Point A to Point B
The morning of my sixteenth birthday transpired at the DMV. For a rural kid, life without a driver’s license resembled imprisonment – and I sought to capture my freedom at the earliest possible moment.
My family lived fifteen miles from the high school, only two stop signs between these locations, down winding stretches of two-lane highway in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Roads surrounded by fenced pastures of horses and cattle and expansive fields of commercial hops and berries, the ripe, putrid stink of manure permeating the air. With few other vehicles and sizable distances to travel, cars hurtled forward at upwards of seventy miles an hour, stopping abruptly behind tractors crawling along the asphalt. Ramshackle houses and barns intermittently dotted the landscape, and at night, a rich darkness encompassed all due to the complete lack of streetlights or buildings. Unlike me, most of my friends lived near the high school, within town limits, but some resided further past the school in the opposite direction, meaning as much as thirty miles away from my home.
The ability to get a ride somehow, from someone, was the conduit to existence, to being a participating member of high school society. My parents certainly weren’t going to continue to chauffeur me around – they had neither the time nor the interest for that. And truth be told, I wouldn’t have wanted it anyway. Being driven around by Mom or Dad made you look childish, immature, like you couldn’t take care of yourself. And I planned to be anything but that.
The next day at work, a nondescript diner, one of the career waitresses, asked about the outcome of my driver’s test. My mouth widened into a beaming smile radiating with affirmation.
She followed with, “What was your score?”
I held zero shame in admitting the receipt of a seventy-five.
Which she quickly acknowledged with, “Just barely passed, huh?”
Who the hell cared? It’s not like my license came with some sort of contingency because of receiving the lowest possible passing score (although, in retrospect, maybe it should have). Prior to the test, I’d driven a car a total of exactly four times. Once, when my dad taught me how to drive stick and the other three times with Mom, going into town on regular type errands like grocery shopping.
My novice driving skills frazzled her. Driving together deteriorated into her panicked voice, yelling things at me like, “There’s a kid! See him? Do you see him? Slow down. Slow Down!” With me already plodding along at least ten miles under the posted speed limit and said kid being located fifty yards away, nowhere near the road. These episodes produced so much anxiety for both of us; I didn’t last more than fifteen minutes behind the wheel until my requests to practice driving turned nonexistent.
But standing there in the diner, holding that beautiful plastic card in my possession, none of it mattered. The door to the world just cracked open.
But in order to achieve full liberation, one needed not just a license but also a car. My parents decided I would drive a Volkswagen Beetle, or rather, Dad decided.
After my parents filed for bankruptcy and all their best functioning cars were repossessed, Dad developed an inexplicable interest in Volkswagen Bugs. He probably met someone who restored them and sold at a profit, then figured he too could purchase cheap, decrepit Volkswagens and fix them up.
His assumption that he could find crappy cars and (sort of) afford to buy them panned out. Dad procured several Volkswagens in various states of disrepair – a black one with torn upholstery, a rusted-out red one, a sort of yellow one with a baby blue fender, and the surprisingly intact 1973 Crayola green Beetle with an uncommon automatic transmission, designated for my use.
Unfortunately, the dedication required to refurbish the Volkswagens did not mesh with Dad’s work ethic. On the day of my sixteenth birthday and the acquisition of my driver’s license, the car still didn’t run.
About a month later, Dad left a note for me at the school office. Apparently, he’d resuscitated my Volkswagen into an operable state and somehow figured out a way to bring the car to school and leave it for me to drive home.
After reading that note, a wave of endorphins surged through my veins. Anything, everything, became possible. My energy bubbled over; I needed to get out there and experience …. Something.
I sought out my friend Jill so we could skip our last class periods and go joyriding through the tidy side streets of the town, being careful to keep several blocks between the school and us to avoid being spotted by anyone.
That escapade, bumping down the road at twenty miles an hour, the sheer thrill of our bodies moving unassisted through space, was akin to a magic carpet ride.
But thirty minutes into our euphoric freedom, the car sputtered, then wound down to a complete stop in the middle of the street, even as my foot jammed the gas pedal.
“What’s going on?” Jill asked.
“I have no idea,” I replied, turning the key back and forth in the ignition, hoping to re-start the engine, praying for the sound of it revving. “I guess it died. We’ll have to push it to the side of the road.”
“Are you serious?” Jill laughed, “You want me to get out and push?”
Just then, two young boys, towheaded cherubs with freckled noses, no older than ten or twelve years old, approached the car. They appeared intent on speaking with us, so I rolled down my window.
“Did you break down?” one asked, “Do you want us to take a look at it?”
Jill and I glanced sideways at each other, trying to figure out their angle. Were they playing a joke? Did they think they were hitting on us?
The other boy chimed in, “We fix go-carts.”
Well, what could it hurt? We didn’t have any better solutions, so I told them to go ahead.
