"Hey, Space! The skipper wants to talk to you in his office right after the game, so don't skip out!"
Bill, our equipment, clubhouse manager, jockstrap coordinator and general all-around flunky to the powers that be had pegged me right. I had been scooting towards the shower to get in and get out of there fast, not that I had anything like a pressing engagement back at my dumpy one-bedroom apartment. Unless you were signed as a fat bonus baby, there aren't any big paydays when you're in the low minor leagues.
"Any idea what's up?" I weakly asked, not that Bill would ever tell me anyway. His job working for our AA club affiliate might only pay him peanuts too, but it was still a toehold in the game, and beat having to get a real job selling insurance or vacuum cleaners.
"Couldn't say, but I do know that Hesterfield is done making any further promotions to AAA for (this season) and no one here's getting any call-ups to the big club either. Between you and me and this dirty towel bag, I'd start looking hard for a good off-season job, just in case the team decides that you don't fit into their long-term picture... , which I'm betting you don't.
Bill didn't quite smirk, but nothing in his face or tone of voice suggested that he'd be missing me much next season, if they let me go. There was really nothing personal between us, but he probably was just probably tired of seeing my face for three straight years and thought my locker and spot on the pitching staff would be better off given to some new phenom or an actual prospect promoted up from High-A ball.
The little bastard scurried off before his poker face broke into a smile, thus giving me the excuse to try and pop him a good one. Actually our skipper and my head pitching coach might have approved of my trying to do that ... they were both always after me to show some spark and stop being so philosophical out there on the mound. 'Get all fired up', they'd say, 'Show some Wah' (fighting spirit), or do something ... anything to show that I was 'taking charge' out there.
Not really my style unfortunately. This was my third full season in a row here in AA ball, and the 'prospect' tag had long worn off. I knew that I was going to be toast and likely sooner rather than later. My career was pretty much already done, and I didn't need a long washed up former utility infielder that could never hit a curveball or a slider to tell me the obvious. More than likely, I was about to get a polite but firm request to get my locker emptied out and receive our manager's sincere wishes for a happier future ... out of baseball. Or at least no longer with this club.
Yep, especially after this evening's outing. It was pretty plain to everyone that both my elbow and shoulder were twinging in pain yet again. Frankly if I'd been a right handed pitcher, I'd have been shown the door a couple of years ago. There's never enough good left-handed pitching though ... or even enough vaguely adequate ones. With a healthy arm, I would sort have fit that latter category, but now I was strictly back of the bullpen 'garbage-time' filler material. Someone to run out once or twice a week in the middle innings after one of our starters has already given the game away and we're down five or six runs and unlikely to catch back up. Why put wear and tear on the arm of a decent prospect in what's certain to be a wasted effort?
That's me all right; Mr. Garbage Time, with a fastball generously clocked at its peak only in the mid-eighties and a half-dozen other 'junk ball' pitches that are even slower! Sure I can still throw strikes, even with my arm feeling like it is about to fall entirely off, but fastball speed is the first and sometimes the only thing a major league scout will focus upon. Velocity readings are objective, and sometimes completely misleading, but that's what gets their attention. I've noticed during my long years in the low minors that you have to at least have a minimum velocity in the high 80's to even get on anyone's radar, so to speak. They all come from the traditional "If you wanna go hunting you better bring a gun" school of scouting philosophy for pitching prospects.
Sometimes, I've seen scouts take a slight interest in guys that just throw strikes with middling velocity but have a good sinking movement, or an obscene level of accuracy. Guys like Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, or even me (laugh), back when I was healthy. Real pitchers - not just 'throwers' that can bring heat alright, but usually don't have a clue where the ball is going to end up.
If a pitcher can locate his pitches with accuracy within the zone, moving them in/out, up/down, taking some velocity off/adding some, it shows command. Some young arms just 'grip it and rip it', which is fine, but I still believe that precision will trump just raw awesome stuff against savvy hitters ... well sometimes anyway. It used to work out alright for me before my arm filed for divorce from the rest of my body.
