It was just two years ago that the Spotted Tail Wildfire charred 17,000 acres of pristine prairie around Chadron, Nebraska. Firefighters fought it for a week. You’d think there wouldn’t be anything left to burn, but you’d be surprised. I thought of that fire as my burning Toyota rolled off the highway into the tall, golden autumn grass. Things were about to go from bad to much worse. I imagined my deer-eyed headshot in the local newspaper: “Prairie Torched by Omaha Idiot. Again.”
But the grass, high as a door handle, didn’t ignite. Not that I didn’t try. Flames shot out of my car, blue and fast like a jet, then billowed high, black, and red like a satisfying oil fire. The interior was incinerated to ash but for a few napkin-sized sheets of melted windshield, draped like a peeling sunburn over the silver-black skeleton. Bystanders said the grass survived thanks to some rain the night before. I knew better, feeling God himself standing next to me, pinching the top of his nose, shaking his head, bailing me out once more.
Was it bad luck that my beloved convertible, loyal playmate for twenty years, caught fire in the middle of nowhere? Or was it good luck that we had time to get out safely and rescue most of our gear? The conflagration was at least five minutes after blue smoke shot out of the dashboard vents, alerting us as we sailed at seventy miles per hour over the winding highway, and the brake pedal flopped flaccidly to the floor. The emergency brake strained well enough for me to slow the car onto the shoulder and get out (although Laura pulled a Fred Flintstone to finish the stop, ruining a perfectly good right shoe). We had plenty of time to grab our bags and my guitar before the emergency brake failed too and the car crept slowly down the road, silent but for the soft crunch of gravel under its tires. It wandered over the shoulder, into the ditch and on onto the field, meandering as if looking for a perfect picnic spot. I always thought of “blazing speed” as being faster than a stroll in the grass, but there you go. We had plenty of time before the first tire exploded, then three more, before the seats and the cloth top ignited, before the gas tank melted and the car disappeared in the flames.
The lone fireman, who arrived in time to admire the glowing embers, noted with amusement that one tire remained intact, good as new next to a small patch of still shiny, tomato-red fender, a stark contrast to the otherwise melted heap. “I distinctly heard four tires blow,” I said. He pointed into the gaping trunk at the spare tire, curled open like a daisy.
“Anyone bring marshmallows?” he chuckled predictably. It occurred to me that I had. They were in a blue plastic tub still sitting on the side of the highway, but I didn’t answer.
If I focused on the bad side of things I’d have shot myself—or others—long ago. I bought that guitar about the same time as the Celica, in 1988, with the full tax return I received as a reward for being recently divorced and unemployed. My new business was just finding it’s spindly legs. Both car and guitar have been symbols of my phoenix past. Maybe the car got a little too literal.
I keep vehicles a long time. This summer I parted with my truck of 15 years. Erratic electronics and rusted suspension had withered it like Alzheimer’s and arthritis. How do you pick the day to give in? I had pondered that issue with my beloved convertible, still sporty and tart thanks to the truck sacrificing itself for winter driving. Now the Red Sled was my only vehicle, and I knew its day would come soon. But as I stood on the high hill in the stiff breeze, watching the car blaze irretrievably after a long, perfect fall weekend sailing through the mountains and before her first bitter slog through an Omaha winter, I thought, “Now that’s the way to go out.”