An April 2016 small headline read: “Cyclist killed in hit and run collision on San Thomas Expressway,” a very unfortunate repercussion of today’s crowded urban lifestyle as we all try to share access. Today, the San Thomas Expressway, in the South Bay, is a crowded thoroughfare, extending from Highway 17 at the base of the Santa Cruz Mountains to Highway 101, linking west Santa Clara Valley commuters to the likes of Apple, Google and Oracle. Unless there is an accident or normal congestion, people take it for granted, hardly noticing what surrounds it and never comprehending what lies beneath it. On the same day of the fatal collision, the Valley Transportation Agency announced the start of The San Thomas Expressway Box Culvert Repair project.
After reading that, “The project will repair the floors and walls of the four-mile-long San Thomas Creek concrete drainage channel,” I stopped, letting my mind transport me back to earlier years. Ironically, the 1961 completion of the San Thomas Expressway was one milestone that marked the end of my childhood. After homes replaced the orchard in 1957, new and old neighborhood kids still had the creek to play in. Not learning its name until they were turning it into a box culvert, the San Thomas Aquino Creek, named for Catholic philosopher Saint Thomas Aquinas was a natural open creek that carried storm water from streams in the Santa Cruz Mountains to San Francisco Bay via the exact route of the new expressway. Actually, the kids in our neighborhood were serviced by a short, half-mile stretch of the creek that connected Saratoga Road to Stevens Creek Road, both upgraded to boulevard status years ago as they were also expanded in a never-ending crusade to end gridlock.
Our creek had everything. Although water flow was scarce in non-winter months, there were always pools filled with tadpoles, lizards scurrying across the banks, loquats, berries and small bushes that tasted like licorice. A special part of the creek lie ahead, a 500-foot stroll up from the Forest Avenue entrance. The tiny stream meandered to the right, creating a beach of small stones, all under a large willow tree that made it a natural clubhouse that we named “Sandy Beach.” We met there, planned adventures and argued there. We talked about things that we weren’t supposed to, there. Four hybrid mutts, Budd, Paul, Steve and I, wove time for the creek into every summer day. Morning basketball in Paul’s driveway, grape soda in the party room that Steve’s parents build behind their house and wiffle ball games in my makeshift backyard stadium still left us plenty of time to enjoy Sandy Beach and to be annoyed when others would use it.
Another quarter-mile past Sandy Beach was the dreaded tunnel under Stevens Creek Road, a simple underground passage, not claustrophobic, that was always terrifying for me to pass through. Local crime stories, graffiti on the walls and other evidence that people had been there provided ample justification for my young imagination to create many horrifying scenarios. I never walked, but ran as fast as I could when I had to endure the tunnel. There was no sky, no trees, just ugly concrete and stale air.
A similar scenario to the 1957 removal of our orchard playground, we ushered in a new decade in 1960 watching workers cut a deep, wide trench in the vacant land, parallel to the creek. Nothing actually needed to cover our special part of the stream, but the decision was made to channel all the water through a culvert underneath the new expressway. Left with no value, the creek would be filled in within the next few days as if nothing ever existed there. San Thomas Aquino Creek, where life was once abundant, died and was buried in a concrete tomb.
I was disappointed and angry, but not as much as Paul. No one ever consults the neighborhood kids before progress moves in unannounced. Frustration and a sense of helplessness led to this moment in time for Paul and I. A series of events over the next few days, a shared, private experience, allowed us to move on from our loss.
Paul moved into one of the new houses with his single mother and grandmother. He was short, with an athletic build, a dirty blond crew cut and an oversized mouth that would make Mick Jagger envious. He was very competitive and sports or anything he put his mind to quickly became easy. Although we didn’t realize it yet, Paul was smarter than the rest of us. He also liked things that went fast and had a temper, now directed at the new concrete villain.
I was nervous as usual but Paul kept insisting that we needed to face the new culvert. “C’mon,” he said, “The workers are gone and no one will come back until Monday. Nothing’s gonna happen.” I hated tunnels and was always afraid of getting caught, but succumbed to Paul’s insistence, thinking we could at least share the blame. With a few hours of sunlight left, we entered the deep open drench and walked a few hundred feet to the opening of the newest completed section of the concrete channel. From this point forward, it was a tunnel and I began to breathe harder and to take shorter steps. Fortunately, I would soon be distracted.
