My first car was a turquoise 1991 Plymouth Sundance with a sweet silver racing stripe that said, "SUNDANCE" in case there were questions regarding its authenticity. It had two doors, a radio with no tape deck, and at the time was advertised as "the cheapest car in America with an airbag." If you were driving up a steep hill you had to turn off the air conditioning to make it to the top. The crowning feature was the glass moonroof that popped up if you wanted your hair to fly straight up on the highway.
I sound ungrateful, but I adored this little car. It was also a complete surprise. My parents were taking me out to dinner the night before my 16th birthday and walked me around the side of the garage to where my brother parked his car when home from college. Sitting there was my brand new set of wheels. There was much squealing and jumping involved, and my mom let me take the next morning off from school to take my driver's test. I passed.
For the remainder of high school I served as primary chauffeur. Few of my friends had their own cars yet, so I got in lots of driving practice. My school still had off campus lunch at the time, and though it was a slim 35 minute break, there were enough fast food locations in driving distance to make it there and back. Arrangements had to be made before the bell rang for maximum efficiency. Where are we going? Who is driving? Who is going in whose car? Friendships were built on the ritual and this small freedom we were allowed added so much to our high school experience.
Sometimes with freedom come mistakes, and I certainly made a few. The worst occurred one evening when I was hanging out with some friends. We had been driving around in two cars and had stopped in a neighborhood to chat. When we decided to move on, my group hopped in the Sundance and just after I started the ignition, one of the guys from the other group launched himself on top of the car hanging onto the open moonroof. After yelling at him for a bit to LET GO (he did not) I jokingly started the car at a slow pace.
That's when I heard the unmistakable "boop bwoop!" of the police car.
I was a good kid. This was largely because I was terrified of getting in trouble. And getting pulled over by the cops was the ultimate form of getting in trouble. We were all white faced and petrified, stewing in our own guilt as we stood in a group in front of the cops. What followed was a fifteen minute lecture laced with hints of threats of tickets and going to court. Basically it came down to who is at fault here? Me. It was me. I was driving, it was my responsibility.
They let us go. You better believe we never attempted anything like that ever again. We were a bunch of lucky little shits that we got away with only a stern talking to. It wasn't until much later that I realized this.
For Christmas my junior year I got a portable CD player for my car. This was the nifty little radio you could pull out and take with you to discourage theft. This was my first CD player period, so if I wanted to listen to one of the two CDs I'd received for Christmas, I would have to do it in my car. Two CDs quickly became 20, and I had a blue carrying case I would use for travel straight through college.
By the time I was driving back and forth between Trinity University in San Antonio and home to Lawton I had accumulated a lot more than 20 CDs, but would carefully select priority albums to put in the blue case for the seven hour trip. It probably wasn't the safest maneuver, but I got good at switching out albums while driving. It wasn't as if I was driving a tricky route. 281 runs straight by Trinity and turns into the highway adjacent to my parents' old neighborhood. The drive was so pretty, through much of Texas's hill country. I miss those road trips sometimes, listening to XTC or Peter Gabriel as I drove past farms and through covered bridges.
Chauffeur duty didn't end when I got to college. I had a pretty small group of friends and while the girls all had cars, the guys did not. Sophomore year it was discovered that IHOP was cool about groups of kids coming over to "study" (drink coffee and wax philosophical). About once every week or so, the guys would come over to see if we wanted to go to IHOP (they needed a ride). They would make the rounds starting with my roommate, then my suitemates, and finally me. Occasionally someone else would take the bait, but it was almost always me. Why those dum-dums never asked me first I will never know.
A terrible tragedy befell my car during Thanksgiving of my junior year. I was home for college and had gotten a ride to the airport from probably Shannon or Erica so my car remained parked in the lot next to Thomas Hall, our dorm. It was dark upon my return, and we went straight up to our room. The next morning as I was returning from class on the elevated walkway above the parking lot, I saw it. There was a giant hole in the roof of the Sundance where the moonroof had been.
Simultaneously furious and freaked out, I went to deposit my books and returned to the car for inspection. Though the evidence had been removed, it was clear a pumpkin had impacted the car at a great velocity. Those responsible had done a good job of collecting most of the pumpkin guts, but the moonroof had absolutely shattered. Cleaning it was a mess.
What followed was an awkward conversation with a highly amused insurance guy.
"I'm sorry, it got hit by a what?"
"Wow." *snicker* "Okay."
I'm glad he thought it was funny, because the total cost of repair was about $25 shy of the deductible. I also got in touch with school security, who was already aware of the event and had filed a report. Their crack detective work had located the unfortunate pumpkin inside the stairwell of the dorm, but the parties responsible were never identified.
That is until the following summer when I was in a summer school course with just 2 other girls. We spent a lot of time at the beginning of class just talking with our 2 professors and one day I was relaying the tale of the pumpkin ordeal. One of the girls very smoothly blurted out, "that was your car?" Nice.
I immediately put the pieces together. Remembering that she had been friends with two numbskulls who had a balcony on the parking lot side of the building on the 8th floor, I suddenly had my answer. I knew. She knew I knew. And I didn't say a word. There was nothing to be done at this point. I had no hard evidence, and it wasn't even her room. The poor Sundance would never see justice.
At some point my nifty CD player started acting up and I became a repeat customer at the San Antonio stereo store Bjorn's. I can't recall how many times I went to get the damn thing fixed, but it was too many times. Finally I just gave up and had to listen to the radio on my commute back and forth to visit Ryan in Austin.
Midway through our second senior year of college (we both did the victory lap), Ryan was living in an efficiency called the Dolphin next to the railroad tracks and directly underneath the landing path for the airport. It wasn't exactly the best part of town. He frequently observed crack deals going down outside his window.
One night while I was visiting, we heard a loud knock on the door in the middle of the night. It was the homeless people who lived in a car in the parking lot.
"Someone broke into your girlfriend's car."
Well shit. Sure enough, someone had smashed the back window, had unlocked the car and had neatly swiped my convenient pull-out car stereo.
The joke was on them, though, because that piece of junk no longer worked. I still had to get the back window repaired, though, and it was a breezy trip back to San Antonio with just cardboard taped over the hole. I gave up on a CD player and had the original radio re-installed, since I would be getting a new car in short order (it was going to be my graduation present). I became very familiar with the radio hits of early 1998.
My Sundance went through a lot, but at the end of my stint at Trinity it was time to say goodbye. I had some great times driving around with friends, road tripping by myself to and from school, even being able to drive myself to doctor's appointments gave me a sense of freedom and allowed me to accept responsibility for myself. We ended up donating the car to the National Kidney Foundation when its service ended. Sundance, I salute you.
*Big thanks to the Dug for getting the still picture from the family video, as I for some reason do not possess any pictures of the Sundance.
**Even bigger thanks to Ryan, who spent his entire Christmas break a few years ago digitizing all 38,567 hours of McBride Family VHS tapes.