Second Chances / A Short Story by Rob Carver

MotoringFile is happy to present another short story from Rob Carver… not 100% about MINIs but a great read for a quiet weekend nonetheless.

Some things change in a big way, when you least expect it.

Just over a year ago, I went out on a solo run thru the eastern part of our county, putting on some fun miles thru some of my local twisties with Brooksie, not too fast and not slow by any means – just a relaxing drive on a nice day. I know people who live out that way and visited some on occaision, watching how most of 'em had found a place they obviously preferred to the City below. I gotta admit, it puts you closer to Nature, and not incidently, closer to some hellacious twisties! HeHe! Somehow, I'll always see an automotive connection whatever situation I'm in. The road was in lovely condition, the shadows just soft enough to give one's eyes a break, and the traffic was fairly light. Sure, there were a few doorstops, (minivans), road slugs (SUVs), and the almost obligatory local yokel pick-em-ups, but it was mostly a clean run with even a few turnarounds to try a different line or two. My favorite parts were the tightest series of turns in a heavily wooded 2-lane mountain road, with quick alternating lefties & righties, often blind – you had to learn the sequence 'cause you couldn't always see the approach of the next curve until you were just coming out of the one you were in. Makes me understand why Moss had Jenks along with a roll of notes in the '55 Mille Miglia – you can only memorize so much, certainly not as much as the locals, and it's very difficult being a reactive driver as opposed to a proactive one. I much prefer to know what's ahead by at least a turn or two, as I'm sure we all do. 😉 This run stands out for me for a different reason, as well – it was the last run I made there before the catstrophic fires here in So Cal last year.

I woke up very early one dark morning soon after that run, with the smell of smoke heavy in the air. I went outside, and I could see a glow in the east, frighteningly close I thought. Immediately, I made a decision to start packing up some of the more important items in the house, nothing major yet, but I had a feeling things were getting ugly. We had a close call a few years ago across the canyon where we live, but slurry bombin' Hercs stomped it out, thankfully. There's nothin' like watchin' one of 'em skimming the ridges to get the last bit of flame doused to make you appreciate their dedication and skill. I only hoped I wouldn't need them to hit my place this go-round. The TV only reinforced my fears – ginormous fires were scorching major parts of the county, outrunning the valiant efforts of the firefighters, and jumping freeways and valleys. I called into work and told 'em I wasn't leaving the house until I was comfortable with the situation, and they agreed – they closed early and sent everyone home.

The sun came up revealing ash all over everything, the light dusting on Brooksie and our other cars looking like a nuclear winter had arrived. I drove her over to the other side of our little suburb, and was appalled to see how black the smoke had become, and huge gouts of orange flame licking up to sky could be seen at a moderate distance – this changed even as I watched, and they seemed to jump forward. I got the hell outta there, got home and started packing valuables into our vehicles, and gassing 'em up in shifts. The announcement that the next neighborhood over had been evacuated to our local high school made me realize I might lose our home – something that really chills you to the bone, lemme tell ya. We spent the next few hours packing our Westy and the other cars, except for Brooksie. It was a painful choice, but we happened to have five vehicles, and only four drivers available, and poor Brooksie had the short straw – she couldn't carry enough to make her valuable in this particular situation. If we had to bug out, I figured I'd park her in a dead spot down the street by the curb, and hope the fires didn't get too close, altho I had already seen footage of at least 10 fire-storms on TV, some amazingly moving uphill faster than freeway speeds, it seemed. Finally we were packed, and the waiting began.

The long day dragged on, with more and worse news coming in every minute. At one point, the freeways on three sides of us were blocked – our only escape route would have been clogged, I was sure, even though it looked like buggin' out time was close. The long day turned into a long night, and somehow, we lucked out – and that's all it was, let's face it – the fire turned away from us and we could breathe a little sigh of relief. With a grin, I brought back the reprieved Brooksie, and figured she deserved a drive soon. I went into work the next day, and everyone had an edgy look – no one was sure the whole thing was really over. This was soon brought home to us in the most cruel manner – one of our co-workers, Christie, was missing, and things didn't look too good. She lived alone out by those very twisties I had been so assidiously dissecting, and the fire had hit there first, with little or no warning. As the day wore on, the word finally came down – sadly, she hadn't made it. It turned out the fire had been on her area so fast, it took only a second of hesitation and you were lost. She had gone next door to wake up a sleeping neighbor who worked the swing shift, who then got out OK, but she didn't make it back to her vehicle in time to escape herself. She was a cute, funny young lady, with a wicked dry wit, and the mildest tempermant of anyone I ever met. We're a small business, and it's like a family, so it was awful for weeks around work, and I really missed her – still do. Sometimes driving is a tonic for me, letting me concentrate on the mechanics of the thing and helping soothe the mind. When they opened up the backroads again, I took Brooksie out for twisties run, but what I got was totally unexpected.

