NS December 3rd, 2008
I was asked by Jen to tell the story of what I like to call The Longest Car Crash In History. I’m thinking of submitting it to Guinness so if you think you can beat it, please do tell me so we can angrily confront each other and then rip fabric from our shirts to make colored armbands that we will wear to represent our respective posses in the impromptu back-alley dance-off we’d be forced to hold to settle the matter.
Oh, wait. That’s the West Side Story. Crap. Okay, well then just e-mail me and we’ll settle it over a cup of coffee. Now back to this car crash.
I was 16 years and two weeks old. In the state of Indiana that meant I still had a couple weeks to go before I could take my test and get my driving license. I don’t know if it’s still law, but back then you had to be 16, 1 month and 1 day old before they would unleash you on the road. Who knows how they came up with that arbitrary age. It’s probably a numerical reference to a Bible passage on the recklessness of youth or something. This is a place where religious signs are still frequently nailed onto trees along the interstate like Jesus to the cross, after all.
It was July ’94, the height of summer, and nearly all my friends already had their licenses. My parents’ house was in the centre of town (i.e. not far from one of the three stoplights) so luckily it wasn’t difficult to get friends to stop by to see me or give me a lift. But on that particular day, two of my friends (for reasons I can no longer remember) were stuck without a ride home, at the tanning salon just a little further up the main road. They asked if my dad could come get them. I went to ask my father and found him cutting the grass, drenched in sweat. I shouted and gesticulated over the roar of the lawnmower, enough to be understood. He nodded and dug around in his pocket for the keys to my older sister’s car, which he must’ve been washing or working on earlier, and handed them to me with a wink and instructions to be very careful. As the tanning salon was perhaps 1/2 mile up the road and would involve merely turning out of our drive, pootling up the dozy four-lane highway and then turning into a parking lot and then back again, he must’ve though it was easy enough for me to handle by myself. As he was to learn soon, that was a big mistake.
Now for the important bit — the car. Man was she a beaut, at least to 16-year-old eyes.
A white ’89 Chrysler Conquest with a 2.6 litre, 178 horsepower engine with intercooled turbo and throttle-body fuel injection. This baby could get up to 114mph in a 1/4 mile drag race and had a cockpit like a race car, where your ass was mere inches off the ground. If I sound like I know what I’m talking about, it’s because I just went online and read the specs, not because I’m a gearhead or a grease monkey (though I love both of those terms).
So to sum up — entirely too much car for a 16-year-old unlicensed driver whose only experience came from a semester of Driver’s Ed and a few supervised trips down roads wider than some airport runways. Being 16, I obviously didn’t care about any of that though, so I took the keys and ran. My sister was inside napping and if she found out I was taking her car she’d have a fit. I had to be quick.
The way there was fine. My heart was pounding in my chest and I had a huge grin plastered on my face, which I wished people could see through the tinted windows. I had the air-con cranked and the music too, shades atop my head as I sang along to whatever song was on the radio (probably ‘Loser’ by Beck or ‘The Sign’ by Ace of Bass, both were big hits that summer). I picked up my friends, who squealed with delight at being taken for a ride in this sporty little number, and we turned to head back to my house.
I sat at a red light waiting to turn right, back onto the four-lane highway. No other cars were in sight. My friends reminded me that I could turn right on red if the coast was clear so I started to make my turn, into the outside (lefthand) lane. As I started to turn, I saw a car straight ahead of me, speeding in from the opposite direction, trying to make the light before it went yellow and then red. I thought for sure it would slam right into me since I was blocking both lanes as I made my turn, so I jerked the wheel to the right to try to get out of its way and into the righthand lane. In my haste to avoid an accident, I hit the gas instead of the brake and so I ended up mounting the rather high curb. Because this car sits so low to the ground, it began dragging along the pavement and I could see sparks shooting out from the undercarriage. Between the sparks, my friends’ screaming and the near miss with the other car, I panicked. I jerked the wheel to the left, foot still firmly on the gas instead of the brake, in an attempt to get off the curb. Oh boy was that stupid.
Next thing I know we are not only off the curb but we have passed over the central median into the other side of the highway. Good handling skills there, Batgirl! Jesus Christ, I was a mess. As you would expect, the screams coming from my friends were growing more ear-piercing and urgent. Because I had absolutely no control over the car anymore and didnt know the brake from my elbow at this point, I gave up the ghost and joined in.
Now, it must be true what they say about teenage girls’ screams being heard by anyone possessing ears within a square mile, because the sounds coming from the out-of-control sports car caught the attention of a friend of my sister’s, nicknamed Harv. He was making a phone call from a pay phone (remember those contraptions?) on the town square, which was the local hangout for high school kids and situated on top of a small hill that overlooked the highway. He stopped putting his quarter in and watched, mouth agape, as what he knew to be my sister’s car careened down the wrong side of the highway. Whoever he was going to call obviously had to wait. He was able to phone my dad and tell him that I was having a wreck as they spoke — oh, wait, she’s finished now! — and then run down to help us when we finally came to a halt.
But now I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to the bit where we had just gone onto the wrong side of the highway…
So we went over the median and saw a big, brown ’70s Chevy van with dark windows coming towards us, the kind that kidnappers and molestors use to snatch children off the street and spirit them away to Mormon polygamy cults in the wilds of Utah. Once again, I jerked the wheel, this time to the right. The front end of the car entered the median, leaving the back end sticking out into the oncoming lane and in the path of the molestation van. We didn’t make it all the way onto the median before the van clipped the back corner and sent us into a wild spin (remember, foot still on gas pedal here).
Now, when I say median you’re probably picturing concrete and guardrails. You would be wrong. This was small-town Indiana, don’t forget, and the local government had decided that the best thing it could do to bea-ut-ify the town was to plant flowers along the median. Flowers imbedded in wood chips. So as we spun around and around, tiny pieces of wet wood came flying in the vents. I mean tons of it. There were wood chips in my mouth, in my nose, in my hair and, worst of all (but not that it mattered too much at this point), in my eyes. So now, not only was I driving erratically in a car with the power of Greyskull (green sparks and all), I was blind. In hindsight, that might’ve been a good thing.
After the wood chips incident rendered me unable to see, I think my other senses finally kicked in and I regained the power of thought. I don’t know if I ever actually hit the brake or if the car’s four flat tires, bent rims and broken axle just made us cease movement, but we finally came to rest on the side of the grassy hill that ran alongside the highway, a full block away from where we had started. According to my friends, I stepped out of the car (which wasn’t difficult seeing as the body was flush with the ground), surveyed the damage and said, “Quick! Get back in the car and let’s go before anyone sees us!” I was obviously delusional. It’s hard to believe I didn’t hit my head.
In the end, all occupants were fine, completely uninjured (except for the damn wood chips irritating our eyes). My sister’s car and my pride, however, were not. The Conquest spent months in the shop of the only mechanic in the area who would work on it since it was a relatively rare model and even then it was never the same. It ended up being a total loss. Man was my sister pissed when I had to wake her up from that nap to tell her I’d completely pancaked her precious sports car! Left carless just weeks before the start of her senior year, she had to resort to being dropped off by our mother until she got a replacement car some months later. I’m surprised she spoke to me that year.
The cop who came out to write the report also got a huge kick out of sitting me down and with his Bic pen drawing two squares, marked A and B, on my palm and sniggering while he explained, very slowly, what accelerator and brake meant and where they were located in the vehicle.
That, my friends, is the story of The Longest Car Crash In History, and why I did not drive again until I was 22. For anyone who lives near me, fear not for I did finally manage to sort out where the brake is. Or have I?