Finding a job in the late seventies, when I first got out of high school, wasn’t difficult. Especially if you were looking for an unskilled minimum wage job. I had worked in restaurants since I was too young to work, but I wasn’t too hot on the restaurant business. I’d had my fill, you might say.
I went through a long list of jobs in a short span of time. I really didn’t see much sense in staying anyplace I didn’t like, jobs were everywhere and I usually had another one by the time I got home from quitting the one I started with in the morning. Looking back, that probably was not the ideal way to look at a career but then, I wasn’t looking for a career. I just needed a job.
Before long, I ended up working at a Sears store. It was coming up on Christmas time and they needed someone to assemble bicycles. We weren’t rich by any stretch of the imagination, so all but one of the bicycles I ever had as a kid were pieced and parted together. Plus, we were always trading parts back and forth, so this was a job I knew a little about and I put a lot of bicycles together that year.
I guess I did a good job, because, after Christmas, they offered me a job in the Display Department. That was great by me because you got to build things and decorate for all the different holidays. I loved it and I worked with good people. They were a quirky bunch but they were good people.
One of the things we did on a regular basis was to pile into a big old green box truck that had been retired at least once but because we were the display department and didn’t need it for much that was big and heavy, we inherited Big Green. It wasn’t the normal Sears green, although I’m sure it started out that way. But Big Green had seen better days and what paint wasn’t scraped off or covered with screwed on sheet metal, was certainly faded way past the normal Sears green.
The fact that we got the hand me down, mostly dead and dying Big Green, wasn’t lost on us and I must admit we probably did not treat that big old dinosaur with any of the respect it was due, if only for surviving as long as it had. It had been beaten and battered long before it ever made its way to the Display Department and we certainly saw no reason to change its fate at such a late date.
I had never driven a big box truck before. I’d driven cars and pickups since I was old enough to sit on my Dad’s lap and steer, but this big old monster was well beyond anything I had tackled before.
One of the people I worked with was a fireman named Gary that had probably spent way too long running into buildings that citizens were running out of. There was nothing especially wrong with Gary, he just had probably seen too much scary stuff and so he spent the time that he wasn’t fighting fires, being happy. He pretty much was either smiling or making other people smile. And then there were the practical jokes but they ran rampant in the Display Department anyway.
I was always up to get out of the store and ride to the warehouse where a lot of our supplies were stored. Gary felt about the same, so he and I were often the ones sent. Gary had driven fire trucks, so Big Green was nothing to him. He realized I never offered to drive and figured out I had never driven anything that big, so of course, he set out to change that.
It really wasn’t long until he had me weaving my way through Pinellas County traffic in Big Green like a rock star. Well, maybe not quite like a rock star but I never hit another car or caused any damage. Well, until the explosion.
Gary had this trick he did that I thought was funny and would scare the snot out of the people around us in traffic. He would push in the clutch, shut off the ignition, pump the gas a few times, turn the ignition back on and then pop the clutch. The result was some, quite excellent, backfires. Excellent for us, terrifying for the surrounding drivers, but it woke them up and they were paying much better attention to their surroundings after we were done with them.
To be honest, I kind of looked up to Gary. I mean, he was a fireman, he was crazy, and he taught me how to drive this big old truck.
One day, I was driving and Gary was riding and he told me to make it backfire. I’m not sure if he had spotted an especially ripe target or he was just bored or both. Turns out, I wasn’t so hot at doing the whole backfire thing. I’m not sure exactly why, probably just didn’t have my timing down quite right but whatever the reason, I was not yet proficient.
I tried a couple times but I was having an especially bad day of it and Gary thought that was very funny. I was getting frustrated and probably a little embarrassed, but whichever got the best of me, I finally asked him, quite loudly, I’m sure, what in the …….heck, was I doing wrong? That just made him laugh more.
I quit trying and we rode on down the road. Then he looked at me and told me to make it backfire again. I told him I didn’t know what I was doing wrong. I should have noticed that he wasn’t exactly laughing anymore, that he still had a big smile on his face and a kind of twinkle in his eye. I should have noticed those things, but I didn’t.
He said, “You’re just not pumping the gas enough.” I should have figured it out but, I was young and I had reached that perfect point of frustration that meant, I was going to show him I could backfire with the best of them. All those times I had tried and failed and he had laughed because I wasn’t coordinated enough to do what he could do without even half trying. I should have noticed that extra twinkle in his eye, but I didn’t.
I waited until we were headed down a little incline and I pushed in the clutch, turned off the ignition and pumped that gas pedal for all I was worth, turned the ignition back on and popped the clutch.
Now, I didn’t see any flames or even a flash but I did see the looks on the faces of the drivers around us in traffic. There were so many stark white faces that it was a little like an instantaneous snowstorm had come out of nowhere right in the middle of that hot summer day. Of course, I didn’t think all this then, I didn’t think about much of anything, directly after the explosion.
I know that the truck did not literally raise up off its wheels, I know that, I do, but it sure felt like it. I had popped the clutch and the noise that came from under Big Green was like no other backfire I had ever heard. I was proud, I was. Until I noticed the noises that came after the initial explosion. I say explosion because it was more than just a backfire, it was more than any backfire Gary had ever created. It was the kind of noise that seems to suck all the other noises right out of the air. Like a huge vacuum, like being in outer space, like sitting directly on top of an explosion.
The part I couldn’t figure out right away was all the other noises that happened after the explosion. There was bumping and scraping and grinding noises. And the most interesting part was that those noises, the ones after the explosion, weren’t stopping. They were continuing on, chasing us down the road like a…………..well, like an entire exhaust system from a big old mean nasty green Sears truck. And then there were no more noises, well except for the fact that the truck was quite a bit louder now than it had been before the explosion. I guess I hadn’t noticed up until then because of all the other noises and how your ears kind of feel like there’s too much air in them right after you’ve been way too close to an explosion.
That’s about when I looked in the mirrors and noticed there were no cars behind us for quite a ways. At first I thought it was because we had scared them off, you know, with the explosion, but then I saw it, the entire exhaust system from a big old nasty green Sears truck laying across the lane quite a ways behind us, in fact just about the same distance as the first vehicle I could see behind us. I was never quite sure whether that first vehicle behind us had actually hit that entire exhaust system from a big old nasty green Sears truck, but I do know it stopped.
I looked over at Gary and he was doubled over in his seat holding his stomach, at first I thought he was injured, you know, from the explosion but then I realized he was laughing, but he wasn’t making any sound. Then I noticed the tears on his face. He saw me looking at him and I’m not sure what kind of look I had on my face, but it just made him laugh harder. I was concerned about the vehicle in the mirror and I asked Gary if we should stop or go back, but he just shook his head from side to side and laughed. His face was beet red, his eyes were bloodshot and I think the front of his pants might have been a little wet but he kept shaking his head from side to side, so I took that as a “no” and drove on.
It wasn’t long before the traffic was all around us again, almost as if nothing had happened at all. But I knew something had happened and Gary knew something had happened and I’m pretty sure that vehicle back there, that I could no longer see in the mirrors, knew something had happened.
We had returned some things to the warehouse and had been on our way back when the explosion happened. We coasted into the parking lot behind the Sears store and slowly got out and started for the loading dock. No one had seemed to notice how much louder the truck was. No one seemed to notice us at all. I felt a little let down for some reason but Gary hadn’t completely recovered, so I knew it had really happened. As we walked along he put his arm across my shoulders and said, “Nice backfire, kid.” I told him, “that was no backfire, that was an explosion!” He started up laughing again and headed for the restroom.