I was speaking with my son Jesse over the telephone. He’s 15 and lives with his mother and her new husband 120 miles north, in the Catskills. It was Friday evening. I asked him what he’d done that afternoon.
Gone into Kingston, he told me, to see a movie. Gone with his friend Eric.
Kingston is 25 miles away.
I was startled: he had never before left his home in a car driven by one of his own friends.
I was also frightened.
I have a photograph somewhere of Jesse and me when he was 2 or 3 months old. I haven’t looked at it in years and don’t need to. The image, and the tactile memory, are both graven into my mind. His head rests in my hand, he lies on my forearm and his feet barely touch against my inner elbow.
Eric, 16, had just received his license, the pointman among Jesse’s contemporaries. I listened only partly while Jesse talked about the movie.
I was thinking about Jennie, an 18-year-old up there who was killed in a car driven by one of her friends. And Mike, 19, who went off the same road that Jesse took into Kingston and hit a tree. His body is still alive, but nothing else is; he neither functions nor responds. And Penny, a girl in my own high school graduating class, whose date drove into the rear of a tractor trailer. She was decapitated.
If I close my eyes I can still see clearly the wooded mountains where I used to live with my wife and children, and those narrow, winding back-country roads with their hidden dips and blind curves.
I remember when Jesse’s head reached my belt line. He was about 5 then.
And I remember the day I got my own driver’s license. That license is more truly a rite of passage in this culture than confirmation or a bar mitzvah. Its significance, on a personal level, is of dizzying sweep. It is a stunning leap into freedom and it more radically alters a young man’s life than perhaps any other event ever will. In one stroke, the shackles that bind a boy physically to home are struck off, the lifelong hourly supervision of parents falls away and the world opens, in all its possibilities.
Baby Doll was a car I owned when I was 17, a 1950 Ford convertible. It was stripped of all chrome but a single lateral line on each side, had louvered fender skirts, and was painted a dull primer gray. The headlights and hood were “Frenched” — hooded with fiberglass — and there were no exterior handles, neither on the doors nor the trunk. The doors opened by electric solenoid buttons, one set mounted on a panel below the dashboard, the other hidden in the well beneath the gas-tank flap. The seats were plush, rolled black-and-white leather. There were dual exhausts with steel-pack mufflers, which could produce a thunderous roar. That car was more important to me, more a source of joy, and more integrated into my being than any object ever was or has been since.
It was emancipation, responsibility, identity, pride of ownership and claim upon adulthood. With all that came an occasional wild, celebratory recklessness, a bloodsong of youth. It also meant mortal danger — I sensed it even then and with dread know it for certain now. Intoxicated with life, I roared down moonlit highways at 80, 90 and 100 miles an hour shouting at the top of my lungs. I was in drag races. I played one, maybe two games of chicken. I raced into the parking lots of forest preserves, empty in winter, and stomped on the brake pedal, sending my car spinning round and round across the ice.
Jesse grew. He fit just precisely under my arm when I extended it straight out. We laughed about that. Then, shortly afterward, I didn’t live with him in that house any more.
We each made the adjustment, at our own cost. By the end of our first year in this new mode, he stood as tall as my shoulder. He’s grown a lot over the last three years. Last weekend, we noted that his eyes are nearly on a level with mine. I was conscious from the beginning that our weekends together were finite, that they would become largely a thing of the past when he went to college. While I’m grateful there are still two more years until then, I have prepared. I was ready to start letting go when the time came.
But I wasn’t ready for him to slip into a car next to his friend, for his own imminent license, for the gut-wrenching images of blood and twisted metal that came to me when he told me he’d gone into Kingston with Eric. He is moving down those tricky mountain roads and traveling highways at high speeds in the hands of another boy, and shortly, he, my youngest son, will himself be behind the wheel of two tons of hurtling automobile.
I have to swallow my fear. It is a crystalline time for him. I won’t allow my own apprehensions to mar it for him. The best I can do is to tell him, honestly, how it was for me and to rejoice with him.
By the end of the year, he’ll be taller than I. That pleases him. He likes the idea of his own height. As he should, as is fitting.
© Copyright Jerrold Mundis 1985.
All rights reserved.
This essay first appeared in The New York Times Magazine, 6 October 1985.