Still having a little time left to kill, I sidled off to Greg's office. He was our 'skipper' and club manager and while his small dingy, barely air conditioned office was normally off-limits to us, having nothing particular to lose, I invited myself in and pretty much made myself at home while I waited for him. From the sound of things outside on the field, Lewis or yet another of our bottom rung relievers was trying to finish out the top of the ninth inning and probably cement our 8-1 loss. Sure as rain tomorrow, our batters would go down as meek as lambs one-two-three in our final at bat, but this would still give me a good five to ten minutes alone to think of some clever argument to offer the boss for keeping me on his roster for at least the final three weeks of the season ... if not a position for next spring.
Frankly, the odds weren't too good and I wasn't even fooling myself with 'glass half-full' thoughts. Sneaking a fast read of my scouting folder which was lying open on the middle of his otherwise cleared-off desk didn't bolster any of my remaining illusions. Frankly it was a wonder that the club had kept me on this long ... praying for a miracle, I suppose, and darned unlikely to get one. I'd been damaged goods for years.
Scouting reports are often vague and subjective at best and projecting the future development of young pitchers is usually a wild crap shoot. Even the best and most talented young top draft pick prospects fail over 67% of the time to reach the big club and get a chance in the majors. The odds, slim as they already are for the best-of-the-best, decrease rapidly to more than a 90% failure rate for young players like me drafted in the later rounds of the amateur draft. Pretty much my career had already defied the odds of success, and my scouting evaluations clearly reflected this ... but they still made rather interesting reading. I'll give you a few highlights.
Name: Jesse A. Spacey
DOB: 10/12/91 (age 27 as of April 1, 2009)
Weight: 195 lbs
Drafted: 23rd round, 2002 ($20,000 bonus)
Pre Draft Report: Spacey was selected in the 23rd round of the 2002 draft out of Victoria State College in Texas. Jesse first rose to scouts' attention during the 2002 State Junior College Playoffs, pitching 13 consecutive scoreless innings to win his team's quarter final match. Significantly below-average FB but with above-average movement. Curve 'plus-plus'. Change very-good with plus development. Good extension, balance and downhill for a slightly undersized pitcher. Throws very easy, low effort out front, repeats very well from wind up. Appears less comfortable from stretch. Strongly resembles Bob Knepper. Above average potential if FB can be improved. Mid-round draft possibilities. Excellent academics with an offer to transfer to Univ. of Texas this fall, but family money issues give him plus-level sign-ability. Plus intangibles.
Career Synopsis: Jesse signed almost immediately and was sent to 'Pioneer League' to begin his career. Beginning his first season with the PL Montana Raptors he was projected as a 3rd-4th starter and limited to three or four innings per start as he built up arm strength and was not overmatched in his first pro experience. Next promoted to Class Low-A SAL Newport in late-August and High-A Clinton the following spring, he posted very respectable 8.3 K/9 and an excellent 2.7 K/BB ratios. Good work ethic and plus intangibles. A series of recurring shoulder and elbow injuries first incurred at AA Cedar City in 2005 have reduced his prospects to marginal status since. Condition appears chronic and has not improved with treatment or rest.
All Rankings Standard (20-80)
Arm Strength: 20
Secondary Pitches: 65
Additional Pitcher Comments:
Arm-Slot: ¾, with variations
Average v Peak Velocity: Poor; Slow, slow and slower
Pitchability – Above-Average/Excellent – "Backwards"
Summary: There is a whole lot to like in Spacey, despite his lack of acceptable arm strength, durability and his bottom ranked fastball which is the slowest in the entire organization. As he will be 27 by next April 1st, Jesse should be no longer considered an acceptable MLB level prospect - but if healthy he could become an acceptable borderline LHP option for a bullpen. He has sound mechanics that do not seem to be the source of his chronic recurring tendonitis. Despite his lack of an adequate FB, his secondary pitches (especially his curveball) are well developed and already currently fringe MLB ready now and he shows excellent control of most of his pitches.
