A lesson from Dad about cars

My pappy always told me that I should own up to my mistakes, including those I made as a driver. (I never called him my pappy — he would have killed me — but it sounds a lot more profound.)

In damaging the vehicle of another, I was supposed to leave a small note under the windshield wiper, admitting my transgressions. Here, I could provide a name, address and phone number, then notarize it and leave the matter in the hands of the gods.

The first time I was tested, it involved squeezing a 1967 Chevrolet Bel Air through a narrow corridor left in the parking lot by eager university students on pub night. My victim: a 1960s vintage Volkswagen Beetle.

Reasonably, neither of these vehicles should have been street legal. Mine had a doorbell mounted to the steering well to activate the horn. The sorry German car was held together with bits of solder and two-part epoxy, and it was so corroded you could have reached into the glove compartment without unlocking the door.

That night, I could see the Beetle shuddering as I passed, so I knew there had been contact. I got out of the car to see what I’d done. Among the holes, rust and flakes of loose paint was an injury a little fresher than the others. A few chips of paint had been knocked off to reveal a brand new section of ulcerated metal about the size of an Oreo cookie.

A reasonable person might have moved along, but all I could think of were bizarre circumstances in which the driver might see the damage and drive back to his nasty little flat over an independent convenience store in a complete state of despair. A careless moment and the Beetle might collide with a vehicle of greater structural soundness and collapse in a corroded heap.

I stood in the parking lot for a long time, and with the help of my absent father, eventually composed an iffy missive on the back of a parking lot receipt, noting that I MIGHT HAVE caused a little damage to the right rear quarter of the car.

The deal with my father was that you could get into as much trouble doing the right thing as you could doing something wrong. You could be roundhoused for failing to write a note and getting caught or sucker-punched because you damaged someone else’s car in the first place. I was still living at home that first year of post-secondary and the car was insured on my father’s policy. I also had to use my parents’ phone number on the windshield note.

Ironically, my father took the call from Bob something-or-other about four days later and passed the phone to me.

“You were the guy who damaged my car, right?” asked Bob.

“Yup,” I admitted.

“Well thanks for being so honest,” he said. “I took the car to the body shop for an estimate and they’re saying, like, $135.”

I won’t belabour the point with exact calculations, but you could probably multiply 135 retro Canadian dollars by three or four to get the full modern-day impact of this statement. I’d been thinking $40 “just because,” which Bob would happily pocket before driving his car to the junk heap after the spring thaw.

I was afraid that Bob would call the insurance company, after which point my father would nail me for doing the right thing … or the wrong thing … or the crafty thing he might have done with 20/20 hindsight. A few days later, I gave Bob an envelope crammed with $5 and $10 bills.

I soon left home and got my own place on the ninth floor of an apartment building overlooking the parking lot. Defrosting the frost-free freezer at two in the morning, I decided to heave a particularly ugly chunk of ice over the balcony. A gust of wind skewed its trajectory and the ice landed on the top of the roof of a beater in as bad a shape as Bob’s. An hour later, only a small puddle of fridge water was left as evidence.

I decided not to leave a note. The way I saw it: My offer, just because I’d done it, would be about $75. The highest quote the driver might have found to undent the roof: $550.

The lifelong value of an anecdote in which the driver could say his car was struck by an icy asteroid from space: priceless.

Photograph by: Peter Kenter, National Post, CNS