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Saturday, March 2, 2013

Cure for Driving Boredom

A Cure for Driving Boredom

The Dukes of Hazard vs. Chinese Mafia

            My current employment as a home health physical therapist, has me traveling about to visit patients all day, on the highways and rural byways of 3 Southeast Idaho counties.  The company car which I am assigned to drive (for which I am very grateful) is a small economy compact (emphasis on the compact) model that often leaves me feeling like Mr. Incredible getting in and out of his little beater on the classic animated movie.

            Although I enjoy my job and the people I work with (well… most of them), and am extremely grateful to have steady employment, the life of a road warrior can get pretty boring some days.  The radio provides some relief, but after a certain amount of time, the tunes and talking points blend into a reverberating cacophony which gives me a headache.  Silence is a welcome companion at times, when I can ponder the important things in life, but when you live a rather simple and uneventful life, the inner mental mileage can only take you so far.

            As I pondered what I could do to cure the boredom of driving and add a little excitement to my day, a long ago driving memory came back to me from my days as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Los Angeles, way back in 1986. (Man that makes me feel old!)

            It was a warm, boring late fall day somewhere in the streets of San Pedro, and my companion at the time, Elder Todd Bay, was driving our small mission car through the normal congestion of traffic.  I don't know why it was, but in the short time Elder Bay and I were companions, I have more epic journal entry stories than I had with all my other companions combined.  Maybe it was divine fate or some mad chemistry, but something crazy was always going on when we were together!
        It should be noted, that appearing as young, clean cut guys with white shirts, suits, ties, sunglasses and name badges, there were times when from a distance, missionaries could easily be mistaken for immigration officers, FBI, etc… as we walked the urban streets of L.A. and its surrounding suburbs, which were rife with illegal immigrants, gang bangers, drug dealers and so forth.  On more than one occasion, people would see us coming and they would scatter like roaches into alleys or nearby buildings.  Come to think about it, maybe they did know we were missionaries after all and were just running so we didn’t corner them for an impromptu sermon!

            But on this particular day, we were stuck in heavy traffic at an intersection, our small Toyota Corolla idling amongst the smog and exhaust of the day and surrounding vehicles.  Elder Bay was driving as I sat in the passenger seat. As I opened the glove box to consult with a map (no fancy GPS thingies back in those days), much to my surprise, I found my camera, which I had been missing for a few weeks.  As I excitedly pulled it out and closed the jockey box, the neck strap on the camera closed inside the latch.  In an moment of 19 year old missionary brilliance, Elder Bay look over and saw me holding the small boxy camera, with strap coming out of the dash and said, “Hey, that kind of looks like a police radio or something.”  And thus our adventure was born!

            I rolled down the window, and holding the camera in my hand so as to disguise its identity, I leaned my tan, sun glassed face out the window and began to make a show as if I was reading off the license plate numbers of nearby cars into my “police/FBI radio” as we moved through several streets and intersections.  It was all great, harmless fun to see the reactions of people as the looks or confusion, nervousness, or mocking laughter crossed their faces, and was an excellent remedy for the few minutes of boredom in an otherwise normal, uneventful day.  Or at least we thought so!

            Upon stopping at the next intersection, I began repeating the humorous drill.  Partially behind and to the right side of us, was a windowless van, with a 30-something, bald Chinese man behind the wheel.  Wearing what my wife now refers to as my, “serious eyebrows” I leaned slightly out the window and began reciting the van’s license plate number into the back of my official looking FBI radio-camera.  The reaction we got from the Chinese man was not at all what we were expecting!

            He became very animated, nervously glancing around as he reached down and pulled out... (Now I need to preface this next remark with a reminder that this was in the mid-1980’s and before the time of cell phones and wireless technology)… Yep, he pulled out a huge military style walkie-talkie and started yelling in Chinese to someone on the other end of the radio!

            Now it was me who nervously spun around in my seat as I stammered to Elder Bay, “Holy Crap!  He’s got a walkie-talkie!”  As the light turned green and we started moving forward, the van sharply cut off the car behind us and began aggressively tailing us, as the driver continued his excited chatter into the radio, which for all we knew was in touch with an endless number of heavily armed, Chinese mafia hit men, who were ready to soon surround us to protect the drugs, dead bodies or whatever he was carrying in the back of his windowless van!

