A pretty little sophomore piccolo player crashed my Plymouth Duster on the first day of my junior year of high school. Indirectly. Imprecisely. The car was definitely crashed, but Denise Waller’s role in the crash was not definitive. I was very proud to be driving Denise and her boyfriend Todd Harkey to West Rowan High School in so-tiny-it’s-nearly-mythological Mt. Ulla, North Carolina. It was my first solo drive to school since I earned my license at 16 from a grumpy and severe state driving instructor. We were all happy to be off of the horrible school bus for good. I pulled out of Denise’s driveway, carefully avoiding taking out her mailbox as I backed up and out on Hurley School Road. There was nothing before us but clear lanes in either direction and a first day of school learning nothing of importance.
Denise said dramatically from the back, “I forgot a book. We have to go back.” I kept my cool. “No problem,” I said, putting the car in reverse and backing straight into a muddy ditch. We all looked at each other a moment. “Well,” I said. “On the bright side, you’ve got plenty of time to get that book now. Let me help you crawl out of the back window.” I had put Todd and Denise in the back seat so I could chauffeur them properly to school. Now the ditch kept both back doors closed for business.
Todd and I tried pushing the car out with Denise at the wheel. No dice. The back wheels spun in the mud. My next thought was proactive. “Who can we call to to get this car out of the ditch without calling my dad?” No one knew anyone off the top of their head. Luckily, a farmer on a tractor happened by. He took in the scene quickly. “Need some help?” I nodded vigorously, too embarrassed for words. “No problem,” he said. In moments, we were out of the ditch and headed to school.
I’m trying to explain I have no love for cars and driving. I haven’t backed into any ditches since that first one, but I don’t particularly enjoy the act of driving. Some southern boys love their cars more than their mothers. They know all the models and makes backwards and forwards and sideways. The sound of a healthy engine and the sound of a loose belt at forty paces. “The timing’s off on that Camaro,” a guy remarked to me once in the school parking lot. “What year do you make that to be, a ’78?” And I nodded sagely because all I heard was car noise. “Yes, I believe you’re correct,” I said slowly, hoping to stop the whole car conversation I never wanted to have to begin with. “No, it’s a 79,” he said after listening further. “You were right. I could tell by your hesitation you didn’t agree but were too polite to correct me. But I’m not that sensitive. When I’m wrong, I’m wrong. Just say so.” I agreed I would be less delicate about his feelings in the future.
I am happy to pound the streets of New York City with my feet since moving here a year ago, wearing out tennis shoes like nobody’s business. Stepping over and around homeless people, loose bits of garbage and dog poop. I happily dodge cabs gunning for pedestrians in crosswalks in Times Square and nutty tourists riding bikes on sidewalks Downtown. What am I giving up? Freedom of the open road. The feel of control. The wind in my face with the window rolled down. No thanks. Let me explain.
Long car trips are nap time for me. They have been ever since I was a little boy, sleeping in the backseat during a two-hour ride to Asheville with my parents and waking up with the deep imprint of the back seat on my face. I define a long car trip as a little over an hour. When I first started taking long car trips with my girlfriend (now my wife), she noticed me getting sleepy at the one-hour mark. “You look tired,” Robyn said. “Yes,” I said. “You want me to drive?” she asked. “Sure.” I immediately pulled over on the highway’s shoulder and got out and waited to be let in to sit in the passenger’s seat for a nap. “I didn’t really expect you to let me drive,” she admitted, sliding slowly behind the wheel. “Why not?” I asked. “Because none of my girlfriend’s boyfriends let them drive,” Robyn explained. “You’ve come a long way, baby. I’m happy to help you get there,” I said generously.
I closed my eyes for my nap in the passenger’s seat. “What are you doing?” she asked. “I think it’s obvious. I’m taking a nap.” Robyn nodded negatively. “You can’t take a nap. That will make me sleepy.” I thought. “Well. What if I crawled over the back seat and took a nap back there where you couldn’t see me? I would try very hard not to snore.” She shook her pretty head again. “Don’t be ridiculous. You are not taking a nap in the back seat.” I fiddled with the radio stations. “What are you doing?” she asked. “I’m trying to find a song I like,” I explained. “Since I can’t take a nap, I thought I’d find a good song on the radio.” She had to nod a third time because I was slow to catch on. “Everyone knows the driver gets to select the radio station,” she said.
“So, let me get this straight,” I said. “If you’re driving, I can’t take a nap and I can’t select the radio station either?” She nodded for the first time in the affirmative. “Now you’re catching on,” she said. “Pull over,” I said. “What?” she said. “I’m not sleepy anymore. I’m too mad to sleep,” I said. “Let me drive.” She dutifully pulled over and got out and sat back down in the passenger’s seat. Where she took a nice long nap.
Again, I am happy to walk the streets and sidewalks of New York City forever and a day. I can put a headphone on and tune out the noise if I want. I usually don’t. I will never try to take a nap while walking. And I haven’t backed into a muddy ditch yet.
Postscript: Denise is now happily married back in Salisbury, has given up piccolo playing and hasn’t been crashing any cars lately, that I know of. Todd attended college in California where he played in a rock band, but he now resides in Illinois. He changed his name to Seven for unknown reasons some time back, rocks a goatee, claims on his Facebook page to be a Master Biscuit Maker at Bojangles and has finally perfected being cool as an art form as far as I can tell. I saw him playing drums in a band in Chapel Hill a few decades ago, and he explained he really doesn’t play drums. He plays guitar.