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It was always a fight between my two older brothers. Whenever they would climb into one of the family cars, they would verbally spar who was going to sit in the driver’s seat. Justifications would be made, deals struck and power plays…well, played.
Back in those days, when we turned sixteen, it was the starting gun for the race to the BMV to get our temps, then our driver’s licenses and then the inevitable freedom that ensued from being able to drive a car. And when two or more of us with that plastic freedom stuffed into our wallets would get together, there was always a mental arm-wrestle for who would take the wheel.
There were four of us brothers. But that fateful day, only the two eldest had their licenses. I had a year to go and the youngest was staring down the long barrel of a half a decade to go. So, it was only the two arguing over who would drive. Scott, the oldest, would usually win. He had the seniority, after all.
What deal was struck between the two of them, I had no idea, but somehow Brian, the second in line among us brothers, got to drive. It was a victory he would later regret.
Dad and Uncle Roger were up at Lake Erie, working on the boat. This wasn’t unusual; they were always working on the boat. Its motor was a persnickety thing that seemed to fail more than it worked. Perhaps it liked the attention. Or, more likely, it was too old and tired.
We were to meet them up there to go out fishing. It was an optimistic idea, to be sure, that the boat would be running by the time we arrived. I brought my trusty inflatable two-man raft just in case. If we weren’t able to take the boat, I still had my raft. I could use it to row out a hundred or so yards into the lake and get my angling fix that way.
We were travelling down Route 2 and had just rounded the bend near Williston road. This always lifted our spirits--from there, it was a short, 10 minute drive to Turtle Point Marina where Dad, Uncle Roger and the boat were. But that day, I suppose our spirits weren’t lifted quite enough to keep the majority of us awake.
Five minutes before the boat dock, I was in a daze, staring out the window trying to will the clouds to go away. It was getting overcast and the threat of rain loomed overhead. I was so involved with the task at hand; I didn’t notice that I was the only one awake in the car. And I mean only one.
The car started to drift to the shoulder. While it wasn’t unusual for a new driver, as Brian was, to wander now and again, when the tires started biting into stones, I looked up to our driver to see what was going on.
He snapped his head up. I didn’t see the look of panic the must have crossed his face, but I felt it in how he reacted. He jerked the wheel over and hit the brakes. There was probably something in the driver’s education manual that strongly advised against that action. But I don’t think that was going through his mind at the time. He was probably thinking the same thing I was, which was a long, drawn out word that we wouldn’t dare say in front of our parents.
The car fishtailed, and then spun 180 degrees. The tires squealed on the pavement as if it were yelling what I was thinking as we slid across Route 2. Luckily, there was no oncoming traffic at the time (unusual for Route 2, as you may well know). The vehicle, unhappy with just traversing the width of the highway, continued into the grass and down a small embankment.
I remember thinking it was a like being in an automatic car wash. There was the spray of water against the window, a wet, whooshing sound and the smell of creek; then the car lay still.
The four of us sat in shock for long seconds. We were in one of the creeks that lined the highway. And it slowly dawned on us as brown water began to seep into the interior that we were sinking.
“Everyone out!” Scott yelled.
In a flurry of opening doors my three brothers began to escape. I had no idea what I thinking. I was most likely wasn’t, in retrospect. But I started to blow into the raft, trying to inflate it. Maybe in some facet, one could consider it a heroic act--I could save everyone with my raft. I could row them to safety while the car sank to its inevitable demise in the muddy water ditch.
But in reality, it was just the thinking of a panicked mind. Scott put an end to it as he yelled at me to get out. I did, but I took the raft with me. We scrambled through the water to the shore.
Fortunately, the creek wasn’t very deep. But the sight of the mid-seventies nova sitting in water up to its windows was odd, if not dismaying.
Eventually, the state police came and offered a Scott a ride to Turtle Point so that he could break the news to Dad that one of the family cars was no better off than the family boat.
I could practically hear Brian’s heart sinking as he stared at the Nova and awaited Dad’s arrival. It was, I’m sure, an eternity for him. Personally, I thought it was a good time to get some fishing in.
When Dad showed up, his face was red (whether it was from the sun or from the sight of the car, was anybody’s guess, but I’d guess it was a mixture of both). He held out his hand toward Brian. “Give it to me,” Dad said.
“What?” Brain asked. But he was already reaching for his wallet. Dad never answered his question. Brian handed him his driver’s license without another word.
It was a lifetime grounding from driving. At least it started that way. I supposed it helped that a tow truck was able to extract the car from the creek and the Nova was able to make it home of its own volition. It probably even helped that I told a minor fib (minor in my mind, at least), claiming a semi went left of center and ran Brian off the road. Either way, Dad only held onto Brian’s license for a few hours.