“Yeeehaaa,” I screamed, feigning exuberance, trying hard not to vomit as we slammed down onto the much-abused roof of the five-year-old station wagon, holding on to the luggage rack with the grips of supermen. We acted like we thought supermen should, but inside I was freaking out, able to do little but hold on to the cross bar of the luggage rack and hope the ride ended sooner than our lives.
My buddy Mike and I were surfing, Indiana style. It was 1968 and we had just graduated from high school. We were convinced we were indestructible and willing to tempt fate to prove it.
It began one early summer Saturday afternoon when five of us were riding around the farm-strewn countryside looking for something to do. There didn’t seem to be much on a Saturday afternoon in east central Indiana in those days. Actually, there was plenty to do – just nothing we wanted to do. The local movie theater was playing Prudence and the Pill, which none of us would admit to wanting to see. Now, if it had been The Thomas Crown Affair with Steve McQueen, well, we all would have been up for that. Steve McQueen was the coolest of the cool after all. So no movie that afternoon. There wasn’t much left to choose from for entertainment, so we opted for the old standby. We would ride around the Indiana countryside, exploring the flat cropland of Jay County, listening to music, sometimes shooting rifles while riding on the front fenders, sometimes drinking beer. No guns or beer that day, though, just driving around shooting the bull and listening to our favorite radio station. Eventually we came to a remote bridge where we often stopped, while Summertime Blues, by Blue Cheer was playing on the radio. This bridge was over a small creek with barely any running water, but it was on a little-used road so we could park right on it and throw stuff, rocks mostly, into the creek while we expounded on how we were going to change the world…or land a date with that former cheerleader we just couldn’t forget.
“I’m gonna git a date with Renéee,” I declared, fast-balling a rock into the creek. Renée was our age and had been a cheerleader for three years. She was smart and gorgeous and didn’t have a boyfriend at the time.
“Oh bullshit, Rick, you’ll never git a date with Renée,” said Mike. “And you know why? You don’t have the balls to ask her!”
That hurt. Mostly because it was true. Mike was kinda wild, yeah, but he was also smart and insightful. I couldn’t let it go, though, so I responded over the music blasting out of tinny-sounding speakers.
“I have a plan and when I’m done she’ll go out with me. I know she will.”
“Oh yeah, so what’s this plan of yours?”
“It’s a secret.”
“A secret plan,” said Mike, skepticism thick and obvious.
“Yep, and I’m not tellin’ you guys what it is because you’ll either use it yourselves, or figure out how to blow it up for me.”
“Back to my original statement: bullshit.”
“Hey, you guys,” yelled Alan, who was driving his father’s station wagon that day, “there’s a muskrat swimmin’ down there! See it by that log? Bet I can hit it with a rock.”
The first and only rock throw landed pretty close to the muskrat. Predictably it dove under water, never to be seen again. We were all pretty bored by then, ready to find something exciting to do. After all, we were seventeen- and eighteen- year-old boys, full of energy and brimming with unjustified self-confidence.
“I have a great idea,” said Steve, struck with inspiration. “How about a couple of us git on top of the car and ride around for a while? It’ll be fun. We kin take turns. It beats the hell outta standin’ around here doing nothin’.” Steve had a knack for getting people to do that which they would normally avoid.
“Whatcha mean?” asked Alan, protective of his dad’s car.
“I mean a couple of us’ll get on the roof of the car while you drive around the countryside. We kin hold on to the luggage rack. It’s perfectly safe.”
Oddly enough, that made sense to us all, which is proof that critical thinking skills are not well-developed by age eighteen.
“I’ll get up there with ya, Steve,” I said, still smarting from the “Renée” comments. I needed to assert my manhood. If I was one of the first up top, then maybe everyone else would forget I was too scared to ask Renée for a date.
“Well Alan, whatcha think? Kin we climb up?” Steve got right to the point.
“Sure, why not? I mean, the roof’s built to carry luggage, so it should be fine.” So, with Born to be Wild blaring in the background, it was decided.