Current MLB Projection: Jesse likely projects to become a well-below average MLB talent, but if healthy, he might be a supporting trade block for a team needing veteran AAA filler or emergency LHP bullpen relief.
Well, what more can I say? Professional baseball scouts usually rate prospects on a scale of 20-80, with 45 being an 'average' MLB player. For younger prospects there is often a second number which is their future 'ceiling' projection. Overall I ranked a bit below the baseline average for a major league prospect. Ordinarily this would be quite alright, but with my arm strength and fastball both ranked with bottom basement scores of '20', plus my age, no scout or General Manager was going to notice or weigh particularly highly any of the other things I did do well, like my breaking pitches. I would be twenty-seven by the start of next season, still in the mid-minor leagues. This is the age that most players have their career year, in the major's ... at the big show. For a non-prospect down on the farm, I was just about past my 'sell-by' date and I had no projectable 'ceiling' left according to the scouts.
Pitchability is just a fancy word for intelligence, or Pitching IQ, the ability to set up hitters and exploit their weaknesses while focusing on your strengths. It is occasionally used in a negative connotation for pitchers like me who do not have exceptional stuff but somehow miraculously still manage to get batters out by "pitching backwards" or just throwing tons of strikes. Pitching backwards, which admittedly I do a great deal, is the approach of throwing off-speed pitches early in the count, and then finishing off a hitter with a fastball (or something slightly faster than the junk I'd thrown him previously). It can be very effective, but it also drives old school or traditional pitching coaches and managers crazy. The 'normal' recommended strategy is to throw fastballs early to get ahead, then throwing off-speed pitches to fool hitters and make them chase unhittable pitches to make the out. Just to show off the fact that I'm a crazy left-hander, I'll do anything to screw up the head of a batter, but in this case, I could safely assume that being called 'Backwards' wasn't really much of a compliment.
On the whole, the scouting report was actually kinder to me than I would have expected. My 'Command' and 'Control' were indeed well above average and if I'd had even a below-average Fastball clocked in the mid-high 80's I'd still be prospect material. Sorry guys, at best my FB these days teases just 84 mph ... and often is perilously closer to just 80. One of my pitching coaches once remarked that my change-up pitch was sometimes faster than my fastball! Catchers usually toss the ball back to me on the mound faster than I threw it to them! I used to have a bit more gas in my arm, but nowadays I'm thankful that it's even still attached! My shoulder burns with every fastball I throw, and my elbow hurts more with every breaking pitch, regardless of how slow it goes!
"So Space, how did you like the book?" My manager, our skipper Richard, or rather Dick "Captain" Morgan asked, catching me still in the act of reading some of my older scouting reports in the back of my file. Some were better, more flattering, and others less so. Mostly were actually of the latter variety. The glow apparently went off of my shiny 'prospect' status about two seconds after my chronically sore elbow first hit the bucket of ice four years ago right here in AA. I hadn't quite torn it according to the MRI scan, but it also never quite healed up to anything close to 100% since then. I spent the next year rehabbing back in Low and High A ball and almost two years ago I fought my way back onto the AA roster ... mostly by lying to the club doctor that my arm did indeed feel just fine and that nothing significant was wrong with me.
I wasn't fooling anyone of course. They gave me yet another bout of scans and tests a few months ago and didn't see anything worth cutting me open to try and fix. I just have a 'weak arm' and I am prone to recurring chronic tendonitis. Throwing exercises and lots of weight-room work maybe helped a little, but not really enough to make the problem go away to stay. Now I was probably about to hear the hatchet swing.
