The Puddle (Which Was No Puddle)

This tale highlights a time of my life when I was painfully naive.

I used to live in a town called Lismore, located in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales, Australia. Some Sunday evenings, we’d drive our cars up onto a hill overlooking the ocean in the nearby coastal town of Ballina. The track leading up was better suited for four wheel drives, but somehow my 1979 Toyota Corona seemed to get up there just fine.

It was on one of these Sunday evenings that we planned to head up and hang out on the hill top. I’m not sure if the message was lost in translation, but as I turned off the main highway and onto the dirt track, I was not aware that no one else was going to be there.

In the car with me was Jacinta*, a friend who was a good friend, but not who I’d have classified at the time as my girlfriend.

As the sun diminished in the sky, we crawled over the seaside terrain in my 2WD sedan, I noticed a puddle in front of us. It looked muddy and shallow. I drove towards it.

As the wheels of the car dropped down into the front of the puddle, I realised that I might have made a small error of judgement. Unlike previous shallow, muddy puddles that I had driven through, this ‘puddle’ had a decided drop. I attempted to slow the car only to realise that we had continued to slide forward.

At that precise moment, I realised that I had a decision to make. Would I slam on the brakes, hoping that my tyres would have enough grip to stop us from moving ever forward into this ‘deeper than I originally thought’ puddle, or should I gun the engine like I’d seen in the Dukes of Hazard and leap forward and through whatever awaited us? I chose to accelerate.

As the car surged forward, the reality of the ‘puddle’ became instantly apparent. Instead of a gentle slosh of water to drive through, the car was instantly awash with brown water. I kept my foot down on the accelerator, not through a deliberate choice but really through a sense of blind panic. The front of the car angled downwards on an impossible angle. This puddle was more like a muddy crevasse.

I once heard a well-meaning counsellor tell me that sometimes you need to find rock bottom before you can make positive choices. As the front of the Toyota Corona slammed into the bottom of this underwater gully, his words echoed through my mind. I kept a terrified foot firmly down on the accelerator. The front wheels of the car bounced on the bottom before we surged through and started to moved through the water and pleasantly up the other side. 

“Could this be the sweet taste of freedom?” I thought to myself.

Just as I started giving myself imaginary high fives and started congratulating myself on my incredible driving skills, the car slowed to a stop, even as the wheels continued to spin. We had lost traction. In fact, not only were we no longer moving forward, we had started to slowly slide backwards. The brown water had not finished with us.

I threw the car into reverse and once again smashed my foot down on the accelerator. This time we rocketed backwards and a wave of brackish brown water leapt into the air as we plunged back into this muddy chasm.

Once again we bounced off the bottom of what I now realised was an ocean inlet. This time it was my back tyres which bounced up and through the water. Once again I felt our progress slow and I applied the brake, hoping we’d be able to make it out.

We came to a stop. The front half of the car had remained under brown water which lapped a few inches up the windscreen. I felt my seatbelt straining to keep me in my seat as gravity had us leaning forward. We had, at least, stopped.

The whole episode up to that point had taken a few seconds at most. But the sun had now gone down.  

I turned to Jacinta. She was white as a ghost and deathly quiet. Brown water started to seep into the front footwells. The car was at an awkward 45-degree angle, half in and half out of the water.

We decided to head into the back to put some weight on the rear axle to keep it from slipping, and also to move out of the incoming water. Just before we started to move, I did what I’d been trained to do in an emergency: I put the hazard lights on.

As we gathered our thoughts, we watched the water seep in. There was the vaguest of flashing lights deep in the brown water in front of us. Apart from the vague flashing lights the darkness was only occasionally broken by the lights we could see off in the distance on the highway.

I have no recollection of Jacinta uttering a word the whole time of our predicament. But at some stage it was decided that I should go out and try to push the car out of its scary perch.

I opened the back door and started wading down into the water.

To be honest, we’d just been at a local church, and I was wearing my “Sunday Best”, which for a poor music university student was probably a flannelette shirt, some torn jeans and some old pointy Windsor Smith shoes. Nevertheless, I felt a little put out as I waded into the water.

