Names have been subtly changed in the following anecdote, partly to protect the guilty and partly because I can’t remember everybody who went along with this crazy scheme.
Sometimes you know you shouldn’t do it. That’s usually the appeal in the first place. And sometimes you know it’s going to come back on you as if you’re stretching a rubber band too tightly just waiting for it to snap. Yet when you’re seventeen years old, there really isn’t much you won’t do. Karma hasn’t had a lot of time to exact its revenge.
I was getting rebellious in my senior year. It took me a little longer than some, but I was now questioning authority and breaking the rules. Each year I had received a perfect attendance pin. It was a tiny reminder of my commitment to a great high school education. Now in the spring of my senior year, I realized I was going to have to walk up on stage at my graduation ceremony and accept a four-year perfect attendance pin. What kind of rebel doesn’t miss a day of school in four years? Something had to be done.
“I’m telling you, there’s a nudist colony up there in the foothills!” Dave could hardly contain his excitement. “We should go up there and find it. Naked girls, man!”
A group of us were gathered around a lunch table in the cafeteria on another typical sunny spring day in California. Teenage boys, obviously wise in the ways of the world, our libidos raging out of control.
“You sure? How do we find it?” I was skeptical but interested.
I don’t know exactly where it is,” said Dave, “but how hard can it be to find?”
None of us had an answer to that entirely logical question.
“Let’s do it. We can go this weekend,” Rick chimed in.
“I have to work at the carwash this weekend,” I responded.
I looked at my brother Terry. He was going along with things so far.
“Let’s go tomorrow,” I said. “We’ll cut school.” I was thinking about that damn perfect attendance pin. It was time to put a stop to it.
The next morning my brother and I hopped into my 1961 Volvo and headed off to school as usual. Now, the 1961 Volvo was one of the few automobiles designed in the sixties that truly defied any essence of cool. It looked like someone took a Volkswagen beetle, stretched it out like a luxury coupe, but left the engine up front under a long hood. My father bought it for me so I could get to work when I was sixteen. My chances of being considered even remotely hip driving this thing around were zilch. It was an ugly, oxidized white when he bought it, but he agreed to have it painted for me to ease my pain. My father was a service manager at a VW dealership and offered me any color that was in the Volkswagen palette at that time. I chose orange. The car still didn’t have the appeal of a chick magnet, so I made one more adjustment. On each side of the car, blazoned across the doors, I painted the words “Boogie Machine” in bold black letters. Now it was cool, or so I thought.
We arrived at the high school parking lot. There was Micky with his Plymouth Duster. His car was cool. We planned to take two cars, a wise decision considering how things turned out. The five of us piled into the cars and hit the road, heading out of Roseville and up into the hills toward Jackson. Clueless and crazy, somehow we thought we could find a nudist colony in the miles of roads twisting through the gold country. It’s been fifty years and I still can’t recall ever having seen a sign posted “Nudist Colony, Next Right.” Not anywhere. But this didn’t turn out to be an issue after all, because somewhere along the road in those rolling hills, amidst the oak trees and brush, my trusty Volvo started complaining. Our search had barely begun when the engine started knocking so loud I had to pull over. Micky pulled up behind us. His car was still cool; mine had bit the dust.
Five teenage boys with raging libidos. Remember them? It was like the sky had opened up and dumped an enormous bucket of cold water on us. We no longer thought about the nudist colony. We had a more urgent problem. My car was stranded sixty miles from home. Pushing it was out of the question. Micky’s car was too cool. There was nothing to do but call our mission a failure and head home, tails between our legs. We all squeezed into the Duster and turned back the way we came.
On the way back I had plenty of time to ponder my imminent death at the hands of my father. I would throw myself on his mercy, hoping for a little bit of understanding, although he had never shown much willingness to let things slide in the past. I asked Micky to drop Terry and me at the dealership where my father was working. It might be better to face the music in front of an audience, possibly saving my life for the time being. I don’t know whether this helped or not. I think this may have been the first time I truly misunderstood my father, but it was not to be the last. To my vast surprise, he didn’t freak out. He didn’t appear to be angry at all. He quickly considered what it would take to get the car back home.
