We all have those stupid teen things that we get away with that could have been a disaster if any number of things happened differently. This is one of a series of events that took place during the transition from boy to adolescent. Too young to consider consequences but lucky enough to not have serious ramifications for my stupidity.
When I was fifteen, I spent a month working on my uncle’s lobster boat. It was my third summer doing this. It was hard work but I loved the whole experience. This summer, which would be my last, my cousin was living with my aunt and uncle. Through her, I became friends with kids down the street. One of the guys worked at a kid’s day camp and he would “borrow” camp vans and we would cruise the strip in Asbury Park.
Being the early mid-seventies, it was the height of Power Cars. Everything over the top was circulating the block with music blaring, and engines revving. We were part of the parade riding in our non-descript “borrowed” camp window van. We would circle the block a few times for the fun of it, passing all these clubs, the Stone Pony being one, and a bunch of dive bars along the way. We looked for someone to get us a couple quarts of beer and would head over to Monmouth University and find a place to drink and talk shit. Gary would drop us off, take the van back, and ride his bike home.
One evening the beginning of my final week, we were hanging out and Gary suggested that we take a van and cruise around. Since it was my last chance to do this, I borrowed my uncle’s bike and we rode over to the day camp. It wasn’t that far, but it was around two traffic circles and down a long, bumpy, serpentine road. When we got there, we parked the bikes behind the fuel shed and Gary found a van with lots of gas. He used his master key to get into the office and grabbed the van keys. We were ready to cruise!
We circled the strip a few times and saw a likely candidate for getting us a couple quarts. We made a couple more circles taking in the excitement of the strip and then he drove to a park beside the lower lake; a place we visited a couple times by boat. We walked down to the water and partied the night away. By the time we finished the beer and smoked up the hash in hand, we were pretty lit and it was getting late.
Gary began to panic as we headed back to the camp. As we went around the first circle, Gary saw the clock at the bank and began cursing. He had to get home and check in or his mom would ground him. I was feeling no pain and no worries, so when he said he would let his mom know he was home and then sneak back out, I thought nothing of it. He parked up the block from his house. I sat and tuned into a local rock station as he walked home. I saw him go in, watched the lights go on in rooms and off in others as I rocked out. I wasn’t concerned at first, and then started getting impatient, after a half hour I started to panic.
What was I going to do if he didn’t get back out? How was I going to get home? How was I going to get my bike? I walked to the house and started looking in windows. There was one light still on and it was Gary’s room. I knocked on the window and he shushed me. He whispered that he was waiting for his mom to get to bed and then he would sneak out. My buzz had worn off and my mind was starting to warp around my situation. If he couldn’t get back out, I was in deep shit!
Being fifteen I never drove, unless I counted a riding lawn mower or a go-cart. It was the first time I considered the fact that “borrowing a van” was not how the police were going to view the situation. Gary was trying to calm me down and stay quiet at the same time. Not quiet enough! His mom yelled, “Get back in bed! You are NOT sneaking out tonight!” All I could think to say was “You suck!” “How the fuck do I get back to camp?”
He gave me the kind of directions that make total sense if you know the area. All I remembered was get through the circle and look for a small street on the left. Great!
I got back in the van, sat in the driver’s seat, and took my frustration out on the steering wheel. How the hell was I going to do this? All the “what ifs?” ran through my mind. I tried clearing my thoughts. I checked my mirrors, thought about everything I knew about driving, and put the van into gear.
I have always had a decent sense of direction, but it was hard to keep the panic down when I thought about what would happen if I made a wrong turn. I knew it must be getting late. I was afraid to think about what would happen if I didn’t get home before wake-up time. I drove passed Gary’s house and laid on the horn to give him my final “Fuck You”. I took my first ever left turn, and faced the fears of my first New Jersey circle as a driver.
