Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Chapter 7 - I Didn’t Know Canoes Could Fly

There were lots of very small towns within an hour drive of my house. You could drive for 10 minutes in any direction and be in another governmental jurisdiction. The town would have its own little volunteer fire department, it’s own town square and it’s own police force.

My home town, Harrisburg, PA, had a population of around 50,000. Most of these smaller towns had populations of less than five thousand. This was before Wal-Mart had a store in every town, and most of these towns had a Montgomery Ward, a small Sears & Roebuck or a Western Auto store. If you went inside any of these stores, you’d see that they all looked the same – the whole store was just a rectangle, about 50 feet wide, with shelving from the front windows all the way back to where the bathrooms were.

And they all had the same big front windows. The store employees would put merchandise in the windows, hoping to entice you to come in and buy whatever they were selling.

Usually, these stores had a place in the back of the store where all of the shelving ended and the clerks stood behind a counter. A local resident could walk up to the counter and pay their water, telephone or electric bill there.

These stores only had one or two employees working at any given time. When someone went into the store to pay an electric bill, that only left, at best, one employee to tend to any other customers, if there were any other customers. In reality, I don’t think many of these little mom and pop merchants ever had more than one customer every few hours.

I had a friend named Steve who had a 1965 Rambler Classic convertible, and compared to my Volkswagen it was a rocket ship. That car would really fly. And when we put the top down and cruised for girls, we always got girls.

I never, ever, named any of my cars, but Steve named this car “Betty,” as in apple brown betty, because the color of the car was brown. Steve took real good care of his car. He knew how to tune it up, how to fix things when anything broke, and he washed it every day.

Now Steve wanted a custom steering wheel for Betty. He had seen the steering wheel in a Western Auto store near his house. It was make out of wood and had stainless steel rivets and Steve just knew it would be the perfect accessory for Betty. They wanted $35 for that steering wheel at Western Auto, but Steve thought of a way he could get it for less. $35 dollars less.

Steve had an aunt, his father’s sister, who lived in Elizabethtown, one of the small towns about 40 miles away from where we lived. When Steve’s family would go to visit his aunt, Steve used to wander away from her house and walk around the town square and look in all of the small store’s big windows.  He knew there was a Western Auto in the little town where his aunt lived, and he was sure they had one of those steering wheels on display.

Steve’s father was an agent for the FBI, and the whole family went to church all day on Sunday and every Wednesday night. Steve was brought up in a good and wholesome family, and in all the years I spent growing up and knowing Steve, I never knew him to do anything REALLY illegal like stealing or shoplifting.

Looking back, I guess that’s not entirely true. One time, when we were in the 7th grade, Steve’s mother dropped us off downtown on a Saturday morning so we could go to the movies. Before the movie started, we walked over to the department store just off the town square. It was called Pomeroy’s, and we moseyed over to the young men’s department. We both picked up sweaters and went to where people tried on clothes to see if they fit. I remember my sweater like it was yesterday. It was Kelly Green, and real fuzzy with a V-neck collar. We both liked our sweaters and we just nonchalantly walked out of the store, wearing them. We did that just for the thrill and to see if we could get away with it. Neither one of us needed a new sweater, and our parents would certainly have bought these sweaters for us if we had asked them. I’m not positive about Steve, but I had never shoplifted anything before this day, and I have never done it again ever since that day, some 45 years ago.

I tried to talk Steve out of driving all that way just to steal a steering wheel and save thirty five dollars, but his mind was made up.

When Steve was ready to drive to Elizabethtown, he put the top down on his Rambler and drove over to my house to see if I wanted to go with him. I asked him, “Do you still plan to steal the steering wheel?!” He responded that yes, that was his plan.

I told him I wouldn’t go with him if he was going to steal it. I offered to loan him the $35 so he could buy the darn steering wheel, and he laughed at me so hard that my mother came up to my room and wondered what was so funny.

“All right, all right, you can loan me the money,” Steve roared with laughter. “I won’t steal it.” On the spot, I gave Steve $35 I was saving to buy a record player and he put the money into his pocket. I actually told my mother where we were going, and Steve and I hopped into Betty with the top down and drove off.

It was a wonderful drive to Elizabethtown. The weather was incredible, the air was cool, and the sky was a beautiful bright blue. It took us about an hour and a half to get there. We had to drive through several small towns to get there. First was Steelton, where my father was born inside his parent’s house in 1911, then Middletown, near where the Three Mile Island nuclear accident took place years later, and finally into Elizabethtown.

Steve knew right where the little Western Auto store was, and less than one minute after passing the “Welcome to Elizabethtown” sign, we were parked about 100 feet from the store’s front door. We couldn’t park any closer to the store because That Western Auto had a couple of new canoes for sale outside, up on stands, taking up at least two parking spaces right in front of the store.

Steve and I walked into the store, and found that it was much more crowded than we expected it to be. The store was having a big sale, and instead of seeing three of four shoppers, there must have been at least 20 people in the store. There were young children buying fishing poles and men looking at shotguns. There were ladies buying toaster ovens, and this made Steve reconsider his promise to me. He thought it would be easy to shoplift today, since the clerks would all be busy with other shoppers. I made him promise to keep his promise and he agreed.

