Growing up in rural, small-town America is a very special upbringing. I should know, because I grew up in a sprawling Appalachian wilderness, then later moved to a one-stop-light town. That first week, we ate nothing but delivery just because we’d never lived within delivery range before.
While mostly known for their charm, agriculturally-themed festivals, and casual racism, what an outsider might not realise is how good small towns are at sweeping secrets under the rug. One such secret my particular small town was the night I was in a Mustang that slammed into the side of a Wendy’s.
I was back in town visiting friends, after hitting escape velocity and moving to a big city several states away. A close friend and I went to the house of a guy whose brother, Craig, had just gotten home from basic training. And he’d arrived in a beautiful, brand new Ford Mustang. We admired the car, poor country folk that we were, and Craig basked in the glow of his status symbol. Then he offered to take us for a spin around the block to demonstrate its performance. As anyone who’s ever been to a backwater berg can tell you, there was nothing else to do. So we got in.
My friend got in the backseat, so I took shotgun (That’s the front passenger seat, for the uninitiated in the audience). I fiddled with the seat belt, which refused to extend, before giving up. After all, this town had no traffic, and I had no reason to think we would go on the main roads. I’d like to point out now that this was a terrible idea, and my logic was flawed. Always wear your seat belt, kids. ALWAYS.
It turned out that Craig was one of those types who thinks that the handbrake should be used for every corner. Either that or he got his driving license from a Forza promotion. Hard to tell. But I was born into a people who rode tractors and lawnmowers on highways, motorcycles with no helmets (another pretty terrible decision for those keeping score), and learned to drive a car by sitting in a parent’s lap and steering while they controlled the pedals. I learned to ride a horse without a saddle or reins, and owned a Jeep I regularly took off roading. Our roads (and the rest of the state’s infrastructure) were pock-marked with pot holes that more closely resembled tank traps. Bumpy rides were part and parcel of country life. I wasn’t going to wimp out just because we were fishtailing our way through a tiny single lane road.
(This is another terrible decision. Always speak up if you’re uncomfortable, kiddos. If they’re your friends, they’ll understand. After all, the ones who mind don’t matter, and the ones who matter don’t mind.)
The car lashed its way through the sleepy little neighbourhood, and we hit the tarmac of the main road that cut through my town. I vaguely remember a few more half-hearted attempts to get my seat belt to comply, as we approached the corporate glow on the horizon. Late night fast food joints. We squeal onto the side street leading to Wendy’s, then into the car park that encircled it like a moat.
There was one more half-cocked handbrake turn and all I could see through the windscreen was brickwork. I remember for a split second thinking calmly that Craig was planning to spin the car a full 180 degrees for a smooth parallel park next to the curb outside the building. Then we came to a jarring, involuntary halt with a sound like a gunshot.
I hit my head on the A pillar before getting slammed back by the airbag. Everything was really quiet in the sudden absence of the engine roar. The three of us climbed out of the car on shaky legs, to survey the damage.
The Wendy’s was fine. The car was not.
Coolant pooled under the crushed front of the car, the only moving thing in this cinematic scene. A good director would have done a macro shot of the spreading leak. Then the shock wears off and Craig begins pacing and muttering about how he’s so screwed. My buddy tries to calm him down by pointing out that everyone escaped unscathed. It was a pretty good point, but Craig just stopped and looked him dead in the eye.
“No, you don’t understand. This isn’t my car.”
Neither of us could think of a response for a moment, but my friend finally asked who it belonged to. Turned out the answer was someone from basic training, who was still several states away. Craig had borrowed the car, which according to him wasn’t insured, either. Somehow, the situation had gotten worse.
I remember looking back at the car, growing uneasy with how illegal this suddenly seemed. The (intelligent) coward in me reared its head, and I slipped away while they called around to find someone to help sort this out. I came away with a bit of a headache, and the tiniest piece missing from my left ring finger’s second knuckle.
Later, I heard from local gossip that a friend whose dad owned a vehicle recovery business collected the car in the night and it quietly disappeared. I knew better than to ask any more than that. Plausible deniability sure feels like peace of mind when it comes to writing off a stranger’s car.
A close reading reveals lots of valuable life lessons, not one of which will be absorbed by the demographics that most need to learn them. I didn’t even learn them to be fair. Since that accident I’ve driven another Mustang, this time with NOS installed, and owned a 1986 Chevy El Camino that I raced on several occasions (I’m undefeated, in case you’re wondering).
That being said, nearly losing my license to speeding tickets has since cured my lead foot disease and I now frequently whinge at my partner that they’re speed limits, not speed minimums. Getting old is hell.