This was in the January 2006 issue of Car & Driver and was one of the 10 Best Reader Stories.
In 1966, on my first weekend of active duty at the Dallas Naval Air Station, we were sitting around drinking coffee when the medical officer rushed in and bellowed, "Which one of you drives the Porshe?" "Por-sha," I corrected.
He looked at me for a moment, silently, then barked, "I need a heart-attack patient taken to the Carswell Air Force Base Hospital as fast as possible! Can you do that?"
"Yes, sir!" I replied. "Good. Get your *** over to the garage now!"
During my three-minute orientation, they loaded the patient and two attendants and I was instructed on this button for lights, this one for siren, and speed was critical. They would wave me through the toll gate, where a police escort would be waiting. With that amount of training, I headed out the gate, driving the first ambulance I had ever sat in.
It was a Navy gray 1965 Pontiac Bonneville from the front seat forward, but from there back it resembled a humpbacked whale and weighed probably about the same. Steering required advanced planning, and the acceleration was barely perceptible. The exhaust sounded like 100 Hoovers sucking up throw rugs. If it had not been for the rattle of stuck hydraulic lifters, I would have thought this thing was powered by a turbine.
I took the toll ticket at the turnpike, floored the thing, and after an eternity got up to 88 mph. The ride was a sickening boat-like movement accompanied by a slow, oscillating yaw. After 15 nauseating miles, the toll gate came into view. Traffic had been moved to the sides. From a distance, I lined up the open tollbooth entrance and calculated there was probably a foot of clearance on each side. When the toll takers realized I wasn't going to slow down, they bolted their posts, running in opposite directions. With a loud whuummmph! we ripped through the small opening and out the other side with a cloud of papers swirling in our wake. To the left I glimpsed my startled police escort, just starting to move.
But there wasn't time to be concerned with him since the Mixmaster, where several freeways joined, was less than a mile away. With the cop desperately trying to become my escort, he came up fast on my right, but I could see that if I kept my speed constant I could just nip in front of the truck in the right lane and onto the exit ramp. That left the cop standing on his brakes to keep from rear-ending the truck, and when he whipped into the lane behind me, I simultaneously cut across the front of the truck and up the ramp. The suspension bottoming out on the rise gave me the first feel of the road since I started. I never saw the cop again.
I made it to the emergency room, and the old CPO was carted off. After a while one of the attendants got in and said he was ready to go back, while the other wanted to stay with the chief. I returned to base the back way as I had this nagging feeling that maybe I should have slowed down at the tollbooth, and a whale with a red cross on the side would surely be recognized.
As I drove into the garage at quitting time, the crew there burst into applause. I assumed it was for getting the chief to the hospital before he died on their watch. I waved thanks and headed home. Soon after, I got active-duty orders and left the state, so I never saw any of them again—until three years later.
One night when I was on duty, a traveling chief corpsman stayed over at our dispensary and proceeded to tell us about the scariest experience of his naval career: The ambulance ride from hell. I laughed at his story of attending a cardiac patient in the back of an ambulance driven by a suicidal maniac. When he said the driver went through a toll gate at 100 mph, I became uneasy. Sure enough, it happened in 1966 at NAS Dallas.
He continued, "Never saw the driver again. I wouldn't get back into the car with that crazy bastard and hitchhiked back instead. The Old Man got irate phone calls from the turnpike authority, the Fort Worth Police, and a citizen who had the crap scared out of him. Then the medical officer got into hot water over it, too. We had no love for this guy, so the crew gave the driver a standing ovation when he got back. They said he covered the 35 miles door-to-door in 23 minutes, but it seemed like an hour to me! The old chief survived but said he would die quietly before letting us take him to the hospital again in an ambulance."
I didn't say anything. I still have the unpaid toll ticket.