A Monster Truck Almost Killed Me

When I was five years old, I learned to ride a bike my Dad picked up on the side of the road for free. It didn’t have training wheels; My parents left me alone in my front yard with the creaky machine until I figured it out, which didn’t take long. After thirty minutes living life two wheels at a time, I decided I had mastered the art and needed to increase the difficulty. I left the bike laying on its side at the top of the hill that made up my front yard. With a 2×4 and a paint can, I walked down the slope to the edge of the manicured lawn to the overgrown field that marked the border of our homes parcel. I built a ramp, an irresponsible design with a near forty-five degree pitch due to the height of the paint can and the shortness of the board.

I came down that hill as fast as my tiny legs could pump that rickety old bikes pedals. I could hear my mothers screams behind me, but I was hell-bent for glory. I never slowed down, I didn’t even stop pedaling, I hit the ‘ramp’ with reckless abandon. The wood and can contraption, apparently as shocked as my poor mother from the sudden impact of the solid rubber tires, immediately crumpled under the force. My bike twisted sideways violently as the whole thing came apart under me. It sent my front tire hard into the ground, and my tiny body vaulted over the handlebars through the air.

I remember laying on my back in the tall grass staring at the sky, wondering how the stars were so bright this time of day. I couldn’t breathe, the wind knocked out of me, though I wasn’t sure when it happened. My mother rushed to my limp body, her face a mask of horror. I gathered a gasp of air and asked, “Did you see that?”

I was an awkward child desperate for excitement and adventure. My parents lived in a log cabin they built themselves on my grandfather’s land far from other children, which compounded my awkwardness. It was an off-grid homestead before that sort of thing was cool. The logs were hand cut, our water came from a hand pump, there was no electricity, and the nearest road was three miles away.

I lived inside my head in worlds made entirely of imagination; I wore costumes, staged elaborate plays, all the characters played by me to an audience of myself. I befriended woodland creatures, including an entire pack of Coyotes: that’s a different story entirely. I was basically Snow White meets Huck Finn.

If you could see yourself living a life without electricity, plumbing, or friends to play with, you could imagine how I felt about attending the county fair. To me, the fair was sacred. It was a fantasy of flashing lights, and music, colorful barkers calling for you to play their loud games for the promise of stuffed toys. The fair was my Mecca and Disneyland combined.

For such an event, it was important for me to look my best, so I dressed as a cowboy. Boots, jeans, chaps, belt buckle, hat and bandanna, and a set of tiny cowboy revolvers, the whole shebang. In my defense, I looked cute as hell riding the tiny train ride, pretending I was robbing the damn thing.

The smells and sounds of the county fair were intoxicating, deep fried dough, pizza, french fries with a special ketchup blend that I’ve never been able to recreate in normal life. The rides alone promised a world of imaginative adventure from the classic car rides with their deep metallic flake paint jobs, bumper cars, and a dozen terrifying contraptions that my mother promised would make me vomit. “You don’t want to ride that, Daniel, it’s a puke machine!” and as if on cue, a stream of half digested hot dogs splattered against the pavement, threatening to make me spill my french fries. I decided that maybe this ride was not for me.

My five-year-old heart was alive with joy and excitement. I had never seen anything so incredible! That was until my dad uttered the following words, “Do you want to watch stuntmen jump cars through a ring of fire?”

I didn’t even understand what was being said. The words just made no sense to me put together in that order. I pondered the possibilities of what it could mean, and if what my dad had said was true, then I agreed that I surely didn’t want to miss something like that.

We entered a large barn area underneath the grandstand which housed cows, sheep and chickens which all seemed to have medals, trophies, or ribbons associated with them. Whatever these animals did, I knew I was in the presence of champions. We made our way to the other side of the animal exhibit and exited to a large dirt oval track, on either side of us were rows and rows of wooden bench seats. The bare wood and chipped paint betrayed their age. The seats climbed into the sky higher than anything I could imagine, bigger than a mountain. I wanted to pick a seat right at the front, but my parents assured me we should go higher so we could see everything.

We climbed a few rows and picked a spot roughly a third of the way up, which I was certain was taller than our house. Down below, I could see people raking the dirt track and moving things around. “Is this the show? Where are the stunt men?” I asked, tilting my over-sized stetson hat up towards my dad. He assured me it would start soon.

Finally, after what I assumed was an eternity, the show announcers voice came over the P.A. system welcoming us to the “Joie Chitwood Thrill Show” and promised an automotive exhibition unlike anything we had ever seen before and as the announcer’s voice became louder, faster and more excited, until it grew into pure shouting; five C4 corvettes, which I only knew as the car that Barbie drove, came ripping around the race track sideways spraying gravel from their rear tires. Their engines roared as they came down the straight section of the track in a side by side in formation! Dynamite exploded, blowing apart a thin wooden sign in the middle of the track at the same moment the cars hit a metal ramp, the cars flew a short distance and landed on another set of ramps and sped off into the next corner!

