Right about now, many parents across our great land are experiencing a nervous mix of extreme terror infused with tremendous relief. As they ship their kids off to college, parents worry that their kids will not be able to survive on their own. At the same time, they rejoice at the return of their freedom.
Part of the fear/freedom mix is giving the kid his own car. This presents a whole sub-category of potential problems such as insurance payments, fender-benders, speeding tickets and expensive mechanical troubles. Worse, college kids who have cars are tempted to engage in quasi-criminal activity such as road trips; tailgating; and transporting kegs, stolen mascots, and/or fraternity brothers in their trunks.
But to most parents, giving the kid a car is worth the risk because it means they don’t have to drive all those hours to go pick him up at Thanksgiving.
My parents underestimated the inconvenience of the holiday pick-ups and didn’t allow me to take my 1974 VW Beetle my Freshman year. Truth be told, there wasn’t much practical use for a car at Miami University. I could walk from the center of campus to the outskirts of tiny Oxford, Ohio in less than the time it took to boil soup in a hot pot.
But after several drives through six hours of mind-numbingly boring pig farms to pick me up for holidays, my parents were ready to let me hitchhike back from school if need be.
So in the fall of my Sophomore year, I packed my Beetle with clothes, posters, and my popcorn popper, and off I went.
It wasn’t long before my parent’s fears about giving me the car were realized.
It was Labor Day weekend, when folks from Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana flock to “Riverfest,” Cincinnati’s end-of-summer celebration with music, food and one of the largest fireworks displays in the Midwest. There wasn’t much going on in sleepy little Oxford, so four sorority sisters and I decided a road trip was in order.
I responsibly filled the Bug’s little tank with gas and checked the oil. I covered the tear in the horsehair-stuffed back seat with a fresh piece of duct tape and put a Squeeze cassette in the tape deck. The battery was temperamental, but I was prepared, having perfected the art of popping the clutch by myself, pushing it from the driver’s side then jumping in and putting her in gear.
The Bug was ready to go.
On the ride to Cincy, I heard a funny rubbing sound coming from the back left wheel. Although I wouldn’t know a mechanical problem if it slapped me in the face, I stopped to look under the fender. I couldn’t see any obvious problems, so we kept driving, making it safe and sound to Sawyer Point on the Ohio River.
We spent the day ogling cute guys, rubber ducks, grilled sausages, and fireworks. After an earsplitting finale, all half a million people sitting on the riverbank got up from their blankets and headed to their cars in one gigantic human wave.
It seemed like everyone got on Interstate 75 all at once. Six lanes of wall-to-wall traffic, all moving north at 60 miles an hour.
My little Bug was somewhere in the middle of it all, chugging right along, keeping up with the pack. Just then, I heard that rubbing sound again.
This time, the excited chatter of my girlfriends could not drown out the problematic noise coming from the back fender. It was getting louder, but there was nothing I could do. I was surrounded by moving cars on all sides.
Just then, I felt a jerk, followed by a loud boom. The entire car shifted back and left as we careened down the highway. My girlfriends started to scream, and as I held on to the steering wheel, I screamed too.
Somewhere in my panicked peripheral vision, I saw my wheel bouncing across the highway. The back left axle was dragging directly on the asphalt, sparks spraying into the air in a massive arc as we fishtailed across three lanes of traffic.
Miraculously, the cars parted like the Red Sea, and we were able to avoid collision as we ground to a gradual stop.
My shaken friends and I got out of the paraplegic Beetle and wondered how we were going to get back to school. We didn’t realize there were countless good citizens (lecherous males) ready to offer us five girls a helping hand (grope) and a room for the night (motel) if we so desired.
As luck would have it, there was an honest mechanic in the pack who retrieved the wheel from a ditch and put my Beetle back together. Apparently, the whole mess had been caused by a broken cotter pin – a tiny piece of metal that held the wheel onto the axle.
Thanks to a bobby pin found in my purse, I made it back to my bunk that night, no worse for the wear, and was able to drive myself home for the holidays.
So don’t be afraid, parents. Sit back and enjoy your empty nests. Your kids will do just fine.