In my Rear-View: The Unencumbered Freedom of Youth & the Great (Car) War

There’s a daredevil in all of us and what that means differs person-to-person. One person’s sky diving is another person’s speed dating which is another person’s wearing that red dress to the office. When I was young, my version of skydiving was climbing as high as I could in our backyard tree. If the branch wasn’t swaying to the point my stomach was aware it should be nervous, I wasn’t high enough. This is a game that becomes less fun as you get older. You get bigger and the branches seem to stay the same, so your peak gets gradually lower and you realize you’re destined to perch on the lowest, thickest branch. Either that or you’re destined to know the adrenaline rush of falling out of a tree, followed by the pain of broken confidence and bones.

When I began driving, gas was under a dollar a gallon. Driving all day and night was without worry or consideration about how much it cost. I think I was happiest when I drove and sang on a regular basis (it’s important to hone in on the cheap joys of life – joy doesn’t need to be cost prohibitive) but today, we can’t just drive and sing because gas is so costly. That and I live in New York now and no one here drives. That joy had to be transferred to singing in the shower or the bravely oblivious moments in the aisle of a grocery store or bodega. But back then, I could drive and sing for hours and not spend more than ten dollars on gas.

On a Saturday afternoon when I was in high school, I led an all-day rehearsal at church. No doubt, we were preparing for an upcoming fine arts competition and after the long day was done, most of the teenagers went home. However, some of us didn’t have anything better to do than linger around a church parking lot so we tried to come up with something in which to busy ourselves. Standing outside in the Texas summer wasn’t an option; it’s too hot to function in any real human capacity between June and September. Yet we didn’t want to sit inside the church, go to a mall or to a fast food joint either. Running out of ideas and with sweat pouring down our faces, someone flippantly tossed a dodgeball into the back seat of my convertible as if it were a basketball into a hoop.

As the Animaniacs would put it, it’s time for another Good Idea/Bad Idea. Good idea: Playing a game of dodgeball with a group of teenagers who, for the most part, enjoyed each other’s company and had pent up summer energy. Bad idea: Elevating the straightforward game of dodgeball into a Mad Max style game of tag in which teenagers were encouraged to drive wildly around an empty church parking lot while trying to throw the dodgeball into the open windows, convertible tops and truck beds of other moving vehicles.

It made perfect sense: the parking lot was barren, not a stray car to be found, and there were no light posts in the middle of the lot to possibly run into. It was a sunny Saturday, no puddles for tires to slip on and it was hot as hell. I’m aware dodgeball is a simple game with simple rules, but the heat was so debilitating, there wasn’t any hope of us standing to play in the outdoor oven. But driving around, with music blasting and the wind of movement to keep us cool, it felt completely logical. We loaded into our cars and thus began the first and only game of Car Wars.

The game consisted of one dodgeball and four vehicles racing in lopsided loops around the parking lot. I had two other teenagers in my convertible, two girls were in another, a few teenagers jumped into the bed of one of the boy’s trucks and a group of girls piled into a car. Those girls rolled down the windows and one stood up through the sunroof to begin the war by throwing the first ball. For the next hour, a dozen screaming teenagers chased each other like a Pentecostal NASCAR race, hurling the dodgeball at each other’s vehicles, trying to get it into the seats.

As reckless as it was, after a couple spins around the lot, we implemented a rule that drivers had to be buckled and they could neither throw nor catch the ball. Safety first. The rest of the teenagers who were in the backseats of convertibles, in the bed of the truck or hanging out of sunroofs and side windows of the compact car: they were on their own. I think we maybe shouted “Hold on!” periodically throughout the game.

I don’t remember who won, and I don’t remember how many times that dodgeball landed in my car. I knew better than to let someone else drive my car around the parking lot at that speed so I never got to throw the ball at the faces of any of my dear friends. I did, however, feel the exhilaration of unencumbered freedom. The last time I’d spent an hour driving circles in a parking lot was when I initially learned to drive, a process that was not quite as exhilarating.

When I got my driving permit, my mother told me I could drive home from the DMV and since I’d never driven on the road before, I was nervous. Very nervous. To be clear, driving in a parking lot and driving on a road are profoundly different activities. Though I was competent in how the car worked, driving on the street with cars to my right and left while my mother insisted I veer closer to the median was a considerably more stressful experience than doing donuts in the Food Lion parking lot. I was afraid of hitting the concrete median, blowing a tire and ending up on the news for having taken out a snow cone stand. Part of me wonders if I was really that far away from the line or if my mother was having the uncomfortable private realization that her first-born was driving. Either way, I was made to pull over and she drove the rest of the way home while I sat stunned and horrified in the passenger’s seat.

