I’ve always told stories based on facts and actual events. Debbie has commented I stretch the truth so much that someday it’s going to break and slap me right in the face. I don’t think that will ever happen but I will keep it in mind. If I didn’t make the stories more “colorful” they would be boring. To be honest, I don’t have enough imagination to actually make a story up from scratch so I’ve relied on the humorous memories of my past to keep the tale alive.
All that said, the following story is a complete work of fiction. I made it all up and it’s a step or two away from my norm. Oh sure, I did actually have a seafoam green 1967 Pontiac Tempest when I was in college and yes, it did give me all kinds of trouble with overheating. And, yes I’m sure I did make at least one trip down state Hwy 281 in order to watch a cousin get married in Llano but the rest of it…..total fiction.
Trouble on 281…
I had been driving since six in the morning and making great time. My absolutely beautiful seafoam green 1967 Pontiac Tempest with chrome-reverse wheels, baby-moon caps and Goodyear Widetrack red walls definitely made a statement. The statement was, “Man, I wish I could have afforded the GTO but this is a nice alternative!” I was proud of my new car and it had no problem getting on down the road. I was on Texas state Hwy 281 headed south. I had passed through Stephenville and was about four miles from the Hwy 6 intersection when I heard an unhealthy whine from under the hood. Being smarter than most nineteen year-olds I knew this whine was simply my imagination and would go away as soon as I turned up the 8-track player. After another couple of miles the car began to lurch….you know….LuRCh. You’ve had it happen, right? Your driving along and all of a sudden...LURCH. You look at the gas gauge and realize you should have filled up in Stephenville. Because you are a kind and considerate individual you are able to make the car lurch on down the road to a little, run-down but excellently located gas station. That’s what happens, right? Not so much for me either.
When the Pontiac started to lurch along, I pulled over to the side of the road. As soon as I stopped I realized the whine I had heard earlier was not my imagination. It was high pressure steam coming out of the radiator. The car wasn’t out of gas. It was out of water. Now I don’t know how many of you take the time to check all your fluids before heading out on a road trip but I do this religiously….unfortunately I didn’t start until after this trip. I was in trouble. If I didn’t make it to Llano for the rehearsal dinner on time my cousin Joe Bob would never ask me to be his best man again for any of his future weddings. But I wasn’t sitting on the interstate and there just wasn’t a whole lot of traffic out on 281 at this time of day. I started to walk down the road in the direction of Hico but I knew it was too far away. After a few minutes I walked back to my car and took a seat behind the wheel. There was no point in trying to figure out how to fix things. The radiator was empty and even if I could have found water I had noticed that most of the steam had been coming from a long crack along the bottom seam of the radiator. Nothing but a tow truck was going to help me. While I thought about what to do I turned on the radio to see if maybe I would get an idea how far away I was to civilization. You are probably thinking, “Poor old Russ. His trouble on 281 was a broken down Pontiac but it will make a good story someday”. Well, I didn’t know the real trouble on 281 hadn’t even started. As I found a local station on the radio I heard this public service announcement: “Please be advised! Two murders have been committed on state Hwy 281 between Stephenville and Hico. All travelers are advised to lock their doors and not pick up any hitchhikers. The suspect is approximately 20 years old, 145 pounds, 5’10”, with brown hair and long sideburns”. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! They just described me! I was in some real trouble. If I had been one to use profanity I would have gone through my complete library of four-letter words. If I had been one to use good sense, I would have sat there in my car waiting to be arrested. Instead, I jumped out of my car and headed east across the rolling prairie toward...well, I had no idea where I was headed. And it was a good bet I wouldn’t get there fast since I was dressed for a wedding rehearsal dinner. As I ran I tried to answer my own question of “why am I running?” but all I could get to process through my brain was “ARRRGGHHHH”!