The landscape looked like the airless moon, or an atomic bomb had hit – if it wasn't scalded down to bare rock, all that was left were miles & miles of black twisted skeletons of what used to be a lush green forest. I saw whole mountains for the first time, surprised and disconcerted – where the hell had they been all this time? I was driving Brooksie in a halting manner, and missing shift points slightly. The most amazing thing, though, was the road – you could see 3,4, sometimes 5, turns ahead and it seemed the whole world was turned upside down. Some corners I didn't even recognize until I was right on 'em – no landmarks, no familiarity, it was like I'd never been there before. I slowed down at one point, just marvelling at the extent of the destruction, trying to wrap my mind around the situation. I was totally discombobulated, and I had trouble concentrating on the road, so got outta there ASAP – I was sure I was gonna wreck, like it was inevitable. Very Scary.

The next time out that way, some weeks later, I was passing the the road Christie had lived on – total devastation, like a page outta Hell, and I had to blank my mind – it was too awful to contemplate. I don't go down that way anymore – the ghosts of what was keep intruding on my drives there – even Brooksie runs raggedly. I'm re-learning some of my favorite roads now, and a strange deja-vu is involved. This busy summer has precluded a lot of twisties fun, and I'm hoping it's greener when I go out again to those old haunts. Geez, that's appropriate, huh? Nowadays I see every run in Brooksie as a gift, and I'm even more thrilled when I have a really good one – you never know when your number's up, so get 'em while you can. Got another solo run coming up, and I'll be slamming along those strangely familiar twisties, the sunroof open and the windows down, listening to, say, the Flower Song from Lakme' , relaxing. Couldn't be better, dontcha know!

Rob in Dago

  • Uncle John

    Powerful story, Rob. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    I'm headed out to watch the angry clarinet participate in a band competition. We never miss one, cuz they will be done for good soon enough.

    But after we get home, I think I'll take Percy-Bob out for a spin. There are a few twisties here in flat-land that I haven't checked out in a while . . . Roof open, windows down.

  • Wow. Thank you Rob, and Gabe.

    “discombobulated” 😉

  • That was an intense story, Rob…thanks for posting it. I have a suggestion, though, and I hope you'll take it to be the constructive criticism it is intended to be.

    If I were you, I would tone down the nicknames, cutesy tone and verbosity. A story like this is ill-served by all of those things. Here's what I mean:

    • Evidently, you call your Mini “Brooksie.” That's fine, but you need to explain what “Brooksie” refers to. Similarly, you apparently have another car you call “Westy.” It's not entirely clear that Westy is a car; the sentence in question could mean that you loaded your dog (a Westhighland Terrier?) into a car. In the same vein, you call yourself “Rob in Dago.” I have no idea where Dago is, though it seems to be in Southern California. San Diego is my best guess, but I'm really not sure. I suspect few people outside of Southern California know where “Dago” is.

    • This fragment could be pretty confusing: “…but slurry bombin' Hercs stomped it out, thankfully. There's nothin' like watchin' one of 'em skimming the ridges…” I'm an aircraft geek, so I happen to know that you're referring to a C-130 Hercules firefighting plane dropping fire-retardant slurry. However, you leave less-geeky readers to deduce that a “slurry-bombin' Herc'” is an airplane. Granted, phrases such as “skimmin' the ridges” provide a hint, but why not just be clear?

    • Clarity and tone are the collective focus of my final point. You seem to enjoy usin' lotsa informal phrasin' and apostrophes in your writin', and although it does create a certain tone, I think it does a disservice to your otherwise solid story. In the context of your story, the death of a co-worker seems to demand a less jocular tone.