Immediately, Steve grabbed one rail of the luggage rack and used it to vault up top. I walked around to the other side and did the same. It was kind of nice up there. Warm, with a good view, and we had the luggage rack to hold on to if the ride got bumpy. The rest of the guys jumped into the station wagon and Alan, after a skeptical look at Steve and me, got in, started the car and drove. The gravel road we were traveling was bumpy, but otherwise it was fun up top. We realized immediately that keeping a tight grip on the luggage rack came automatically. It was probably some kind of self-preservation instinct.
“See,” said Steve, “this is easy. There’s nothin’ to worry about except fallin’ asleep from boredom.”
“Yeah,” I responded enthusiastically, “this is great! Good idea. I kin’t believe we didn’t think of doin’ this earlier.”
While Steve and I were enjoying the ride, and we were, a discussion was starting in the car below us.
“This is boring,” said Mike, who was smart and a natural leader. “We need to spice this ride up. Damn, Alan, we’re only goin’ 25 miles an hour. Let’s speed it up. You don’t want those guys fallin’ asleep up there.”
“Yeah, “ agreed John, “I’m about to fall asleep on this boring-ass ride. Isn’t there a curve comin’ up? Kin’t ya do somethin’ just a little excitin’ when we git to it?”
“Well I kin’t git too crazy. I don’t wanna take a chance with this car. My dad’ll kill me if I even put a little scratch on it,” replied Alan, obviously uncomfortable.
“What a pussy!” accused Mike, trying to fire up Alan. “I never did think you could drive worth a shit unless it was in a straight line.”
Of course, to an eighteen year-old man-boy, this was a challenge that could not be ignored. Alan struggled for a few moments, weighing the possibility of damaging his dad’s car, and the resulting punishment, against losing face with his buddies. Not losing face won by a landslide.
“Alright you guys,” He said with the conviction of eighteen-year-old experience. “Watch this.”
The car began to speed up, amplifying the bumps and occasional wash boarded sections of gravel road. The ride was probably pretty sweet inside the car. On top, though, it became more challenging.
“What the hell’s he doin’ down there? We must be doin’ 60!” I said, tightening my grip on the cross bar and bouncing all over the top of the car and occasionally into Steve.
“Yeah, isn’t it great?” Steve always was a risk-taker, fueled by adrenaline often as not.
Not wanting to appear afraid, I agreed. Inside I was scared, but starting to enjoy the ride. Bouncing on the roof of the car was a little uncomfortable, but not too bad. I was getting used to it. And it was fun. It didn’t take much strength to hold on — we were all in pretty good physical condition at that time. It was exciting! The flat landscape was flying by. Wind tousling my hair and making it hard to hear. I could even smell the dust, wildflowers and cow shit that made up the fertile Indiana countryside. Yes…yes! This is fun, I decided. As we rocketed down that bumpy, country road, I could see a bend ahead.
“Uh, Steve, does Alan know about that curve comin’ up?” I shouted. It was hard to have a conversation with all the car noise, wind and bouncing around.
“Yeah, he knows. Take it easy, man. Don’t worry about it. Enjoy the ride.”
“Right,” I yelled, “but that curve’s comin’ up fast.”
I was starting to freak out and thought about escape if it went bad. There was no reasonably safe way out. We were completely exposed. Alan had finally slowed down some, but I knew it wasn’t enough. We barreled into the curve too fast and started sliding sideways, the back tires breaking loose from the gravel, then swinging into the ditch trying to catch up with the fronts. Steve and I were holding on with all our strength trying not to get thrown from the roof, using the side of the luggage rack for leverage.
“Oh shit, oh shit! Hold on!”
Suddenly, we came to a stop. Dust billowed around the car and found its way into our noses, eyes and mouths. Coughing, blinking and sneezing, we jumped off the roof onto solid ground. The car was half in the ditch, but undamaged. I was shaking from the adrenaline rush, but also undamaged. Steve was much less shaken.
