By Brian M. Howle
While recounting the exploits of our space program’s landing of a man on the moon in 1969 in the last issue, I stumbled across a memory that – in the years that I have been writing this column – had been strategically packed away in a little “Do Not Open Until...” corner of my mind.
I guess it’s time to let this little rascal out.
During the summer of 1969 my mother was attending Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, NC to obtain her Master’s degree, which would give her accreditation needed for her position as guidance counselor at Andrews High School.
She had to take classes for three summers, which just happened to coincide with my Freshman, Sophomore and Junior high school years.
It was tough on my father, who couldn’t stand to be away from mom for more than a couple of weeks at most.
At the time, it wasn’t that tough on me, though.
For the entire summer, it was just my dad and myself, fending for ourselves on a daily basis, finding ways to pass the steamy, summer days.
Yep, it was tough for me to have to drive my brother’s beautiful, Champagne Gold 1967 Pontiac GTO every day, taking extremely good care of it while he fulfilled his military obligation to our country in sunny, exotic, fun-filled Southeast Asia.
Most of my days were spent working at the local country club as lifeguard for the busy pool annex, where my duties included stocking the drink machine, stocking the munchies machine, cleaning the pool’s bug traps, and checking the ph level of the water every now and then, just to look official.
By the way – if you ever had the opportunity to view a pool from what was my vantage point – up in the raised stand where you can see the entire complex – you’d never enter a pool again.
There was an episode of South Park awhile back that illustrated my point, where Cartman reviles against entering the pool because there are little toddlers in the shallow end.
I can only tell you what I witnessed – there would be the inevitable “yellow tide” that spread out across the sparkling, crystal-clear waters whenever a multitude of little children gathered in the shallow end.
And yes, I had the same reaction as Cartman.
But it was a gig, and a paying gig at that. Now, this was a truly fortuitous series of events, because having coins in my pocket meant that I could put gas in the tank of that GTO.
Of course, since the GTO had a 400 cubic inch motor with a ravenous four-barrel carburetor, it took a lot of coins to keep that baby filled.
Oh, and did I happen to mention that – at the time – premium, hi-test gasoline was about 23 cents per gallon. And it got as low as 19 cents when a price war would break out between Esso and Sinclair.
(Right about now, I have just completely lost any reader under the age of 45. But to reel you back in, let me clue you in to the fact that Esso is now Exxon, and Sinclair is now BP).
Anyway, my free time was spent cruising around in the GTO with my friends, listening to 8-track tapes and engaging in extremely lame attempts at impressing the ladies.
Now, dad had just sold his Piggly Wiggly grocery store a year or so before, and had taken a job as General Manager of the local Ford dealership, Hemingway Motors.
And just like mom, he found himself needing to attend “school” in order to keep up with the rigors of the job, courtesy of training provided by the Ford Motor Company at its regional corporate hubs.
In the southeast, Atlanta is that hub, and it was there that my dad was required to attend a series of seminars on company protocol, in-house regulations and (best of all) the new model previews.
These particular meetings were to take place during the end of the week, which included a Friday. So dad decided to combine his trip to Atlanta with a return route through the mountains of Western North Carolina, so we could drop in on mom and spend some time with her.
Now, I had been driving solo for about a year, and getting to tool around town in a GTO was pretty neat. But it was just around my hometown of Andrews (hey, you didn’t honestly think they would let me embark on my version of Route 66, do you?).
Besides, I didn’t have my night-driving license, yet.
But dad knew that the best way to learn how to drive was to drive. So on one sunny Thursday morning, he pulled a yellow, 1968 Galaxie 500 2-door fastback off the lot, stuck me behind the wheel and pointed to Atlanta.
Needless to say, I was ecstatic. I was living large, cruising through the backroads behind the wheel of a brand-new Galaxie while my dad perused seminar lesson previews or took a catnap. Throughout rural SC, traffic was light and my abilities weren’t put to any stress.
When I pulled onto I-20 for the first time, it was like entering some automotiveorgasmic dreamworld. Four lanes of efficient, fully-condoned exercises in flat-out hauling ass!
I took a moment to wipe away a small tear of joy, and then shoved my right foot to the floor in pure bliss.
After about 5 hours of unbridled happiness at 80 to 90 miles per hour, the looming profile of downtown Atlanta (even in 1969) signaled the advent of something I had never encountered before:
Big-city freeway traffic.
Not just regular big-city freeway traffic, but rush-hour freeway traffic.
We crossed I-285, the Lord of the Ringsesque beltway that encompasses Atlanta proper.
I looked over at dad and asked him where he wanted me to pull over, so he could assume these big-time driving duties.
He just shook his head and said, “No, you’re fine, just keep driving.”
Funny how, in the matter of nanoseconds, your unbridled joy can evolve into unbridled terror.
Hands welded to the steering wheel, I flop-sweated my way into the bowels of the highway system in downtown Atlanta for the first time. Cars zoomed by me and constantly threatened to run me over, as I scanned all eight lanes of near-gridlock and prayed like a Monk.
About that time, God decided it was time to freak me out for no good reason other than just a goof on a slow day.
For there in my rear-view mirror were the flashing red lights of an ambulance, scurrying up on my rear bumper with nowhere else to go.
“What do I do? What do I do?!,” I frantically screamed at my dad, while my head did a great Linda Blair impression in attempting to view all of my evasive routes at one time.
