I was fifteen when we got our first car. The year was 1952, and the car was an off-white 1950 Chevrolet coupe, purchased used from a fellow who worked with Mother at the Darco laboratory. It had two doors and nappy upholstery, plus a working radio and a working heater. Neither Mother nor I knew how to drive, so those first weeks of car ownership were tricky and not without peril. We had to enlist the help of a next-door neighbor girl in getting us started. She would drive us out to a deserted country road and sit there in the front seat with us as we fought through the intricacies and coordination challenges of stick shifting and clutch-and-brake manipulation. She was just a teenager herself, and I took a fair amount of ribbing in the hallways at school for subjecting myself to her tutelage. But we couldn't have done it without her.
I remember the first day I drove the car to school. I was so full of myself, so proud. Lots of kids took cars to school, even in those days, even in comparatively hardscrabble Marshall, Texas. But this was the first time for me, and I was intent on making the most of it. Things went fine until the noon lunch break when I piled three friends into the Chevy for a quick run to the Dairy Queen over on Grand Avenue. Now that I had wheels I could [End Page 624] eat anywhere I wanted to. No more cafeteria food for me! I pulled away from the curb okay, and managed to shift into second to gain a little speed, but then somebody said something to me from the backseat and for some reason this caused me to slam on the brakes, right there in the middle of the street. Unfortunately there was a boy named Lyle Honeycutt on his motorcycle close behind me, and when I stopped suddenly he hit the rear of the car with such force that it broke the back bumper and sent Lyle over his handlebars and up onto the trunk of the Chevy. Kids were swarming out of the school building at the time, and lots of them saw the collision. Luckily Lyle wasn't hurt badly, just a few bruises; but the car's bumper was a mess, and my lack of driving skill was on full display for all to see. It took me weeks to live the episode down; and, needless to say, Mother wasn't pleased when she saw the smashed bumper.
Having the car made a big difference in our lives, though. It meant that we no longer had to rely on the town's few rickety public buses and its even fewer—I think there were a total of two—public taxis. Mother was a widow, and had been for more than ten years by this time. There were just the two of us. We had moved to Marshall after the war, and she had taken a job as a lab technician at Darco, a small plant on the west side of town that processed native lignite into "activated charcoal" for use in water filtration systems. Now that we had our own car, it became my job to drive her to work each morning before going to school and to pick her up each afternoon after work, except on days when I had football practice; then she would make other arrangements.
Mother was fiercely independent. Her marriage to my father, a footloose Alabaman, had been a mistake. When he died in a highway accident they were legally separated. She had lots of family in Wood and Gregg counties, but she'd moved us to Marshall, in Harrison County, to get away from them. She intended to raise me on her own, she said, away from their interference. That was what she said. She had been shamed, I think, by the way her marriage had turned out, and she was still smarting from it. She didn't want her brothers, especially their wives, needling her about the failed marriage. She couldn't stand that...