Not until ashes from the vents began settling on the steering wheel, like snow, did my daughter and I realize that the car had not merely overheated. “That smell” was more than just a hot engine.

“Get out!” I yelled, just as the lady at AAA picked up.

“Triple-A, how may I help?”

To my daughter: “Grab your coat, your bag, yes, out, stand back, yes!”

Yellow-orange flames shot into the November pre-dawn from the wheel wells of my Mom’s Chevy Trailblazer that we’d just driven—all night, through the mountains, listening to my daughter’s Spotify playlist then some Radiolab podcasts—from Mom’s apartment in South Carolina. We’d emptied her place because she was relocating to Indiana, having survived a heart attack a few weeks earlier during a mandatory evacuation from Hurricane Florence.

Currently Mom’s in rehab and doing all right. We did have enough material for quite a dramatic 2018 Holiday Newsletter.

“Our car is on fire!” I said to the Triple-A lady on the phone.

Trucks shook us. Flames made a rushy sound. Or maybe the rushy sound was pre-dawn traffic. Maybe there was no rushy sound.

I’d been expecting to tell the Triple-A lady our car had overheated and we were stranded on the side of the road with a U-Haul trailer. My main concern when I dialed was how they would deal with the trailer if they’d had to tow us.

“Did you call 911?”

“Good idea!”

“Sir, hang up and dial 911.”

“Okay bye.” “911? Our car is on fire!” I tried to describe where on the interstate we were, which is hard, and 911 was not patient. “Sir, where are you?” “I’m sorry, I’m rattled, the car is on fire.”

We were about a half hour from home. Almost made it.

After I’d given the stern operator imperfect directions, my adult daughter and I stood with our backs against those walls they put up to shield neighborhoods from highway noise. Wordlessly we watched what we’d not even considered moments ago—I’d taken the car to Mom’s mechanic before we set out! They’d changed the oil, put new [plugs? I want to say plugs; new somethings] in the engine, given it the onceover! And now, now—wow.



Oh boy.

Gauging our fire’s growth rate—not prohibitively fast—we darted up and pulled out some of Mom’s stuff. Then more. We started a flea-market-looking arrangement on the shoulder by the noise-reduction-wall, orange with moving shadows in the firelight. Between each load, we briefly contemplated the wisdom of another.

Then the right front tire exploded.


We moved our little rummage sale back several yards.

When you pack your Mom’s apartment, you don’t put photos and sentimental items in the U-Haul. You put them in the Trailblazer. Through the back hatch we kept at it, banker’s box by banker’s box, piling the roadside with Mother’s Valuables.


The other tire blew.

We abandoned the rest. Loading my brother-in-law’s minivan, later, we determined that while didn’t get everything—goodbye, wooden magazine rack/ceramic pots/TV/Uncle Don’s halogen floodlight/daughter’s Tervis tumbler which had a rabbit design you can’t get any more—we mostly got the good stuff.

“Oh! My wallet is in the door…!” I said.

“Don’t!” my daughter yelled, but I crouch-ran up and nabbed it.

Fire department arrived. Flames never made it past the firewall, appropriately, but everything got wet, melted, or stinky.

I paced, as responders transformed the emergency into a plain ol’ mess. Wrecker guys detached the trailer and hauled away what had recently been Mom’s car. On the ground, I noticed firehose-water frozen. In the adrenalin rush I’d forgotten it was, like, 19 degrees out.

A cop let my daughter warm up in the back of his cruiser. She looked cozily under-arrest.

Sun rose. Brother-in-law drove us to a Starbucks to steady ourselves. I texted my still-possibly-sleeping wife. “Why didn’t you call me!” she texted back. I don’t know. Our van doesn’t have a hitch for the trailer, theirs does, so bugging my sister was more pragmatic. I don’t know. I didn’t want to wake my wife just to make her worry. I don’t know, I don’t know. I also didn’t wake her last year when I drove myself to the hospital in the Jeep at 2:30 a.m. for an appendectomy, because at that moment I wasn’t sure if it was just expired BBQ leftovers plus hypochondria. Right before I went in for anesthesia I’d texted as she slept, “Hi. I’m getting an appendectomy.”

I don’t know. She wishes I’d call when there’s an emergency. I understand. Still, it doesn’t seem like I should wake her up just so she can worry—no? I don’t know.

Anyway. This was the first time I’d ever burned up anyone’s car.

My mom actually has experience with someone burning her cars. Years ago Dad exploded two family vehicles, one when I was in high school, the other while I was at college. It’s kind of in my blood.

Still, this was my first.

