I’m probably 15 or 16 years old, riding around the metropolis of Saraland, Alabama, with two guys I knew from our neighborhood. While I don’t remember the exact car we were in, I do remember that both Jerry and Derek were hotrod aficionados.
And they were really into fast cars.
Probably a 1970 Chevy Nova or something like that. But it really didn’t matter because in a matter of seconds, neither we nor half of the county would be around to tell our children the difference between a 350 short block, a slant-six, or a Lego-built truck.
Jerry and Derek were regular consumers of nicotine and, as such, needed a resupply. Derek pulls into a gas station next to the only skating rink in town.
It’s raining, which may have saved us. Derek pulls within a few feet of a guy whom I’ll call Billy Wayne because that seems appropriate, and I like the sound of it. He drives a large gasoline tanker, which is currently parked, and unloads its cargo into an underground storage tank. We are literally five feet from the tanker’s hose, which snakes its way from the large truck, down along the ground, and finally into the aforementioned underground tank.
I look out the rain-streaked window and note the small puddles of water. Or maybe it’s gasoline— I don’t know the effectiveness of Billy Wayne’s gasoline-pouring ability.
Jerry is in the front passenger seat smoking a cigarette. I don’t know why. He seems reasonably intelligent. I also can’t remember why it is that I’m associating with these two fine citizens, who are probably four years older than I was.
I‘ve often replayed what happened next in my mind. And despite the practical life lesson I was about to receive, I have continued to do and say stuff without the slightest evidence of brain activity. And I also continue to do stuff without thinking. For example:
Leaving the engine running (because it was really cold outside) but locking the doors in my lovely maroon 1974 Nova SS, 4 on the floor stick shift in a Pizza Hut parking lot as a college freshman in Jacksonville, Alabama as we ate inside and it had no emergency parking brakes and allowing said car to roll back into the other end of the (thankfully empty) parking lot and eventually into a ditch all without hitting anything or anyone. Oh, there was a nice guy who rushed inside to tell the brainless owner of the Nova that he had indeed tried to open the door and stop the rolling, but, did I mention that I had locked the doors?
There were many more such incidents of genius, but having re-lived that one, I’d just rather not remember anymore.
Jerry rolls down his window and the winds steer the rain inside the car and lands on my shirt. The rain splashes into the puddles in the parking lot, the gasoline tanker, and on Billy Wayne, who’s just standing there doing his job.
It was what Jerry threw out of his window that first got Billy Wayne’s attention. And, I might add, in much less time than it took me to type that sentence.
Apparently, Jerry got tired of smoking. So, what’s a guy to do with a lit cigarette while parked next to a guy refueling gasoline tanks at a gas station?
Throw it out of the window in the general direction of the tanker where a great deal of flammable gas vapor had congregated, having been cooped up in that tanker for a while.
And here’s what I thought should have happened next:
The (still burning) cigarette could have ignited the gasoline vapor that was no doubt hovering close to the ground and instantaneously created a fireball that should have obliterated the tanker, Billy Wayne, Jerry, me (in the backseat, who was innocent, I might add) the whole block surrounding the gas station, and Derek who was exiting the store with his new pack of wintergreen flavored Skoal in his front shirt pocket.
And instead of remembering that section of Saraland, Alabama, merely for its illegally dumped toxic chemicals at Saraland Apartments, that little block of town would be known as “Jerry’s Folly” or some other such clever descriptive name.
But would anyone remember Jerry’s stupidity? All of the evidence would have been vaporized. Maybe Jerry’s inability to understand basic chemistry would have been engraved on a plaque for future readers as to why we don’t have nice things in Saraland anymore.
But it didn’t happen like that.
The aforementioned (still burning) cigarette sailed through the humid South Alabama air and landed gently, like dropping a rose petal, at the feet of Billy Wayne, who, perhaps not unsurprisingly, showed concern.
Maybe he didn’t like rose petal analogies, I don’t know.
But Billy Wayne’s face reflected a degree of disapproval as the cigarette butt slowly died out at his feet.
This is the part where Billy Wayne patiently and gently explains to Jerry the finer points of thermodynamics and that just perhaps Jerry’s actions were unwarranted, not prudent, and could have KILLED everyone in the whole dang town!
“What is WRONG WITH YOU?”
Or something educational like that.
When we didn’t turn into a flaming wasteland, I closed my eyes and whispered a silent prayer of thanks.
Derek emerged from the store with more nicotine, oblivious to his near-death experience.
But Billy Wayne, Jerry, and I knew just how close we had come to becoming flame-broiled.
As Derek sat down, Jerry encouraged him to leave the premises in a rapid manner.
Which he did.