We wandered around the store until we came to the steering wheels. They had a couple on display, but they didn’t have the one that we drove all this way to purchase. When we were still back at my house, I told Steve that we should call this store to see if they had the steering wheel that he wanted in stock. Steve said that was a bad idea, because if we did that, the store employees would put the steering wheel aside and be waiting for him. We had that conversation before he promised he wouldn’t steal it and before I loaned him $35. After he agreed not to steal it, we forgot about calling, which was definitely too bad.

While we were still in the store, Steve was fuming that he spent $2 on gas to drive all this way for nothing, and he walked out of the store fuming. He still had my $35 in his pocket. I ran after him, and said, “Hold on, let’s ask the clerk if they have one of the steering wheels in the back.” He ignored me, and began walking over to the canoes on display outside.

I went back inside and waited my turn to speak with a sales clerk. After describing the steering wheel to him, he went into the back of the store where they keep the extra stock to look for one, but returned empty-handed and apologized that they did not have one in stock. I thanked him and walked outside. Not seeing Steve, I glanced toward where we had parked, and there was Steve, in his car, behind the wheel, motor running, ready to go, and he had shoved one of those brand new canoes into the back seat. Most of it was sticking straight up into the air way above the car.

I yelled, “Holy cow, Steve, are you CRAZY??” Laughing wildly, he hollered for my to hurry up and get in the car. “C’mon, we gotta go NOW,” he screamed.

If I were thinking rationally, I would have said “No, you can go without me,” but nobody ever accused me of having too much sanity when I was 17 years old. I got into the car, and within seconds, we passed the “Welcome To Elizabethtown” sign again, but this time it was the back of the sign we were looking at, and it said “Thank you for visiting Elizabethtown. Come back soon.”

The speed limit back in those days was 45 miles per hour on the road we were on, but Steve was driving  at least 65. We got about two miles up the road toward home when Steve saw the flashing red lights in his rearview mirror. I immediately turned around to look, but all I  could see was canoe. It took up the entire back seat, and yet still stuck out of the car about eight feet up into the air.

We didn’t know if the cop knew we were canoe thieves, or if he just saw us speeding in his jurisdiction. But Steve didn’t have any plans to find out.

Steve said, “Hold on, I’m gonna outrun this cop” and with that he floored it. We were doing at least 90 miles an hour when we approached a sharp turn in the road. I still couldn’t see the police car behind us, but Steve said he was still there. All of a sudden, we barreled through that unbelievable dogleg turn at maybe 70 miles per hour, and the canoe began to lift up even higher into the air. I think the wind pressure from the crazy speed we were traveling combined with the curvature of the canoe turned it into an airfoil for a moment, and she wanted to fly!

Steve noticed it before I did and screamed “hold on to the canoe, we’re losing it!” I turned around to grab the canoe but there was nothing to hold on to. The open part of the canoe was facing toward the cop that was chasing us, and all I could see was the wide, flat bottom of the boat. So, without really thinking, I climbed over the front seat into the back seat and nestled into the open part of the canoe that was facing rearwards. I ended up sitting on the backseat Indian style, with my legs crossed, facing the cop car, snuggly inside the canoe with both arms straight up in the air, holding on to one of the seats inside the boat.

In this position, I had no difficulty seeing the cop car that was chasing us, and realizing that this craziness needed to stop, I began hollering at the top of my lungs for Steve to stop the car. He couldn’t hear a word I was saying because we were moving so fast with the top down, plus I was inside of a canoe.

I’m watching the police car get closer and closer, and I knew that very soon, Steve and I were either going to be dead or behind bars. I’m crammed inside of this canoe, helping my friend get away with shoplifting, and I’m thinking, “hey, what am I doing this for. I want no part of this, I’m not a thief, and I sure don’t want to die here.” So I let go of the canoe’s seat and let my arms fill up with blood again. I could now see the policeman inside of his car, and I knew he could see me. I put my hands up into the air, like you are supposed to do when a policeman says “put your hands up.” But then, I took the index finger of my right hand, pointed toward the front seat, and then drew imaginary circles near my right ear, you know, the one that means, “he’s crazy.” Then I put my hands back up into the air and surrendered.

But Steve was still driving at least 70 miles per hour. Without me holding on to the canoe, it once again began to rise up into the air. I didn’t try to stop it, and it became airborne and flew right out of that Rambler and landed in the middle of the road.

The police car pulled over, I think to remove the road hazard that Steve’s canoe had become, and he stopped chasing us. About five miles up the road was an A&W ice cream store, and I told Steve to pull over. I wanted to wash my hands of this entire day and get as far away from Steve and betty as possible. I was sure the policeman that was chasing us was able to make out Steve’s license plate, and I was positive that our hometown cops would be waiting at his house when he showed up there. But Steve was afraid to stop and we drove past the ice cream shop still going 70 miles per hour.

We got back home in record time, and Steve promised me that if the police came to his house, he would not tell them who I was. He said the cost of his silence was $35.

On Monday, I saw Steve drive up to school in Betty. He said no policemen ever came to his house during the weekend, and we were both sure that if the cops were looking for thieves and not just a couple of teenage boys speeding, there would have been a knock on Steve’s door during the weekend. The top was down on his beloved Betty, and his hands were wrapped around a brand new steering wheel made out of wood with stainless steel rivets.

I asked him if he bought it or stole it, and he replied, “What do you think?” I think he stole it.