It was spring. The war was over, rationing gone, people were once again buying new cars. The Muskegon (Michigan) Lassies (part of the All-American Girls Baseball League) were having a winning season. The “New Look” was in and hemlines were down.
Mrs. Sheridan arrived at our house to show off her brand new 1948 Oldsmobile with Hydromatic transmission. We were all going to a Lassie’s baseball game that night. She offered to drive me, with Mother and Dad coming later.
Mrs. Sheridan was a widow the same age as my mother, but much more glamorous. She wore spike heels, red lipstick, blue eyeshadow, and had a fox fur biting its tail draped around her shoulders. Her nails were painted and she smoked using a holder.
“See, look,” Mrs. Sheridan crowed. “It doesn’t even have a clutch! You don’t have to shift gears. Why, it’s so easy, even Kay could drive it.” I was 12. My parents peered into the windows, opened the doors, sat on the seats, and admired the gadgets.
Shifting gears, stepping on and releasing the clutch at just the right moment, had always seemed to me to be the most challenging part of driving a car. Of course, I’d never driven anything. I had only tried sitting in stationary vehicles, turning the wheel vigorously, pretending I was steering. Imagine a car where you didn’t have to engage a clutch.
I got in beside her. I heard the smooth purr as she turned on the ignition.
“Do you really think I could drive this?”
“Sure you could. All you have to do is steer.”
She drove around the corner onto Fifth Street and parked. Fifth Street was a straight shot down four or five blocks before it curved.
“All you have to do is keep the wheel steady, don’t turn it too much, and just press lightly on the gas.” She indicated the gas pedal, the brake right beside it. “If you need to stop, you press on the brake, here. Not with your left foot, with your right.” She demonstrated.
“Can I try?”
“You drive to the end of Fifth Street. Then I’ll take over.”
I sat in the drivers’ seat. Mrs. Sheridan showed me how to release the brake and put the car in drive. Off I went. The car jerked, moved, jerked, a few feet at a time.
“Press a little harder on the gas, just lightly, but evenly,” said Mrs. Sheridan. I did.
The car took off, careening down Fifth Street, moving back and forth from curb to curb, with Mrs. Sheridan screaming in my ear, “The brakes! The brakes!”
“Where are they?” I cried.
Fifth Street turned. Mrs. Sheridan’s brand new Oldsmobile did not. There was the scream of crunching metal as the car hit a tree. Shaken but intact, we crept out. People began to gather. Steam rose from the front of the painfully crumpled, wounded new car.
“It wasn’t your fault,” my mother said later. “Nell should never have allowed you to drive that car!”
“Her insurance will cover it,” my father said. My father and I both knew, though the words weren't spoken, that it wasn't only Mrs. Sheridan lacking in good sense that day, and we were lucky that only the car was wounded.