My first experiences with cars and the love of driving came very early.
It was 1969, my parents had two kids already, and the days of the family car handling a brood were gone. This is because our family car was a nearly pristine, candy-apple red, 1966 Mustang.
I remember the car itself specifically because when I was very small, I decided to go to a friend’s house without telling my parents and managed to get lost. To this day I don’t know how I got confused, because my friend lived right up the same street, but just about the time panic set in, I looked up to see my Dad driving toward me, that big engine roaring.
I was relieved to see him, but probably not as much as he was to see me.
I remember the day we traded in the Mustang. I was just a kid, but I couldn’t ascertain exactly why we were leaving our car and taking another one that didn’t belong to us.
I remember the salesman talking about a “fine family automobile.” It was the first time I’d heard there might be a difference between cars.
I remember the decision was made to get the brand-spanking new Ford LTD.
I do not remember if my Dad cried, but I’m pretty sure I would have if our roles were reversed.
Two kids later – that’s a total of four, for those keeping score – the LTD got traded in on a 1972 Ford Country Squire station wagon.
It was bright red and had those infamous – and hideous – fake wood panels.
We drove to Indiana for at least two family reunions in that car. We took weekend vacations to Massachusetts and Maine, to Lake Erie and Lake Ontario in it. It had that rear-facing seat in the back, so most of the view, at least for me, was what we were leaving behind.
Somewhere in Ohio, I witnessed my first car accident. It was from that back seat and I can see it as clearly as if it were only this afternoon, though it happened close to 40 years ago.
This was when most cars didn’t have seatbelts and, if they did, they were those pointless ones that only went across the lap. It didn’t matter, really, because people didn’t use them anyway.
A car on the other side of the road swerved and hit a concrete embankment head-on. The driver came out of the windshield and hit that concrete, also head-on.
I never mentioned it to my parents. Not once.
I don’t know why.
That wagon got us from upstate New York to Southern California in the late 70s. We’d gotten orders to Honolulu and my mother was deathly afraid of flying, so the compromise at the time was to drive to the coast and take one flight instead of two. This is why we ended up driving across this entire nation with two adults and four kids ranging in age from 9 (me) to six weeks (the youngest).
The car was shipped to us and arrived a month or so after we did. There isn’t much driving on an island, but that car saw all the tourist destinations at least twice. It was the car we took to family vacations at a beach house on the other side of Oahu, and it was the car that took my mother to the emergency room after she’d been stung by a jellyfish.
It was there in Hawaii I first noticed when my parents had a fight, one or the other of them would go for a drive to “clear my head.” It was usually Dad, because my Mom was a strong-minded woman who – and this apple don’t fall far from that tree, doncha know – often handed him the keys while telling him to get out.
I got my learner’s permit when I was 15-1/2, as was legal in California at the time. We’d been shipped back to the mainland and after spending four years in SoCal, we were north. Sacramento, in fact.
The Big Red One was the car in which I learned to drive. By then my mother had returned to work full time, so we had added an early 80s Ford Fairmont station wagon to the family, but it was still the old behemoth in which I practiced U-turns, parallel parking, and the like.
It was also the car I borrowed and took on long drives. I wandered in it, sometimes trying to get lost, sometimes doing it accidentally. I discovered roads that led through forests and farms, avenues that went nowhere, and hills that seemed precariously balanced on the edge of the world until I reached their pinnacle and could see down the other side.
I began to understand what it meant to “clear my head.”
I also decided that driving the Fairmont was less embarrassing.
To be continued.