Once I hit a Weimaraner. Its owner wept over the body as I stood uselessly for a half hour ’til she gave me permission to go.
Before that, the only wreck I’d had was ramming Dad’s car. I was going pretty fast, considering I was in reverse. My most recent wreck involved a U-Haul, my Mom’s SUV and—after the SUV caught fire while I was driving and its front tires exploded—the fire department.
Another time, as a high school senior, I was probably doing ninety when my headlights caught the top of something white in the middle of a county road, down in the dip ahead.
That night I’d left my mom’s fancy camera at a basketball game, and this being the early eighties I was driving the most goddam powerful family car ever made: my parents’ 2-door ’67 Oldsmobile Delmont 88, turquoise with black vinyl interior. What a car. Looked like the Batmobile, weighed as much as some of the houses I was passing. Hugged our twisty road, indifferent to “washboards” (washboarding is when the spring freeze/thaw makes asphalt ripples that challenge your steering if you go over them fast in lesser cars).
I wanted to retrieve that camera before the janitor locked up.
Shouldn’t be anything white in that dip up there, though. I started braking.
Hey, a horse! In the center of the narrow road, galloping! By the time I got within, like, three feet I was going fortyish, and the big white horse was going thirty-eight-ish. I was definitely about to hit it when the horse must have thought, “This Delmont 88 wants a piece o’ me,” and kicked the car.
WHUMP! Right in the grill.
Then it galloped apparently unharmed into the weeds.
I hesitated (Camera! Janitor!) then stopped. Got out. Horse-kick-busted Batmobile-grill looked bad, but the car ran okay. I walked to the only house. Knocked. Woman answered, “Yes?” “I, uh, there was, I just, there was a horse, and I—” “JERRY!” the woman yelled into the house, then retreated. Jerry appeared, heard the first part of my story, said, “Damn” then went inside. Unsure, I remained on their stoop in a square of storm door light. Jerry reappeared with his coat. “You go,” he said, heading into the field.
So yeah. I’ve wrecked. Not bad ones (knock wood). Not normal ones. But wrecks.
Having decided no-injury car wrecks are a good idea for a song, I got my first attempt professionally reviewed by a Nashville insider. Her comments made sense to me. I revised it. (A Nashville song is never done—people never stop making suggestions.)
Here’s the current version:
WRECKING MY CAR
Today I was thinkin’ ’bout the summer we met
By the Wapahani River, how the sun’d set
We’d kiss on a blanket while the grass got wet
With th’ evening dew
Lost in the memory I ran a red
Got nailed by a pickup, thought I was dead
Just as I was thinking ’bout the night I said
I was leaving you
And I never saw my life so clear
As when I was wrecking my car
I’ll take it as a sign that it’s finally time
To turn around the way things are
Maybe we could get together?
I could show you the scar
I got while you were on my mind and I was
Wrecking My Car
Yeah, I flipped that thing we used to drive ’round town
The rollbar’s nice when you’re upside down
All four wheels were still spinning around
As I walked back onto the road
Checked on the other guy, he was fine
Told him I was thinkin’ ’bout a friend of mine
Waitin’ on a cop we sorta passed the time
Talkin’ about girls we know
Nobody knows me like you knew me
I hope you know I’m not just a jerk
If this is God’s way of getting through to me
[under the breath] Gawd!
[not under the breath, kind of a shrug] … it worked…
So this is my lingering concern: I don’t know if it’s true. Would the singer be thinking about a girl if he’d just been nailed by a pickup?
Maybe. It’s catchy. Musically the phrase “I was wrecking my car” jumps down to a lower chord than expected, so it’s like the music gets wrecked, too. I’m… happy with it. But. But.
But—my car-wreck experience is this: you’re 100% focused on next steps, staying safe and correcting the situation. You’re telling Jerry’s wife you hit his horse. Hovering above a tear-stained Weimaraner. Pulling family photos from your Mom’s burning car.
I don’t know.
Maybe I should wait until I’ve burnt more cars or hit other species before I lock into an opinion.
When we told people my daughter and I recently escaped unharmed from a flaming Trailblazer while transporting Mom’s belongings, many said, “Welp, it’s Ted’s turn.” Ted’s my middle kid, number two of three.
They say that because three years earlier, my youngest, William, was riding with me when I was taking different furniture from my parent’s farmhouse down to their cabin an hour south. This was just before the big auction where we’d be selling almost all their household items.
The auctioneer volunteered his box truck. Thanks, I said over the phone. “One thing,” he said, “There’s no ‘park’ gear. Use the emergency brake when you stop: pull out the knob—takes a couple seconds to ‘take hold,’ so keep your foot on the brake till you feel it kind of grab up and lock the wheels.”
I can drive shift pretty well, though, so mostly I wasn’t worried.
Auctioneer left the truck in my parents’ driveway overnight. Next day there it was.
There it was.
The long, tall, deep, wide truck.
Not quite the length of a semi-trailer.
Okay, well. Okay. Unexpectedly monstrous.
But let’s try.
That night eight inches of new snow were forecast. Still, plenty of time. We loaded the behemoth.
Hop in, youngest child! Clamber up. Careful—in? Buckle up!
