It was a dark and damp, moonless night out in the hills. I was alone, stuck in my restrictive and hated, full-body rain suit as I drove the old John Deere tractor through the fog – a fog so dense that it swallowed all the light from nearby southwest Petaluma, leaving me nearly blind as I drove down the path to perform my job of moving sprinklers. I knew my way around well enough that all I needed to see was what the weak headlights were able to pull out from the fog. It was like two misty cones of light from straight ahead for less than 20 feet.
There was no creepy, something-terrible-is-about-to-happen music playing – but there should have been.
One of my jobs in high school was the night water guy for the Petaluma Golf and Country Club. This club was up in the deep hills above highway 101 as it left Petaluma. If you’ve played golf there, especially that 5th fairway where PGCC is thought to stand for Petaluma Golf & Canyon Club, you will recognize where this story took place. My job started after the club closed and often took me until 2 or 3 am to complete. Because they could not water during the day, it was always dark and lonely for the poor water guy. All the watering was done by hand using either sprinklers plugged into submerged pipes or those cool little sprinklers that followed a wire path until they finished a wide swath of fairway.
I loved it when there was still some light from the setting sun, but despite the fact that I was not afraid of being there in the dark or being alone up there – late at night, starry night or deep – life force draining fog; I hated the fact that I always had to wear that restrictive rain suit. I tried but there was no way to change out those sprinklers without getting soaked; in the dark; alone; over and over; until the whole course was watered; each night leaving me freezing by midnight.
At least, they should have left me the key to the club, so I could easily dry off and warm up, but nooo… The jerk who used to do the job had been caught stealing from the restaurant where the beer was kept, so the poor kid they hired after firing his fanny could not be trusted by club policy to come in out of the cold each night. Fine! I wanted the money bad enough to put up with it for a while and tried to pack towels to dry off either in the cold shed or in my car where I could waste gas money running the heater.
Why, oh why couldn’t I have been born rich enough to not need this job? I had no idea, but even the god of small boys was staying indoors this night. I didn’t blame him at all. This was not a night to be out here.
During the summer, most nights weren’t too bad, but wow, the fall and winter could be brutal because of the wind and fog and no lights and damp air.
So there I was cruising along in the old John Deere and pulling my trailer full of tools, trying to keep on schedule because the fog kept slowing me down. There is a spot, just off the 5th tee where the golf cart path edges along the side of a deep valley – classic Petaluma hillside design – with a fence demarking the edge of the golf course property at the bottom. Unwisely, I decided to push a bit faster than I should have and suddenly noticed a change in the noise the trailer made. It was full of tools and loose sprinkler heads, but now it sounded different – wrongly different. Suddenly, there was also unexpected motion to my right, barely inside the cone of light from the John Deere. Whoa – that was my trailer!!! It must have bounced off of the hitch and was now enjoying the freedom and thrill of a fast acceleration down into the darkness of that valley. I stopped the John Deere and listened over the engine as the trailer crashed its way down the steep valley slope. The sound was like general hardware explosively flying away from a shattered trailer frame – until it went silent, leaving only me and the John Deere engine.
“I am sooo screwed…” I thought as I drove on to a spot where I could circle back and begin to pick up the wreckage of the trailer. How was I going to salvage this mess?
But, the god of small boys, must have come out long enough to preserve some of my reputation because the trailer was fully intact and waiting to be reattached. If you could see that drop from the path, you might not believe what I just described was possible. That trailer really should have been reduced to rubble.
Despite the cold and wet, I needed to wipe the sweat from my brow before reattaching everything and getting back up on course.
Now I really was behind schedule which meant too much water in some places and not enough in others, so I had to hurry. I was just coming over the top of hilltop, sick of being wet and cold and not yet fully recovered from my trailer’s escape attempt. The fog was still so dense that I still could not see much. I was still barely able to see when I tried to turn left, pushing the wide steering wheel with my right arm which brought that arm into the weak light of the tractor light – and noticed – there was a giant bizarre bug attacking my arm!