"Compelling reading Skip, especially the medical reports! A real page-turner ... but the ending looks to be really bleak." I replied with a smile. Hell, our skipper, the terror of AA Cedar City was actually a rather benevolent old tyrant, assuming you did your strength and conditioning work and were one of the early ones to arrive at the clubhouse and one of the last to leave. If you were a slacker you'd get on his shit list fast and he knew a thousand ways to make a young kid's life miserable. He was old school, a veteran of a dozen decent years service in the big show back in the 1960's and 70's when players were underpaid and worked a lot harder than they mostly do now. My scouting scorecards didn't give out points for 'works hard' or 'dedicated', but there was the nice comment in the most recent summary about 'good work ethic and plus-intangibles'. Still, at best I was being pretty much damned with the very faint praise.
"The ending," he paused for good long effect while he claimed his old beat-up swivel chair behind his even more battered iron desk and started to take off his uniform, "much remains yet to be seen." Like Casey Stengel, if you wanted to talk to the old bear in his lair, be expecting to find an old white-haired man sitting around talking for hours about the game he loved while wearing nothing but his underwear. In summer if the A/C was out (often) he might not even wear those.
Down to just his boxers this early autumn evening, the old white terror whipped out a bottle of Old Overcoat Bourbon from his bottom right desk drawer and a pair of relatively clean glasses and poured each of us about two inches and then gave the doorway a quick glance to make sure that his office door was shut and that 'Bungalow' Bill, our weasel of a clubhouse manager wasn't eavesdropping. The little prick could definitely read lips and would have stuck around to watch if the skipper hadn't next given him a beady-eyed squint through the glass. As I said, our manager was old school and anything said in the skipper's office (or even within the clubhouse for that matter) was to remain private. Some of the kids still ran their mouths anyway and found out fast that this was just about the quickest expressway to the boss's shit list. Me? I'd been a good boy ... and definitely didn't have anything in my career worth telling anyone on the Internet about.
"Space, you might not know it but I cashed in a chip for your fat-ass right after the All-Star Break when Lance was ready to just outright release you. In a fit of temporary insanity, I convinced him for some inexplicable reason that you still had a modicum of potential as trade material. Not for anyone with any actual talent mind you, but the fact that you're a left-hander, and a real pitcher ... not just a thrower gives a tiny amount of slack. Oh ... and you still apparently have a pulse and haven't quite hit thirty yet. All the above still gives you a minor amount of trade value and if you'd been released, someone would have offered you a minor league contract elsewhere, so I convinced him that you were worth keeping around as a petty bargaining chip for some future deal."
All of this was actually quite true. Nearly every major league club is desperate for left-handed pitching. Even a non-prospect like me doomed to the back end of the bullpen has some intrinsic value. I wasn't quite over the hill yet ... and I could throw strikes. Someone would take the risk that under their new enlightened tutelage all of my arm troubles would magically go away and they'd strike lightning in a bottle ... or at least find an adequate 'garbage-time' reliever.
Lance Hesterfield was the GM of our major league club and the top boss over the player development side of things and he wasn't the least bit prone to sentiment. In his farm system, you were either a prospect moving up and onwards or you were a liability that needed to be excised. Lance could give the infamous 'Trader' Jack McKeon a run for his money wheeling and dealing, trading off his 'problems' for new, and hopefully better (and younger) prospects.
"Thanks, I guess, Skip. I wouldn't have thought that I was worth an IOU chip."
"You're not really," he laughed, "but if your arm doesn't fall off first, you sometimes, once in a great while, show the rare flash of having some actual pitching talent. Except for the last pitch you threw tonight to Eversall, that was four solid innings of well-crafted baseball where the hitters were clueless about what slice of junk-shit you were going to offer up to them next. Eversall is going to majors and will probably get the call-up in a few weeks after the rosters expand on September 1st. If your arm had been healthy, you'd have had another two inches of drop on that sinker, not to mention more movement your curveball and forkball too, and he'd have struck out swinging looking stupid instead of planting your weak sauce over the center field fence. Your elbow hurt and you tried to ease one past him and instead we lost by seven runs instead of just five. Billing still gets the loss, and dinger or not, your season ERA actually dropped by a tenth of a percent, not that having a 5.30 for the year is anything to be happy about. Anyway, Lance called me earlier today to say that he's got your name penciled in as the PTBNL for the trade he did with Los Angeles a few weeks ago right at the trading deadline. This will give you a new start with a new ball club... if you can pass the physical! Now, what I need to know is, how bad is the arm ... really?"
