In Brief— A reflection on the author’s youth, a pet’s death, the damage and the lessons learned from a turbulent time in his life. [Written in March 2017.]
Nine Lives Versus The Car—
She was a three-legged cat. The vet who amputated her badly infected front leg said it was a scorpion sting. Plenty of those devils around where we lived in Albuquerque. In the months that followed, three legs were no hindrance to her going over our five-foot outer wall as easily as if she were hopping up on the sofa.
It was the beginning of my sophomore year at the University of New Mexico. As too often happened, I had butted heads with my mother and was angry. I stalked out of the house, through the back yard and jumped into my car, not even bothering to close the gate in the outer wall.
Angry and in a hurry, I didn’t notice our cat dozing in the shade beneath the car. I felt the bump and saw her shoot from under the car and head for the house. I quickly leaped from the car and stopped at the open door in time to see her breathe her last at my mother’s feet. Since then, I’ve occasionally wondered if Mother realized how much that cat loved her. Sick at heart from what my anger had wrought, I fled, jumped into my car and, with tears blurring my vision, was gone.
Shortly after buying the used powder-blue Ford coupe, a friend and I modified it with straight-through exhaust pipes giving it a deep throaty roar to go with the increased power, added lowering blocks so it looked ready to take off and fender skirts to enhance “the look.” Never having been a car buff, I assisted while he did most of the work. At the time trials, it did passably well and looked great.
All I remember now is that I needed to drive. I headed east into Tijeras Canyon where Highway 66 skirted the southern edge of the Sandia Mountains. I finally stopped and sat reflecting on what I had done. I had accidentally killed our family cat. I turned around and headed back toward town…too fast. Still churning inside as I rocketed past the huge boulder where the police often waited, I didn’t register the highway patrolman.
On the long, shallow slope of the highway, I saw the cop’s blue lights flickering in the distance behind me. I found myself assessing my car’s speed against the aging Chevy driven by the cop. My foot hit the accelerator and saw the Chevy falling back. My Ford was no match for an old Chevy.
As I entered the outskirts of town, traffic thickened. It crossed my mind that those dirt roads to the right would leave an easy to follow trail even in an old Chevy, so I passed the slower traffic on the shoulder. Now I could see the Chevy closing in and heard the siren. Cars fell out of his way. As the New Mexico State Police building loomed ahead, rationality returned and I pulled in and parked beside the building. The old Chevy with the star on its door parked next to me. The chase was over.
As chance would have it, I knew the patrolman’s cousin, had gone to school with her. When we entered the old judge’s small court across the highway from the state police building, the cop talked with the judge behind his closed door.
The gray-haired judge was a kindly type, probably near retirement. He listened to my story, sympathized and acknowledged that a young college student deserved leniency for a trivial offense and pronounced a fine. I thanked him, paid the fine and drove away. I’d been lucky. What if I’d been black or Hispanic?
Not long after that, I volunteered for the draft. Surely the army would blunt the sharp edges of my anger and erase the guilt. It didn’t.
Years have raced by. Guilt still blankets my heart. So many layers now. I have a T-shirt that says, “To be old and wise, you must first be young and stupid.” I’m older now. Still waiting.
The Weekly Sampler—
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