Thursday, January 5, 2023

Road Kill

The last four times we’ve travelled more than 30 miles on Interstate 75, the dreaded Blockage Monster has reared its ugly head.  A journey on this highway is akin to driving a wagon train across the old Western prairies, running from robber bands, looking for Indians and trying to ford swollen rivers.  If we can just make it to the fort—or Turnpike—a few miles in the distance, all will be well.

Fortunately, these days we have equipment on our phones that allows us to see trouble ahead in the form of yellow and red lines on our little cell maps indicating slowdowns and stoppages and the time it will take to wade through the morass.  The maps replace the old Indian scouts who travelled ahead of the wagons sniffing out trouble and looking for alternate routes.  Ah yes, another path, an escape from imminent doom.  Let’s zip off the next exit and over to Rte. 441, where bliss reigns.  Except that everyone else has the same idea and now you’re marooned on a two-lane shoestring with traffic lights and no hope the cavalry will arrive.

The Gainesville to Wildwood section of I-75 has become the Bermuda Triangle of automobiling.  Every day another car or two falls into the abyss and is never heard from again.  Strange ethers emerge from the marshes of Payne’s Prairie, fogging up windshields and causing monstrous multi-vehicle collisions.  Large alligators emerge from the depths to cross the road at twilight, sending tandem trucks careening through the ectoplasm.  Previously sane semi-drivers turn into werewolves when the moon comes up, swerving madly from lane to lane chasing tiny Subarus.  Timid schoolteachers and librarians are overcome by evil I-75 fumes and start rocketing down the road at 85 MPH, humming tunes from Mad Max.  Every car, including yours, is an accident waiting to happen and not for too long.

Take us back to old Nebrasky where the poppy-mallows bloom.  Can we still get our kicks on Route 66?  That guy who said “Hit the road, Jack. and don’tcha come back no more, no more,” has a pretty good chance of getting his wish these days.  Maybe we should all have listened to the wise words of our parents more, heeded their cautions, trusted their experience.  I, for one, can clearly recall the measured advice of a worldly-wise father who sat me down and bade me listen; “Son, you’re gonna drive me to drinkin’ you don’t stop drivin’ that hot rod Lincoln.”

Take Me Home, Country Roads

More and more these days, we hear a common promise; “I’m not motivatin’ on that I-75 no more.  I’ll leave it to the banshees and the cross-country truckers.”  Fine, if you want to arrive somewhere on the Twelfth of Never.  Ever try to drive through the funland known as The Villages on U.S. Routes 441 or 301?  Whoever got the traffic light franchise in those parts hit the jackpot, there’s six on every corner and they’re s-l-o-w.  You know those pesky crosswalks in most towns where you have to grind to a sudden halt to avoid crushing an unwary grannie carrying a bejeweled pomeranian?  In The Villages they have veritable trains of golf carts, twelve at a time, parading across the avenues at speeds approaching three miles an hour, their address books open to the phone number of the nearest accident lawyer.  Nudge one and you’ll be moving into low-income housing in Dubuque and eating at the Salvation Army.

Welcome To Airbag Country

According to the Department of Transportation, the accident rate on I-75 crossing through Alachua county is 90% higher than the statewide average for similar roads.  Ninety friggen percent!  Worse even, the number of wrecks jumped from 935 in 2011 to 1,538 in 2015 and a whopping kazillion in 2021, leading to the highway’s perky motto, “If you’re not crashin’, you ain’t tryin’!”

They don’t even let you ride I-75 in these parts unless you’re shot out of a cannon from the on-ramp at a blistering 70 mph.  Driving at 80 is sissy stuff, the Highway Patrol won’t even quit their side-by-side banter for anything less than 85.  Nashville resident Mark Quarles, who makes the Florida trip often, says it’s Katy-bar-the-door when you reach the Florida line, “particularly from Lake City south.  Once you get to U.S. 90, it’s like NASCAR out there because regular drivers know there are not going to be any troopers present.  The stretch between Interstate 10 and Gainesville is sheer madness.  People are swerving left and right, tailgating right on your ass and being extremely aggressive.  You consider the volume of cars on the road in that space and accidents are inevitable.”  So is getting the finger a lot. 

Vehicle crashes in 2017 killed 55 people in Alachua County, the most in a decade and a 52% increase over the 10-year average.  It was also the first time there were more fatalities in Alachua than neighboring and more populous Marion County, which will undoubtedly take umbrage and shake things up in an effort to get the trophy back.

The main culprits, of course, are sleepy and/or meth-crazed semi drivers, who easily swap CB info on cop hidey-holes, laugh at the speed limit and run right over the top of you if you’re driving less than 75.  The great majority of highway deaths involve truck drivers and they’re usually not the ones getting killed.  There once was a time not long ago when new semi drivers couldn’t get a job without a good safety record and a solid learning period.  Now the number of vehicles on the road has outstripped the qualified drivers and all the shipping companies require is someone with a pulse and a death wish.  Vision issues?  Can you see the steering wheel in front of you?  You’re good.  Narcoleptic?  Here’s some tape to keep your eyelids open.  Brain fog, heart issues, repeated strokes?  Hey, nobody’s perfect.  Can’t back up?  Don’t.  Hawthorne Mayor Matt Surrency, who was on a highway task force studying remedies once suggested having an all-truck lane, maybe two on wider roads.  The semi industry replied with lawyers, guns and money and the idea was abandoned; Surrency was last spotted hiding out in San Juan de los Lagos, disguised as a nana tending goats.

Go West, Young Man!  In the Summer of 1962,  Bill leaves Massachusetts for The Great Beyond.

