A Race to the Start ©
By David Palmer
First day of school. It was his senior year and Henry was looking forward to the year with mixed feelings. He had a solid position on the baseball, track and wrestling varsity team, which was great. He and his girlfriend had broken up last May, which was not so great. He saw her with Jim Brenner the quarterback. “Good for her,” he thought sarcastically. The part that bothered him is that his father owned the local Chevy Dealership and was talking about him “coming on to the floor” to sell cars like it was a done deal. All summer he had been working in the shop. He loved working on the cars so much, he would stay late to be with Jeff and his son after hours to soup up cars. He loved coming home with grease on his shirt. He had no desire to wear a tie every day.
As he got off the school bus, a State Trooper car went by. It was Trooper Gary Johnson. Henry wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t been for trooper Johnson. It was about four years ago. Henry remembered it like it was yesterday. It was a Wednesday, the tenth of September 1952. There was a forest fire that was near town, so Mr. Miller, the school bus driver, was going to go around it. What Mr. Miller couldn’t know was that a spot fire, started from firebrands off the main fire, had created a crown fire that was moving across their path. As Mr. Miller was going around a sharp turn, a pine tree exploded off to his right, causing him to jerk the wheel that put the bus down the embankment, end over end, finally coming to rest on its top.
Trooper Johnson had graduated out of the Highway Patrol academy a week earlier. He had, luckily, been coming the other way, only seconds after it happened.Trooper Johnson didn’t hesitate. He called in the accident, and, without waiting for acknowledgement, jumped from his unit. He noticed the gas tank was ruptured. Gas was everywhere. He knew he wouldn’t have much time, so he started at the back of the bus, where Henry was. He took Henry by the belt and another girl over his shoulder, and ran from the bus. Henry came to consciousness just after the trooper had laid him in the grass.
Henry remembers seeing Trooper Johnson going back nine more times to get everyone out of the bus. About the sixth time, the gas ignited from the embers of the trees, creating a liquid burning wall. By the time Trooper Johnson brought out Mr. Miller, his uniform was almost completely burned off his body. Henry saw that his right leg was almost raw meat from the burned flesh. Several of the Benner logging trucks stopped and were helping him and the kids. Unfortunately, Mr. Miller and three of the kids were killed when the bus rolled. But Trooper Johnson wouldn’t know that until later. The state flew him to San Antonio, Texas, where he got the best burn treatment the U.S. had to offer.
Henry had gone to see him that day at the hospital when Henry was released. He was covered almost completely in white gauze. He even joked that he must look like the Mummy in the movies, trying to downplay the pain he was in. His mother was the only one there at the hospital for him. Henry’s father, Bob, drove him to the hospital each day after school until they got him on an airplane.
Four months later, he returned to duty. He got a medal from the state and the thanks of the city. However, no one was surprised when they found out he came from a family of heroes.
Mrs. Johnson had moved to town in 1945 with Gary to be with her family. He was the youngest of three boys. Gary was all that was left of his family. His father was an officer in the Rangers at Anzio; his oldest brother a Marine, having earned the Navy Cross at a place called Peleliu; and, the next oldest was a Paratrooper on D-Day when a German Ack Ack gun blew his plane out of the sky. Gary was too young to join, so he took care that his mother was always happy. Or, at least, he tried.
That was four years ago.
Henry caught Gary’s eye and waved. Gary smiled and waved back. Working at the dealership he had had long talks with Gary when he brought his state trooper unit in for servicing. This summer, they had become good friends.
The loud engine behind him could only be Brad Thorson. His hot rod was in sparkling shape and was always as clean as it was loud. Brad’s DA’s haircut was always a bone of contention with Mr. Martin, the Principle of the school. Some called him a “greaser” because of his use of Brylcreem. He obviously missed the jingle of “a little dab ‘l do ya,’” as it always looked like he used half the tube. As Brad drove by, he gave a microscopic nod to Henry. Henry smiled back. The two had a secret friendship that Brad did not want public.
Henry didn’t smoke or drink and liked his hair in a crew cut, like his father’s. Brad was the opposite. But Brad worked a full time job for his father, a landscaper. Brad also had built a dirt track car that he raced at the local speedway. The first time Brad ran into Henry was when he was at the dealership buying a suspension system for the race car and wanted some help putting it in. Jeff had told him to bring it by after hours and he and his ‘assistant’ would help him put it on. Was Brad surprised when Henry was there with Jeff! The two hit it off, as Henry had never gotten to install the new racing suspension and Brad was a hands-on person. Brad and Jeff took Henry to the race that Saturday and were there to see Brad win his first race with the new suspension. But that wasn’t what cemented their relationship.
The Benner family ran the logging for the area and with the housing boom all over the south the price of lumber was way up. Jim Benner never worked a day in his life. He probably didn’t even know where the saw mill was. He just enjoyed the rewards of good profit. Anything he wanted, he got. Each year his father would parade his prize son down to the Chevrolet Dealership to pick up the newest Corvette for his son.
As boys would be boys, Jim and Brad were always racing, with Brad getting the short end of the results more often than not. The designated “race track” was a 3.5 mile course that wound through the forest. It had its share of turns and dips to make it interesting. It started and ended on a straightaway. Brad always was ahead as they made the first right turn out of site, but would be two or three car lengths behind when they came roaring across the finish.
It was almost a monthly ritual, normally the last Friday night of the month. Jim had just taken delivery of his yearly Corvette. It was Fire engine Red with a silver scoop, the Chevy rep called “Coves” on each side. Henry had to admit it looked fast standing still, but the stock 225 horsepower dual four barrel carburetors just confirmed it. This was a race car. Henry had the job of tuning the new cars for the customers, so he could see how much power there was. The only way that Brad could win against this would be with help.
