It’s hot. It’s summer in Southwestern Texas. I’m sitting on the hood of a 1974 Thunderbird that we’ve nicknamed the Thunderchicken. This piece of crap of a vehicle that I’m stuck with has been driven millions of miles since it rolled off the assembly line in Detroit more than a decade ago, and it’s not even the oldest vehicle in the tire test fleet. That honor went to Bronco Billy, an off-white Gran Torino sedan that wished it could have been the sexier coupe, but instead was the four-door sedan that nobody wanted. That car was waiting at the shop, probably destined to take the Thunderchicken’s place, even though the floorboard on the drivers side had been patched with plywood so that the driver wouldn’t mistakenly put their feet down while traveling and lose a leg in the process. This is the life of a test car driver, if the tests you are doing are tire tests.
The Thunderchicken, in typical Murphy fashion, has picked the farthest point from home to break down. We’d just made the turn-around outside of Comstock and were heading back towards San Angelo, the shop, and home. That description cuts the story short a bit. We’d drive the North loop up towards Robert Lee first and then go through the stop and goes and then finally back to the shop and rest, but all that stuff was a few miles from home. A hop, skip and a jump away from home compared to being able to see the US-Mexico border from your car window.
The car just stopped in the middle of the road. I don’t mean the motor stopped running, I mean one of the front wheels stopped turning as if it had never turned before in it’s life and wasn’t about to turn again no matter how much gas you ran through the engine. So I gunned the thing to the side of the road leaving a skid mark and a crease in the asphalt the whole way, and then radioed ahead to the rest of the convoy who promptly turned around to see if the breakdown was something we could fix.
Tire tests were run in convoys of four vehicles, back in the 1980’s when I was working as a test driver. The lead driver was generally in charge of the crew and would make decisions for the convoy as a whole. I was not the lead driver. I drove tail when I was lucky. I was driving tail that day, which is how you can have a catastrophic vehicle failure and yet have no one from your crew notice it.
A brief inspection ensued when my buddy Harold, who was driving lead that day, came back to check on me. I’d met him at trade school a few years previously. When my job in Abilene fell through, I called on him to see if he had someplace I could sleep. I wanted to see if a change of scenery might make for better job prospects and I’d heard good things about San Angelo while living in Abilene. I knew there was no future for me back in Sweetwater with my family, just more dead-end work to kill time until time killed me. So I wasn’t going back home to Mom.
“Dispatch, this is Lickity Split.”
“I hear you.”
“We had to leave Palomino down on the river. Her car was trashed by some Javelina hogs that are running wild on the road. She was safe on the roof of the car the last time we saw her. Could you get a wrecker and some game wardens out there to her? I’m kind of worried about her. We didn’t dare go close with all them hogs milling around her car. We didn’t want to loose another one.”
“Will do Lickity Split. Be careful out there.”
Harold said “sure, come on down” and so I moved to San Angelo and started looking for work that might suit my interests. That was when we stumbled across the job that had left me stranded in Southwest Texas in the noonday sun, a business that was peculiar to San Angelo, Texas in that time and place.
Every tire sold in America is certified by a tire test that travels a route from San Angelo through Eldorado, Sonora & Juno, making a U-turn at the Camp Hudson historical marker. I think we even stopped to read it once. Don’t remember what it said. You then drive all the way back to San Angelo and proceed onto the North and East loops I described previously. Every manufacturer in the world was required to have this test performed on these roads by a testing company certified to do the job. We worked for one of these companies and the tires I was testing had fallen prey to a mechanical malfunction. Their time as test tires was over.
As it turned out, the fault wasn’t something we could fix. The lower a-frame on the driver’s side front wheel had come loose from the ball joint and jammed itself into the rim of the wheel. Had the a-frame missed the rim, I wouldn’t have been able to move the vehicle at all since the frame would have dug into the asphalt, tearing itself loose in the process and rendering steering useless. At least this way I wasn’t in the middle of the road, but I was still stuck; and after the relay call came back the rest of convoy was ordered on to finish the test. I was told to wait with the vehicle for the wrecker.