“Hey, what are these?” asked Paul as he knelt and started tinkering with something. Placed evenly along the concrete lip of the large box culvert were small, red Homelite motors that were attached to large hoses used to evacuate any nuisance water from the bottom floor as the work was being done. Later in life we would all learn that Paul had an incredible mechanical mind, but this moment was the first hint of it. He glanced up at me and I quickly recognized the look of determination. “Ya know,” he said, and I could almost see his brains synapses working, “we could use one of these.”
With less than an incredible mechanical mind, I began to ask why, then stopped as I noticed the huge smile on Paul’s face. I knew what he was thinking and I asked the question, “You’re not talking about my old go-kart, are you?”
“Yes,” he responded, “We can do this.”
I had a go-kart frame that had hung on the wall of my garage since the last blown engine and my waning interest in racing. Paul had always wanted to get it running again, but my family was through putting money into it. He looked at the motor. “They’ll never miss it,” he said with a smile. There was no going back for either of us.
We ran back to his garage to retrieve a wrench, a screwdriver and a flashlight, standard tools for a heist of this magnitude. Within minutes, we were re-entering the culvert as the sun was setting and, in rapid time, Paul had freed the motor. Those of us who knew him were aware of Paul’s two-stage laugh. When something was reasonably funny, it was a smile, a softly muttered “huh” as his head and upper body rocked back. The second stage, following something very funny or expressing enthusiasm, involved a big, loud, sometimes mischievous, laugh, arms and feet moving. He was getting excited about our new project and what was motivating us. As much as I enjoyed the big infectious laugh, this was not the time for it. Changing the mood, I said, “Let’s just get this thing out of here and worry about the rest later.”
One on each side, we lifted the motor, carried it out of the culvert and across the now useless bridge, down Forest Avenue and past my house to Paul’s garage. He checked in with his mother and I heard him say, “Lyle got a new motor for his go-kart and we need to work on it a little more.” She said fine as long as he had dinner first. A few minutes later, we hauled the motor to my garage as I informed my parents that it belonged to Paul. Everything was okay, but now, my dinner was ready. By the time that I finished, Paul had the engine mounted on the frame with one bolt and two small vice grips, an imperfectly acceptable short-term solution. “We’ll finish it tomorrow,” he said, flashing me the small laugh before he ran home.
The next morning Paul was at my house before I finished breakfast. By mid-morning, he had hooked up everything except the throttle. These were gasoline-powered motors that were not intended to run a vehicle, but a solution was at hand that needed my approval. “I’m just telling you this,” he said, “because you’re the one that going to be driving this thing first.” Paul then explained his idea of connecting the throttle to a piece of cord that I would pull with my right arm to accelerate while driving with my left hand. Those of us without mechanical skills must assume other roles, such as “guinea pig.”
We rolled the modified go-kart onto the driveway and Paul started the motor by tugging a built-in cord with a wooden handle on the end. A small tug from my cord and I began to move forward. Now in the street, I pulled cautiously, getting comfortable at each speed until I was at full throttle. Who knows how fast I was going, but sitting six inches above the surface, I felt like I was breaking the land speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. After slowing to a crawl and making an awkward U-turn, I accelerated for the return trip and saw Paul down the street, waving his arms and running in circles. It was the big laugh.
We took turns driving the go-kart all weekend. We drove it everywhere, sometimes illegally, not the best idea when your powered by a stolen motor. We cared little, it was great fun and both of us felt in control. Our revenge had been imposed for losing the creek.
By late Sunday afternoon, we were both getting bored with driving our “rocket machine,” and having achieved our goal, agreed that there was only one more thing to do. As inconspicuously as we have retrieved the motor, we quietly disconnected it from the frame, gathered a few tools and returned it to the culvert as we said good-bye to the creek. Paul was right. They never knew it was gone. That evening, through my bath, the Ed Sullivan Show and the first few minutes after my head hit the pillow, I though about our escapades and fell asleep smiling. It was something we had to do.
As irony would have it, both Paul and I would be driving soon and the new San Thomas Expressway helped us get to where we needed to go. Months ago, over 50 years from our special weekend, Paul and I shared dinner and a bottle of wine. Sometime between the salad and the entree, he leaned over and asked, “Do you remember the time we stole the Homelite motor?”
“Of course,” I responded, hoping for the big laugh.