“Pull over to the right,” was his calm reply.
Dad always had a way of explaining things to me.
Hmmm … there was an 18-wheeler beside me at the moment. “What about that truck?!,” I screamed.
“Put on your right-turn signal and toot your horn.” The man was a genius.
I signaled and tooted, and shazam! – the big truck eased back and let me over, as the wailing ambulance careened on by and headed off the next exit to a waiting hospital.
We safely made it to our motel (which turned out, was located about four feet from a dozen runways) and checked in. Dad finalized his meeting details, and I finally breathed for the first time since we crossed I-285, and we both fell into much-needed: deep sleep.
Dad arose early, off to his seminars via an airport shuttle. Left alone to my own devices, he was certain I would chose to do the one thing I had always done exceptionally well: sleep.
Well, sometimes dad wasn’t very clued-in.
I took off about 20 seconds after his shuttle was out of sight, filled up the Galaxie with gas and began exploring the greater Atlanta road system. By the end of the day, I was a grizzled veteran of the mean streets of big city traffic.
But then, when I awoke on Saturday morning, dad was long gone for his last seminar, and the little red light on the motel phone was blinking. I called the desk to ask why, and they informed me that there was a letter addressed to me in their office.
Turned out that my latest true love had dropped a “Dear John” on me, and devastated my road glory.
So when we headed out for Cullowhee on Saturday afternoon, I was a forlorn and quiet little pup – but I was still behind the wheel.
Just a hop, skip and a jump from Atlanta, the mountains soon rose before us, and I was literally pulling into the parking lot of mom’s motel before I knew it. And there was mom’s brand new, baby blue LTD with the Royal Blue vinyl top. And something else … something … different.
And at that moment, my daddy heard his youngest child utter the ultimate no-no gerund, as I slammed on the brakes and brought the Galaxie to a halt.
“What the hell happened to the ****ing LTD?!” I exclaimed in horror.
Dad looked at me like Satan had split open my skull from within and was about to step out from between my eyes, and I could see his veins popping out around his face and neck, and I’m pretty sure I was just about to receive a blow that would have most likely – and justifiably – killed me, when dad saw what had triggered my ‘blue’ streak.
The rear end of mom’s LTD was completely smashed in. Not a dent, mind you; not a small ding, but semi-totaled.
We sat there for about three minutes, silent and dumfounded. Then, we pulled up and parked beside the crumpled car. In typical fashion, I burst into her room and yelled, “Mama, what happened to the LTD?”, as dad entered the room, slowly and quietly.
Mom looked at me with a quizzical glance, and then gave my father the same look. “What do you mean? What are you talking about?”
Dad explained what we had found, and then we all walked outside to ascertain what injustice had befallen our innocent, family chariot.
Mom’s jaw dropped as she walked around the back of the crumpled car. She look at dad with that “Honey, I swear, I didn’t do this” look, tears welling up in her eyes, and just looked pitiful as she tried to make sense of it all.
She had no clue whatsoever, that much was clear. We figured out right away that the car didn’t get hit while parked outside the motel room. It was, quite simply, a bedeviling mystery.
Well, there was nothing that could be done, so we set about chalking it up to the “Believe It Or Not” school of thought, and each proceeded to catch the others up on how our summers were going.
Just before bedtime, mom stopped in mid-sentence while talking to dad, and sat back in her chair.
“You know, Delbert, now that I think about it, um, … I did have a dead battery the other morning,” she stated.
“Well, honey, that doesn’t explain the damage, unless the mechanic beat the back of the car with the battery before installing it,” was his humor-laced reply.
She sternly shook him off. “No, Delbert, I didn’t need a new battery. I had a friend at school give me a push.”
Dad and I dropped our jaws.
Now, mom immediately knew from our reaction that this was not going to end pretty.
“No, seriously,” she continued to vehemently defend herself, “it was just a little push.”
Dad prevailed on me to be cool, and told mom to go on and tell us what had happened.
Our disbelief was because, well, you can’t push-start a car like that – if it has an automatic transmission, which the LTD, of course, had.
The subject was inexplicably dropped immediately, and nothing more was said about the heavily damaged LTD.
The next morning, we drove to her on-campus dormitory for a tour of her room, and as I entered the parking lot, I burst out in uncontrolled, convulsive, screaming laughter.
“I know what kind of car your friend drives, mama! A Bonneville!,” was all I could manage to eek out between howls. Within seconds, dad joined me.
For there, sitting beside the spot where the LTD normally resided, was mom’s friend’s 1969 Pontiac Bonneville, when Pontiac’s signature look was an extended, protruding nose in the middle of the grill.
This Bonneville, however, now sported a Pug-like nose, smashed equally as far in as the rear of my mom’s car.
Now, these two women had combined IQ’s of nearly 400.
But neither figured out that getting a running start and ramming a stopped car was not the way to push-start any car, much less one with an automatic transmission.
In their final years, mom and dad resided in a nursing home in Sumter. Mom needed a wheelchair to get back and forth to the cafeteria. Every day at noon, dad would let her get settled in the chair and lean over and ask – with that great twinkle in his eye:
“Need a little push, honey?”
I’m pretty sure, at some point, he heard the word I used in the parking lot that day – again – but instead of a gerund, mama would have used it as a verb.
The previous column was originally published August 11, 2005.