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Posted: December 3, 2008 5:00 a.m.

I'm thankful

 One Saturday night in early 1969, as a high school senior who should have known better, I decided to see how fast my 1964 Impala sport coupe could go. Bought for $995 just a few months before, my sweet baby had a 327 V8, a Muncie 4-speed and new state-of-the-art, wide oval, Tiger Paw red-stripe tires on her.
 It was a perfect Georgia winter's night. My favorite constellations of Orion, Taurus and the Pleiades seemed close enough to touch in the clear, black velvet sky. To escape the town's lights, I drove three miles west of Greensboro to where the Carey's Station dirt road crossed the not-yet-completed I-20. The Milky Way hovers directly over that bridge in winter time, though nowadays the headlights of interstate traffic and glare from a dozen billboards has ruined that spot for stargazing.
 Back in 1969, after marveling at the constellations for a time, after pondering light speed, the breadth of the universe, the fact that Columbus and Magellan had seen the same stars and that the light which left them in Columbus' time still hasn't gotten to earth yet, and after considering man's puny life span and the mysteries of existence, I spun up the 327 and headed for home.
 It was really late, or very early, when I hit the long stretch of road traversing the valley formed by the Richland Creek just west of Greensboro. That night it was wide open and deserted. My Chevy was chomping at the bit, the 327 burbling throatily through the dual exhausts, and I was a bulletproof 17-year-old.
  So, I popped third gear and accelerated into the valley, shifting into fourth at about 90. As I scorched over Richland Creek and started the long, gentle climb to the city limits, I was right at 115, and I knew that was all my Chevy could give me.
 As I let off the gas pedal and let her slow, I witnessed one of the most amazing things I've ever seen. A shooting star fell from the crystal clear night sky, so close and vivid that despite all I'd read about distances being deceiving, I was certain the meteorite had come to Earth just ahead and to the right. Almost on top of a dirt road joining from the right, I got on my brakes, downshifted and made the turn.
 Rolling my window down, I shifted into first and let the '64 idle down the middle of the dirt road as I scanned for that falling star. And as the 327 loped along at 5 miles an hour, I had another amazing experience.
 My front right tire blew out.
 Anyone who's experienced a blowout, particularly on a front wheel, knows how startling it can be. The new Tiger Paw was tubeless, and the wheel's steel rim dug quickly into the soft sand, bringing the Chevy to a lurching halt near the right shoulder of the road.
 Alighting, I assessed the situation, retrieved the spare and the jack from the trunk, while still looking around for that star.
 And then it hit me. If I hadn't seen that falling star, I'd have been running about 105 when the tire blew, instead of idling down a dirt road. My '64 Chevy had no seat belts, the dash was solid metal, and the steering column was a non-collapsible spear pointed directly at the driver's heart. At 17, with limited experience handling high-speed blowouts, instead of looking for a shooting star, I'd have most likely been one.
 So, I stopped and thanked God for letting me survive and as I got into changing the tire, I thought about a few more things.
 I was thankful my dad had taught me how to block the opposite rear wheel so it wouldn't give and roll on the soft dirt road. I knew how to position the jack just right to allow for the weight of the car to shift as it drove the stand down into the dirt. Daddy taught me to break the lugs loose before I started jacking a car up, so the force of breaking them loose wouldn't cause the car to topple over on me. And, I had the spare propped up against the car, aligned with the lugs for a quick swap out.
 Another thought hit me even harder, though, as I finished. By driving as fast as I could, I had stupidly dishonored the memory of a great childhood friend, Billy Curtis.
 Billy had gotten a 1967 Ford Fairlane GTA when he turned 16. With the 289 hi-performance engine and dual exhausts, it was one sweet, fast machine. One night Billy was in Eatonton, and very near the bridge which now spans Lake Oconee at the Greene County line, and got into racing some Putnam County boys.
 Somehow, as his GTA walked away, Billy got sideways in the road, and he died in the broadside crash that ensued.
 I've tried never to forget the lesson Billy Curtis taught me that night. Billy paid for the costliest lesson of all with his own life, teaching me how precious and short our time here really is.
 I was cold, I remember. As I finished changing the tire, I looked up and watched my breath as I exhaled and wondered if Billy Curtis had somehow sent that shooting star my way, to get me off the gas pedal and onto that dirt road.
 As Thanksgiving approaches every year, I remember my friend and am thankful for the time he was here. I am thankful for the 40 years of starry nights I've seen, and the experiences I've had that he missed.
 I wish I could tell him that I'd never done anything else stupid in a car, but that'd be a lie. I have tried, though, to live decently - mindful of the cost of the lesson he bought for me.
 As Thanksgiving arrives, despite problems facing America, there is still much to be thankful for. And among my many blessings, I'm particularly thankful for a lesson learned on a cold winter's night in 1969, and for a friend named Billy Curtis.

 Nat Harwell is a resident of Newton County. His column appears in The Covington News on Sundays.

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