Anybody who’s ever driven with me knows that I’m very careful. I can just hear Ella snickering when she reads this. She jokes that I’m the only person who every makes a three-point turn into a seven-point turn. The only person who almost gets passed by parked cars. The only person who checks all three mirrors when she’s not moving. Okay, guilty as charged. I may be overly cautious but it sure does pay to be safe. I’ve never gotten a traffic ticket—or a parking ticket—never been in an accident, or had a scratch on the side of my father’s car. Which made tonight’s different, just so different. And it’s probably what made it impossible for me to go to sleep tonight. The adrenaline is still coursing through my veins and the sound of crashing and scrapping metal is still ringing in my ears. I thought that writing about it might let me sleep.
Today I was in a demolition derby. For those not familiar with it—and I admit that really, I wasn’t—it involves a bunch of cars riding around and deliberately smashing into each other! Of course, I wasn’t driving. That was my new friend Wayland. He got permission for me to be a passenger which usually didn’t happen. Wayland is a tobacco chewing, mustache wearing, demolition derby champion. He’s wrecked a lot of cars in his time. Some that he was driving and some that he drove into.
He supplied the fire-proof suit. Yes, fire-proof! It had a lot in common with my Edgewalk and indoor parachuting suits except mercifully this one was blue. The color was nice. The fact it had to be fire-proof was not as nice. Wayland tried to reassure me by saying: “I haven’t ever had my car catch fire.” That reassuring statement was quickly erased when he told me that he’d seen vehicles go up like ‘a roman candle’.
I’ll try to explain the basic rules of demolition derby as Wayland explained them to me. Rule One: Everyone gets in their car and drives around. Rule Two: You drive around and try to hit them and they try to hit you until only one car is left rolling. Rule Three: You try to avoid hitting the driver’s door—and in this case the passenger door because I was sitting there. Rule Four: You could also be eliminated for “sandbagging.” That meant going around trying avoid contact for too long. Wayland explained to me that sandbagging was worse than losing and he’d never do that.
All of the cars had the windows removed and replaced with plexi-glass and cargo nets. They were all brightly painted, dented and had a number. We had—in my honor—the number 90 crudely spray painted on the doors. Oh, by the way, the doors didn’t open because they’d all be welded shut. To get in, we had to slide in through the windows. Then, inside, I put on my helmet, and was strapped into special harnesses. Deja vu because I’d spent a lot of time in harnesses, helmets and ugly jumpsuits. The helmet protected my head and the harnesses were important to hold me in place in case we got flipped onto our roof. Wayland, always reassuring, had told me that only happened once before.
Us along with the other six cars in our race chugged into the arena—thick mud surrounded by concrete barriers to protect the people in the grandstand. The horn sounded and we rocketed away—going backwards! I guess I didn’t realize that most of the driving was backwards. It was better to ram a car with your trunk than your engine!
Somehow this different was so different that it didn’t seem real which somehow made it feel a bit less scary. Less scary until you have a car barreling down on you. Less scary until you ram into somebody and you’re jarred so strongly that you feel your teeth rattle and hear that screeching sound of metal on metal. Then it was just terrifying.
Car after car, hit after hit, we survived as first one and then another car stopped rolling. Then, more shocking than anything, Wayland yelled at me “Take the wheel!” Still in the passenger seat, I aimed us around and then straight at another car—smashing into its trunk. I’d hit it so hard it was gone! I’d taken out a car!
In the end, there was only one car left. That was ours! We’d won. And the trophy—the biggest trophy I’ve ever seen—now sat on my dresser because Wayland insisted that I take it.
BONUS! Exclusive extra chapter from 90 Days of Different by Eric Walters
“Do the zipper all the way up,” Wayland said.
“It’s stuck. It doesn’t want to go up any higher.”
“No point in wearing a fire resistant suit if you don’t do it up all the way.”
He grabbed the zipper and gave it a big tug and it zipped right up to my chin. It was a thick, orange material with lots of patches advertising motor oil and car parts.
“Is it really necessary to wear a fire suit?” I asked.
