Coming of Age in a Rambling Wreck

OK, I'll admit it. Sitting behind the wheel of my first car, two hours before it was towed off to the junkyard, I cried. You can call me a sissy or tell me that a car is only so much glass and steel, but I'll never apologize for losing my cool that day. A man's first car is less a means of transportation than a monument to his youthful abandon. At least mine was.

Soon after my 16th birthday, I started driving my family's old Ford sedan and offering rides to just about anybody who asked. After school one May afternoon, I piled 10 people into the car, including my friend Eric, who opted to ride in the trunk.

Stray limbs, sing-alongs, and an occasional moist finger in my ear made concentration difficult. In the midst of an effort to quiet my merry band of passengers, I ran into the back of a school bus full of second graders.

Although I had only been moving at about 10 miles per hour, the collision had crumpled the front of my car. Antifreeze oozed from my car's radiator and pooled on the pavement. As the children filed out of the bus, one little girl started to cry.

Suddenly, I remembered the trunk. I rushed over and opened it to find Eric curled around the spare tire, motionless. I gasped. Then he started laughing. ``You're the worst driver on the planet,'' he said.

In retrospect, the moment stands out as one of the most ludicrous of my young life. Bystanders gawked in wonder as one by one, 10 dazed high school sophomores crawled out of my car like circus clowns. I knelt down and asked the little girl why she was crying, and she told me it was because she needed to go to the bathroom.

Nobody was the least bit hurt, and as far as the second-grade boys were concerned, I was better than Evel Knievel and Luke Skywalker rolled into one. They crowded around me in admiration.

Even the dour police officers managed to smile at the scene. ``I don't know what your parents are going to say,'' said one, ``but this sure makes for an interesting accident report.''

My parents were predictably furious. After a week of threats and ultimatums, they finally settled on my punishment: I would use my summer wages to pay for the repairs.

In order to lessen the financial blow, I insisted the body shop fix the car with used parts. When the work was completed, the car drove the same as before, but its color scheme had changed. The red sedan now sported a green hood, a yellow fender, and a blue door. The mechanics might just as well have painted the words ``accident-prone teenager'' all over it. The police followed me home sometimes, waiting for me to crash into something else.

Nevertheless, that summer was rich with excitement. I found my freedom - and my possibilities for mischief - expanded a hundredfold. On days when my friends and I would once have ridden bikes to the public pool, we drove my Ford out along the river road to an abandoned train trestle.

Instead of riding to baseball games in Coach Sloan's van, earnestly discussing the batting order, we rode up in my Ford: our hats turned backward, spitting sunflower seeds out the window, and bragging about our home runs as if we had already hit them.

On weekends we packed charcoal and hamburger buns into the trunk and joined a serpentine convoy of cars heading toward a park, a beach, or somebody's summer cottage.

My car was so distinctive looking that its presence in a driveway at night inevitably attracted a procession of schoolmates looking for a party. When we heard the assistant principal was having a summer get-together for the high school staff, we parked my car in front of his house as bait. We watched carloads of teenagers arrive, saunter through the door, then run out ashen-faced.

One night, while I was busy washing dishes at the deli where I worked, my friends removed all the wheels from my car and left it perched on cement blocks. Deciding that the best reaction to the prank was to ignore it, I walked home. The next morning I woke up to find my car parked in front of my house covered with a two-inch layer of shaving cream. My parents didn't find that funny, either.

One by one that summer, friends got their driver's licenses and brought new automotive options to our fold. But after a few days of breaking in a new machine, we always returned to mine.

I wondered why, even then. It wasn't flashy - the Ford had all the trimmings of the sensible family car it once was. It wasn't fast, either - 50 miles an hour was a stretch. And it certainly wasn't comfortable: On hot days, our bare legs stuck to the vinyl seats.

Not until its engine seized up and died two years later did I realize what had made the car special.

While most of my friends invested in car stereos that could rattle windows a block away, I never seemed to get around to it. I stuck with the Ford's original radio, an AM-only job that picked up two stations on a good night. Sometimes we got The Beach Boys, sometimes Mozart, but more often we just turned it off.

Thinking back, I was surprised that I couldn't remember any bored silences, or anybody demanding that I buy a radio. We filled the musical void by arguing about girls, making up defamatory songs about each other, or telling stories.

But the moments that really stand out were more sober. I'll never forget the silence as we drove home from the league playoff game in which our team was eliminated. Nor has my memory faded of the night when Charlie talked about his parents' financial troubles, Ty expressed sadness over his father's gambling, and Rob let us all in on his dream of playing professional hockey.

In the time since we graduated from high school, my friends and I have spread out across the country and grown into adults who don't always have ready subjects to discuss. I'm already driving my third car.

But I've never questioned my emotions on the day when the mechanics delivered their sad verdict. In my first car, my childhood friends and I stockpiled our common memories like firewood, knowing that someday, somewhere, we would gather as gray-haired men to relight the blaze of our friendship.

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