Death Drives a Ford Fairlane

My  memories filter in before the invention of Kodacrome. My life’s movie reel runs in black and white. This probably has something to do with our TV was black and white until I went off to college, most of the family photos were in black and white and when my brother bought his first Polaroid, yep, black and white.  All newspaper pictures were in black and white, with the exception of my favorite Sunday funnies. At some point in time, God invented color and a different world opened up, but it was too late for me. The color connecting neurons were already connected to only two shades. I say all of this because the following escape episode runs in my head in the black and white version. The colorized version has not been produced yet.

When Mr. Death and I had our first meeting, and there were a few we will explore later,  the population of my hometown, Falls City, NE was around 5,400. We were a big city by Nebraska standards. The next closest city of any size was Nebraska City, fifty miles north.  Falls City, like many small Midwest towns, provided a public swimming pool. You paid a quarter for a day of hanging out with your friends, burning your skin to a nice crisp brown and bleaching your hair to a fuzzy blonde. No one worried about skin cancer or the effects of chlorine.  We were more concerned about the rule of waiting a half hour before jumping back in the pool.

The pool didn’t open until after the noon whistle blew. The whistle controlled the actions of the town like the bells in a monastery. At noon, some stores even closed so the employees could go home for lunch.  Imagine today having the luxury of eating a relaxed lunch in your own home.  Up until noon the pool was used for the Red Cross swimming lesson. Every year mom would sign us up for lessons. Mom could not swim but she was determined that each of her kids would learn. I don’t know if dad could swim. Thinking about it now, I never asked him.  When they say anyone can learn to float, they are lying. It took me two summers to get beyond the beginners level which all you had to do was prove you could float and you passed.

The public pool was set in the middle of major sports complex for the city. There were two tennis courts, horseshoe pits, where the State horseshoe championship was held each year, two ball diamonds one having a wooden grandstand which was the tallest wooden structure in town. It was also the first thing to come down in a windstorm in the early 60’s. The wind laid it down like it was part of a pop up card that you could open up and it would be right back to the way it was. I can remember sitting in this grandstand with mom and watching a reenactment of a wagon train being attacked by Indians as part of the centennial celebration for the city in 1957. Try getting away with that scenario today in this politically correct world.

In the park was a large pavilion for displaying 4-H animals during the annual Horse Play Days. Next to the pavilion was the Rodeo center. During Horse Play Days we could stand outside the wooden split rail fence and watch the contestants race their steeds around the barrels. I think secretly we were hoping one would wipe out like NASCAR fans watching a race.

The park was shaded by plenty of old elms, many of which died off in the Dutch Elm disease blight, Maples and Catalpa’s with their long strings of seed pods we always thought were coffee beans. The park was the place for picnics, family reunions, and a favorite activity of many Falls Cityians, people watching. If you told anyone around the Richardson County area, “Meet us at the Falls City Park,” they knew where you meant.

In the evening, big flood lights surrounded the pool. They would kick with power and then buzz as they came to life. The walls of the pool also had lights which gave the water a strange glow. In the evening the pool was never crowded. The noise level was down and you could hear the power generating station at the water and light plant just a few blocks away, the diesel generators pumping to provide the power to light up the night. The slow cadence of those diesels is one of my earliest memories as a kid.

I was usually pretty compliant to my mom’s time for returning home from the pool. There was a Pepsi clock mounted in middle of the bath house. You could read it from any spot in the pool and it was your surrogate mother while swimming, always reminding you when it was time to go home. I guess this day I was either having too much fun or I just out right ignored mother clock. When I realized I was late I rushed out of the pool, turned in the pin attached to my swim trunks that corresponded to my basket of tennis shoes T-shirt and towel. I am sure I did not even take the required exiting shower. Outside, my bike was waiting for me. Stretched out on the ground, it looked like a tired old horse that decided to stretch out while a bunch of young banana saddled stallions stood at attention afraid to move or get a scratch.

Dad bought the bike for me from Mrs. Grimes who lived across the alley. Her boy went off to the Army and I guess she figured he was not coming back for the bike. It was my first big bike. Fat tubed tires, a true saddle style seat with two massive springs to absorb the bumps and butt. Fenders arched over the tires that occasionally required creative bending to avoid rubbing. The bike and I traveled all over town and it probably kept me in the best shape I have ever been.