As I moved down into the water, I knew that it was of no use. The water was too deep for me to stand, let alone heave a 1979 Toyota Corona up a 45 degree incline in shoes that had their own loss of traction on the slippery slope. I was wet, muddy and as I looked at the car windows, now misted up from Jacinta’s resolute refusal to leave the car, I felt quite alone.

After a while, and as I stood there contemplating my next move, I saw lights making their way toward me. It was a police car. Somehow the police were driving up the highway and had seen the hazard lights flashing on the back of the car sticking up into the air. They were curious.

They bumped to a stop nearby. I wondered over. Jacinta had yet to make an appearance, yet I could see that she’d made an attempt to demist the fogged-up windows by rolling them down a little.

What the police saw was a car with it’s tail up in the air, it’s bonnet deep under water and hazard lights flashing, seemingly impervious to the electrics being completely submerged. As the police officers peeked into the car to make sure that everyone was safe in the vehicle, they saw Jacinta sitting on the back seat, both the front seats folded back (to allow us to move out of the flooded footwells) and very fogged-up windows from Jacinta's long wait. Needless to say, they both burst out in loud (and in my opinion very un-police-like) belly-laughs. Their laughter only increased as they examined my license which declared me to be a city boy from Sydney.

I stood there shaking mud out of my pointy Windsor Smith shoes feeling decidedly nonplussed. It was now about midnight.

The police radioed for assistance, happily telling all who were listening about these city kids who had gotten themselves into trouble.

They raised the local roadside assistance club’s tow truck driver to come and tow us out. The police officers were then called to another situation and left us.

I stood there again on my own, my feeling of loneliness only amplified by the mechanical noises of the hazard lights flicking on and off, on and off, on and off. An hour passed.

Soon some new lights started bobbing their way over to me. It was the roadside assistance club’s tow truck complete with driver.

I blame the television commercials I’d seen - that one with a cheerful, smiling, caring roadside assistance club’s tow truck driver pulling alongside a family with perfect teeth, slapping a high-five with a youngster and, after fixing their vehicle, waving them off to a pleasant future - for setting me up for a monstrously big reality check.

Unlike the advertisement I’d seen, the first words from my roadside assistance club’s tow truck driver were basically, “I was ____ asleep you ____ ____. You ____ woke me up for ____ this ____?” he exclaimed whilst waving his hand at my 1979 Toyota Corona which it’s hazard lights blinking away.

He did say a lot more than the above, but I don’t deem it appropriate to write it out here. My shock of the imagined courtesy I was about to receive and the reality of the roadside assistance club’s tow truck driver turning up and swearing at me had left me temporarily agog.

Apart from some occasional moving shadows within the fogged up car, I’m not sure what Jacinta thought.

The roadside assistance club’s tow truck driver reversed towards my car and promptly got bogged. A string of expletives found their way out the tow-truck driver’s window and I surmised that I should push him out while he drove.

I started to push. His wheels spun. As sodden a mess as I thought I was originally, mud now caked every part of me, thrown up by his spinning tyres. I felt some movement and the tow truck lurched forward. I fell on my face in the rocky dirt.

As I looked up, I realised that the roadside assistance club’s tow truck driver hadn’t bothered stopping, but instead accelerated away. I saw brake lights before he turned onto the highway and was lost to view.

Again I found myself standing alone, the rhythmical flashing of the hazard lights my only friend. Jacinta could have been a planet away.

I scoured the horizon for any sign of assistance. I went back in my head to think of what I’d heard amidst the expletive laden abuse hurled out the roadside assistance club’s tow truck driver’s window at me. Nothing led me to a conclusion that he would ever return.

A light rain began to fall. What did I care? It began to loose small clumps of sodden earth from my clothing and wash it away. It was almost like a scene from a famous movie where a prisoner escapes from a drain pipe. The main difference was that his face had a smile on it. My face revealed despair.

