Knuckleheads, Home From the Dance

My parents were the cool parents: they let me drive around in our sleepy one-horse town before I was officially licensed. Emphasis on sleepy. Nothing ever happened there, so they figured nothing would ever happen to me.

And they were right...until they weren't. Until one night at 2 am, when my friend Samantha and I returned home from a dance in the next town over. No, they had not let me drive that far, but they did say I could take Samantha home once the friend who had driven us there dropped us both at my house. So we had enjoyed the dance and then a party afterward–no alcohol for me–and then arrived back at mom and dad’s.  

We hopped in the orange and white Volkswagon van I learned to drive on and headed across town. She lived up in the hills, relatively far away (but still: sleepy town, nothing going on, you get the idea). I had never actually been to her house, so did not know that she lived at the top of a very long, very steep driveway. We pulled up to the bottom, and I pondered the hill before me, one hand on the gear shift of the van. 

Now, the smart thing to do would have been to have Samantha hoof it up that hill. We were both quite smart teenagers, so let’s just say it was a glitch in the fabric of the universe that we did not use our smarts to make the decision in front of us.

Let’s do it, I suggested gamely, and up we went. 

The driveway had wide curves in it, and I did fine through the first one. On either side of us, the brown grasses of the Valley of the Moon waved in a gentle nighttime breeze, their carpet punctuated by scrub oaks here and there. I had enough speed going to be fine...at first. As the slope continued, and the second curve was upon me, I couldn’t keep the speed up. The van stalled, shuddered, and died, with little ole unlicensed, inexperienced me, gripping the steering wheel. A flush of panic headed up my spine, my hands trembled.  

We looked at each other. Nothing to do but try to start this bad boy up again, so I gave it a go. But after I started the engine, there was the small matter of needing to take my foot off the brake in order to give it some gas. Years later, I would become a bad-ass San Francisco driver who would have scoffed at the challenge, but I was not yet that driver by a long shot. I tried; I failed; I panicked. And the van started to roll backward.  

“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” I wailed, completely unsure which way to turn the wheel to stay on the driveway.  

“Go forward, go forward!” Samantha screamed. “I’m trying!” I screamed back.

Mayhem ensued as the van gained speed. I had no idea what to do, so naturally, I did nothing. I let the van go where its heart would take it, which happened to be off the left-hand side of the driveway, down over the waving brown grasses, faster and faster, until halted in its trajectory by an oak tree, that keeper of the California hills.

We stopped with a bang. Not injured. Not harmed in the slightest. Just completely freaked out, with the specific intensity of teenage girls. I burst into tears, while Samantha looked stunned and frozen, both of us entirely dreading whatever might come next.

Way up at the top of the driveway, a light went on. We looked up to see the silhouettes of her parents, pajama-clad, shoulders bunched-up against the cold night air, staring down at the Orange Blossom Special resting against one of their trees.  


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