By Brian M. Howle
Every year ‘round this time, when the sun sets early and rises late; when the damp chill of a naked landscape barren of green, leafy foliage paints a background mural of gloom all around you; when the promise of spring is agonizingly just around the corner – I find myself recalling the late January day which included phone calls that I absolutely did not want to make. The first one was tough enough; the second one I just couldn’t bring myself to dial.
In the winter of 1971-72, I was a freshman at the then USC – Coastal Carolina campuses of Conway and Georgetown. I commuted from Andrews to the two locations on alternating schedules: Conway on Monday, Wednesday and Friday; Georgetown on Tuesdays and Thursdays. My dad, who was General Manager of the local Ford dealership at the time, had purchased one of the very first “Mavericks’ produced in the Spring of 1969. A simple but efficient little car, it had no fancy “extras” – 3-speed straight shift, 6-cylinders and 2-doors. But it did have an AM radio. The little green car was a lot of fun to drive, but that wasn’t the reason he bought it. He bought it for his transportation purposes of going to and from work, and for running the gammut of errands he accomplished on a daily basis.
My constant asking for the keys to his car created a slight conundrum for him. On the one hand, he realized I sorta needed to go to classes, but, he also needed to get to his appointed daily stops.
My sister didn’t bother to learn how to drive until she was out of college, so her first car – entirely of her choosing – was a 1964 Rambler. We all tried real hard not to laugh.
Now, my brother – somewhere around his Junior year while attending Wofford, received a 1967 Pontiac GTO.
Not a Lemans – a GTO. A GOAT. (Can you say, “Old Skool: Zoom, Zoom, Zoom?”) And well he should – my brother had always earned respect and reward for his actions, and was every mother’s ideal son.
I, in contrast, had always seemed to pull up just a leetle short of the bar in comparison.
Dad now had a big decision to make. But, jostling for the keys to the little green Maverick with me for my 120-mile daily round trip pretty much made the decision for him.
One fall day, when I was home for lunch after one of the “short” class days in Georgetown, Dad drove up to the house in a different Maverick. Since he regularly drove home in different vehicles from the dealer’s lot, I didn’t pay it much attention to it, other than not being able to help notice it was very, very red.
When lunch was over, he called me outside as he prepared to return to work. When I asked him what he wanted, he told me to follow him back to work; that he wanted me to drive the red Maverick back just to see “how different it drove from our car”), and that he would drive the green Maverick, which I would then use to return home.
When we got to the dealership, I parked the little red rocket over to the side and walked over to my Dad to give him the keys.
“Well, how did you like the way that one drives?” he inquired with no particular reason.
‘It’s alright,” I honestly replied, “Nothing to shout about, but it’s not a dog, either. It’s pretty much just like yours.” And then I reached out to hand over the keys
“Well, You just go on and take that one back home with you, then,” he said, as he turned to nonchalantly walk back into his office. “I’ll see you at supper.”
There were only been a couple of times that my Dad left me speechless. And this was one of them.
In an instant, the car that had just been “alright, nothing to shout about” was the object of exuberant exhaltations by one happy, young white boy.
Now, I had been “customizing” Dad’s Maverick via meager means – pinstriping tape. I used black tape on the metallic green paint to highlight panels and crease lines to accent body shape, but it didn’t show up very clearly, especially at night.
But, now I had a RED car, and this one would be much easier to see with white pinstriping. After a quick trip to the auto supply store, I was applying yards and yards of thin, white lines around the form of my baby’s sculpted steel body panels. In just a few hours, I stepped back and admired by handywork.
Oh yes, this would definitely impress the ladies.
I pampered my little car, washed it weekly, and waxed it monthly. The first major addition to its meager amenities was the installation of the obligatory 8-track tape deck which fit snugly under the dash, and a couple of new speakers in the back deck.
Now the drive to classes would be filled with megadecibles of happiness on a continuous loop. As months passed, I found it hard to remember what I had done before Dad gave me that car. Weekends with my friends took on a whole new appreciation.
Then came the fateful call from one of my friends, Ron. Ron had a lady friend attending Winthrop College in Rock Hill, S.C., and was going to visit for a weekend. His car had suddenly developed a mechanical problem that could not be quickly fixed in time for his trip, so he wanted me to drive. I think there was a “fix up” date for me involved, but I honestly don’t remember my date. Then again, that was sorta normal – at the time.
And off we went, after enduring the standard half-hour lecture about driving safely and being careful and not speeding and watching out for drunks.
“Hey, we’re college students now; we’re not chimps, you know!”
