Tuesday, February 18, 2014

No va

I guess it must have been the same summer Eric gave me mono, the two of us drinking from the same large jug of Gatorade as we paddled my parents' canoe down a section of Nine Mile Creek. It had rained a lot that summer, and the same rise in water that had allowed Eric and I to even make it to the bends through Moir Park –– let alone get turned over in them and almost drown –– had flooded a road further upstream.

I had come across the flooded road while taking a particularly circuitous route to summer school. 

Summer school is a cruel thing. The fact that you are even there is an indication of how you feel about schooling during the regular school year. So being there when all your friends are not is even worse. Especially when it's not even your school. In summer, the idiots and slackers of both Bloomington's high schools were corralled into a handful of classrooms at Kennedy, the east-side rival to my west-side Jefferson.

Through a cruel twist of fate, I actually ended up earning my high school diploma from Kennedy –– a truth that still burns my soul. Though, I take solace that my unintended alma mater has a place in the Harley-Davidson Museum.

Back to the flooded road, though, which was a good 5 miles northwest of my house. Whereas the drive to Kennedy should have taken me 4 miles east. In taking such a route to summer school, one that put me on the other side of town with just 10 minutes before classes were set to start, why, it's almost as if I had no real intention of showing up that day. Though, I hadn't admitted this to myself. And, in fact, I used my lateness as an excuse for "needing" to ford the flooded road.

Hindsight being all that it is, I suppose it's not surprising at all that a kid too stupid to keep himself out of summer school wouldn't be very good at guessing floodwater depth. But, by golly, was I shocked to hear my father's Chevrolet Corsica splutter to its death in the middle of that impromptu lake. Well, perhaps "shocked" isn't the right word. Baffled. Bemused. Something of a feeling of: "Well, hey, what do ya know? Cars and deep water don't mix. Fascinating. You learn something every day."

I at least had the presence of mind not to open the door. I rolled down the window and saw that water was lapping at the door's bottom edges. Had I opened the door, water would have spilled into the car and flooded the floorboards. Not more than four months before this I had totalled my father's Chrysler LeBaron, and although he is an infinitely forgiving soul I sensed it would be in my best interests to extricate this car from the water as soon as possible. Parents are like that: they'll only let you damage so many cars per year.

I climbed out of the window and managed to muscle the car back out of the water. Once I had ensured the car would not roll forward into the flood again, I tried to start the car. Nothing. No va. Internally, this was met with a perfectly even mix of concern and content. On one hand, I now had a perfectly good reason for not being at summer school. On the other hand, my father would be expecting me to pick him up from work that evening.

This was more than 20 years ago, of course. There were no mobile phones. And though I was only 5 miles from home and no more than 300 yards away from an office building where they almost certainly would have let me use the telephone, I felt I was in the middle of nowhere.

And it was in this moment that I was embraced by the great zen of unknowingness. I had no idea how to respond to this situation. So extensive was my lack of knowledge, so immense was my inability, that I could not even begin to think of how to respond. My mind just let go.

I took off my boots, poured out the water and set them on the car's roof. The morning was warm and humid and my jeans were soaked to the knees. I found a blanket in the trunk, spread it out on the hood, then lay down and became one with not doing.

I don't know how long I sat there, just staring at the sky and listening to the world around me –– birds, the heat-softened muffle of summer, occasional airplanes and traffic in the distance. Long enough for my pants to dry. Long enough for me to get hungry.

Eventually I climbed off the hood, meticulously folded the blanket and put it back in the trunk, and put on my slightly damp boots. I know now that I had stumbled upon the correct means of dealing with an engine that's gotten wet: wait for the starter to dry. Had I thought to call a tow truck, they just would have hauled it to a garage and done exactly the same thing. I wasn't a mechanic, I just had not heard that Albert Einstein quote about the definition of insanity being that of doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

But, of course, Einstein never actually said that. Maybe because he, too, had driven his father's car into a flood, tried unsuccessfully to restart it, sat on the hood for an unknown number of hours, then tried starting the car again and had the thing fire up straight away. So, sometimes you can try the same thing over and over and suddenly get a different result.

That's what happened to me. I turned the key; the Corsica started up; I celebrated by going to get a donut.

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