Have you ever done something a little on the audacious side?
In fact, have you ever done something that ran an astonishingly high risk of failure, but you decided you’d try it anyway?
Now, on top of that, have you ever met someone that just seemed to have it all?
And have you ever wanted to pull a prank on them, just – well… Because?
Have you ever had a convergence of all of those things look like they might come together in ways that you could imagine in your dreams, but couldn’t possibly imagine in reality?
Well, it might be hard to imagine for those of you who read these stories, but yes indeedy, I had all of those things happen, many years ago. See, when I was a teenager, I knew someone like that, his name was Marc. Marc was handsome, smart, had a sense of humor and a smile that would win over just about anybody.
At that time, Marc was always, and I mean always in the company of some attractive young lady. We went to different schools, but went to the same church, and were in the same youth group, and most importantly, went to the same church camp in southern Washington, where once a year, we met other kids from other churches in the district (which encompassed Washington and Oregon). One of those kids was a young lady by the name of Jeanne, a bright, fun, attractive girl from Oregon who was friends with just about everyone.
It was clear that a number of the boys at camp were completely smitten by her, but given that she lived a few hours from where we lived, and given that this was, shockingly, before the days of the internet as we know it, any communication had to be done by letters that were written, with a pen, on paper, or telephone calls which usually cost more for the first minute of calling than the stamp to send the letter cost. (I’ll wait for that to sink in a bit for some of you, and for those of you a little older to nod and remember that time, too)
So we all looked forward to church camp, where we were able to spend time with each other and not only learn lessons from the Bible, but get together and have fun, singing songs, playing games like Capture the Flag, and What Can We do With The Counselor’s Car?” (my sister’s car was somehow put in the Gym, mine one year ended up down a path down by the river), or, in quieter moments, just hanging out by the campfire. Bottom line: those of us in the youth group just loved camp, because it just made the youth group that much bigger.
One year, completely outside of camp, the youth group decided to go camping for a weekend out around Kalaloch on the Olympic Peninsula.
Marc was still smitten by Jeanne, but because of simple geography, was also good friends with a young lady named Sandy. Fact is, we were teenagers, and being smitten was part of the territory, so that was really a standard condition for all of us.
As a result, the situation was just totally asking for more than a little practical joking, and to be honest, I was one of those guys who was just a little smitten, but Jeanne and I were also, as we used to say, “just friends” (emphasis on the quotes there) so when I found out about the youth group camping trip to Kalaloch, and that Marc was going, it just seemed ripe for a little fun.
So I called Jeanne up and asked her if she wanted to go camping.
At the Beach.
Now understand, this was quite a bit easier said than done. I was south of Tacoma, Washington, she lived somewhere near Portland, Oregon, and we were headed to Kalaloch, in Washington. Yeah, I looked it up on the map. The trip looked like this. Just that piece of it was over 300 miles. She checked with her parents, got the okay, and the resulting plan was that I’d come down Friday afternoon, spend the night there, then somehow, without a whole lot of planning, synchronization, or anything, meet up with the youth group on their way to the beach, and pull off a ‘mess with Marc’s mind’ prank the likes of which he would never expect.
Also understand, the whole youth group, Marc included, coming from one direction, us coming from another direction, and actually meeting at an undisclosed, not to mention unknown, location in the middle required the kind of precision timing you might find in carefully choreographed and rehearsed military operations.
However, this was not a carefully choreographed and rehearsed military operation.
This was just me, pre-cell phone/gps days, driving down to Portland and hoping to bring a girl up to go camping with the youth group, and just happening to run into said youth group on the way to the beach – but not telling anyone in the youth group that I was doing it.
What could possibly go wrong?
I’d already told everyone that I wouldn’t be able to make it to the camping trip, that I was going to Portland for the weekend, and that I hoped they had a good time.
So I piled all my stuff together into my 1967 Saab 96 with the three cylinder, two stroke, 850 cc engine and headed off to Portland.
Everything was going great, I got there safely, we had dinner, and I met her mom. I don’t remember her dad being in the picture that evening, and her sister was out of town, so I ended up sleeping in her sister’s bed, in the frilliest, girliest bedroom I’ve ever slept in.