“Hell yeah!” screamed Steve. “That was great! You guys need ta try it.”
“No shit, you gotta try it. It was really cool! How fast were we going anyway, Alan? 60? 70?” Now that the danger was past and I was coming down from the adrenaline, I realized just how much fun it was. We had faced Death and won! And I was all for Mike and John giving it a try.
“We were only goin’ 40 miles an hour,” said Alan with a chuckle.
“Well it sure seemed faster,” I said rather lamely. But it was okay – everyone had completely forgotten about Renée.
“Was it hard ta hold on?” asked Mike.
“No, it was pretty easy except goin’ around that curve got hairy. Otherwise it was great.”
Mike and John took their turn up top and enjoyed it immensely. Of course, they didn’t slide through any curves.
We spent a lot of time riding on top of station wagons that summer. We improved our technique, too. Rides on paved roads at higher speeds became the norm. We even did some surfing after dark!
Surfing ended late one summer night. It was hot and humid, as August nights frequently are in Indiana, and we needed to cool off. We were riding around town with Dale, who conveniently had a station wagon with a luggage rack, but no air conditioning. What better way to cool off, we thought, than doing some surfing? After convincing Dale that surfing was the greatest thing ever, we finished our loop through town, up Meridian Street, around the fast food hangout where I worked, back down Meridian Street and out of town.
On the way out of town, we decided that we should probably drink some beer, but we didn’t have any, so we headed toward the back road to Ft. Recovery, Ohio. We were only about ten miles from Ft. Recovery and the legal age for drinking 3.2% beer in Ohio was eighteen, unlike Indiana, which was twenty-one. We were all eighteen by then…well, close enough. I never did understand the three- two beer rule. I could get just as drunk on three-two as I could on the full-strength stuff. It just took more. Anyway, we had a goal and a plan to get there.
Once out of town, Dale drove to the paved road that would take us most of the way to Ft. Recovery, and then pulled over. There were three of us riding with Dale that night, and only two could surf at a time. We’d tried surfing with three, but it was just too damn crowded.
“Okay,” said Mike, “odd man out.”
We each pulled out a coin, looked at each other for confirmation and flipped it into the air more or less simultaneously. We each caught our coin in the air with one hand and slapped it on to the back of the other hand, taking care to keep the coin covered.
“Whatcha got, Rick?”
“Heads,” I said revealing George Washington.
“Tails,” said Steve.
“Heads!” exclaimed Mike with a smile. “It’s you un me, Rick.”
Mike and I clambered onto the top of Dale’s station wagon, music blasting in the background, and smacked the roof twice, signaling we were ready to go. We were old hands at this and exuded nonchalance about the whole surfing thing. We were eager to get going on this hot and sticky Hoosier evening.
It started out okay, although Dale was driving faster than we were used to. We weren’t worried, though, because we knew that Steve would set him straight. Why would we think that? Who knows, but he was doing just the opposite. He egged Dale on.
“Come on, Dale, speed it up,” Steve urged. “What are you, a pussy? We always go a lot faster than this.”
Dale said nothing, but he began going faster and faster. None of us would admit to being a pussy and would usually go to great lengths to prove we were not.
Up top, the ride was getting scary. Even though we were on a paved road, it was nighttime on a country road full of bumps and dips, causing us to bounce around like crazy.
“What the hell’s he doin’? We’re goin’ way too fast,” yelled Mike. “We’ve got to slow ‘im down.”
Confirming my strong grip on the cross bar, I cautiously released my left hand and began pounding on the roof. Bam, Bam, Bam! Every time I lifted my hand to pound, the wind tried to rip it off.
“What’s that bangin’ for?” asked Dale, still unsure of surfing protocol.
“Oh, they’re just havin’ a good time. I think they want you ta go faster.”
“Faster? I’m going 60 already. But if that’s what they want…okay.”