That was the million dollar question – literally. Was I sort-of even half-way healthy enough to be patched up and quickly shipped off as a 'player to be named later' – an afterthought, a very minor little balancing piece needed to finish up a previous trade. I was going to be that final, and rather trivial piece.
"Skip ... I just don't know. Right this minute both my shoulder and elbow feel like someone stabbed them, so I'd say I feel pretty much the same as normal ... like shit, but with ice and rest I'd be about 80% ready for another relief appearance sometime this weekend, or a spot-start early next week, but thirty or forty pitches later I'll be back to where I am now. Doc Walling's last MRI in late July showed no tears anywhere, just lots of inflammation that won't go away. I'm doing the exercises and taking the prescribed steroids and even getting the weekly pain shots but honestly I'm not seeing much difference. Between you and me and your old squeaky chair, I begged them to just let me rest all last winter, but they packed me off again to Winter League down in Venezuela. If they can give me some real rest this winter, maybe I can heal up and get past this."
I was giving him the unvarnished truth. The old bastard wanted it and not some macho nonsense about being 'ready to go' under any circumstances.
"I know ... Lance almost had a deal for you last winter, but they wanted to watch you work down there as a starter. You looked arm-tired and worn out after less than a month down there and even worse by the start of Minor League Spring Training so the deal fell through. I think this one will fall-through too, but that's just a hunch based on nothing. In any case, at nine o'clock tomorrow morning you're on the local flight to Salt Lake City and then off on another flight to get a full exam by a specialist in Dallas tomorrow evening, so the trade can be finalized with or without you. My guess is that if the MRI shows the same or more inflammation, they'll send Billing in your place and wait to package you off next spring in another deal. Either way, I've got it from Lance that you're being shut-down for the year to rest and you're not to do anything otherwise but rest – not even to lift your left arm for a 12-ounce beer bottle curl until next spring. I think you'll be skipping club Spring Training too ... the boss said something about giving you a real long rest and then sending you off to the 'Banzai Brothers' for Cactus League Instructional Minor League Camp in early April instead."
Fuck ... the so-called Banzai brothers were notoriously as crazy as a bipolar blonde on a three-day cocaine/meth binge. Both had enjoyed promising but all too short major league careers here in the states, cut off prematurely by their various unstable insanities and antics on and off the field until no domestic ball club would have them. They finished up ripe careers playing in Japan for the next decade and returned home from the baseball wilderness still chock-full of crazy, but with some unconventional training techniques that sometimes, worked. Nowadays they ran a privately owned 'Independent' ball club in Arizona that was accredited in the low minors and they conducted spring and fall instructional clinics, for has-beens seeking one last summer of glory, or never-were's seeking a shot at the big-time, and lots of rehabilitation projects from other minor league organizations, like me.
Fuck ... I strongly considered just asking for my outright release.
"Yeah, they're a pair of crazy mo-fo's, and I know this from personal experience, because late in my career I was on a team with one of those clowns, Randy, before he went to Japan. No one could coach him anything – already thought he knew it all, but he did have a fairly similar set of attributes as you ... a junk ball that threw slow, slower and glacial speeds without a hard fastball to disguise them. Somehow he willed himself to succeed and I'm betting that he knows one or two things that might get your fat ass up to AAA where you'll at least have a chance to get lucky. Speaking of fat, you did lose twenty pounds this season but another twenty more or so really wouldn't hurt your future prospects one little bit either. Now go pack up your locker and don't worry about taking too much with you on this trip from your apartment, until after you get back from Dallas. Besides, the club will handle the usual travel and moving expenses and Brenda, the traveling secretary, should have a check for you for your per diem expenses driving home by the time you get back from Dallas. That'll be ok with you?" I nodded and stood up to take the skipper's goodbye handshake and started to beat a hasty exit before the old veteran decided to drop his sweaty shorts – that was a parting view that I could live without seeing again!