Harold wished me luck and headed back out on the road with the two other drivers in tow. As I watched them vanish over the farthest hill, I gripped the tire iron that was my only weapon that much more desperately and prayed that the wrecker would show up before dark.
It did, but just barely.
“Hold up Lickity Split”
“What’s the problem Palomino?”
“A deer ran into my car”
“You hit a deer?”
“No, it ran into my car. Ran headlong into the driver’s side door. Scared the shit out of me.”
“Wait a minute. It looks like it is getting up.”
“Nope, it broke something. Poor thing is suffering. Dammit, I don’t have a knife here! Wait, here’s a screwdriver. I’ll be right back.”
“Okay Lead. I’m ready, let’s get going.”
“You put that deer out of it’s misery with a screwdriver, Palomino?’
“Yeah. I’ve got to get a knife. I can’t be using a screwdriver to do the job every time.”
“Are you planning on hitting more deer, Palomino?”
“It ain’t got nothing to do with planning, Lickity Split”
Harold had been working for McDonald’s and he was sick of it. He had injured himself throwing milk for Gandy’s dairy and decided that the fast food job offered more interesting work than loading milk trucks, but had soon discovered the grind that I already knew fast food work to be. Winter was just around the corner, and we needed work if we were going to keep a roof over our heads while the snow was falling. If it fell.
This was West Texas after all, so snow might not fall at all. It wouldn’t be the first warm Winter on record for San Angelo. It’s hard to say what the weather will be like in Texas, from season to season, sometimes from minute to minute. “If you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes” as the old timers will tell you.
It was all fine and good to smoke our way through the summer in San Angelo, spending time down on the lakeshore getting stoned with the college students who flocked there over the summer. Summer was over now, the students were all back in school, learning to do jobs that paid better than the shit work we could find with our technical degrees from TSTI.
He had gotten a lead on a different kind of job than what we had both done before. It just required a drivers license, which we both had, and a clean driving record. Our driving records were clean, even if we weren’t. We decided that we would go see if we could get a job at the same place and thereby share the commute to and from work.
“Dispatch this is Red Squirrel”
“Go ahead Red Squirrel”
“I’ve just hit a cow.”
“Do you need an ambulance?”
“No, no. I’m fine. I think the car’s fine too.”
“I thought you said you hit a cow.”
“Well then, how can the car be fine? You don’t just hit a cow and drive away.”
“Well, I saw it just in time to brake. I had them brakes locked down so hard that the nose of the car went under that cow’s ass. She was so shocked at the intrusion that she shit all over the hood of the car and then ran off. So I’m fine, the cars fine, but the shop boys are going to have one hell of a mess to clean up when I get back in tonight.”
“Did you get that dispatch? Dispatch?”
We started out at Texas Test Fleet. They hired us pretty much on the spot, but we went ahead and went across the street to Smithers and put in an application there as well. Word was that Smithers paid better and their cars were of better quality. We didn’t really care, we just needed jobs that paid real money to pay the real rent that was going to be due soon.
We came back to work our shifts that night. Just two idiots who had no idea what we were doing other than that we would have to drive for eight hours at a stretch. I had driven that far on my many trips to see family in Kansas over the years. I could handle eight hours of driving that would see me back home at the end of the day. At least, that is what I told myself.
Five miles from the shop, the passenger side rear tire came off of Harold’s car. “I looked up and the tire was passing me in the ditch. I was wondering whose tire that was when the horrible grinding noise started, and that is when I realized it was my tire.” So the lead driver called in the tow truck for the now permanently disabled vehicle, and the three remaining drivers, myself included, continued on down the road to Sonora and the Devil’s River, leaving my best friend and my ride back home in the ditch waiting for a tow truck. The rest of that night’s work was largely uneventful, which was good. I don’t think I would have wanted to go back to work testing tires if we had lost another driver that first night.