Henry made it a point to wait at the landscaping yard for Brad that Thursday evening. Brad was dirty and his hair, normally without one hair out of place, was down in his eyes from sweat.
“What’s up Carter?”
“Thought we might talk.” Henry said it mysteriously.
“What about? I’m tired.”
“You wanna’ win tomorrow, don’t ya?”
“Yea.” Brad answered more as a question.
“I took my dad’s Caddy on the course. You’re gonna’ need a lot of help. But I think there is a way you can beat Jim.”
“Naw! I’ll get him at the start and push it a little harder is all.”
“No you won’t, Brad. I just tuned up little junior’s car and it has dual quads with 225 ponies. You ain’t gonna take him. He has tuned suspension so those curves and that dip will be no problem for him tomorrow.”
Brad looked worried. Jim could beat him bad, as he always won the first part and just lost it slowly on the curves and that damn dip.
“OK, Carter. What’s on your mind?”
“I say tonight we take the suspension out of ‘ol number four over there,” pointing to his dirt track race car, “we tear down the engine and port and polish the intake and exhaust and change out the jets in the carb.”
Brad thought about it for a minute, looking at his racecar then his hot rod.
“That could take all night.”
Henry smiled, “Well, as Jeff says, ‘you can catch up on your sleep when you’re dead.’”
Brad smiled. “OK. Let’s do it.” Brad quickly told his father what they were going to do and his father never hesitated and ran to the garage and brought out the tool chest and the floor jack. In no time they had the suspension in the back of his father’s pickup and they followed Henry to the garage.
Brad and Henry were surprised to see his father and mother there.
Brad came over to his father wiping his hands. “Thank you Mr. Carter. Sorry, my hands are kind of dirty.”
Henry was proud of what he father said next. “Brad. Never apologize for working hard. It is a sign of good character. Brenda brought you all something.”
Henry’s mother brought out three big white bags with grease stains stacked like an oily candy cane.
“Cheeseburgers!” She announced. “Your sister has the milk shakes in the back seat. Henry will you help her?”
Henry opened the back door and his younger sister had six glasses she was adroitly balancing on the seat.
“Darinda!” Henry said with surprise, “You could be a world class juggler. Thank you!”
Darinda smiled. “My pleasure. Now take them before my leg freezes off!”
Henry distributed the malts and handed the last one to his mother.
“Oh? No, I’m fine.” She smiled, but Henry didn’t budge. He knew his Mom. “Well, maybe just a taste.” She then took a long draw from the straw. “Ohhh, that’s really good.”
After everyone inhaled the wonderful cheeseburgers, Henry’s Dad came out of the shop in mechanic’s coveralls. “Thought you could use the help.”
Jeff was smiling. “Always appreciate the help, Captain. You know that.”
Jeff had explained to Henry that Jeff was the mechanic on his father’s P-38 Lightning Fighter during WWII. While the other pilots were out drinking, his father would be in the hanger working on the plane.
After the war, his father asked Jeff to come work for him.
“How about Jeff and I tear into the engine while you two swap out the suspension and shocks?”
An hour later, while Jeff and his father were polishing the ports, Brad came over to Henry.
“I’ll pay your Dad back for the shocks. It may take me a month of two but I’ll….” He never got to finish.
Henry’s father spoke up, “Brad, I may be old to you, but my hearing is fine. My treat, son.”
Brad got up from under the car.
“I don’t understand Mr. Carter. The Benner’s have to be a big customer of yours.”
Henry’s father smiled. “Brad. You and your Dad work hard. I see you two all the time. I figure you could use a break and I wouldn’t mind seeing that little twerp taken down a few notches. If Benner wasn’t running the school board, I figure my Henry here would have been quarterback. Jim Benner is pathetic.
He runs the same plays every time. Pass-pass-rush-rush. Don’t think I don’t see him taking a pill every third quarter.”
Brad hesitated. “If there’s anything I can do for you, let me know.”
“Just beat that little brat tomorrow…“ He looked at the big clock, “Make that today!”
For the next three hours, they all worked like bees. When the boys had finished the suspension and the shocks, they were up on the engine. Henry’s dad was busy installing a carburetor kit and new jets. Finally they stood back and looked at their work.
“Perfect! It’s ready to Rock and Roll,” Brad said.
“Not quite,” said Henry’s father, as he walked out of the front of the office carrying a roll bar in one hand and a big box in the other.
“Henry, you two put the roll bar on. Jeff and I will put in the harness.”
Brad stood up straight. “Ahh, Sir. I don’t like seat belts.”
Jeff walked over to him and put his arm around his shoulder.
“First off. It is not a seat belt, it is a pilot’s harness. It’s used to keep people like Mr. Carter there secure in his seat whilst he’s flying upside down shootin’. Now think about this, Brad. How are you staying in your seat through them curves?”
Brad started nodding. “I have to come off a bit so I won’t slide out of my seat.”
“And you can bet the little brat won’t wear his, right?”
Henry’s father stood beside Brad, “Another thing is that Jim will be driving the new Corvette the same way he did last year’s. Oh sure, he’ll step on it and beat you at the start…maybe, but he’ll slow in the curves like he did with last year’s Corvette. With this suspension and the harness, you can power slide the curves like you do at the dirt track.”
“YES SIR!” Brad beamed.