    I don't mean to sound schoolmarmish (though I probably do), but it seemed to me that such a worthwhile story could be even better with just a few changes.


    E. B. White

  • And for me, I enjoyed reading just as it was written. If I want stodgy clinical writing, I can watch CNN … MINIs are about emotion; let's keep it that way.

  • Mike

    I'm with you, Ian.

  • Make it three… amazing story Rob. Thanks for sharing.

  • EBMCS03

    Wow crazy story Rob! I remember those fires and that time of year last year as I was in San Diego, In La Jolla though kind of far from the real action but was scary none the less. The Dark skys and raining ash. I attended the Brecht MINI run two weeks ago and we drove though some of those burnt up roads by Julian and just see what you described, the burned landscape gave chills down my spine thinking we're driving down the same place where the crazy fires were last year.

    Thanks for the story.

  • William Strunk, Jr.

    Oh dear. When I posted my first comment, I really thought I was being helpful. Now, rereading my comment, I see that I wasn't. Rob never asked for an editor; he was just posting a story that we all agree is good. I'm sorry for what I posted.

    Thank you for posting the story, Rob. Pay my first post no mind.

  • Ken

    Don't worry Will. You've just learned an important lesson about car people. We like to figure things out. No matter if it's a story or a winding road that's part of the fun.

    Looking forward to more Rob and Gabe.

  • Scott


    Glad that you and Brooksie made it through. Sorry to hear about your friend.

    Keep on riding the twisties…


  • Hey Rob. Excellent story as we come up on the 1 year anniversary. I was living in the East county, specifically Santee, when these fires occured. (You can read about my experiences at I am guessing that you lived in or somewhere near that area based on your descriptions of certain things.

    I am sorry to hear about your co-worker. I used to work with a girl named Christie and I know she lived way out in the East county, (Alpine, I think). I haven't seen or heard from her in nearly 2 years since we both left the job we had together. I am left wondering if this is the same Christie.

    Take care Rob. Perhaps I'll see you on the road sometime.

  • Vanwall

    Thanks for the comments, it was somewhat theraputic for me just to put the words down on paper, er, whiteboard. Strangely enough, the local newspaper had a memorial piece on the fire victims today. If you've never lived through something like this, and I hope you never have to, BTW, it is a gut-wrenching reality check. I've never been confronted with the element of pure luck so forcefully before.

    For those who know the San Diego area, I'm in northern Mira Mesa, on the canyons. When I first drove my old Mini Cooper up here, this area was still wildlands, and cougar tracks mixed with deer tracks down in Cuervo Canyon below. This was the edge of civilisation for a while, just like the twisties runs are now. Just over to the west, Gurney, Hill, and the rest of the elite sports car pilotes ran on the old Torrey Pines road course in the Fifties, manhandling those big Jags, Masers, and Ferraris. Fast cars have always been around here, I guess.

    This time of year is really the best for twisties, as the turistas are back in their four-season states, and us locals can drive 'em with less of an eye for rubberneckers. The road and weather conditions can remain almost the same year-round, so when a big change from Mother Nature happens, it's effects are exaggerated out of all proportion. It is now possible to take the same twisties much faster now, but some of savvy has been taken out 'em. 🙁

    Thanks, again, for the comments. As for editors, I'm with Raymond Chandler, another local chap, who made good. You could look it up.

    Mind how you go, now –

         Rob in Dago

  • Deborah

    Had no idea who Raymond Chandler was until I googled him. Some interesting quotes… I too have wondered where Dago is.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the story Rob. I guess some part of me had no idea that with all our skills & technology forest fires can still take away more than the material world. It was a powerful story, thanks for sharing.

  • Jim

    Hey Rob,

    You're bringing back memories. I was lucky, too. I'm out a section of East County where the fire didn't get any closer than 4 or 5 miles.

    It was as you described, both metaphorically & literally. I remember being on a run through Pala, Julian, Lake Hodges, etc… on 10/24/03, with a bunch of fellow maniacs & west coasters. The next day, we were all scrambling for cover.

    Good writing shines, Rob. You hit it on the head.