Given how well the trip down had gone, I thought the trip up would be a breeze.
I was wrong.
It rained overnight, the first time in a long time, and the next morning, we were all ready to go, we got the car packed, and I fired up the Saab, it was idling quietly, warming up a bit, with the ‘ringgggdadingdingding….’ sound that it made when it was idling, the two stroke smoke from the cold engine wafting like fog all over the neighborhood. I was about to put it into gear to back out of their driveway when the clutch pedal went to the floor, and neither reverse – nor for that matter, any gear, was available without some seriously nasty grinding of Swedish steel gears.
I popped the hood, screwed the lid off the clutch master cylinder, and found it not only low, but bone dry.
There was obviously a leak in the rather simple hydraulics of the clutch system, as all the brake fluid in it had leaked out. I was many, many miles from home, so in spite of the ‘freewheeling clutch‘ designed into the car, I really wasn’t going for a several hundred mile trip without it working. So bright and early that Saturday, we had to find a car parts store to see if we could get the right brake fluid for the car’s hydraulic clutch system (the wrong kind would eat through the seals, and who knows, maybe that’s what had already happened, I don’t know for sure, so we borrowed her parent’s land yacht of a ‘70’s sedan. All I remember was that it had a cold-blooded 430 cubic inch V-8 engine , a light rear end, and a sticky throttle.
Note: that 430 cubic inch engine had more power in just one of its eight cylinders than I had in my entire car. There WAS a difference.
In fact, there was far more cast iron in that engine than in my entire car, and it ran a little rough until all that iron warmed up. This was something we discovered as the car coughed just as we were making a left turn out onto a very large, empty five lane street as we were going out in search of the necessary brake fluid. Jeanne pumped the gas a few times to try to get it to run again, and just as she had her foot on the floor, the engine woke up as if it had been hit with a quadruple shot of espresso, and it roared, spinning the back wheels on the wet, slick pavement. We fishtailed all over the road for a few hundred feet until Jeanne got the throttle un-stuck and the car under control. Neither one of us needed anything resembling coffee after that, the adrenaline was enough to keep us both very, very alert for the rest of the morning.
We found a gas station, got the only kind of brake fluid they had (the wrong kind, as it turned out – but I knew I’d have to replace the seals when I got home anyway), got the land yacht safely docked back in her parent’s driveway, where I did a quick refilling and Jeanne helped me bleed the air out of the clutch hydraulics and tested it all out. That done, we piled into the now non-clutchless Saab, and headed north.
We’d already lost quite a bit of time with the whole clutch thing, which frustrated me, as I knew about the time the youth group was planning to leave, and knew where I wanted to intercept them, but I was now late, and the whole plan was looking like it was going to fall apart. I mean seriously, I didn’t even know which campground near Kalaloch they’d be staying at… I had to find them or the whole weekend would be a wash.
Then near Vancouver, Washington, the little light on the gas gauge started to flicker on every now and then, so I pulled into a Shell station there. Oh, remember, I was driving a two stroke car, which meant I had to mix the oil with the gas in a precise ratio: One quart of 30 wt oil, 8 gallons of premium…
In that order.
Into the gas tank.
And that station was the only one around that insisted on selling gas by the liter.
They sold oil by the quart, gas by the liter, and my math was in gallons.
I had to do some quick math…
Let’s see… 3.78 gallons of gas per liter –
No, wait, 3.78 liters per gallon…
I calculated it out with the stub of a pencil on the roof of the car, scribbling on the back of a receipt I’d found in the door pocket, to be about 30 liters of gas after I got the one quart of oil in there. It had to be right. If it was too rich (too much oil) I’d foul the plugs and it wouldn’t run well. If it was too lean, (not enough oil) I’d burn the piston rings and toast the engine. (We’ll get into this in another story that has yet to be written, interestingly about this very thing, on this very car.) So, that being said, the relatively simple but time consuming part of getting the oil to gas ratio wasn’t optional, it had to be done right, or the trip might not happen at all. So, it was just one more thing on this trip that absolutely had to be right. I figured it all out, got the gas, paid, hopped back into the car, and blasted out of there heading north.
