It started out as a typical early September Saturday in Durham, NC back in ’66, bright and sunny, still more like summer than fall. By all rights, it should have been an uneventful day, not worth remembering at all. But as luck and a non-medicated, prototypical ADHD 15-year-old mind would have it, it became one of those life memorable days. The chain of events and outcome were more comic than tragic, although it felt quite tragic to me at the time and for months to follow.
Like I said, I was 15, 15 going on 12. I had a learner’s permit and was chomping at the bit to get my driver’s license. I had 3 more weeks until my 16th birthday and my right of passage into the mobile grown up world. I had very little interest in the goings on at school, but on that Saturday afternoon I recalled hearing about a big beer bash party that was planned at a classmate’s home about 8 country miles away. A lot of kids had been bragging about their plans to go to this risqué social event. Wanting desperately to be recognized as part of the ‘in crowd,’ a sudden and typical ADHD “ready, fire, aim” impulsive thought locked into my mind. I can go! My parents were going out for the evening. I can borrow the car and they will never know!
Without any further thought, I left for the party ten minutes after my parents left. They had taken the Plymouth station wagon and left my Dad’s new charcoal gray, four door Mercedes Benz 220-S sedan in the garage. Not only was I going to the party, I was going in style.
I will spare you the social details from the party, but I do recall walking around at some point with a Quart bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer in each hand. I really don’t remember how I got them, but I do recall taking alternating swigs from each. I should point out that this was the first time I had ever drunk more than a couple of swigs of beer. I was completely clueless as to the impact and consequences that come from alcohol consumption, especially with regards to driving under the influence.
At some point, I realized it was getting late and I needed to get home before my parents. I staggered out to the car and with a lot of difficulty I finally got it started and pulled out slowly onto the road. I remember driving extremely slowly because I was having a heck of a time trying to concentrate and keep the car headed in the right direction and in my lane. Fortunately, there was little if any traffic on the road. I was driving on country roads with sparsely scattered homes and farms.
Night time darkness had fallen, and I had to slow down to a crawl to stay on the road. My first sense of panic set in when I looked at the clock in the dashboard. “Oh my god, they’re going to beat me home.” It hurt my head to even think that thought. The more I did think about it, the worse the panic attack became.
With what little brain capacity I still had, I realized that the only way I could possibly beat my parents home was to take a shortcut through the woods. There was an old jeep path that ran through the half-mile deep woods that came out on the back-property line. Actually, it ended in our next-door neighbor’s back yard, but it was close enough from my perspective at the moment. The short cut could save 10 – 12 minutes and might get me home in time. Or so went the thinking of a first time fully intoxicated 15-year-old.
There’s something else I should tell you about the jeep path. It hadn’t been used in years, other than by kids hiking and playing in the woods. It had lots of weeds and quite a few tree saplings. Again, this obstacle never crossed my incoherent mind. I guess I was thinking they were no challenge for the Mercedes-Benz.
Driving down Garrett Road (quite grown up these days), I finally recognized a landmark in the dark that told me I was approaching the path. I slowly turned off the road onto the path. I was barely off the road when I realized I had a new challenge – mud. We had had several heavy downpours in the past couple of days. I managed to trudge the car forward for about another 10 feet when the car became stuck. The path rose from the road and through the edge of the woods for about 50 feet before leveling out. I put the car in neutral and paused (for the first time) to contemplate my circumstances. I might have been stoned drunk, but after a couple moments I finally realized that the car would never make it through the woods.
Okay, the short cut was out. So, I put the car in reverse and realized that in the dark I couldn’t see anything in my mirrors. That’s when I made my next tactical error. I opened my driver’s door and stuck my head out to see where I was going. I meant to slowly roll back out of the path. The next thing I know the rear tire is spinning mud and muck into my face. It took me several seconds to realize what was happening and take my foot off the gas pedal. I sat up and with the door light on realized with horror that the mud and muck had sprayed and splattered the dash board, covered much of the inside of the front windshield, and had even ricocheted off of me into the back seat of the car. The extent of the mud coverage inside the car was simply unbelievable.
I wiped the mud out of my eyes and sat quietly for a couple of minutes. No doubt about it, I was a goner. My Dad was going to kill me. I would never see my 16th birthday. That’s when the depression set in. After sitting for another couple of minutes, I decided to lock the car and walk home via the jeep path. As I struggled to climb out, I realized that the car had continued to settle in the mud. It was now seeping over the door sill onto the floor board. I finally made it out of the car and had to shove the door to close it. As soon as I got the door closed I slipped and fell face first into the muck. That’s also when I realized the key was still in the car and the door was locked. That meant the house key was now locked in the car. I wouldn’t be able to get in the house without having someone let me in. Hopefully, it would be my younger brother Wayne, who I was supposed to be taking care of.
I think I will always have crystal clear recall of the ensuing quarter-mile drunken stumble through the woods in the dark. I was desperately trying to come up with an explanation for what had happened. My creativity was apparently also hobbled by the Pabst. I couldn’t come up with anything. I dragged myself through the woods fixating on the depth and breadth of punishment that was headed my way.
I finally broke through the woods and walked the final 60 yards with lead (and muddy) feet. As I approached the garage, I noted that the Plymouth was indeed back in its space. I summoned up what courage I could muster and rang the doorbell. The 30-second wait was the longest of my life. My dad opened the door and stared at me. I was covered head to foot in mud and muck. He then looked over my shoulder and asked the dreaded question. “Where’s the car?”
His question was short and sweet. My response was not. I hadn’t tried to speak since I left the party a couple of hours ago. It seemed like my tongue had grown thick and was barely controllable. After a couple of failed mutterings, I finally spat out my not so simple answer. “I lost it in the woods.”
My Dad’s reaction was anything but what I had expected. I was prepared for an old-fashioned butt whooping at the very least. He just started at me for a couple of moments, shook his head, and told me to go wash up and go to bed. We would address the problem in the morning.
When I finally climbed into bed I faced yet another surprise. When I closed my eyes, the room started spinning. I kept opening my eyes and trying to stave off the dizziness and sense of falling. My efforts were futile. I spent much of the night in the bathroom lying on the floor next to the toilet. It was a tortuous ending to an unbelievably disastrous turn of events. I thought it would all be over when I woke up on Sunday morning. Again, I was wrong. I still felt sick to my stomach and I had the worst headache I had ever had. Breakfast was a real challenge.
I waited and waited for my Dad to deliver his punishment. For reasons I couldn’t comprehend, he ignored me and didn’t speak to me until we got home from Church services. My physical ailing was not sufficient cause for me to miss the services. When he finally requested my audience, he continued to surprise me. He never hit me or even yelled at me. He was calm and spoke as if nothing was amiss. He simply made it clear that I would be responsible for paying for towing the car and spending an hour a day for the next six months cleaning and re-cleaning the car.
Years later I asked him about his reaction that night and the next day. He told me that he knew that the suffering I went through that night and the following day were more than ample punishment. He also knew that the time I spent cleaning the car would keep the memory fresh for a long, long time.