The First Man
It was a beauty stretching as far as the eye could see north and south. Tom and his little brother Eddie stood on the overpass looking down at those lanes untouched by tires, oil, or gasoline. It was a brand new freeway—pristine! A sign on the shoulder designated it: SR 7.
Today it is called the 405 freeway and it cuts straight through Los Angeles connecting the San Fernando Valley with the South Bay and all the way to San Diego. Heavy traffic flows up and down it day and night, but back in the early sixties, just after the L.A. portion was completed, it was a virgin roadway.
Eddie looked up at his brother and said, “Bet you wanna be the first to drive on it.”
“Everyone wants to be the first,” said Tom.
“If I was old enough to have a license I’d be the first man!” said Eddie.
“Well you’re not and you won’t.”
Tom could get so irritated by his little brother, who was by nature completely the opposite of him: a daydreamer, impulsive, undisciplined, and reckless.
“Come on Mario Andretti, mom will chew us out good if we’re late for dinner,” said Tom.
The next day Eddie and his buddies were walking back from school.
“My dad says he’s gonna be the first to drive on it,” said Joe.
“No way, my uncle bill has the inside dope on the exact time and place they’re going to open the first entrance ramp and he’s going to be there!” said Dick.
As they walked past the new freeway overpass Eddie noticed something different.
“Hey look!” he said.
The boys stopped and looked in the direction where Eddie pointed.
“Wow, here’s our chance!” said Joe.
The barrier for the east side exit ramp wasn’t secured like the others. It was ajar and could be pushed aside to gain entry.
“One of the workmen must have needed to get down on the freeway and left it open,” said Eddie.
“Let’s sneak down and have a look,” said Joe.
“That’s dumb. Who wants to walk on a freeway?” said Dick.
“Well smart guy, you gotta car we can use?” said Joe.
Dick thought a moment and said, “I got something better! Come on!”
The three boys ran down the street with Dick leading the way.
Looking back at them he said, “Trust me. You’re gonna love this!”
A few streets over, they arrived at Dick’s house and entered the driveway. He led them to the garage out back. After looking around he decided the coast was clear and lifted the garage door.
“It’s over here,” he whispered.
The boys followed him to the back of the garage where a large object of some kind was sitting on the floor covered in a gray tarp. He undid the ropes holding the tarp down. Then with a magician’s flourish, he whipped the cover off the hidden object and said, “Get a load of that!”
Eddie and Joe’s eyes widened. Slowly they paced around it while Dick beamed at them.
The frame was painted fire engine red. There was a seat for one in the middle with a steering wheel and gear lever, a large lawn mower type engine fully exposed in the back with an exhaust pipe out the side and four knobby tread tires.
“It’s a Trackblaster deluxe go-kart! My brother’s pride and joy, he saved up and bought it last spring.”
“Wow, does your brother race?” said Eddie.
“He used to race, but with college he hasn’t had a chance with this new one. He’s driven it in the Safeway parking lot a few times. It’s fast! I know how to drive it,” said Dick.
He unscrewed the gas cap and looked inside, then sniffed.
“There’s gas in it. I don’t know how much, but probably enough for a few miles.”
With a rope attached, the boys pulled the Trackblaster along the sidewalk. A police car passed them but didn’t stop to inquire what they had under the tarp. Soon they were at the exit ramp. After pushing the barrier to one side they scooted the Trackblaster down the ramp until they were out of sight, then Joe ran up and closed the barrier.
Dick removed the tarp and they stood gazing at the go-kart.
“Now what?” said Joe.
“We start it up…let’s see..my brother can get it started with one pull, but he knows where to set the choke. Dick pulled the choke out a ways.
“I think that’s right.” he said and grabbed the cord handle, braced himself and pulled.
“Thumpa, chugga, thumpa, chugga,” went the engine, almost caught, then sputtered out.
“Let me give it a shot” said Eddie.
He reached for the cord handle, leaned back, and then with all his might gave it a yank.
The engine started to come to life again, “Thumpa, chugga, thumpa, chugga—woooooooooo, PUUT, PUUT, PUUT!” The engine caught and was idling very fast.
“You go it! Have to put the choke in a little so it won’t get flooded,” said Dick.
As he was adjusting the engine, a loud commanding voice called down at them from the overpass.
“Hey you boys! What are you doing there?!”
The three turned and looked up at the voice.
Joe said, “It’s the cops!”
There were two police officers peering down at them, motioning to cut the engine and come back up the ramp.
Eddie froze, but the other two boys ran down the ramp and under the overpass. Both cops moved the barrier and started to come down the ramp. Eddie looked at them, then at the Trackblaster. What was he going to do? He better think fast. The next thing he knew he was sitting in the go-kart putting the gear lever into motion. He felt the wheels pull forward in a sudden jerk, down the ramp he went and out on the brand new freeway. He was heading south, the wrong direction for the lanes on that side, but since there wasn’t supposed to be anyone driving on it yet he didn’t think it would matter. Eddie pressed the gas pedal down and felt the Trackblaster accelerate. Wow he thought this thing really goes!
Meanwhile the two police officers ran back to their patrol car and radioed in.
“Three Lincoln Tom to South Bay”
“South Bay, go ahead Three Lincoln Tom.”
