Copyright 2014, Jules A. Staats; Library of Congress, USA. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. This work may be previewed only.
TALES FROM THE DONUT SHOP BY JULES A. STAATS
Gasoline and a cigarette:
Jay was only a few days out of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Training Academy class #81. It was the spring of 1960. His career and life after retirement would highlight one recurring fact. He would almost always be in the wrong place at the right time. If there was a life and death or any serious emergency or incident, he was always there or nearby.
After successfully completing his nearly three months of intensive classes, physical situations and lots of bookwork, he was assigned to the Hall of Justice Jail in downtown Los Angeles. Since he was a new hire, his assignment was on the “graveyard shift” which started at 11:30 PM for briefing and ended at 8:00 in the morning.
Jay had never worked early morning hours and even though he was only 21 years old, the new shift was taking some time to get used to. Being a single person who dropped out of College and a full time parking lot attendant job to take the Deputy Sheriff position, he had no steady girl friend to spend his free time with. Consequently he would climb into his three year old 1957 Chevrolet and take road trips at night to Ventura, Lancaster, San Bernardino and other places. He usually returned to his apartment around 3 to 4 AM. At that time gasoline was under 25 cents a gallon, and being single there was plenty of money for gas.
Tonight he was with some of his college friends, four in all. All five climbed into the ’57 Chevy and drove to Burbank for a hamburger and a check out of the other cars and hot rods that always showed up at a drive-in restaurant. It was also a celebration of sorts, after his completing the Sheriff’s Academy.
After their meal they were heading back for Hollywood coming out of the Cahuenga Pass of the 101 Hollywood Freeway when they saw a yellow Volkswagen Bug off to the right of the road upside down on its top. They stopped and Jay ran up to the overturned car to see if there were any injuries. A young woman who was driving alone had lost control after avoiding a rabbit on the freeway and rolled the vehicle several times. She had no seat belt fastened but managed to not be ejected from the car. However she was in great pain as she was lying on the headliner of the overturned VW.
Her current reason for the pain was due to a passer-by who wanted to drag her out of the car. He had grabbed the victim by both wrists and was tugging at her while ignoring her screams of pain.
Jay yelled at the man to leave the victim alone. The man complied for a second, stopping his pulling of the victim but then became extremely enraged, clenching his fists and walking toward Jay. Jay flashed his Deputy Sheriff badge and stated he was giving him a lawful order to leave the victim alone, otherwise he would be arrested and go to jail. The man backed down, and walked away from the scene.
As it turned out, the young woman had a broken back and could have become a paraplegic had she been dragged out of the vehicle. The ambulance crew did a fine job of protecting her spine and the doctors did the rest. She recovered and was able to walk again.
It turned out that one of his buddies later went to the hospital to visit her. They dated for a while and eventually got married.
It was only four months later. Jay was heading back to Hollywood once again in the same 1957 Chevy. The lights of the city were shining brightly in the crisp night air. He remembered the overturned Volkswagen and smiled, as he had just heard about the upcoming wedding of his friend.
As Jay drove south on the Hollywood Freeway now in sight of Los Angeles with the Cahuenga Pass behind him, he noticed that there was absolutely no traffic going his direction. It was a Sunday morning and most of the party goers had finally gone home. His car was equipped with California unapproved Marshall Road Lamps which put out perhaps a million candlepower, and since he was alone on the freeway, he switched the lights on. Instantly, the white concrete of the freeway and the area ahead was illuminated like daylight. The lights were made in France; the bulbs would burn out and would have to be replaced in about ten hours of use. The output was fantastic, and that is what the lights were name branded in French; fantastique.
He had traveled less than a mile with his road lamps on, when Jay saw a blacked out sedan resting sideways in the far right lane of the freeway. Standing in center of the freeway was a man in a dark business suit with his back to him. Had it not been for the high intensity of Jay’s headlights, he certainly could have struck the man just standing there in the middle of a busy highway.
With over a quarter mile of illuminated visibility, he was able to slow down and pull over into the right shoulder. He turned his left turn signal on to signal other drivers. The 4 way flasher was not installed on cars at this time.
Jay had received training on traffic accident investigation at the academy, and as a result he observed that there were close to 200 feet of 4 wheel skid marks which ended at the damaged car. The vehicle had careened over a concrete divider and impacted the full 20 gallon gas tank. Subsequently the entire 20 gallon contents of the torn tank spilled into the roadway. The freeway started to turn left at that point, and the super elevation of the roadway was changing. At this point though, the freeway was almost flat.
A failing and dim overhead streetlight allowed Jay to see the driver who was just standing in one place. Then he saw the man stagger and regain his balance. The driver was obviously drunk. Jay could see that the roadway was soaked with the gasoline that had just poured out of the damaged vehicle. The drunk driver was standing in that huge pool of gasoline.
Then the drunk driver did something that caused a cold chill to go down Jay’s spine. The drunk was lighting a cigarette with a lighter.
There was no breeze that you could feel at 3:30 AM in the morning. There was no wind to disperse the evaporating fuel. Jay knew that a stoichiometric mixture of gasoline and air existed about a foot above the roadway. We would call this gasoline vapors which have the terrible ability to explode upon ignition.
The drunk had two top options to die in the next few moments. He could get hit by the next southbound car that drove down the Cahuenga Pass or he could incinerate himself alive in a pool of flaming gasoline.
Jay did not pray for guidance and he really did not think about protection from his dying as well, but he felt a strong feeling—more of a command--to save this person from himself. He quickly walked into the pool of gasoline. He could actually hear his shoes making a sloshing sound as he approached the drunk while starting up a cigarette.
Jay walked up to the man and stated; “Do not move, I said do not move a muscle.”
The drunk stared at him with bloodshot watering eyes, clueless of his immediate danger while he held the lighted cigarette in his mouth. Jay carefully removed the cigarette and actually crushed it out in the palm of his left hand. There was some pain but it was hardly felt due to the thought of the terrible danger of a horrible death by burning alive.
Jay grasped the upper sleeve of the drunk’s coat and escorted him back to his parked 1957 Chevy which was about 200 feet away from the hazard. The alcohol in the drunk was having more effect, and he just sat down in front of Jay’s car and stared at the lights of the city.
It was over a half hour later when a California Highway Patrol unit drove upon the scene. The Fire Department responded when requested by CHP and washed the gasoline from the roadway. Gasoline spills were routinely flushed into storm drains during this point in time. Jay did not see the actual accident and no statement was requested by the CHP. As Jay drove away, the CHP was conducting a sobriety test on the driver.
Once again, Jay was at the exact wrong place at the exact right time.
This happened 54 years ago at the time of this writing. Still, the images of this night are crystal clear. There is no question that he could have watched a person die or violently die himself while attempting to rescue a person smoking a cigarette while standing in the middle of a roadway in about ¼ inch of gasoline under his shoes. No, he did not ask for God’s help, when this happened, but apparently the Lord knew that Jay would ask for help in the future. That apparently worked for Him, the Alpha and Omega.