"Rest, heal and keep an open mind. Yeah the brothers are crazy and for a lot of players a trip to see them is the end of the line ... but if there is anything in you that they can fix up or salvage, they'll do it, if you give them the chance. Don't quit your dreams just yet Jesse – I really do think you can put it all together and make it to the bigs ... or else I'd have never bothered telling player development to stick with you or that someday they might regret it! Now get lost ... and stay off the ice cream!"
The skipper wasn't quite joking about my weight. Despite every attempt at dieting, every off-season I'd gain about ten pounds and then be lucky to lose even five of them during the season. I wasn't 'fat', but I had a chunky sort of look that didn't make me look imposing on the pitcher's mound. I'd held the waistline this year, but if I worked out constantly all fall and winter I might be able to shed perhaps another ten pounds, if I was lucky. Fat just stuck to me like glue, and really, losing another twenty or so would be even better!
There were no surprises in Dallas where a trio of top notch sports doctors and muscular specialists plus our team head doctor Walling, all scanned my arm from every direction and spent a lot of time just going 'hmmmm'. Per usual, there was no singular point of damage, no tears or even any significant abrasions of the shoulder and elbow ligaments. My rotator cuff, the bane of most injured arms, was inflamed (hardly a surprise) but intact. One doctor wanted to scope me and go prospecting internally anyway, another thought seven or more months of rest would settle things, and the third doc just mumbled and wandered off without talking to me at all. Doc Walling just looked at me and shrugged ... he couldn't see any changes since the last time he'd examined me and he was out of ideas.
The 'status quo' reigned supreme; our club GM's secretary sent me an official letter telling me to go home and await instructions. I got the impression that the phone wouldn't be ringing anytime at all soon. The current trade was apparently 'off' and just as the skipper had predicted, it was Billing (a right-handed non-prospect) that was packed off to complete the deal. He went straight to the AA farm club of his new team, promptly blew out his his arm badly enough to need Tommy John style reconstructive surgery, and found his career essentially done.
Tough break, but better him than me!
From Dallas, I flew back to Cedar City, Utah and packed up a few things for the drive home in my only worthwhile possession, a battered vintage 1968 Firebird convertible. I never earned a lot of money as a minor league player and my small signing bonus had been used long ago to pay the back taxes due on the small family ranch back home in west Texas. My father died before he could even watch me play high school ball and my mother's mental health declined rapidly in the years afterwards. Early on-set Alzheimer's and severe depression, they think, but from the moment my father died she couldn't make herself even get out of bed, let alone open or read any of the mail ... or really do much of anything else with her life. She's in a local convalescence home that is just barely within our combined financial means, run by members of her old church who try and see that she at least feeds herself (or is made to). The last time I visited her in the spring she barely recognized me at all and thought I was still a boy. The head doctor there says she has no will to live and her physical health is starting to decline as well. I've actually offered in the past to quit playing ball and return home to help take care of her full time, but her friends kept telling me to stay in baseball. My father would have wanted me to, they all said. Home or not, my mother is lost in a shadowy place, now forever apart from me even when I'm next to her bedside holding her hand.
Now knowing my mother's condition better now, I'd have been much better off selling off the small ranch and good riddance! It's in my name now, and the place where I hang up my hat and boots at the end of every unsuccessfully season, but for some reason it's not really home to me anymore when I'm there alone. Besides, if I were back home for good, I'd have no job and little means of supporting my invalid mother. We get some money from leasing out the land for grazing fees but we'd had to sell a lot of our better pasture land to raise the initial money to get mother into the home. Now, the 20 remaining acres of near desert grassland couldn't begin to support us full time.