“I haven’t ever had my car catch fire,” he said.
“But I’ve seen other people’s vehicles just burst into flames like a roman candle. Quite the show for the people in the seats.”
Not quite as reassuring.
“Wouldn’t you rather have the fire suit on just in case?” Wayland asked.
“I guess you have a point. I should be glad to have a suit that can save me from fire.”
“Oh, it won’t save you, just give you enough time to get out of the car, that is, assuming you’re not trapped. After all it’s not fire proof, just fire resistant.” He gave me a crazed look. “You sure you want to do this?”
“I’m pretty sure I don’t want to do this,” I said. “But I’m going to do it.”
“That a girl.”
A big gush of tobacco juice shot out of Wayland’s mouth and into a can sitting by his side.
“You got nothing to worry about. I’ve never lost a passenger before.”
“I thought there usually weren’t passengers,” I said.
“Oh, yeah, that’s right. That might explain why I’ve never lost one.” He shot out another spray of juice and then laughed. I was glad that one of us was finding this amusing.
Wayland had gotten special permission from the owners of the track, along with the agreement of the other drivers in the race to allow me to come along. And, of course, I had to sign a bunch of waiver papers freeing them from responsibility if something happened to me – ‘just legalities’ the track owner kept saying.
“Let’s go over the rules one more time,” he said. “Do you remember them?”
“We try to hit them and they try to hit us. Last car still rolling is the winner.”
“And where aren’t we allowed to hit?”
“Usually not direct hits at the driver’s door, but because you have a passenger nobody is going to hit the passenger door of any car too aggressively either,” I said. That was a small source of comfort to me.
“But we can’t really count on that one too much. People aim for the back door and hit the front door. It’s not like we’re a sitting target. Tell me about sandbagging?”
“If it looks like you’re trying to avoid hitting anybody for too long your car is disqualified.”
“There’s nothing worse than a sandbagger. No danger of us doing that. We’re going to be full metal banging but between the suit, the helmet and the special features built into the car you’re going to be safe as in your mother’s arms.”
I felt a little twinge when he said that. Of course he didn’t mean anything because he didn’t know anything about me, but, even if he’d known me for a long time that didn’t mean he’d have known about my mother. It wasn’t something that I readily shared. It was a long time ago and it wasn’t like it just came up in conversation – ‘yeah I’m pleased to meet you and did you know my mother died when I was eleven?’
I was uncomfortable telling people, but I’d found that when they did learn it often only made them feel uncomfortable or they started to treat me differently. I guess the truth was that it made me uncomfortable and maybe I started to act differently.
There was something on some deep level where I even felt ashamed – like it was my fault or that I wasn’t good enough to have a mother. It was so hard to understand the mishmash of emotions that I felt back then. Even harder sometimes to understand how I still felt.
Wayland pulled out a little tin of chewing tobacco, opened the lid, took some and stuffed it into his cheek. “Where are my manners, do you want a pinch?”
“Of course not!”
“Have you tried chewing tobacco before?”
“Aren’t you into trying new things?”
“I’m doing different things, not stupid things.”
He gave me a hard, cold look. Had I just offended the man who was not only doing me a favor but would have my life in his hands? He started to smile.
“Now you’re sounding like my wife and daughters. They all think this is a disgusting, stupid habit. They’re always on me to quit.”
“Maybe you should. It is bad for your health, you know, long-term.”
“Somehow it seems a little strange to worry about the long term when we’re getting ready to do what we’re doing.” He glanced at his watch. “It’s time.”
* * * * * *
All the windows and windshield of the car had been removed and replaced by a couple of sheets of Plexiglas and cargo nets. The car itself, like all of the others, was a collection of dents, although ours wasn’t nearly as bashed up as some of the others. They were all colourfully painted and each had a number on the side. We had 90 crudely spray painted on the doors. Wayland had chosen that number to honor my 90 days of different.
I pushed aside the netting, grabbed the top edge of the door and swung myself in through the passenger window. That was the only way in because the doors had been welded closed to increase the strength of the sides of the car. The windows were the only way in – or out. Wayland had climbed in the other side which must have been harder because of the steering wheel and because he wasn’t what you’d call a little man.