I passed the clock that sent panic through Gary, and like him, almost shit. I began cursing too. It was twenty five of two! The alarm would be going off in a bit over two hours. I tried to convince myself that I had plenty of time. I would as long as I didn’t make a wrong turn. Or, as my negative side chipped in; or if I crash! I kept to the right and went three quarters of the way around the circle, and took the right hand turn. Everything looked familiar. Someone behind me beeped and I realized I was taking up both lanes. I over-corrected and almost went into oncoming traffic. What the hell was I doing?
Thoughts started running through my head again; stolen car, underage driving, and oh crap, the last of the open quart of Colt 45 was still in the van. Add underage drinking and drunken driving to the list!
Cars were passing me on the right and honking. The car behind me was right on my ass and flashed its lights and honked. That was when I realized I was only doing 25 in a 45 speed zone. I sped up and moved over to the right lane because I remembered my dad yelling about the “damn idiots driving 25 in the left hand lane”. He was always complaining about Jersey drivers. I guess he would have really cussed me out!
Back then there were no cell phones. I am sure someone would have called 911 and I would have been busted. I came up to the next circle. Oh shit! What did he say? First right or second right? All I could remember was… then look for… some road on the left. I stayed right and looked for anything familiar. And then, I saw the cop in the parking lot. “Ok, stay in the lane and keep it together”. I took the first right and prayed I didn’t see police lights in the rearview.
I was looking so much in my rearview that I missed my street. Never saw it! I drove and drove, and knew I was going wrong. I pulled over into a business parking lot and calmed myself down again. For safety sake, I chucked the open quart into the grass. I was going back to the circle and pass the cop to take the next turn off the circle. My fingers ached from squeezing the steering wheel. My head felt like it was going to explode and my neck was throbbing from the tension. “Ok, here goes!”
I was getting steadier behind the wheel now. I was able to keep my speed up and stay in my lane. “Ok, I’m ready for this.” I drove passed my street again, now on my right – out of mind, out of sight. The circle was coming. I stayed to the right and to my relief, the cop was gone. I merged into traffic and got off at the first right, looking for the left hand turn to the camp.
After a mile, I knew something was wrong. Now what? I pulled over onto the shoulder and decided to make a U-turn. The traffic was much less on this strip of road. It was only a single lane each way. I couldn’t remember if we turned across two lanes or one to get to the camp. A light was coming toward me but I thought I had plenty of time to make my turn. The car coming from the opposite direction seemed like it was coming fast, but it was still far up the road. I started to pull from the shoulder across the lane when I heard brakes slamming, tires squealing, and the horn blaring.
I never looked behind me when I pulled out into the lane. I was almost broadside, and the car came to stop mere feet away from my door. I panicked and hit the gas, barely making the U-turn in front of the car coming from the other direction. The person was leaning on their horn and I’m sure, cursing the hell out of me. Two close calls on one turn! The panic was beginning to overwhelm me again with all the “what ifs”.
I got back to the circle, went around hoping and praying that the cop was still gone, and doing the mental math, took the third right. I cursed and pounded the wheel when I realized this was the same road I went down the first time. Then I saw my left hand turn. Once I started down the poorly paved road, winding down the hill, I knew I was on the right road. Thank God!
I found the camp, opened the gate, parked the van, and left the keys in the ignition. I knew someone was going to be in trouble tomorrow. I couldn’t even guess what time it must be. It seemed like I was going around in circles forever, but at least now I only had to get my ass home. I started walking up the hill, hoping I could find my way home from here. I kind of remembered the field I had to cross and the road that took me to the bridge. From the bridge over the lake, it was a quick ride home.
When I got to the house, parked the bike, and got to the kitchen, it was 3:30am. All I had to do now was make it to the third floor without the dogs barking. I skipped the bathroom and went straight up to bed. Safe at last! I was beginning to relax and doze off when I heard the God damn alarm go off. At least I wasn’t still drunk. All the panic and adrenalin had me cold sober. But all the stress of the night beat the crap out of me. It was going to be a long day at sea; a small price to pay for the night I had experienced!