I attended the prestigious Bowling Green State University in beautiful and bucolic Bowling Green, Ohio after high school. (I continue to tell folks from different states it is considered the “Harvard of Ohio” but with varying levels of success.) It was yet another school in yet another state though at least it was in the state of my birth. And college in general tends to be a humbling, new experience for most everyone involved. So for once I felt like I at least started semi-parallel socially with my peers.
After the end of my freshman year I returned triumphantly with a 2.6 GPA to my parent’s new home in Centerville, Ohio for the summer. My middling grade point average was in reality quite a feat considering I rarely made it to any classes that began before noon and in the case of Geography barely at all. Though I have never been a morning person past the age of 5, I for some reason speculated that college would be different for me. And of course that fantasy extended not only to the hour of my classes but also prowess for studying, of which I had little to none.
Luckily, being on the football team in a football-crazed high school allowed me a certain, shall we say “flexibility” when it came to academics. That and I was able to wing most of the classes and get by on a decent memory and okay smarts, and also excellent peripheral vision allowing some light to moderate cheating. Sadly, all of these factors combined allowed me do no better than (ever so) slightly above average in high school. And it certainly didn’t earn me anything in the way of academic scholarships. Ultimately my fallback school was The Ohio State University and not The Yale or The Harvard.
So, naively, I enrolled in an 8:00am (!!) Geography class my first semester, freshman year which I proceeded to attend a total of three times: the first day, the midterm test and the final day. That I achieved a solid C in that class speaks to either my enormous capacity for cramming or greatly undermines my previous “Harvard of Ohio” declaration.
Anyways, smelling the very subtle hint of success wrapped in the overwhelming stench of mediocrity, my father procured for me a job at his plant in Dayton, Ohio, where he was head of sales and marketing for a windows and doors company. Would I work side-by-side with my father learning the ends and outs of marketing tactics, sales calls and P&L statements? Would I be hobnobbing with executives while gaining valuable management and business experience that I could apply later in life?
I would be working the third shift – 5pm to 2am – loading one hundred pound windows and doors on trucks for distribution.
My father, though generally liked by myself during that time was in fact less liked by the actual rank and file working on the manufacturing floor of his company. At 19, I had already developed some fairly powerful anti-authority credentials or at the very least a large and seemingly permanent chip on my shoulder. So though the first couple weeks were both painful socially and physically, I eventually won over a few of my blue collar co-workers with my latent dour attitude towards society and ready ease of which I verbally (if not truthfully) threw the “management” of the company under the bus.
The keenest of all my senses has always been my ability to sniff out a way to survive. I would have made a great cockroach. Which may be why I despise cockroaches so.
The three months that summer I spent working at the factory actually progressed fairly uneventfully. And I, in many ways, assumed the life of your standard, run-of-the-mill factory worker. Meaning I mindlessly went about my business and bared little responsibility in the actual running of the proverbial mill.
After my shift ended I returned home at around 3am each early morn. Not surprisingly, I didn’t want to immediately go to sleep for fear of quickly awakening to the drudgery of my existence. So first I would routinely sit in my parent’s living room and watch a magnitude of bad television that could only be found at 3am on a weeknight. The terrible local commercials that interrupted the muck were only slightly worse. I normally accompanied my viewing with frozen food. And maybe a beer I snuck from the fridge.
When I did go to sleep I normally didn’t awake until noontime. I then proceeded to eat lunch and then go to the YMCA to lift weights and exercise. I did however have one true perk that summer, which was a membership to a local pool. So that is where I spent most afternoons after leaving the “Y”. And as any good post pubescent, young adult male knows – you work out BEFORE going to the pool – so your muscles can be “pumped up” when you take your shirt off. (I’m not ashamed to admit that I also may have knocked out a few pushups in the pool’s restroom from time to time). Sadly, even taking this tact, my pulsing physique was minimized if not completely offset by the fact I was reading science fiction and fantasy novels while lying by the pool. Unbeknownst to me this was a clear female repellant at the time (and for those of my age) and thus you won’t be shocked to learn that I ultimately had zero takers on the lady front that summer.
And truly, that was my routine almost every day of the entire summer.
Through it all I was very cognizant of the fact that my summer differed from that of most of my cohorts in college who would triumphantly be returning home for the summer embarking on their routine: mainly, hanging out with high school friends, going to parties, working part-time and screwing. It should be painfully clear by now that I wasn’t blessed with that option, since I had moved two weeks after I graduated from a high school in Pennsylvania to Ohio. And thus I didn’t really have a true hometown (much less hometown friends).
Understanding that background will help you visualize my excitement when a guy I worked with at my father’s plant named Seth – who was a couple years older than me but who I got along with quite well – invited me to spend the day on his boat.
At that point, my last day working at the plant was to be the end of the following week.
And it would be literally the first and last time where I broke out of my normal routine that summer.
We met early on Saturday at a lake about an hour away. Since we both worked the late shift we both didn’t get much sleep the night before, but my excitement to actually be doing something (anything!) definitely kept me awake and wired.