All five of the identically themed corvettes spun around in the dirt and came back. They raced towards the ramp, but at the last minute, the formation of race-cars parted, splitting the pack and racing around the obstacle! Each of the cars came back together like a well-meshed zipper and slid sideways as the cars came to a stop in a crisscrossed formation. They opened their doors and got out of their cars to wave to the crowd.

I screamed with excitement. Before my five-year-old brain could even process what had happened, the stuntmen got back in their cars and tore out of there, leaving nothing but smoke, dust and a wake of gravel in their paths.

The stunt team set up larger and crazier jumps. They jumped from ramp to ramp; they hit big and small ramps alike. They did donuts in the dirt; they jumped a ramp that launched a car into a corkscrew spiral only to land on another ramp as dynamite exploded around it. They even drove their cars on two wheels around the entire dirt track. These guys did it all.

There was a tiny hitch in the show, I learned, and his name was Crash. Crash was a rodeo clown who didn’t realize this was no rodeo. Crash would show up at the least opportune times and try to steal the attention away from the stunt drivers for his own half-baked schemes. I did not care for Crash. I thought he was ruining the show and needed to be taught a lesson. Thankfully, so did the drivers of the cars, so it seemed.

Crash wandered aimlessly into the middle of the racetrack, unaware that the greatest show I had ever seen in my brief life was in progress. “Hey everyone, it’s Crash! What are you doing out there, Crash?” the announcer asked.

Crash spun around, surprised that the announcer noticed him. He said something we couldn’t hear, but the announcer filled in the gaps for us, “You’re changing a light-bulb? Crash, that’s crazy. You’re in the middle of a racetrack!”

True to his word, Crash dragged out a stepladder and climbed up to the top step. Balancing precariously, he searched for that pesky invisible light-bulb.

“Crash, you’re going to get yourself hurt if you fall off of that ladder!” the announcer warned, but Crash waved a hand at the announcer, dismissing his warning. Suddenly the sound of v-8 engines roared to life, and a pair of corvettes come drifting around the gravel embankment at high speeds! “Crash! You gotta get out of there!” the announcer begged.

This clown was going to get himself killed, and all we could do was watch. The corvettes hit the straightaway; they barreled on at a high rate of speed. Crash shook like a leaf atop his rickety step ladder. Surely he saw the danger he’d gotten himself into with his shenanigans.

The exact moment the first car collided with the ladder, a stick of dynamite exploded, turning the ladder into kindling. Crash hung in midair, it seemed, before his Wylie Coyote plummet back to earth. He landed on his butt, dumbstruck at what had happened. I mean, who attaches dynamite to their step ladder, really? I decided this clown was truly irresponsible.

“Watch out Crash! Here comes the rest!” the announcer cried as the three remaining Corvettes raced towards him down the straightaway. Crash laid down flat on the ground right as the three cars hit small ramps that sent them up on two wheels just in time to avoid turning Crash into a human pancake.

When Crash finally got to his feet and dusted himself off, the Corvettes turned around, and returned to the scene, this time to torment Crash as they drove tight donuts around him and bumped him with their front bumpers, and finally, chased him off the track. “Good riddance!” I thought “This idiot almost ruined the entire show.”

I thought Crash learned his lesson, but he came back several other times, once while riding on the hood of a speeding car the smashed through a burning wooden wall, again when he tried to shoot balloons with a revolver using a mirror, and another time when he rode a moped into the action and tried to jump the under-powered bike resulting in Crash landing flat on his face, I had some notes. “Crash, when will you learn?!”, I asked out loud.

Finally, Crash reappeared with a beat up old sedan. He explained ‌he wanted to be a part of the show, and he wanted to go over a ramp with his car; a car he borrowed from his mother, Mrs. Crash. The announcer gave in and encouraged everyone to give Crash a chance, and they did. Everyone waited patiently while Crash lined up the jump, as he approached far too slow in his beater sedan, the car went up and over the jump flaccidly and dove into the dirt a few feet away.

“Tough break, Crash. Better luck next time.” The announcer said. Crash got out of his car, he pointed at it and yelled something to the announcer. “It seems like Crash is having car trouble. Sorry folks, we’re going to have to wait until a tow truck can get it out of the way.”

Just then, an engine roared to life, but it wasn’t the Corvettes from before, this was ear shatteringly loud. End of the world loud. From out of nowhere, a truck with massive tires emerged. This was no ordinary truck, this was a Monster Truck! “Crash!” The announcer yelled over the earth shaking rumble, “Crash, I don’t think anyone told that truck that you’re down there! You need to get out of there, Crash!”

Crash yelled back at the announcer and got back in the car. The announcer replied “Crash, who cares how mad your mom will be! You need to get out of there!”

Crash desperately cranked the engine on his mom’s sedan, but it was no use; it refused to start. The monster truck’s engine roared, a primitive howl akin to a hungry dinosaur with its prey in sight. I could feel the sound waves battering my ears with a force powerful enough to knock me over. I stirred restlessly in my seat as Crash struggled to climb through the window of his poor mother’s car as the truck bared down on him. I screamed for Crash to get out of there; I didn’t like the clown, but I didn’t want him to die! My mouth opened, and I forced out every bit of breath I had in my tiny lungs. But it was no use; no human sound could compete with the two thousand horsepower monster tearing its way through the fabric of reality.

