SO, HOW WAS YOUR 4TH?

Remember the Jonathan Winters character Lennie Pike, in “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”? Crazily careening all over in a tow truck? I found his stand-in halfway up a mountain and wondered if I’d live to see the 5th of July.

The day started great, by the docks in San Pedro. Ghosts of Joe Hill and Upton Sinclair at Liberty Hill, my wife Dian singing patriotic and union songs for a gathering of activists.

We then headed for the top of Angeles Crest Highway, past Mt. Wilson observatory, to UCLA’s Camp Kesem, the inspiring refuge for kids with a parent who has or had cancer. Our daughter’s been an integral part of it since it first launched in 2005, and this was a rare invitation for us to drop in for a look.

But halfway up the very steep, very winding, sheer-drop-off two-lane road, a warning light came on — a bright red triangle with an exclamation point, so dire a warning that the manual won’t even tell you what it’s for, just pull over NOW and call your mechanic! Difficult, since there’s no cell reception up there. Then a second warning light, and a third, both referring to brakes, and a beeping noise. Okay, okay, I’m convinced.

We spied a small building, a two-room Native American museum, which had a land line from which we called AAA for a tow. Hallelujah! But sad to miss out on our highly anticipated visit to Kesem.

But we made it there after all! Through the kindness of strangers. Cancelled the AAA tow (they wanted $10/mile, total $275, ouch!) and found, on their recommendation, a local company thatquoted us at half the price, $5/mile. Or so they told me.

We arrived back just before Lennie pulled up in his flatbed truck. I’ll call him Lennie, and not name the tow company, to protect the guilty.

Lennie got our car up on the truck and was attaching the chains, but complaining that “they always give me the bad truck, this one’s old, it doesn’t have the hooks on these chains that I need … but I’ll make it work.” Not the first thing I wanted to hear. Maybe something you keep to yourself and hope it all works out.

“This is my fifth trip up here today,” he announced. “I’m pretty tired.” Great.

Then I hopped into the middle seat in the truck and searched in vain for a seat belt. “Naw,” Lennie told me, “not for that seat, but don’t worry, we’ve got the air bag,” as he patted a bulge in the dashboard right in front of me that was barely held together with black electrical tape, but definitely not home to an air bag. His last observation as we pulled out was, “Huh — my odometer doesn’t seem to be working. Oh well.”

The setting sun flashed in and out on every curve and as we weaved down the mountain, and Lennie’s dirty windshield made the direct rays really blinding. I prayed the driver could see better than I could and at least follow the yellow line.

“I CAN’T SEE!”Lennie cried out.

Not once, but a dozen times. I wasn’t sure if he meant it literally, or for just that second, but it got a little unnerving to hear that pre-crash announcement every time we swung around a blind bend.

Dian brought water and asked him if he wanted any, not wanting him to be both blind and parched as he drove us to our deaths, but he declined. “Naw, I’ve got some here, and besides, I had a coupla beers. I’m okay.”

Ooookay.

Five miles down, by his estimate, he announced he needs to go back to where he picked us up and reset his odometer (the one he said didn’t work) so he’ll know the total miles, since we discovered a big discrepancy between the price the dispatcher (now gone home) quoted us and what he’s got on paper in front of him. I thought his 5-mile estimate was probably close and suggested we just keep going, but he insisted on going back. Half an hour, round trip. I think he was just hoping the blinding sun would be better by then. (It wasn’t.) When we got back to that spot I asked him how far it was. “Uh … 4.9 miles,” Lennie read off his broken odometer.

“My GPS doesn’t work,” came the next announcement. “I have no idea how to get to Santa Monica. Where the heck is that, anyway?” “I can tell you,” I assured him. At least that way we won’t get lost, should we live.

Pointing out the scenic parking areas, Lennie proceeds to tell us, with enthusiasm, “Lots of people kill themselves up here.” “You mean, they drive off the cliff?” I ask. “Naw,” he says, “they pull off and park and pop themselves. Blow their own brains out. You know, once you blow your brains out, you can’t put ’em back in.”

(Earlier, he asked, as we were talking about cancer, “Does it hurt?” That was startling. Is there really anyone on this planet who doesn’t know someone who has had cancer?)

“It’s messy,” he was eager to continue about suicides and brains. “One time I was called up here to tow a car and the cops didn’t tell me there was a dude inside, and it had been about 10 days, and when I opened the door — wheee-ew. I had to go home and take a shower and scrub my hair real good. And put Vasoline in my nose, for the smell.” Pause. “I can still smell it now.” Lennie, the gift that just keeps giving.

There must be a God, because we did make it back to Santa Monica, where Lennie called the owner to try to resolve the billing discrepancy, and did so with his phone on speaker. Which allowed me to grab the phone and dispute the facts with the owner, and prompted her to briefly, strongly indicate to Lennie what she would do to him if he ever, ever put the customer on the line with her again. I wasn’t sure if she also told him he was out of a job.

If so, the world’s a safer place. Better to waste away on the mountaintop than to see Lennie bouncing up to your rescue.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.” —Mark Twain

Charles Andrews has lived in Santa Monica for almost 30 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. Really. You can reach him at therealmrmusic@gmail.com.

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