The morning came and the hot rod was now a true racing machine. Henry’s dad treated them all to a breakfast at the diner. Henry loved eating there. He always loved the chrome everywhere and the checkered tiles. The place was always so bright and clean. His family had come there every Wednesday night since the wreck for their pot roast. It was a break that his Mom enjoyed and the meat was cooked perfect and the brown gravy and mashed potatoes were always perfect. He even liked the broccoli! But now it was a hearty breakfast of biscuits and cream gravy with grits, after a good night’s work.
That night at the starting point, Brad arrived with his fellow greasers, yelling and taunting all the ‘squares’ as they called them. Brad was uncommonly quiet, content to check the engine. After a few minutes, Jim showed up with Janie in the right seat. “Great!” Henry thought.
“So, that’s who Janie had to dump you for?” Gary O’Neal was Henry’s best friend since they were kids.
“Yeah. I guess she’s moving up in the world.”
“Head’s up. Here she comes. I’ll bet you a malt it is the ‘I still want to be friends speech’.” Gary said as he walked away to the woods for a short break.
“Hello, Henry. I hope we can still be friends.” She paused. ”What’s funny about that?”
Henry ignored her. “Janie. If Jim makes you happy then go be happy. No, we can’t be friends. Bye. It was great, but now you’ve moved on.” Henry stared at her. Janie spun away and marched back to Jim who was talking to one of Janie’s fellow freshman cheerleaders.
By now, there was a whole line of cars coming out and parking on the side of the road in the trees. This was supposed to decrease their signature should a police car drive by. It didn’t work. Trooper Johnson knew all about it and had put up a barricade diverting traffic from the area.
This was the largest crowd Henry could remember seeing out there. He and Gary were sitting on the tailgate of Gary’s truck when a voice came from out of the wood behind a blinding flashlight. “Got room for your Mother and Sister?”
Gary jumped up. “Mister Carter! We can always make room.” Gary helped Henry’s mom spread out a blanket and Gary and Henry stood leaning on the side of the pickup as Darinda jumped in the back.
“Come to see your handy work, Mister Carter?”
“Yeah. Jeff should be here…there he is.” Mr. Carter waved. Jeff had his son with him.
“Keith. How you doing?” Henry shook Jeff’s son’s hand. “Glad you would make it.”
“Daddy said I had to sleep for school last night or I would ‘a been there too.”
“I know you would. We missed you. It won’t be the last time.”
“I know. Dad said that from now on if’n I’m up to it, I can be part of your team.”
Henry’s dad spoke, “Well, Keith. All we did was polish and match the ports. Had we gotten deeper into the engine we’d of had to call on you.” Keith smiled at the compliment. For a 12-year-old, Keith had a knack for putting engines together. Even the smallest lawn mower engine ran better than new.
He continued, “I think one day the whole racing world will be begging for a Keith Brown engine.”
Finally, the two cars were side by side. Henry quickly slipped through the crowd, looked at something then slipped back. As he approached the truck he was smiling.
His dad spoke, “Little Jim isn’t wearing his seatbelt is he?”
“No, sir, and Brad had the three-point harness good and snug.”
“It’s all up to Brad now.” Gary said. “Keith, how much more horses would that porting give Brad?”
“Knowing how my Dad and Mr. Carter work so well together, I would say 10 to 15. Smooth air flow in and out. Very important.”
Straight out of the gate, Jim took the lead. By the time they came to the first turn, Brad was not as far behind, indicating little Keith’s calculations were probably right. Now the crowd moved to where the finish line was across from Gary’s truck. The minutes ticked by like hours. Down the road they could see light coming into the last corner. One set swung round and headed towards the crowd. “Where’s…?” Henry thought, just as the second set of light swung into the corner and headed towards the crowd.
Seconds later, Brad’s baby blue hot rod came across the line like a rocket. Six car lengths behind him came the red Corvette of Jim almost breaking the sound barrier.
Everyone was surprised that Brad beat Jim’s new Corvette, but no one was surprised that Jim was a sore loser. Janie didn’t even have her door fully shut when he raced off in the direction that Trooper Johnson was waiting.
All of Brad’s mob were hooting and taunting again. Suddenly, they noticed that Brad was missing. Out of the dark, Brad came up to the truck from the woods.
“Mr. Carter, Mrs. Carter, Darinda, Henry, Mr. Brown. It really meant a lot that you all helped me and I feel humbled and very happy you are here to see me win.” Brad spoke quietly.
“Happy to watch you beat the little brat, Brad. I’m proud of you. I’m sorry your dad got stuck up in Raleigh. He called me at the dealership and told me to pass on his well wishes. I’ll tell him his son beat a better car. The best driver won tonight. Remember this night.”
Jim never took the challenge for a re-match and Brad spent the summer in Raleigh on the large job with his Dad. Henry watched Trooper Johnson turn the corner as he turned into the school hallway.
It seemed like a week later it was Halloween and a day later it was Thanksgiving. Before he knew it school was out for Christmas break. But it was no break for Henry and he was happy about it. Christmas was a great time for people to buy cars. Some were buying them because of the year-end pricing while some were buying next year’s model for a present. There was the endless line of cars to fix and wrecked cars that they could take parts off to sell before relegating the hulk to the junk yard.
Many times, Trooper Johnson, now Sergeant Johnson, would come back to the wrecked cars to finish up a report. Henry always made sure no one touched the cars until he said it was OK. It was sometimes a sad thing when someone had died, mostly small children, thrown into the front windshield at high velocities. Henry could imagine how hard it must be to come on such a scene, but Sergeant Johnson had told him he detached himself from the injuries and concentrated on the physics. He explained to an eager Henry about what skid marks told him.