In any case, since there was nowhere else to go I packed up two suitcases of my more necessary items (one bag of clothes and my biggest suitcase full of books) and slowly made plans to leave town in some vague sort of haste. I was ready to head home and get a lot of rest and I certainly had nothing left in Utah that I'd miss (the local Mormon girls didn't seem to find me an irresistible catch), but from the very start of the trip things just started to go wrong ... and stay wrong!
For starters, I hadn't even made it out of town before I got my first flat tire of the trip. I'd already cashed my travel money and per diem so I had enough to not worry too much about this unexpected expense, but I balked at replacing all four tires at once without some sort of a sweetheart of a deal from the tire shop that wasn't being offered at the moment. So, I just bought one replacement tire. Then tires two and three blew out over a bad stretch of highway covered with spilled road debris, just on the Henderson side of Las Vegas, late that afternoon. I was rarely in the mood to play around in Vegas under the best of circumstances and didn't really have the money to waste there so I'd driven straight through without stopping.
The nearest local garage didn't carry the sporty Firestone model that matched the new one I'd just bought this morning so I had to wait there for two days for the three replacement tires to arrive via special order ... and at a cost that made my lone Cedar City acquisition look like a bargain.
Barely an hour's drive further onward, the water pump broke (it had already been replaced twice previously in the last three years) and after a tow into Kingman, Arizona, I waited for just over another full day for a replacement to be driven down to the garage from a junkyard in Vegas. It was used; but it was the only one available within a three-hundred mile radius.
I loved this car. A heroic piece of hard Detroit solid metal and muscle that suffered intolerable gas mileage but also accelerated and cornered like an angel wearing a rocket pack. Still, I almost thought about selling her for scrap a few hours later when she started to make loud metal grinding sounds underneath. Letting the car idle on the side of the dark highway with a flashlight, I couldn't find the source for the noise. It disappeared after the car stopped, but started up again the moment I put the car back into gear and the gas pedal down. Suspension problems? Or was it a warning sign from the transmission? Or was the damned muffler about ready to fall off... again?
Since it was almost midnight with every garage long closed, I took a chance and kept going through the desert night. My gut was telling me to stop for the night outside of the first promising looking garage I could find in Flagstaff, but the stubborn part of me won instead. The metal grinding sound wasn't actually getting any worse from what I could tell with the ragtop roof down and I decided to make it at least as far as Scottsdale before calling it quits for the night.
Now the elements began to conspire against me as I crossed into the mountains near Sedona right into the middle of a late summer thunderstorm. Even with the ragtop roof now closed down shut, the rain was nearly coming at me horizontally through the gaps in the vinyl and plastic and I was soon about as wet as if I'd left the roof open. Showing sense at last, I decided to just pull over at the next rest stop a bit lower down in the mountains and just sit things out and maybe take a nap, when I found myself off of the main highway entirely.
I thought I was pulling into a rest stop but I'd missed it in the storm and driven straight past it. Now instead I was on some small ranch road in the hills. It was barely there, too narrow for me to even turn back around upon. The safest thing seemed to be to just to go onwards on the gravel road where a small reflective sign that I could only partially read hinted that some town was somewhere up ahead.
Taking it slow, I managed to just traverse one overflowing stream bed covering a dip in the roadway with only a little water coming in under the car door, but at the cost of my muffler now falling entirely off right there onto the flooded roadway. Ah ... so that was the culprit, the source of the worrisome sound! The next even larger puddle of water flooded my exhaust manifold and my poor vintage car decided that she'd had more than enough abuse for one day and stalled out for good.
Since I was already pretty well soaked, I decided that five minutes spent pushing the old gal up a slight hill incline to some more or less dryer land might save me even more problems tomorrow. Her carburetor, an original 4-barrel Quadrajet sat very high upon the 400 V8 engine intake manifold and seemed to be fine and more or less dry. The carburetor was actually a piece of crap that tended to stick, but I hadn't been able to afford to find a much nicer vintage period Holley to replace it with. The engine heat would dry out the exhaust manifold pretty quickly once the rain stopped and with a bit of exhaust steam she'd start right up again in the morning, or so I hoped.
