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Drove The Chevy To The Levee

After my graduation from college, I spent 15 months working for the Washington Conservation Corps. I needed the money, and it seemed like a good way to put my Environmental Science degree to work. Plus, I had applied to Peace Corps, and I thought this would look good on my application. After all, everyone knows that the first thing an employer looks in a candidate is experience working for a similar-named organization (which is why the United Nations often does recruiting drives at their local International House Of Pancakes).

The Conservation Corps is one of the forerunners to AmeriCorps, a volunteer this program where a bunch of hooligans go around and engage in manly activities like planting trees and driving trucks and building fences and whatnot. My coworkers were high school dropouts and ex-convicts, and my boss was a grizzled old ex-logger who once had every bone in his body broken when a log rolled over him. And then there was me, a guy with 8 credits of philosophy under his belt and callus-free hands. You know how in the old WWII comic books, like Stg. Rock or whatever, there's always some pacifist scholar in the company with a nickname like "Abacus?" I was essentially that guy, minus the glasses.

But what I lacked in manliness I made up for with an aggressive campaign to fake it. I'd nod knowingly as the other guys debated the relative merits of Fords and Chevys, carry around tools I'd never seen before in my life as if I'd been born clutching them, and endure hours of country music without complaint. After hours I would slink home, put on a Cure CD and sip effete microbrew, sure, but on the clock I was All Man, or, at the very least, my best imitation thereof.

Sometimes I was able to pull of this charade fairly convincingly. Other times ...

One day, for example, we were constructing a fence around a river. For corner posts we used railroad ties: massive, square-ish hunks of wood that require two men to carry (and, if one of those men weights 135 lbs., makes him feel like his spine is going to snap from the strain). I was paired with J., a 19-year-old guy who probably weighed half again as much as me and proudly boasted about his status as a redneck. He was racist, homophobic, prone to fits of violence, and he whooped for joy when he heard that Kurt Cobain has killed himself. He was also a pretty good guy and we enjoyed working together, even though we never would have socialized off the clock.

J. and I just put in post a few feet away from the edge of the water -- a real chore, since this desolate stretch of bank was very muddy and the posthole had continually filled in with water. We had to put another post in nearby, and the railroad ties were sitting in the back of our pickup truck a little ways away. We had carried the last one out to its destination, but how we both feeling tired and lazy, so J. suggested we just go get the truck and just drive it back to our current location.

So we walked back to the truck and, as luck would have it, I approached the vehicle on the driver's side. J., without a second thought, tossed the keys to me. Rather than admit that I had almost zero experience driving anything larger than a Toyota Corolla, I hoped in and fired up the engine while J. clambered in the passenger's side.

We chatted idly during the brief drive, but, as we approached the riverbank, J. suddenly looked concerned. "Hey, aren't you going a little fast?" he asked. Actually, I'd thought we'd been going unnecessarily slow, but I obligingly tapped the brake petal for J.'s benefit. As soon as I did, though, I knew we were doomed. Now on the mud flat, the truck lost not one iota of momentum as I hit the brakes; instead, it slowly began to turn sidewise while still moving inexorably towards the water.

This, I quickly calculated, was Really Bad. The river was deep and fairly fast-flowing, so much so that it had cut into the landscape. There was a two or three foot drop from the bank to the water, and the river was probably five feet deep at the edges. As we were now approaching the river sideway, it seemed entirely possible that the two left wheels of the truck would drop off the bank and then, as the right wheels continued, the entire vehicle would flip over, dumping us into the river upside-down.

Best of all, all this was unfolding at approximately one mile an hour, giving J. and I plenty of time to recognize and discuss our fate. "Dude," J. said, as I frantically pumped the brake "Dude, we're going to go right into the river." I was too busy pumping, sweating and hyperventilating to reply. Looking out my side window -- my half of the truck was going to go over the edge first -- I could see the river approaching at rapid-yet-leisurely pace. "Maybe we should jump out?" J. proposed.