After about thirty minutes of running, throwing up, and running more I realized I was acting more guilty than I would have seemed just sitting in my car. I also realized it was summer in Texas. Summer in Texas means lots of water, stay out of the afternoon sun, and watch out for rattlesnakes. Okay, as soon as I thought of rattlesnakes I did use one four letter word familiar to most of us. I slowed down and took stock of my situation. I was already lost, I had on dress shoes instead of boots, I had no water, and oh yeah, I was wanted for two murders!
I decided to go back to the highway and wait for the police to arrive but when I looked around I had no idea what direction the highway might be. It was straight up noon so the sun was beating down on the top of my head with no hint of where it would eventually set. I needed to go west but all the terrain was identical and the sun was no help. All of my two hour survival training from Cub Scouts hadn’t prepared me for this. I wanted to cry but it’s true that real men, and especially those homegrown in Texas, never cry. I started to climb the nearest hill so maybe I could see where the highway was hiding.
As I started my climb I was reminded again to watch out for rattlesnakes. A rattlesnake ten feet away is what reminded me. Using that four letter word for the second time in my life I slid back down that hill as fast as I could. I guess it was too hot for the snake too. He just looked at me like I was an idiot. I agreed with his opinion. I found another nice hill a few hundred feet away and climbed it instead. As I reached the top of the hill I saw a glimmer of light about two miles away. It looked like an aluminum roof reflecting the sun. I headed for that roof.
It seems like I walked for hours to find that shiny roof. I was afraid I was probably going to find nothing but a barn but if there was water I could at least stay until dark and rest. But, as I came over a small rise I saw a large ranch style house sitting there as welcoming as can be. I walked straight for the house and crossed a well manicured lawn which told me they at least had plenty of water on hand. As I got closer to the house I saw a middle-aged man sitting on the porch with his legs stretched out in front of him. He didn’t move as I approached. I waved. I smiled. I “hello-d”. I waved some more. He never moved and if it weren’t for his piercing stare I would have thought he might be a mannequin. Just as I reached the steps to the porch he moved. He raised a shotgun and aimed it right at my head. I felt like I was dehydrated but I was able to pee my pants just the same. With my hands raised high over my head I told the man I hadn’t committed any murders but I wanted to turn myself in anyway. The gun never wavered from my head. I began to cry.
Standing at arm’s length, the rancher motioned for me to sit down on the porch. He looked me over from top to bottom and if the movie Deliverance had already come out I would have been even more nervous. His first words to me were simple. “What kind of fool wanders around the prairie in dress clothes and no hat?” I have to admit with two murders on the news I would have started with other questions, but he was the one holding the gun so I didn’t argue. I told him my story from my breakdown on 281 all the way to finding his house. I told about the news report and how I panicked and ran. I think I also cried some more….just for effect, you know. When I finished I asked for water which he gave me along with some cold roast beef from “last night’s dinner”. He put the gun down and asked me who I supposedly killed. I told him I had no idea. His argument was that someone turning himself in for murder should at least know who he killed. I couldn’t even tell him if they were men or women, adults or children. Least of all, I had no idea why I had done it….if I had. He told me to sit while he went inside the house. When he came out he was carrying the keys to his pickup. He motioned for me to get in.
As the rancher drove down the dusty road toward town I found out I was closer to Hico than I had thought. He was transporting me to the Hico police department. When we arrived he made me sit while he honked his horn for someone to come out. When the deputy wandered out I nearly choked because he said, “Hey there sheriff. What cha got there?” The rancher/sheriff told the deputy he had a suspected murderer give himself up and Hico PD should process him. I have to admit, I still couldn’t believe I was in this situation. It was like a bad dream. The deputy was puzzled and asked who it was I had killed. I told him I hadn’t killed anyone. The sheriff told me to “fess up” so I said I was suspected of murdering two people out on Hwy 281 earlier in the day. The deputy continued to look confused until the sheriff started laughing. It was then I found out the culprit had been caught in Stephenville thirty minutes after the warning was given over the radio. I kind of wish I had listened to the news longer than I had.
The Hico police had my car towed into town and after waiting two days for a replacement radiator I was back on the road. I headed north on 281 instead of south though. I had missed Joe Bob’s wedding but promised to catch the next one. I was going home.