A car slowed on the highway. It wasn’t big enough to be a tow truck. It was the police back again to have another chuckle at those city kids who couldn’t tell a puddle from an ocean inlet.

They stayed in the car this time as they didn’t want to get wet. They rolled down a window just enough to ask me if the roadside assistance club’s tow truck driver had been yet. I explained the situation. “Did he say if he was coming back?” they asked.

As I contemplated the question, my attention was drawn to a lightening of the sky. Had so much time passed that the sun was now coming up? It became brighter and brighter. The whole horizon was on fire. Soon I had to look away, the light was burning my eyes. Then it dimmed a little and I realised that it was a massive truck, loaded with light bars and now reversing it’s way off the highway over the rocks.

The police sat there and watched it all unfold. Here was one of the heavy vehicle haulers that I’d only ever seen in movies. It finally came to an abrupt halt well away from any boggy terrain. I looked up as the roadside assistance club’s tow truck driver jumped down. He walked around to the back of this massive truck and pulled a lever. A big cable came loose. Using the foulest of expletives, he pointed at my car and indicated that I should walk the cable out to it. He went back to the dry, warm cab of his monster truck.

The rain bounced on my shoulders. I walked the cable out until the roadside assistance club’s tow truck driver was satisfied with it’s proximity to my vehicle. He jumped out and hooked it up to the back of the car. I caught an instruction amongst his tirade that I should man the steering wheel of my car whilst he towed it out.

I waded down and then through the submerged driver’s side doorway of my 1979 Toyota Corona. After all, I couldn’t get any wetter than I was. I heard nary a peep from Jacinta in the back of the car. 

I couldn’t see a thing. All the windows were fogged up. The work lights of the truck had made it that I couldn’t even see behind the car by rolling down the driver’s window. I pushed open the door and signalled that the tow should begin. I leant slightly out the doorway. I heard a mechanical noise and we started to move backwards, the hazard lights continuing on in their determined manner.

I was so intent on looking behind me as I steered, that I didn’t at first notice my open door get hung up on a rock buried deeply beside the car. I realised that there was no way that I could signal the roadside assistance club’s tow truck driver from where I sat. I shrugged my shoulders and kept steering. The door got wider and wider.

I only realised the full size of the huge buried stone when it was wrenched from it’s depths by the door of my car. It was the half the size of my 1979 Toyota Corona sedan. It rolled finally away as my door proved its worth. Finally the car was fully out of the deep muddy waters and sat nobly on all four tyres on the wet, rocky ground.

Water started cascading out of the car and, to my surprise, I found the keys still in the ignition. I turned the keys more out of interest than anything else. The motor roared to life. 

I saw a Chuck Norris movie when I was a kid where he was buried alive in his truck. He started the engine and drove out from his intended grave. When my engine burst to life, the police officers and roadside assistance club’s tow truck driver were as stunned as if Chuck Norris had just driven out of his fictional grave.

After that, everything went very quickly. The police officers drove off to a crime scene somewhere, the roadside assistance club’s tow truck driver waved a thick sheaf of “_____ papers” in my face and drove off into the distance along with his heavy hauler.

I was left with my car, Jacinta in her dignified aloofness, and a metric tonne of water swishing about inside the car.

We drove sloshily away, water moving about the car with every corner and use of the semi-working brakes.

The only place I knew that was open at the time where I could find something to bail out the car was the Big Prawn at Ballina. We pulled in just as a Sydney to Brisbane Bus stopped in. I’m not sure what the passengers thought when they saw me grabbing a bucket and starting to bail out the car as best as I could. I shudder to think what I looked like at the time. Haggard, muddy and yet with a new grin on my face.

I dropped Jacinta home and drove back to my house. The next day I removed all the seats and carpets in the car and hang them out to dry. Eventually I put the drivers seat back in and drove around just like that for a long time while the car dried out.

That wasn’t the first adventure for my 1979 Toyota Corona, and certainly wasn’t the last. But I always shuddered anytime I had to drive through a puddle from that time on.

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

[Puddle photo credit: Louis-Charles Blais]