“Some day they will put seat belts in ALL cars.” He would say. “It would save 99% of the fatalities I investigate. Probably save all of the kids.”
The week before Christmas, at the normal Wednesday at the Diner, Henry’s dad asked the question he was dreading. “Son, I know you like the garage, but I would like you to come up on the floor.”
“Dad, I like it back in the shop.”
“I know, Son, but the owners’ conference I came back from changes things. When I was there last week all they could talk about was the racing success of the new Corvette and how they are going to look into a whole line of cars for the younger crowd next year. I need someone that not only knows what the heck a high lift camshaft is, but can speak their language. “He paused and could see he caused his son some pain. “Henry. Just think about it, OK. I’m not telling you that this is what you have to do, I’m just asking.”
He put his hand on Henry’s forearm. “OK? I’m just asking.”
Henry looked up at his Dad and could see he was sincere. They could always speak frankly about anything. “OK. I’ll think about it.”
“That’s all I ask.” He smiled, then looked at everyone with wide eyes. “Who’s having dessert?”
“Can I have a brownie with ice cream?” asked Darinda.
“Of course. And you, dear?”
“Oh. I’m fine. I’ll just have a taste of yours, if that’s OK? I have to watch my weight.”
Henry’s mom had a theory. Her theory was that each dessert was issued calories. Those calories were then issued to the person who ordered the dessert. If she were to eat off that desert she would be exempt from the calories. Sounded crazy, but she was always skinny as a rail.
When his father opted for coffee, he quickly ordered a Root Beer Float because that was his mom’s favorite. Henry would always feign like he was too full and would ask his mom’s ‘help’ finishing it. She was always eager to help.
With what his Father had said, Henry’s Christmas present that year was a big surprise. His father kept it at the shop until Christmas day, when he said he had to get a phone number he left at work. Henry was overwhelmed when he returned with a full set of Snap-On socket wrenches.
“Dad! Thank you!” Henry stroked the drivers like they were made of gold. His father reached into the front seat. “Oh, Keith says you’ll need this too.” He handed him a torque wrench.
“Look, Son. You enjoy working on cars. I don’t want to ever change that. These tools will last…well, my great grandson will still be using them. Whether you are on the floor with me or in the back with Jeff…or up with Chuck Yeager, I want you to enjoy what you do.”
“Thanks Dad… Merry Christmas.” He handed him a large flat box.
“Well, what is this?”
“Mom and Darinda helped me with it.”
“Daddy,” Darinda scolded, “Open it!”
He opened the box. He pulled it out and was looking at the back of an 18” X 18” picture framed in a modern frame.
“You got a family picture made of you all. I’ve been wanting that for years.”
“Not even close, Daddy!” Darinda was jumping up and down, excited. “Turn it over!”
“She’s right. Not even close, Dear. This was Henry’s idea. He has been on this since last February.”
He turned the picture frame over and looked at it. He fell back into his chair with a thump. He just stared down at the picture. When he looked up, he had tears streaming from his eyes.
“Henry. This is so thoughtful, Son. Thank you so much.” his voice broke up then he cleared his throat.” This is so nice of you all. Thank you all. Give me a hug.” He set the present down on the table and they all hugged him.
It was a framed picture of him beside his P-38 Lightning somewhere in the Pacific. All around it were signatures with greetings. “339th Fighter Squadron sends their best to CPT Bob ‘Magic’ Carter,” “THE BEST pilot I had,” it was signed BG, but Henry couldn’t make out the signature. Jeff was impressed.
For the rest of the day, his dad sat and looked at the picture, reading the comments over and over.
Darinda came over and sat next to him. “Daddy, if you were in the Army, why do you have eight little Japanese flags under your window?”
“That is called the cockpit and each of those flags is for a Japanese airplane I shot down before they could kill more Americans.”
Darinda stared at the picture for so long her Dad finally said. “What is it, honey?”
“Daddy. That’s a beautiful airplane! It’s prettier than ANY out at the airport. Can you get one? ”
“No. After the war they destroyed most of these wonderful birds.” He said, sadly.
“Well that wasn’t very nice of them. Daddy, is this name ‘Charles Lindbergh’ the same pilot that first flew the Atlantic?”
“Yes it is. He helped improve the range of the Lighting. He taught our squadron about the throttle and fuel settings that we thought were too dangerous. It sure worked, though. He was trying out the settings one day and actually shot down one of Japan’s best aces!”
“Wow! He must have been really old then.”
He laughed. “Oh, yeah. He was 42, I think. Really old.” He winked.
Just after New Year’s Day, a mystery started that would haunt the local police. About once a week, a normal-looking car would lead the police on a chase and lose them every time. Radios and numbers were never enough, as “The Phantom” would disappear when it looked like he was cornered.
School was school. The Basketball team followed in the footsteps of the football team, not even making the semi-finals. Henry’s Wrestling Team did slightly better, getting to state but coming in 10th out of 10 teams. Track had started and the new coach wanted to stay on, so was pushing them hard. Henry was put on the 220-relay team instead of cross country. He didn’t think he was fast enough, but the coach showed him how to double his speed with some tips on the blocks and the baton handoff. The coach had him try the pole vault, which Henry took to, like he was made for it. When the track meets were all over, they had shown a respectable increase in medals over last year and the coach was happy enough to get to stay.
As Henry was standing in line for the batting practice, his mind was on the big 600-pound Gorilla next to him. His dad was going to ask him again about becoming a salesman and Henry was going to have to make a decision. Henry hadn’t noticed that no one was making a hit in front of him. Henry reached down and rubbed the dirt on his hands. He squared up to the bag, then aimed his eye at the pitcher.
