by: Lawrence V. Drake
©2020 Lawrence V Drake
Not long after Dad purchased his new, slightly used 1959 Pontiac Bonneville, he handed me the keys and said, “here, Son, pickup the horse trailer at the ranch and take it over to the Hagstrom’s place.”
“Me? I get to drive the Pontiac? By myself?”
“Think you can handle it?”
“And pull the horse trailer?”
“You’ve done it with me several times. Just be careful.”
Now, that represented an amazing display of confidence in his eighteen-year-old son. Particularly since Dad took great pride in his gleaming, forest green sedan with its twin rocket fins streaming back over space-age taillights. The car looked fast just sitting there. This wouldn’t be my first venture out in the car but the occasions were rare, and never pulling a trailer.
The family ranch sat below the rimrock bluffs ten miles west of town. We called it the “ranch” although it consisted of nothing more than some rolling hills, a small pole barn, and a corral for our three horses. Dad acquired the ranch to live out his secret life as a cowboy when not heading up his architectural firm. We had an old one-horse trailer for transporting a mount to various events. Not exactly a ranch vehicle, the Bonneville did the job of towing for now. Dad really needed a pickup to complete his persona. That would come later.
What is a teenage boy supposed to do when presented with such an opportunity? First and foremost, the adventure needed to be shared.
“Hey, Mike. I got my Dad’s car. Want to go for a ride?”
My best friend, Mike Bissell never turned down an invitation to get out of the house. He knew immediately that going for a ride had potential. “Sure thing. What’s up?”
I explained the errand I had been asked to run and said I would be over in a few minutes to pick him up. When I arrived at his house looking a cool as I could behind the wheel of the Pontiac, he jumped up from the porch steps, swung open the gate-sized door of my beautiful sedan, and hopped into the passenger seat.
“Can we pick up Sue? She said she’d like to come along, too”
Mike and his recently acquired girlfriend made a good couple. They both had a great sense of humor and kept each other laughing continuously. I felt a little jealous when they started hanging out together. It cut into my buddy time. I liked Sue a lot but she now seemed to be included in most everything Mike and I did.
“Sure. Why not?” And, so as not to be the third wheel, I said, “I want to stop by and see if Karla wants to join us, too.”
I had met Karla through my younger brother’s girlfriend a few weeks earlier. A stunning girl with Hollywood features and a warm, down-to-earth personality, Karla was way out of my league. Somehow, I had managed to make friends with her. It helped that I held the prestige of being a graduated senior. That put me in the “older man” category and Karla was clearly more mature than her male high school classmates. Age does have its advantages. Just maybe, a ride in a late model Pontiac Bonneville would sway her affections in my direction.
As Mike and Sue gave moral support from the car window, I rang Karla’s doorbell. She answered.
“Hi, Karla. Mike, Sue, and I are heading out to my ranch to pick up a horse trailer. Wanna come with us?” I tried hard to sound confident, and not reveal that my heart bounced around in my chest like a basketball being dribbled.
Karla peeked over my shoulder and waved at the couple in the car. “Okay, sounds like fun.”
“Really? Great.” I may have sounded a little more surprised than I should have.
“I’ll just grab some things and be right out.”
I walked back to the car a bit taller.
What could be better? A beautiful girl at my side, my buddy and his sweetie in the back, warm weather, and clear blue skies. The day was made for adventure.
A quick stop at the A&W Drive-In for refreshments and the drive to the ranch passed quickly with laughs and giggles all around. Displaying expert proficiency, I backed the Pontiac up to the trailer, hooked it up to the hitch, tightened the ball knob, attached the safety chains, and checked the lights. All passed my inspection under the watchful eyes of my passengers. Hopefully, they were as impressed as I was.
The Bonneville pulled the empty trailer with ease as we bumped over the dirt road leading out of the ranch property. Once on the pavement, I could hardly tell it trailed behind. I nonchalantly monitored my progress in the rearview mirrors, careful to avoid telegraphing my nervousness. Meanwhile, teenage bantering and laughter filled the car. Karla seemed to genuinely enjoy my company. Her smile and beauty captivated me.
