My dad loved his Oldsmobiles. I was always so excited to go along with him when he drove from Islip to Wells Oldsmobile in Port Jefferson. I got to sit in the back seat when he took a test drive. I even got to bring home brochures for all the models.
My dad’s first Olds was a 1955 Super 88. The 88 was a basic model and the 98 was too fancy and far too expensive, he said. Two years later he traded in the ’55 for a 1957 model. After the ’57 was consumed by fire in our garage – probably caused by a smoldering cigarette – he bought a silver-gray 1963 Super 88 four-door sedan when the new models in came out in the fall of 1962. I had urged him to buy the more flashy and expensive hardtop, but Dad wanted to save money and my mother wouldn’t have approved anyway.
I was a senior at Islip High School when he brought home his newest Olds. I was a year younger than my classmates because I had skipped a grade in elementary school. But I got my drivers license at 16 because I had taken driver education. The first week I had my license, while driving our other car, a 1960 Ford Falcon, I rear-ended a car because I was paying too much attention to a girl sashaying down the sidewalk.
At the end of each May, we had Moving Up Day – a culminating ceremony held on the front lawn of the school. After the seniors moved to stand on the podium, the hundred or so students in each grade from seventh to eleventh snake-lined moved en masse to the next class’s vacated position. Each student wore a specially-colored sash and the mood of the day was solemn – except for us seniors, however, who were generally expected to cut our morning classes and cavort around town before assembling on the lawn.
My father was working at his drugstore that Friday morning. My mother was out doing errands. Both Mom and Dad planned to be at the ceremony that afternoon.
It was my opportunity. I went out to the garage and lifted up the Olds’s hood. I unscrewed the lug nut and removed the air cleaner. I backed the big Olds out of the garage and set off. Without the air cleaner, the car made a rumbling hot-rod noise, especially when I stomped on the gas pedal.
I first stopped at the Islip Bowl, behind Town Hall, where a bunch of my classmates usually hung out. I picked up Walter, Randi and Rita and I took them out riding. I eventually headed down South Bay Avenue towards Islip Beach. There was a mile-long straightaway after the Maple Street stop sign. And I floored it. That engine roared! What a feeling of power! I was doing 70 … 80 … 90 … then 100! But the car started shimmying and shaking so much on the uneven asphalt that I had to cut the speed so I wouldn’t lose control.
After turning around at the beach, we rode around a bit longer and stopped at Carvel. I began to worry when the brakes started to feel spongy. I dropped my friends off at school and brought the car home. I made sure to re-tighten the air cleaner lug nut over the big 8-cylinder engine which felt unusually hot.
To this day, over 50 years later, I never felt proud about what I did. I hated myself for being so deceitful. Yes, I desperately wanted to be out riding like many of my older classmates who were already driving, many in their own cars. I knew how proud my father was of his new Oldsmobile, but I let him down by, in essence, stealing it and going joyriding. Furthermore, I wasn’t yet even insured for the Olds – only the Falcon. My dad would have had to pay a much higher rate on the Olds for covering an underage drive. And I never even thought about the damage that the removed air filter could have caused to the carburetor and engine.
If you’re listening, Dad, I’m truly sorry.
More important, I never realized until lately how much effect peers have on teenagers’ risk-taking behavior. According to a popular study, as quoted in The New York Times (“Friends Can Be Dangerous,” April 25, 2014), “the mere presence of peers made teenagers take more risks and crash more often, but no such effect was observed among adults …. [and] … the influence of peers on adolescent risk taking doesn’t rely solely on explicit encouragement to behave recklessly.”
I don’t remember my friends shouting at me to drive faster down towards the beach. Probably the opposite was true. Nevertheless, I engaged in foolhardy and negligent behavior. I acted like a stupid, immature – but no doubt normal – teenager. And I could have gotten us all killed.
My parents stood beaming, as were hundreds of other parents on the bright late spring day as we marched from our senior’s position on the lawn to the stage. I didn’t feel as honored as I should have. Despite the residual rush and private joy about doing something elicit, I felt ashamed and disappointed in myself.
For me, moving up meant I had a lot higher path to climb.
Rev 6 / October 16, 2014
-- Appeared in Grassroot Reflections Number 33, November 2014
October 2014 Copyright © 2014 Lloyd B. Abrams