I rolled my towel up like a cowboy’s bed roll and wedged it under the springs of the bike saddle. We headed up 12th street toward home. We lived on the east side of town. Four blocks east of the main downtown and four blocks west of the St. Peter and Paul church and school. We walked up to town and up to church. The up part is the lie. There really is no places in Falls City where you needed to walk up. The ride home was flat and fast. If I pumped hard, I figured I might still be able to squeeze in under the supper time curfew.

Falls City was a biker’s paradise. Good wide roads, flat and little traffic. There were probably times when bicycle traffic outnumbered four wheels. I passed over Stone street which ran north and south and was paved from one end to the other with bricks. Stone was the dividing line for town. You either lived on one side of Stone or the other. The upper end of Stone makes up the main part of the business district. The south end of Stone was all residential including a four story apartment building covered with white stucco. Planted in the sidewalk around the building were trees with cast iron protective fences. This corner always reminded me of the apartments in New York City pictured in movies; black and white of course.

The next intersection was Nebraska Highway 73. You could ride H73 all the way to Hiawatha and St. Joe going south or travel north to Nebraska City. The Greyhound bus made regular runs up and down 73 and was the main connector for many people. At this time H73 was a tree lined two lane highway. The trees were trimmed by tractor trailers which formed what looked like a square tunnel of trees. There were no traffic lights on H73 it was the only road in town you needed to look both ways before crossing.

Traveling south on H73 was a Ford Fairlane with a white top. It passed the Greyhound bus station and was coming up on the intersection just before the old Wittrock Creamery, the corner of 12th and Harland.

So was I.

Intent on getting home on time, I committed the grievous sin drilled into every Falls City kid, right up there with don’t play on railroad tracks. I shot across H73 never looking in either direction. The heavy steel left bumper of the Fairlane passed within a breath of my fender. It wasn’t until the horn blared and the tires screeched that I even realized a car was there. Our eyes met, two strangers brought together by fate and timing. We each knew a defining moment just occurred.

In one pump of the pedals I was safe on the other side of the highway. I cut up the nearest alley knowing for sure the driver, who I knew would be hunting me down for the scare I just gave him. Few knew the alleys and streets better than me. I was confident I could stay off his track and make it home undetected. I was like the crook that took every back alley to escape the pursuing police. My fear was the driver might have recognized me. With Dad working for the post office there were few people in town who did not know the Casey kids. I figured I was a marked man.

I made it home undetected. I even used the bad guy trick of going one block out of my way then doubling back, just in case he was a better tracker than I was giving him credit. I rolled one half of the garage doors open. The doors made a distinctive noise as they rolled across their bearings. The sound amplified through the corrugated tin structure. The family car was parked inside. Dad always walked to work and there were times the car, a ’54 Desoto, never left its stall until Sunday. I slid my bike alongside “Black Beauty” as she was known to the family.  Black Beauty was our first car and the only one to be named. Cars after that were just “the car.” Black Beauty was literally put out to pasture after the next owner finished with her. For years she sat in a field under the city water tower. I always wanted to go rescue her or at least check up on her. She sat there like some old great aunt never visited and forgotten by the family.

Supper was ready by the time I got in the house. I was late but still in the grace period and mom was too involved at the stove to holler at me. I sat at my place at the table smelling I am sure of chlorine and sweat. No one at the table had any idea of the life changing experience which was setting next to them. That night, the phone which hung on the wall next to the porch door, rang twice. It was rare that any one called our house. My heart jumped with each ring thinking Mr. Death had tracked me down and was waiting to bring me out of hiding. Or maybe it was someone who witnessed the near miss and was calling to tell my parents to get me off the road. It ended up the rings were just part of the party line connections.

I went to bed that night vowing to always behave, never to tell a lie, honor my father and mother, and never fight with my sister, if God would just let the Fairlane drive on to Hiawatha or St. Joe and never return to Falls City again. I also knew that somewhere a driver was laying down to sleep thanking the same God that he did not kill a crazy kid today.

Today that same intersection has stop lights which control the traffic of the four lanes. The trees are gone, Wittrock’s dairy is no more and the Greyhound does not even come through Falls City. The pool is gone, moved to the opposite end of town as part of a tree-less Water Park. The landmarks might be gone, but I can still stand on the corner and see a kid pumping his legs off crossing the highway, a Ford Fairlane minding his own business followed by the sound of horns and screaming rubber; all in black and white of course and all just part of growing up.

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