I flunked my driving test over parallel parking?
Like most kids on the Kenai Peninsula my driver’s education program consisted of driving around pastures in an old pickup – and the last time I checked there were no sidewalks in our pastures to parallel-park next to. For that matter I don’t think there were any places on the peninsula that required parallel parking, so failing that part of the test should have been no surprise. Unfortunately, the timing couldn’t have been any worse, as failing the test meant I had no way to take Carey Matranga to the junior class play.
…. conveniently forgetting that there had been no chance whatsoever that Carey would have gone with me in the first place. However, practicality elbowed romance aside and I started preparing for my second attempt at the exam. Using wooden stakes and string, I mocked up a parallel parking space next to the driveway and practiced the maneuver as best I could during the two weeks I had to wait before re-taking the exam.
I passed the test easily on my second go-around but contrary to my expectations I didn’t immediately start driving to school (or anywhere else) all that often. When I did get access to wheels they were usually the ones holding up the old red station wagon rather than the Maverick, but I really couldn’t fault my parents for that restriction. Our powder blue 1969½ Ford Maverick was the first new car my folks had ever owned – other than being driven up the ALCAN after purchase in California it led a very sheltered existence.
After a dent-free month of driving I was allowed short solo trips with the Maverick, running to and from the gas station, the post office and friends’ homes in the immediate Sterling area…which didn’t happen very often. As I’ve written elsewhere, my third year in high school was a bleak one – my close circle of friends from the previous school year had unraveled, most of the young ladies in my life had moved away and chemistry was seriously kicking my butt. As Thanksgiving neared, my discontent became evident even to my parents so to cheer me up they let me drive the Maverick to our congregation’s next Wednesday night youth meeting.
The young men and women were going to be meeting in a joint activity – usually an opportunity for low-intensity flirting fueled by cookies and Kool-Aid, but with so much on my mind that evening no amount of sugar (of any kind) could keep me focused on the activity. I’d finally flunked out of chemistry and while I was able to patch up my schedule with extra English modules the failure forced me to take a hard look at the direction my life was headed. The war-that-wasn’t-a-war in Viet-Nam was in full swing and the draft was harvesting more and more young men daily, so it was difficult to be chipper when helmets, flak jackets and M16 rifles figured so prominently in my future. Halfway through the meeting I hit my limit of wholesome social interaction and left the church to drive home by myself.
My younger sister Holly had ridden with me to the meeting and was loudly disappointed that I wouldn’t let her ride home with me as well, but I felt a sort of mental itch pushing me to arrange an alternate means of transportation home for her. A chinook1 had blown in and the wildly fluctuating temperatures and winds made for both hazardous driving and a dark, surly mood of my own – and while normally I didn’t mind little-sister chatter, this time I felt a very negative vibe about having her in the car with me. It wasn’t the first time I’d had that kind of intuitive prompting, but I always assumed I was dealing with the after-effects of one too many rounds of cookies and Kool-Aid.
I realized the minute I pulled out of the church parking lot that it was going to be a wild ride. B.J. Thomas may have been crooning “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” on the radio as I started for home, but the non-radio rain wasn’t nearly so happy as it rapidly changed directions as the gusts from the chinook started to buffet the car. For a moment the wind slowed and when I realized the Maverick was holding the road I carefully inched the speed up to 55 mph. I was relieved that the car was handling well under such conditions, but without my attention being totally absorbed by fighting the elements my mood soon became as capricious as the winds. By the time I was halfway home I was worked up and ranting to God, myself and the universe in general about my lack of prospects and the injustice of life in general.
Then the anger instantly turned into fear.
I’d reached a straightaway near Longmere Lake that was not clear of ice – what looked to be rain-soaked wet pavement was in fact black ice2 and within seconds the car started swerving; in my typical teenage male bullet-proof mindset I was sure I could handle the situation until I swerved into a stretch of pavement dotted with dry patches. For one last moment it seemed like I could keep the car on the road by carefully applying the brakes but unfortunately the weight-saving measures in Lee Iacocca’s masterpiece of sporty-yet-affordable automobile design had been taken a bit too far. As the speedometer eased into 40 mph I slid at an angle into one of those dry patches, the momentum instantly snap-rolling the Maverick into the snow where it slid to a stop.
I was crushed by the sudden silence, then mystified by faint individual sounds
- The hiss of snow melting against hot metal.