This thing was huge- almost as long as my thumb! It had wicked antenna, like a small hands coming out of each side of its head, lots of gnarly legs and had caramel-colored back plates with lots of bright white pin stripes on each side. Instinctively, I knew it was going to tear off a chunk of my arm – right through my shirt, coat and rain suit; so I quickly twisted to slap it across the fairway.
This panic-driven move, of necessity, meant I had to take my eyes away from steering and leave driving to chance for a few seconds, which was just enough time to swerve and run over an expensive baby tree the landscaping guys had just planted.
I felt and heard that poor tree yield to the power and weight of the John Deere, so I resumed the role of piloting and slammed on the brakes, which sent the tractor and trailer sliding sideways down the damp hillside for about 10 feet until we all coasted to a stop.
“What in the hell was that thing!?” I thought – really, really loudly. And what just happened?
The John Deere’s engine was still running but it was still dark, and all I could see was the few feet in front of both tractor lights. At school, I was half-way through high school biology so I knew now it was only a beetle. It was embarrassing that a stupid bug had scarred me so badly, but my heart was still pounding and the rest of me was still trying to decide whether “flight” or “fight” adrenalin was still needed. I was having some difficulty catching my breath.
I set the tractor brakes and shut off the engine so I could focus on what to do next.
First – I had to find and stamp that damned beetle out of existence, so I dug out the flashlight from the tool box and retraced the tractor skid-trails, past the munched tree, to the scene of the assault. I found and raised my foot when a better idea occurred to me. I owed a bug collection with all the pinned critters spread out and labeled with their full taxonomical names correctly spelled out to my biology teacher. “Ah,” I thought. “I think I prefer a coleopteran execution by ether and a public display of what happens to beetles who scare the night-lights out of me.” So, I went back to the tool box and found an old glass jar with a lid and captured it alive for execution the next day in class. Then I did what I could to restore that tree to at least be standing up-right again and shoveled enough hillside to disguise the tractor slide marks.
With both the trailer and that blasted beetle captured and under control, I finished my round, but the balance of water distribution was uncorrectable now and I hoped my one screwed up cycle would pass without notice. But now, I was left without a dry-off break before the next round, so I had to start the next round early and rebalance as best I could.
By now – I just wanted the night to be over.
The next round was well underway, when I got to that same spot where the trailer had made its break for freedom. I slowed down…
I actually needed that slow down moment to collect my thoughts and control. The John Deere was running fine, always a friend that tractor, and the trailer had had enough free wandering for one night and was also behaving, but I kept glancing back to check.
I had just returned to watching the path ahead of me, when a white streak shot out of a nearby tree and hit the hood of the John Deere making a loud steel-drum crashing sound. I swear, if I had not stopped long enough to take a quick bathroom break between rounds, I would have lost it all right there. I made another panicked skid to a stop, which was not far because I was moving so slowly. But my self-control was shot. After everything else, what in the hell was that?
But over the idle of the John Deere, I could hear – yes – that’s – laughter. What? Who?
I turned off the John Deere and grabbed that flashlight again and stomped back behind the trailer, wishing I had my shotgun because this time, someone or something needed to die. Enough, was now more than enough.
Climbing out from behind those trees were a small group of – my friends – yes, FRIENDS did this to me. They had chosen tonight to sneak into the golf course after midnight, find a golf ball, lie in wait of me driving past in the John Deere, in the dark, in the fog, after everything else that had happened tonight and try to scare me by throwing the golf ball at the tractor.
Well – IT WORKED ALREADY! ! !
To this day, I doubt any of them realize the proximity of the near-death experience they just brushed past. They were laughing too loudly. It’s what friends do for friends.
Have you ever noticed that some friends could easily be replaced by a case of food poisoning?
“Oh, and there’s friend Dennis; standing there and laughing the hardest. Perhaps, he would look good in my insect collection… Thinking…”
Man! It just has to be time to go home.