I have always been a nervous driver, afraid I’ll zig when I should zag. That fear started the first time I sat in the driver’s seat.
On a Sunday afternoon, my parents planned a trip to visit my stepfather’s two elderly sisters. Having to sit quietly while four adults visited had little appeal for 13-year-old me. After a minute of wheedling, Mom and Dad let me stay home. They left and my best friend came over to spend the afternoon. I proudly showed her my family’s new car, a 1963 Ford Galaxy.
The black beauty had the distinction of being the newest car either of my parents had ever owned, so new to them they worried about driving it the 50 miles to Rochester. So they took my Dad’s older car on their day trip.
“We ought to take it for a spin.” Vicki’s suggestion signaled her approval.
The idea was deliciously scary and left me with goosebumps. I grinned and hoped she didn’t hear the nerves twitching in my giggle. “We can’t. It’s a manual transmission and I don’t know how to shift.”
“I know how to shift. I can shift if you can steer and do the pedals.” Vicki’s dad was the best mechanic in our small town of 1500, and I didn’t doubt she knew how to shift. The idea was tempting. Too tempting. How hard could it be? My Mom wasn’t much taller than me and she drove all the time. If I could steer my bike, I could steer the car, couldn’t I? After all, it had four wheels, instead of just two.
I went inside and retrieved the spare key from the key rack and off we went. Vicki told me to put the clutch in and let it out slowly when she had the car in gear. After a few jerky starts and stops, I finally got going. I slowly navigated the two blocks up to the highway stop sign. In our small rural town, Sundays were usually pretty quiet. There was no traffic as I carefully made a right turn and drove the quarter mile to the town’s only service road.
The gravel was more unstable than the paved highway had been. After a couple minor slips, I was ready to turn around and go home. But turn where? Finally, I saw another road, where I could turn right (the second and only turn I had made to date). I left off the gas as I cranked the wheel, but Vicki screamed, “You’re going too fast!” We never found out if she was right because she grabbed the wheel and pushed it to the left. The car veered out of the turn into the ditch and collided with a barbed wire fence and the metal fence post that held the fence in place.
Just as we determined that we were both uninjured, we saw the tractor coming towards us down the road. The thought of meeting the owner of the damaged fence left us both shaking. What would the farmer say? But luck was with us. Instead of angry, he acted relieved to see we were unharmed. Without a reprimand, he pulled the car from the ditch and pointed it towards town. When we asked him what he wanted for the damage to the fence and bent fence post, he just chuckled. “It’ll grow back.”
However, neither Vicki nor I were going to get by unscathed. As the farmer pulled the Galaxy from the ditch, a steady parade of vehicles appeared from our village. Vicki and I were the towns-people’s Sunday afternoon entertainment! Our hope of hiding the accident from our parents dwindled. People will talk, especially in small towns. Still, we hoped somehow to hide the damage we had done to the car. Still shaking, I carefully drove back home. Together, we worked at backing the car into a spot as close to its original spot as we could manage.
The fence hadn’t dented the car, but its barbed wire had etched several long scratches in the hood. Black shoe polish and magic marker did a fair cover-up… or so we thought.
The next day, after school, my mother met me at the door. She sentenced me to a month of grounding, but for now she had arranged for me to stay at Vicki’s house until my Dad cooled off. As expected, the town buzzed with our Sunday escapade.
My parents showed great restraint over the next month. It was a situation when surviving an infraction amazes a youngster. They never needed to remind me that my driving days were over until I was old enough to take Driver’s Education, but that’s another story.