By Jay Lynch
Most USC residents will be celebrating Thanksgiving by counting the blessings of abundant food, clothing, and shelter, as well as the love of family and friends in a great community. I give special thanks to Tom’s girlfriend’s cousin. Let me explain.
In 1975, I had completed college (Purdue) and was accepted to the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) for graduate school. I’d never been west of the Mississippi River and welcomed an adventure to the land of sun and fun. I packed my rusting 1970 Olds Cutlass with all my earthly possessions: an extra pair of bell bottom jeans, a shoebox full of cassette tapes, and a beer mug adorned with a peace sign. As I prepared to depart from my parents’ home on Mitchell Drive, my mom became emotionally distraught, but my dad was unfazed. He gave me a hearty handshake and a practical parting gift—a roll of dimes for emergency phone calls in case I became stranded on America’s great frontier.
The long westward drive included an unusual event in southern Utah, when I decided to get off I-70 to take a scenic route through the mountains south of Salt Lake City. The winding road took me through beautiful, rustic scenery, but the side-trip became less interesting when darkness fell. In my haste to reach the next intersection with the interstate, I increased my speed. Going 80 in a 50-mile-an-hour zone was exhilarating until I heard the sounds of a helicopter. I couldn’t see it in the night sky, as it was directly overhead. I was surprised that the Utah highway patrol would be monitoring the speed of a single car on a remote highway, but I knew that Mormons were prone to adhere strictly to rules and enforce them, as well. So, I slowed to the speed limit, thinking the police chopper would lose interest and fly away, but the noise got louder as the whirring blades grew closer. When I sped up, it sped up. When I slowed down, it slowed down. It was getting so close that my car started to shake and bounce with the rhythm of its blades. “Holy Moses,” I thought, “it’s landing on my roof!” Panicked, I came to a complete stop in the middle of the road and braced myself for a confrontation with one of Utah’s finest, sliding down my windshield and standing on the hood, gun drawn. But there was nothing but silence. When I got out of the car, I was stunned to see that there was no helicopter on my roof and no cop. I circled the car to see if he had landed elsewhere. That’s when I saw the flat tire with its flapping tread.
As I mounted the spare, I thought of one of my dad’s many observations, “A vivid imagination will overwhelm one’s common sense.” For the remainder of the trip, I stuck to interstates and posted speed limits. My first stop in California was a brief visit with my former college roommate (Tom Mingee, USC class of ’71), who lived in Sacramento, about eight hours north of my final destination, San Diego. When I explained that I knew no one in San Diego and had no money, his girlfriend, Janet, kindly took action. She had a cousin who lived in San Diego and asked him to let me crash on his couch for a few days until I found an apartment. Lucky for me, he agreed.
When I arrived in San Diego, I went straight to Janet’s cousin’s house, and was delighted to join an evening party that was underway. I introduced myself and started mingling with the partiers, who graciously welcomed me. The music, bell bottoms, tie-dyed shirts, and groovy people confirmed my image of California as a mecca for peace, love, and rock-and-roll. The party continued well past midnight and into the wee hours, when a subset of partiers left for another “happening” in the seaside neighborhood La Jolla, also the location of UCSD. Before departing, one of them scribbled directions on a matchbook cover and invited me to join them. When the party at Janet’s cousin’s house started to fizzle out, at around 2 a.m., I climbed into my Cutlass and headed for the after-party. I found my way to La Jolla, and followed the directions to “take the second left off Neptune.” As I made my way up the dark, gently rising street, I felt a huge bump and the car came to a sudden stop with a loud thud! Startled, I sat motionless, and saw the hood of the car slowly move downward. As it did, I got my first unexpected view of the Pacific Ocean. Then, the hood slowly rose, and I got a view of the starry sky. My view to the left was a 100-foot cliff, straight down to the beach.
What I thought was a street was actually an L-shaped driveway of a cliffside home with a concrete curb, where the driveway turned sharply toward the garage. I had driven over the curb with my front wheels and the frame of the car had crashed onto the curb, which became a fulcrum. The car was perfectly balanced and slowly rocked up and down as my white knuckles clinched the steering wheel. My body was directly over the fulcrum, so, if I moved, the weight change would throw the car (and me) over the cliff.
I sat motionless for what seemed like an eternity, wondering what to do. Finally, I decided that my life was more important than an inanimate rust bucket, so I’d open the door, jump onto the driveway, and let the car go over the cliff. The plan seemed to make sense, but I misjudged the position of car on the curb. When I jumped out of the car, I went straight down the cliff, head over heels, bumping and grinding against sandstone and ice plant until I came to rest on the sandy beach.
As I lay on my back, breathless and in pain, I could see the front of the Cutlass above, in the distance. Safely perched on the curb, and peacefully rocking, as if to mock my poor decision.
My injuries weren’t severe (cuts, bruises and pride… no broken bones), so I walked along the deserted beach until I came to the La Valencia hotel. The early morning staff, mostly Hispanic, was busy in the kitchen and expressed surprise when they saw a beat-up, bloody Pittsburgher banging at the delivery door. “¡Dios Mio! ¿Necesita una ambulancia?” In my best USC high school Spanish, I explained that I didn’t need an ambulance, just a pay phone. However, whatever change I may have had in my jeans was now part of the cliff and my dad’s roll of emergency dimes was in the car. So, the kind staff let me use the hotel phone.
I certainly didn’t want to alert the police and I didn’t know a soul in San Diego. But I had the number of Janet’s cousin in my pocket. I hesitated, and thought, “It’s 4 a.m. He’s surely fast asleep, and I barely know him, so maybe I’ll wait ’til the sun comes up. But the homeowner might wake up first, see a car balanced on the curb of his driveway and call the police.”
So, I made the intrusive call, and, as expected, woke him from his slumber. “Sorry to disturb you, but this is Jay, your cousin’s boyfriend’s friend from Pittsburgh. We met last night. I need a little help. I’m in the basement of the La Valencia hotel and my car is on the edge of a cliff. Can you help?” To my delight, the answer was, “Wow, dude, you only get a bizarre call like this once in a lifetime. I’ll be there in a half hour.”
When he arrived, I climbed into his pick-up truck. Unsurprisingly, he told me I looked like hell and asked me where my car was. I gave him the sad truth, “I don’t know.” He rolled his eyes as we drove up and down Neptune Avenue looking for a cliff house driveway sporting a green Cutlass with a Pennsylvania license plate. Just as the sun was coming up, we found the car. He backed up the driveway, attached the truck’s chain to the car’s rear axle, and pulled it off the curb. Miraculously, the homeowner never came out of the house and the concrete curb was undamaged. As I slowly drove back to his house, the center bar on my steering wheel was vertical, not horizontal. I was happy to be the same. The next day, I reported to graduate school orientation with cuts and bruises and a request for advance payment of my teaching stipend, which I used for car repairs and a nice bottle of California wine for Janet’s cousin.
So, USC students, prepare for future ventures outside our cozy community. Ask your driver’s ed instructor to explain the difference between the sound of a flat tire and a helicopter. And, be sure your car’s navigation system has the GPS-enhancing app, “StreetOrDriveway.”