Katie phoned from college.
"Mom?" She hesitated. "Are you sitting down?"
In the few seconds it took to respond, I conjured scenarios of the typical fears: kidnapping, mugging, bankruptcy, expulsion.
"I wrecked the car."
She had taken my car to school with her for a couple of weeks at the end of summer and was planning to bring it back after Labor Day weekend. Her accident occurred at a five-corner intersection. A car appeared from nowhere and collided into the passenger side door.
"Are you ok?"
"I'm fine. The car's not."
My relief surprised her. But I was mollified by an experience that occurred long before she was born.
When I was a kid, our family lived in Westport, a town of 800 on the west shores of Lake Champlain, in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. Our street, Washington, rose a steep grade from the marina, crossed Main Street, continued the climb to my house at the crest of the hill, leveled out for a few hundred yards, dipped into a gully, curled around a bend, meandered between cornfields and dairy farms into the foothills, before it receded into the darkness of the forest.
The village line ended at our driveway, and Washington Street turned from pavement to gravel, right where the road dipped into the gully. Cars that came out of the foothills toward the village, zoomed around the bend, sped up the gravel rise, and tore past our house, sending clouds of stones, dust, and dirt into our yard, making our grass look like the edge of a forgotten beach.
We had a massive old barn that used to be part of an apple orchard in the 1800’s. To the left of the barn, beyond the village line, was a 20-acre field that my dad mowed every summer, giving the hay to local dairy farmers. And when I was thirteen, it was on that grassy flat hilltop that my dad taught me to drive.
Our family owned two cars, Chevrolets - a green and white four-door sedan and a black and white station wagon. Both were stick shift. Learning to coordinate the manual controls was tricky and required adroitness, sensitivity, and timing - left foot easing up on the clutch, right foot gingerly pressing down on the accelerator. My clumsy attempts turned the Chevy into a misfired carnival ride - lurching, jolting, shuddering in fits and starts before it completely stalled and jerked to a stop.
But my dad was patient. He encouraged me with a droll, “Well . . . now . . . that wasn’t so bad. Let’s turn the car back on and try again.”
Eventually, I became fairly adept at synchronizing the clutch-shift-accelerator system, and soon I was proud of my proficiency as a driver. I knew I'd be ready for my driving test when I turned sixteen.
One late summer afternoon as shadows of sugar maple trees stretched across our front yard, I sat on the kitchen porch steps, arms wrapped around my knees, watching ant parades traipse across the wooden slats. Mom had gone for a walk. Dad was upstairs resting before dinner. My older brothers, Dick and Dave, were playing basketball in the driveway. And I was bored. I decided to go for a little spin.
I slipped into the kitchen, took the car keys off the hook inside the coat closet, and set out to drive into the field. What harm could I do? My dad had taught me how to drive out there in that very field. And I had conquered the clutch.
The two cars were parked face-to-face in tandem on the grass in front of the barn. The station wagon was backed up to the barn door, the facing sedan several feet from the edge of the road. My plan was to back the sedan a little into the street, turn the wheel hard to the left, and then drive out into the meadow. I was going to have a pleasant little outing before Dad woke up and Mom came home.
As I opened the car door and got in, my brothers stopped playing basketball and watched me without much interest. When I turned the motor on, they screwed up their faces and dropped their jaws. I could read their lips. “What are you doing?” and "You idiot!"
I ignored them. Very smoothly I implemented my newly learned clutch-shift-accelerator synchronization techniques and inched the car backward toward the street. Amazing, I thought. How skillful I had become. Gradually, carefully, steadily. The car moved at a bit on an angle, but that didn’t concern me. I was proud that the car moved at all. I backed onto the road. The wheels crunched on the pebbles and grit. I was cautious, oh, so cautious.
At that moment, a car from nowhere careened up and over the crest of the hill, heading right at me. Startled, I jerked the wheel hard to the left, maneuvered the clutch and accelerator with the force and speed of an Indy 500 master, and bolted forward, barely missing being creamed by the car-rocket that barreled off in a cloud of sand. Without even a second to feel relief that I had avoided a life-threatening, not to mention hard to explain, moving vehicle accident on a village street without a driver's license, I smashed head-on into the front of our other car. Full-on collision. Metal against metal. My forehead banged against the steering wheel, my knees hit the dashboard, and my shoulders made the horn go off. The car writhed in the throes of an engine heart attack - it shuddered, hissed, fizzled, gasped, and died.
I was so astonished I stopped breathing.
My brothers froze in space, and then they doubled over into frenzied laughter. They howled. They pointed. They howled and pointed some more. They rolled on the ground. They laughed so hard they had to crawl over to me to see if I was all right. My head and knees hurt, my pride ached, and fear of the consequences choked in my throat.