Once we got moving, it felt like we were actually making pretty good time, and it looked like we might make it… I just had to drive well past the speed limit, not get caught, and – oh gosh, I think Jeanne was 16 or 17 at the time… I was maybe 20, 21. Getting stopped with a young lady who was underage across state lines wouldn’t be good, so yes I was driving as fast as the little Saab and traffic would allow, but gosh I had my eyes peeled for anything resembling a car with red and blue lights on it. The thing is, I didn’t really feel I had much of a choice but to drive like I was driving, because we were so late already. I’m sure at some point in there I had thoughts of “What am I doing???” – but right then the whole idea of, “Gosh, Tom, why don’t you drive something like 750 miles in a weekend just to pull a prank on a friend?” just seemed like the right thing to do…
About an hour or so later, we were coming to a possible crossroads where, depending on where the rest of the youth group was, I would either have to turn left and get off the freeway, or go straight and try to intercept them up ahead. A look at the clock in the car made me realize I’d better see if I could call the church to see who all ended up going, I mean, if Marc hadn’t gone, the whole thing would be off, so it was crucial for him to be there. I pulled off the freeway and into a gas station with a phone booth (yes, this was BC – Before Cellphones). I ran over to the phone booth, crumpled map rustling in my wake, and called the church, where I very quickly learned several things: 1. Marc was coming. 2. He was driving his parent’s silver Chevy Citation, our friend Bert would be driving his parent’s red Buick, and Marc’s parents would follow up in this monster station wagon they had, with all the bigger stuff, like the tent, the food, and the stove. I also learned that they’d left later than I expected them to, which meant that if I read the map right, we – oh, crap – I said a hurried goodbye, slammed down the receiver and tore out of there as fast as the three cylinders of the Saab would take me, leaving a cartoonish cloud of white two stroke exhaust in my wake…
It looked like we might actually be able make this…
I’d have to turn off my planned path of heading north and west via I-5 and highway 101 (which turned into highway 8) which I was familiar with and I knew they’d have to travel, vs. highway 12, which I’d never been on, but from the looks of the map, was a lot shorter, and from what I could tell, intersected highway 8 over near the town of Montesano, so I decided to risk it and turned off I-5 and onto Highway 12, where I discovered, much to my chagrin, that I couldn’t drive nearly as fast. I got through the town of Grand Mound, and then it was pretty much a two lane road, top speed, 55 mph, with occasional little towns where the speed limit was lower.
So we tootled along for a bit – talking about all sorts of stuff, but never doing anything more than speed limit, until the stereotypical little old lady – I kid you not, squinting at the road between the top of the steering wheel and the dashboard, pulled out in front of us in a blue smoke belching Buick type of a thing that I could barely see around.
At 35 mph…
That was a bit too high for 2nd gear in the Saab, just a hair low for 3rd. Definitely too low for 4th . so I was stuck, right at a speed the car rarely saw unless it was accelerating through it…I remember having to constantly shift back and forth, hunting for a gear I could use. I was incensed. The road was just curvy enough, with just enough traffic, to where there was no possible way I could pass her with the acceleration the car had, Mile after mile after mile, stuck behind this old greenish Buick. I was just thinking that it couldn’t get worse, when a very heavily loaded logging truck pulled out from some foresty road right in front of the little old lady…
And she had to hit her brakes.
To slow down.
From 35 mph…
I don’t remember where exactly this happened, but it was clear that the truck driver either wasn’t planning on or wasn’t capable of driving any faster than 35 for the bit he was on, and any acceleration he got on the level he lost on the little hills, so 35 it was.
I could see my dreams of messing with Marc’s mind disappearing in a cloud of diesel exhaust glowing from the little old lady’s brake lights.
I was beside myself.
