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Dangerous Driving and Bessie’s Last Rites

This is part of our ongoing series of Dave LeMoine’s memories of growing up in Alameda. Further installments will be published every Friday.

The Coaster

Not done with the hills quite yet, we started a new project in Budda’s garage: four soap box derby wheels, some plywood shaped onto a 2′ x 4′ platform with a 1″ x 2″ trim piece around the front and two sides, an apple crate backrest, and rope steering. Looked great! The only problem was that we tired easily pushing our creation on flat streets. Hmmm, maybe the Oakland Hills would work better. Redwood Road, here we come. Dean got his dad’s truck (hotwired or legal, I’m not sure). Off to the hills. What fun!

At the top of Skyline and Redwood Road, we decided, “If we go one at a time on the coaster, it’ll take all day. Why not try two?”

Redwood Road twists and turns on the way down from Skyline Boulevard in the Oakland Hills.

Budda sat in the back with the rope steering in hand, then Red sat down between his legs. That looked good … but wait, maybe three could fit, so I, having donned my football helmet (as if that would make any difference), slipped between Red’s legs. We were ready!

Looking back now, it’s hard to believe we were that stupid. The picture, again, is three senseless 170-pound boys sitting on a 2 x 4 piece of ply with ball bearing wheels, between each other’s legs, my heels hooked over the lip of the coaster, toes extending off the front, knees in my chest. Oh crap, has anyone thought to install brakes? Not!

At that moment we let go, and gravity took over. Dean and the guys were following at first, but then we started to pull away. Dean said later that we were separating at about 50 miles per hour. Coming into the first turn, centrifugal force took over. I knew we had made a big miscalculation; we were in the oncoming lane and, when Budda tried to pull us back, we went up on two wheels.

I saw a car coming toward us and we couldn’t do anything but careen toward them. Luckily, they saw us and ran off the road, or I would have been facemask-to-grill, buried in an auto wrecking yard instead of a graveyard.

Budda got us back on the right side of the road. But then I saw an oak tree the size of a four-story building rapidly approaching and thought, I really, really love my life… What do you know, we made it! Next, I thought, as we careened past the two big turns, What’s ahead? Big Bear Bar and Store with all kinds of cars not really looking for three nuts, six inches off the ground, nearing the speed of sound with very little steering, no horn, no brakes, no toilet paper, and no sense. Another deep breath as we passed by.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw three people with the strangest looks on their faces, as if they couldn’t believe what they were seeing: three boys sitting between each other’s legs, floating somewhere between 60 and Mach one. As fast as their eyes focused and their brain perceived, we disappeared around the corner and they were not sure what they just saw.

Alameda Post - Vintage Soapbox car
Another soapbox racer of the era that Ralph Nader would have also deemed unsafe at any speed. Pinterest photo.

Again, as I had time to think, I was relieved that no slow-moving cars were in front of us, I would have become the first five-mile-an-hour impact bumper before they had been invented. Soon we began to slow, and Dean caught up with us. We were heroes for the day.

Later, others tried the steeper side of Skyline by Devil’s Punch Bowl and beat our speed record while I drove the truck. Finally, we tried the reverse direction on Redwood Road which was more twisting, and our truck soon fell behind. Coming around a turn, we met an oncoming car; the driver, a woman, was looking back with a terrified expression. That’s not a good sign!

Rounding the turn, I saw Budda before me, lying face down on the white line, that lovely 2 x 4 platform with shiny, red ball bearing wheels free spinning in the bright morning sun. Heater was lying face up in the ditch semiconscious, and Red was 100 yards ahead, his nose redder than his hair, hugging his knee and rocking back and forth in great pain.

Apparently, the speed and the tight turns had gotten the best of Budda’s steering ability. Rounding a turn into the oncoming lane, they came face to face with that car, veered back into their lane, and centrifugal force had its way. As the coaster lifted into the air, Red flew off the front, trying to run at somewhere near 55 miles an hour. Now Red was lean and fast, but not that fast. Picture the Roadrunner, legs spinning, but body gaining ground until, eventually, he made a three-point landing, nose and knees. Heater was groaning, “How did I get in the ditch?”

And Budda was mumbling, “I’ve never tasted white line before. Why is the coaster riding me?”

I don’t know what happened to the coaster after we hung it in Budda’s garage, but we lived –somewhat scarred up – to adventure yet another day.

Cars and Cliffs

Alameda Post - Devil's Punchbowl
The Devil’s Punch Bowl was a quarry located in Oakland. In this photo, it’s located on the highest hill in the background. It’s now the site of Merritt College. Photo Oakland History Facebook group.

Devil’s Punch Bowl was an old rock quarry we passed on the way up to Skyline Drive. We often hiked through the trees and brush, and would climb down inside, just for the adventure. One of my neighbors gave me an old Pontiac that didn’t run. Maybe I can it. After a while I was bored with it, so the Shifters put their heads together and decided to tow it up to the Punch Bowl and shove it off a 500-foot drop (having seen one too many movies about cars crashing over cliffs). We towed it through Castro Valley to the fire trail and up the back side of the hill to the cliff. With one giant push, we had our own movie spectacular. That didn’t take long. Two days later, Mom received a knock at the door by the Oakland Police. It seems that they had investigated the wreck, concerned that someone might be dead inside. My neighbor’s name was still on the title, but Mom had to pay the tow bill to remove our movie prop. Sorry Mom!

