I don’t recall exactly how or when I met Shawn and Dave. I just seem to remember them hanging out around backstage during play rehearsals and near the sidelines at football practices. They weren’t in the plays and didn’t play football, mind you. They were just there, and eventually I began spending more and more time with them. They weren’t bad guys, really – I’d call them nothing worse than low-grade knuckleheads – but hanging out with those two brought me closer to real trouble than anything else I did growing up.
I had my first beer with them. A Bud Ice on a cold March night when we were in the eighth grade. Vile stuff, which I choked down while pretending I really liked the taste. Many more followed in the next year. Getting the beer was easy. Shawn’s mom managed a convenience store and the three of us would stop in while she was working. While Shawn would distract her with some invented problem, Dave and I would swipe a case from the cooler and sneak out the back.
There was an elementary school nearby that you could get up on the roof of pretty easily, and we’d drink up there while looking at the stars and listening to Metallica or Iron Maiden or something while never thinking all that much about the ethics of theft, underage drinking and trespassing on school property. When I’d come home the next morning and my folks would ask me how my sleepover went I’d tell them that nothing really happened. And I actually believed it. We never really felt like we were raising any kind of hell. We figured that all of the fourteen year-olds were out drinking stolen beer on rooftops somewhere.
The beerfests – maybe one or two a month – continued until April of my freshman year. My family was moving to another town that month, so the parties were going to end, at least for me. My sendoff was one final sleepover at Shawn’s house, which included one final stop by the convenience store. Unlike previous affairs we had another kid with us, Jeff, who was basically the same brand of knucklehead as Shawn, Dave and me. This time it was going to be a late night outing, so rather than going straight to the school after snagging our beer, we hid it in Shawn’s garage and hung out in the basement watching TV until we knew his dad was asleep. It was just after midnight when we grabbed our stash and slipped out of the house and down the road to the school.
The four of us each had three beers, killing the 12 pack we had ripped off. After a few minutes of staring at the spring stars, a beat up Chevy Chevette squealed into the parking lot and came to a stop. Behind the wheel was a kid named Scott. We knew him, but not well. What we did know was that Scott had failed at least two grades and was the only person in our ninth grade class with a driver's license, which he obtained barely a week before.
Scott climbed up to see us, saw that we were out of beer, and suggested that we get some more. We thought that was a great idea, but another trip to Shawn’s mother's store wasn't an option seeing as we were all supposed to be back home asleep. Scott claimed he knew a place where he could get some, so the five of us piled into his Chevette and drove off into the night.
Though Scott hadn't had anything to drink that night, getting into the car with him wasn't the smartest thing we had ever done. We all liked him well enough, but he wasn't a bright kid, and after a mile or two in his car, we realized he wasn't a good driver. The trip to the store was fairly terrifying, but we somehow made it. After a couple minutes inside, Scott came out with a case of Budweiser, and we were off again.
Scott’s driving was no better coming back than it was heading out. Two miles from home he took a sharp curve too fast, the front wheels went off the road onto the right shoulder, he over-corrected left, and the car flipped over.
I was sitting in the back seat directly behind the driver. As we began to tumble I reached out for the headrest in front of me and held on. Everything began to move in slow motion and take place a step or two removed from immediate reality. The sound of the roof hitting the pavement was nothing more than a distant and muffled thump to me. When I noticed that my feet were above my head, it was much like you might notice when some clouds moved in on an otherwise pleasant afternoon. “That’s strange,” I thought. “This was not at all what I was expecting. The car should be proceeding upright, and yet it’s not. Hmm.”
Just as I was about to turn to my right and ask Shawn what he felt about this most curious turn of events, the car stooped flipping and came to rest upside down in the middle of the road. Real time and my appreciation for the gravity of my circumstances returned as soon as the car stopped. I instinctively reached for the door handle next to me, opened it, rolled out, realized that I was laying in broken glass and sprang to my feet. My heart was racing, but a quick self-examination confirmed that I was not bleeding and that all of my parts were where they were supposed to be. I didn't even get a scratch. Soon Shawn, Dave and Scott appeared, and with the exception of small bloody scratch to Dave’s cheek, none of them were hurt either.
Jeff wasn't as lucky. Sitting in the passenger seat with the window open, he had been partially thrown out of the car as it flipped and came to rest half in and half out, seemingly pinned by the collapsed passenger door. He was conscious, but the back of his head was bleeding badly and his hands were shredded due to the impact with the asphalt.
