Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Three, two, one lift off

It's four-o-clock and the work bell has rung. Dom and I put our carts away, say good-bye to our co-workers and head to my car. Along the way we pull the wads of cash out of our pockets that are begging to be counted.

"How did you do?" I ask as I finish up with my haul.

"I made $68 dollars," he says. "What about you?"

"I pulled in $75."

We slip each other a congratulatory high five and hop in my 1984 Delta 88 Oldsmobile. We figure our count wasn't too bad for a couples of guys working as a bagger in the military grocery store. Especially considering we only get paid tips.

I fire up the car and pull out of the parking lot of the Fort Wainwright Commissary. We make our way across the base and finally leave out the Trainer Gate exit.

I decide I want to hit up my normal stop, The Comic Shop, before heading home. I inform Dom of my decision and he seems amiable. Our stop at the Comic Shop is brief -- I purchase a couple of role playing books and a novel -- and we are soon on our way home.

Home for us is located on a dirt road at 14.1 mile Chena Hot Springs Rd. It's about a 30-40 minute drive from Fairbanks along a scenic route.

It's summer time and neither of us seem to have a care in the world. We are both thrilled the work day is over and want nothing more than to kick back and relax.

Still, there is the drive and I figure what better way to pass the time than with some tunes. I reach down and turn up the radio dial.

The station of choice for those wanting the modern day mix of rock and alternative music is KWLF. KWLF in the early 90s is cutting edge for Fairbanks. They only way you could get harder edge music is by tuning it to KSUA, the college station, after 10 p.m. But, since it was closing on 5 p.m., KWLF would suffice.

We cruise down the Steese Highway pass Seakins Ford - Lincoln - Mercury, pass Farmer's Loop Rd and the market located on the corner, pass everything else along the way before finally pulling off onto Chena Hot Springs Rd. We hang a right to head east and settle in for the trip.

Duran Duran is on the radio and our windows are down. I light a cigarette and keep the car at a cruising speed of 60 mph.

A few miles down the road, a short ways before Steele Creek Rd., is a stretch of land that we call the potato fields. Although, looking back now, I would bet it was hay or straw, not potatoes. Either way, this strip of the road is notorious for having problems.

Like many places in Alaska, permafrost is a constant issue; and in this little stretch there was an issue. It affected you more in the eastbound lane than the west. So much in fact, you should slow down and take the bumps graciously. I knew this. I have driven this road hundreds if not thousands of times. I knew what to expect.

Too bad I ignored it.

As we approached the potato fields Bob Segar's Old TIme Rock-n-Roll came on the radio. The song was perfect for the beautiful day and the beautiful drive. I reach down and turn the dial all the way up. The trouble is, as I turn the dial up, my foot pushes down harder on the accelerator. Now, I am not sure if they were connected in some strange kind of Freudian slip sort-of-I-want-to-kill-myself-way, or if I just genuinely wanted to give the car some gas. That's neither here nor there; what matters is that now we are approaching this nasty spot in the road doing close to 90 mph.

It's one those rare moments of absolute clarity that wash over me as I realize where I was at; look at the speedometer; quickly do the math in my head; realize we were doomed.

"HOLD ON!" I scream.

We hit the bump and for a split second, maybe two, I think, "Well, that's not too bad," then we land.

The car groans as the metal scrapes along the concrete, shooting sparks out everywhere showering those on the side or directly behind us. Dom and I both let out an oof as our bodies jostle in time to the thrashing car.

My knuckles are white as I grip the steering wheel with every bit of strength I have trying desperately to keep my flying tank straight. Amazingly it worked. The car stays on the road, in our lane, and we continue on our way.

As we finished the trip home -- mind you the radio was off the rest of the way -- my heart finally starts to beat normally. Dom -- never was the a moment when someone was so close to soiling himself than right then -- was white as a ghost saying silent prayers to God and swearing he would never ride with me again.

Something he would swear more than once, yet still climbs in the passenger seat of whatever vehicle I am driving.

If only he knew what would happen that same summer on the Fourth of July, he just might've kept his vow. That is another story.