Archive for February, 2010

Unintended Acceleration

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

All of the talk in the news recently about unintended acceleration brought back a flood of memories because I too have a story. It was Christmas 1973. I was back home in Ottawa for the holidays from university, driving my mother around for that last little bit of Christmas shopping. Our car was a 1969 Oldsmobile Delta 88, a great hulking beast with a cabin not much smaller than my dorm room at Queen’s and a 455 cubic inch (8 litre) engine. In its better days it could climb trees but, as it approached the 100,000 mile mark, it was already showing its age — the push button ashtray no longer worked and use of the power windows was now saved only for the most ceremonial of occasions. As we approached a set of lights that winter night, the gas pedal suddenly fell to the mat and, with a throaty roar, the great metal beast paused momentarily to gather itself for the great leap forward.

It was that moment of hesitation that saved us, I think. After a flash of surprise and panic, I managed to shift the transmission into neutral and with a couple of bangs with my foot, the pedal bounced back and I pulled over to the side of the street to catch my breath and still my teenage heart. In truth, I had come to hate that car over my high school years for we lived in the country and I spent most of my weekends as the designated driver for my license-less mother. Finally tossing the keys to my eager young brother and heading off to university where I lived within walking distance of anything I cared about was one of the happiest experiences of my life.

Looking back, I recall now how that car was an object of fear for me. Not only were there the mall parking lots and the endless errands of various kinds; I also lived with the knowledge that at any moment something could go really wrong. As with many families of ‘modest’ means, our heap was an unaffordable necessity, kept running through the skills of a garage mechanic friend of my father’s and a series of cut-rate rebuilt parts. Over the course of a few short years, I replaced a succession of flats with a succession of even dodgier spares, learned the manly skill of humping two tons of scrap metal down a highway after a power steering failure. I even managed to nurse our family steed 10 miles home without brakes.

As an adult, I’ve never owned a car; I rent when I need to. It’s not that I don’t have the occasional twinge of interest — the sight of a shapely Golf can still turn my head. But I find that a good weekend in traffic or a trip to a mall parking lot quells any budding interest in ownership. It’s funny how the experiences of your youth will mark you forever.