“You aren’t going to believe this Lickity Split”
“You hit another deer Palomino?”
“No. I just drove over one.”
“It jumped off that ridge you just passed on the right. When it hit the road it’s poor legs went out from under it and I was too close to do anything but keep driving.”
“Do we need to stop, Palomino?”
“Hell, no. Damn thing is blood and guts all over the road. There isn’t enough left to pick up without us risking getting run over trying to collecting the pieces.”
“Roger, Palomino. We’ll report it’s location when we get back in.”
We were offered jobs at Smithers the next day, which we gladly took. Their cars certainly did look nicer, the shop was cleaner and they did pay better than TTF did. Within a week the lead driver we had been following flaked out and left, and Harold was promoted to lead in his place. This meant that he and I were entrusted with the lives of two other people and the value of four automobiles each and every day that we drove test cars. I don’t think they understood who we really were, but we were happy for the work.
We usually drove day shift five days a week. There were weekend crews that worked part time, and there were frequent vacancies for anyone who wanted to work a sixth day during the busy driving week. We were subbing for some missing drivers one night not to long after we had started our new jobs. This was the second time I had been down on the river at night. It gets a little freaky down there at night. It is a hundred miles in any direction to civilization on that stretch of the river. The only light that is visible comes from your headlights. The sky is pitch black, with piercing white holes of light for every visible star. It reminded me of my bygone boyhood camping days, but there were no adults on this trip to protect us from our own stupidity.
It’s called the Devils river. The name gave it the ominous tone that we drivers assigned to it. In addition to being remote it was also out of radio range for the CB radios we had. We called it the hole. We were functionally alone through that stretch of road and as I said, it was dark that night, no moon in sight. In the light coming from our headlights we saw a jeep on the opposite side of the road, off in the ditch.
This thing looked like it had been on the losing end of a three-way bear fight. Blood, bullet holes, no windows, dented, etcetera. We didn’t dare stop. Not without functional radios to radio in help with. We called it in as soon as we got back up out of the hole. That wreck was gone before we drove that way again a few days later. I never did find out what the story behind the jeep was.
On another night we came across yet another wreck, this one in the clearing stages. A car had run head-on into a tanker truck. Everyone in both vehicles was dead, as far as I could tell. I found out later that a baby had survived in the back seat of the car, because the backward facing child seat had saved it from being crushed. As I’m sitting next to the wreck waiting to be allowed to go on down my hellish road that night, a highway patrolman wanders over and casually kicks a shoe, a shoe with the foot still in it, back over towards the wreck. I had to look twice to make sure I saw what I thought I saw. At least they had a tarp over the car by the time we got to the wreck. I did not want to see what was inside of it. I’ve never had a stomach for blood. To this day I curse at the looky-loos who stop to gawk at roadside accidents. Stop looking and drive unless you want to be a statistic too.
“Hold up Lickity Split”
“Another deer Palomino?”
“Yeah, I finally hit one. The knife came in handy, just like I knew it would.”
“Do I need to turn around for you, Palomino?”
“No, no. We got it. Third here grabbed some rocks and we wedged the headlight back into place with them. I should be good till we get back to the shop. I think I’m going to call this car Rocky from now on, though.”
“10-4 Palomino. We’ll look for your lights before we continue then.”
The tow truck driver laughed when he saw the damage the car had left on the asphalt, all the way to the edge of the road. “Damn! It’s a good thing you got it to the side. Otherwise you’d have been stuck out here waving people around the car all day.” I explained to him that he was the one and only person who had been down that lonely road since I had my accident with the steering, and that I was really, really glad to see him. I could finally stop gripping that tire iron in fear because I at least had someone to talk to, even if all I had to do was ride shotgun all the way back to the shop, a full three hours away.
I started thinking then, though. I need a weapon the next time I’m caught out here like this. Something better than this dumb tire iron. Something I can carry in my pocket. Maybe a knife? I’ll have to get someone to show me how to use one, though.
Featured image: Michelin 10 wheel Poids Lourd Rapide