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Joe and the VW

When I was a teenager, filled with angst and hormones and having nothing to do, I drove. Sitting at home some nights felt claustrophobic and made me restless. I cast about for things to do, of which there were plenty—homework, dishes, my weekly sweeping of the basement. Siblings and parents stared at the television. But I wanted nothing of schoolwork or TV. Ennui crept up and captured me. I wandered basement and garage. Getting out of the house cured my ills, made me feel free for a while.

I took to the streets almost as soon as I had a driver’s license. Home felt small and airless. The open road held promise of new lands, new sights.

Aimless driving took me about the neighborhood and brought me to sights I had not seen since childhood. The steering wheel took me where I wanted to go. I flowed like water down great arteries of traffic and into the capillaries of side streets. Many times, I wound up in cul de sacs, neighbors peering out of bay windows to see who had invaded their space.

Not wanting to draw attention and police, I rolled around the houses, passing driveways and looking lost. More than once, a helpful neighbor managed to flag me down and give me directions back to the main street or road. Continuing on, I might get lost or find myself at a Dairy Queen ordering a chocolate-dipped cone.

We lived out south in a newer part of the city. Developers built the neighborhood in the mid-1950s, a residential area of ordered grid streets that lead to shopping centers and the interstate. Driving the neighborhood gave me a sense that I knew what my neighbors didn’t, that I had a freedom they could not exercise. I left home and for hours puttered in my Pinto station wagon up one block and down the next.

Driving around grew into a regular habit. My obsession with the unknown soon took me into strange quarters of the city. The urban area of town attracted me most. The older apartment and industrial buildings foreign to me, and interesting because of it. Downtown, then mostly a dark, abandoned district laced with bars and adult cinemas with hookers standing on street corners attracted me, if not for its newness to me, but to the strange lives that existed outside the suburbs.

When I was old enough to look 18, I crossed the state line to buy quarts of beer in Kansas. Then, I’d wander dark streets and alleyways in urban Kansas City, Kansas, until I’d had my fill. I ditched the evidence of my transgression in a park trash container and head home, slowly, carefully, always wary of the police.

Soon, after I started driving around alone, I found my mates felt as trapped and put upon as me. We drove weekend nights away and once in a while, took a turn into the cornfields some distance from home. Satisfied we were alone, we built fires and sat around smoking and drinking until it came time to get home for our curfews.

One frigid winter night, a couple of friends of mine piled into Joe Halloran’s dad’s VW wagon. The heater in those cars functioned, if at all, only slightly. Our breathing fogged then frosted the windows. Joe kept a can of deicer under his seat. He kept spraying the windshield to keep it clear enough to see.

The deicer worked for a while, but the ether or alcohol in it evaporated and it too layered ice on the windscreen. George Bannister took up Joe’s ice scraper and after a time, chipped away on the ice, flaking away large pieces that fell on his pants and melted. Soon, he and Joe both were wet and miserable. They were failing at their efforts to keep the windscreen clear. We were far away from home, somewhere out past the exurbs in the country.

Joe’s car was rickety at best and the engine labored with four people in the car. We stopped to get gas at a lonely store. We stepped inside and let the car run, hoping that what heat came through the defroster vents would clear up our problem. Of course, we were in Kansas and so bought a case of beer that we could split between ourselves.

Back on the road, we bundled ourselves to the noses and opened the windows, thinking that venting the car would make things easier on Joe. Soon, we were all shivering. Still, we tipped back beers with our gloved hands. Soon, we buzzed along country roads without a care either to our safety or the state of Joe’s parent’s car. Without being able to see well—the headlights to that junker shone only dimly—Joe drove us off into a ditch a couple of times, which necessitated us all to get out of the car and push.

Bone chilled and beer filled, we headed back toward the city and our suburb. We put the windows back up due to the cold and the windows again sheathed in ice. George and Joe took turned pounding at the ice until, crack, the windscreen fell out onto the hood of the car. We were driving along a traffic artery, a four-lane that shot straight between shopping centers and residential neighborhoods.

Without stopping the car, George took hold of the windshield at one side and passed it over his head to me in the back seat. My friend Billy Komiski sat next to me, and we stowed the glass into the back of the wagon. Joe never slowed the car or stopped, and now the 10-degree wind blasted straight through the car.

We still had beer, and the back of the wagon was littered with cans. We pulled to a stoplight on the way to a park we knew where we could throw away the cans and see if we could do something about putting the windshield back on the car. A police cruiser pulled up next to us. Joe was nonplussed. The office could clearly see that we had no windscreen. In an effort to make it look like we had one, Joe turned on the windshield wipers, but they flopped back and waved in front of Joe’s and George’s noses.

We all looked at the cop. We froze. I even quit shivering. Our parkas and stocking hats obscured our faces. The cop could see only our eyes and noses. He could tell, I think, that we were a miserable lot. The possibility of getting caught underage with beer petrified us. Billy groaned.

The cop motioned George to roll down his window. We waited, anticipating the worst.

“Boys,” the cops said, “if I were you, I’d get home before I have to arrest you.”

He rolled up the window. The light turned green. He drove off leaving us sitting there. Becoming unstuck, George told Joe to drive.

We threw away our beer cans at the park and found there was nothing we could do about the windshield. Joe would have to face his parents and explain how the family car came to be without a front window. He drove each of us home, becoming more anxious as we drove along. I was the last one out. Joe looked at me. He was crying.

Joe somehow came through the crisis intact. For a long time after, I made my drives alone. That was a lot better, I thought, than having to deal with the complications of having other people in the car. The police never pulled me over. I never had a close call like we did on that winter night.

I sometimes still go for drives. Wherever. It doesn’t matter. The thing is to get away. Now, however, I don’t have to worry about cops.

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