Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Merry Bee: Swapping Ends

Several things affect the stability of an automobile. Gravity and friction being chief among them. The Bee had a very low center of gravity; it was also well forward. The engine, a reworked Chevy 283 and transmission constituted 2/3 of the total weight of the vehicle. The front tires, supporting most of this weight, had good tread. In seeking style over function I had chosen nine inch wide drag slicks (no tread at all) for the rear tires. Simply put: front lots of weight lots of tread lots of friction. Rear light weight no tread not much friction.

The goal of this adventure was to sneak the Bee over to college and work on her there. The guy in the trailer down from us was an experienced mechanic that had decided to go back to college. He had helped previously, and was a participant in a couple of our Merry adventures.

I got on the road late in the afternoon so as to arrive after dark. Rain was threatening but in my vast inexperience I was unconcerned. About thirty miles along the back roads, I noticed a man and his car stopped along the side of the road. His hood was up and he was peering inside. My tool box was part of the cargo so I stopped to offer help. He declined my offer. It began to sprinkle, just enough to wet the road surface.

A few yards from the disabled driver was a crossroad with the stop sign on my side. I stopped. Then, inspired by a really foolish thought, I decided to do a "quick" start. With a great roar from the engine Bee and I went blasting down the road. The shift into third gear caused the slick rear tires on the wet road to do what slick tires always do on wet roads. They broke loose and began to spin. The front tires, with extra weight and good tread held. The rear began to swish from side to side like a hula dancer.

Brilliant strategist that I was, I removed my foot from the accelerator. then jammed on the brakes. The front wheels continued to exhibit some contact with the wet road surface. The rear wheels, considerably less. Bee swapped ends and directed herself, in a sweeping spiral off the road and up across the face of steep road cut through a hill.

I clung to the steering wheel with the break and clutch both fully depressed. I kept repeating to myself: "When is she going to roll? When is she going to roll? When is she going to roll?" And, my eyes were closed until Bee rattled and bumped to a stop, still upright.

Opening my eyes, Bee was pointed directly down slope toward the road. The motor had died so I took my foot off the break and rolled down hill and onto the road. I rolled across the road and straightened out on the shoulder. I got out and, on my knees, said a fervent prayer of thanks for being safe, unharmed, and alive.

Careful inspection revealed the bolts holding the body to the frame had all broken loose and the body had displaced forward about four inches. Everything else seemed to be attached and working. It seemed that way, but all was not well. The engine started without a problem so I continued on my way, the adventure not half done, lessons about slick tires and wet roads not half learned.

Twenty or so miles along the way, the here-to-fore unobserved problem arose. As Bee came down a slight hill and into a curve, headed toward a bridge, the accelerator stuck at an advanced setting. The engine roared again. The rear wheels broke loose and began to spin. The rear end did its hula dancer thing and I jammed on the brake and clutch. Bee swapped ends and slid, tail lights first, some 180 feet (by actual measurement) off the road and into a ditch.

Then the scary part came. The ditch was about 12 feet deep and had 4 feet of water in it. Bee hit bottom on her back end and continued directly over to land on her top. As before I was clinging to the steering wheel. When I heard and felt the water I immediately sucked in a huge breath. Before all motion had stopped I was planning my escape. Bee's top had never been covered, leaving a four foot square hole. In her final motion, Bee rolled onto her side, offering me a great escape  route.

After my escape, I climbed up to the road and repeated the prayer of thanks, again on my knees. I was not cold and began to consider my options. It was still 20 miles or so to school. I could walk, and come back tomorrow with help to get Bee out of the ditch. I could try to hitchhike but nobody would want a wet muddy stranger in their car... but maybe the back of a pickup.

It was now dark and all one saw of an oncoming vehicle were its headlights. I waved down the first set of lights to come along... the only set of lights as it turned out. I explained my situation to the man and his wife. They promised to send help. Some help.

The next set of lights belonged to a Louisiana Highway Patrol Policeman. He was followed by a couple of sheriff deputies, all with enough lights to blind half the parish (county). After determining that there was no property damage and no personal injuries, these officers measured my skid marks and made notes for their accident reports.

After a while, a tow truck showed up. The black driver proceeded to let out his tow cable and climbed into the ditch to hook onto Bee. Bee was now on her side, half submerged, and pointed in the correct direction. Just as the driver found a place to connect his cable, two pistol shots rang out and the officers shouted "SNAKE!!". Jesus walked a fair distance on water, and with Jesus as my witness, this driver arose out of the water and walked ten feet across the water to the shore. As a student of science, I know what I saw is impossible. I saw it none the less.

There was no snake. However the lawmen had a huge laugh. (TV shows always suspend an officer and investigate every time he draws and fires his weapon... don't think it happened this time) No amount of coaxing or shining of light on the water could get the driver near the water. I eventually took the tow cable and hooked it up myself. I was given a ticket for driving too fast for road conditions. I rode back with the tow truck.

Here I learned another great lesson. Never go to traffic court to argue your innocence. I did not know you could just go pay the fine and all would be forgotten. The fine would have been $25 back when $25 was 1/4 my monthly allowance. I watched several cases where young people, not unlike myself, argued their case before the judge. It became clear that the defendant's testamony was completely ignored when in conflict with an officer of the law.

When my case was called, I walked to the front of the court and stood, seemingly, all alone against the powers of the whole court. I had never planned to argue innocence. At this late date my mind cannot recall any plan at all. The charge was read and the judge asked if I was guilty. My brilliant reply: "I don't know." After another exchange, the judge decided I was guilty. He banged his gavel and said: "I fine you $25 plus court costs." The deputy, who to this point had not said a word, jumped up and shouted: "But Judge, he was driving one of those hotrods!" The judge paused for the briefest of moments before banging his gavel again and said "I'm going to teach you kids not to drive those things around here! Fine $50 plus court costs! 62% of my monthly budget down the drain. Did I call home and tell them what happened... Well truthfully, I have done many silly and foolish things... But I never did tell my parents.

Bee's engine was full of water. Timely advice and quick action prevented any significant damage. When the ditch had dried out I went back to the spot and retrieved my tools and other stuff, The next time I had a few extra dollars, I bought some rear tires with good tread. The drag slicks went into the barn. They were eventually stolen. I have often wondered what that fool learned about slick  tires and wet roads.

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