Last night I was invited to join the storytellers at Listen To This! a storytelling series here in Asheville produced and hosted by local actor and improv comedian, Tom Chalmers. The format is popular these days: people are invited to tell true, 10 minute stories related to the evening theme. Last night the theme was :
"You Never Forget Your First Car" - autobiographical anecdotes of inaugural automobiles
At first I thought: what can I say? I've never been a car jock, couldn't tell you the size of the engine or its attributes, and don't generally consider the car an expression of my prowess as a man. In short, I am not a guy. I never was into popular "guy things" like sports, cars, and sports cars. I was not like my brother, who, when he got his first car, promptly replaced the muffler with a glass pack so he could make loud farting noises as he drove around town. My relationship to cars was different. My first car was an extension of my favorite subject in school: the window.
In 1965, United Artists Television produced what was arguably the worst t.v. comedy in history: "My Mother The Car." It starred Jerry Van Dyke (Dick's younger brother) as a man whose deceased mother is reincarnated as a 1928 Porter Touring car. She speaks to him via the car radio (an anachronism justified by poetic license) and was voiced by Ann Southern. I was 10 years old at the time and I loved the show. Because my mother was the car. She drove us everywhere all the time. I spent more time in her company as her passenger than in any other way. My mother was a science teacher at a new experimental school called Nova High School, in the town of Davie, at what was at the time the edge of Broward County, FL . Davie was a frontier town characterized by orange groves, horse ranches, and flood control canals. It was the edge of the Everglades, the last town west on Hwy 84, the 2 lane highway that cut across southern Florida along what was called "alligator alley."
Our home, however, was in Ft. Lauderdale, in the northeast section of Broward County, an hour's drive from school. My mother, being a school teacher, was required to be at school early and stay late. So most days, we spent hours driving there and back again, often falling asleep in the car and returning home after dark.
I think my mother's favorite subject in school was also the window. For she took every opportunity to lead her class out of doors to study and collect samples from the field and retention pond.She told me "if you want to be a scientist, you don't need to know anything." I thought: great, I'll be a scientist. "But," she would say, "you must always wonder about everything. For", she said "the end of science is knowing, but the beginning is wonder."
In 1969, mom got a new Dodge Dart (white with a blue interior, I can tell you that much.) In 1972, that car was mine. It was a wonderful moving window and showed me the world.
I was a theatre student and most of my childhood was spent in rehearsal (there's a metaphor!) Shortly after acquiring my independence with the acquisition of my driver's license and the Dodge Dart, I was busy designing and hanging lights for a production of Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth" at the community college across from our high school. Our director had given me the keys to the lecture hall/theatre so I could spend all the time I needed working on the light plot. It was well past midnight, when I crawled down from the ceiling scaffolds, and locked up the theatre. The night was moist and noisy with the sleigh-bell sound of crickets in the high grass. My Dart sat alone in the center of a vast asphalt lot. I got in and headed for the highway. As I drove along alligator alley, no street lights, no shop signs, only my headlights cutting through the darkness, my body began to relax into its accustomed drowsiness, unaware that it was no longer merely the passenger. The radio played a lulling song, "Nights in white satin..." My mind struggled to call my body to attention, when I was startled by the sudden appearance of starlight scattered across the highway. I slowed, and then stopped, and stared at hundreds of shiny, beady, eyes reflected in the headlights. A herd of land crabs was crossing the highway. They were about the size of dinner plates, and were moving sidelong while facing me, holding up their claws in a ready stance in case we came to blows. Hundreds of these crabs had pushed up from the muck and were making a mating migration, as they had done seasonally for millennia.
I was enchanted. I began to wonder through the window about the mystery of life all around me, about the landscape and the earth, about water and air. As they passed and I began again to accelerate, I wondered how water condenses to the pull of gravity, forming oceans, but expands into the atmosphere above. I marveled that, in a sense, I was driving along an ocean floor, with crabs scuttling across. For the ocean extends from the depths to the troposphere and out into space.
The next thing I knew, I was parked in our home driveway, the radio singing "Morning has broken..." having no memory of how I got there.
I realized, my mother was the car. Or, rather, the car had mothered me home safely. Something in me had taken charge while my childish self was staring out the window. Something that took on the parent's role. For my first car was an extension of the womb; it birthed me into a larger world. As I sat there in the driveway, I crossed a threshold into adulthood, as part of me that was a child slept in the passenger seat, while a new self arose, ready to take the wheel.