“We can’t let it set out there all night. It’ll be stripped by morning,” he said.
Really? I thought. Who would strip a 1961 Volvo? It didn’t even have custom wheels. He summoned the shop foreman and quickly had a tow bar attached to the back of his 1969 Buick Riviera. He loved that car. It was a lavender color called Sunset Silver, immaculate inside and out. He handed me the keys as my brother looked on.
“I’ll show you how to hook it up. Take Terry and go get your car and bring it back here,” he instructed me.
Terry and I couldn’t believe our extraordinary good fortune. He wasn’t mad! Definitely irritated and annoyed, maybe pissed off later, but so far, so good.
Meandering back through the hills, we found the car just as we had left it. Untouched, the hub caps were even still in place. I backed the Buick up to the Volvo, and Terry, who has always been the mechanical one, attached the tow bar to the front of the Volvo. We hooked up the taillights and prepared to make another trip back to Sacramento. For some reason I can’t quite remember, we decided Terry should sit in the driver’s seat of the Volvo while I drove us back. To this day, I have no idea why we thought that was a good plan.
I slowly accelerated off of the shoulder and pulled the cars out onto the main road. I could see my brother in the rearview mirror. He was sitting calmly, hands on the steering wheel as if he were helping me drive. As I cruised through the curves of the highway, my confidence grew. This towing business was easy! I could finally relax. My speed was creeping up with the knowledge that I was already an expert in pulling a vehicle behind a car. I swung leisurely around the bends in the road. I suddenly realized I might be moving a bit too quickly and touched the brake pedal into the next curve. The tires on the right side of the car came off the asphalt and dropped onto the shoulder, with the Volvo tagging along behind. I steered to the left to get the cars back on the highway, overcorrecting and causing the Volvo to fishtail.
Glancing in the mirror, I saw Terry desperately clutching the steering wheel, holding on for dear life while I tried to regain control. However, at seventeen I could not recall any instructions for dealing with this situation, so I probably made all the wrong moves. The car in my mirror was whipping dangerously side-to-side, my brother’s eyes the size of dinner plates. Suddenly I felt a jarring concussion as the front fender of the Volvo collided with the rear fender of the Buick. The helpless car then jauntily pranced back the opposite direction, battering my dad’s prized Riviera on the other side. I am amazed to this day that no other traffic came along while the possessed demon that was my Volvo beat us senseless on that highway.
I got the cars back under control. We stopped and surveyed the damage. Both front fenders of the Volvo were caved in, but more importantly, the Buick was smashed in on both sides. Terry looked at me, knowing it was possibly the last time he would see me alive. Maybe he’d be fine getting through life without me. He still had another brother and a loving sister. I was done for. I knew it. I looked up at the sky, blue and warm in the California sun. It was a good day to die.
I drove back slowly, in no hurry to meet my maker. The trees drifted by us like grim reapers waiting to take me away. They would wait for me to stop. The rest of the trip was without incident unless you count the number of drivers pointing at us as they passed us by. My plans for the future were disappearing from my mind. At least I wouldn’t have to worry about going to Vietnam. I was dead already.
I had cut school to look for a nudist camp. I had blown the engine in my car. I had then wrecked the car, along with my father’s car. All of this before three o’clock in the afternoon. I doubt that this was particularly impressive to him, but for some reason still unknown to me my father didn’t kill me. I am here to tell you this story because of his leniency. He never really asked me for the details of that day. He just gave me a pass. I wish I had asked him why. Later on, he gave me more passes. Because that’s what parents do for their children. That’s what brothers do for their brothers, sisters for their sisters. And hopefully, that’s what children eventually do for their parents. And I guess that’s what love truly is – forgiveness.