Deadly Speed in the Cemetery
When I was fifteen, I lived in Beach Park. That year I had several experiences in cemeteries. It must have been something that sacred us at fifteen, and being on the cusp of manhood, I had to push through my fears.
One experience happened in the middle of a warm night. I was goofing off with my friend Lance, walking down Beach Park Road in the wee hours, and one of us dared the other to walk through the cemetery as we passed it.
Once challenged, we both had to do it, so we crossed the road and entered at the gate. IT was a quiet place with nothing scary happening, so we sat and rested a while and tried to scare each other with silly ghost stories.
As we sat there, we spotted a light in the sky heading toward us up the shoreline. Lance’s father was a pilot, so Lance enjoyed impressing me by identifying planes as they flew over. But it was dark, so this would be more challenging.
We sat and watched the light come straight overhead. Lance said that it was odd, since there seemed to be no lights on the tail of the plane, no flashing lights, no colored lights at all. He listened for the engines, but we never heard a sound as it passed over us.
It had Lance completely stumped. And since we were goofing around in a cemetery, he decided it must be a UFO. I laughed at him and said it was only a UFO because he didn’t know what it was. It proved he wasn’t so great at identifying every plane in the sky.
When I was fifteen, I could work part time for the town at the Park & Rec building. I washed floors and windows and vacuumed the office. Not glamorous, but most fifteen-year-olds I knew couldn’t work a wage-earning job. They could caddy for tips or do odd jobs, but they rarely got a paycheck. My job provided through the CETA program, a short-lived and scandal plagued government scheme to help poor families. Few of the poor were helped do to graft and nepotism, but my mother and I benefited for a little while.
A lady working at the Park & Rec had recently purchased a great old car. It was a Chevy Impala, 1969, low mileage, and had a 427 cubic inch engine. It was a gas hog, but big, comfortable, and powerful. I didn’t even have my learner permit yet, but I was learning to yard drive, and I had a craving to get behind the wheel of something more interesting than my grandmother’s Pinto wagon. But I had little hope of anything better than my mother’s Mazda.
One day the lady came to work in tears. She had gone to the gas station to fill up and had chosen the cheapest gas available. Unfortunately, she chose diesel and was in a pickle. The station had helped her to drain the fuel oil from her tank and she had filled the tank with premium afterward. The fuel oil was causing the car to stall and to smoke. But I had a solution.
I told her that the best way to clean out the carburetor and the engine was to run it hard, burn it off, and run it hot. I had no idea, but it sounded good, and it worked on her. She gave me the keys. I knew I couldn’t drive on the roads, but I could drive it on the property, which included the Congregational Church and the cemetery.
There was another guy working with me that day. I don’t remember who it was, but he was fifteen like me and he was game. We got the car going; I revved the engine and kept the idle up so it wouldn’t stall. I drove it around the back, under the railroad tracks, and up into the old cemetery.
To the left of the entry road there was a small section of the cemetery where a service was going on. But to the right there was a larger part of the park and it was empty. You could use Google Maps or you could go there yourself and I doubt you would see what I saw. Even I, looking at it today, see just narrow little paths between the stones. Back then what I saw was a race course!
The car bucked and smoked, but I coaxed it up to about 30 MPH and wound may way to the far end of the cemetery. Once there, I turned onto the straightaway that paralleled the train tracks. Then I punched it. It bucked, but then it revved. Then the secondaries of the four-barrel carburetor opened up. And then that old engine showed some life. In moments, we topped 50 MPH. It was such a blast that I had to do it again.
So we made a second pass, but this time it didn’t buck or hesitate. It chirped the tires, raised the front end, and roared. We hit 70 in that short stretch and still had time for the drum brakes and a downshift to slow us so we could make the turn at the end. By that time the funeral director on the other side of the park was waving his arms and shaking his fist, so I made one more, shorter run at a lower speed and left the cemetery.
The car ran much better on the trip back to the Park & Rec building. Two smiling boys rolled it into the parking space and got out with blood pumping and adreniline high, chattering and bragging and laughing. No, the car wasn’t back to normal, but there was room in the tank to add some more gas that evening, and the problem worked itself out.
I somehow got away with it. I lived to tell the tale. And I think I set a land speed record for that cemetery, at least on four wheels. But I scared myself. The car had more power than the brakes and suspension could handle, and a lot more than I could handle safely. For the next couple of years, I was satisfied with my mother’s RX4 with the Wankel engine, front disc brakes, and sport suspension.