could point to one incident in the not too distant past when the combination of a VW bug and I made quite the combustible combination. This particular event, if you will pardon the slight, though somewhat related digression, occurred the previous winter, in its deep, furiously frigid death grip, close to the midnight hour. It was snow blown and blizzard-like in Ypsilanti where I had been studying with Melissa at Eastern Michigan University. I was minutes from campus on the 17 mile return trip home to Inkster. Not a dozen blocks from my brother Bill's apartment, while tooling eastbound on Michigan Avenue, admiring the peaceful way the billions of snow flakes gathered around my windshield clinging tenaciously to the wiper blades, making the drive one of Michigan's more normal winter will-I-make-it-out-of-this-alive? challenges, I noticed a faint orange glow in my rear view mirror. Then immediately the engine stalled and I pulled into the center turn lane and got out. The flames were almost immediately visible peeking from the vents in the rear hood above the engine. The contrast in temperatures and color would have made a marvelous painting had it not treacherous implications. I perceptively recognized that the engine was on fire. And if it was not for the kindness of the guy in a pickup truck who was driving behind me a few hundred feet, who knows what the result might have been on that empty stretch of downtown highway. The miracle of this gentleman being probably the only driver in the city out at that time of night that night carrying a fire extinguisher in his vehicle was not lost on me! And with not so much as a word he jumped from his truck, doused the growing flames consuming the rear of the bug, jumped back in his vehicle and disappeared into the blur of falling snow. It was dream-like.

With the fire out, and the stranger gone without so much as a "Hi-Yo Silver!", I searched for a solution to my next dilemma. How to complete the rest of my journey home before dawn and frostbite? I tried calling my study partner, Melissa Grady, but I got no answer. She had not yet made it home. I trudged the however many blocks to Bill's apartment and woke him from a sound sleep. Hey, what's family for? I probably spent the night on his couch. My only remaining problem was explaining to Glenn Ladenburger how the car he generously let me use (while he was away at school in Chicago where they weren't allowed cars) got barbecued on this dark winter night. I was counting on his well-known gracious, even-temperedness. I mean, it could have happened to anyone, right? I didn't do nothin', I was just driving the thing!

Well I was just driving the thing again a week after Melissa and I were married. This time it was a different Beetle. This time it was my own vehicle. We had left home on our way to Ann Arbor or somewhere out in that area. We pulled out of our apartment complex at Nine Mile and Drake heading to where the freeway entrance is located at Grand River Ave. in Farmington. Not more than a couple blocks from home (don't they say something about things that happens within 25 miles from home?) I was in the middle of shifting gears when the clutch cable broke! I was 28 years old with a modicum of automotive experience, but with Melissa beside me I was fumbling for answers. And I had to come up with some fast!

We were alone on the freeway service drive for the moment and I whipped the car around 180° and headed back to the apartment. Fortunately the VW is highly maneuverable, and luckily there was no on-coming traffic. But there were stop signs and stop lights that I knew I couldn't avoid. A very hasty conference was engaged (mostly one-sided) and we concluded that we needed to get the vehicle on our own (i.e., without spending tow-truck money) to a repair shop. And Melissa would have to get her car and follow me up there. Fortunately there was a VW shop a few miles away on the east edge of Farmington. Unfortunately I couldn't stop the car because it's a stick shift! If I did that how would I get the car moving again; plus we'd have to pay for the tow-truck. This was not good. I figured that if I could get the car home after running a few stop signs and lights, hoping there wouldn't be any traffic to confront, I could just slow the car down to a near crawl and Melissa could virtually walk out of it quite easily. Actually I was thinking how easily I could do it, and if I could, anybody could, since I didn't possess extraordinary coordination skills. So that was my plan. Melissa didn't like it. But she was my young bride and up to that point figured I knew everything about everything. (Right!) I guess that shows you how much in love with me she was at the time. Need I stress, at the time? She demurred, no doubt thinking that this plan really stinks. However I don't recall her offering an alternative, or maybe I was in too much of a panic trying to envision how many lights and stop signs I'd have to run and cars to dodge so I didn't have to stop. It didn't take but a couple minutes and I was swinging back into our complex to get her car.

The Fairmont Park Apartment complex was pretty new. It was an upscale place that we were barely able to afford, but attempted to anyway in order to avoid the riff-raff that had made previous apartment dwelling an awful experience. (No, it didn't work this time, either! On our second day there I knocked on our neighbor door and very calmly and politely ask them to turn their blaring stereo down, and the response I received was: not a word, a quickly and firmly closed door, and the music turned up louder!) The street that meandered through the place was smooth and nicely landscaped with deep carpets of smooth soft grass running right up to the edge of the low concrete curb. When we got close to our apartment where Melissa's Camaro was parked I pulled as close to the grass as I could and slowed down as much as possible without stalling the engine and told her she could now get out. She did open the door, and with wide-eyed trepidation and an incredible amount of courage she made her exit. We were going slowly enough that I could have hopped out barely breaking stride, as if merely hurrying along to get out of the rain. Since I was driving and trying to keep my eyes on the road ahead I didn't get a clear unobstructed view of the result. I leave you to make a mental picture. You're probably not far off. Let me just say that a future for Melissa in gymnastics was not likely. The upshot, as you may imagine, is that, according to her later description, she took a deep tumble, rolling out of her side of the car as if a member of the 42nd Airborne Division parachuting over Omaha Beach on D-Day. When I could look back as I drove away I could see her looking at me with eyes you'd never want to see in a bride. As I turned the corner and drove out of site I could see her getting to her feet. She didn't look any worse for the exercise from my increasing distance. It was probably around that time that the honeymoon came to a quiet end.

Not able to do anything about the conclusion of that forced evacuation I continued my drive to the repair shop. And I successfully managed to drive a mile or so unencumbered by any other traffic. However, when I came upon the intersection of Farmington Road and the service drive that I was on I had no choice but to stop. It was either that or smash into passing traffic at my red light. I chose the former. With an audible groan I threw the shifter into neutral and braked, wondering what I would do next. I didn't have long to decide as the light quickly turned green. Again finding my choices severely limited I grabbed a hold of the shifter jamming it hard into first gear. You may not be surprised that I acquired first gear without much difficulty at all, but I registered some shock! Flushed with success, a second later I rocked it out of first gear into second, and proceeded right on up the numbers. I knew from prior experience that you could shift between gears without the clutch if you let up on the gas, but I had no idea that you could just jam the transmission of a VW Bug into first gear from a dead stop! I guess because it was a Beetle made a great deal of difference, being light-weight and also having a very small first gear ratio. Needless to say, I had little trouble getting the car to the shop after that. I had much more difficulty explaining the facts of shifting to Melissa after she pulled into the garage parking lot behind me. Maybe I should have kept that minor detail to myself. Plus, seeing the highly annoyed look that was still on her face at that time should have been a more obvious hint. But I came clean. I don't know if she has yet forgiven me for what happened then, but to this day she doesn't get out of a car when I'm driving unless she can verify that it is securely in Park and the hand brake is firmly applied.

home |