After 76 Years, Ol’ Leadfoot Turns in His Keys

Russell Frank
By Russell Frank December 15, 2011 16:30

Ol’ Leadfoot has surrendered his car key.

My dad got into a little fender bender down in Dallas recently and knew at last, the way an aging slugger who whiffs at a pitch he used to wallop into the cheap seats knows, that it was time to call it quits.

I tried to cheer him up. “How old were you when you got your license?” I asked.

“Seventeen,” he said.

“You’ve been driving for 76 years!” I said. “Think of how many miles you’ve driven! Think of how many cars you’ve driven!”

That got him reminiscing about his first car, a Ford Model A with a canvas top. Playing the suave young suitor, he drove from the Bronx to Brooklyn to take his future bride and in-laws out for a night on the town. It rained. The canvas top leaked. Everyone got soaked.

That got me reminiscing about “The Magnet,” a finned, two-tone ’57 Dodge that was fatally attracted to other cars. As bad as The Magnet’s white-and-gold factory paint began to look, Dad made it worse when he tried to hide the dings and dents under a hideous light-blue-and-dark-blue cut-rate paint job.

The Magnet was one of a series of crummy cars that adorned our driveway in my youth: I also remember a ’58 Buick, black and massive as a Humvee; a sporty but past-its-prime silver-blue ’63 Pontiac Tempest; and a dowdy forest-green ’66 Buick Special. The ’58 Buick might have been the one that crushed my green tricycle with the streamers flowing from the ends of the handlebars. All of them broke down or got flat tires on a regular basis.

“I had no luck with cars,” my dad concedes. Nor I with trikes.­

You’d think his knack for acquiring unreliable vehicles would have made him cautious, but Dad was the quintessential New York driver: quick to honk, slow to brake and constantly chiding the “nuts” in the adjacent cars who were forever thwarting his progress or demonstrating their unfitness to share the road with him.

Dad’s worst driving habit was to stop so close to the car in front of him that he was practically sitting in its backseat, and then berate the driver for failing to spring to life the instant the light turned green.

“It’ll never get any greener,” was one of his favorite taunts. Or occasionally: “What’samatta, you don’t like the color green? Is there another color you would like better? Sky-blue pink, maybe?”

He wouldn’t yell any of this stuff out the window. The performance was for us, his amused and captive audience. He never sounded mad.

In any event (as he likes to say), the Dallas fender bender was a best-case scenario: He got the message that he was no Mario Andretti without hurting himself or anyone else in the process. (My sister might disagree: It was her car that bore the brunt of the lesson.)

Still, as we all know, driving is a powerful symbol of freedom and independence in American culture. So the loss of one’s driving privileges is a bitter pill. And for Dad, the losses are piling up. Last year, he and my mom gave up their condo in Florida and moved to an “independent living community” in Dallas, near my sister. Last summer, his bride, as he still calls my mom, died at the age of 89 – three months shy of their 70th anniversary.

Wrap your mind around that number. To return to baseball metaphors, we’re talking the marital equivalent of DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak or Ted Williams’ .406 batting average – numbers we may not see again.

Before my parents’ generation, the odds were not great that both members of a couple would live long enough to celebrate seven decades of wedded bliss. These days we’re not likely to get married young enough or stay married long enough to get within range of a diamond anniversary.

Mom fought hard to make it to the big milestone. Her doctors didn’t think she’d be around for her 69th anniversary.

Ah, well. My stock answer when people express their condolences is that Mom didn’t get cheated: She lived a good, long life and was married to a good, loving man – except when he was driving.

I always thought south Florida, where my parents used to live, was the scariest place I’d ever driven because the roads were crammed with ex-New Yorkers like my dad who were still aggressive but no longer skillful.

“These people should not be driving,” I’d say. But will I recognize myself as one of “these people” when the time comes?

Well, I’ve never found driving relaxing. I blame my adolescent experience with the family lemons. Even now, I can’t drive without listening for untoward noises and sniffing for untoward smells. And I’m already shying away from night driving, especially in the rain.

So I’d like to think it’s not going to take a fender bender to get me out of the driver’s seat. But I’m probably fooling myself. I saw how hard it was for my mom to go gentle into that good night during the last two years of her life. A month before she died she told me she thought she was getting better.

I think of the ritual exchanges between my dad and me when he’d hand me the key to one of those beater cars back in the 1970s.

“Be careful,” he’d say. “Lotta nuts out there.”

To which I would reply, “Lotta nuts in here, too.”

The key to surrendering the key is recognizing when you’ve gone from being one of the nuts in here to one of the nuts out there.

Russell Frank is a former Sonoran who now teaches journalism at Penn State.

© 2011 Friends and Neighbors Magazine


Russell Frank
By Russell Frank December 15, 2011 16:30