Sunday, June 24, 2012

1966: Avoiding Death By Roommate

I had just been in a horrible accident during my freshman year in college but this didn't stop my roommate from trying to kill me.   Brian Beach made the varsity weightlifting team at UT his freshman year in the 165 pound class.  His normal weight was about 175 but the day of the meet he would chew gum and spit off 10 pounds before the weigh-in, just to make class.  He could clean and jerk 340 pounds, a massive amount over twice his body weight.  He never practiced or trained.  He was just a naturally strong person with a 28 inch waist, 42 inch chest and huge biceps.  At 5’ 7” he looked a little top heavy but he had a baby face and a radiant, almost innocent, but somewhat mischievous smile.  He had a Latin-like temper and could get upset by the smallest things.  No one wanted to mess with Brian.

Brian’s father was the manager of the huge new J.C. Penny’s store in the newest Dallas-area mall in Irving, Texas.  He also owned a Ford dealership, a Coca-Cola Bottling plant and was a partner in Fame Fashions, a women's clothing line.  You could say that Mr. Beach was rich but that would be understatement.  Consequently, Brian had more money than any 18-year old I ever knew.  He was always driving a new Ford Mustang convertible, took girls on the most lavish dates and never had to scrounge for beer money.  Brian was tough on his cars and he had to have them replaced about every four or five months. 

One spring day Brian was between cars and driving a rental car he had picked up from a used car dealer in Austin who would rent cars off his lot to the underage college students for special weekends.  The car was a two-year old Chevrolet Corvair in mint condition.  The Corvair was the car that consumer-advocate Ralph Nadar proclaimed was “unsafe at any speed”.  My father was one of the first Corvair owners in the country and I grew up learning to drive these sporty little rear engine vehicles.  The had independent suspension on all four wheels and a peppy, dual-carbureted six cylinder engine which made them really fun to drive on curvy country roads. 

Brian was napping one Sunday afternoon in our room, still slightly hung over from his Saturday night excitement, when I approached him.  “Hey man, can I borrow your Corvair for a little while?”  
Opening one bloodshot eye, Brian mumbled, “What for?”. 
“I just want to take a little drive in the country”, I replied, thinking he might want to stop by the local Blood Bank and have his eyes drained. 
“Keys on the desk”, he murmured, but then as I snatched them up and headed for the door, he barked, “Just don’t wreck it or I’ll kick your….” the door slammed on his description of my posterior part.

Gathering up two floor mates from the dorm as my traveling companions, I promised them a lessen in road handling they would never forget.  We headed out to south Austin in the little two-door, white coupe and drove until we were out in the country.  I found a little country road with lots of curves and corners winding through cattle ranches and cotton fields.  The car handled really well and I was pushing it to its limits, drifting through the turns with the tires squealing in protest.  After negotiating two very tight turns at excessive speed, I hit an S-curve.  The car careened through the first curve and I cut the second turn perfectly, pressing on the gas.  Then, as they were prone to do, the Corvair over-steered in the third turn kicking the rear of the car way out left.  Overcorrecting, I plunged the car into the final curve, realized I was going too fast and stabbed at the brakes.  The cars left tires hit the gravely shoulder and we drifted sideways into a ditch.  At that point, everything went into slow motion. 

The left wheels left the ground and the car rolled over on its side, still going about 30 MPH.  Then it completed the roll over onto the top.  The windshield started to crack as the roof crushed in, splitting from right to left in one loud, eerie crunch until it shattered, spewing glass into our faces and cutting our clothes.   When the car finally came to rest, upside down in the ditch, all you could hear were some cows mooing on the other side of the barbed wire fence we had managed not to hit.

“Are you guys O.K.?” I asked, half dazed.  Two stunned responses confirmed we had avoided disaster.  I quickly turned off the key, remembering that if gasoline were leaking an active ignition switch could cause an explosion.   The roof of the car was totally crushed to within 12” of the tops of the doors and dash.   I told the guys to crawl out of the side openings as fast as possible and we all made it out with nothing but bruised muscles and egos.  

A farmer who had been plowing his field and saw the accident came running over as we stood there looking at the total wreck of the Corvair.  “Are you boys alright?”, he blurted out, breathlessly.  We assured him we were all fine and said we just needed some help to roll the car back over.  “You ain’t goin’ no where in that thang”, he said.  I assured him it would still work and he helped us roll the car back onto its tires with a big thump.   The roof was caved in, the right side was all smashed up,  all the windows were broken and the doors were jammed shut.

I squeezed through the window and crawled back into the drivers seat.  Turning the key and pumping the gas, I cranked the engine until the battery started to fail but then, it suddenly fired.  Oil had drained down into the cylinders and plumes of blue smoke billowed from the tailpipes but the engine was running....roughly, but running.
With a hoot and holler my buddies crawled back into the car, we shouted thanks to the farmer and off down the road we went, me hunched down in my seat, peering out through the slit once occupied by a windshield, wind blowing in our hair.

We actually made it back to the dorm and I parked it outside and trudged up to our third floor room, ready to take Brian’s wrath.  He wasn’t there so we spent the next hour telling our dorm mates our tales of daring do.   All of a sudden my blood curdled when we heard the scream from the street, “SMITH!  SMITH!  I’M GONNA KILL YOU!”   I looked out the window and saw Brian standing by the wreck, veins popping out of his muscular neck, mixing my name with various expletives.  Then he saw me looking down at him and dashed into the dorm. 

Our heretofore rapt audience were diving for cover and I locked the door to our room and put a chair up under the doorknob.  Brian’s screams of promised death were getting louder as he bounded up the stairs, three at a time.  I decided the chair might not be enough so I slid the large double desk over against the door as well. 
Brian hit the door with a loud thud and finding it locked, let out a roar of frustration that vibrated the transom window. 

Brian repeatedly used his body as a battering ram trying to break down the door, which made me thankful our dorm had been built in 1933 by the WPA with doors of solid oak.   Brian got a broom stick and tried beating a hole in one of the panels.  All the while I am trying to calm him down, promising I would take care of the damage and pay for everything; although how I didn’t have a clue.   After two hours, Brian’s exhaustion and my powers of persuasion combined to bring about serious peace negotiations; which included not only my promise of full restitution but my agreeing to do his laundry for a month and providing a case of his favorite beer.

All-in-all, it was a fun, albeit expensive day, for me and I had successfully avoided death by roommate.

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