            What started out as a casual, “let’s just wander around and lose him” quickly advanced into a true Hollywood-style car chase! Boredom and games now thrust into the past, Elder Bay began the rapid transformation from crew cut, mild mannered missionary, into an urban NASCAR driver.  His sweaty palms gripped the wheel as he jockeyed through traffic while I shouted fearful reports of how the van was forcing his way through the melee to stay on our tail.

            In a moment of panic, Elder Bay made the decision to leave the crowded residential streets and try to out run the beefy van on the freeway. Pedal to the tin can metal, the tiny 4 cylinder engine on our small mission car whined in protest as we merged into the 4-lane-wide speeding traffic… the Chinese mafia man not far behind. Our car shuttered and vibrated under the strain of speed, as if the small squirrels on their wheels under the hood which powered our car would soon fly off to their doom if not for the sheer terror that death awaited them unless they kept sprinting beyond tolerable velocity.  The large van with its roaring engine quickly and easily closed the distance between us.

            As copilot, I dutifully screamed out openings in the traffic as we careened about in an unsuccessful attempt to outrun the powerful van, whose driver no doubt in my imagination, now surely held a machine gun across his lap, just waiting to move up alongside us to spray us with bullets!  Seeing an opening, Elder Bay whipped us out two lanes to the far left, tires squealing, as we passed a slower moving semi-truck and trailer.

            As the van cut off another car and began to come up behind us beside the truck’s trailer, Elder Bay pulled a rather brilliant, but desperate maneuver.  As we cleared the front of the semi, he whipped the wheel to the right, cutting across two or three lanes of traffic (all the while as I screamed and prayed that there would not be any cars in the inner lanes we were now crossing with abandon) and headed toward the approaching freeway exit.  It would have been an excellent idea, except for the fact that because of our speed we were now already past the beginning of the exit ramp which longingly sloped downward and off to our right.  With our white knuckles clutching at the wheel and dashboard and our throats dryly crying out how much we loved our mothers and hoped to return home to see them again someday, we shot out off the edge of the freeway and into space.  All we were missing was the horn from the “Dukes of Hazard” General Lee blaring through the air with us!

            If it weren’t for the sheer terror of the event, it might have been a pleasant sight to look down at the grass and weeds of the embankment as they passed lazily beneath us, but at the moment, all my energy seemed to be focused on our point of eventual landing, and if there might be any other cars on the exit ramp in our path of trajectory!

            In our dirt-flying, rubber-tire- smoking, jolting-at-an-angle moment of impact on the asphalt of the exit ramp, I wasn’t quite sure if we were actually up on just two wheels for a moment, or if that was an optical illusion which occurred as my head bounced off the glass of the passenger window.  Were those angels on the side of the car, keeping us from flipping over, or just stars shooting through my skull from the blunt trauma?

            After several dust-filled, fish-tailing moments passed, we finally came to comfortable and welcome stop behind a few other cars at the end of the exit ramp.  A quick glance confirmed that the Chinese mafia van was now far ahead, trapped in the advancing traffic of the freeway.  Our escape nearly complete, we took several wandering back roads to our home in Palos Verdes as our terror, sweat and shaking slowly subsided.  So much for our plans for another boring, uneventful day!

            Recalling this distant memory as I puttered about in my little home health car, I suddenly became aware of the realization than plain, old, dull driving wasn’t such a bad thing after all; for sometimes our desires for excitement don’t exactly bring the type of excitement we are expecting.

            As I turned on the boring radio, I felt grateful that the Lord was mindful enough of my situation in life, to allow me safe travel as I go about each day, and thankful that He was mindful of watching out for two young, naive missionaries in California those many years ago.  No doubt it was because the prayers of our mothers back home in our behalf, for the Lord to care for their foolish and inexperienced sons in far away, wild Los Angeles.  Thanks Mom!!!

            Over the years, I’ve occasionally wondered about the Chinese mafia man, and what his real story might have actually been and why he was chasing us.  Did his search for us continue after that day we lost him on the freeway?

            Oh well, its moments like those that make memories in life, and help us appreciate the simple and lackluster moments that occupy the majority of our existence in our mortal journey.

            Hey wait…. Is that a van following behind me?