One glorious morning after my high school graduation, I totaled my car while my parents were vacationing near remote Corolla, NC. They were unreachable because cell phones had yet to be invented, and Corolla Beach was off the grid.
I had stayed home alone because of my job at a bank where I spent my days checking the accuracy of computer print-outs for credit card merchant fees. Even then, I thought the job, aside from being tedious, was silly. Who was I, who maintained a steady C in high school math, to correct a computer?
But I did, and that’s where I was headed on a bright June morning as the eight-track played the Moody Blues when I, the only driver on the road, hit a parked car. An Oldsmobile that was big, shiny cherry red, and, later I learned, bought new only one week prior.
Terrified, I knocked on doors until I found the owner. But Jerry, even after taking a look at his car, seemed more worried about me. He let me use his phone to call my neighbor and my boss. He called the police because he needed a report to file an insurance claim. As we waited for our guests, he gave me a Pepsi Cola and a Valium to calm my nerves.
When the policeman showed, Jerry begged him not to give me a ticket, but I left with a citation for reckless driving.
That Friday evening, my neighbor drove me to a pick-up spot north of Corolla to meet my father as planned the week before. Because I’d already spent a good portion of my life on restriction or writing “I must not . . .” sentences hundreds, perhaps thousands of times, I was scared to tell him about the ruin of Jerry’s car, the damage to my fifth-handed 1964 Impala and the ticket. But I had to since my car was nowhere in sight.
As I recounted my morning and all that had gone wrong, his nostrils flared. Moments later, he informed me that I would have to pay for the damage to my car and for a lawyer, whom I’d not planned on hiring.
Then he said, “Tell me exactly how this happened. What were you doing?”
I told him that my shoulder bag leaning against the diver’s side floor hump flopped toward the gas pedal as I made a left turn and that as I’d reached down to remove it, I swerved into Jerry’s car. An innocent mistake. That was all.
“Hmph,” my father said. “I think you were smoking a cigarette and dropped it. You swerved trying to pick it up.”
It was scary how close he was to the truth, but I stuck to my story and told it to the judge who said, “What about centrifugal force?”
I left that courtroom with a reduced charge of improper driving, a fine and a crush on that white-haired man. Even as a teenager I had a thing for brainy guys like Leonardo Da Vinci, Albert Einstein and Judge Lamb.
I told my father about court, the wisdom of the judge, and I let my dad think that he had gotten the story right since his theory was so close.
I would have left it at that if not for one thing. The story became part of family lore — the-daughter-as-a-black-sheep tale, and it was brought up at family dinners for the next 15 or so years. I had moved on, done a lot of amazing things no one every mentioned or asked about. In some ways I had the least blemished record of anyone in the family, except my mother. Yet the story persisted.
Then, one Thanksgiving, long after my parents had split up and married others, someone, without a doubt my father, brought up the story that had so entertained my family, my family which had grown to include two teenage brothers, in addition to my older one, and a sister young enough to be my daughter.
This time when he came to the “she was smoking a cigarette,” I said, “Dad.” I put down my fork. “It wasn’t a cigarette.” For a long few seconds, no one spoke. Everyone stared at me. Having nothing to add, I picked up my knife and fork and returned to eating my dinner. So did the others.
Several years passed before anyone brought up that story again, and the next time it was told, it was told right.
But not by my father. He didn’t say a word.
Writer’s Note: I’ve an old notebook in which I keep weird facts, websites and off-the–wall news items. Today I scanned through it, hoping for a blog idea. Then I came across one line that read — The International Society of Black Sheep. This blog almost wrote itself.