This summer, my husband and I must decide whether our daughter should take a car to college in the fall. We are wary about insurance payments, fender-benders, speeding tickets and expensive mechanical troubles. Worse yet, college kids who have cars are tempted to engage in risky activity such as road trips, tailgating and transporting kegs, stolen mascots, and/or sorority sisters in their trunks.
But, the drive to Syracuse University is a real pain. Six hours of mind-numbing upstate New York highways is not my idea of fun during Thanksgiving break.
In considering this decision, we have thought back to our own college days.
After a year of driving for hours through boring pig farms to pick me up at Miami of Ohio 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 1974 Volkswagen Beetle with clothes, posters and my popcorn popper, and off I went.
It wasn’t long before my parents’ fears about giving me the car were realized.
It was Labor Day weekend, when folks 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 Oxford, so four sorority sisters and I decided a road trip was in order.
I responsibly filled the Beetle’s 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 cassette in the tape deck. The battery was temperamental, but I was prepared, having perfected popping the clutch by myself, pushing it from the driver’s side, then jumping in and putting her in gear.
The Bug and I were ready.
On the ride to Cincy, I heard a funny sound coming from the back left wheel. I stopped to look under the fender but couldn’t see anything obvious, so we kept driving, making it safe and sound to the Ohio River.
We spent the day ogling cute guys, rubber ducks, grilled sausages and fireworks. After an earsplitting finale, a half million people headed to their cars in one gigantic human wave.
It seemed like everyone was on Interstate 75 all at once. Six lanes of wall-to-wall traffic, all moving 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 funny sound again. 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, then 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 the useless 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 vehicles parted like the Red Sea, and 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 ready to offer five blondes a helping hand and a room for the night if we so desired. Ahem.
As luck would have it, there was an honest mechanic behind us 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 — and I made it back to my dorm that night no worse for the wear.
I never told my parents about the incident. For me, the experience was a rite of passage, in which I gained a wealth of knowledge about independence, responsibility, cotter pins, flying sparks, lecherous males and human kindness. And for my parents, ignorance was bliss.