Dave gasped between spasms of hilarity, “That was a short, ha-ha, but interesting trip.”
I got out of the car and looked for damage, which was hard to see through my tears, and harder to determine because the front fenders were locked in a twisted mangle of bonded metal.
I didn’t know, because it hadn't occurred to me to check, that the wheels had been facing clear to the right - they hadn’t been straightened out when last parked - so when I turned the wheel to the left to head into the field, all I did was straighten them out.
Dick tried to comfort me, if that was even possible. “I’ll go upstairs and tell Dad what happened, but you have to stay planted at the bottom of the steps.”
"You're in some deep doo -doo! I gotta hear this," Dave laughed.
Shut up! I thought, but telling him would only spark more ridicule.
I slumped along beside my brothers into the house and waited with Dave at the bottom of the stairs, knowing full well that I would be sent to family jail and be forever banned from anything remotely enjoyable in my life. I was doomed. My dad loved his cars. He would not take this event lightly. I’d had it. There was no possibility of a light sentence and absolutely no possibility of parole.
I also figured I would lose my allowance and probably have to hand over any babysitting money I earned for the next couple of years. Why had I done something so dim-witted as to take out one of our cars?
Unexpectedly, I heard someone laugh. It was Dick. I crept up to the middle of the stairwell and listened.
“. . . then she jammed on the . . .ha, ha, ha, accelerator, peeled out, and .. ha, ha, ha, ha ..had a head-on collision with the other car.”
My heart pounded. Sweat slithered down the back of my neck. The knot in my stomach grew bigger. Silence. I waited. I suffered.
"Here comes the doo-doo," Dave sniggered.
"Shut up," I said.
Then I heard another laugh. It was my father. He laughed with a sidesplitting howl. Was he laughing at Dick's description or at my behavior? It didn’t matter - he laughed, and relief swept over me like a cool, comforting breeze. My life might be saved. Maybe I wouldn't be going to family prison after all.
"You're lucky." Dave said , sounding almost disappointed.
Dad came downstairs and looked at me. He had a slight smirk on his face, as though he had just pulled some kind of a prank and gotten away with it.
“I understand you had a bit of an . . . accident today,” he chortled through an attempt to be firm.
“I . . .uh. . . I . . . uh . . . I thought I could . . .uh . . .drive . . .uh . . . in the field. We . . ., uh . . did before . . . and you . . . uh . . .said I . . .uh.”
“Yes, you are getting to be a pretty good driver. But you’re not supposed to go out there alone. Didn’t you know that?” His eyes were gentle. His voice calm. He didn’t seem angry at all. I wondered when the anger part would happen.
I stammered a quick apology and waited for my dad’s next move.
We went out to the cars and Dad backed one of them up to see what had happened to them. The license plates were bent and mangled, but, aside from a few scratches, the fenders seemed to be unaffected.
Dad took me to the workbench in the barn, gave me a hammer, and showed me how to pound the dents out of the license plates. He found small cans of black and orange paint and helped me paint the black numbers and letters and fix the orange background.
Dad replaced the license plates and stepped back to look them over. “Not too bad,” he decided. “Not great, but not too bad.”
As long as we owned those two Chevys, the whole town could see my attempt at adulthood each time our family drove through the village.
My dad never did get angry about that car accident. I’m not sure why, but I think it’s because he remembered what it was like to be 13 and to be sitting on the front porch steps in the late afternoon on a idle summer day bored enough to watch ants. And I think my dad enjoyed teaching me how to drive that summer. He probably even enjoyed helping me pound out the two license plates and repaint them. We shared a special togetherness out there in the barn that quiet summer afternoon. Father-daughter activities usually don't include pounding out and repainting dented license plates.
I probably should have been punished for my recklessness, like being grounded or doing extra chores around the house. The fact that I wasn’t meant my dad knew I had learned a significant lesson about safety, appreciating others, and respecting myself.
He was right. I did learn something that soft, lazy afternoon. I learned that being behind the wheel of a moving vehicle is a responsibility more overwhelming than I could ever have imagined. I learned, too, that I had to respect things that didn’t belong to me. As I painted those black number and letters, I felt humbled knowing I had damaged something of value to my dad. My shame and my embarrassment were, in themselves, effective punishments. I also learned that my father had a big heart, and my brother, bless his, had a great sense of humor that helped steer my car dilemma in the right direction.
What my daughter needed most at that moment was understanding, compassion, and the same calm reassurance my dad had given me.
"Accidents happen, Katie," I said gently. "Dents are easy to fix. We'll pound them out together."