Carnett: Careening out of control down Coast Highway

I remember it as though it happened yesterday. For me, it's a moment frozen in time.

We were hurtling down Dover Drive at 85 miles per hour just two blocks from Pacific Coast Highway when it happened.


Talk about dumb.

We were riding in my friend's ramshackle Ford as it simultaneously blew two of its bald tires — the left front and right rear. The car lurched across the center divider and went into on-coming lanes. Fortunately, at that moment, there were no cars in those lanes.

Lucky break? Hmmm.

My friend valiantly fought his bucking vehicle as I looked helplessly out the passenger's side window watching the scenery glide by — in slow motion. I distinctly remember hearing the shredding of tires and wishing I were anyplace else.

I think we did a 360.

It was 1963, and cars didn't come equipped with airbags and seatbelts. We were totally unprotected and levitating inches above our worn leather seats in a careening bucket of bolts.

I instantly perceived my plight: "I have no control … whatsoever." I was reduced to the status of spectator. Whatever would be would be. I breathed a silent prayer, not out of any personal piety but because I was out of options. Besides, I was loath to scream.

I felt like an unwilling participant caught up in the Running of the Bulls.

It was an early Saturday afternoon in May 1963 and we'd not been drinking. My friend Joe and I were driving from Costa Mesa to attend a beach party in Emerald Bay near Laguna Beach. We were 18-year-old Orange Coast College students.

In those days there wasn't much traffic on Dover, so Joe decided to take the opportunity to blow out his carburetor. He aggressively applied the gas, and the V-8 engine emitted a piercing whine as the car accelerated.

We blew the tires about where East 16th Street intersects with Dover, and Joe endeavored to steer his rattletrap as it fishtailed and spun for more than 1,000 feet. The car came to rest where Cliff Drive cuts into Dover.

Joe did rather well. Had he violently applied the brakes who knows what might have happened.

I learned an important life lesson that day: No matter how good life's treating you at the moment, things can go south in a hurry.

Someone was watching over us that sunny afternoon. Joe and I surely weren't spared serious injury because of any robust display of judiciousness and acumen on our parts! Frankly, our decisions that day were pitiful.

Why Joe's car didn't roll I honestly don't know, though had the blowouts occurred on the same side of the vehicle it very likely would have flipped. I'm grateful to this day for how things turned out.

I like to think that God had plans for Joe and Jim beyond that day. I can speak only for Jim when I confess that it would be decades yet before he would have even the slightest inkling as to what life is all about. Though he thought otherwise, in '63 he was a greenhorn — as raw as a rutabaga.

After the car finally came to a halt at Dover and Cliff, Joe and I exited the vehicle, walking on jelly legs. We took a seat on the curb and sucked in deep drafts of air.

We were shaken.

Ten minutes later a car came down Dover driven by one of our OCC classmates. She, too, was headed for the beach party. We eased Joe's car into a nearby parking lot and rode with her to Emerald Bay. I entreated her the entire way not to exceed 35.

When we got there, we of course told our friends of our harrowing experience. It was totally cool!

It wasn't until that night, as I lay in bed, that I paused to ponder exactly what had happened. I'd been spared. I could just as easily have spent that night in a hospital bed, or worse.

A knot formed in my stomach.

The good Lord had been looking out that afternoon for a pair of harebrained nimrods.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays.

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