For less than a year when I was nine years old, my father and mother owned a shiny black automobile. It was a Ford, as all of my father’s cars were. He worked for Pontiac motors, but he only bought Fords. My mother was a nervous driver. She hated driving and was a wreck every time she did. She had anxiety, so she smoked in the car. She swore in the car. She gripped the steering wheel too tight, and she worried about everything: rain, wind, ice, snow, loose gravel, and stray livestock. She was deeply afraid of getting too close to the center of the road.
It was this last fear that caused a calamitous event one day when she was driving me to school. All of the not quite three miles to school were on narrow gravel roads. In our area, we had deep ditches because of the low land flooding in the spring or whenever heavy rains came. She was not a quarter mile down Dudley Road, the road on which Drennan School was, when she suddenly pulled to the right and her right front wheel went off the side of the road.
My mother, who never learned in her life to not panic and over-react, immediately jerked the steering wheel to the left, and that caused the accident. The wheel hit the side of the ditch with force, and it caused the car to become air-bound. The car came down hard on the driver’s side, so hard that the motion continued, and the car flipped over, not once, but twice, and landed in the ditch on the other side of the road, on its top.
I blacked out, and when I came to, I was kneeling on glass on the roof of the car. We were pointed toward the east, and the sun was full by this time, so we were surrounded with bits of glass shining like crystals. My mother had the presence of mind to reach up and roll the hand crank down for the window and roll the driver’s side window down. It had not broken. Just the windshield and rear window had shattered into uncountable pieces. She crawled out the window and urged me to come out the same way.
The first thing I saw was a neighbor running down the road toward us. She had been nursing her baby, and had not had time to button up her dress top, so she ran. Her breast was bobbing up and down in the open air. It added to the shock for what had just happened.
“Is anyone else in the car?” Evelyn screamed. My mother said we were all right, just cut, bruised and shaken. Evelyn had seen the accident happen from the window where she was rocking and nursing the new baby. Once she saw we were alive, she tucked herself back into her dress and buttoned up. She walked to the driver’s side of the car and got down on her hands and knees to get the key out of the ignition. The front tires of the car were still crazily spinning. I had not cried until I saw those wheels still spinning. The crazy violence of those spinning tires caused my tears.
My mother must have apologized to me a dozen times that morning, but I barely heard her. She kept asking if I was all right. I managed to say I was, but I was bleeding from the glass cuts. I was shaking so hard that I could barely speak. I sat on the side of the ditch. I was cold, and I was having trouble breathing. As I think back on this, I am sure I was in shock.
Evelyn called my grandpa Snow, and he and my grandmother came and got us and took us to the Yale Community Hospital, where our doctor checked us out and cleaned my cuts with antiseptic. We were interviewed by a reporter for the local newspaper, who managed to get most of the details wrong. I missed school that day. The car was towed to the local dump and was accounted a total loss. The roof was caved in and the frame was hopelessly bent. An axle was broken.
When we got home, my father, who worked afternoons at the factory in Pontiac, was awake. My mother began crying when she told him about the accident. It was the next shocking thing. I had never before seen my mother cry. She said she was afraid he would be mad at her. To his credit, he was a decent human being that day and was not mad. He patted her on the shoulder and told her to not cry. He decided it had been the color of the car and vowed to never have another black car. I suppose when events are so unbelievably irrational, that the best response to them is to blame it on something that can’t possibly be true.
This did not improve my mother’s driving one bit, though she did stay away from the sides of the road after that, driving mostly down the middle, and then stopping near the side when the occasional oncoming car came near us. We never had another accident. We never had another black car, either, so my father was satisfied with his superstition. When we went to get our things out of the car, one of them was a jar half filled with water that I had topped with aluminum foil to hold my pollywogs. My friends Donna and Eldon and I had caught them the day before in a ditch near my grandmother’s house on that same road. The aluminum foil was still on, the water and pollywogs were still as they had been.
In those moments that we had been tumbling over in the car, I had seen the end of my life approaching, and I knew I was going to die. Not dying had been a bonus, as was the discovery my pollywogs were still intact and swimming in that glass jar. I have often contemplated my mother’s anxiety and over-reacting, and have tried very hard in my life to not do that. It is never a good thing to panic.
In my mother’s defense, she never had the benefit of drivers’ training. It did not exist when she was learning to drive. She did not get a legal license to drive until after I was born, so she had really not been driving a car very long. Horse and wagon were more her speed, and she could drive a tractor, but that was frightening to her, too. They had horses for farm work until just before I was born. It was a brave new world to her, and she was not a brave person in it.
About a year later, when the hollyhocks were all in bloom around our house, I was walking toward the back door, when I felt something on my leg. I reached down and rubbed it, and a small piece of glass, half the size of a pea, came off in my hand. A drop of blood came with it. It was a piece of the windshield glass that had worked itself out of my flesh — an anniversary reminder of the day I might have died, over sixty years ago now. I have heard some people say that in everyone’s life, there are times called, “departure points,” where someone could easily die. That was one of mine. I have had others.