“WHAT THE HECK!?!?” Henry dropped his bat along with his jaw. It was Sergeant Johnson!
The coach who was talking to the last batter came over.
“Yeah, now that Gary’s a Sergeant, he can set his own hours. You know Gary was in the New York Yankee’s Minor league. “
Henry thought it was strange what the coach said, not about the Yankee’s, but because he’d always called him Trooper or Sergeant Johnson. He took a deep breath and squared up on the plate again.
“Where the heck did that come from?”
Sergeant Johnson smiled as he jogged up to the plate.
“Don’t worry about it, Henry. You won’t be able to hit a fast ball for a few weeks. Your eye needs to be trained. But you have to look for clues from the pitcher. Just like when I’m chasing The Phantom. Now watch where my hand is cocking the ball and the path I release it. I’ll throw two curve balls and you’ll see.” He jogged back to the pitcher’s mound. He threw two curve balls that Henry tried to hit, but missed.
“Now, here’s the fast ball again.”
“Did you see the difference?”
“Yes, Sir. But I still didn’t even get close.”
“Don’t worry Henry. You just started practice. NEXT!”
So, that’s the way it was. Sergeant Johnson would help pitch and coach the pitchers every afternoon before he went on the hunt for The Phantom that evening.
He was right, though. He swore that Sergeant Johnson was slowing the pitches by the third week, but he promised he wasn’t. There was a method behind the coach’s request for help from Sergeant Johnson. The school’s rival had a pitcher come in for his senior year that was supposed to be the next Sandy Koufax.
One evening Henry had helped out Coach Finney with his car and missed the bus. Henry was walking on the side of the road with his mind on what he was going to tell his father, not even noticing Sergeant Johnson’s unit coming up behind him within a few feet. When he hit the siren, Henry jumped two feet in the air.
Sergeant Johnson leaned out the door. “I’m sorry, Henry. I thought you were ignoring me. Hop in.”
Henry got in the passenger seat. He had been in the unit many times, cleaning it out at first, then doing all the maintenance; he even installed the radio that was squawking.
“Car 61. Sergeant Johnson. Control.”
Sergeant Johnson picked up the mic. “Car 61. Over.”
“Car 61 be advised IT was just spotted on Route 15, headed your way.”
“Car 61, Roger.” Henry opened the door. “Where are you going?”
“Well I assumed the ‘IT’ is the Phantom, so I’ll leave you to it.”
“Would you like to ride along?” Henry couldn’t believe his good fortune.
“OK. Put on that three-point harness YOU installed - and let’s go!”
They sped for two miles, then Sergeant Johnson slowed before he came to the intersection.
“Don’t want to spook him.” He said, not taking his eyes off the intersection. Just then a red flash went by.
“Let’s go!” and, with that, Trooper Johnson gunned the unit and they shot out of the intersection.
“Damn. It ain’t him.”
“Yeah. Matter of fact, it looks like Jim Benner’s Corvette.”
“Control. Car 61. Over”
“Control, be advised this is NOT ‘IT’. This is a local car. Send all units back to the trapping points I assigned them.”
“WILCO. Car 61.” There was a pause, then the radio squawked. “All units. Car 61 advises not it. Car 61 advises all units return to designated locations.” Then, after some barely audible static, came: “Car 61, all units are returning to stations.”
“Roger. Thank you, control. Out.”
By this time, Sergeant Johnson had caught up to within two car lengths of Jim’s Corvette.
“Henry. Switch me to PA without looking.” Henry’s fingers touched the left of the radio console and counted three switches to the right and toggled it down. Sergeant Johnson lifted the mic.
“Jim Benner. Jim Benner. This is Sergeant Johnson, Highway Patrol. Pull over NOW or I will arrest you.”
The brake light shot on, and the car came to a sliding halt at the next dirt road.
It wasn’t that dark out, but Sergeant Johnson turned on both exterior spotlights on the Corvette.
“Probably don’t want your ex-girlfriend to know you’re in the unit with me.” He smiled.
Sergeant Johnson slowly walked up to the Corvette. Henry couldn’t hear what he was saying, but he wasn’t being that nice. Sergeant Johnson was writing out the ticket when Henry caught a distinct smell.
Henry knew what a broken brake line can mean on a Corvette driven by a brat. Henry reached over to the driver’s side and wiggled the spotlight even so slightly. Sergeant Johnson immediately picked up on it. He heard him demand: “Give me your keys.” When he had them, he strolled back to the car.
“What is it Henry. Is something wrong?”
“Yes, Sir. I smell brake fluid.”
Sergeant Johnson popped his head back outside.
“You’re right! Hand me my flashlight.” Henry quickly took the long-tubed flashlight from the holder next to the shotgun.
Trooper Johnson kneeled down as he got to the driver’s side front tire.
He walked back to the unit. “Hand me the mic.” Henry quickly switched the box toggle from “PA” to “RADIO.” Sergeant Johnson smiled. “Car 61. Control. Over.”
“Control. Car 61. Over.”
“Control, send a tow truck to the intersection of State Route 17 and Brush Road please.”
“Car 61. Route 17 and Brush Road. Stand by.”
After less then a minute, came: “Car 61. Tow truck is on the way.”
“Thank you, control. Car 61. Out.”
“You just saved your first lives, Henry. How does it feel?”
Henry didn’t say anything, as Trooper Johnson was already heading back to the death trap with the bad news, but it felt good. It felt REALLY GOOD!