Suddenly, there was a thud and back half of the truck stopped moving. The front continued, swinging the vehicle around so that it was again perpendicular to the water. The truck slowed and, a few feet from the drop-off, stopped altogether.

Dazed, J. and I slowly climbed out. J. walked around to my side to see what had happened. As it turned out, the very back of the truck had hit, yes, the railroad tie that J. and I had just put it five minutes earlier. The post had been pushed to a 45 degree angle but had remained standing, siphoning off enough of the truck's velocity to prevent it from toppling into the river. It was the only thing on the entire deforested and denuded stretch of riverbank, and I had somehow managed to hit it.

J. looked at the post, looked at me, shook his head and said, "You are one lucky motherfucker."

Posted on May 13, 2004 to Storytelling


good to know i am not the only one!

Posted by: tony on May 14, 2004 5:01 PM

A story well told. But I would not give credit to luck.

Posted by: Bert on May 14, 2004 5:49 PM

Yikes! What a classic example of the hubris of youth running headlong into Murphy's law!

Ummm, I mean...

Yo, what the f**k, your lame ass was toast! And grab me a bud wile yer up...

Posted by: mr. grooism on May 15, 2004 7:47 AM

I've said it a million times but ... God Bless the railroad tie.

Posted by: Mark on May 15, 2004 7:50 AM

Here's my question: How much of this story will the squirrely get to hear and when? And I mean after he reaches the age of being old enough to understand?

Posted by: Enrique on May 15, 2004 8:24 AM

Yes. You ARE lucky.

Posted by: dayment on May 15, 2004 2:07 PM

One of my brothers was in the California Conservation Corps. But really, the most annoying thing about that experience was that my mother would no stop pronouncing "corps" as "corpse."

Christ, it gave me a bleeding ulcer.

Love your blog, yeti-man.

Posted by: Heather on May 16, 2004 9:45 PM

uhm yeah, so that was scary. i kept wondering if you were going to go into the river and die. but i guess that would have been dumb. well told. you had my heart thumping. ^_^

Posted by: devlyn on May 17, 2004 11:25 AM

I imagine that the conversation was somewhat similar between Ted and Mary Jo all those years ago. Minus the lucky railroad tie of course.

Posted by: BillB on May 17, 2004 11:51 AM

It's good for people to be forced out of their shell to deal with people outside their comfort zone. For me it was the military that taught me how to get by in the world of pickup trucks, firearms, sports and domestic beer. It is a useful skill whenever superbowl sunday rolls around, or if I have to visit the in-laws.

Posted by: Dennis on May 17, 2004 12:26 PM

After high school or college, there is a time in most people's lives where they have tons of time, but very little money. They probably haven't developed any particularly valuable skills, so even when they do sell their time, they have a hard time getting much money for it.
This is the age where people are most likely to volunteer.
I guess the trick is to volunteer for something that will develop valuable skills, like Volunteer Dentists of America.

Posted by: Anonymous on May 17, 2004 4:35 PM

Phew! Do NOT tell Squirrely that story. He'll think it's cool and he'll want to do it.

Near death experiences--everyone should have one. For seasoning. Except for one's own children.

Posted by: Miel on May 17, 2004 10:35 PM

Dennis said:
"For me it was the military that taught me how to get by in the world of pickup trucks, firearms, sports and domestic beer"

Meaning the South?

Posted by: Christina on May 18, 2004 2:44 PM

J., transformed by the experience and unable to get the idea of luck out of his mind, is now a Professor of Philosophy working for local wages at the University of Chewy Rice in South Western Mindanao.

However, he has never given up hunting and brought a pickup with him which he uses to teach Advanced Driving Skills to local yoof on the weekend.

Posted by: David Tiley on May 21, 2004 6:47 AM

Eh, that's nothing. In Missouri we call that a Good Time. A Bad Time is when you're stuck on a tiny fishing boat in the middle of a lake during a tornado.

I think it was good for you. Every city boy needs to get out in the country and toughen up once in a while. ;)

Posted by: Natalie on May 23, 2004 10:01 PM