Friday, May 30, 2014

The Physics of Firth

I'm a bit between books, right now. With one out to beta readers I'm reluctant to start a new, long project. So, I've been entertaining myself by writing short pieces. Here's one I hope you'll enjoy.

The Physics of Firth
A triptych of Wasted Youth
By Rick Just
There are more than 31 million seconds in a year. Using that math, I estimate the caution light in Firth, Idaho had blinked about 1.6 trillion times before Chuck and I noticed it. We were not oblivious to the light, but when was the first time you noticed your heartbeat?
We sat on Main Street inside my 1963 Galaxy XL with the top down, backed up against the curb in front of the lumber yard. It was long after midnight in the summer of 1968. We were out of high school, finally, experiencing freedom and boredom in equal parts. Semis went through town about every 15 or 20 minutes, marking the major events of the evening. The only other thing moving was the caution light. Okay, not moving. Blinking.
The Twilight Zone was a part of the childhood from which we had so recently extricated ourselves, so when we noticed the light we began to wonder what would happen if it ever quit blinking. Would Firth disappear? Would the convergence of astronomical forces dictate that two cars would, finally, enter that intersection at the same time, incautiously, causing a major bending of fenders?
This was by far the most intriguing thought we’d had all night, a night spent contemplating our destinies in college and radio. In honor of the latter we were listening to KOMA in Oklahoma City, the big boomer that pointlessly told us about dances coming up in Kansas and Colorado, and kept us current on the top forty. We aspired to be Robert W. Morgan.
But the light. Chuck got out of the car to go examine the pole from which the wire hung in a gentle arc with the four-lens light dragging it down in the middle. There was a switch bolted to the pole. You could just reach up and pull a lever to turn off the light. So convenient.
At Chuck’s moment of contemplation a pair of headlights appeared at the south end of town. Fearing prison, or worse, the disappointed look on his mother’s face, Chuck made a run for the car, the electrical box untouched.
The lights were on a Greyhound bus. This was nearly exotic.
Chuck slid into the bucket seat next to me and pretended he hadn’t moved all night, which wasn’t a real stretch of his acting talents. The bus rolled by in front of us at a sensible 35 miles per hour, pinning the night in our memories forever.
I don’t know why I flashed my headlights. Maybe we were just being friendly. To our surprise the brake lights of the hound flashed on. The bus came to a stop about a block away. We looked at each other wide-eyed. We had affected something! Our lives were not meaningless.
The bus waited a few seconds, marked only by the orange light still counting them off in the center of town. It waited some more. It dawned on us that the driver was waiting for a passenger. He was waiting for us. We became unnerved with the responsibility of what we had done, so decided to get the hell out of there. I turned on my headlights just as the bus started to pull away. The driver stopped the bus, again, when he saw my headlights. I realized what had happened, so I turned my headlights off. We waited. The bus waited. We got nervous, again, and turned on our headlights to drive away, just as the driver gave up and started the bus rolling again. He saw the lights of the Ford. He stopped. I turned off my lights, again.
This happened three or four times. We realized that not only had we caught a bus, we now owned it. We had to do the responsible thing and set it free.
I started the car, turned on the headlights, and drove toward the bus. Like a good public servant the drive watched us come up from behind him. He waited, eager to help out. We drove by and headed out of town.
The movie Duel was a few years away. That was a good thing. It was scary enough seeing those brights coming up behind us at speed without having that particular cultural reference to amplify our fear. The Greyhound was catching us. Never mind we had a 390 V8 under the hood, the bus was bearing down.
Our hearts beat twice for each blink of the light, now a couple of miles behind us. The chase lasted only until I found a side road and did a hard right, vaulting up over the railroad tracks as the bus jetted by.
It had just rained for the first time in weeks and the highway was treacherous with pools of water glittering with a sheen of motor oil. I was going 110 coming into town.
The motorcycle I rode was borrowed. It was a Honda Superhawk owned by my friend, Monty. I was going a 110 because it would not go faster. My rule at that time was to move from place to place as fast as the vehicle I was piloting would go. Always. This was possible because the population of Firth was 245, and all roads that led to or from it were usually safe to sunbathe on if you didn’t mind ambling out of the way of traffic every 20 minutes.
