The flying fish car

I’m sorry to say I to belong to a notorious group, populated by a small percentage of people, who have driven through a house. Sometimes I think karma was to blame. When I turned 17 in 1985, my mom bought me a car. As a woman, I can say this was a woman purchase. At the time, we knew nothing about cars except that I needed one. My dad had just passed away and my mom was the epitome of a 1950’s housewife. We had to learn to  fend for ourselves.

The Sunoco gas station at the corner of our neighborhood was selling a 1970 white Ford Maverick for $600. Basically we started the car, handed the man $600 and drove away. To our surprise, the car ran well. The only thing we didn’t know was the car leaked when it rained. After any type of rain, a rusty puddle would form on the moldy red carpet behind the driver seat. I could deal with the leak at first, but as the weather became wetter and warmer, the car developed the pungent aroma of dead fish. By June, it was almost unbearable.

On a soupy hot humid day, common for June in South Jersey, I drove my girlfriend Cindy and her baby daughter Tammy to lunch. On the way, the fishy odor was stronger than usual due to a storm the night before mixed with the mid day heat.  I complained on the drive about wanting to get rid of the car because of the smell and lack of air conditioning. Cindy agreed, as we peeled our bare sweat soaked legs from the cracked red vinyl car seat, picked up the baby and walked into the air-conditioned Rustler’s steakhouse for lunch.

I disliked high school and thought of myself as one of the lucky ones. In Deptford High School, we liked to call it the work release program. I was part of the Marketing Distributive education program called DECA. For this program, you went to school for 3 hours in the morning and then you were required to work a retail job. I worked at Kinney Shoes for 6-8 hours a week. Mostly 2 hours on Tuesday and Thursday nights, and 4 hours over the weekend. The premise was to prepare students in marketing, retail and for the workforce. To me, it was a sweet gig for not having to attend school full-time. It allowed me to go to lunch with my older friends, like I was doing today and do whatever I wanted for the main portion of my days. While I did well in school and took advanced classes, losing my father and grandmother in my Junior year drained all of the mental energy I had to deal with the petty struggle that comes with high school. For me, the work release program was perfect.

After lunch, Cindy and I dreaded getting back into the car. Vinyl seats and shorts were not a good combination in the summer. Cindy put the baby in the car, and then she and I did the hot seat dance. Our legs felt like seared steaks. We needed to get moving as quickly as possible to get air moving through the open windows of the car. As we drove away, I put the Styx Grand Illusion cassette in the radio. It was our favorite album at the time. Come Sail Away blared out of the windows as we drove through our neighborhood. We were singing along and driving with purpose as I will call it to the beat of the music.

Instead of turning up Hamilton Road to Cindy’s house, I went around the block to finish listening to the song. As we passed Oak Valley Elementary school, the song hit a crescendo. I approached the left turn on Fordham Road too fast. This was not a usual road we drove down, and I wasn’t aware of the deep speed dip at the entrance. As I hit the speed dip, I felt the car jump. Styx was singing .. a gathering of angels as Cindy and I sang a chorus of, “A pole, a fence, a house!!” That quickly my little Ford Maverick was lodged up to the windshield in the bedroom of a house. When the car stopped, it was eerily quiet. The wall was the only thing I could see through the windshield. I looked over at Cindy and said, “Are we dead?”

When I lost control of the car, instead of hitting the brakes I hit the gas. The car jumped the curb, hit the inside of a telephone pole, careened off of a chain link fence and drove straight through the wall of a house knocking a woman out of bed who was taking a nap. We were all very lucky that day. I cut my knee, Cindy hurt her shoulder and bruised her head hitting the windshield. What we thought was an injury to the baby was only ketchup in her hair from lunch. The woman in the bed only sprained her ankle. She came out of the house and helped us out of the car. Ironically it was at the same time a school bus was letting off students from my high school.

The woman was nice enough to take me into the house to call my mom. My mom always had a calm way of handling stressful situations. She said, “I’m assuming you are alright since you’re calling me on the phone.” To this day, I don’t know who the woman was who lived in the house. I must have been in shock.

Over the years, I came up with many excuses for why the accident happened. None of which I’m glad to say involved alcohol or drugs. As an adult, I know it was my overzealous enjoyment of Styx and careless inexperienced driving. Sometimes I wonder if it was karma and my little car knew of my disdain. For a while after the accident I was sad about my little car left at the impound lot. A few weeks later, my mom took me to pick up my cassette case from the car. Thirty three years later I still can’t listen to Styx Come Sail Away.

 

The unknown danger

My father never spanked me before. The only thing I knew was that I hated him. I sat on the blue porcelain toilet with my black patent leather Mary Janes kicking the sides. Tears ran down my cheeks streaking my dirt stained legs, as I stared out the window, at the wooden ladder going to the roof.

It was 1975 and I was 4 years old. I didn’t know I was supposed to be scared until I felt my Dad’s large hands grab me down from the ladder before I reached the roof. He was so mad he spanked me across the butt and talked so fast about falling in my fancy shoes, how I should never climb the ladder to the roof and to get in the house.  I ran into the house crying and sat on the toilet in the bathroom. At the time I didn’t know why he was so mad.

All morning I played hopscotch and climbed the mimosa tree in the front yard while my Dad and his friend worked on the new roof.  A case of Schlitz sat on the trunk of my mother’s teal green convertible Monte Carlo and Tammy Wynette played on the radio. In those days, in our neighborhood, you didn’t hire a roofing company. My dad would call his friends and ask for help promising a case of beer. That was usually enough to get help from at least one or two guys. That morning I watched as my dad and his friend climbed up and down the ladder many times replacing wood and shingles on the roof.

I looked at that ladder several times wondering what it would be like to be high on on the roof. My dad and his friend were “Tankies” or what other people called iron workers or welders. Walking on the roof to them was like walking on the sidewalk.  They built bridges and water towers. My mom even brought me to the job sites a few times to bring lunch. As I watched them climb the ladder, it looked so easy. I could fly free like a bird. Sliding across the grass in my slick dress shoes, flapping my arms, I practiced the freedom of flying high on the roof like a bird.

When my dad and his friend went in the back yard to get supplies, I decided to climb to the roof. I remember taking the first step and looking down at the dried peeling wood of the gray ladder my dad had taken from the job site. As I stepped on each rung, my little black shoes would slide from side to side. I got lucky when they caught on the large splinters. It wasn’t as easy as it looked. I climbed to the eighth or ninth rung when my dad came around the side of the house and caught me.

While I hated him at the time for spanking me, as a parent I understand the fear that took over him when he saw me halfway up the ladder in my shiny Mary Janes.

 

(a writing exercise on the first time I encountered danger)