There was no possible way I could pass, no possible way I could overcome this obstacle, and so as frustrated as I was, I had to just let it go…
After all that, it looked like I’d failed. I was just imagining how hard it would be trying to catch up with the rest of the youth group after being stuck behind the truck and the little old lady when the truck turned right, and I saw something I couldn’t see around him: A bridge. That couldn’t be the bridge I was looking for. It was about 10 miles early… But… it had to be highway 8. I didn’t understand, and asked Jeanne for the map, where I saw that highway 12 didn’t come out at Montesano, it came out at Elma, and those last 10 miles to Montesano were actually on highway 8, which, from what I could tell, doubled as highway 12, at least for that little bit.
And that meant we were about 10 miles ahead of where we thought we were – which meant… Oh my gosh – that meant that we might actually have caught up with them. There wasn’t a second to lose, but now I didn’t know if we were ahead of them or behind them.
Just in case it all worked, I’d gotten some Groucho Marx glasses for us both – with the nose, the mustache, and the eyebrows, and so I asked Jeanne if she could get them out while I accelerated up the onramp. She was rummaging around the back seat for the masks when I hit third gear, and I remember telling her what I’d heard on the phone a bit earlier. “Look for a silver Citation, a red Buick, and a wood sided station wagon.”
“Yup, I see them,” she said as if she’d been expecting this all along. “They’re right there.”
“No, really, they’re right there!”
I leaned forward as far as the seat belt would let me, looked in my left rear view mirror as I was merging and realized she was right. With all the things that appeared to have gone wrong, they had all conspired to get us to exactly the right spot at the absolute most perfect time we could have gotten there…
Pulling up IN FRONT of them.
Right where I needed to be, on the freeway.
Seriously, Special Forces missions are timed with this level of precision.
I hit the gas, and the white smoke from the two stroke engine trailed behind me and into the Citation, the Buick, and the Station Wagon, making it very clear to all that we’d arrived.
I heard later that there was a conversation in the car Marc was driving (the Silver Citation), his little brother Craig and little sister Marce was there, saw me pull up in front of them, and yelled, “That’s Tom!”
“That can’t be Tom. Tom’s in Portland visiting Jeanne.”
“But no one else has a red Saab like that!”
“Someone must. Tom’s in Portland.”
Meanwhile, in the Saab, I still couldn’t believe my luck, and tried to figure out what to do, given that while I had hoped for something like this, and given all the obstacles that morning, only in my wildest dreams did I actually expect it to happen, and it seemed like it was coming true. Jeanne and I tried on the fake Groucho Marx glasses with the nose, mustache, and eyebrows, you know, high-brow (but low budget) stuff, so that when they finally saw us, they wouldn’t quite recognize us right at the first second.
And then I tried to get them to pass us, so I slowed down to about 50…
Marc, Bert, and Marc’s parents slowed down, too…
No one passed.
I sped up, and in a few minutes, tried it again. I had to get them to pass me because I had no idea where they were going – so after several times where I slowed down, and irritated Marc with that, then floored it to get back up to speed (irritating him with the smoke from the car) – he finally pulled out and passed, and Jeanne and I straightened out the glasses.
And to this day, I can still remember the look on his face as he realized what was going on as he passed us. Sandy was sitting next to him, Jeanne and I both looked over in our Groucho Marx glasses, and he just stared… (and I, of course, smiled just a touch). He couldn’t believe it. (and, to be honest, I couldn’t either, but for a much different reason.)
I stayed in the slow lane until the whole caravan passed us, getting smiles from people as they looked over and realized what was going on, and then I fell in behind the last car. We all got to the beach safely, which was wonderful, and I think there were close to 15 people there when everyone was added up. By the time I’d pulled into a parking space, Marc had already jumped out of the car and was waiting on Jeanne’s side of the car. He opened the door hugged the stuffings out of her, and I think there might have been a punch in the shoulder for me, followed by a hug when I got out. I remember the shocked look was gone from his face, and that smile of his that I always remember him having was back. Having Jeanne there was definitely a surprise, totally unexpected, but she was such a part of the ‘extended’ youth group we were in, that she fit in perfectly, and then, over the next little bit the tent and stove were set up, the sleeping bags were piled into the tent, and in typical Washington summer fashion, the wind that was blowing was cold.
