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Hell on Wheels

Lasting life lessons from a long-ago night of panic and idiocy

11/16/2011

I left Balboa Island on a hot September afternoon in 1955. I was driving my Ford—a car younger than I, but not by much—and I crossed the bridge and drove through an Orange County so vast, so rural, so empty of people that you would not recognize it today. I was off to become a man. A college man. I was 17.  

Eisenhower was president. It was an uneasy time, as you may have read, or worse, recall. The Russians had the Bomb, China had gone Communist—there were things to worry about, even if you were a kid. In school we were treated to atomic bomb drills at unannounced times, when the special Hell Bell rang and your teacher immediately ordered you to fling yourself under your desk. You didn’t have to tell us kids to take life one day at a time. We got that.

College was serious business, too, and I had chosen a serious-business school. Pomona College had been founded beyond the pale of secular (read: heathen) Southern California, out in Claremont, near what was then the edge of the desert.

And why did I overlook UC Irvine? Because there was no such thing back then—we’re talking ancient history here—in 1955. No university, no Irvine, really. Not yet.

I survived freshman year. There were discoveries aplenty—who is this William Faulkner and how does he do this? (Who knew?) What am I going to do about this D I got in organic chemistry? (Change my major.) Why is this girl in my car unbuttoning her blouse? (That I figured out, with her help.)

By the end of the year, in the absurd and deluded belief that if I were politically active more girls would unbutton their blouses in my presence, I ran, unopposed, for sophomore class president, won, went home for the summer, and worked. My employment was at a new amusement park in Anaheim, and my position was that of a steamboat captain. You want spoiled? I was living on an island, making people happy at a spanking-new Disneyland, dining after work on hot dogs on sticks, and reading, as I recall, a total of one book the whole summer.

 

I returned to school in September, and things went well until October, when the dean of men gave me a call. There was a problem: homecoming.

Homecoming is a large deal at colleges, because colleges need money, and happy alums give money. Homecoming is Nostalgia City, complete with a football game, a dance—and, more to the dean’s point—a homecoming parade.

The dean had a question: Was the sophomore class’s homecoming float finished?

I said: What?

Wrong answer. Had I not received his memos? Had I not found the time to read the instructions for homecoming? The press of business had prevented me from attending the mandatory meeting of all class presidents. Was I unaware of the meaning of the word “mandatory”?

Bottom line: Homecoming was Saturday, and there would be a marching band, hundreds of alums, and each current college class would have its own queen and princess sitting on their own beautiful, neatly prepared class float, gliding down the street in the parade, which would begin promptly at 10.

The crux of the problem was that Saturday was the next day. As in 24 hours away. After a concise and unhappy discussion of my grades, which distressed him greatly, the dean said, he hung up. Even I got the point.

 

All I knew about parades I learned watching the Christmas boat parade circle Balboa Island. This did give me a sense of what celebrating in public should look like. Not every boat in the parade cost thousands to light up, and the best boats for my money were small—decorations done on the cheap with a wink and a smile. You always got a happy wave from the small boats, even on the coldest nights.

At lunch in the dining hall an hour later, I passed the word that the sophomore men would meet in the courtyard at midnight (so the geeks among us could get their studying done first) for a meeting of utmost urgency. About 20 guys showed up: the starting quarterback, a couple of linemen, my roommates, one guy who wanted to be a Methodist minister, his roommate who was considering the priesthood, and some pre-meds and pre-law guys. All of us, not only our future men of the cloth, were pretty short on things to repent. That was about to change.

I explained the deal. We needed a homecoming parade float by 10 the next morning. We also needed a sophomore class queen, and a princess. The quarterback and I both had girlfriends, so the royalty issue was easy to resolve. But where do you get a parade float on, one might say, slightly short notice?

One of the future lawyers was from South Pasadena, a town that had a float every year in the Rose Parade. Dan—and if he reads this, Dan is going to deny it, which is hogwash, it was his idea—had heard that South Pasadena was building a new float, and that someone had junked their old one in a ravine outside of town.