Dale sped up and we surfers freaked out. Looking ahead as best we could, aided by the light of a full moon, we saw a bridge coming up. It wasn’t just any bridge either. We called it the ramp bridge, because for some reason unknown to us, the floor of this bridge was about two feet higher than the road. That meant the first couple of feet going on and the last couple coming off the bridge was like a ramp. It was a hell of a jolt hitting the bridge at 30 miles an hour. We were going much faster. Mike and I looked at each other briefly and then in unison we yelled,
“Shiiittt!! Hold on!”
When we hit that bridge the car was going 70 miles an hour. The first thing that happened was we were slammed into the roof, hard. Then we shot into the air; the only thing tethering us to the car was our grip on the cross bar and the cross bar itself. It was exhilarating – and terrifying. We were on autopilot now.
“Aaaaahhhhh,” I screamed, not even feigning exuberance, trying hard not to vomit as we slammed down onto the much abused roof of the five-year-old station wagon, holding on to the luggage rack with the grips of supermen. We acted like we thought supermen should, but inside I was freaking out, able to do little but hold on to the cross bar of the luggage rack and hope the ride ended sooner than our lives.
Dale was facing his own challenges. He was going so fast that the car became airborne for a few feet after clearing the bridge, and he was having a hellluva time getting it under control. That car skittered all over the road, and we surfers had a hellluva time holding on as it slammed side to side. The only thing saving us was the luggage rack.
Finally, Dale got the car under control. What we had forgotten, though, was that the road teed shortly after the bridge. We were rapidly approaching that tee.
Dale must have stood on the brake, because Mike and I were suddenly blasted forward. It took all we (and the luggage rack) had not to fly off that roof, into the hot, sweaty summer night. As we finally slid around that tight curve and came to a bumpy, shuddering stop, the luggage rack cross bar came off in our hands! We looked at the cross bar, then at each other. Then we threw it into the ditch and jumped down from the roof, both of us trembling and sweating profusely.
Dale and Steve were already out of the car. Dale was ghostly pale under the moonlight. Steve, on the other hand, was laughing his ass off.
“What the hell, Dale, were you tryin’ to kill us? Jesus Christ! We almost died!”
“I know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Steve said the roof poundin’ meant you wanted to go faster, so I did. But I forgot about the bridge. Are you guys okay?”
Mike and I exchanged a glance.
“Yeah, we’re okay. No thanks to you. Oh yeah, your luggage rack broke.”
Subdued, except Steve, we picked up the cross bar and piled into the car, more than ready for a beer or ten. Dale put the car in gear and drove toward Ft. Recovery.
“Hey, the bowling machine’s open. Let’s bowl a game or two.” Steve was good on the machine and figured he could win some free beer.
“Not right now, man. Maybe later,” said Mike.
“Yeah, maybe later,” I echoed.
Steve and Dale got up, grabbed their glasses, and headed off to bowl. Mike and I looked at each other for a long moment before speaking.
“I’m not gittin” up top ever again,” said Mike, “that was too close. We DID almost git killed.”
“No shit! I’m not doin’ it anymore either. And you know what? When we hit that bridge, my life didn’t pass before my eyes – I thought of Renée. That’s weird.”
Even though surfin’ ended that night, our risk-taking behaviors did not. They were certainly tempered, though, and we no longer embraced blatantly life-threatening stunts. We grew up just a little bit that night.
A week later in the concession stand at the local drive-in theater, I ran into Renée.
“Hi Renée! How have you been?”
“I’m good. How are you?”
“Not bad.” Now or never, I thought. “Renée, The Thomas Crown Affair is showing in Muncie. It’s Steve McQueen, ya know. Wouldya like to go with me ta see it?”
“How sweet, Rick,” said Renée, a smile highlighting her beautiful face. “No thanks.”
Rick Joy, recently retired Quality Engineer living in rural Indiana, always longed to be a writer but lacked the courage to try. Now he tries. With several stories under his belt, he is refining his voice and enjoying the journey.