"The Last Ride of the Deathmobile"
From the collection, "Ten Times I Almost Died"
Despite what you may believe, the following story is completely true. It happened just as I describe it here. And as the subtitle explains, the event nearly led to my death, or at the very least, certainly lengthy hospital recuperation combined with many thousands of dollars of facial reconstruction.
Anyone who’s ever seen the classic film “Animal House” will remember the modified Lincoln Continental that was transformed into a vehicle of vengeance colloquially called The Deathmobile. Well, I once had a very similar car, a 1980s four-door black-and-red Buick that a friend of mine, Jim, nicknamed The Deathmobile. It wasn't because it looked like a Lincoln, but because it had a massive gash down the right passenger side, as if a T-Rex had raked its claws from the front bumper to the middle of the rear passenger door.
If that weren’t bad enough, I let him borrow it one time, and when he returned it, the Deathmobile had two new attributes: Jim had put a white skull and crossbones decal in the middle of the rear windshield. And whenever you turned on the lights from that point on, the dashboard smoked like it was on fire.
By the middle of 1994, the Deathmobile was on its last legs, and I decided I needed to take it to the junkyard. I hated to part with it, but the fact was that it was so rusty that the driver’s side front door wouldn’t open, forcing the driver to either climb in through a very narrow window (as was the case with most four-door sedans from the mid-1980s), or go around and use the passenger side door. And climbing through the window carried its own risk, as the door lock knob there was missing, leaving only a threaded rod sticking up far enough that I had ripped my jeans on it on more than one occasion, and part of my upper right thigh occasionally as well.
On this particular day, Jim followed me in his pickup truck, and we headed down the Stevenson Expressway towards the southwest suburbs of Chicago, off to the auto recyclers not far from Lemont. And as luck would have it, the Deathmobile started to overheat. It let out such a plume of steam that it seemed like the engine was on fire. I realized I’d have to pull over and let it cool off, so I took the first exit I could, which was La Grange Road, heading north.
At this particular part of the suburbs, La Grange Road was five lanes of very fast traffic, with a slow rise leading up to a sizeable hill. I knew that to the west, on the left hand side of the road, was a large forest preserve called Sun Down Meadow, with an equally expansive parking area that wound around the preserve. It had been known from my high school days as a notorious make-out location, since the parking areas were often screened by bushes and low-hanging branches.
But I never made it to the parking area, as the Deathmobile decided to conk out completely just before the top of the hill’s crest. I manage to get the car completely into the middle turn lane, when I climbed out through the driver’s window. I figured I’d have to push the car up and over the ridge into the parking lot, some two or three hundred feet away. The problem was that, since the car couldn’t run, it also didn’t have power steering, so steering it was like trying to wrestle a fifty-ton elephant with your bare hands.
Jim parked his pickup on the east side, crossed the surprisingly busy two lanes, and began to help me. But even with him pushing on the trunk and me pushing on the post near the driver’s side door, the car was just too heavy and the slope to steep to get the lumbering old behemoth up and over the rise. Not to mention, I had to use both hands and all my weight just to move the steering wheel an inch at a time to aim it towards the parking area.
Just then, I caught a glimpse of a huge muscle-bound fellow bounding over to us from the nearest parking area of Sun Down Meadow. And I instantly recalled that the Meadow was also notorious for being a gay guy’s hangout as well. And this fellow looked to be the largest gay fellow I’d ever seen, at least six-foot-six and close to three hundred pounds. And the car he had parked there, about seven or eight spots in from La Grange Road, was the most beautiful, pristine, canary-yellow 1957 Chevy i had ever seen, backed into a parking spot, front end facing out, all shiny and gleaming and majestic and proud, everything the Deathmobile was not and never would be.
This fellow bounds up and in the sweetest, most incongruous voice, said, “Hey, guys, need a little help?” I had a fleeting glimpse of Peter Pan on steroids, but we weren’t in any position to refuse his help, as we thanked him, and he got in next to Jim and began to heave.