We arrived at the Hagstrom’s property without incident. I had driven flawlessly and the tension of towing would soon be over. I backed the trailer in a single try into its spot beside some other equipment on a small incline.
“Wow, nice job,” Mike complimented. “I couldn’t do that.”
I didn’t tell him that it was a first for me. The few times I had done it before took several attempts. Backing a trailer was not easy.
With the trailer now in its new home, I cranked down the tongue wheel, loosened the ball knob, unplugged the lights, and lifted the trailer tongue off of the car hitch.
“A job well done,” I announced. “Now its time to party.”
Free of that anchor, I planned to get the full benefit of this opportune freedom.
As we pulled away down the hill, I glanced again in the rearview mirror to admire my handiwork. “Holy cow!”
Following close behind and gaining fast, the trailer grew large. Out of complete surprise, I did the only thing that occurred to me at that moment. I slammed on the brakes. Two seconds later the car lurched forward to the sickening bang and the sound of crunching metal as the tongue of the trailer pierced the beautiful chrome grillwork decorating the trunk of the Bonneville.
“Yikes. What was that?” Mike yelped as the girls squealed.
I slammed the shifter into park. Mike and I jumped out to survey the damage while our dates stared out the rear window. The trailer tongue had struck dead center, impaling itself into the trunk, punching through the chrome letter ‘T” in Pontiac. My stomach sunk to my toes. What had gone wrong? I know I had decoupled the trailer.
“The safety chains,” Mike exclaimed, pointing at the offending metallic links still attached to the car hitch. “You didn’t unhook the chains.”
“Oh, man,” I exclaimed, grabbing my head. “Dad’s going to kill me. How could I be so stupid? How am I gonna explain this?”
“Well,” Mike rubbed the back of his neck while studying the steel beam disappearing into the trunk. “First, you have to figure out how to get it out of there.”
I glanced at the concerned faces peering out the rear window and for the first time felt my face getting flush from embarrassment. I quickly looked back at the scene of the accident, my mind racing for a solution.
“Find some big rocks and put them in front of the tires,” I directed.
Big rocks were not hard to find between the sagebrush and the yucca plants on the hill. Mike quickly had placed one large stone under each wheel of the trailer. I crouched down and unhooked the offending chains.
“I should be able to move the car forward now and leave the trailer behind. You watch and let me know if it starts moving.”
The girls sat silently as I put the Pontiac in gear and inched forward. My plan worked. With some squeaks and squeals, the car disengaged itself from the violating spear.
“Look at that,” Mike said. “It made a perfectly square hole.”
With the car stopped, I walked around to see an opening about four inches square that could have been made in a machine shop. “Hoooo, boy…”
We hooked the trailer back up properly and returned it to its place on the hill. This time, three attempts were required to get it backed in straight. The rocks went back under the wheels, and every possible connection to the car was checked and rechecked to make certain it wouldn’t be following us again.
Settled back in the car, I resolved not to let the event completely ruin our day. “Well, what’s done is done. Since I can’t do anything about it, what do you say we take a little drive? I know a back way to the top of the rimrocks.”
Everyone seemed in agreement, so off we went, determined to enjoy the rest of our outing.
The road I had chosen to get us to the top turned out to be a two-track, rain rutted, dirt trail that should not be attempted by anything less than a Jeep or a pickup. Unfortunately, I had been with Dad on several occasions when he took off cross-country through the brambles in the family sedan at the ranch. He obviously had better judgment than me when it came to off-road terrain. I lacked his skill but I wasn’t about to back down and admit that once I started up the trail.
We bounced around wildly, laughing hard at each jarring as the Bonneville bravely scaled the ever-increasingly rough and steep track. Then, with one loud thud, the low-slung auto smacked down hard onto a small boulder exposed by rain erosion. An ear-piercing, high-pitched whistling ‘zinnnng…zinnng’ ensued with every rev of the engine. I stopped the car and sat mortified.
Stupid, stupid, stupid… ran through my brain as I felt three pairs of eyes focusing on me. I did the only thing I could. I slowly climbed out, crouched down, and peered under the car, hoping to not see a puddle of oil mixed with the dust.
