He’s right on my ass. I can’t even see his front plate. I think, “I need to get out of his way.” So I turn right and there is an appalling scraping sound from the passenger side of the car. The Wife cringes visibly.
I pull over and step out to survey the damage. Yep. It’s a dink alright. First dink on this car. Now I’m pissed. Why is it always parking lots that I can’t find my way around in? The Wife says “you need to learn to stop letting other people pressure you into doing things” and promptly motions for me to move back out into traffic. The Wife can be an iron sometimes.
This takes me all the way back. Back to the driver’s education instructor who forced me to drive at highway speeds by putting his foot on the accelerator and pressing it until we were weaving all over the road at 60 miles an hour. All he had to say was “keep it between the lines.” That was my first moment of sheer driving terror.
Then there was my first auto accident. I had my learner’s permit. I drove Mom up to Village foods and parked badly next to a nice tan Oldsmobile. Mom said “I’ll leave you here but don’t move the car without me. I’ll be right back.”
No sooner had Mom gone into the store than the woman who owned the Olds came out and surveyed my parking job. “You have to move so I can leave” she tells me.
I repeat what Mom said “I can’t move till my Mom comes back.” When she insists I have to move or she can’t leave I further explain “I only have a learner’s permit. I can’t drive without an adult in the car.” She becomes outraged at that point. Red in the face, hollerin’ and screamin’ like I had insulted her cat or something.
“You will move that car right now young man!”
So I put the car in gear, turned the wheel and promptly gouged a crease in her Olds that probably looked a lot like the one that sank the Titanic. Then she started crying and ran into the store to call the police. Mom came out at about that point and gaped at me.
“I told you not to move! I said I would be right back, and here I am! Why did you move?” and she started crying. Then I started crying. I never could stand to watch her cry.
That was the first and last time I drove on my parent’s insurance. From that point forward I paid the usurious insurance fees that the Texas State legislature allows auto insurers to charged young men under the age of 25, and I paid that rate until I turned 25.
As I’m sitting here thinking about what insurance has cost me over the subsequent forty years, I start thinking about the dollar figure attached to my driving record in the form of the number of incidents that I’ve had over the same number of years. Doing some comparative arithmetic, I’m not sure if it is the insurance companies or the accidents that are winning.
I mean, there was that first one with the Oldsmobile. The next one was in the 1970 Challenger that Dad bought for me in 1979. Me and a guy played footsie at a green light, me going straight and him turning left, neither of us sure who was going to go until we smacked into each other. My brother did a somersault in the backseat. The Challenger never had seat belts. If it did have seat belts when it came off the assembly line, the previous owner took them out when he put in the purple and white shag carpeting on the floor.
She was a beauty that Challenger. Slant six. Metallic purple paint with a white fake leather roof. White leather interior. That scoop-shaped front end that looks like it has severed heads written all over its future. She didn’t look too good after I rolled her a few months later, though. I should have got those brakes fixed before taking her on those Kansas dirt roads. Turn here, oops, into the ditch and onto her roof. I think she ended life as parts for other cars. I just know Dad was as pissed as I had ever seen him, and I had to buy the next car myself. From him.
She was also a beauty. Burnt orange 1972 Chevelle. Black leather interior. She was hot. I mean, really hot in those 110° Texas summer. You rolled the windows down before you got in the car. Someone sideswiped her and ran off a few days after I bought her. A few scratches was all that incident left. Never even told the insurance company about that one.
Then there was that time a girl smoked her tires off in reverse and smashed the back of her Mom’s station wagon into the front of that Chevelle. The front bumper on the Chevelle was pointed, and it rode up into the back of her car like the prow of a ship slicing through water. I was never able to put a front plate on that car again because of that accident. The plate holder was the only thing damaged on my car. The station wagon’s back gate was trashed. Nothing a few thousand dollar wouldn’t fix.
The girl cried and cried when we pulled over. I told her not to worry. “Just go home and explain it to your Mom. It’ll be okay.” I was probably lying. She thanked me for not calling the cops. It was the first time someone begged me not to call the cops, but it wasn’t the last.
The Chevelle ended her time on the road on Halloween night, 1981. I should have snuck into the theater with my cruising buddies that night but I hate horror films and so refused to go with them. Instead I went out and skirted past an orange light about two blocks away from the theater. On the other side of the light was a guy tooling around with six people in his pickup truck, and he had just gotten plastered with water balloons, a time-honored Halloween tradition. He decided right then, as I was coming at him through the light, that he would pull a U-turn and chase the offenders back across town. He never made it.
I tried to swerve, but I was going to fast. He never saw me. Luckily there was only one injury, not counting the knees that I punched through my dashboard and never reported. Should have reported. Some girl in the passenger seat of the truck hit her head on the glovebox handle and got a concussion. They blamed the wreck on me and not the guy making an illegal U-turn because he claimed he was only going to pull into the parking loot across the street. The parking lot didn’t happen to have an opening where he was turning though. The judge ignored that fact when he made his decision.
The Chevelle was totaled and sat on the driveway of our rental house until the day we moved out. I bought a junker off of someone in the neighborhood, I think it was one of the regulars at Mom’s bar. I really can’t remember. 1970 Pontiac Executive. A four-door behemoth we called the Tank. It just needed to be painted green instead of gold and have stars painted on the side and it would have looked just like a tank.
It came to us pre-dinked, and it’s the only car up to that point that I owned that I didn’t wreck. Instead I beat the dents it already had back out with a hammer and I salvaged parts out of the junk yard next door to make the headlights point the right direction. I drove it for years before I handed it off to my sisters.