“Do up your harness.”
There were two straps hanging down from the top, a regular sort of lap belt and another piece dangled down from between my legs.
“Um, I’m not really sure how to do it up.”
“All five pieces plug into that central lock. I’ll show you.”
I watched what he did and copied.
“Make sure your belt is really tight,” Wayland said.
I then tugged anxiously at first one shoulder belt and then the other, making them just a little bit tighter.
“That button in the center is also the release. One push and the whole thing releases.”
I reached down and put my hand against the release button.
“But you don’t release it unless I tell you and you stay inside the car even if you’re hanging upside down.”
“That could happen?” I asked.
“Anything could happen, but it’s not likely.”
“That’s good to know.”
“It’s been years since my car was rolled over.”
“You’ve flipped a car?” I gasped.
“I was rammed so hard that it rolled over, but that was the only time and the good news was the other guy was disqualified. But remember don’t release your harness until I tell you and you definitely don’t get outside the car until a red flag is waved and the other cars stop moving.”
“I won’t. Promise.”
“Good. Get on your helmet.”
Wayland slipped on his helmet and I did the same. He turned the key and the engine started. It was loud and the whole car shook. Wayland revved the engine even harder and the noise and shaking increased even more. He put the car into gear and we rumbled along. There was another roar and I looked over to see that we were being joined by three other cars. They were different combinations of wild colours and had different numbers but they were identical to our car with lots of dents and reinforced front and back bumpers to handle impacts and give out punishment.
I looked around for the remaining cars – there were seven in our event – and saw another two trailing behind us.
The grandstand came into view. Thousands of people under bright lights filled the bleachers. As we arrived there was a big tanker truck in the middle of the track. A man stood on top using a fire hose to water down the dirt, turning it into mud. Wayland had explained they did that not only to keep down the dust but to slow down the cars. Too much speed was dangerous and mud slowed things down. Mud was good. The more mud the better as far as I was concerned. The outside of the track, the walls, were a series of large cement barriers which kept us in and the crowd safe.
As the water truck moved off the course we moved on through a gap in the concrete barriers. Each driver manoeuvred his car so they were parked in such a way that they were almost touching door to door, with each car alternately facing forward and backwards. We had a position right in the middle with three cars on each side of us. I looked to the right and the driver gave me thumbs up. I could almost sense him smiling through the helmet. Apparently all the guys who did this knew each other. Most got along and were almost friendly.
Wayland reached over and tapped on the side of my helmet to get my attention.
“You ready?” he yelled.
“Do I have a choice?”
He shook his head.
The horn sounded and we raced away – backwards! My head jerked forward as the two cars right beside us went wheeling away, also shooting backwards, throwing mud up into the air as they curved away. We were in open space and then there was a gigantic crash and I was thrown sideways! We’d been hit by another car!
“Yahoo!” Wayland screamed. His voice was louder than the roar of the engines as he accelerated and we slid off the side of the car that had rammed into us.
Still racing backwards another car sliced by our front, arriving a split second after we’d been in that space. I looked over my shoulder, trying to see where we were heading and another car appeared and we were going to hit it! I braced myself for the collision as we bashed into it! We came to a grinding stop, our only motion upwards as our car climbed up onto the other vehicle. Wayland slammed it into gear and the engine raced but we didn’t move – the rear wheels were off the ground!
I looked to the right and there was another car, racing backwards, bearing down on us, aiming for my side of the car! I screamed and leaned away from the door as the car hit us and it felt like it jarred my teeth, throwing my head sideways but at the same time the impact bounced us off the other vehicle. Our wheels hit dirt and we jumped forward, the sound of metal against metal as we scraped against both cars but got away.
Now free, we were going fast and forward, just as the other cars – most of them moving backwards – circled and readied themselves for giving or getting a hit. One of the cars wasn’t moving. It had a big bash on the driver’s side and the front wheel on that side was on a strange angle.
