Coming of Age
Okay, I'll admit it. Sitting behind the wheel of my first car before it was towed off to the junkyard, I cried. You can tell me a car is only so much glass and steel, but I'll never apologize for losing my cool that day. A young man's first car is less a means of transportation than a monument to his discovery of youthful freedom. At least mine was.
It had all started two years earlier: Soon after my 16th birthday, my parents retired the old red family car and passed it on to me. Before long, that car and I had become the best of friends. We gave rides to just about anyone who asked, anytime, anywhere, and had all sorts of adventures.
Some of those adventures were pretty hair-raising. One famous afternoon after school, I piled ten friends into the car, including Eric, who opted to ride in the trunk rather than be left behind. We were just driving around, feeling good, talking about everything and nothing. And although I had been going only about 20 miles an hour, the collision with a school bus full of seven-year-olds crumpled the front of my car. My first thought was of Eric in the trunk. I rushed over and opened it to find him lying there motionless. I gasped. He opened his eyes and laughed: “You're the worst driver on the planet.”
Bystanders stared as, one by one, ten dazed high-school sophomores crawled out of my car. No one on the bus was hurt, though one little girl was crying because she had to go to the bathroom. As far as the little boys were concerned, I was a hero. They crowded around me in admiration. Even the police officers managed to smile.
My parents — furious, of course — settled on my punishment: I would use my upcoming summer wages to pay for the repairs. To lessen the financial blow, I insisted that the mechanic fix the car with used parts. So when the work was completed, the old red car had a green hood, a yellow fender and a blue door. I didn't care. The car was far from a beauty, but she was mine.
That summer, once school was out, I found my freedom expanded hugely. On days when my friends and I would once have ridden bikes to the public pool, we drove my car along the river road to explore an old abandoned train station. Instead of riding to baseball games in the coach's van like little kids, we now rode in my car as sophisticated adults. We wore sunglasses, and spit sunflower seeds out the window, and felt as good as if we'd already won the game.
One night while I was washing dishes at the restaurant where I worked, my friends removed the wheels from my car and left it standing disabled and awkward on concrete blocks in the parking lot. Deciding the best reaction to their trick was to ignore it, I walked home. The next morning I found the car in front of my house, covered with a two-inch layer of shaving cream.
One by one, my friends got driver's licenses and brought different automotive options to our fold. But after a few days trying out whoever was the newest, we always wound up back in my old car. Even then, I wondered why. It wasn't flashy – except for those multi-colored parts, it looked just like the sensible family car it had once been. It wasn't fast – 55 miles an hour was a stretch. And it certainly wasn't comfortable – there was no air conditioning, and on hot days our bare legs stuck to the seats.
Not until its engine died did I realize what had made the car so special. While most of my friends invested in car stereos that could rattle windows a block away, I stuck with the old original radio that barely picked up two stations on a good night. Mostly, we just left it turned off. There were no bored silences or demands that I buy a better radio, though. We filled the musical void by arguing about girls, making up silly songs about one another, or telling stories.
But the moments that truly stand out were more sober. I'll never forget the silence as we drove home from the playoff game in which our team was eliminated. Nor the nights when Charlie talked about his parents' financial troubles, Tom spoke sadly of his father's absence, and Eric told us of his dream of playing professional hockey.
Since we graduated from high school, my friends and I have spread out across the country and grown into adults. Yet I've never forgotten my youthful emotions that day when the mechanic delivered his sad verdict. In that old car of mine, we had stockpiled memories like firewood, knowing that someday, somewhere, we would gather as gray-haired men to re-light the blaze of our friendship.