Crash escaped death by mere inches, he dove from Mrs. Crash’s car as the monster truck crushed it flat as a pancake. The driver of the monster truck, who wasn’t satisfied with the carnage, backed over the car a second time. The truck stopped with its tires on top of the sedan. He looked out the window with genuine surprise.

“Hey driver!” the announcer shouted, “You just destroyed Crash’s car!” Crash ran out in front of the monster truck, waving his hands in furious protest, yelling the whole time. “Sorry, I mean you destroyed Crash’s mom’s car!”

We all laughed, relieved that Crash made it to safety, but without warning, Crash’s mom’s car exploded in a huge fireball that engulfed the monster truck. The crowd gasped and Crash went sprawling backward, equally astonished. The fireball was intense; it forced me to squint my eyes from the searing heat.

The monster truck roared back to life, but different this time. The truck screamed and reared up in the air like a spooked horse. Its wheels ramped off the sedan and sent the truck vertically into the air. It bucked jumped straight up in the air, and crashed back to earth on one of its rear tires. The engine screamed like a cornered animal giving its last fight. The rear tire dug into the dirt and spun the truck like it was the fourth member of the Beastie Boys. It tumbled end over end, launching itself every which way and spinning in the dirt violently before it came to a stop on its roof next to the burning sedan. The Engine screamed like never before as the tires spun freely in the air.

The people in the front rows climbed the bench seats of the grandstand to escape the searing heat. The screaming engine exploded with a loud ‘bang’ and the blaze became an inferno. The unbearable heat multiplied by several factors, and I could hear was the terrified screams of the audience.

The blaze reached into the sky, taller than I could ever imagine a fire being, bigger than a house, bigger than a dinosaur, bigger than a mountain. The heat was incredible, my face burned, it felt as if I were inside my family’s oven! I suddenly realized this wasn’t a part of the show; something went wrong. A wave of panic washed over me, and I suddenly felt foolish in my black felt cowboy hat and as the flames danced in my eyes, I trembled in my tiny cowboy boots.

“Come on Daniel, we have to get out of here!” my mother cried as she lifted me up on top of the bench seat we were sitting on. I looked up the massive grandstand. Everyone was climbing for their lives, and before I knew it, so were we. We climbed benches like stairs, my little legs struggled to cross the gaps. My mom and dad took hold of each of my hands and lifted me with each step, and before long, my feet stopped touching the steps entirely as they scrambled for their lives, they carried me by my little outstretched hands. As the flames rose, they climbed faster, less cautious, panic fueled them and made their decisions.

We climbed and climbed. We climbed over discarded hats, shirts, jackets, even the stuffed animal prizes that I gawked at earlier from the carnival games. The announcer pleaded with everyone to stay calm, but no one was listening. All we could hear were our own screams as we ran from the flames.

I learned about fire safety in school, and something occurred to me. The grandstand was a massive wooden structure; the wood was dry and cracking; the paint was peeling, and there was no way out at the top. The grandstand audience, including my parents and I, were scurrying up the wooden seats like rats trapped in a burning house. A sudden terrifying realization that my parents weren’t thinking, they were just as panicked as everyone else. Seeing my parents like this was one of the scariest things I’ve experienced. We were going to burn to death; I knew it.

We climbed as high as we could, fighting for standing room as people stampeded around us, desperate to shield themselves from the heat. I stared into the flames; the heat burned my skin and dried my eyes. Down below I watched the stuntmen rush towards the fire, that’s when I saw something that made my blood run cold.

Crash! That confused rodeo clown, the fool whose tomfoolery had started this mess in the first place, ran towards the blaze, fire extinguisher in hand. “What is he doing?!” I screamed in genuine fear. I could only imagine what gag he would pull. Was the extinguisher filled with silly string? Snakes? Gasoline?! Someone needed to do something about this fucking clown!

What happened was genuinely surprising. The fire extinguisher was real, it sprayed real flame retardant foam. Crash was actually helping. No gimmicks, no jokes. He didn’t feed the fire even more through his ineptitude. No! He was battling the blaze, armed only with a fire extinguisher and his bare hands, as a fire truck and ambulance made its way down the track.

The firefighters, the stuntmen, and even Crash himself freed the driver from the inferno. I thought surely the driver was cooked alive, but the announcer later explained that the stuntmen wear special fire suits just in case something like this happens. The driver hopped to his feet and waved to the crowd. Smouldering, but alive, he climbed into the ambulance and left for the hospital; the announcer assured us he was ok.

The show ended early because of the accident, and I insisted we visit the Joie Chitwood merchandise truck where I met the stuntmen, and even Crash, who I thanked for saving that poor man, and us, from that fire. I bought a stamped brass Joie Chitwood commemorative coin for a dollar that I cherished until several years later when I accidentally put it into an arcade machine to play ‘House of the Dead’, but that’s a story for another day.

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