Looking around I couldn't see much up ahead of me but I seemed to be near the bottom of a mountain valley with rising mountains around me on three sides, along with an assortment of smaller hills all around me. On the roadway up ahead was another hill that blocked the view going forward, but I hoped that once I climbed that hill I'd get a glimpse of the lights of the nearby town and find a drier place to spend the night. The last sign I'd seen for it said two or three miles, I didn't get a good look at anything other than the word Village ... and a squiggly number. I'd gone at least a full mile since then, so logically it couldn't be all that much further ahead.
That's me – always the optimist.
The rain was moving on and even the lightning storm was settling down and taking its light show elsewhere, but I hadn't taken more than three steps further on down the road when an especially big and bright flash of lightning shot across the sky nearly horizontally. For just a moment I thought I saw it strike something metallic in the sky. Probably a small plane or helicopter that had been stupid enough to be out in this storm. Even with the sharp alternate darkness immediately afterwards, I thought I could see a red emergency light or perhaps sparks or even a plume of ignited aviation fuel up above me and just to my left. There were no sounds otherwise, but with the crashing booms of thunder still all around me I wouldn't have heard a naval warning siren anyway.
In the darkness, I could just follow the red line of light until it passed below a small hill a bit to my left, maybe half a mile away or so but descending in altitude fast. I didn't hear the plane actually crash, but I thought I could see where was a bit of a 'flash' and something red/orange burning or glowing behind a hill. I didn't think it would take me long at all to get there, maybe half a mile away, down and up a couple of hills. Not a problem I thought, even in the dark ... besides, people would be hurt and I might be able to help!
Anyway, what else could possibly go wrong on this trip?
For starters, out alone in the middle of the mountains in the Arizona desert, the air is sharper and clearer than it would be anywhere else and a theoretical short little jaunt up and down a few small rolling hills suddenly turned into a major expedition into the unknown. I'd stopped just long enough to unlock the trunk to get out my emergency blanket and first aid kit that I kept stashed there and even though I'd taken my eyes off of the likely crash location I was still 98% sure I was now heading out in the right direction. Mostly. My simple half-mile trek turned into at least two miles of stumbling about in the darkness in and out of rain swollen gulleys and arroyos, and I now I was just splashing my way via dead reckoning, and was probably more or less lost. The lightning storm was starting to move further away and in the growing periods of absolute darkness I could have passed the plane crash not ten feet away from me and not seen a thing. Heck, I doubted now I could even find my way back to my car in this mess! I was going to be stuck until morning out here in the middle of nowhere!
The hills, and there were countless numbers of them, were just a bit too steep to climb safely in the dark, especially while wet. They were covered with desert plants and cactus that scoured me constantly with their thorns. I figured this out the hard way when, I scrambled up already exhausted, out of yet another half-flooded arroyo to stumble in the dark at the top of a short hill and set down one foot solidly onto nothing but air. Getting down the other side of that rocky hill turned out to be far quicker than the climb up it had been.
Falling down headfirst, I thought for just a moment that I could see some soft red lights just up ahead of me so the second to last thing that went through my mind was the thought "There it is! I've made it!"
The last coherent thought I had was the extremely brief sensation of my right temple striking a nearly submerged rock at the bottom of the hill very sharply. From that point onwards, my memories of the rest of the evening became extremely cloudy and utterly vague and devoid of any meaningful details.
There had been a girl, I was sure of that much, either in my dreams or a brain-shaken half-memory from my injured hard-headed skull. She was lovely, gorgeously striking and utterly unforgettable. Blonde, I think ... and hurt, needing my help ... or did I in fact now actually need her help instead? I don't remember which ... perhaps it was both.