On this post-rainy day I had the good sense to ease off the throttle coming into town. The speedometer read 90 when I noticed that about a block ahead of me, at the flashing light, some farmer was easing out onto the highway.
One thing about borrowed motorcycles: You should really check the brakes before going far. I gripped and stepped to engage the front and back brakes to nearly no effect. They worked pretty well when the weather was dry, but lost interest in their job when wet.
I had just enough time to tip the bike left a fraction and slide by the pickup which, thankfully, did not have extended mirrors.
I stopped at the far edge of town and looked back. The pickup had stopped, too, in the middle of the road. I barely registered it. The orange light that had blinked faithfully at that intersection since the beginning of time was now black. Then it was orange again. Then black. Then orange. But that first black was a long, leisurely blink that felt very personal.  
It is probably long past time in this tome to describe the way Main Street in Firth worked. To this point, you have probably imagined a street lined with businesses on both sides, with that one flashing light marking the single intersection.
Not so.
US Highway 91 ran through town for the single mile of the Village of Firth. Not content with that stretch of pavement as the town’s Main Street, another, wider stretch of pavement paralleled it. This created something like a parking lot. It also created much confusion for those unfamiliar with the arrangement. If you were traveling on the highway, you were expected to keep on the right side of the dotted white line. If you travelled on Main Street, you were expected to not hit other cars. There was no helpful demarcation to let you know where you were supposed to be.
Oh, and businesses—the dozen or so that existed—lined only one side of the street, the west side. The east side was mostly an extended borrow pit between the highway and the adjacent railroad tracks. In the center of town on the east side, you could find a parking lot. It was meant to service the needs of patrons of the train depot. In fact, it more often serviced the needs of teenagers who parked there in the evenings to watch traffic and practice baseball inside their cars, since there hadn’t been any patrons of the train depot after the demise of passenger service in the 1950s.
This large expanse of highway/Main Street/parking lot was the scene of fist fights, early experiments with crude skateboards, and spontaneous bicycle rodeos. In so much as this story has a point, the point here is that it was widely viewed by teenage locals as their personal playground. I was both local and teenaged.
When winter came, the asphalt turned into ice courtesy of the packing capabilities of just the right number of tires to mimic a Zamboni. To those of us with wheels, this presented the perfect opportunity to cut cookies.
This particular night I was driving my ’65 Mustang and Monty was riding shotgun. We would get up a little head of steam on Main Street—carefully avoiding the actual highway stuck up against it—and crank the wheel to the right, sending the car into a skid, then a spin.
I had perfected this move until it was a thing of beauty worthy of an E ticket. Of course, I wanted to share the experience.
Three of my cousins were in town that night, fresh from the farm. I had Paul and Ted and Rich piled into the back seat to experience the thrill of their lives. With five of us now on board I revved the engine and took off, building up speed. As I had done a dozen times that night I cut the steering wheel at the perfect point to execute the ballet.
I had not considered the physics of the thing. Monty and I were renowned as the shortest kids in high school. My cousins were among the tallest. Some of that height expressed itself in weight. The mathematics of adding 450 pounds to the maneuver occurred to me only as I saw the Texaco station looming in my rearview mirror as the Mustang careened toward it backwards.
We kissed the corner of the cinderblock building with the back bumper of the car, coming to a rather abrupt stop. We all got out to look at the damage. Even in the dark we could see fresh cracks in the mortar. There was a little gouge in the concrete at the same height as my bumper.
The first order of business was to be somewhere else, quickly, so we jumped back into the car and drove it up Main Street and across the highway to the parking lot. There, we got out again to examine the damage to the Mustang. Clearly, it would need a new bumper, a little sheet metal and a couple of pounds of body putty.
We concocted a plausible story about backing into a post at the Frostop in Idaho Falls. That stupid post was famous for eating cars, and I had actually backed into it before acquiring damage so slight it was beneath mention to my mother. This would require some mentioning.
The commiseration took place under the throbbing orange illumination of the nearby caution light. It looked on, beating the seconds away as it always will.


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