December days in California’s San Joaquin Valley are cold, overcast, and often foggy. Tule fog, foggy. That is the fog where visibility can go from 600 feet to zero feet with little or no warning; there just is no way of knowing where it is going to be at its worst, and danger is the operative word for any fogbound day.
Imagine then, a December evening in the early 1960s; the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Fog had kept most of us housebound for days; but lifted that particular afternoon, and it was time for something fun. I was ready, my boyfriend was ready, and our friends in the back seat of his car were ready. It was dark, and we were eagerly headed for our favorite Saturday night pastime, cruising 10th and 11th Streets of Modesto, California, which has been immortalized in the biographical movie, American Graffiti.
That was my town, they were my classmates, and we most definitely cruised the streets, looking and behaving pretty much like those kids in the movie. Cars crawled at a snail’s pace as we cruised along, windows were partially down, rock and roll, played by radio station KFIV, blared from our radios, and kids shouted greetings, or teenage insults to occupants in the cars next to us. It was so fun, and so cool, we hardly could contain ourselves.
We had been cruising for hours when my boyfriend noticed the time. It was 11:45, and I had a midnight curfew. He was scared silly of my dad, and rightfully so. There was no way he intended to start the new year off on my dad’s knucklehead list; so being 17, and driving one of Modesto’s faster cars, he decided to make a dash for it, and get me home on time.
Not his best move. We were tearing lickity split down McHenry Avenue, another of Modesto’s main streets, when the flashing red lights came on behind us. Our friend in the back seat began shouting to gun it; we could outrun the cop. I on the other hand, was having a major meltdown, and was begging him to pull over, which he finally did.
I always have obeyed rules, laws, and society’s requests to behave like a civilized person. I was elected to student government, took college prep classes, and my friends and I were the lifeblood of rally, and heart of our school spirit. My boyfriend, on the other hand, was known in his school and mine (we attended rival high schools, but he and I had friends in both) as a rebel, and there was no rule he did not take as a personal challenge to be broken, if at all possible. In my day, the bad boy held enormous attraction to teenage girls, and I had found his reputation and brass irresistible. Until I was sitting in his car, and a policeman was shining his flashlight in my face, asking questions, and grilling all of us like we were criminals.
Looking back, it was so simple. Who are you? What is your address? Who are your parents? What have you been doing tonight? Where are you going? Do you know how fast you were driving? Did you notice the fog is back, and you can’t see 500 feet down the road?
Just answer the questions! I had no problem, and readily told the officer everything he wanted to know. I admit I did start to cry, because I have been, and always will be a stress crier. I was so scared, I would have promised my first-born to the policeman, if he would just let me go, and not tell my parents I had been pulled over.
Not so for my Rebel Just Because boyfriend. He was sullen, disrespectful, and rude to the policeman. He argued, and behaved as though he was hiding something awful. I was sitting next to him listening to his nonsense, and became convinced Mr You Can’t Make Me Talk was going to get us both thrown in jail before the night was over. And our friends in the back seat were no help. They kept encouraging him to stand up for his rights, and not be pushed around by the Pig. Oh my gosh, were they all nuts? I just wanted to get this over with and go home.
A ticket was issued, we were lectured on driving in the fog, and getting home safely, and I personally promised this would never happen again. Then to make the evening just a little more terrifying? I realized what time it was. I was so past my curfew, it dawned on me going to jail might have been a far better alternative to what I was going to face when I got home. We proceeded in silence, and when we pulled up to my house, there was nothing comforting any of my friends could say to me. They all knew how strict my dad was, and anticipated I probably was going to be grounded for the rest of my life once I stepped inside my home.
I said good night to them, and told my boyfriend it would be better if I went up to my door alone. He was in complete agreement, and as soon as I was out of his car, he gunned it and left my neighborhood as fast as he could. My hands were shaking as I unlocked the front door, and went inside. This was it. I braced myself. And then I heard it. Nothing. Everyone was sound asleep. All my anxiety and terror were swept away in a heartbeat the moment I comprehended no one knew I was late, much less had just encountered and survived Modesto’s finest juvenile delinquent crime buster.
The next morning, I cut the jelly bean off the back of my boyfriend’s class ring. It had taken so long to build it up, so his ring would fit my finger, and I marveled at how fast I was able to remove my hard work, and get that ring ready for its return to him. I called, and arranged a meeting at our favorite pizza parlor. There was no need to go inside; we just stood in the parking lot, and talked. All I had to do was give his ring back, and explain this was not a good relationship for either of us. I have no recall of exactly what I said, but I do remember he looked blank, and then summed up his part of the breakup with an enthusiastic, “Okay.” That was it. He and I both got back into our cars, and drove away. In the Tule fog. We disappeared from each other so easily, and so fittingly, it was like something from a movie. Or at least a movie I would have written when I was 16.
My friends and I still cruised after the breakup. Anyone could participate in the ritual; rocking and rolling up 10th and down 11th Streets, laughing and calling to each other as we drove. There never has been a time, nor a place that stirred such feelings as those days when we could put a dollar’s worth of gas in one of our cars, and drive in circles all night long. We were innocent, full of pluck, and believed when the fog descended, all we had to do was roll our windows down, and listen for the danger. We learned better over time, but for then, it was enough to simply be young, confident, and in love with our American Graffiti days.