Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Freedom of the open road

I’ll never forget my first car. I was so proud the day my daddy plopped down that stack of $100 bills to purchase it for my 16th birthday. I knew I wanted that car the minute I saw it. Why? Because it sure as heck beat the pea-green “old lady” clunker he took me to see first.

“I’ll take it,” I said, the minute the garage opened revealing a well-used black 1980 hatchback Pontiac Sunbird.

“You sure you don’t want to go back and look at the green one again?” he asked.

“No sir, I want this one.”

I can recall him grinning as he told the owner we’d take it. I thought it was because he, too, was beaming from pride. It was only as an adult that I realized he was grinning because I had fallen for it. He had choice number two – the Sunbird - in mind to purchase all along. I have to admit I admire that tactic, though every now and then I wonder what choice number three might have been.

Regardless, I happily drove my new-to-me car home. It had no air condition, no radio, and I needed a cushion to see over the steering wheel, but it was mine. Mine to wash every Saturday, mine to fill up with gas, and mine to scratch and dent, and I did plenty of all three – in that order.

I couldn’t wait to drive my car to school. Soon my days of riding the yellow bus will be gone forever, I thought.

The following Monday, I had my car polished and ready. I timed my exit to coincide with the passing of the bus. I know, rubbing it in that I had a car to the pitiful people with their noses pressed against the school bus window was not nice. But don’t worry, I soon got my comeuppance.

I was running (gasp) late, not to mention I could hear the bus coming up the street, so I hurriedly said goodbye. My parents, my little sister, my grandmother, and, undoubtedly a few nosy neighbors, came out to wave and watch me go. It was February and freezing, and when I started the car, I realized the back window and rearview mirrors were covered in ice. Instead of waiting for my car to warm them up, I thought to myself, “I’ve been up and down this driveway a hundred times. I know this driveway like the back of my hand. Who needs mirrors?”

Yes, this is really – more or less – what I thought as I put it in reverse and hit the gas and … SCREEEEEEEEEEEEEECCCCCHHHHHH …

That’s the sound I made as I ran into the house and threw myself face first on the bed after I scratched my car down to the metal from one end to the other on a very strong bush next to the driveway. Adding to my humiliation was the fact that a busload of my peers had witnessed the entire event, including me wailing.

But, fortunately, I had my sweet mother and grandmother to console me as my car continued to run (at least I put it in park) with the door still wide open. I may have had a license, but I was still just a girl, and I really did love that car.

Ultimately, those scratches proved to be a good thing – all a part of character building, as my dad might say. I sucked it up that morning and got back behind the wheel. It wasn’t until I parked at school that I noticed the few stray branches lodged under my bumper.

That summer, I worked to save up the money for a new paint job. In fact, I even earned enough to install a new radio. And after school that day, I had a few people ask me if I could give them a ride. I was too scared, so I said no, but still, it was nice of them to ask!

Over the years, several other friends’ vehicles were attacked by what we came to know as the “killer bush.” One day, my dad decided it had wreaked enough havoc. Sick of it blocking his view and maiming others, he took a chainsaw to it. The next day when I backed out of the driveway, there was nothing but sawdust.

“That’s great!” I thought. “I no longer had anything to fear. Now I can back up without any worry at all.”

About that time, I heard my daddy shout: “Watch out for the ditch, Leigh!”