Jim and Suzy Hampton, not Jenie, got out of the car and stood beside the car until the tow truck go there and hooked up the Corvette.
Jim, having lost the dire consequences of the broken brake line, was angry and cursing so much that Sergeant Johnson came over and warned him to keep his mouth shut. Suzy looked scared, more than the situation called for. When the tow truck arrived, Sergeant Johnson had picked up on that, and told Jim to ride with the tow truck and he would drive Suzy home. As the tow truck drove away, Suzy collapsed into Sergeant Johnson’s chest, sobbing. Her face was beet red as she spoke to him. Henry could tell he was saying things that calmed her down. Like a magician, a white handkerchief was in his hand and put into Suzy’s hand. Sergeant Johnson motioned for Henry. As Henry approached the two, Sergeant Johnson said, “Pop the trunk. There is a blanket back there. Bring it out.” As Henry turned he heard “Quick!” Henry ran to the trunk and got the blanket and wrapped it around Suzy.
“Suzy …. Suzy. Look at me. Henry. You know Henry. He’s riding with me tonight as part of his Eagle Scout requirement. He’s going to sit with you in the back, OK?” She nodded as Henry draped the blanket around her.
She whimpered. “Thank you, Henry. You’re so kind.” She grabbed his waist and held on as Henry led her to the door opened for them by Sergeant Johnson.
“Henry. Talk to her. Tell her about last May. Tell her about the baseball finals. Just talk to her and don’t stop…for ANYTHING.” “Got it!” Henry nodded.
As he closed the back door on them, Henry related to Suzy the last game of the baseball season when they beat the school rivals and made their ‘golden arm’ look like lead. He didn’t know what had happened to Suzy but she was in shock, looking him straight in the eyes, hanging on every word. Henry kept talking to her about his Eagle Scout Project as he noticed they were going to the hospital. Sergeant Johnson used some number code for the dispatcher to tell the hospital to be ready for them. As they turned into the hospital Sergeant Johnson spoke over his shoulder.
“Henry, you stay with her, OK? Don’t listen to the orderlies, who tell you to let them take her. You stay with her, talking to her like you are. Don’t stop for even a second. You don’t quit until a Nurse Reynolds comes. If you understand, nod, don’t stop talking.”
Henry nodded, as he told Suzy about how he was having trouble building the ramps at the old folks’ home because he was more at home with metal than wood. He tried to put as much humor in it as he could.
The orderlies did nothing, but put her on a gurney, moving Henry around so he would keep eye contact with Suzy, as they wheeled her into the Emergency Room. Curtains went up around them and soon a nurse came up beside Henry, and whispered.
“You’re doing great, Henry. Keep talking to her. If you are OK, nod.” Henry nodded.
She continued. “Henry, you are going to have to brace yourself for what’s about to happen. Are you OK?”
An hour later, Henry came from behind the curtain. He saw that Sergeant Johnson and his mom and dad were there.
“They gave her something to make her sleep. She’s out.” Henry was walking to the waiting room chairs and slowly lowered himself, as Nurse Reynolds came over.
“You must be Henry’s parents. “ They nodded. “Your son probably saved that young girl’s mental life tonight. Henry never stopped talking to her through the whole…”she paused, “…process. You must be proud. Henry. Thank you.“ And she shook his hand. “You were a real life saver tonight.”
Sergeant Johnson excused himself, as he had to be back on patrol, but he told Henry’s parents how Henry had snapped immediately into what had to be done in unfamiliar circumstances.
His mother came and knelt down in front of him. “Henry, do you want to go home now?” Henry looked at her concern on her face. “Home, yes. We need to pick up Darinda. It is Wednesday night isn’t it? Pot roast at the diner!”
His dad said, “So, you’re all right, Son?”
“Dad, Mom, I never felt better in my life! I knew what to do for some reason. I helped her, Mom. I helped Suzy. She was really hurt and I helped her. It was the best thing I have ever done in my life!”
That night, the Pot Roast tasted like the best he had ever eaten. His father was wearing a smirk the whole meal. He had seen that look before. In the mirror.
After dessert, he said.“Henry, I have a feeling the Highway Patrol may be getting a new addition after graduation.”
Graduation came, and in order for Henry to make the next class, he had to get a waiver on the education since, when he applied, he was still one week from graduation. The Governor himself signed the waiver. But, not all went according to plan. Jim was charged, but his daddy brought in three lawyers from a big New York City law firm, and he ended up with paying a fine and a three-year probation. Jim was not allowed back in the family home, as his mother had pretty much disowned him. His dad, who didn’t seem to find a problem with what Jim did, sent him to his parent’s house in upstate New York to recover.
Seems that after the sentencing, Jim was out celebrating with his buddies. Jim never got home. They found him in an alley with his arms, legs, hands and jaw broken. Jim’s dad offered $8,000 as reward for information, but no one took him up on it. Secretly, the town wanted to offer $10,000 to the one that did it. No one ever knew or ‘fessed up to it, though Henry knew that it had to be Gary O’Neal. He ran into him at the diner that night, as he was leaving and his family was coming in. Gary seemed to be in a big hurry, and when Henry asked if he was OK, he said, “You saved her. I’ll avenge her.”
The Highway Patrol Academy was arduous, but nothing Henry was not accustomed to. He was the youngest in the class, but everyone treated him as an equal, as he quickly established that he was a team player; he helped those he could with the unit maintenance portion and was helped in the firearms and law by others. The class graduated with one of the highest class averages in decades.
