If you’ve been paying any sort of attention, you’ve picked up on the fact that old Saabs have been part of my life since before I could drive them.
The Saab in this story is a red 1967 Saab 96 with an 850cc, three cylinder, two stroke engine in it. (this is the same car you might have read about here).
When driven gently, the engine, with 7 moving parts, would sound almost as smooth as a turbine.
Of course, if you drove it ‘un-gently’ it sounded like an army of chainsaws.
I was more familiar with the chainsaw sound, to be honest, and just loved the way it sounded when I drove it like that. It was a contemporary of the original VW Beetle, and kind of like the Beetle, had what they called ‘unibody’ construction – meaning there wasn’t a steel frame to put the car body on. The VW’s body was bolted to the floor pan, I believe, with 13 bolts, the Saab’s was welded. The idea on these two was that the car body was built strong enough to essentially *be* the steel frame.
Now because of this, the Saab pretty much operated under ‘Vegas Rules’ – those being “whatever got in the car, stayed in the car” – which meant it required cleaning out every spring after a typical wet Washington winter to the point of taking EVERYTHING out of it and letting everything down to the steel of that unibody construction dry out so it didn’t get moldy or rust or anything like that.
One of the things I noticed one of those times was that at the front of the floor pan, about where you might put your feet, were three holes about two inches in diameter, with stamped metal plugs in them. The right one was rusted. Both good and bad, it allowed water to drain out, if you were lucky, but also explained the fairly constant wet spot on the floor there.
I figured I’d fix it before fall, and just left everything to dry for a while.
Meanwhile – well, some years back, actually, the pastor of our church had taken us four wheeling, he called it “Stump Jumping”. I was young and didn’t know if I could do something like that, but he reassured me it was okay to strap myself into an itty bitty Jeep with an ‘ever so slightly’ modified 307 cubic inch V-8.
I also didn’t understand that one of the basic tenets of four wheeling the way he had in mind was to drive like a freaking lunatic.
Wait a minute…
Driving like a lunatic?
I could do that.
And off we went.
Now before we go on, you must know: There were two types of roads on Fort Lewis:
1. The kind that had been surveyed, graded, paved, and marked by professionals, and had speed limit signs to keep you on the straight and narrow, so to speak….
2. The kind that were made by a teenager driving an M-60 tank, were ungraded, unpaved, and most definitely weren’t marked (though it’s hard to keep a tank’s passing a secret). They didn’t have speed limit signs, because the roads were so rough that a sane person didn’t need them.
But we’re not talking about sane people now, are we?
So in doing our four wheeling, there was this one road, out on Fort Lewis, (it’s still there, but flattened out considerably, and they’ve built quite a bit up around it in the years since this happened) that was smooth enough so you could actually get up to about 40 miles an hour. At the end of that smoothness was this wonderful “yump” – where, if you were driving sanely, it would fling you up in the air kind of like going over a hump on a roller coaster.
If you were driving a Jeep, or driving insanely, you gunned the heck out of it, caught some serious air, and kept your hands inside the vehicle while you thanked God for seat belts and roll cages. Anything not fastened down started doing its own little Zero G spacewalk wherever it wanted to.
It’s what you saw during your personal Zero G “Thank God for seat belts” moment that took your breath away.
We’ll get to that in a bit.
Now the roads I was mentioning came in one of two stages: dusty, or muddy. Rarely did you get one of the roads in that perfect condition between the two, and on this particular stretch you had that little yump that would get anything airborne (heck, if you hit it right, you could get a semi-truck flying)
But there weren’t any semi-trucks on this road. In fact, while there was evidence of them, there weren’t even any tanks. But it was that evidence that told me so much… See, those tanks were driven by young men not much older than teenagers, and when driven “properly”, they caught air too. All 60 tons of them.
You’ve heard the phrase, “what goes up, must come down” right?
That goes for flying 60 ton tanks as well as it goes for anything, so when all that flying armor came back down, still traveling 20-30 miles an hour, the earth moved.
In fact, there was a depression a foot deep where those tanks had landed – about 100 feet long, and about 20 feet wide.
Really, the earth moved.
Now the Saabs of the vintage that I was driving had been used in Rally racing, driven on roads not much different from the logging roads familiar to people out here in Washington, (or tank roads familiar to people growing up near Fort Lewis driving in places they maybe shouldn’t have been driving). I’d seen pictures of them catching air, driving on two wheels, flipped over on their roofs (yes, really) and they were just more fun to drive right on the edge that way.
Well, given that, one day that summer I decided it’d be fun to take the Saab out to where we’d been four wheeling– or ‘stump jumping’ those years earlier – and do a little ‘rally practice’ and see what would happen if I took it over the same ‘yump’ that we’d gone over with the Jeep.
