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When you're young and impetuous, no dare can pass unnoticed and no challenge can be ignored. However, as we find ourselves passing into adulthood and as the years bring more rational thinking into our minds, we come to understand that every dare and all those many challenges more often than not have consequences -- maybe in the form of a traffic ticket and accompanying fine to be paid. But then sometimes the consequences are worth the risk, especially when you're young.

There was only one place to get a bite late at night in Anderson, the Valley Aire Truck Stop. Jeanie Wilson ran the place and it was there that truckers and some of the locals, particularly teenagers, gathered in the late night and early morning hours. The food was pretty good but then there were no other late-night dining options in the small Southwest Missouri town of Anderson.

The truckers were a hearty bunch and the atmosphere inside the truck stop was, as you might expect, for the most part, laid back. Oh, there was the occasional raised voice as one truck driver might find offense in a comment made by another gentleman of similar occupation. However, some may recall an incident involving a discussion regarding the greatest country-western singer of all time.

It seems that a gentleman who did not particularly care for Hank Williams and placed him far below Lefty Frizzell found himself lying face down on the parking lot after being tossed through a plate glass window. I don't know if he changed his opinion of Mr. Williams but, if not, he certainly did not further express it.

It was at the Valley Aire Truck Stop that twin brothers Donnie and Ronnie Mitchell often stopped for a bite after a night of celebrating their youthful years. There they met up with their friends Larry Stiles, Ben Wanders, Tom Conway, his brother Buff and other McDonald County High School buddies.

One night, in particular, comes to mind when Donnie recalls his teenage years. It was the night of July the 7th in 1972. That night is memorable for several reasons. It was the 17th birthday for him and Ronnie and it was also the night of the now infamous drag race.

The usual cast of teenagers had assembled at the truck stop in search of something, anything to eat. Donnie, Ronnie and Larry arrived in Donnie's pride and joy, his bright red 1967 Chevy Nova. The car was fast. It had a 283 cubic inch motor and Donnie was adept at shifting the gears of the Muncie 4-speed transmission.

Buff, on the other hand, drove a white 1967 Chevy van. Although some of the fellows laughed at the idea of a teenager driving such a vehicle, there were those who knew the van was fast. It too was powered by a Chevy-built 283 motor, but there was little concern about moving through the gears as it had an automatic transmission.

Donnie and Buff often bragged about their rides and it was on that night that Buff decided to settle the issue, at least to his satisfaction, once and for all. He challenged Donnie to a drag race.

"We'll just see who has the fastest car."

Donnie believed that his Nova was obviously the faster of the two Chevrolet-built vehicles so he tried to fend off Buff's taunts and challenges but soon it became clear that the gauntlet had been thrown down. So it came to pass that, maybe just to shut the challenger up, Donnie accepted the offer.

The truck stop was located on a straight paved stretch of road called Highway 71. There had been drag races before and they were most often conducted on that road, but the truck stop was unusually busy that night, so it was decided that the race would take place on Highway NN.

There had been similar events there before but the road surface was not as good as that on Highway 71 and there was another issue to be considered. The relatively secluded Highway had a slight curve near the place where the races typically ended. But when you're young, those sorts of things are rarely considered to be insurmountable obstacles.

Donnie, Ronnie and Larry rode together in the Nova while Buff and Ben occupied the van as the kids drove to their favorite place on NN. Others followed, using various modes of transportation, and a rather large crowd soon arrived. The vehicles were parked alongside the deserted roadway and onlookers exited their vehicles gathering mostly at the finish line.

The Nova and the van lined up and a young man with a white T-shirt signaled the start of the race. The two vehicles were side-by-side all the way down that strip of road. First, the Nova had a slight advantage as Donnie moved the floor shift lever forward and backward, then the van would move ahead.

After the two race cars had driven approximately one-quarter of a mile there could be no clear winner. Everyone agreed, the race was too close to call. With the issue remaining in doubt, it was decided that the only way to resolve the matter was to race once again. So the two kids once more brought the car and the van to a stop, side-by-side on the road called NN.

The white T-shirt was once again waved and the race began. Both Donnie and Buff believed that the first pass on the road had been a fluke and this time they would prevail. But, once again the two vehicles moved alongside one another until they came to the curve.

As Donnie approached the curve, he saw the group of onlookers with one obvious addition. That addition was the image of someone he knew, Missouri State Trooper Ron Selvey. Selvey's patrol car was parked next to the group and Selvey was flashing his handheld flashlight at the two racers.

Both Donnie and Buff eventually brought the vehicles to stops near Selvey's patrol car. Donnie, Buff and all occupants of the vehicles got out and stood silently as they waited for the trooper to speak.

"Let me see your driver's licenses boys."

The side of the road had become eerily silent as Selvey looked at the licenses. "You boys wait right here," Selvey said as he walked to his car. A few minutes passed, then Selvey walked back to the two guilty parties.

"Boys, I'm giving each of you tickets for drag racing, careless and imprudent driving and speeding. Sign the bottom of the tickets and don't let me catch you doing this kinda thing again."

"Yes, sir," was all the two could say.

Donnie only later learned that Selvey did pose a question, an observation if you will, to Ronnie.

"What made Buff think he could beat that Nova? What kinda motor does that thing have in it?"

"A 283," Ronnie replied.

Expecting the worst, Donnie appeared in court on the date and time indicated on the ticket. He was sure that after Trooper Selvey described the criminal activity witnessed that night, the night of his 17th birthday, the judge would throw the proverbial "book at him." Waiting for the judge to appear was pure agony.

There seemed some issue regarding the start of the proceedings. Court officials were gathered in a group and it seemed as if they were concerned about something. Could it be that Donnie was in so much trouble that there needed to be pre-trial discussions regarding the matter?

Then, and after some excruciatingly long and agonizing minutes, one of the court officials, county court clerk Charlie Hall, walked over to Donnie. "Are you Donnie Mitchell?"

"Yes sir," he replied.

"Well, the judge can't be in court today. We can either reschedule your case or you can pay the fines."

"I don't know if I have enough money to pay the fines. How much would they be?"

"$42.50."

Without showing his relief, Donnie reached into his pocket and removed some bills and coins. "I'd like to pay the fines."

As Donnie dictated the details of this story to me, something in his voice sounded like a smile. I know what you're thinking, smiles don't have a sound, but I swear that's what resonated in the words he offered.

Donnie remembers the shiny red Chevy Nova, the curve on Highway NN and the truck stop, but far more cherished memories held close to his heart are those of Ronnie, Larry, Buff and all his childhood friends.

I know that as a child the greatest things given to me are the memories of my childhood friends and I realize that there will never again be anyone like those old pals of mine.

As a teenager, Donnie accepted the challenge to see who had the fastest car, but life has a way of presenting new trials to us regardless of our age. This is the case with Donnie, who now has a new and more serious challenge and, well, this one's a doozy. But if I know Donnie, he will meet this new test with the same determination and conviction that he has shown throughout his entire life.

I asked Donnie if the payment of that $42.50 taught him a lesson. He said it had but then he recalled racing Edward "Eddard" Nolan and his red 1965 Ford Mustang -- the outcome, once again too close to call.

Stan Fine is a retired police officer and Verizon Security Department investigator who, after retiring in 2006, moved from Tampa, Fla., to Noel, Mo. Stan's connection to Noel can be traced back to his grandparents who lived most of their lives there. Stan began writing after the passing of his wife Robin in 2013. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

Editorial on 05/21/2020

Print Headline: Too Close To Call

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