Henry reported to his district and was surprised to see Sergeant Hogan as the region Sergeant. It seemed while Henry was at the academy, Gary Johnson had been promoted to Lieutenant and was area commander. Henry was assigned Laroy Cornett as his training officer, and the two of them worked well together. Henry’s three years of wrestling was helpful in this work, though not effective at all with drunks. After a month of “excellent” ratings from Laroy, Henry was given his own unit. At roll call, Sergeant Hogan was posting the latest list of stolen vehicles. He ended with, “Baker. Hand the keys to your unit over to the rookie, he’ll be in Car 4 for now. “
Baker had only been on the force five months longer then Henry, but acted like he was a twenty-year vet. Henry didn’t like him from the get-go, as he looked like Jim Brenner with his constant smirk and sloppy manners. When Henry went to the car, it took him an hour to get all the trash out of it. Under the back seat, he found five marijuana butts. He called over Sergeant Hogan to log in the evidence, as per procedure, but Hogan just took them and flushed them down the toilet. “Forget it, Rookie, but thanks for confirming my suspicions.” Henry started the unit and put it into gear and headed out of the Highway Patrol compound.
“Unit 4 Control. 10-8.”
“Control, Unit 4. Roger.”
Henry laughed. It just dawned on him he’s in “ol’ number four!”
The next three months went like they did last year, with Halloween followed immediately by New Year’s Day. Each week, he would bring his 1956 Chevy into the shop. He would strip off his uniform and don a “Carter Chevrolet” coverall, and jump into the engine, transmission, or rear end. One day, he was changing the oil and was under the unit, when he noticed a shiny pair of shoes.
“Hey, Trooper Carter. You need any help?” He recognized the voice as Brad’s. Henry pushed the creeper out.
“Hey, Brad, how are you doing?”
“You ain’t gunna believe what just happened.” Brad said, excitedly.
Henry’s father had sent word that he was going to sponsor Brad’s race car if Brad would put the Carter Chevy on the side. Brad’s father had insisted that he must thank him in person and wear his Sunday Church suit. Brad arrived as Bob was talking to one man in his early 30’s, while another, the same age, was sitting at his desk.
Surprised to see Brad in a suit, he motioned him over and asked Brad to explain to the man about the improvements made in the 1957 Sport Coupe. Brad jumped right in and the man at Bob’s desk asked him to repeat what he had said to the man that Bob was now writing up a sales contract for. In ten minutes, Brad went from landscaper to car salesman with a $500 check for his first day.
From then on, whenever he would pull up with his unit, his father or Brad would be in the garage telling more stories about the flood of people coming in to buy the factory souped up cars. This made such a demand for yet more power that Bob bought the empty shop next door, which the railroad had let go to waste, for Keith to start his engine shop. Though still in High School, Keith not only kept up with school and orders, but was taking night classes at the county Junior College in business.
By Valentine’s day, Henry had no doubt that he had the best car in the entire fleet of automobiles owned by the state. Henry had heard of close calls with the Phantom, but no one had been able to catch him. Since he seemed to favor the area up around where Brad and Jim would race, Henry would take his modified “ol’ Number Four” out and run her full speed. He’d be ready if the Phantom were to cross his path. Two nights later, he got his chance and was left wanting. At the Gunther Toody’s diner, he took a ribbing from the other troopers.
“Can’t catch a ghost, rookie. We’ve tried. What makes you think you can?” Through it all, Laroy never said anything but encouraging words.
That weekend, he went over to watch Brad race at the airport race track. His car still was called “number four,” but it was no longer old. Between Brad, Jeff and Keith, it looked mean as hell. The lettering was more creative than any of the other cars, which, as it turned out, was thanks to Darinda! Her talent had always been painting on canvas, but now she was a Rembrandt on race cars.
Brad won again and Keith gained three more customers, second, third and fourth place. Brad came over to Henry after signing autographs and mirrored his stance, leaning against the race car.
“OK, Carter. What, got a bee up your butt?”
Henry told him about the Phantom making him look stupid.
“When is your next day off?”
“Bring your unit to the track here on Tuesday. I’ll show you a few tricks you can use. Once you mastered those, we’ll go out to the ‘other’ track and have you try to catch ‘number four.’”
Brad was good to his word, and with Henry driving and Brad in the passenger seat, he fine-tuned Henry’s driving skills. Once Brad was satisfied, they hauled number four to the area of the woods and took it off. As they got it off the trailer, Gary O’Neal drove up.
“What’s up, Gary?” Henry asked.
“Oh, your Dad and I are building a second race car. Gary’s one of the best drivers around.”
“He is, is he?” Henry smiled.
“I’ll ride with you Carter and Gary will be the Phantom.”
“OK. Let’s do it!”
For the rest of the day Brad patiently worked with Henry until he could stay on Gary’s tail no matter what he did to throw him off.
Henry felt he had learned more in one day than the whole three months at the academy about driving a high speed pursuit.
As they loaded up the car on to the trailer, Henry offered to buy dinner.
Brad laughed, “No offense, Carter. I know what they pay troopers. My treat! Besides it’s Nickel Cheeseburger Night!”
As the three of them took off, a lone figure emerged from the pine forest. He had a smile on his face and Lieutenant’s bars on his shoulders.
The night was like any other. Two drunks passed out on the side of the road and seven speeders. As he was writing his eighth ticket, he saw a white flash go by him like one of Gary Johnson’s fast balls. Henry sprinted to his unit and “ol’ number four” was ready for the game.
“Control. Car 4, Over.“ He tried to sound as calm as Gary was that night, but his heart was in his throat.