I bought a 1974 Vega next, the last car I bought from my father. It was not hot, but it was fun to drive. Fun to drive until the engine crapped out. I was on a roll. Two cars, no wrecks! Then I bought the Pinto. 1974 lime green Pinto. I got stoned one night and spray-painted it camouflage. When I mentioned this fact to strangers they’d always remember seeing that car. I guess the camouflage didn’t work. I stripped out all the interior except for the seats and then drove it that way for years. I was rear-ended twice in that Pinto. It never exploded, thank the lucky stars. It died because the U-joint in the drive train was compressed by the last rear-ender, and that caused the joint to fail.
I had met the Wife by that point. We sold that Pinto for fifty bucks to a salvage yard, and we promptly went out and ate fifty dollars worth of Chinese food. The best Pinto we ever ate.
It was at about that time that I bought my first new car. 1987 Cavalier. Gold, just like the Executive. I didn’t hold that against it. I financed that car for 5k and considered it a steal at that, even though it didn’t have air conditioning. That car ate a tree stump on the driver’s side front fender. I backed into a bollard in a convenience store parking lot once or twice. Who’s counting? I hauled the sailboat around with that poor little four-cylindered car for years. Luckily it was a pretty dinky sailboat. Fast in the water, though.
We were rear-ended by a truck when we first moved to Austin. That guy also begged us not to go to the police, and then he crawfished on paying us. We ran across his truck in a parking lot a few months later and we took pictures of the paint from our car that was all over his bumper. When we confronted him with the photos, he paid us the money right on the spot. That’s about the only time justice has been done in my presence, automotive-wise.
We got our first Saturn wagon not too long after that. Another gold car. We needed air conditioning in Austin. The first time we were caught in traffic with a baby in the backseat squalling in 100° temperatures, we knew we needed air conditioning. My father-in-law paid cash for the car. I’d never seen that before. That car didn’t live very long, either.
There was a couple from Denver who were touring the sites off of route 29 in the Hill Country. They were stopped at a stop sign. The husband, who had his hands on the wheel, wanted to turn left. So he started to turn left. His wife, side-seat driving, insisted he go right. So they stopped in front of oncoming traffic to argue about which direction they should go. They never got to finish that argument.
It is a handy rule of thumb to remember that the car goes where the person with the wheel in their hand steers it. It doesn’t go where the passenger wants it to go, and it doesn’t go where those in the peanut gallery behind the driver want it to go. It goes where the driver tells it to go. Maybe agree on a route before you start driving? There’s a thought.
When he stopped in front of me, I couldn’t believe it. There was an eighteen wheeler beside me on the inside lane and cars behind me. There was no way any of us were going to miss that guy’s car. I remember his eyes as he saw us coming. Whites all around. I couldn’t miss him, but I could try not to kill him, so I swerved towards the back of his car and impacted on the rear axle and not center-punch his door at sixty-five miles an hour. Small mercies.
He spun around from the force of the impact on the rear of his car, and the other vehicles managed to avoid him. We hit the center median of the side road he left, and then flew over the lanes he should have been in if he wanted to argue safely, impacting and bouncing over the three foot embankment on the far side of the crossroad. That’s where we left the front bumper of our car. Planted on that dirt embankment. At some point between the first impact and the last, the Wife asks in a plaintive voice “can we please stop hitting things?” I was too busy to answer.
When we were finally able to move, after the powdery fog from the expanded air bags had finally started to settle, we both managed to get out of the car to survey the wreckage. Much more than a dink, this accident. The two plastic front fenders were sticking out a ridiculous distance past what was now the front of the car. Our poor new Saturn wouldn’t be going anywhere aside from the wrecking yard after that.
The Wife got out her laptop that she had carefully packaged against just such an eventuality as the one we had just gone through, and started taking down insurance information from the people whose lives we had just spared. She turned to me after a few minutes and asked me “should I be able to feel my fingers right now?” We put her in the ambulance a few minutes later.
The one time you will ever be happy to see a cop will be the time he shows up to pick up the pieces of a wreck like this one. I could have hugged the guy when I saw him. He drove me to the regional hospital where they had taken the Wife, and we hitched a ride back to town with friends from our fan group who lived out that way.
That was the worst wreck I’d been in up to that point, and it was pretty much the last one, too. I gave up driving as the bad idea I had always thought it was, and I let the Mario Andretti wannabe that I married drive instead. She’s better at it anyway. She’s only wrecked one car, and that one was entirely not her fault. It’s also another story. She can tell it if she likes some other time.
I gave up driving until this summer. Nearly twenty years accident-free, and now I’m back to driving. I’m back to driving because the doctor’s won’t let you drive if you’ve recently had open-heart surgery. The Andretti-ette has been dragged from the car against her will because her chest might collapse in the event of an accident. I think she’d be safer if she was driving. Now I’ve got to go find some rubbing compound and some touch-up paint and see if I can make the new dink in our car appear to go away.
I hate driving. It’s taken me years to realize this fact. I’ve always hated driving. I love cars but I hate driving. The cars have always been worth ten times what I would be comfortable risking on any given day, and risk is what every single outing in a car is all about. Every single long-distance trip in a car was a test of nerve, a right of passage, a moment of transition. Before each trip, I would lovingly bath the car inside and out and anoint it with oils so that the gods of the roadway would bless the venture out into unknown danger. Nearly every long distance trip has gone by without a hitch. Every one except that one with our first Saturn.
It’s the little stuff that gets you. Parking lots. Entering and exiting your own driveway. You know them too well, you aren’t on your guard; and whack, another dink to polish out. It’s the way the car crumples, I guess.