- That same hot metal clicking and popping as it rapidly cooled.
- Billy Joe Royal faintly singing praises of Mary Hill plying her trade at Cherry Hill Park.
It was oddly muffled, as if cotton was stuffed in my ears. I was also baffled by the light blinding me as I hung upside down from my seat and shoulder belts; it was much too bright for a stormy winter night. Even after an older couple helped me out of the wreck and drove me home I struggled – the blurry vision and stuffed feeling in my ears conspired to throw me off balance and keep me slipping and sliding as I made the unsteady walk from the car into the house
To my surprise Dad was waiting out by the driveway as we pulled up. As he helped me out of the car and heard the story from my benefactors he showed no surprise – earlier that night he’d had his own mental itch that I was going to run into trouble on the way home, so he figured he’d better be standing by. On the other hand, Mom was furious that I’d wrecked the first brand new car they’d ever owned but Dad stayed uncharacteristically gentle as he quietly talked her aside while moving me through the kitchen to the ladder, then up to my loft where I collapsed, asleep before my head hit the pillow.
I snapped awake fully alert the next morning, drenched in an icy sweat. The butterflies in my stomach were acting more like dive-bombers, not because of the wreck but rather fear of what was to follow. This was worst trouble I had ever gotten into…. ever.
My heart was beating like a drum and my mouth was dry – what would my parents do? How bad would I get smacked around? Would they send me away to boarding school or would they just kick me out on the street? My heart raced even faster as I started through a mental checklist of dire possibilities but skipped a beat when I realized someone was climbing up the ladder to my loft.
I flinched, pulling my head down between my shoulders, my eyes clinched shut waiting for the inevitable smack alongside my head…but when it never happened I opened my eyes to see dad sitting on the edge of my bunk, a faint smile on his face. He said “Gus – let’s go for a drive” to which I immediately murmured something about not wanting to be around cars right then, but he gently interrupted If you don’t go out now you’ll never drive again” with such finality that I promptly slid off the bunk and into my boots, then followed him down the ladder and out to the red station wagon, ignoring the fusillade of retinal daggers that mom launched at me on the way.
My stomach went into free-fall again as I struggled to manipulate the “three on the tree” manual transmission into reverse with more difficulty than usual but as I white-knuckled the car out of the driveway and up to the highway my stomach slowly backed away from the brink of a rather epic hurl. It wasn’t much of a trip – we drove past the wrecked Maverick into town, bought some gum at Big K then drove back home, the atmosphere steadily warming until we were trading weak jokes from the latest Boy’s Life as I pulled up and parked at our front door.
The whole incident left me with more questions than answers. For example, other than overhearing dad making phone calls the following week to arrange for recovery and repairs I heard nothing further about the wreck – we just all got back into the pre-accident holiday preparation drill as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
I did pick some new insights into Dad’s nature through the experience. I’ve said before that Dad and I were on the same planet but lived in different worlds and a good part of that separation came from the mixed signals he gave me – in any kind of family council it was made very clear that I was expected to be the Good One in the family, the moral compass and stalwart church member. However, when was just the two of us together I got the feeling that dad was disappointed that I didn’t raise more hell. “You’re a prude just like your mom” he would say, then launch into some story of his own rather “active” youth and early years in the navy. Did this uncharacteristic kindness come about because he could relate better to me when I was in trouble because it put me in a situation he was well acquainted with?
…and the mental itches that both Dad and I had to contend with earlier that evening? It was a little eerie in those pre-Internet/pre-smartphone times to find out that Dad had known I was in trouble at least fifteen minutes before I got home…
It was even more spooky when I thought about that mental itch of my own.
I had been prompted to find alternate transportation for my little sister that night and it was a good thing that I followed that prompting. The last thing I remember as I crawled out of the wreck was the sight of the front passenger side seat. I don’t know if it was because of the direction of travel during the crash or a quirk of the Maverick’s unibody construction –the car roof had folded sharply down into a wedge pressed firmly into the surface of the front passenger seat. Holly would have been killed if she’d been riding with me.
It was the last time I equated a flash of inspiration with indigestion.
1: Chinook: Native American term for windstorm of very turbulent warm, moist air that blows in from the sea. Most noticeable during the winter because of the extreme contrast to usual weather conditions.
2:Black Ice: Clear ice that reforms on a road after a rapid thaw. Much more slippery than usual because of the thin covering of liquid water that invariably forms on its surface.