No One Said Foreign Correspondents Are Smart

IT was July the fourth - and Betty, my wife, was determined we get to the beach for some sun. Since I was a kid I've been going to the beach at or near Daytona Beach, Florida's drive-on beach which looks like an oceanside parking lot on busy days. And July 4 is one of the busiest. We had rented a VW Jetta from a small company in Orange City, just south of Mom's town of Deland. It had a sunroof you can roll back from inside. And an over-the-shoulder seat belt attached to the door.

Arriving at the beach, I found an open space between two cars and pulled in until I felt the front wheels stuck in loose sand. But no worry. We could always push it back a few feet if necessary. And besides, the tide looked like it had peaked about a dozen yards from the back wheels.

We pulled out our chairs and plopped them into ankle high water and waited for the sun to come out again. It did, finally. But the afternoon was nearly spent. And fireworks time was approaching.

Then I heard people talking about an electrical storm. Dark clouds had gathered overhead. The tide had continued to creep in, and now the wet line was up to our back wheels. That meant the only way to drive off the beach and not get in loose sand was to drive along the edge of the wet sand.

With a storm approaching, we decided it would be best to leave. So Betty and I calmly cleaned our chairs, loaded them into the trunk, and cleaned the sand off our feet. We closed the doors.

But when I turned the ignition key, nothing happened. I tried again, several times. Nothing. We wondered if we'd run the battery down with the radio on, or perhaps the lights. But the radio and lights still worked. It was puzzling.

The tide was still coming up. The electrical storm was due.

I had seen pictures in the local papers in years past of cars being pulled out of the ocean after drivers had waited too long to get off the beach. Earlier I jokingly told Betty we could always get towed straight up onto the yard we had parked in front of. Now, however, things didn't look too funny.

I got out and started jogging toward what looked like a Beach Patrol jeep. But it was a city vehicle whose driver was putting beach traffic signs higher up on the beach to make sure they didn't float away. He had no radio contact with Beach Patrol but promised to call them when he got back to the office.

Next I started asking other drivers who were leaving if they had jumper cables. No one did. But a family in a car with New Mexico tags said they would stay there with Betty while I ran to get a tow truck.

I told Betty to get out if the car started to wash away. As if she wouldn't think of that.

At a nearby hotel, the receptionist called Beach Patrol - but they were ``too busy with criminal activity'' and suggested calling a tow truck. The receptionist called a nearby garage, but the only man there was about to deliver a car to an impatient owner. He said he'd try to convince the owner to wait while he towed us.

A few minutes later another garage man called saying the first man had told him about our trouble. He promised to be there in 10 to 12 minutes.

I ran back to the car. Betty was calmly waiting inside. The New Mexcio family was still parked nearby. Nice folks. They stayed until a Beach Patrol jeep stopped.

The woman in the Patrol jeep had jumper cables but said they were too dangerous to use because of the electrical storm. Just then the tow truck arrived. The driver pulled out cables, despite the lightning flashes. For some reason I felt obliged to stand out in the rain next to him, mentally ducking lightning.

But the cables didn't help. The ignition key turned with no results. He readjusted the cables. Still nothing.

Then he walked up to my window and said: ``Put your seat belts on.'' I was surprised. Were we going to take off so fast we needed to be ready?

We attached them. ``Try the engine,'' he said.

To our amazement, the car started immediately.

Unknown to us, we had rented one of those new cars that simply don't start unless the driver is buckled up.

I felt like I was being dragged into a new technological age - for $15, the price for the tow truck. (We gave him a $5 tip for coming out on the Fourth.)

The driver watched to see that we got off the beach without getting stuck. We had to drive over wet sand, but had no problem.

And we made it to the fireworks on time.

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