King Of The Road

Remember when driving was fun?  You got your first car, washed it by hand til it gleamed every Saturday morning and set out looking for girls (or boys) in the afternoon.  Cruising down Main Street like a hotshot, waving to lesser beings like the queen of the homecoming parade.  You’d have fun, fun, fun til a couple of rolling stops through the big red signs took your T-bird away.

When I was a mere 19, I bought a 1950 Cadillac Superior Model Hearse for a whopping $300 at an ambulance graveyard.  It had all the accoutrements…plush seats, lovely purple drapes and a velvety maroon casket platform with actual rollers on top for ease of transport.  The vehicle was painted a sullen dark gray to suit the mood of the occasions for which it was put to use.  My grandmother took one look, blanched and said, “Billy, you’re not putting that thing in the driveway!  What will the neighbors think?”  Well, gee, I don’t know, Nan, maybe they’ll think I’m going into the discount ambulance business.

The hearse paid early dividends when my pal Jacques Guerin and I became major heroes a few months later.   About a dozen Tufts college girls got a bit tanked at a Boston party, lost their bearings and faced sanctions if they didn’t make curfew back at their Medford dorms.  We loaded them up and zipped across town just in time to save the day, pulling up to the residence just before the gong struck.  The ladies hopped out of the back one at a time with Jacques the last to climb out, getting a large round of applause from passersby.  We got a lot of good telephone numbers from that escapade.

In 1962, unjustly relieved of my driver’s license (for pitifully minor crimes) by the police chief who lived across the street, I set out to reunite with Jacques Guerin at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.  My neighborhood buddy John Chaffe drove the hearse to the outskirts of town to foil the cops, and I was on my way.  My Mother, the ultimate law-abiding citizen, fretted over the possibilities.  “License?!?” I replied.  “I don’t need no stinking license.”  I mean, who’s going to bother a hearse driver?  He might be on his way to somewhere carrying important cargo.  Speeding could be necessary to prevent spoilage.

Like everyone else I knew, I had read Lowell neighbor Jack Kerouac’s On The Road by this time and was charmed by the notion of roaming across the country dirt-broke, letting the chips fall where they may.  I flitted across the newish Pennsylvania Turnpike into Ohio, stopping in University Heights to reminisce with an old Champagne-Urbana girlfriend whose influential parents once had me clapped me into jail for not being Jewish.  Her mother arrived home unexpectedly just as I left.  Eager to get out of Dodge in a hurry, I was slowed by a flattening tire.  I had wisely brought along one of those canned-air devices, which provided enough sustenance to get me to a gas station.  In those days, long, long ago, such places as gas stations had sage employees called “mechanics,” who could promptly fix what ailed you and send you on your way.  Where have all the mechanics gone, long time passing?  Gone to Sam’s Club, every one.  Oh, when will they ever learn?  When will they ever learn?

On The Road Again

“The coyotes wail along the trail, deep in the heart of Texas.”

Shit happens when you try to drive a twelve-year-old hearse with bad tires and a sulky radiator 2246 miles across the country in hot weather.  On a good day or two, it’s 33 hours non-stop, but Bill is not a big believer in non-stop so it takes a bit longer.  Approaching lovely Oklahoma City, where the deer and the oil rigs roam, the weary chariot began heating up, steam crept out from beneath the hood and the dreaded hissing sound arose.  “You need a new radiator,” reported the nearest mechanic.  Surely you jest, I thought, checking my pocket to find a mere $76.  “You can drive for awhile with the sealer I put in there, but you have to stop and fill the tank every fifty or so miles.  Where are you trying to get to?”  Ahem, Albuquerque, 544 miles in the distance.  “Well, that’s downright hilarious, Mr. Bill, what’s your second choice?”  I remembered Gilbert Shelton inviting me to sleep on his hair coach in Austin if I would come and help him put out the Texas Ranger humor magazine.  “Just under 400 miles,” calculated my new pal.  “Might make it if you get lucky.”

I had heard the stars at night were big and bright deep in the heart of Texas, not to mention the prairie sky being wide and high.  It was true.  Crossing into the Lone Star State at twilight felt exhilarating, the land was open and you could see for miles.  I had the eerie feeling that my change in course had been predestined, that I was finally heading where I was supposed to go, even though I have never been a subscriber to Fate.  Flagging after a long day, I pulled into a closed primitive gas station/fruit stand to spend the night.

Next morning, I pulled back the drapes to see twelve pair of eyes directed right at me.  The Mexican family which ran the operation was ready to open but fearful of arousing whoever was in the Deathstar.  The back door was inoperable from inside, thus I had to roll down a window and climb out, all the while holding the rapt attention of my silent audience, which backed up a few steps.  I spent a few dollars on gas, bought some orange juice and a couple of apples without a word being spoken, as if any conversation would place some kind of curse on the place.  The smallest kid gave me a tiny wave as I pulled away, the rest of the family exhaling mightily.  “Customer of the Day,” I thought, smiling, not worried a bit about any possible competition.

Despite proper watering, the radiator was heating up as I reached the Austin city limits on the Interregional Expressway.  Fortunately, Shelton’s place was on the East side of town, not far from the highway.  I pulled into the laneway alongside his humble apartment just as the radiator arrived at its death throes, a large steam cloud enveloping the entire vehicle and sounding like a pitful of vipers.  Gilbert, unabashed was standing nearby with his arms crossed, a trickle of a smile threatening his face.  “Welcome to Austin, Killeen,” he said, merrily.  “You sure know how to make an entrance.” 

That’s all, folks…