Moving to New York years later, I learned there were people who never got their driver’s license because they’d never needed one before, something that made me sad because, again, there’s such joy in driving and singing. In Texas, if you don’t have a car, you basically don’t go anywhere. I’d like to believe it’s possible to have a walking-culture like in New York or London, but when everything is so spread out, being carless means being stranded.

Tired of being stranded myself, I eventually mastered my anxiety of driving in the street alongside other cars and when I turned 16, I was surprised with a red Mustang convertible. To be fair, it was a 1992 red Mustang convertible and seven years of newer models had been released, but that didn’t matter to me. I was living my red convertible dream. It wasn’t candy-apple red or “Jessica Rabbit” red, but more like the color of cherries in the wild. I’d spotted its “For Sale” sign in the local Minyard’s parking lot and on my birthday, it was parked in front of our house. I would spend the next two years paying my grandfather back, and not to say people who’re gifted cars on their birthdays don’t deserve them, but in my family, the “work-for-the-things-you-want” ethic was instilled in us early on. We would have help obtaining the car, but the price tag was on us.

The rest of my learning-to-drive experience went fairly smoothly, the only real hiccup occurring as I drove my father home from church. There was a red light at the top of a hill by our house and I stopped, though I’ve been informed that’s a debatable fact. I made the right turn and instantly, my father exclaimed,

“What are you doing?! You just ran a red light!”

“No I didn’t,” I said.

“It was bleeding all over the street!”

I couldn’t help but laugh. He was legitimately flustered that I’d made a “rolling-pause as opposed to an actual stop.” His words not mine. Of course I know he was just doing his job to make sure I followed the rules. Neither he nor I had any interest in paying for tickets or damages from an accident. By the time we got home, we were both laughing about it. I did become quite a proficient driver, despite what my parents would tell you at a dinner party.

In my Mustang, I felt like the coolest guy alive. I was as suave as Danny in Grease, as bad ass as Angelina Jolie in Gone in 60 Seconds and as reckless as Dick Dastardly in Wacky Races. The previous owner had made some improvements from which I benefited including a top-of-the-line stereo system that allowed me to listen to “Oops…I Did It Again” as it was meant to be heard. But the real upgrade was a sizable exhaust pipe that, when I revved the engine, made a thunderous bellow. It was so pronounced, when I pulled into the church parking lot the first time, it turned heads. After I turned Britney down, I reveled in how impressed the men were with my souped-up car. It may have prevented me from being able to sneak home late at night, but it was an awesome first car.

Tearing around the church parking lot during our Car War, my Mustang roared with the powerful sound of an Indy car. We were playing it fast and loose with fate, but no one crashed, no one fell out of the vehicles and no one got hurt. It was like the glorious Saturday afternoons of our youth spent running around the park, free of stress and responsibilities. Now, childhoods can’t be spent in the park unsupervised. The world has changed since I was young, but for an afternoon, we were kids again, thrilled by freedom, adventure and adrenaline.

When the War was over and we again stood in the parking lot, the sun had begun to set and we laughed as we recapped a narrowly-missed handicap parking sign or a curb we forgot was there. In our circle, we made a pact to not let outsiders in on our little game. Call it Pentecostal guilt (which is akin to Jewish guilt but not as pronounced as Catholic guilt) but we knew better than to inform a parent or pastor that teenagers had been driving recklessly on church property. God may have kept us safe while we whirled around the lot, but not even He could save us from our mothers if they found out.

When my convertible accelerated its final time and died, I had to clean out the contents of the back seat and the trunk. I’d just graduated from high school and I was in full pack-rat mode. As I pulled various objects from the trunk – a binder of CDs, a jacket I thought I’d lost, assorted costumes from VBS and stray street signs that had fallen from their posts and somehow found their way into my trunk – next to the spare tire sat the now deflated dodgeball. I’d tossed it in the trunk when we left the church that day. My dad asked me why I had a deflated dodgeball in my trunk and I laughed as I told him we’d used it for a silly game.

We never did have another Car War, though we talked about how much we’d like to. Some things are best done once, their memories and fondness intact. That car and that experience summed up that period of my life in a way; the freedom and recklessness of youth. On the rare occasion I drive down a highway with the windows down today, I can’t help but think of whirling around that parking lot with Britney in the speakers, wind in our hair and joy in our spirits. It still makes me smile. That and the mental image of a girl’s upper body poking out of a sunroof as she hurls a dodgeball at a 12-year-old in a truck bed will never not be hysterical.

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