There’s a lot to be said for childhood innocence, and not burdening one’s children with the worries of the world before they really need to know. Let them spend a few golden years swaddled in love and imagining a boo-boo is as bad as it gets. I did. I was gloriously ignorant. For instance, I had no idea how thoroughly endangered we were whenever we got in the car with my father.
Daddy had mostly God-like qualities, like infallibility and grumpiness. My father didn’t smite us in any way but he sure could have punched us an early ticket to heaven every time he got behind the wheel. I didn’t realize it until I started driving myself.
For one thing, he didn’t have any particular skills. And if another driver did something he didn’t approve of, which happened constantly, he got all upset and started driving faster to keep up with his blood pressure. You could tell, even from the back seat, when someone did something bad, because Daddy would say “Why, you miserable so-and-so” and start swerving. Speaking of protecting children from the world, “miserable so-and-so” was about as bad as it got. True story: I saw the word SHIT scrawled on a bathroom stall in sixth grade and not too much later I heard someone say it out loud, and I remember thinking: did they read that off the bathroom stall in Taylor Elementary?
He also didn’t have cars that were necessarily up to the job. I think he researched his auto purchases carefully but I’m not sure what qualities he was going for. Back in those days we didn’t have that many divided highways. Your average road was two lanes at best, and if you got stuck behind a slower car you had to pass it in the oncoming lane. Even when I was little I dreaded that. There would be this awful buildup with him edging into the oncoming lane to see if anyone was coming, all tensed up for a few miles, and then all of a sudden he’d stomp on the gas, and our car would get louder but not necessarily any faster, and finally, minutes later, he’d edge back into our lane while we watched oncoming traffic spray gravel out of the shoulders.
I know other kids’ fathers’ cars did better than that. But we never got one of those big boats that when you stomped on the gas it rocketed away. The first car we had was American, but it was no Chevy or Oldsmobile. It was a ten-ton rhinoceros of a Studebaker with suicide doors. It probably would have withstood a heck of an impact but of course we would have long since exited through the windshield. It did have a nice commodious back seat and my sister and I slid side to side on it like ball bearings when we took a curve. You could also kneel backwards on it and play with things on the big back shelf. Butt-first is probably the safer option for going through a windshield.
The other problem my dad had with driving is sometimes he kind of forgot he was doing it. We took the country roads all the way, and maybe traffic was sparse, and the thing about George Brewster was he could spot a cool mushroom from fifty yards out. Many people must have wondered why the little gray Peugeot 304 they were following suddenly slammed on the brakes for no reason. There was always a reason. But you had to be inside the car to hear Dad point and yell Ramaria botrytis! and even then you might not get it.
I still get a chill from the time we were all in the car, and everyone noticed we had sort of drifted into the oncoming lane, and assumed Daddy was planning to do something about it, what with the oncoming trucks and all, but then we looked over at him and his whole head was cranked to the side admiring the view. We all started screaming and Dad jerked the car back into our lane. The truck was all over his horn when he passed us. I know what he was saying. He was saying Dad was a real miserable so-and-so.