Sept. 29 2010 10:32 AM

How I managed to wreck a car without ever driving it

In my last column, “Crappy driver,” I mentioned that I once crashed a car without driving it, causing several readers to ask how such a thing was possible. Well, the comment was meant as a throwaway, but since you asked….

The year is 1982. I’m driving my friend Paul to see about an AMC Gremlin that’s for sale. With us is my girlfriend Jill.

The Gremlin, we see as we pull into the round, gravel driveway, is green and hideous— like the partially digested remains of a beetle that had been regurgitated by a mantis. Indeed, the AMC Gremlin is one of the ugliest, most ridiculous automobiles ever made. Introduced to the public on April Fool’s Day, 1970, its design was sketched on an air-sickness bag. And if that isn’t enough to clue you in about what a joke the Gremlin was, consider its name. Not only is a gremlin a vile, revolting devil, but it is, by definition, an automobile saboteur. A “gremlin,” according to Webster, is “a gnome that causes vehicle or engine problems,” which—now that I think about it—explains what happened that dark, dark day. There were gremlins in that Gremlin—infested, probably—like ants in a sugar box.

I park my parents’ station wagon on the far end of the driveway—more like a cul de sac, actually—perched on the mesa of a medium size hill. We exit the car to circle the Gremlin and kick its tires. I notice it’s unlocked and the keys are in the ignition. I crawl inside, play with the stick shift, turn the steering wheel back and forth and say “Vroom-vroomvroom” for a few minutes before exiting the car and forgetting—by Christ almighty—to put it back in gear.

Paul goes to the house to find the owner, and Jill and I decide to wait in the station wagon. The car radio is playing “Lost in Love” by Air Supply as Jill nestles into the crook of my arm. It’s a sweet moment between two young lovers, the calm before the apocalypse. I slip off my shoes and socks, wriggle in closer and start drifting off in a state of puppy-love euphoria when, out of the corner of my eye, I see something move. I turn to look and—sure as ogre dung contains bits of baby unicorn meat— that little green imp is rolling in the direction of the cliff.

In a flash, I leap out of the car and rush toward the vehicle, barefoot.

“Ow, ow, ow, ow,” I mumble as the sharp gravel stabs at my feet. “Ow, ow, fucking ow!” as the Gremlin approaches the crest of the hill and it becomes evident that I will not get there in time unless I can conjure one of those super-human, mind-over-matter, Hollywood-movie efforts, where the hero ignores the pain and saves the day. Alas, I am no superhero and I arrive too late to do anything but watch as the Gremlin breaches the tipping point and rolls down the hill.

It starts off slowly at first, then picks up speed. To my horror, it heads straight for a giant, looming set of boulders, but, at the last moment, hits a small bump, slightly shifts direction and misses Stonehenge by a hair. It picks up more speed and heads toward a tree but, again, changes direction at the last second. This happens repeatedly, as though the gnomes are purposely messing with my head, careening the car within inches of every obstacle they can find—boulders, trees, ditches, whatever—until they apparently make up their mind about the object upon which they want to impale it: a large, gnarly tree stump. The Gremlin, as if on a death wish, bee-lines for the stump, rolling right over the top and—judging by the sickening squeal of metal in distress—destroys the undercarriage before coming to a stop atop the stump like a pinned insect in a bug-collector’s case.

Well, I’m in the soup now, I think. I look at Jill, who’s now standing beside me, her face frozen with the kind of shock and horror typically seen on the lone survivor of a family home-invasion butchering at the beginning of a Law and Order episode.

The keys! I think. The keys are inside the car!

So now I’m running down the hill hoping to retrieve the Gremlin before Paul and the owner come out of the house. I climb inside, turn the key and slowly drive it off the stump as the undercarriage howls in pain. When I clear the stump, I start driving up the hill, but the incline is steep and the earth is loose. I make it only about half way up, then slide back down. I try again, with more momentum, and get about three-quarters of the distance. I try again, this time backing up as far as possible and flooring it for maximum momentum. Up, up, up I go, tires spinning, back end fish-tailing; up, up, right up to the almost-top, where—uh-oh—Paul and the owner come into view just in time to see me slide down backward again. The jig is up.

“What the fuck is this?!” roars the man, a beefy, truck-driver type in his 50s.

“It wasn’t my fault!” I shout, as I exit the car and make my way back up the hill on foot.

“Bullshit! What did you do?” “Nothing. It rolled down by itself !” He glares at me menacingly. “Well, um, I guess we’ll be on our way now,” I say, cautiously backing toward the station wagon. “Great car, that Gremlin,” I add and beckon my comrades to get in. “Not really what we’re looking for, though,” I say, putting it into reverse and backing out of the driveway while he watches dumbfounded.

It’s not my finest moment.

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