Certainly I’ve had minor wrecks: backed into things, hit a dog. One time I hit a horse. A while ago I thought I’d write a song about wrecking, after songwriting instructor Barbara Cloyd said she’d been in an accident and her Isuzu Trooper flipped, leaving her hanging upside down for a half hour by the seatbelt. Paramedics knelt to talk through the window at their feet. She re-enacted the conversation, where they spoke like they were trying to reassure a child, and she snapped, “I’m fine, I just need you to cut me out of here.”

I thought hanging by the seat belt with the paramedic on his knees was a great image.

This was my first try:

“Wrecking My Car” (first draft)

Today I was thinking ’bout the summer we met
By the Keowee River, how the sun would set
And we’d kiss on a blanket while the grass got wet
With evening dew

That’s where my mind was when I ran a red
Got nailed by a pick-up, thought I was dead
Right then my main regret was the time I said
I was leaving you

’Cause I never saw my life so clear
As when I was wrecking my car
Suddenly got what I oughta be doing
Saw some things for what they really are
I was a fool for letting you go
But hadn’t looked back so far
Till I started praying for a second chance
While I was wrecking my car

Yeah I flipped the car we used to drive around
Ambulance driver had to kneel on the ground
I was all strapped in hanging upside down
He was cutting the safety belt

All things considered, I was doing fine
Told him “I’m just thinking ’bout a friend of mine”
I was talking at him the entire time
Telling him how I felt


It’s true I haven’t called you in a long long time
But down in that ditch it changed my thinking
When you were on my mind

’Cause I never saw my life so clear
As when I was wrecking my car
Thought I might just call you up
Tell you about my cool new scar
I was a fool for letting you go but hadn’t looked back so far
Till I started prayin’ for a second chance
While I was wrecking my car

I sent a me-and-guitar demo of the song to Barbara for a paid review (without telling her it was inspired by her—she might have guessed, but since the listener never knows the backstory of any song, she never considers stuff like that; only what’s presented in the lyrics). This was her response:

Here are my thoughts. Feel free to call me at home or on my cell if you want to chat.

I can’t imagine what artist would cut this, but I think it’s such a cool idea. I like the melody too. But there’s something missing for me and it’s hard to put my finger on it.

For one thing, I find the end of the chorus confusing.

But hadn’t looked back so far
Till I started praying for a second chance
While I was wrecking my car

I kept wondering, did “so far” mean “I hadn’t looked as far back as that” or “at this point in time I hadn’t yet looked back.” The “till” throws me too. He didn’t just start looking back while he was in the wreck – he was already thinking about her beforehand.

I also suspect that you could condense the third and fourth verses

I was all strapped in hanging upside down
Ambulance driver had to kneel on the ground
I was talking at him while he was getting me out
Telling him how I felt

And then you’d have some time to maybe bring in more about the relationship.

What I like best in the lyrics is the first half of the chorus, because it’s believable to me that when you’re in a life-threatening situation you do see what matters most.


Fair enough. I began tinkering.

About this time, I was organizing a hootenanny for my birthday—my old band that broke up in the ’90s would do a couple sets, the Cars cover band I hang out with would do a set, then I’d do a small set of Nashville songs. I’d decided my birthday gift was performing with/for friends (who made up most of the audience, too). I sent the players a link to the demos.

My old band’s co-leader, co-songwriter and guitar player from years ago, John Sheets, hated the Nashville songs.

“Chuck! Don’t write songs about Bubba.” (sigh) (Yes, one of my Nashville songs—one of my most well-liked, in fact, among other Nashville-hopeful writers—does mention Bubba.)

“Chuck, just write a song. Write what you want. Stop trying to sell the song,” he said. But he liked the one about wrecking the car.

“Oh good,” I said. “I did get some feedback on it, to make it more…” More saleable, I guess, although I don’t like to say that word to John.

“Well, I hope they didn’t make you change what’s good about it,” he said, skeptical beyond the point where the word “skeptical” adequately covers it.

Nevertheless, I did rewrite it. And the story is clearer, I think. I gave up on the hanging-upside-down thing, because it made the narrator kind of helpless—which Nashville male singers don’t tend to like to appear to be—and brought in a tiny bit more about the relationship in the bridge. Changed the river to the actual river where my wife and I might have sat on a blanket years ago, instead of randomly grabbing a river-name off a Southern map.

Barbara’s critique made sense. Basically, that was a first draft. Second drafts are typically better.

I think it’s still a song John would like?

I don’t know, I don’t know.

Actually, I’m concerned about its accuracy—exploding tires, my daughter’s safety and banker’s boxes of photos were the only things on my mind when I was watching that Trailblazer burn.

And I don’t suppose I’d say I saw my life “so clear” at that moment.