(Or how to break curfew the first night and get away with it!)
I am guessing almost every young man (and many girls, too) have had that tension filled moment when they asked for the first time to take the family car out for a date or to visit friends.
I was a competent driver. Remember, I grew up on a farm in Virginia. From as long as I could reach the pedals, I was driving the tractor (age 12), and, somewhat tall for my age (age 13), also driving the car around the six miles of roads on the farm. I was not even nervous when I took my driver’s test.
But the real test was yet to come.
By late spring, I had been driving with my permit for more than six months. My friend Bert and I planned a double-date for an upcoming Saturday evening, provided my parents would let me use the car. Although I had been driving alone to run errands to the store and such, I had not been out alone at night, and certainly not with any classmates in the car. It was now time to take the next step!
I tried to be calm and confident. My father probably suspected. At dinner early that week, it was time to overcome the nerves and raise the question. I was confident that I had not given my parents any cause to deny my request: my grades were good, my parents knew all of my friends, and they would know where we were going, etc.
I asked, “Paul*, can I take the car Saturday evening? Bert and I want to go on a double date.” (Our car was a cream colored 1958 Dodge Cornet with gold fins.)
After all of the obligatory questions—who (Bert and our dates), where (Williamsburg), what for (movie and a burger afterwards), and what times (movie at 8:00 and an hour to eat)—he looked and my mother (there was a hint of a knowing smile on his face) and said, “Okay, you can take the car, but we expect you home not later than midnight.” The fact that he said “we” suggested he anticipated the question too. “Midnight, you understand?” he repeated.
I nodded my understanding. He was serious about the time.
Midnight may sound like a late hour for a first night out, but the farm was at least 20 miles from Williamsburg, and I had to travel another ten miles each way to just pick up and drop off Bert and our dates.
I worked out the most efficient route to drop off our dates and Bert and be back at the house, with a little time to spare—we had to leave wherever we were by 11:00 to make my schedule. Keep in mind, we did not have cell phones—for that matter, we did not have any phone at the house. There was no way to check in once out of the house.
We left the movie, went to a local burger joint and left there a few minutes before 11:00. All went well, and I dropped off my friends a full half hour before midnight which would put me at home about 11:45.
If you read the description of “The Farm,” you will recall that a railroad ran across the farm road. The farm road wound through woods and then down a steep grade (the railroad cut) to the railroad crossing. It was only another mile from the railroad crossing to the house—I had plenty of time.
I reached the bottom of the hill and approached the crossing. There, blocking the crossing, was a huge black C&O coal car—not moving! I maneuvered the car to shine the lights down the tracks to the right. There were coal cars as far as I could see. I did the same thing in the other direction, with the same results. I could see no engine, but I could see something under the train. I left the car to investigate.
About 30 yards down the tracks, the headlights of a badly crushed car protruded from under the train between two coal cars. My heart was pounding. I approached the car to see if there was anyone inside, injured or worse. No was one in the car and there was no sign of anyone around.
I went back to our car and parked it on a side road beside the tracks. I checked the dash-mounted clock before I shut off the lights and engine. It was nearly midnight and I still had a mile to go. No way I was going to make it home by midnight.
Also, keep in mind that back then, we dressed for a date—any date. I was wearing a white shirt and dress slacks. It was a dark, moonless night.
The first rail car I had seen was centered over the crossing, so I had to walk down the tracks a short distance, feeling my way since my eyes had not adjusted to the dark. I continued to feel my way around and under the coupling between two coal cars. Did I mention it was dark? My arms, shoulders, and back bumped into various parts of the coal cars as I crawled under the coupling.
Once through the train, I could see, faintly, stars through the opening in the trees above the road. I walked slowly and carefully in the dark. The road was uneven and I tripped and stumbled several times. After a few more minutes, my eyes began to adjust to the dim starlight and I could see the outline of the road as it wound through the woods and then across the field that approached the house. Soon I could see the lighted windows in the house. The porch light was on. I could only imagine what my parents were thinking.
I knew, as soon as I walked in the door, I was in trouble. “You’re late. And, where’s the car?” he asked. His tone was not friendly! He started to say something else, then asked, more concerned than angry, “What happened to you.” He was looking me over. I followed his gaze and realized he was looking at my white shirt and the fact that there was grease, black dirt and coal dust streaked across my face and on every part of the shirt where I had brushed against the coal car in the dark.
I could hardly speak. “There…, there’s a car crushed under a train near the crossing.”
I could see alarm in his eyes.
“No. No, it’s not our car.”
His expression changed to puzzlement. I caught my breath and began to explain.
I described pulling up to the crossing and seeing the train, then the headlights of the car under the train. I assured him that there was no one in the car. And there was no one around—no car owner, no railroad people and no emergency people.
We got in his truck and drove out to the rail crossing. It was still quiet there—no one around. He checked out the car and, unable to do anything, I assured him I had locked our car that was on the other side, and we went home.
The next morning the train and the crushed car were gone. There were roads on both sides of the tracks that went to fishing cabins. That morning we talked to the sheriff and he explained that someone had been to the camp across the tracks. Apparently, he and several friends at the cabin had been drinking. About 10:00 that night they broke up the party. One of them, not being in total control, misjudged the turn onto the crossing and drove the car off the crossing and got caught on the tracks. The driver and one of his buddies left the car to go for help. Before they got back, the predictable had happened.
The tracks through the railroad cut follows a long curve, and engineers can only see a couple hundred yards down the track, less at night. This had been a 100-plus-car loaded coal train and it would have taken the engineer as much as a half mile to make an emergency stop. As it was, the car ended up between two coal cars well behind the engine. The train had to be decoupled where the crushed car was, and the car was dragged out by a tow truck. It was beyond destroyed.
Once it was all over, my father had a good laugh. He got a kick out of telling folks how scared I looked as I walked into the house that night. He told that story many times, and always enjoyed a healthy laugh.
And that is how you break curfew on your first night out and live to tell about it!
*All through my early childhood and school years, I addressed my parents by their first names, Lois and Paul. That is what I heard them call each other, so that is what I learned, and they never attempted to correct me.