It was a cold Pearl Harbor Day morning in 1976 as I arose to head to work. This morning our crew was going to one of the Sears-Roebuck stores to do some painting before the shoppers arrived. Typically, we would enter a store about 6 AM. We would paint for two hours, then head to our “day job”. Today took us back to a large residence in Highland Park, Texas.
Due to the cold and our longer-than-usual day, we stopped work early. It was payday so we turned in our hours and received our checks.
I was dead tired!
I jumped into my 1967 Black SunRoof Beetle with the Brick-red interior, pulled the heat and defrost levers upright and headed home. It soon became quite cozy in that Beetle and I would doze at each stop light.
At Lawther and Northwest Highway, I recall quite distinctly awaking from such a snooze and starting with the rest of traffic. I was about half-way home by now. The next recollection was the sound of crunching gravel, and a whack as I knocked down a shoulder marker.
Directly ahead loomed larger than life the first of three depressions where run-off water from the divided roadway collected. It was about half full.
Whether it was aloud or not, I cannot remember, but I said “Help me God!” and held fast to the steering wheel as the car launched into space and ker-splashed into the “drink”!
Water poured through the speaker grill, through the glove box, through the radio. The car came to rest and immediately began to sink. I opened the driver’s door and started swimming, then realized that the water was not that deep. I waded to the shore and climbed the bank. Looking back at the car, I noticed that the oil and generator lights were shining—I had left the key on. Probably in shock, because at that point it mattered not that the key was on or off, I clambered down the bank and waded to the car, reached in and turned off the key and pocketed it.
On the bank, I had not long to contemplate my plight. A squad car rolled onto the median and the officer approached me. After I explained what had happened, he offered me a seat in his car. The warmth of the heater was comforting to a cold and shivering guy. I laid my pay check on the dash to dry.
About that time, a TV reporter arrived on the scene. He came to the patrol car and tapped on the window. I lowered the window a bit. He asked me for a statement. I responded, “Will it bring my car back?” Then I raised the window. Later, a friend told my wife that she had seen the story on TV that evening. The reporter told the viewers that “…because of the women and children in the audience, we cannot repeat what the driver said.” I was incensed because I had said nothing offensive to anyone. Apparently the reporter devised that to cover his lack of any comments at all from me.
Someone called Fire-Rescue. Then, a tow truck arrived. After surveying the situation, one of the firemen donned a wet suit and hauled the business end of the tow cable into the water and attached it to the bumper bracket. I tried to explain that he needed to attach to something more substantial but I was told that I should be glad that someone was working to remove my car from the water. I watched as the man opened both doors. By this time, the car had settled into the murky water so that only the windows and the top of the car were showing.
The tow operator began winching the car from the water. Water poured from its interior. When the car was on the bank and secured to the truck, the tow driver announced, “…this car is going to the pound!” He said it loudly but to no one in particular. I protested. He checked again and was told to do a private tow for the customer. Those were happy words!
The drive home was uneventful. I sat in the front seat of the tow truck contemplating my next move. That tow cost me $40, which was a chunk in those days.
I opened the car’s doors, decklid and trunk, cranked back the sun roof and removed the seats.
And, it was night!
My next move was to drain and clean the gas tank and to replace the “black box”. The weather turned colder and everything H2O froze. I could not drain the oil. It was a couple of days later that I could drain the oil and refill the crankcase. The engine started and I drove around the neighborhood until the engine had warmed. Back at the house, I again drained, then added fresh oil. She was good to go.
I did replace the front bumper, thanks to a local salvage yard. My dad, who was at our house at the time, tightened the bolts of the passenger front fender—which had tried to part ways with the body when I hit that shoulder marker.
The only other effect noticed came to light some time later. My father and I had been on an errand across town. When we returned home and had parked the car, I noticed a tiny column of smoke emanating from beneath the back seat. I disconnected the battery and replaced the regulator. The points had frozen shut due to the remaining moisture in the box.
For many months, I was reminded of my mishap every time I passed the spot. Someone had pushed the shoulder marker upright again, although it bore the mark of my bumper. And my tire tracks were clearly visible. Needless to say—this was one wake-up call which I never have forgotten!
The result of the poor attachment of the tow hook to the bumper bracket was that the car was slightly hiked up at that point.
As I look back, I think of other cars which have “gone swimming” but which took much more time and money to resurrect than did that humble Beetle. In fact, today’s cars probably would not make it back onto the roadway—they would become salvage vehicles.
There were a couple of funny things to come out of this disaster. A magnetic sticker which I had purchased and put onto the dash read “When Life Gives You Lemons—Make Lemonade”. While the car’s doors were open and things were drying—someone stole that sticker!
I had a wonderful wool stocking cap in the glove box. My wife put that into the dryer, not thinking about the wool aspect of it. When she retrieved the cap, it had shrunk so much that it would fit a small doll perfectly! We have laughed about that over the years!