A long time ago in a hamlet far, far away from where she eventually wound up, a teenage girl went to get her driver’s license. It was summer. August. Her mother reluctantly drove her to the appointed location at the appointed time. The girl took the driving test and joined her mother for what became a very silent ride home. Those were not days of “instant gratification.” She was not rewarded with her license on the spot. She was told “you’ll be notified by mail with the results.” The ride home was very silent because she was certain she’d failed. She could not parallel park. Now, let’s discuss her mother’s car. A 1959 Chevrolet Impala. The fins on the car seemed a mile wide. In fact, one of the first times her mother had backed the car into the garage she’d knocked a hole in the wall. However, on this fateful summer day, after three unsuccessful tries the instructor said “let’s move on.” Three words she didn’t want to hear during her driving test.
The wait was interminable. Every day she waited for the mailman. He arrived around 10:00AM. Truth be told, she liked having an excuse to wait for the mailman. He was the very cute older brother of one of the first friends she’d made when they moved to the hamlet six years earlier. This fateful morning he headed up the front walk with a big smile, waving an envelope.
Picture the teenager shouting in glee as her mother came out onto the front porch, uttering the words ~ “the only test I prayed you’d fail.” The teen age girl had her driver’s license. She wasted no time asking her mother if she could, “please, please drive the car today. Please?????
My mother reluctantly relented. Despite serious concerns Emmy let me drop her off somewhere and drive her car for a couple of hours. I do remember driving down Ryefield Road and flooring it as I passed the school field and the left turn that led to the Dutch Reformed Church. When I hit 70 I slowed down, recognizing my newly found freedom wouldn’t survive a first day speeding ticket.
About year later my Grandfather’s 1960 Mercury Comet found its’ way into our driveway. Another car with big fins.
I nicknamed the car “The Hot Comet,” which it surely wasn’t either in looks or speed but I surely loved that little car. I can’t remember how long I had it but I do remember the day I lost it. Very clearly.
Before I get too far ahead of myself with this story, I’ll provide a bit of background information. If you’ve been a reader of this blog you know I talk about Emmy, my mom, often. I haven’t mentioned my father. Big Joe was his nickname. He’s the one on the left at a wedding reception of mine. A man used to being the center of attention. He was a self-employed attorney. I grew up on his witness stand, with his favorite phrase “do you think or do you know?” A simple way to describe him is in his own words. “I don’t get ulcers, I give them.” My mother had ulcers. My brother had ulcers. I had a big mouth and would often respond “I think I know.” Enough said.
Let’s just say from a purely observational stand point, my gene pool was not meant for deep diving. There are stories I could tell to emphasize the point, like the time my father wanted to shorten the electrical cord on the kitchen wall clock and attempted to do so while said clock was plugged in. My mother and I watched as he went to do so without uttering a word of caution. In our defense, we couldn’t believe what was happening. His resounding “holy shit” was louder than the brief electrical crackle so all ended well. I like to think of us as “colorful,” albeit more than mildly dysfunctional. But weren’t we all to a certain extent. Growing up behind the facade of 50’s television was the truth. Nothing was as it seemed. The facade of my childhood was aided and abetted by the wonderful place we lived. The “hamlet,” Locust Valley, on the North Shore of Long Island.
There were simple, family fantasy shows, “Father Knows Best” and “Ozzie and Harriet,” but s we moved through the 1960’s there were a few a bit racier. One was Peyton Place, the first prime time soap opera, based on the novel of the same name written by Grace Metalious.
One beautiful summer day I decided to go to the the library to check out THAT book. The library was down the hill and around the corner from our house but I drove into the village. Yes the center of town was, and is still, called “the village.”
I filled up the Hot Comet’s tank for a future adventure before heading to my destination. Book in hand I left the library and headed home.
I pulled into the driveway, turned off the ignition and heard a “pop.” It didn’t sound ominous, rather odd, but as I got out of the car I noticed smoke coming out from under the hood. No one was home. I stood for a moment thinking, “this is not good” but truly had n idea of what to do next. So I said, “HELP.” Really loud. Our neighbor from across the street, Mr. Kropp, came running out of his house. He grabbed the neatly rolled hose from the backyard, turned it on, started watering the hood of the car and said, “call the fire department. Now.” I ran into the house and did what I was told. When I came back outside, Mr. Kropp was still standing over the car hood, hosing it as he yelled. “GET ACROSS THE STREET .” Again I did what I was told.
The fire house siren went off. I forgot to mention the fire house is also around the corner, so although it felt like an hour the volunteer firemen arrived very quickly. Mr. Kropp stayed with the car hosing the hood. What a guy! I was terrified the car was going to explode, hurt Mr. Kropp and catch the house on fire. The fire truck came speeding up the hill and firemen rushed to the car with extinguishers and hatchets. Mr. Kropp stood with me on the lawn of his house with his arm around my shoulder saying “it’s OK.” By the time they were finished the “Hot Comet” was no more. The loss of my freedom loomed large along with the fact that I’d probably get busted for borrowing Peyton Place from the library.
My mother came speeding up the hill around the time the fire truck was leaving. Our next door neighbor, Annie Fitzgibbons, had figured out where she was and called. From Anne’s vantage point at her kitchen window, the message was,”Janet’s car is smoking in the driveway. Stan Kropp has a hose over the hood. The fire whistle just went off but I don’t see Janet.” How did we ever survive the complexities of life without instant, accessible communication?
My father’s first acts that evening were to bring a bottle of scotch to Stan Kropp and then head over to the fire house to thank them for their hep. Whoever he spoke to told him the car didn’t explode because there was a full tank of gas. No fumes in the tank. My father never said a word to me about it. Since I spent a large part of my teenage years in the dog house of his discontent over my actions, or lack thereof, no words were a good thing.
Someone I never knew “back in the day” was going through an incredibly difficult time in her life around the time the hot Comet met it’s driveway demise. Just recently she and I connected on Facebook and she related the fact that my father had helped her through her personal hell with his legal expertise and support. The man she described was someone I saw only infrequently. Kind and supportive. To quote her, “see, your Dad did something so very good and you never even knew about it. I remember him as a very kind man who was so proud of his daughter.”
Who knew? I hope he was proud of the way I acted that day in the driveway. I did yell HELP … really loud.
The moral of this story ~remember to tell those you love how proud you are of them, even if you think they already know.
And always top off the gas tank. Just in case.