Seth’s “boat” was only a boat in the loosest terms. It was as much a boat as Pearl Light, the beer my friends and I used to buy in college for $5 a case was “beer”. In politics that boat would be comparable to a RINO or DINO – or in this case, a BINO: Boat in Name Only. The boat possessed the ability to float. And there was enough room for us both to sit comfortably upright. Most telling was that it had the general shape of a strange craft that, if put in a line up at the police station, would 6 out of 10 times be identified as boat shaped. But that is where the parallels ended.
Of course, the “boat” worked fine for the “lake” in which we were floating. If by “lake” you meant “can fit a few dozen of Seth’s supposed “”boats””.
But I digress. Plus I’ve broken the quotation key.
Though our pleasure craft was unimpressive, the time spent while on said floating device was most excellent. We talked, and fished and had a few beers that Seth had brought with him. I frankly forgot the conversation topics and discussion points almost immediately afterward, but even if partially from wont of companionship the entire experience was truly enjoyable. And easily cleared the very low bar of being the highlight of the summer.
At some point during the conversation we devised the plan of me following Seth to a local county fair allegedly located an hour away, which had kicked off that very day. So we hopped into Seth’s car and drove back to my parent’s house, with the intention of grabbing my car so we could both drive to the fair.
We returned to my house and briefly chatted with my parents. Truth be told they, when introduced to Seth, seemed to swell up with the pride at the thought that I had actually made a friend for the summer – and on top of that was going to go out (!) and do something (!) for once (if only once) that summer. I guess their own low expectations and bar setting reflected my nature at the time, where not being social – even if ultimately totally not my fault – had become a feature not a bug.
We’d both been out in the sun the whole day and hadn’t eaten much. But
I paid that little mind and popped a few Tylenol before getting into my car and following Seth. The promise of fried Twinkies and some grilled sausage for dinner danced in my head.
It’s also worth noting that the car I drove was not “my” car per se, but actually may parent’s newish Nissan Maxima. It had all the bells and whistles – functioning radio, one disc CD player, power windows – and was again a symbol of how glad my parents were that I was leaving the house for the night.
About 45 minutes into the drive I began to get tired. The lack of sleep the night before, the sun, Tylenol et all had relaxed me quite a bit to the point where I was fighting to stay awake. My eyes kept closing and I used all the tricks I could think of – turning up the music, glancing at the mirrors, picturing my mother naked – the entire arsenal.
At about an hour and fifteen minutes into the drive I began to really question Seth’s math and sense of time and space. He told me the County Fair was an hour away but I knew we had at least another 20 to 30 minutes to go.
We were driving on a two lane road with houses on either side.
My lids got heavier.
I blared some Faith No More out of the fancy factory-installed CD player to keep me focused. While singing at the top of my lungs I tightly squeezed that gap between my thumb and index finger. Sharp pains shot through my hand giving me brief bursts of lucidity.
Mike Patton, the lead singer of Faith No More, serenaded me: “You’re everything, that’s why I cling, to you…”
“When I emerge, my thoughts converge, to you…”
“The world is so small compared to you…”
“And everything is wrong compared to you…”
Suddenly I awoke with the sound of a mailbox smashing through my windshield. It whizzed by my head and landed in the back seat.
I slammed on the breaks but as I was in the front yard of one of the houses lining the highway, my car slid as if on ice through the yard. I proceeded through one yard, and then another, and another.
Straight ahead was a telephone pole.
Helplessly I smashed through another mailbox, which though seemed to help slow my slide moderately, was not nearly enough.
I closed my eyes on purpose this time.
I hit the telephone pole at about 35 miles per hour.
My head hit the steering wheel but not hard enough to knock me out. Somehow, I had avoided hitting the pole exactly head on. I certainly didn’t miss hitting it flush by very much as the telephone pole was essentially my passenger: it was now located vertically in the seat next to me.
The Maxima was totaled. But I was alive.
If I had been in my own car – a Honda Prelude – an older, flimsier and far smaller car I would by all probability not have survived. Or if I did most of me wouldn’t be serviceable.
And if that mailbox had been inches to the left and hit me in the face instead of missing…
Lots of ifs. Life is a game of inches. And in this case for me it literally was.
But the Nissan Maxima was new and the seat belts held.
In shock, I opened the door and rolled out onto the grass. Looking to my left I noticed that I had veered from the right side of the road, through the oncoming traffic in the left lane (miraculously not hitting another car) of the two lane highway and then slid through the grass of four different houses on the opposite side of the highway. There were skid marks through the front lawns where I had slammed on my breaks for a few hundred feet.
I took a deep breath.
The front door opened to the small house whose yard and telephone pole I was now unceremoniously parked in. And older gentlemen in a white t-shirt and stone washed jeans strolled out my way in no particular hurry.
He first asked me if I was okay. I replied that I was.
He then said: “You know, the Demolition Derby is supposed to be at the County Fair up the road.” And smiled.
Someone at some point had called the police as a few minutes later a state police trooper pulled up. The officer made sure I was unhurt. When it seemed that – at least physically – that was the case he firmly asked me whether I was drunk.