So, Ron and I made the Saturday trip to Rock Hill. It was, as I said, cold and damp, not at all nice weather for anything that required being outside. We went out on our dates, returned them to their dorm afterwards, and then returned to our motel room for a restful night’s sleep before heading back on Sunday.
When we arose the next morning, it had turned even more grim outside. It was raining, and it was even colder. Not cold enough for ice to form, but it was doggone cold. I let the car idle for a few minutes to get the heater cranked up. We loaded it up with our overnight bags and rolled out of the parking lot, South bound and down.
We didn’t even make it out of Rock Hill proper.
Shortly after leaving our motel, we saw the ominous flashing of a patrol car’s beacon on the four-lane highway heading out of town. There was an accident ahead, and I slowed down as we approached. I asked Ron if he had put on his seatbelt and shoulder harness, a habit that I had picked up on my driver’s test. He nodded in the affirmative, and I slowed down even more as we pulled up on accident scene.
A truck had run off the road, and a wrecker was in the process of pulling it out of the ditch. A Highway Patrolman was directing traffic around the wrecker. I slowed down a little bit more, as we both observed the damage done to the truck.
Well, I slowed down to look … the guy in front of me decided he could get a much better look if he just stopped! And the guy in front of me was driving a 1968 Plymouth Fury.
I saw Ron turn his head to look forward, and then saw him react by grabbing the dashboard with both hands while screaming an expletive. I instinctively slammed on the brakes before I looked.
I was congratulating myself on the seatbelt thing while the sickening sound of crunching metal and breaking glass filled our ears. We hit the Fury at about 10 mph, which was the equivalent of hitting a concrete wall at 10 mph. The Fury’s rear bumper was about 6 tons and three feet high. The Maverick had this cute little thin, wrap-around bumper.
When the two met, my little thin bumper was driven back about two inches into the radiator. Without the meager protection of the bumper, the headlights shattered as well. There was a small amount of body damage, mostly under the bumper and the front of the hood – but other than that, the car was driveable.
Except for one thing, which the guy who towed us to his shop pointed out right away. The radiator now had a massive gash in it, and the water pretty much poured right out. He didn’t have a replacement radiator in stock and the hole was too big for “stop-leak” products to be of any help. When I bemoaned the prospect of having to spend another night in Rock Hill, he said, “Well, now, you can drive it , but you’ll just have to stop for water every ten or fifteen miles. Just keep your hand over the defroster vent; when it gets cold, you’re out of water.”
Hey, no problem. At least we could make it home that day.
I reluctantly called my Dad to inform him of the accident. He took it well, since no one was injured and the damage was minimal – and this relieved me to no end. I told him of our plan and bid him goodbye. So off we went again, with a couple of plastic bottles for gathering water along the way.
Well, he was right, that mechanic. About fifteen miles out, the dash was blowing cold air, so we stopped at a station and filled her back up, then took off again. We repeated this several dozen times as we inched our way home. Time was against us as Kingstree, which is about 25 miles from Andrews, was our target destination.
A few miles short of Kingstree, we were fighting a losing battle with daylight. I only needed to make it another eight miles, and then I could park my car at a service station where it would be relatively safe, and we could call our folks to come get us. As darkness fell, it began raining. Just eight more miles.
In the water-blurred distance, we saw headlights approaching, so I slowed just to be careful when they passed by us. And then Ron and I both saw something that made us gasp aloud.
A left-turn signal.
“Please, please, please, Lord, not until I’m past them!“ I prayed to myself.
I guess the Lord was busy at the moment.
Sure enough, the oncoming car turned into my path. And rightly so, since they couldn’t see us coming without our headlights.
Even though I had begun to slow down, it wasn’t enough. And this time, it wasn’t 10 mph. A futile slam of the brakes only propelled us faster into the inevitable.
We t-boned a 1965 Plymouth Valiant. No Fury, it was instantly totaled. Miraculously, the two folks inside – an older couple – escaped unharmed. For Ron and me, the seat belts really carried their keep this time, although Ron grabbed the dashboard again so hard it cracked the covering. The bumper was now wrapped around the tires. The hood folded to the windshield. But we were unhurt.
The officer on the scene asked twice when told why the accident happened. Then he looked at me and said, “Son, I sure wouldn’t want to have to make that second call to your father.”
He had a point.
So I begged Ron to call his Dad, and have him call my Dad.
After our fathers arrived and spoke with the police and tow-truck operator, we all drove home in pin-drop silence. Oddly enough, I was trying to enjoy every moment of the return trip.
Because I was afraid that maybe, I wasn’t going to be driving anywhere for awhile.
And lemme tell ya, I sure hated it when I was right.
The previous article was originally published in the January 12, 2006 issue of Alternatives NewsMagazine.