“We have a juvenile on the SR 7 heading south in the northbound lanes with a small motorized vehicle.
Request all units south of Manchester Blvd to intercept.”
“No plate, it’s just kid in a go-kart!”
By this time Eddie had traveled a mile down the freeway, the wind in his hair and a huge grin on his
face. He was having the time of his life. This was even more exciting than necking with Lisa-Ann
Gibbons under the bleachers during the freshman football game.
The freeway lanes had little grooves in them which really helped traction on the curves. Every once and awhile he would see someone wave to him from an overpass or a surface street. He felt like the most important person in the world, like an astronaut circling the Earth or a major league ballplayer hitting a home run. It was exhilarating, intoxicating, and it was dangerous!—coming around the next turn and he saw four police cars parked sideways blocking all lanes!
There was nowhere to go and then it occurred to him he didn’t know how to stop the Trackblaster. He looked down at what he assumed was the brake and pressed it quickly, too quickly. The next thing he knew he wasn’t driving the go-kart anymore he was flying it! The Trackblaster flipped and started cartwheeling. Eddie was thrown into mid-air for 40 feet and as fools luck would have it he landed on a huge sand pile near road under construction signs. Right then a bunch of kids came running down the embankment from the other side of the freeway to where Eddie was.
“Hey Mr. are you okay?” said the first one.
Mr.? Eddie thought, how old does this kid think I am? He tried to get up, but his right arm began to hurt so bad he lost his balance and fell back into the sand pile. The cops came over, picked him up and carried him to a patrol car.
“Young man you got some explaining to do,” said a police Sargent with hands on his hips.
Eddie looked at him with a dazed expression.
One of the officers said, “Better call an ambulance. Beside a few broken bones, I think he’s in shock.”
Next day at breakfast, mom, dad, Tom and Eddie with his arm in a cast, stared at the newspaper’s front page on the kitchen table. Tom didn’t know what to say. He tried to form words, but they just wouldn’t come out. Mom kept shaking her head, looking at Eddie, then back at the newspaper, then back at Eddie. Dad nodded his head, folded his arms and appeared to be deep in thought. On the table next to the paper was a ticket for driving without a license. He picked it up and began scrutinizing it.
Dad muttered, “I don’t know, I just don’t know.”
Mom chimed in, “It’s the limit, I mean the limit.”
Tom still couldn’t come up with anything to say, he was dumbfounded, his jaw kept coming open and then he’d have to shut it again. Eddie just sat there with a huge smile. Dad grabbed his lunch bucket and gave mom a quick peck on the lips. And as he walked out the door, still looking at the ticket in his hand, he reiterated, “I don’t know. I just don’t…”
Eddie stared at the bottom of the newspaper’s front page. There was a photo of a slightly banged up Trackblaster being hauled away by a tow truck, the headline read: Boy leads Police in High-Speed Chase. The article said, “The SR 7 freeway, not scheduled to open for another week, received a test run by a 15-year-old boy, Eddie Carlston, an Inglewood High School freshman, who was so determined to be the first man to drive on the new freeway he borrowed his friend’s go-kart to do it.” Off to the left of the paragraph, there was also a picture of Eddie taken from his high school annual.
Other than the ticket, it still hadn’t been determined what action would be taken against him by the police, the state, and city government. He was walking around free for the moment. The High School principal had been alerted to the incident. His two cohorts, Joe and Dick, were keeping a low profile and hoping their good buddy wouldn’t mention them in the caper. They were more than happy for him to take all the credit, that was until they saw Eddie’s rise in school status. Before the boom came down, Eddie was living the dream: finding himself an overnight local celebrity.
Walking across campus people he didn’t even know would say hi, some asking for an autograph. A girl he had a huge crush on, who before wouldn’t give him the time of day, Betsy Nova, was making eyes at him now.. Even the cool seniors would nod hello to him. He was a living legend that week. At first, Tom was disgusted with his little brother’s notoriety, but soon the celebrity status rubbed off on him and he was getting attention as well. Then the bubble popped, it happened: the big meeting in the principal’s office. The local and state government, as well as police representatives, attended, along with the other two boys, the parents and of course the star himself. It lasted about an hour, all attendees weighed in their thoughts and feelings on the matter. So it was decided, since the three boys had taken the go-kart, they would have to split damage costs for its repair. For the police and government, they viewed this matter in light of Eddie about to come of age for a learners permit. It was decided he must get an A in the driving test and traffic safety class in order to get his permit, otherwise he will have to wait a year until the next class went into session and try again: no A, no permit.
The meeting came to a close and everyone began leaving. As Eddie was the last to go the principal said, “Would you mind staying behind a moment? I’d like to have a word.”
Eddie’s parents said they had to get back to work and left. It was just the principal and Eddie in his office. The principal went to his door, looked out, smiled at his secretary and quietly closed the door.
He walked back to his desk. He seemed to be formulating a question with regards to Eddie, since he kept looking at him and then to something in his desk drawer.
“That was quite a stunt you pulled. I must say I don’t think in all my years as principal of this school have we ever had a student do anything like that,” he said.
Then he reached in and pulled out what was in the desk drawer, three copies of the newspaper with the article about Eddie and put them all face up on his desk. He reached for his fountain pen and said, “Would you mind signing these?”