We all ran down to the beach, where my friend Bert (driving the red Buick) and Marc had convinced another member of the youth group, Rachel, that this kelp they’d found was a huge sea snake. They chased her down the beach with it. How it later ended up, cold, wet, and slightly slimy, in Bert’s sleeping bag we, um, don’t know, but it was all part of the fun of camping at the beach (well, fun for everyone but Bert). We went wave hopping (wading out into the Pacific until you’re about thigh deep, and then trying to time your jumps to keep your, um, “bits” dry as the waves come in. And let me tell you, off the Washington Coast, the Pacific Ocean is COLD. Eventually the “bits” you’re trying to keep dry and warm get wet, and cold, and who knows, depending on how long you’re in there, they might even turn blue. When things like that happened, it was obviously time to get out, so we did. Of course, that’s right about the time the sun came out, go figure.
We went back up to the camp, where Marc’s parents had started a fire, and his mom had made hot chocolate, which we held in our hands in those speckled blue and white metal camping cups until it was lukewarm, trying to get every possible degree of heat out of before drinking it to get the rest.
We soaked up the warmth of the campfire, we sang songs, we played games, we did skits, we made s’mores, and made more hot chocolate.
When it was bedtime, almost all of us managed to fit in the tent. It was so weird, we were all full of the energy, spunk, and yes, hormones of youth, and getting to sleep was a challenge, we were all giggling and laughing and telling stories. People had trouble believing not only that I’d told everyone I wasn’t coming on the trip, (we were a tightly knit bunch, and for me to not go on the campout bordered on treason) but that I’d actually pulled it off. And on top of it all, for me to go to visit the girl Marc liked didn’t make sense, but in the end, that night we were all together like a group of friends should be, piled together in the tent with all the formality of a litter of puppies.
Once we did fall asleep, we slept like the logs on the beach.
I remember getting up the next morning, bleary eyed. Everything in the tent damp with the puppy breath of about 15 puppies (us), and while it was warmer in the tent, I was glad to get out into “not-pre-breathed-through-several-sets-of-lungs, seaside fresh, but oooh-so-cold air.
Marc’s parents were already up, his dad had made coffee and a fire was going. I remember several more people stumbling out of the tent and being inexorably drawn to the fire like marbles to a bowling ball in the middle of a trampoline.
After breakfast and cleanup, there was a little more playing on the beach until it got too cold, then we thawed out a bit after we came back out of the wind through the trees and into the campground, where there was more hot chocolate to get feeling back into our hands with those warm camping cups. Eventually it was time to pack all our sandy stuff into the cars and start the long drive back home…
Only I couldn’t go straight home.
Since I’d brought Jeanne up from Oregon to go camping, I had to take Jeanne back home to Oregon to go home, and I still had several hundred miles of the clutch issue to deal with, so we all headed out, and eventually, with much waving of hands and honking of horns, we went our separate ways, Jeanne and I heading south so I could take her to Portland, and the rest of the group heading straight home to where they had come from.
I honestly don’t remember much of the trip back, either to Jeanne’s or home from there. I just know it was a lot slower and gentler than the trip up. I don’t remember any of the fallout or aftermath of the story. I just know that I wanted to do something crazy and did it.
And as I was writing this – I went through the trip in my mind, and it got me thinking. (and if you’ve read some of my stories, you knew this was coming)
Each one of the things that happened in the story happened for a reason…
And most of the things that happened in the story drove me nuts when they happened. I mean really,
- Did the clutch cylinder HAVE to blow the night before the trip?
- Did Jeanne’s parents car HAVE to spin out and freak us out?
- What about trying to drive all over before gas stations and stores opened up to find brake fluid?
- Or having to stand there converting liters to gallons, or the other way around?
- What about the stop to make the phone call?
- What about the blue haired (and smoked) little old lady driving the mondo Buick that I couldn’t pass?
- Why on EARTH would she be put in front of me?
- What about the logging truck dragging half a forest’s worth of old growth behind him? Why did he have to pull out in front of me?