Huh.

 

One guy had discovered a big rope in the janitor’s room. I had my Ford, two others borrowed sedans even older than my car, and off we drove to South Pasadena, shortly after midnight. You would not believe me if I told you the median GPA of this group, especially if you removed my results from the equation. Even more astounding: We were sober.

And still this happened.

The float was dumped a couple of hours back down Route 66, and by 2 a.m. we were looking over the ravine’s edge. By flashlight we could see, not impossibly far down, a somewhat used Rose Parade float. A bit the worse for wear, but we were committed by now and lacking any options at all. We tied the float to the back of my Ford and pulled it up.

By today’s Tournament of Roses standards—floats that look big enough to have 747s land on them—this float was an old-time, small-town contraption. But there was still some air in the tires, it had a wooden frame with a few dried flowers still nailed to it, and the driver’s seat was way up on top. Our guess was that this thing started life as a tractor.

The quarterback was a farm kid, so he was appointed driver. He climbed up behind the wheel, we cranked up the Ford, drove a few feet, and discovered a small problem. The float’s steering wheel worked a little, but its brakes did not.

We were fresh out of Rose Parade float brake fluid, but one of our guys said that water might do the trick, at least for a short haul. So we filled up the brakes with water and headed for Route 66.

Water for brakes. You can guess what we had for brains.

 

The post-midnight ride back down Route 66 was kind of stately as we rolled quietly through the empty streets of sleeping towns, each smelling like their trees, mostly eucalyptus. It was just us—three old cars and a Rose Parade float, passing unseen through Arcadia, then Monrovia, then Duarte. The stars were out, we were crazy, life was good.

Things went well until Azusa. Almost home. But then came a sudden burst of wind, and despite the efforts of the quarterback, and the more than adequate amount of water we had for brake fluid, the float started to fishtail, and it swerved into the oncoming lane.

At that moment the only other vehicle on the road all night appeared, heading right toward the float. Somehow the quarterback got control of it just in time and missed the oncoming car. By inches. At least three. It was kind of a religious moment for a lot of us; so that was good news. The bad news was that the other driver was an officer of the California Highway Patrol.

I will spare the reader his intemperate language. The gist was: Would you idiots care to explain any of this? So we idiots told him about the homecoming parade, and the class queen, and the dean, and he went back to his car and wrote what I believe still holds the record for the longest traffic citation in the history of the CHP.

He asked who the chief idiot was, and I bravely identified myself, helped along by all my guys pointing at me. The officer took me aside, handed me the ticket, and said that, for the record, he forbade me to tow this thing one more foot. But he did add, quietly, that he would continue patrolling Route 66 toward Pasadena, and would not be back for an hour.

His message was clear. Get this (adjective) (noun) off his section of Route 66. So we waited until he drove off, started up again, and passed through the gates of Pomona College before sunrise.

 

We woke our classmates and gathered in a parking lot. Illuminated by car headlights, we dressed up the float with crepe paper and some, let’s say, borrowed flowers. We made it to the parade on time and towed the float down the street behind my Ford, which we had washed. The quarterback’s queen wore a scarlet prom gown, her gold hair shining. My princess, a bookish sort, left her horn-rimmed glasses on her dresser and was a knockout in a borrowed sea-blue gown. Momentarily forgetting her devotion to the proletariat, she had no trouble at all portraying royalty, waving regally to applauding alums. You have never seen such a sunny day.

I believe this story contains a lesson or two that might apply even in these modern times. To wit:

Sometimes a beauty can be found in a junkyard. You never know. Look around.

Now and then, life calls for an all-nighter. That’s why The Almighty invented caffeine.

Fortune favors the bold. Take a chance.

Lighten up. Would it hurt?

Cooperate. Ours may have been the most inept committee ever, but we got the job done. And by the way, we won the prize for best float. Justice triumphs so rarely, it’s good to be there when it does.

 

Illustration by Megan Berkheiser and Mike Caldwell.

This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue.

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