Wednesday, November 13, 2019

“The Toggle Switch” by Julie Shaw


“Gentlemen and young lady, start your engines!” the race announcer called out.

This is it, I thought.   What the fuck am I doing?

My stomach turned and my heart was racing. There was no turning back now. All the hype around tonight, all the work the guys had gone through to get me here.
All the work I had done to get here.

I was actually on the track. Lined up with 20 other cars, our front ends facing the track wall.  I looked up at the stands and there they all were, cheering and waving and jumping up and down!  My friends. The gang.

I was on the track instead of in the stands for a change. And boy was I ready to kick up some dirt!

I leaned my right hand down to turn the key.… Oh shit, I forgot, it’s the toggle switch!  I quickly flicked it up. Nothing. Again, up and down. Still nothing. Grrrrrr this stupid bloody…

Vrrrooooom.

Whew, ok there we are. Ahhhhh, I’m really going to do this!

I heard the announcer again, “And can we point out that tonight we have a lovely young lady in car #17.  She’s from Bolton and this is her first time in our Smash-Up Derby. Good luck Miss.”

A couple of months before, just after my 17th birthday, I’d casually mentioned to my sisters’ boyfriend that I wanted to join him the next time he went in a Derby. In retrospect, I never really thought he took me all that seriously. I was his girlfriends’ younger sister. 

But one day he showed up with not one but two cars from the wrecking yard. Mine was $50. Not bad.  Only problem was there were no keys. “But don’t worry, Jules, we’ll come up with something,” Dan said.

He had been in these Wreck ‘em races before and won. He was the typical type of guy we seemed to hang around all our lives. Talking cars, fixing cars, talking to my dad about cars. I felt left out. 

Let’s face it, I was bored to tears with the girls and what they always talked about, which was usually how the guys had done such and such to piss them off. Yawn. I just couldn’t stand it. Thank goodness I wasn’t one of the girlfriends. I didn’t want to be in that box – well, not really.

Problem was, I grew up in a garage. Not literally of course, but our garage holds a large portion of my memories.

I still think about the way it was carefully organized so we could find whatever tool my Dad asked us to get. I think about the smell of engine grease and the warmth of the furnace on a cold winter’s night heating the workshop. Always set to a temperature that welcomed you to stay for a while.

It was bigger than our house. Which wasn’t hard given our house was a three bedroom, 900-square foot bungalow. But the garage could house four vehicles and had a small workshop in one corner as well and an oil burning furnace in the other. It was home. At least a very significant part of our home I would come to realize more and more.

I grew up wanting so badly to make my dad proud of me, to the point of never really worrying what my mother thought. I was definitely not a girly girl. It just wasn’t in the cards. Not when your dad calls you “Ralph” and asks you to help him from the time you could hold a wrench in your tiny hand.

The garage was just a stone’s throw from the house, but at times I’m sure my mother felt it might as well have been 1,000 miles away. It was his mistress in many ways. Not just a hobby. But a long, passionate love affair.

Or maybe she didn’t mind as he was out of her hair and she had the house to herself.
Who knows? It worked for them.

It was part of my foundation. And even if I didn’t realize it at the time, it shaped a large part of the path I would take.

Anyway, that was how I found myself in this smash-up derby, cars all around me revving their engines.

Dan instructions had been simple: “Jules, make sure you don’t hit with your front end so the engine can keep going and you can stay in the race.”

Easy for him to say; he was driving an old station wagon with a good size rear end for just this purpose. My Oldsmobile was going to have to be good enough.

The flag went down. Here we go!

I backed out fast and tried to quickly get out of the path of those who had already made contact. I turned my head around and started reversing, aiming for no one in particular. I’d eventually have to hit someone. I built up speed, a lot of speed. How had not yet touched a single car?  Where did they all go?

And then it came.