In under ten minutes, the engine stuttered to a steady purr, the sprung driver’s seat vibrating beneath me. The car inched forward of its own volition, carrying us on down the road, our arms waving thanks to the young mechanics.
I had no idea that afternoon would be a harbinger for all that was to come.
The first day driving my car was not my first experience skipping class. Perhaps it was my second time, maybe the third. But once the car ran, it enabled me to turn cutting class into an art form. I knew exactly which classes to skip on which days, when my presence (or lack thereof) would go unnoticed, and what types of excuses worked with which teachers. It’s doubtful I finished one full day of school my entire senior year.
Sitting in econ or government felt like being burned alive from the inside. There was so much energy within me, so much desire to experience life, as my sixteen-year-old mind imagined it. Escaping from the confines of the school walls kept that fire from consuming me
I skipped class to lounge by the river with my friends, to be outdoors, inhaling the sweet, warm air of spring, feeling the heat of the sun kiss my face, invigorating my spirit. Or we drove into Portland to walk the sidewalks, to allow the vibrant pulse of cars and people and electricity to rush through our veins. With especially beautiful weather, we might cut the whole day and head to the coast, a hundred miles away, where we jumped into the churning coolness of the Pacific Ocean, refusing to allow a single moment of our young lives to slip away uncelebrated
There was only one caveat I made with myself. I could skip school as much as I wanted as long as I kept getting good grades. I actually enjoyed learning, but memorizing rote facts didn’t feel like learning. It felt like busywork. Like being trained to squelch the hunger in one’s soul in order to prepare for lackluster adulthood. That wasn’t how I planned to live.
I enjoyed experimenting with new types of make-up and clothes – things like 1960’s hippie dresses, 70’s bell bottoms, combining grunge-inspired thermals with floral skirts, or donning blue eyeshadow circa the golden age of disco—anything to keep life colorful.
About a month after the little boys came to my rescue, inspiration struck me to show up at school looking absolutely fabulous. My outfit consisted of a skin-tight, long sleeve black leotard, a black A-line mini-skirt, and three 3-inch platform heels with epic cat-style eyeliner and curled ringlets framing my face. The effort this required created a delayed start to the day. A day in which winter made its arrival known by turning the car’s windshield into a kaleidoscope of frost. I fumbled around the car, scraping at the icy windows in haste.
Driving down the road, the windshield kept fogging up. I knew the car didn’t have to defrost – Dad gave me an old rag to keep in the car to use for this purpose – but until then, rubbing feverishly with that rag, I really hadn’t understood its critical role.
Fog in that part of the valley grows thick like moss. Visibility was reduced to less than twenty feet that morning. Through the gauzy haze, two pinpricks of red appeared, so small as to seem they were perched on the distant horizon. It took a fraction of one second for my mind to recognize these dots of red as brake lights. It took another part of a second to comprehend that they were growing larger at an exponential speed, rapidly transforming into throbbing red orbs. I braked hard, heart palpitating, digging my platform heel into the pedal, grinding it to the floorboard.
And then, Impact. The Volkswagen crashed into the back of a flatbed trailer. My whole life altered in the flash of a micro-second. Already responsible for an accident, only two months after obtaining my driver’s license.
Stepping out of the car – shaking, tears staining my face, the pervasive stench of burning rubber filling the air – I kept stammering apologies (clearly, my parents never gave me the lesson about not admitting fault in an accident). The industrial size flatbed trailer belonged to a middle-aged farmer. His trailer looked like a tin can launched at a high velocity and hit his rear bumper (which, essentially, it had). My car looked like said tin can, crushed, mangled, deformed.
The farmer took photos of the scene with a disposable camera. He told me it would be ok, then put his arm around my shoulders and took a photo of us together. At the time, it seemed he was trying to make me feel better, but in retrospect, I realize it was probably for insurance purposes. (See how young this girl was? No idea how to drive. And she kept apologizing…. So guilty!)
If my car didn’t run, it meant walking five miles back to the house, stumbling through the gravel ditch on the side of the highway in three-inch platform heels and a mini-skirt, the chill of fog biting at my exposed legs, and then telling Dad about my colossal error in judgment. But when I slunk back into the driver’s seat and tested the key in the ignition – and the car started! – a flash flood of relief overwhelmed me.
Even though the car looked totaled, since Volkswagen engines are in the rear instead of the front, it remained drive-able. The Volkswagen chugged along the final ten miles to school, a shell-shocked driver at the helm.
Hiding the accident from my parents presented an impossible feat. Mom expressed anger about the accident’s projected effect on their insurance premiums. The safety features of the car never entered into the conversation.
Dad pounded the hood back into place as best he could, but several pronounced dents survived, and a significant portion of the paint chipped off. Since the hood no longer latched after caving in, Dad tied it down with a piece of rope as a precaution – to ensure it wouldn’t fly up while driving. I knew I would need to live with my mistakes.