“What?” I said. “No. I fell asleep.”
“But it’s only 9 o’clock at night, “ the officer said.
“I was out on a boat all day, and I work late nights…” and fumbled through a couple of excuses.
“Let’s run some tests just to make sure,” he said.
So, still most likely suffering from shock from hitting a telephone pole ten minutes earlier, I was asked to stand on one leg. And walk a straight line. And touch my nose. Even on the best of days my balance is subpar but it seemed that I had managed to do about as well as could be expected with the tests.
“Get into the front seat,” the officer said.
At this point, my shock was snuggling up with book full of disbelief while drinking a warm glass of confusion.
As I sat down with a sigh in the front passenger seat about to protest, Seth knocked on the officer’s window. The officer asked him if he’d been drinking – to when Seth replied in the negative. The officer told him to go on home, and that I would be fine. I gave a frown and a shaky, half-hearted wave, and Seth quickly drove away in retreat.
“So, were you and your friend drinking?” the relentless officer began. “I can smell alcohol on you. Regardless of what you say I’m going to administer a breathalyzer test back at the station. And if you pass that, I’m going to give you a drug test. Because I know you are on some sort of chemical, and that you didn’t just fall asleep. So why don’t you do yourself a favor and be honest with me. Keep in mind that you are underage. If I find any alcohol in your system you are in a world of trouble.”
The truth that the not so friendly officer was seeking didn’t seem all that damning: that I had drank 3 light beers, on a boat, 9 hours earlier. And yes, I was underage but I was almost 20 years old. The rational part of my mind knew that there was absolutely no way that I was drunk, much less buzzed, much less smelling like alcohol. And that the cop was just trying to scare me into talking.
The problem was that I was scared. And most likely in shock and if not that, definitely more than moderately disoriented.
The cop stared at me intently…with his spooky cop eyes.
So I did what was right. I was honest and told the officer about the boat. I believe the proverb goes: “Honesty is the best policy.”
“Click” went the handcuffs as they snapped into place around my wrists, behind my back.
I was promptly and unceremoniously hand cuffed and placed in the back of the police car. Where I sobbed uncontrollably for most of the 20 minutes it took to drive back to the state highway patrol office.
After the cop parked in front of the building, I was led into the waiting area, where I was surrounded by a number of shady looking fellow criminals. Apparently these were my current and future brethren. The officer sat me down on a bench in a holding cell next to a visibly as well as odorously intoxicated older gentlemen and then proceeded to call my parents.
By the time he made the call it was nearing 11 o’clock at night. So when the officer called my parents and they answered the phone he actually woke them up.
He then gave them a maddeningly small and vague amount of detail: “Your son has been in an accident. Please come down to the police station.” The officer gave them the address but no further information.
Afterward, I breathed into the promised breathalyzer and waited.
Lo and behold, I ended up blowing a zero point zero zero.
And I was never given that drug test.
About an hour later my father stormed into the police station. After learning that I was in fact, not dead or maimed but had instead totaled his brand newish car and was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving he fairly quickly and without humor filled out the paperwork and led me to the car. The officer got in one more jab on my way out the doors about me being “lucky” and to be more “careful next time.” I held my tongue but muttered under my breath something about vowing to avoid falling asleep at the wheel or crashing into telephone poles if I could absolutely avoid it.
My dad was exceedingly angry. That much was crystal clear. And though my mother played the good cop and chimed in with “We are just happy you are alive” it appeared my father was in fact, not just happy at much of anything at that point.
I crawled defeated into the back seat of our Ford conversion van and curled up into the fetal position. As we began to back out of the parking spot I cursed my luck. My life. My job. Myself.
And then my dad backed our van into a parked police car.
Well, not “a” police car but “the” exact car of the officer who arrested me.
Oh, and one pertinent fact that I almost left out. My father was, like most nights, drinking before he went to sleep.
After screaming something to the effect of “Great, now I’m going to get a DUI, too” my father glared at me, and stomped back into the police station to speak to the officer. I made a short lived and not very enthusiastic protest to my mother about me not actually getting a DUI – but her face quieted me and made clear that there were in fact, no longer any good cops in the van. Only Zuul.
I remained curled up in the back seat in silence waiting for my nightmare to end. Which, considering my night, I figured would probably come in the form of a rogue asteroid crashing into our car from the outer reaches of the universe – the very same universe which obviously despised me.
Around ten minutes later my father emerged from the police station (sans hand cuffs) and we drove the hour back to our house.
It was, as they say, “a long drive”.
In the aftermath of that night, a lone irony emerged. My parent’s insurance covered most of the damage for the Nissan Maxima that I had totaled – it ultimately was damaged so badly that it couldn’t be repaired and my parents ended up getting a new car. And honestly once my folks saw the extent of the damage to the car they recognized how lucky it was that their son wasn’t badly hurt. Plus, the insurance even covered the yard damage I caused, the multiple mail boxes I rammed and even the telephone pole (!) that I smashed into.
But the damage to the police car my dad backed into ended up costing them thousands of dollars.
And that was how I spent the summer of 1994.