If you’ve been in a car accident where the windshield shattered, you know the feeling of “just get me the hell out of here” all too well. I’m not sure I ever got over it. There was not a scratch on me or the driver, but the totaled car looked like the kind they put on display at Project Prom to convince youth to not drink and drive.
I should begin from the beginning.
1976 -Adirondack Mountains, Wilmington NY
Uncle Arnold, a Notary Public in town (this, before he became a judge) stamps the paperwork to make Joe the official owner of the car. Covered in primer, one had to don the imagination cap to even begin to have a vision of what the car was capable of looking like, but it sounded and felt like a race car, low to the ground, wide wheel base. Joe did his chores and then spent several hours hand sanding the heavily compounded Firebird. Sanding with a ¾ in drill and a half a million sanding discs, I’m sure my friend always knew he would finish this project in one summer. I had my doubts.
I had my own sanding to do, it was my job to keep the cue sticks sanded and topped off with fresh tips and I took this job very seriously. I was pretty sure the real Minnesota Fats would come in and I don’t know, tip me for my nice tips? Headed for college in the fall, and I still believed my little jobs around the family business would somehow make a difference.
After the chores were finished and dusk began in earnest, there where the fires and the dinners rich in garden vegetables. Toasting marshmallows kept the bugs away, and exhausted as we might be there was a steady group of us who talked through the night most nights.
It was always exciting to have the folks from Connecticut to hang out with, whether we were at our campground or theirs, but it was super exciting to be at our home bases, to show each other where and how we lived “the other 9 months out of the year.”
It was a different time, you could go visit your friend’s school for a day with a simple visitor’s pass, and you only had to be 18 to drink. I want to underscore that we did not drink, and that we were all super cautious about avoiding trouble. I like to think it was the goodness in us, but other stories might refute the point. Somehow we broke away from the adults and went for a ride in the Firebird, which had a bright new shiny paint job and a “new car smell” air freshener shaped like a go-go girl.
We weren’t supposed to be there. Heading off to college in months, it didn’t occur to us to obey any rules or even to take any advice. We were riding around without any destination just to be out of the house and enjoy the sun, I wouldn’t even call it “joy riding” because that term, to me, elicits an image of a sort of reckless abandonment. We were definitely belted in and obeying all traffic rules. The music was Emerson, Lake and Palmer, blasting from the new technology, the tape cassette. The music played continuously, no need to flip the tape, no “thunk” between sides like the eight-track that preceded it.
PART II-Fuzzy Details
We had the car towed to the family’s gas station without thought of convenience or price. I really didn’t know where we were and as it turned out, we were across the street from a police station. Due to this convenient locale, accident investigation and cleanup were as prompt as possible. My father, in his ever omniscient and magical ability to be everywhere at once, saw and recognized the smushed car with the Connecticut license plates before hearing any news of our adventure.
When I climbed the steps on my sister’s front porch, to her dining room that overlooks her yard, I began to feel my muscles stiffen up and ache. I was not sure what was going to be worse, the physical accident aftermath, Joe four hours away from home with a totaled, prized-possession hand restored classic car, my parents anger and worry, the aftermath of getting Joe back to CT. I would have been overwhelmed had I not been so numb.
Part III-What I remember.
I know everyone loves a good accident story. The more details the better…and I guess it is human nature. I hate to disappoint but I don’t remember all that much. I saw the truck in front of us going straight and realized our left hand turn was ill timed with the light, and the next thing I can remember is freaking out about sitting in the glass all about me and a cop calming me down and finally, when I would not calm down, allowing me out of the car.
Back at the house and reunited with family, we recounted the details of the crash. My dad handed Joe a couple of tens and said “Here, take her to Langford’s. Get yourselves’ a drink.”
I was not quite 18, the legal drinking age at the time. We began in protest but my father assured us it would be alright. I remember it was weird sitting at the dark bar without other adults, just us kids. It occurred to me to ask for a Shirley Temple, but I had a beer.
The police station still stages pre-prom hullabaloos to show the fresh new drivers what their totaled car will look like, including a demonstration of the jaws of life.
Our parents are gone, but this is a story about, more than anything , how they showed their love to us.
I asked my friend, many years later, if he ever thought about it. And he told me:
“Only when I make a left hand turn.”