1969. Man was about to walk on the Moon. Vietnam was in full gear. Richard Nixon was President. Before the terms “I am not a crook”, and “Watergate” entered the language.
I was a skinny, awkward, shy 6th grader. I had one friend in the new school I was attending now that we had moved to Woodlake, and I wasn’t really making many more. (that one friend is still someone I count in a very small number of “best friends”)
Dad had recently started working for a newcomer in the automobile market, Toyota, at the new Toyota of Visalia dealership on Main Street in Visalia. Back in those days, salesmen could take one of the new cars home with them, and my Dad, although he loved driving things like Land Cruisers, brought home a brand new 1969 Toyota Corona. It was very much like this one:
I promptly crashed it into a palm tree.
And I wasn’t even in the car when it happened!
We lived outside of Woodlake, in a old monster of a house on the side “W” Mountain, and on the edge of an orange grove. The place had a detached garage, at the upper end of a driveway that was 1/10 mile long, running down the hill to the nearest county road. That hill is what allowed a chain of events to occur, events that ended with that brand new Corona’s rear end wrapped around a palm tree.
Along that (what seemed like to a 12 year old having to trudge it every morning and afternoon, carrying a saxophone in it’s case) never ending driveway, three palm trees had been planted, probably back in the 40′s or 50′s, when such trees were spreading around California, and giving the region it’s iconic visual image. (it should be noted that palm trees are not native to California. Our iconic image is an import.) One was growing near the parking area in front of the garage, the next about 10 yards down the driveway, and the third about 30 yards further down the hill. That’s the tree that became intimately familiar with the back end of the new Toyota.
So Dad drives home with this brand new Toyota one afternoon, and parks it in front of the garage. To set up the physical parameters of this story, you need to understand this: as you come up the drive, you make a right turn at the top to park in front of the garage. This means the car is sitting at almost a 90 degree angle to the drive itself, depending on how you decided to make your turn. So this car is sitting there, all shiny and new, and whispering seductively at 12 year old JimmieJoe. Who could resist? I jumped in after Dad went into the house, and immediately entered the fantasy world where I was the master of an exciting automobile on a fantastic road trip. The car was a “3-on-the-floor”, so that opened a whole range of possibilities! An automatic would limit the young speedster to simply the steering wheel, gas and brake pedals, but a manual transmission instantly transported one into a thrilling race track, or winding mountain road, or gearing down to pass a bunch of slow pokes on the freeway! (yeah, it was a Toyota. 4 banger. With a 3 speed. You make do.)
I don’t know how long I played in the car, but eventually it was time to end the fantasy road trip, and head into the house for supper, homework, television, or whatever. I was sure I had put the car back in gear before I got out, but apparently not. As I had not released the parking brake, I didn’t think to make sure it was set, either.
They say that an object at rest tends to stay at rest, unless acted on by an outside force. Gravity is a force, and it is a patient and persistent one. I came out just before dark to see my Dad and my cousin pushing this brand new car back up the driveway, with a huge indentation in the back end, exactly matching the size and shape of that third palm tree! If it was possible for a 12 year old to have a heart attack from the sudden onset of fear, I’d have died right then.
Imagine this car with the back end caved in at least a third of the way forward on the trunk, square in the middle.
That’s what I saw when as my Dad and my cousin pushed it back up the driveway.
Apparently I had not put the transmission solidly in gear, nor set the parking brake. A few minutes after I went into the house, the car, sitting sideways on the slope, began to roll backwards. The front wheels must have been turned in just the right direction to allow the car to turn and roll down the driveway, picking up just enough speed to fully demonstrate that that shiny chrome bumper was simply for looks. I immediately went back into the house, up to my room, and waited for my world to end. My Dad never came in, and I did not stick my head out for the rest of the night. When I got up the next morning, Dad was already gone for work, the car was gone, and nothing was ever said to me about it. I was on pins and needles for a long time, fully expecting to be blamed for the carnage.
I don’t know what Dad told the car dealership about the damage. I never asked him about the situation, and he never volunteered any information. I don’t even know if he ever knew I had been playing in the car before it got friendly with the palm tree or not.
I did make sure from that point on that any vehicle I got out of was securely in gear, and the parking brake on. Even to this day, with any manual transmission vehicle I drive, I unconsciously pull on the parking brake before I get out.
12 year old JimmieJoe trashed a brand new car in 1969 without even trying. Rear end damage to a vehicle would not happen to him again until a fateful trip to San Francisco in 2008. Yep, he got rear-ended in San Francisco!