4 Things My Brain Remembered Right Before I Totaled My Mother’s Car

When I was sixteen I totaled my mother’s car.

I wrecked that car, but good. I flipped it, spun it around, and sculpted the frame into at S-shape (and they were steel cars then). And then I never saw it again.

The year was 1978

The car was a Ford Pinto station wagon. It was white with “wood” siding. My mother had just had it detailed.

I hadn’t had my license very long, so when I looked down to adjust the radio, and the car subsequently slipped off the right shoulder of the narrow county highway, I didn’t have enough experience to not jerk the wheel to the left to straighten the car out.

My little 16-year-old inexperienced-driver brain didn’t realize I was going too fast for that to work. I didn’t yet know to take my foot off the gas, hold the wheel steady, and relax as I righted the car. Or to not look down at the radio for so long in the first place.

So next thing I knew, I was zig-zagging back and forth at 55 miles per hour.

Obviously this was bad.

And here’s where a miracle comes in.

I thought back to my driver’s ed classes, which wasn’t that distant a memory. Somehow, right then, I managed to recall four different scenarios.

Scenario #1:

There were trees—a whole forest, in fact— to my right, and I knew from driver’s ed classes that hitting trees was very bad. So I decided Scenario #1 was no good.

Scenario #2:

There was a river just a few feet ahead. I recalled that that, too, was certain doom.

So I needed a better plan than either of those scenarios

Think, think… my brain was hard at work

So there I was zig-zagging back and forth at 55 miles per hour, flipping through a mental Roladex of possible choices I could make when I arrived at…

Scenario #3:

I remembered that if the hood of the car flies up (does that even happen anymore?), you bend down in the driver’s seat to look through the opening under the lifted hood.

This clearly didn’t apply to my current situation.

But yes, the driver’s ed lesson about the hood of the car flying open sure did cross my mind at this very moment.

Then appeared…

Scenario #4:

Finally the lesson where the brakes go out played before my eyes. In that case, you’re supposed to aim your car toward some shrubbery or something like that in order to stop the car with the least amount of impact possible.

I made the mental leap that while my brakes had not technically gone out, it was too late to use them.

And while there was no shrubbery nearby, there was a hilly median between my side of the highway and the oncoming traffic on the other side. (And it was such a pretty road back then, sigh.)

So in my state of having lost control of the car, I made the decision to go with the shrubbery option. I aimed the car toward the shrubbery-est thing around, which was the hilly median to my left.

So I “turned left” toward the hilly median.

The car flipped and twisted and finally came to a stop facing the oncoming traffic that I’d been driving in a moment earlier.

Praise be for Moms

A woman stopped in the median to help got me out of my car. I think this happened quickly.

It felt like she had to pull me into the air, but I later found out that the car had managed to land on all fours, so the feeling was due to my body having no idea where it was.

The woman put me in the back seat of her car, where her son was. He gave me some M&Ms, plain not peanut in this case.

I didn’t know till dinnertime at home that my sister’s school bus drove past the accident. Someone on the bus asked her if that was my car, but she thought the kid was just being a jerk until she saw, too, my car. She was beside herself all day.

An ambulance took me to the hospital. Somehow my mom knew to meet me there, but I honestly don’t know how. I was rattled and disoriented, but not hurt, other than a bruise on my abdomen and a surface burn across my forehead.

So my mother determined that I was okay enough to go to school.

She walked me in and signed a note saying why I was late. She said something about getting me a ride home, which was an obvious change in plans.

The receptionist at my school told us that someone had called about me, but that it sounded like “an older lady” and that she didn’t get any information about who it was.

It was at dinner that evening that my sister told us she’d called my school, but the receptionist didn’t yet know what she was talking about. So my sister had spent that whole day worried sick about me.

But yes, I totaled a car and still went to school that day.

Ah, the ’70s.

I don’t know how I made it through the school day, or why, exactly, my mother didn’t just take me home for the day.

But you can bet I became a much better driver after that day.

When steel meets steel head-on

Then, at eighteen I got hit head-on in by a drunk-driver in a subdivision on a cold Monday night in December.

Thank the heavens for that woman’s big steel Rambler, my big steel Dodge Dart, and the fact that neither of us was going all that fast.

A football player friend who was in the front seat braced his giant body with his head against the car’s ceiling and his feet against the floorboard and said, “Oh my God, they’re going to hit us!”

Which is exactly what happened.

