One of the things that I have ruminated on over the years is the whimsy of who survives stupid childhood decisions when others do not. There were situations that some of my friends and I got into by choice that probably should have killed us. Yet, most of us are still here decades later; and those who aren’t, didn’t die from our antics.
Most of my friends and I grew up on large cotton farms or plantations, and most of those farms had airstrips with aviation fuel pumps nearby. They were used by crop dusters who were commissioned to poison boll weevils, armyworms, and spider mites that attacked the crops. A few of the families use those strips for private aircraft as well.
One of the families had two sons that were near my age. The younger one ran around with the group of kids I did while his older brother was too busy with the distractions of first love to run with us the summer I was sixteen. For the sake of telling this tale, I’ll call them Jack and Jamie. Jamie was the one who was a member of the gang, and he had two things that made him popular and fascinating. Jamie had the most mesmerizing eyes of the oddest color that any of us had ever seen. The girls described them as pastel green. The boys, who were probably a little jealous of the attention they brought him, called them pond scum green. The other thing that endeared him to all of us was that he owned an Army surplus jeep of World War II vintage. It was our favorite transportation because it could go anywhere.
Like most jeeps of that era, it had a ragtop stretched over a metal frame. At least, it started out the summer with one. The ragtop had been torn away when Jack and his girlfriend fell out of the barn loft where they had been, quite literally, rolling in the hay. Fortunately, for them, the jeep was parked right under the loft door and the ragtop broke their fall but tore apart from the impact leaving only the frame.
The other thing that the jeep had was a hinged front windshield that could fold down over the hood. Being young and impervious to such assaults, we usually drove around with the windshield down and ignored or cursed the bugs that flew into us. One or two people could sit on the hood and hold on to the dash or any knobs we could grab. That was my favorite place to ride even if it meant that I had my back to the road. From there, I could carry on a conversation with anyone else in the vehicle.
One evening, six of us were bumming around when Jamie noticed that we were running low on gas. We decided that we needed our money more for treats at the drive-in more than spending it on gas. Besides, Jamie had a key to his family’s aviation pump and we were near the airstrip. So, we went there and filled up the jeep on high octane aviation fuel. Since we were on the airstrip, someone suggested that we run the jeep as fast as we could down the strip to see if it would take off. After all, it was full of airplane fuel.
Needless to say, that didn’t work, but we were pumped up with the idea of a flying jeep. Then someone had a brilliant idea. We decided to go to the Arkansas River levee. We ran the jeep as fast as we could up one side of the levee so that as we went over the top, the jeep actually went airborne for several feet before bouncing down on the other side. We were all hanging on for dear life. It worked so well that we did it a number of times before we got tired and went off to the drive-in. Jamie would tell people for years afterward that he once flew a jeep. He loved to leave that remark hanging without further explanation. The rest of us came to refer to that adventure as levee hopping.
Why did none of us bounce out of that jeep? Why did the jeep stay upright? God only knows. Those six people went on to live productive lives. We became college professors and teachers, social workers and Jamie? He became a Presbyterian minister. When I wonder if this was just a stupid thing that God decided to protect us from, I am truly grateful. Other times, I think death just chose that time to look away.