Smokin’ Opel

Gary had a foreign car, an Opel with a small block V-8. By loosening the rear brake shoes, he could lock the front brakes, rev the engine, pop the clutch, and smoke the tires for long periods of time. By keeping pressure on the front brakes, the car would move slowly but the tires would keep spinning. The only real problem was tire cost; Gary could burn the tires off in a couple of days. We would buy cheap tires at the auto wreckers, knowing that they’d only last a short time. It didn’t matter if the cord was showing on the side wall as long as they had good tread. We didn’t think safety; we weren’t going fast, just leaving tire tracks all over town.

Alameda Post - vintage Opel
One of Opel’s cars from the 1950’s. Photo

One day, with a car full of guys, he started his burnout from the front of Alameda High; he burned to the corner and continued at right turns, onto Oak Street, and out of sight. When he performed this burning of tires, the smoke would enter the car through holes in the floorboard and fender wells. I was in Ryders Drive-In when Gary’s car arrived straight from a great display of black rubber on asphalt. The smoke in the car was so thick, you couldn’t see anyone inside. They skidded to a halt; four doors flew open, smoke exploding from all sides. Out of the cloud stepped four proud, laughing, choking, coughing, teary-eyed Shifters, to the amazement of the bystanders!

Can a ’49 Chevy Jump a Telephone Pole?

Dick Stevens worked full time at the corner Chevron station. His main car, until it met a brick wall at the end of Flower Lane, was a ’47 Ford convertible powered by Oldsmobile. After that mishap, Dick was given a ’49 Chevy four-door sedan. With nothing better to do, we used to ride around town.

One day Dick, Red, Budda, Flip, Frank and I were cruising the back streets when Dick said, “Ya know, these Chevy transmissions are strong. I wonder, if I were to ram the car into reverse at 35, could it burn rubber backwards?”

“Do it!” came the cry in unison.

So Dick did, and the car did, though I bounced off the dashboard. The result was a cloud of tire smoke, a few turned heads, and the prettiest U-shaped burn pattern on the asphalt. All around town for the next couple of weeks there appeared U-shaped burn marks, especially on Lincoln. Many questions from the public were never answered.

Winter was in full swing and we decided that the open fields at the west end of town were perfect for spinning donuts in the mud and tall grass. It would have worked even better if we had walked the field first to see what was in the tall grass, but not us.

Problem one: we entered at our normal speed of 35 MPH, and promptly went airborne, having jumped a concrete foundation. No harm, no foul: the car was still in one piece as we spun in the mud, slipping and sliding to a stop.

Problem two: we were now inside and needed to leave. The only way out was to jump a horizontal telephone pole that was there to keep cars out.

Dick accelerated to launch speed and hoped for the best. As the Chevy and five bobble heads went flying, we were getting used to impacts and were better able to ride with, instead of against, the dashboard. With a crash, the car bottomed out back onto terra firma, and off for the station, slowing just long enough to hit reverse and spin on the wet road. We soon grew bored with spinning U’s and decided to drive the top of the Bay Farm Island dike which made an S turn, gravel flying in all directions. By that time, we had lost all the hubcaps. Most of the chrome was off or sticking out at odd angles.

Stopping at my house on Beach Road one afternoon, we robbed the refrigerator and, returning to the car with most of us inside, Flip ran up onto the hood, then onto the roof, which collapsed and the roof returned.

“Hey! Why not take a picture of four of us standing on the roof?”

Alameda Post - Dave, Red, Dick and Flip and the '49 Chevy

“Hey! Wouldn’t it be cool if we chopped a hole in the roof with my pick?”

“Let’s do it!”

From that experience, we learned that we could drive through town with or without the roof collapsed. Anything to get attention.

Alameda Police once pulled us over for a safety check. The cop was concerned that some of the chrome was sticking out too far and could impale a pedestrian, so we obliged by pulling the offending chrome off and he let us go with a smile and warning. Driving from the island to the mainland, we passed that infamous concrete wall that I would be writing about 56 years later, separating the road from the golf course. At that time, the wall was much higher as the roadbed was lower. If you stand on the golf course side today, you will see what I mean.

“Why not drive up against the wall after dark and see if we can make sparks?”

We drove and drove that night, sparks flying, a real light show – until we realized we had worn clear through the wrap-around bumper and ground down the fender endangering the tire. From there, back to the mud fields by this time, and one too many jumps, we broke the suspension. It was Sunday night. All the wreckers were closed and the car had burned its last U.

We parked old Bessie out in front of the wreckers, started the engine, put a large rock on the gas pedal, and let it run wide open, thinking it would blow up. Thirty minutes later, the Chevy was still screaming, though the sound would change at times. It was smoking more but there was no sign of explosion.

We bowed our heads and gave her the last rites, said our goodbyes, and left her at full throttle.

David LeMoine is retired from the Alameda Fire Department and now lives in Eagle, ID. These stories are excerpted from his book, I Could Have Died a Thousand Deaths, published by Big Boots Publishing of Redding, CA.

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