Then my sister jumped out of the car after tumbling around in the back seat. She went to open the other car’s driver’s side door while shouting, “What do you think you’re doing?! This is my sister’s second car!” (This is still so ridiculous to us, lol.)

But when the driver oozed out of the car like liquid, my sister shoved her back in, shut the door, turned to me and the football player and flatly said, “Oh.”

The three of us knocked on the closest front door and asked to use the phone.

The people inside didn’t seem to trust these three high schoolers on a Monday night in 1980, so we waited awkwardly in their kitchen till our rides came.

My sister and I still laugh about how the kids at that house wouldn’t share the Christmas cookies they were making, even when we asked for one. Weirdos.

Lessons in mystery

I ended up driving that big steel, beige, very-uncool-but-hey-it-runs Dodge Dart for the rest of high school. Even a head-on collision couldn’t stop that thing, though some mysterious transmission-related issue eventually did.

And I know that a ’70s-era Dodge Dart sounds cool now, but trust me when I tell you that this was not a cool car. I mean, it was the color of masking tape, and it was built like someone’s grandfather should be driving it.

Anyway, by the time that second accident occurred I’d gathered enough driving experience to avoid a number of future accidents.

And I almost managed to avoid the drunk driver that evening, but for the fact that no matter how much I tried to pull over and get our the way, she seemed to be aiming for my headlights like bugs to a porch light. In retrospect, it was probably good she hit us before she actually made it to the highway a few hundred feet further. She was pretty bad off.

Life is mysterious indeed.

When I think back to how much had changed for me between ages sixteen and eighteen, I’m pretty impressed with even that amount of progress—and that was just with driving. Life is such a big damned collection of experience, experiences, stories, lessons, near-misses, and actual accidents.

I’m sorry the lesson about not jerking a fast-moving car had been so steep to learn, and it really is a miracle I survived it. Who knows why things happen the way they do. Who knows why I wasn’t even hurt. Who knows who that woman was who stopped to help, and where her kid with the M&Ms is now.

And even though it’s been decades, I still feel bad about totalling my mom’s car—she really liked that car. It was the nicest car she’d ever owned up until then.

Forty-some years later and I’m still processing it

I think about my 1978 accident every time I’m home and drive by that location.

I still see the trees to the right and the river just ahead. The highway has been widened and widened some more, though. The beautiful hilly median is long gone, as is the narrow, raised roadside shoulder that almost set my life into a whole different direction one day in 1978.

Had my brain not mysteriously stepped in to play out scenes from driver’s ed for me until it—and I—identified the most helpful one, who knows how things would have turned out. I’m truly amazed that somehow time stretched out long enough for me to process four different choices I could make.

Either that, or my brain was able to process these scenarios in some sort of instantaneous way.

Even all these years later, I’m still amazed when I recall this story and how somewhere inside of me, my brain stepped in to solve the problem I’d created.

It was so miraculously involuntary that I’m still wondering what exactly happened.

I mean, even if I attribute it to divine intervention, I still don’t know what was going on there.

This human life and these human bodies are incredible and endlessly mysterious indeed.

Note: That’s not my mother’s car—hers was white with the “wood” paneling. Maybe I’ll run across a picture of it some day. That photo is courtesy of F. D. Richards from Clinton, MI, CC BY-SA 2.0 from https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Later we had an orange Pinto hatchback, which my sister drove while I was driving the above-mentioned Dodge Dart. Eventually the passenger-side door handle of the orange Pinto gave way, so passengers (all high school students, mind you) got in and out through the window, which no one really minded. We also had to get a running start in that car on some of the steep hills in our town. Sometimes we had to float back down, go around the block, and try again. That was life in the ’70s for ya’!


2 thoughts on “4 Things My Brain Remembered Right Before I Totaled My Mother’s Car”

  1. Are you giving extra points for finding typos? 🙂
    Scenario #1, says fac instead of fact

    I love the M&M’s details, I like both, they each have their own times to be eaten.

    This is my sister’s second car earned a LOL. 😀

    • Yes, thank you—it’s fixed now! You win the washer, dryer, and all the money in the world! xoxo

      Glad you like the post, and yes, even in the moment, the three of us realized how hilarious my sister’s comment was, inappropriate though it was, haha.

      (I prefer peanut M&Ms! And recently I’ve found some knock-offs made by a company called “Unreal”—the colors aren’t as good, but they taste really good and don’t hurt your teeth the way all the corn-syrup-y stuff seems to now.)


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