“One down!” Wayland yelled. “And five to go!”
He angled us toward where one car had pinned a second against the wall. The second car saw us coming and raced away just in time to avoid us as we collided with the first and I was rocketed forward, held in place by the harness and my hands braced against the dashboard.
There was a sudden silence. The car we had hit wasn’t making a sound – and neither were we. What had happened to our engine? Was the race over for us? I turned to Wayland and he was turning the key trying to get the engine started again. It was cranking but not catching. I wasn’t sure if I was relieved that it was over and I hadn’t been hurt or upset that we hadn’t won. My desire to win somehow seemed stronger.
“Can’t you get it going?” I yelled.
“I’m trying, Come on, come on,” he pleaded with the engine.
I looked past him and saw another car, moving backwards, bearing down on us. He didn’t know our engine wasn’t working, or maybe he didn’t care. It just made us a better target, easier to hit.
“Look out!” I screamed to Wayland.
The engine caught, he put it in gear and we slipped away as the car just brushed by our front bumper and crashed into the other car. I felt such a sense of relief – and then we were hit by another car and I was thrown sideways, grateful for the harness holding my body in place and for the missing glass in my window where my head would have hit!
The wheels kept turning as we slid off the side, the awful sound of metal on metal, its bumper and the side of our car grinding together as we slipped by, being spun slightly to the side as we continued to move backwards until we were clear of it. Our right front fender ripped off and dropped onto the track.
“Take the wheel!” Wayland yelled.
“Take the wheel!” He pulled his hands from it.
He had to be joking. There was no way I was going to –
“We’re going to crash into the wall if you don’t steer us. Just do it!” he yelled.
I reached over and put both hands on the wheel.
“Crank it, crank the wheel hard or we’re going to hit!” he screamed.
I pulled, hand over hand, and we started to circle, still racing along backwards. I looked over my shoulder. Another car was cutting across us and all I had to do was steer just to the right. I adjusted the wheel, aiming us toward its path and we smashed right into it!
There was a strange sense of satisfaction in causing it. Wayland shifted gears and we moved away – taking with us the whole trunk lid of the other car!
“Another one bites the dust!” he screamed. He took the wheel back and we circled around the motionless hulks of three cars sitting in the middle. I tried to do a quick count – was that five or six cars that weren’t moving?
“Have we won?” I yelled. “Have we won?”
Before he could answer, I saw the answer – there was another car still moving on the other side of the motionless vehicles. It was us and one other car. He was stalking us. I could see that the hood of the other car was bent up and there was steam or smoke rising from the engine. It wasn’t in good shape, but then again, neither were we. Our right front fender was missing and the tire that was now visible looked like it was wobbling – it felt like we were wobbling.
Suddenly Wayland slammed on the brakes, and threw us into reverse. I turned around, straining to see the other car and there it was! It came around the corner and we hit him, our rear bumper against the side his car! The impact pushed me against the seat, my head snapping to the side. Our car’s engine roared as Wayland gave it more gas and then the other car started to rise up, our car wedging underneath of it, pushing farther and father, that car rising higher and higher and then it rolled over!
“We’ve won! We’ve won!” I screamed.
“We sure enough did!” Wayland yelled back.
* * * * * *
I’d watched the Youtube clip a dozen times. I still couldn’t believe it was me in that car. It seemed scarier now than it did then. My father and brother had been in the audience with Ella and they told me they were all terrified. I’d posted the last of the pictures on Instagram and Twitter. It was me and Wayland standing on the roof of his beaten and battered car holding the trophy. I couldn’t help but smile.
The trophy was now sitting on my dresser. It was enormous. I’d won trophies before – for soccer and piano competitions and even for a spelling bee – but none had ever been that big. Or that special. Wayland had insisted that I take it and even though I argued that he should have it, to be honest, I didn’t argue that much.
He invited me back to join him again, anytime I wanted. He even said that the next time he’d let me drive and he’d be in the passenger seat. I knew I was going to go back to watch. I thought I might even go back some day to be in the car with him but it would have to wait until next summer. School was on the horizon.