When Kurt Cobain appeared on TV wearing a dress, it changed things. Even out in our rural high school, the paradigm shifted.
The more well-to-do kids who once drove to school in their parents’ old BMWs started showing up in battered pick-up trucks. They slouched through the hallways in flannel shirts, and Doc Martens scowls on their faces. They listened to Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, pretending their lives contained enough angst to understand the gravity of the lyrics.
Being flawed was in. Although I never let on what my home life was like, surely a girl who rolled up to school in a half-smashed car held together by a rope must have something angtsy-enough-to-be-interesting going on. My popularity was sealed.
The Volkswagen died. Often.
Sometimes coming to a stop killed it (like at a stop sign). Sometimes no indication of a problem existed until I found myself immobile, stranded in the middle of the road. These instances required that I attempt to push the car out of the way. My attire never seemed suitable for this activity. Sometimes I’d be wearing a vintage dress; sometimes, I’d already be in a stage costume, preparing for a dress rehearsal; often, the rain poured down, creating a sloppy, slippery mess. But inevitably, someone (almost always male) materialized and helped me.
Dad, seeking the easiest fix possible, proposed a simple solution to the ongoing problem, “Looks like the battery can’t hold a charge. You’re going to need to plug it in every night.”
And so, every day the car returned home successfully, I pulled out the jumper cables and plugged in my car’s battery to an electrical source. However, even that approach wasn’t foolproof.
But I did become a pro with a set of jumper cables.
The car went in reverse until one day; it just didn’t anymore. On the ever-growing list of problems with the Volkswagen, losing reverse was pretty insignificant. It just meant leaving extra early for school in order to be able to pull through a parking space. I had to beware of getting stuck in places I couldn’t back out of.
One afternoon the Volkswagen stumbled into the gas station on fumes, the gauge indicating a nearly empty tank. With a few days left until payday, my wallet was empty. But I did manage to scrounge up a few dimes.
When the lanky attendant sidled up to my window, I asked for, “$2 in regular.”
He scoffed at my meager request, his eyes rolling so far up into his head it was audible. But he sauntered to the rear of the car and completed the two-dollar fill.
“Ok,” he returned, “Two dollars.”
Conscious of his annoyance, I lined up the twenty dimes into a tidy stack and handed them out the window.
He glared at the change in his palm and shot back, “Get a job, why don’t you!”
“I have a job,” I muttered to his back as he walked away.
It was particularly insulting since independence comprised my identity. Sure, I didn’t work a ton of hours like some kids, but I wasn’t going to let myself accrue any debt, and I was going to be able to provide for myself no matter what.
The Volkswagen’s heaters blew scalding hot air from underneath the two front seats. On the peak of a summer afternoon, temperatures escalating, driving around with a good friend in the passenger seat, she asked me, “Mel, can you turn the heat off? It’s burning my ankles.”
My response came with a smirk of my own discomfort, “Um, no. The heat doesn’t turn off.” The Volkswagen was rife with quirks that my passengers had to accept. The only people who would ride with me were those who didn’t own cars or licenses of their own. My car was the last resort of the desperate.
Sometimes, turning a corner with enough speed, liquid (hopefully it was water, but I couldn’t say for certain) went flying out of the dashboard vents and sprayed my passengers.
A period of time also existed when the car hit forty-five miles per hour, and it shook violently, necessitating a stern grip of the steering wheel to maintain control of the car. If any passengers happened to be with me, the look on their faces grew troubled with concern. Once a friend asked if everything was okay, if we needed to pull over. “It’s fine,” I said. “Once I reach fifty-five, the shaking stops.”
I just had to hold on when things got tough.
At the end of each school year, a Senior Awards Ceremony honored academic achievements and those headed off to four-year universities. They also doled out something called the President’s Award for Educational Excellence to students who kept a minimum 3.5 GPA and did well on standardized tests. It wasn’t any big deal. Lots of kids got it. But when my name was called as a recipient, the friends around me at the assembly turned my way in utter shock.
“You?” one asked.
“So?” I shrugged.
“But you’re always out skipping class with us!” another said, “How did you keep your grades up?”
One guy in our graduating class received acceptance to Yale. It was unprecedented for our school to send someone to the Ivy League. The whole auditorium erupted into a standing ovation. Although I would not be receiving any standing ovations, I accomplished an unprecedented achievement of my own. I would be the first in my family to attend any college, the state university a hundred miles down the interstate.
I was always going to go places, no matter what vehicle I had to use to get me there.
About the Author
Melissent Zumwalt is an artist, advocate, and administrator who lives in Portland, Oregon. Her written work has appeared in the Whisk(e)y Tit Journal, Full Grown People, Oregon Humanities’ Beyond the Margins, and is forthcoming in Pithead Chapel, Sisyphus, and elsewhere. She learned the art of storytelling from her mother, a woman who has an uncanny ability to recount the most ridiculous and tragic moments of life with beauty and humor.