Harold (not his real name) was a friend of mine in high school. He was one year ahead of me. We were both Junior Standard Bearers and Senior Standard Bearers in our respective Freshman and Senior years. Standard Bearers were the 9th and 12th grade boys with the highest grade point average. Girls with the highest GPAs were designated Guardians of the Flag.
At each school assembly the Senior Standard Bearer held the Flag and led the audience in the Pledge of Allegiance as the other three stood on the stage with right hands over their hearts. The boys also had the responsibility of raising the flag in front of the school each morning and taking it down at the end of the school day.
Harold was extremely bright. I, on the other hand, fooled lots of people. Mine was no great mind. But I paid attention in classes, took good notes, did my homework and was blessed with excellent recall. Tests were always a breeze for me – hence, good grades.
Harold was kind of a geek. I wasn’t. I took great effort with my vocabulary, my interests and activities to ensure that I would fit in as ‘one of the guys’. I never let anyone see the real me.
Harold and I hung around as much as we could given that we lived far apart. And when he got his first car, a rickety old ’48 Ford Coupe, we got together much more. He even let me practice drive his car when I got my Learner’s Permit. That was illegal, because an adult was required to be in the car, but we stayed in residential areas and never got caught.
One day in my Junior year Harold asked me if I wanted to go with him to the harness races at Buffalo Raceway that Friday night. The racetrack is actually in the town of Hamburg south of Buffalo a little over 80 miles (129 kilometers) from Rochester. I said sure. I had never been to a horse race and thought it would be fun.
So Harold picked me up at my house late Friday afternoon and off we went. It was a nice leisurely ride on the New York State Thruway. Harold stayed at the posted speed limit, which I believe was 65 mph at the time. We had a good time. Neither of us was old enough to place bets, nor did we look old enough, but Harold insisted on trying. We didn’t have any problem.
It was fun cashing in a few winning tickets. In all, I think I was down about two dollars for the night, which I felt was pretty good – not a bad expense for an evening’s entertainment. I couldn’t have lost much anyway. I had only ten dollars with me.
When we left the track it was quite late and pitch black out, completely starless. On the unlighted Thruway the range of vision was limited to what the headlights reached. The only other light was provided by head and tail lights of other vehicles. Traffic was moderate heading north until we passed the final Buffalo exit and turned east towards Rochester for the remaining 60 miles home. From then on there were few cars going either direction. It was all farmland until the Rochester exits.
I mentioned that Harold was very bright and that he was a geek. I was about to find out that he was also crazy! He had driven at the speed limit until we turned to the east – then, without warning he floored it. In moments we were going 110 mph (177 kph). That old Ford began to vibrate violently. I swear it felt like it was going to break apart any second. It was also pulling sharply to the right: so much so that keeping it going straight ahead required continuous attention.
Now, I have read often about how teenage boys have no sense of mortality, and at that age hormonal changes stimulate enjoyment of thrills and danger. I was not one of those teens. I was flat out terrified.
This was the days before seat belts, shoulder harnesses and air bags. I knew that if we blew a tire at that speed we would be dead. In those days before tubeless radial tires blowouts were all to common. I knew if Harold lost control of the car we would be dead. I knew if the car actually broke apart from the vibration we would be dead. I knew that if we had a collision we would be dead. And I knew that each of those events were quite possible.
I tried to get him to slow down but he would have none of that. He was thoroughly enjoying himself, insisting he was an excellent driver with great reflexes. I prayed for the siren and flashing lights of a New York State Trooper to no avail. I considered insisting that he pull over and let me out. But that would leave me at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, many miles from home – and who would pick up a hitch-hiker in such a place after midnight? I doubt he would have stopped anyway.
So I sat there both terrified and furious. Traffic was light but every few minutes we came upon another car from behind, and Harold would wait until the very last second to pull into the left lane to pass it. When you are traveling at 110 mph approaching a car traveling at 60 or 65 mph you close the distance very quickly. It is the equivalent of heading towards a solid wall at 45 or 50 mph. Each time I thought for certain we would hit the car or clip it while pulling into the left lane.
Well, we didn’t get killed that night. We finally reached the first Rochester exit and got onto regular streets. I knew then that I would survive. But when he dropped me off at my house I just got out of the car without saying a word. That was the end of our friendship.
I was civil to him when we crossed paths at school, but I no longer had any desire to hang with him. He graduated that June and went off to college in the fall. I never saw him again.