As we ran to his side, he seemed stunned and non-responsive. Then, in an instant, he thrust himself out from under the door and leapt to his feet, shouting that he smelled gasoline, though none of the rest of us did. He paced around for five or ten seconds before he noticed his hands and felt the blood running down the back of his head, at which point he crouched to his knees and started breathing in and out slowly and deeply.
As the Chevette lay on its back with its rear wheels still spinning, four shocked teenagers paced about, and twenty four cans of beer littered the road. Within a minute or two a sheriff's deputy rolled onto the scene, lights flashing. Shawn, his priorities not exactly in order, ran to the beer cans and began pitching them off the side of the road and into a ditch when he saw the deputy, apparently believing that being caught with some beer was our most serious concern at the moment. Maybe the deputy’s priorities were screwed up too, because rather than rush into the scene to see if everyone was OK, he shined his spotlight on Shawn and yelled at him to quit tossing cans. Once he saw bloody Jeff he left Shawn alone, but not before ordering him to go and pick up the cans he had already thrown down into the ditch.
An ambulance soon arrived. They looked Jeff over and found that his injuries weren’t anywhere near as bad as they looked. His hands were a mess, but the head injury, though bloody, was fairly superficial. Rather than put him on a stretcher or anything, he climbed into the ambulance himself and sat down when they took him away.
A couple more deputies showed up. Scott was ushered away from the rest of us to take a sobriety test, which he passed. He was still taken away though, for paperwork, to have his parents called and to do whatever else they do to sixteen year-old drivers who flip cars at 2 A.M.
Shawn, Dave and I sat in the back of the first deputy’s cruiser as they dealt with Jeff and Scott. Eventually the deputy came back and asked us to tell him what happened. I did most of the talking, giving him as much of the truth as I felt he needed (i.e. I didn’t think he needed to know that we had been drinking up on the school roof before everything went down). Then the deputy said something quite unexpected:
“You boys got somewhere to be?”
“Then y'all best git there,” he said.
He didn't need to tell us twice. We ran off on foot, covering the two miles back to Shawn’s house in what seemed like a minute. After sneaking back into the house undetected, we crawled into sleeping bags on his basement floor and eventually managed to get to sleep.
We woke up the next morning and had breakfast with Shawn’s parents, who somehow didn't notice Jeff's absence. After ten minutes of wondering if we had truly gotten away with it, the phone rang and the jig was up. It was my mom. Jeff's mother had called her once she realized that there were other kids in the wreck besides her son. To say that my mom was angry and hysterical would be something of an understatement. I didn't help matters when I calmly asked if we could discuss all of this later, seeing as Shawn, Dave and I had plans to go bowling that morning. There would be no bowling.
Everyone's parents were at Shawn’s house within an hour taking turns yelling at the three of us. Dave more or less saved our butts when he reminded everyone that the sheriff's deputy just let us go like he did. In an instant all of the grownups’ ire was off us for being dumbasses and onto the sheriff’s office for being outrageously negligent. Sitting here more than twenty years later I can’t remember what, if anything, happened as a result of all of that. I mean, I have to think that someone’s parents complained, but no one ever asked me to go on the record about anything. Maybe our parents just let it drop to save us some sort of charge related to the beer all over the road. I have no idea. At any rate, by the time our parents' attention was turned back to us, their anger had subsided and was replaced by relief that we weren't hurt.
My mom and dad took me home, constantly watching me as we drove, wondering why I wasn't nervous to be in a car so soon after being in an accident like that. Not quite sure how to react when I told them I was fine, they eventually settled on trying to convince me how terrified and damaged I should truly be. Later that day they took me to the hospital to visit Jeff, who had been kept for observation. If they intended this to be a sobering experience, it backfired massively when Jeff, seeing me come in the door, smiled broadly, gave me a bandage-covered high five, and said “Dude! How cool was it that we walked away from that shit?!”
By that evening I was back to normal activities: watching an Atlanta Braves game while shooting stuff on my Commodore 64. I think such normalcy must have pissed my parents off something fierce, because it was only then that they came into my room to tell me that I was grounded. Still, it was a fairly empty gesture given that six days later we would be moving to a different town where I knew no one and would have nothing to do anyway. In light of this, I think my response to the grounding was “um, OK, whatever. Is that it?” I really wanted to get back to the ballgame. I’m surprised my parents didn’t give up with the constructive discipline and just smack the living shit out of me.
It would be several years until I would truly appreciate how idiotic we had been and how lucky we were to still be alive. Hell, if anything the wreck made things worse for a while in that it gave me a vague sense of indestructibility that lasted until well after I got my own driver’s license a year later. I sometimes marvel that I got out of my teens alive.
They were great guys and all, but if I hadn’t moved away from Shawn and Dave, I might not have.