Joy Ride #80

The driver had been in a near-fatal accident several months, almost a year, before and he was now at the wheel of this ’76 Camaro taking six high and hysterically-laughing teenagers to a remote spot for another round of smoke this and drink that. Coco Plum was THE place in Marathon. We had a few others with as many nicknames. “The Bridge,” “No Name,” “Vaca Cut,” “The Mangroves” (which could’ve been anywhere), and for a few brave rebels, “The Field.” We’ll talk about Coco Plum, though. Coco Plum was this long road, I’m talking a couple miles, at least, that started at US1, the only road in or out of The Keys, and ended at, well, the end. The end was nothing but dirt, rocks, weeds, mangroves, thick brush of scrubby trees, the moon, the stars, the Atlantic, seaweed, salty wind, a very small strip of sand, coral rock and paths (if you could find them). Not a light in sight to anchor yourself to a viewpoint, you succumbed to watching clouds of smoke float past the moon or, sometimes, your friend’s headlights. It always sounded like a Steve Miller song to me at Coco Plum, even when AC/DC or Boston was pumping through some muscle-head’s hatchback stereo system. On this night, it was Van Halen’s, “Cradle Will Rock.” Derek played this song every time he had an open road and God knows we loved that ride; like a floating concert in the dark with the wildest people on the planet.

There was a bend at the end of the road which the car leaned into before skidding onto the dirt, doing a donut, and lining it up to face the exit. Engine off, music on, doors open while we quickly peeled ourselves from each other to prance around under that Coco Plum moon. Only a couple kids made it out of the car before we heard the sound of helicopter blades. Paranoid from the pot, everyone folded back into the Camaro for cover from whatever the hell was going on. It got loud within seconds, I mean really, really loud. The dirt was flying, rocks were spitting up and hitting the car, and the craziest thing of all? There was nothing to see. Absolute blackness. There is nothing spookier than to experience two out of three sensations that would confirm or negate the existence of something. Derek was at the wheel, but it felt like the car moved itself out of that rocky pit. It had barely left the dirt when an open bed tractor trailer barreled around the corner in our direction; again, no lights. No horn, no motion from a driver, no recognition of our existence. Just a truck and a helicopter, at a dead end, in the dead of night, in Marathon, Florida. Derek swerved off the shoulder and whipped back onto the asphalt, all of us screaming, some of us crying, as we darted back up Coco Plum Drive to the safety of US1. Pulling into a lit parking lot, the car smelled like defeat: spilled beer, dank pot, teenage sweat, and burnt rubber. We tried to laugh, but barely chuckled. We tried to talk, but our childish descriptions seemed stupid even to us.

In the following weeks we told our “Starsky and Hutch” story of the Coco Plum drug smugglers with confidence and glory. We probably all tweaked it a bit with something that shaved off the fear we all had. It was a very serious drug smuggling operation with a carload of kids in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’m grateful the operators decided to stay focused. None of us considered this and, rather, boasted of our skills of evasion as well as our tenacity. Teenagers are stupid. But that’s what happened, no glory or confidence, and that’s all I ever knew. A helicopter with no lights met up with a tractor trailer with no lights and we left. It was the year 1980.

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