I figured I’d hit the yump, just like I did in the jeep, catch air, just like I did in the Jeep, and land and rumble through that 100 foot by 20 foot depression, just like I did in the Jeep.
It’s just that when we did it with the Jeep, the road was dusty, and dry, and there was a depression, and when we hit our little Zero G moment, what we saw was a dent in the road to land on from where the tanks had hit.
When I was did it with the Saab, it was after some wet weather, and there was no dust. The road was damp, and when I hit my little Zero G moment, what I saw ahead of me stopped my heart cold.
Instead of a dent, I saw a puddle about the size of the Pacific Ocean. Seriously – that huge dent in front of me was now filled with close to a foot of water, it was more than a puddle. In the brief moment I had, I thought I saw a ‘no fishing’ sign at the edge. It was just enormous.
The thoughts that blasted through my head right then were fast, frantic, and mostly useless, but they gave me one, and only one option.
I was easily 3 feet in the air at the time of those thoughts. At that altitude, the wheels, and all they symbolized, were less than useless.
Not good, well, not bad, but it affected all the other decisions that followed.
Steering to the left or right at that moment to try get out of the puddle would have made those front tires into rudders when they hit the water, and landing with the wheels aimed anyplace other than straight ahead would have been more than a touch dramatic and likely rolled the car.
In a foot of water.
Hitting the brakes, while useless in the air, would just mean I’d get stuck in the puddle once I landed.
Also not good.
So if left was no good, and right was no good, and slowing down was no good, what option did I have?
My only option was to hang on and ride it out.
So I did, and I floored it, just before I hit.
But I wasn’t out of the woods, literally or figuratively, yet.
Now as I hit the surface (and Lordy, “hit” is exactly what it was, this was not a gentle landing), a number of things happened…
The engine screamed, the wheels spun, and the hydrological equivalent of Mount Vesuvius erupted inside the car.
See, that little plug that I was going to fix that spring, and didn’t, chose that moment to give way, and a two inch jet of water shot straight up from the floor, blasted the carpet and floor mats out of the way, kept going up behind the glove box and radio, and continued on inside the windshield on the passengers’ side, all the way up to the roof and the sun visors.
Of course, I was trying to keep the car under control at the time, so didn’t really have too much time to process that little event, but Vesuvius in the car…
It took a long time for it to dry out after that one.
But it did.
And in the drying out phase after this little event, I found the plug, saw that it was pretty rusty, but given that I didn’t have any others, put it back in and smacked it with a hammer, figuring that would make it stay.
Insert ominous music here…
Later that year, in the fall, I went on a date with a young lady who shall remain nameless. I just know that I did my best to be a gentleman. I knew her parents were missionaries in the Philippines, and wrote them a note asking about her favorite things. And one Saturday, I tried to make a day of making some of those favorite things happen. I took her to her hometown on the Olympic Peninsula, I tried to do some of the things her parents had told me she liked, and I found out that no matter what I did, she was clearly upset.
I had no idea what was wrong.
One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that most men simply want to make the women in their lives happy. So in this case, I’d spent weeks talking to her parents and friends to find out what she liked, so that I could do just that, make her happy…
For whatever reason, she didn’t want to be happy, no matter what I did.
I was stumped.
By this time it was evening, and the weather outside was cold, and wet, and even though I had the heater on full blast in the car, the atmosphere inside was absolutely frigid. As we were driving from her hometown to mine, for some reason I went a slightly different way, and ended up on a road I seldom used.
And as I came around a curve on this unfamiliar road, in the rain, there must have been a plugged up storm drain, because in front of me I saw something I’d only seen once before through this windshield.
I saw a puddle.
A big puddle.
But I saw it at the last second, and realized that…
If I tried to swerve now, my unhappy passenger would be even unhappier.
If I hit the brakes, she would be unhappier still.
…and then, in a flash, I realized that given how bad things were, it really didn’t matter what I did, so I held on and floored it.
And our hydrological equivalent of Mt. Vesuvius erupted a second time in the car, only this time there was a passenger in it. In fact, there was a passenger’s foot just to the left of Mt. Vesuvius, and the water shot straight up and caught her between her leg and the jeans she was wearing.
She was instantly, and I mean *instantly* drenched. I’d say ‘from head to toe’ but her pant leg funneled most of the water someplace else, and only a little of it got to her head.
Ooooh Lordy… If I thought she was mad earlier, I hadn’t even come close to seeing mad.
Given where we were, I took her to my folk’s place, where she dried off, and then took her back up to Seattle, where she lived.
It was a very quiet ride.
A library might have been quieter, except for the sound of a two stroke engine and dripping water.
Not surprisingly, it was our very last date.
© 2011 Tom Roush