I’m not yet 16 years old. All I have is a School Permit to drive.
Which means I can only legally transport myself to and from school. There’s some ambiguity about whether that includes school functions like sporting events I’m not directly participating in.
In my tight-knit Nebraska community, nobody cares much about the ambiguity as long as kids don’t abuse the privilege.
Not so in big city Yankton, South Dakota. If I want to fly the 1969 four-door Ford with it’s big 390 V8 across state lines, I need a pilot.
Fortunately, my friend Terry is more than 16. And it’s my good luck that he doesn’t have a car of his own.
A summer’s evening in Yankton, and Terry is behind the Ford’s steering wheel, tooling down the street in front of the Dakota theater. Sitting to his right, I’m acting as co-pilot with the window down. Hal and Jack are in the back seat.
We’re cranking an 8-Track through the rear window Bose speakers, Get the Knack.
We’re on our way to a James Bond movie, For Your Eyes Only.
Terry slows down at the intersection for a yellow light, and I see a familiar figure on the sidewalk, strolling toward the theater.
It’s a teacher from back in the tight-knit community. He’s walking with another fellow, chatting and laughing it up.
Waiting for the light, I turn down the stereo, then hang my head out the window. “Hey, hey!” I holler. “Hey, Mister Z_______!”
Mister Z stops in his tracks. So does his pal.
The light’s now turned red. The guys in the back see who I’m yelling at, and start a commotion of their own, calling out their open window.
“What’s up, Z? How’s it going?”
Nothing derogatory. Nothing to embarrass or insult. We all love Mister Z.
But we’re teenage boys, out on the town. And we crave attention.
And we get attention.
But not from our teacher.
Instead, it’s his companion who charges into the street, shaking his fist.
The guy’s like a cross between Burt Reynolds and Andre the Giant, bearing down on the Ford with a red face, ripped muscles and polyester slacks.
He’s at the car. He’s reaching through the back window.
Spit flies as he curses through clenched teeth.
“What’d you say, to me?”
I think he’s got a grip on Hal’s neck.
“I’m sick of you little shits, always in my face,” he says.
I fall away from the window. “Drive, Terry! Drive!” I say.
“Can’t!” Says Terry. “It’s a red light.”
Neil screams from the back. “Run the light!”
“You bastards,” says our attacker, swinging into a roundhouse kick that lands his zippered ankle boot into the rear door with a crunch.
At the sound of contact, Terry hits the gas, runs the light, and is a block down the street before taking a breath.
In a side street parking lot we stop. Breathe. Stare at each other.
Did what happen actually just happen? There are red marks on Hal’s neck.
I stumble out of the car.
There’s a dent in the side of the car.
What do we do now?
“Find a cop,” says Hal.
“Yeah, let’s find a cop!” Says Neil.
I’m almost willing to let it all slide, but for two things.
First I’m going to have to explain the dent in the car to my dad. Second, my dad is on the school board. There’s no way I can protect Mister Z.
And really, why should I?
I agree with the guys in back. “Let’s find a cop.”
It takes us about fifteen minutes, but eventually we flag down a police cruiser. We show the officer the dent in the car, explain what happened.
“What did you boys do to provoke this guy?” He says.
“We called out to our teacher,” I say. “That’s it.”
“No profanity? No name calling?” The officer’s just making sure.
But the truth is, we didn’t do any of that.
Ten minutes later, we’re buying our tickets, walking into the theater with an usher who swings a mean flashlight. The policeman waits for us in the lobby.
Mister Z and his temperamental friend are in a back row.
We confront them. They’re embarrassed. Our teacher, doubly so. He introduces us.
Mister Z explains that his cousin has the same last name.
Cousin Z thinks we were yelling at him.
He’s lately had trouble with some young toughs in his neighborhood.
He honestly thought we were them, calling out his name. Harassing him. He apologizes.
Hal has his doubts. Neil’s not sure. Terry and I believe him.
The entire thing is a goofy mistake.
The next morning, Cousin Z calls my dad, apologizes again. He pays for the car door.
I think a lot about this night during the next three decades.
What if Cousin Z would’ve had a gun? What if one of us would’ve had a gun?
What if Cousin Z had remained belligerent, unwilling to back down when confronted with his mistake?
What if I or my dad would’ve pressed the issue?
There are lessons here from both sides of the conflict.
Big picture lessons.
Lessons about jumping to conclusions and controlling your temper.
Lessons for young men about how to act in a world of strangers. How to communicate effectively.
Wherever he is today, I wish I could buy Cousin Z a beer, and thank him for those lessons.