Easy peasy. My son texted a photo of me behind the giant wheel to my wife. Smoothly I drove from flat-as-lumpy-pancakes Central Indiana to southern hill country on winding highways, up and down. Turned onto a rough side road—soon we’d make a quick right into the lane leading to the cabin and park, to open the gate (using the weird emergency brake). Then we’d climb a snowy hill in first gear to a gravel circle back at the cabin to unload.
Hm. Driveway snow might be kinda deep, looks like.
Just—just freakin’ slid off the snowy gravel into snowy, muddy grass.
Rrrrrr, rrrrrrr, rrrrrrrrrrrrrr. Useless. Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. Wheels slid sideways, deepening the rut.
I stopped rrrr-ing.
Looked at my son. He looked at me.
Nothin’ much to say.
We sat, idling, buckled, askew, tilted to the white sky.
Then the guy who keeps cows on my Dad’s farm appeared. What!? Thank you, Lord, for sending us a cowhand! He pulled the box truck back onto the driveway with his tractor.
I re-parked by the road, and Dad’s cowhand kindly drove furniture up the lane to the cabin in his pickup. Plan B! Eventually he needed to go—we assured him we were fine, one more load on foot, then we’d head home.
He took off.
Ah, memories. Darkening skies heavy, smell of old snow, that barometric sense of impending weather, my youngest and I carrying boxes up the cabin lane—a five or six minute walk. Locked the cabin. Snow began, prettily. Big, slow, friendly, dumb-looking flakes in early dusk.
Gate shut, job well done.
Back in the box truck. Time to beat this storm. Here (clears throat) I might mention that across from the cabin driveway is a precipitous ravine that plunges so fast and far you see only tree tops. I’ve never seen ravine-bottom. My whole life I’ve imagined a car disappearing there.
No problem now, though, over on the safe side of the road! Now to carefully turn around and think about supper. Auctioneer’s checklist: brake, clutch, starter, release emergency brake—buh-snap!
(Tried again, nope: no brakes.)
Pulled the emergency knob which, you remember, has a delay as hydraulics seize and grab the wheels to lock them, two, three, four—full stop.
Crossways in the road! Far side, couple yards from the berm and treetops!
Again I looked at my son. Again he looked at me.
Soft flakes. Steady. Where’s the wiper kno—BRUNNNNNNNNK LOUD SCRAPE OFF OFF OFF.
The engine idled helpfully.
“William?” Snow stupidly piled on the wiper blades. “Will, I don’t want to spend the night in the cabin. There’s nothing but rat poison and tap water. Maybe an old Pepsi. Who knows how long before someone can get us, eight new inches, that long driveway…” Pause, snow. “I think we need to try to get home.”
“Okay?” he said.
“When I put the truck in second or first gear out on the highway, the engine slows us down like braking—it’s called downshifting. There’s only a couple of stoplights. I can time it so we don’t have to stop.”
“….okay?” he said.
I released the emergency brake and let out the clutch.
We were on the move.
Along snowy two-lane curves, down snowy two-lane hills. Twilight. Engine roaring in second gear, sometimes first. Night. 35 or 40 miles an hour, tops. Mistimed a stoplight in Cloverdale, throwing the emergency brake on a little late, two, three, four, lock-wheels sliiiiiide-in-new-snow into the intersection. Alert car waited for us.
About two hours later we turned onto the road that goes to my folks’ farmhouse. A car did, too, and tailgated. Its headlights bright in the mirrors, we both drove through the dip where the horse kicked me, along where the road drifts shut, over the old railroad to where Mom was certainly worrying about us. With that unwise car on my bumper, I attempted to miss the mailbox—cru-crunch-a-smash-crunch-crap.
We would not be auctioning the mailbox.
Quickly I pulled the emergency brake, two, three, four… and stopped just before rolling down a little hill into the tool shed.
I turned off the giant truck. “Well—(extra long pause)—here we are,” I said to my son.
“Here we are,” he repeated, ambiguously.
For the songwriter’s notebook: I’d been focused the entire time on hills, curves, second gear, snow, the tailgater.
My son said he spent the whole ride thinking, “We’re gonna die.”
“I can’t believe you took my baby in a box truck in the snow at night in hill country with no brakes!” my wife says, even now. I say, “Rat poison. Tap water. Eight inches forecast.” I hadn’t texted her about the brakeless journey until we’d transferred to the minivan and were set to arrive safely back at our house. After our scary-snowy trip.
I don’t know.
I do know, as far as that song I wrote: I wasn’t thinking ’bout “the girls I’d known” at any point, even when we were nearly T-boned in Cloverdale. Maybe I should have been thinking about (and texting) my wife, but I was focused on the task.
Thinking back, in a lot of these wreck-y situations, the reason for the wreck is I’m in the midst of trying to preserve or transport Hopperstuff™—rescuing the camera, stowing keepsakes away from the auction, towing a jam-packed U-Haul all night over mountains. Everyone would agree that ’stuff™ isn’t important, really. Not worth a wreck.
Maybe that’s what the song is really about. A reminder to think about what’s more important before the wreck, attempting clarity without the stress of ravine-bottoms or T-bones or the discreet “buh-snap” of a brakeline.
Relationships not possessions. People not things.
Another example of writing from the specific to the general—start with a semi-minor car wreck, which a limited number of listeners actually have experience with, to capture a shared experience: suddenly gaining clarity.
Hm. Well, if this is God’s way of getting through to me—[under the breath] gawd!
[kind of a shrug] It worked.
As the song currently says.
I don’t know, I don’t know.