“Car 4. Control. Over.”
“Control. I am on route 6 heading west in pursuit of IT.” They still wouldn’t say ‘the Phantom’.
“Car 4. Control. Roger. Good luck.”
“Car 4. Car 59. I’m heading that way. “ It was Sergeant Hogan.
“Car 4. Car 55. On my way.” It was Laroy.
“Car 4. Car 61. Good luck.” It was Lieutenant Johnson!
The siren and lights were becoming faster as his speed increased. Behind him he saw flashing lights.
“Car 4. Car 59. I just turned in behind you.” Henry didn’t dare take his hands off the wheel as the ‘s’ curves were coming up and he was setting up for them as Brad had taught him.
Through the curves and he was gaining on the Phantom. His tail lights flashed. Henry looked for the tell-tale slight movement to show which direction he was going to turn. RIGHT! Henry braced and power slid to the right, now less than a car length behind the Phantom.
“Car 4. Car 59. I lost you. If you can hear me, keep on him and call when you can.”
Henry was now in a situation he had never been before. He was no longer forcing himself to drive; the car was doing it all. As the Phantom would start a move, Henry would be way ahead and counter it. Mile after mile, the Phantom tried every power slide, switch back, and S turn, but Henry was inches from his bumper the whole way. Henry then smiled and turned off the lights and siren. For five more minutes the cars were in perfect synchronization. As they were approaching highway State Road 24, his prey slowed, his blinker turned on to signal he was pulling off at a truck turnaround.
Henry turned on his lights as procedure dictated, but he had to sit there for a minute. His heart was racing and his adrenalin was now turning into lead weights on his feet. Henry was about to reach for the radio when a set of headlights and lights came up behind him. He heard the radio.
“Control. Car 61 and Car 4 out with motorist River Road and State 24. Over.”
Henry was shocked when Lieutenant Johnson was smiling as he came out.
“Let’s see what this fella’s story is. “
As the two approached, they saw it was a new Oldsmobile Super 88. Henry knew it had a stock suspension better than Chevy or Ford had and a 371 cubic inch engine instead of the 283 in his car.
The driver had his hands on the wheel. “Can I get out of the car? You gunna shoot me?”
“Get on out driver. We have a few questions is all.”
As he got out, both Henry and Gary could tell he hadn’t been drinking. He was a young man, Henry’s age. He told them that his father was a race car driver, but wouldn’t let him race until he was 21. He wanted to get experience on the roads because the track was too easy. “Until tonight, the ROADS was too easy. I thought all State Cars was stock by law. You are one hell of a driver, Trooper. Never seen that kind of driving in my mirror.”
Gary looked at his watch, then said, “If you worked with your daddy, then you gotta be fast changing tires, right?”
“Yes, Sir.” He had seen the bars on his shoulders.
“Here, in about a minute, there’s gunna be at least three state troopers you’ve made look like fools, who will be more than happy to knock you silly, unless you’re a poor motorist with a flat.”
It didn’t take the driver long to realize the situation he was in and he raced to the trunk. True to his word, he had the back jacked up, the spare on the ground, and all the lug nuts off, when three state and two local cop cars screamed to a stop.
Gary walked back to the procession.
“Henry lost him. I was backing him up and saw him round the corner two miles back. He must have a garage somewhere back there. We’ll check it out tomorrow morning.”
Sergeant Hogan walked up to Henry, who was holding his flashlight as the driver was pretending to be putting the lug nuts back on the wheel.
“Carter!” He yelled. “You really showed your stuff tonight. I couldn’t keep up with you. That was some great driving. Really great. I think Baker has reacquired the ‘rookie’ name. You’re the best I’ve seen. Good job, Trooper.”
They all got back in their cars, and left Lieutenant Johnson and Trooper Carter to provide protection for a stranded motorist with a flat. When all three were sure it was clear, the driver skillfully replaced the lug nuts and the spare in the trunk.
Lieutenant Johnson came up to the driver who was back in his car.
“I will be expecting that tonight was the last night the ‘Phantom’ will ride. Am I correct?”
“Yes, Sir. You could have put me in jail. Would have probably delayed me getting to race another year, now that I think about it.”
“Let me see your license.” The driver pulled it out and Lieutenant Johnson wrote it down.
“OK. Now, from this point on, if there’s a Olds out running any police cars, I’m gonna be talking to your Dad while you are in jail. Do we understand each other?” He said leaning into the car.
The two watched as he turned on his blinker to get back on River Road and used his blinker again to turn right on State Route 24.
Lieutenant Johnson turned to Henry.
“Before you ask, I’ll tell you why. There have been a lot of pursuits of that boy. I was honestly worried a guy like Baker might shoot him if he caught him. What I saw tonight was a man, one with his car. I was watching when you and Brad were training at your old race track. Just keep your head down and keep doing what you do. Humility. Do you get me, Henry?”
“I get you Lieutenant Johnson.” Henry smiled. “I get it. But how is it you kept up?”
“Well, let’s say that with a Keith Brown engine and a race package from Carter Chevrolet…that probably match what you have in your state car.”
“But, what about the rules?”
“What the state don’t know won’t hurt ‘em. Come on. I’m buying tonight. ”
As they went back to their units Henry asked. “Lieutenant. What was his name?” Lieutenant Johnson looked at his note pad. “Petty. Richard Petty.”
Henry got back in the unit. “Control. Car 4. 10-8. Over.”
“Car 4. Control. Roger.” Richard Petty, Henry mused. He had a feeling he’d be hearing that name a lot in the next ten years.
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