“No oil… that’s good,” I said half whispering. “Looks like the oil pan has been smashed into the flywheel.” I wanted to at least sound like I knew what I was talking about.
“Do you think we can make it home?” Karla asked.
No one doubted that our joyride had ended.
“I hope so.” I started the engine. ‘zinnng…zinng’ At least the engine was running.
At that point, I didn’t even want to think of how I was going to explain all this to Dad. I just wanted to get everyone home and end the nightmare. I slowly backed down the trail until I found a wide spot to turn around. Only small conversations took place as I made the rounds dropping my friends off. The constant whistling of the damage made talking difficult.
“Sorry it turned out so bad,” Karla offered. “We still had some fun, didn’t we?”
I said goodbye, wondering if I would ever have the courage to call her again.
“I hope you don’t get in too much trouble,” Sue consoled as she waved goodbye at the curb.
“What are you going to do now?” Mike queried. “Sure am glad I’m not in your shoes.”
The drive back had given me plenty of time to think. The hole in the trunk was almost forgivable. Surely, I wasn’t the first guy to forget to disconnect the safety chains. That one would be fairly easy to explain. After all, it happened while doing the job he sent me to do—a dumb accident. On the other hand, how could I justify a bashed-in oil pan? That would lead to embarrassing questions that I didn’t want to answer. Where did it happen? What were you doing? Were you alone? I imagined sweating under the hot lights of interrogation.
“I have an idea for the oil pan. I’m going to take the car to my uncle’s shop. Maybe he can fix it so at least I won’t have to explain that to Dad.”
Mike’s forehead wrinkled, “won’t he tell your father?”
“Maybe…but maybe not. Uncle Ed got into more than his share of trouble. From what I hear, he was kind of a rowdy kid. If he can fix it, he might cover for me.”
“Good luck. Let me know what happens.”
“Okay, I will. That is if I’m ever let out of the house again.”
Heads turned as the Bonneville whistled its way through the city streets en route to the shop. I pulled through the alley into the back lot and quickly shut down. I found my uncle working on a radiator.
“Hi, Uncle Ed.”
“Oh, hi, Larry. What are you doing here?”
“Well… I have sort of a problem I’m hoping you can help me with.”
“Yeah, what’s that?”
I carefully launched into my tale of woe, revealing only the minimum details as to how it all happened. I avoided any reference to my passengers. If done right, I figured I might be able to make it sound like I was doing Dad a favor by bringing the car in for repair.
A knowing smile hid behind Uncle Ed’s concerned look as he listened. I think he knew there was more to my story. There seemed to be an unspoken understanding of my plight.
“Go bring it in,” he said calmly. “I’ll run ‘er up on the rack and see what I can do.”
The high pitch whistle echoed through the shop as I drove up onto the lift. I shut down, got out, and stood aside as the lift hoisted the car into the air. My legs quivered and my heart pounded in my ears. Surely, there would be a mangled mess underneath requiring hours of work and piles of money for parts.
Ed flipped on his inspection light and surveyed the scene for several minutes.
“You lucked out. It’s just a small dent—an easy fix. I don’t see any real damage. I’ll have you out of here in no time.”
“Really!” Warmth spread throughout my body as it relaxed after being tense for so long. “Wow! Thank you.”
Within twenty minutes, the car was off the rack and back in the parking lot, purring like a kitten. Uncle Ed must have known how worried I was. As I got ready to leave he leaned into the window.
“You take it easy now. No more jeep trails.”
“Say hi to your folks for me.” He patted the side of the car and sent me on my way.
I drove slowly and carefully on the way home, not in a hurry to face my father.
Dad surprised me and took the news of the trailer puncture in stride. I wasn’t grounded or denied access to the family car. Evidently, he had forgotten to unhook the chains a time or two himself, albeit without the resulting bone-jarring impact. The body shop restored the trunk to its original space-age look and Dad didn’t mention the incident again. My guilty conscience provided plenty of punishment for my deceit and served to deter me from attempting similar follies in the future. I never knew if Uncle Ed revealed his part in my cover-up but every once in awhile I caught a twinkle and a smile from him at family gatherings.
* * * end * * *