As we walked under another streetlight, I shoved my hands deep into the front pockets of my jeans, and squeezed my shoulders up high, while trying to pull my head in like a turtle, and looked over at Chauncey. Grinning, he copied me, and we both stifled laughter and made goofy faces, sailing through the cool night air, thick, soft silence enveloping us, the sleeping neighborhood unaware of the fun being had by two bad boys out on a lark. We approached my house with eyebrows raised, silently agreeing to see if we could get my mom’s beetle to start without a key, and quietly enough not to wake anyone. I popped the hood, exposing the luggage compartment above the gas tank, and Chauncey pulled out his flashlight. I deftly removed the cardboard that separated luggage from the back of the instrument panel, and saw the ignition switch, with bright red and black wires attached by spade connectors. What could be easier?
A few seconds and I had determined which wires needed to be connected to which, so we rolled the car out onto the street. We pushed it half a block away, so the noise of the engine starting would not be right at my house. Without letting it lose momentum, I ran alongside the nose, and made the connection, not to the starter, but just to the main electrical. A few panel lights lit. Chauncey moved around to the rear to really give it a serious push, and I jumped into the driver’s seat. I put it in second gear, and eased the clutch out, and the little sewing machine turned over sweetly and began to purr. I slipped it back to neutral, and Chauncey ran up to jump into the passenger seat. Then with heads ducked and barely able to contain the laughter exploding inside our chests, we gently accelerated out of our neighborhood.
The hot-wired little beetle was lively and light, and soon we were flying through the night on larger and larger streets, past businesses shuttered or about to be, toward the expressway. Atlantic Boulevard was one of two main roads out to the beach, and we headed east toward the ocean, cool dark air rushing through open windows, and through our souls. For no particular reason, I turned south onto St. John’s Bluff Road, toward Beach Blvd, and the pavement soon gave way to washboard oyster shells. We made goofy faces at each other, pretending that our brains were being rattled out of our heads. On either side of us, berms of oyster shells divided the road from the Florida swamp, and the headlights created a warm yellow bubble, with a great black unknown of trees and creatures and foreboding to either side. No houses along this stretch, but we knew Beach Blvd. couldn’t be too very far away… and what the hell was that on the right? A trailer hitch pointed down and stuck into the roadway, from between two automobile tires… and a red primer frame that disappeared into the dark swamp on the other side of the berm. I braked hard, creating a cloud of oyster shell dust, and stopped only a dozen feet past the thing.
“Whoa! Hold up a minute!” We both jumped out and left the bug idling, to survey our find. It was a sand rail! A dune buggy, left in the middle of nowhere, WITH THE KEYS IN THE IGNITION!?! I scrambled down to the driver’s seat, turned the key, and it started right up! I told Chauncey to turn the bug around, so we could head home with our prize. He went to do so, using up a lot of road to do it, since he wasn’t used to four on the floor. He would jerk forward, trying to find reverse, then jerk forward again. I chuckled at his antics and our luck. From my seat in the sand rail, whose nose pointed at the sky, I spun the tires a little to get it over the berm, but of course, the trailer hitch had it anchored. I jumped out, slogged through a few feet of green slime and up the berm, to dig out the hitch. Chauncey was fifty yards down the road, finally headed back this way, and I knew that when he got there, together we could get the buggy unstuck and out of the swamp. I began looking around for a tree branch or something else to use as a shovel, and directly across the road – I mean perfectly straight before me – a porch light came on. The buggy was aimed at the driveway of a trailer house about a hundred feet away, which we had totally failed to see. One thing I could see, as if in broad daylight, was the rifle in the hand of the bath-robed guy standing on that porch. My face fell off. I launched myself toward the approaching beetle, waving my arms and shouting something stupid. Chauncey barely slowed enough for me to clamber in, and started off again, headed right past the trailer! I screamed at him to stop, to turn around, but it was too late. As we passed the trailer, the crack of the rifle hit us like a sheet of ice. Each of us looked to see if the other was dead. Both of us will swear to this day that we heard the whizz of a hunting round inches from our noses, zipping through the open windows of the bug. Chauncey just kept jamming gears until we were moving as fast as that little 1300cc bug could go on the washboard, rattling our teeth and dusting the whole swamp. As we hit the pavement nearer Atlantic, we saw a police car heading our way. Too late to do anything but drive as normally as shaking hands, ragged breath, and exploding heads allowed. No red lights… no siren. No deputies drawing a bead on us. They passed us, heading toward the scene of our disgrace.
At Atlantic Boulevard, I told Chauncey to turn right, toward a small tract of houses just a half mile east of us. Somehow that seemed to offer the best cover, in case the cops came after us. As we wound through the small streets, toward the back of the tract, the houses thinned out until it was all empty streets with weeds growing between them. Finally, in a cul-de-sac surrounded by tall grass and littered with rubbish, we had to turn around. Because it was so obstructed, Chauncey had to do a three-point turn, and I helped him find reverse. We cringed at the loud thump from the rear of the car, and the way the rear end lifted up and then crashed back down. Stopping, we jumped out, to find a four-foot piece of lumber stuck to the left rear tire by A NAIL, jammed up into the fender well, holding that wheel up and preventing it from turning. Pulling and cussing and kicking at it did nothing. I got back in the driver’s seat, and with Chauncey pushing and lifting, we eased it gingerly forward until the board was flat on the pavement again. I dug around the nose of the car for the tire iron, and bent the nail away from the tread, and there was no hissing, no deflation of the tire. We both almost fainted. The ride home was long, slow, and very, very quiet.