I mean seriously, all of that stuff made me SO much later than I wanted to be… By the time I got to the bridge in what I thought was Montesano I was about ready to explode. I was trying to be optimistic, because it all might still have worked, but until that truck got out of the way and I realized where we were (at the bridge that I thought was in Montesano, but actually 10 miles earlier than I was expecting it), I had no idea that all this planning and stuff might actually work out.
I mean, think about it… the timing was such that if everything that needed to go “right” in my mind had actually gone right, then the whole trip would have been blown, I would have ended up waaaay ahead of the rest of the youth group, and there would have been no chance of me figuring out where they were going (All I knew was “Kalaloch”)
And it makes me think about life…
How sometimes it really, truly feels like life is not only handing us lemons, but rotten ones at that… How life repeatedly keeps flipping us a level of crap delivered by the truckload… that just seems to be overpoweringly wrong.
And yet, somehow, things work out for the good.
Each bad thing we live through, if we stop there and never get out of it, is a bad thing. But it’s one frame in a movie, and the next frame will be different.
Think about that, then keep reading.
I know people who are going through incredibly hard times right now. I know people who have gone through hard times and will go through harder times still… And I’ve come to conclude that life is a learning process… We all will make mistakes through our decisions or indecisions. We all have bad stuff happen to us through no fault of our own, and then we’re faced with a fairly simple decision:
Do I give up? Or do I carry on?
And I’ve talked to people who feel very strongly that giving up simply isn’t an option. They may not look like very strong people on the outside, but I’ve seen them, they are Olympians of endurance on the inside.
I’ve also known people for whom the struggle was so great that carrying on wasn’t an option, and to be honest, we didn’t know how bad the situation was until after the fact, and by that time it was too late. And even though the struggle may not seem big to those of us on the outside, it has taken me years to learn that we have no idea what kinds of struggles other people are going through, even if we think they’re telling us everything. Some time ago, over the course of a single week, I learned that two people I knew, who I thought had it all together, far better than I did, were losing it. You just don’t know.
And I’ve learned that we’re not here to judge each other based on what we can see of each other when there’s so much going on under the surface we know nothing about, (I don’t remember being appointed judge of anyone) – but to support each other through the trials that this life is.
So maybe, just maybe, that’s what you’re being called to do in the journey that is your life right now. Support someone.
Help them get to their Montesano…
Surprise them on the way to their Kalaloch.
And if you can, do it anonymously.
I don’t know who this person is in your life, and it will change over time, but somehow, some way, someone will be brought into your life, and you’ll have that opportunity.
Run with it.
And if you’re someone who’s going through a rough journey, and you keep finding yourself facing messed up clutches, weird gas stations, and all sorts of things in your way…
Keep going. Really.
If not for the destination, for the journey, and to see the smiles and love of those around you.
I just told you a story about a drive, a journey I took with a friend to meet other friends… We spent time together, we ate together, we played and talked and froze our butts off together, and then we all piled into that tent like those fuzzy puppies I mentioned earlier.
Isn’t that the way it should be?
That’s life, right?
I mean think about it…
Good stuff happens (you meet your friends).
Unexpected stuff happens (gas stations sell gas in liters instead of the expected gallons). People pull out in front of you, or cut you off (everyone from little old ladies to truck drivers) – and it all seems to be conspiring against you…
But… (and this is a big but, believe me, I get this…)
I learned that the end can come sooner than we think, just like that bridge I thought was in Montesano and ended up showing up 10 miles sooner… And at that point, the frustration, or at least that part of the frustration will be over. You’ll have lessons to ponder and learn, you’ll have stories to tell, but you’ll have a chance to be with your friends or family, and eventually, you’ll be through that challenge and on to the next one, and you’ll be doing your quiet version of driving home from Portland.
So… Hug your loved ones.
Remind them you love them.
Support those around you who are struggling.
Bring smiles into their lives as you can.
And then… go out and do something Audaciously Awesome.
PS to Marc’s family, Jeanne, Rachel, and Bert who helped me remember some of the little details of this story – Thanks for letting me be a part of it.