That I had been able to go a fair distance meant I was at a good clip by the time I smashed into the car. Wham!  My neck whipped backwards; I could feel it tear in several places from my chin down to my chest. Yikes that was bad. And it’d only just begun.

I put the gear in drive and started to move forward, but someone had spotted me and was reversing at full speed into my front end. Wham again!  He put his car in forward and I switched to reverse. But we weren’t going anywhere. Our tires spun up dirt as we both swayed back and forth – a tug-of-war with tin.

Our bumpers were locked. We were stuck together like glue!  Shit. What now?

The next thing I knew there were hits on me from every angle. I felt it on my right side, then my rear end. You were never supposed to go for a driver side door – those were the rules – but I was now engulfed in a huge cloud of smoke. A driver couldn’t see where my door was or which side they were hitting. Dammit. Someone’s engine was overheated – wait it was mine!

I reached over with my right hand to feel the fire extinguisher and make sure it was there. Regulations were to have one strapped to the floor at arms-length from the driver. That along with no other seats, the door welded shut, and no glass – we had kicked out the windshields and windows.

I flick the toggle switch to stop my engine.  It broke off in my hand!

I could hear cars still whizzing by me, the crunch of metal on metal. But I couln’t see a thing, barely even my gloved hands gripping the steering wheel while I hope the madness will be over soon.

Finally it ended. They announced the winner. I think it was Dan, again. Ha, of course.

The smoke finally subsided enough and I knew the drivers were climbing out of their cars, so I clumsily followed. I could see the guy who had connected bumpers with me heading over at a rapid pace. He was pissed. I would’ve been too. His engine was fine to keep going but I couldn’t get out of the reverse gear in order for him to at least drag me with him.

I quickly reached for my helmet and yanked it off. He stopped dead in his tracks. I could see it on his face. Shit. I was the girl! He stood there looking at me. I stood there looking at him. I think he wanted to punch me – in fact I’m sure of it.

Maybe that was the one good thing about being the only girl on the dirt. He really couldn’t do a damn thing.

I had no idea that during all this, my sister was yelling and crying in the stands to stop the race, as she couldn’t see me through the smoke. Apparently, it was upsetting to see your younger sister getting smashed by two-ton vehicles over and over and over again.  

She didn’t even care that her boyfriend Dan had won, just that I was okay.

Later that night, after the cars had all been towed off the track and people were packing up, I leaned against my truck and stared up at the sky. It was filled with stars.

I had done something fun.

I had done something unexpected.

I had done something I will never do again.

My neck was already stiff and sore, backwards whiplash the doctor called it a few days later. Nonetheless, I had done it. I wished my Dad was there to watch me, but he’d refused.

“Come on, Jules,” dan said. “Hurry up. We’re all heading back to Johnny B’s.”

I snapped out of my thoughts and started to pull off the blue mechanics coveralls. Something fell to the ground. Reaching down I grabbed it quickly and looked. It was the toggle switch.

Now, it’s almost thirty years later and I don’t have a single picture or video from that night. Nothing captured I was even there, that it actually happened. There were no smart phones back then – back when we lived to just live. In the moment. Just for the night.

But I did keep that toggle switch. It did happen.

Julie Shaw has taken time away from her career in media and advertising to adopt and raise her son. She’s also taken this time to reignite her creative side.  Julie’s love of writing began at a young age, alongside her passion for restoring classic cars. Julie’s adventures in life have kept her busy writing personal essays she hopes to one day share in a memoir. She lives in Oakville with her husband, son, and their beloved dog, Maggie.

See Brian Henry’s schedule here, including Saturday writing workshops, weekly writing classes, and weekend retreats in Algonquin Park, Alliston, Bolton, Barrie, Brampton, Burlington, Caledon, Collingwood, Georgetown, Georgina, Guelph, Hamilton, Jackson’s Point, Kitchener-Waterloo, London, Midland, Mississauga, New Tecumseth, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Sudbury, Toronto, Windsor,  Woodstock, Halton, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York Region, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.

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