And with his help, the three of us managed to get the Deathmobile moving. We heaved with all our might, and got it up and over the hill, and with the last of my strength, I managed to urge the steering wheel into a semblance of the right direction.
The musclebound dude took that very moment to yell out, in his Peter Pan voice, “I think we’ve done it, guys! Great work!” I glanced back, and he was extending one beefy hand for a handshake. I made the fatal error of letting go of the car for just a second, thinking the least I could do was to shake his hand.
And as I was shaking his hand, facing him and Jim, Jim raised one hand and pointed behind me and said in his most understated drawl, “Dude, there goes your car.”
I whirled around, and sure enough, the Deathmobile had taken that very moment to pick up speed, And as if it had one last mission in this life to perform before it was cut into parts, it had decided it was going to take out one car before it went. And that car was the muscle-bound fellow’s pristine canary-yellow 1957 Chevy.
My life flashed before my eyes, just like they say in the movies. I started running after the car, but as it was now headed downhill, it was going fairly fast. And as I ran, I heard the big fellow behind me, realization in his voice, yell out, “My car! My car!”
Then his voice changed to that of a demonic grizzly bear, and he roared, “I’M GONNA KILL YOU!”
But I couldn’t worry about him. I had to chase after the Deathmobile.
I couldn’t believe how fast it was going. After ten or twenty seconds, it was still some distance ahead of me. And as I ran, I had the sudden realization that I wouldn’t just be able to open the car door and slide in behind the steering wheel. I would have to jump in through the driver’s side window, a very small window, and while the car was moving at a considerable clip!
This was something I had never done before. This was something I had never even contemplated doing before.
And I realized, as I and the wayward Deathmobile were getting closer and closer to our rendezvous with the '57 Chevy, that I’d only get one chance at this.
I put on a burst of speed that I can only attribute to my years of running cross-country in high school, caught up to the driver’s side, put both hands on the windshield post, and with a solemn prayer to all of my ancestors, I leapt into the window!
And, to my shock and utter amazement, I made it through!
I was so overjoyed at the impossible success that it failed to register on me that, as I stomped on the brake pedal, nothing was happening. I stomped on it again and again, and still nothing happened. I was beginning to seriously freak out, wondering if the Deathmobile was going to account both for a wrecked '57 Chevy while also being the cause of my own death when I would be beaten to a pulp by the muscle-bound fellow who was still some yards behind, when it finally dawned on me:
When I had jumped through the window, my right foot had actually gone through an opening in the steering wheel, and couldn’t reach the brake pedal!
I saw the ’57 Chevy looming closer and closer, so close I felt like I could reach out and touch it. I screamed and jammed on the brake pedal with my left foot as hard as I could.
The Deathmobile’s wheel screeched for at least forty feet, leaving a set of black skid marks as dark as night across the parking lot’s concrete. And as luck or Fate or the Gods would have it, it lurched to a halt so close to the Chevy’s driver’s side door that as it rocked back and forth with the last of its momentum, you wouldn’t have been able to get a foot-long ruler between the two cars.
I sat there, gasping for air, as the last rocking motions of the Deathmobile faded away.
In a few moments, the musclebound fellow finally made it to us, heaving and gasping harder than myself. He looked at his car – not a scratch on it, despite the Deathmobile’s most heroic efforts – then looked at me like I was some sort of lunatic, and wordlessly, went to move his car. But, in the irony of all ironies, he realized that the two cars were so close together that he couldn’t get in through the driver’s side door! He had to actually walk around the passenger side, and climb in that way!
I wonder if my own Deathmobile gained some minor pleasure at that little twist of fate.
I remained there for some time. It could have been minutes, or it could have been lifetimes. I had been so close to The End, and had performed something that I wouldn’t have been able to duplicate if you had given me a thousand attempts, that I was both speechless and terrified.
I had almost regained some semblance of composure when Jim sauntered up, looking in the direction of where the muscle-bound fellow and his ’57 Chevy had disappeared, and in his driest, most understated drawl of all, summed up the entire event with one prophetic statement:
“Dude, I thought you were dead.”