One day in 1965 a woman who had never driven a car received her first lesson. The driver was the grandmother my St. Pius X schoolmate; the instructor was his aunt. Rounding our corner at 9705 Grant Street, in Omaha, the novice driver kept on turning. The 1963 Oldsmobile F-85 shot through the mouth of our driveway, ran over the maple sapling—which sprang upright again like an acrobat—and crashed into the house next door. The inhabitants, Red and Marty Thibault, and their three daughters, Julie, Cathy, and Holly, heard a loud bang and registered the impact.
No one was injured. The milk box wasn’t knocked off the side porch. (How advanced, those Thibaults, with their window air conditioner!) Still, what an event. Neighbors came over to enjoy the moment, leaning against our garage door, reflecting, with the shaken driver, that no one had been undone, thank God.
Between the houses, the view is of curving Seward Street in the middle distance. And a cornfield: we Omahans claimed wild farmland for suburbia.
The weird fleet of cars in the Ahrens family’s driveway must be remarked. My parents, Walter and Mary, had bought the 1959 Volvo 544 new. When it was two or three years old, it suffered a carburetor fire. The multiple carbs needed regular synching and may have been neglected. The blaze, a Sunday morning occurrence while en route to Mass, scorched the paint off the hood. The scorch mark ever remained, a sign of Walter’s growing disenchantment I can’t explain why the tire leans against the humpbacked 544.
Sometime around then we acquired an old panel van, which would sit in the driveway’s other lane. Wally’s Conoco, 49th & L was emblazoned on the sides. People often asked if Walter’s nickname was Wally. He bought the van for about $75 to tow his stock car, which was stationed behind the garage door on the Volvo’s side, to the local tracks. Red Thibault became mighty provoked when Walter tuned up the unmuffled V-8 engine. Walter’s attitude was that he would do and say whatever he wanted, and if Red Thibault or anybody else didn’t like it, that was his problem.
My brother Dan’s toy road grader is in the driveway. And of course the Nash Metropolitan. We were a family of automotive freaks! My mother once took, as I remember, some of us and some neighbor kids, eight in all, to a movie: everybody piled in. It was before I’d ever heard of the Guinness Book of World Records, but we may have qualified.
Nebraska’s license plate slogan in 1965 was The Beef State. We made beef, and by God we were proud of it. When it was later decided to sex up Nebraska’s image, the new slogan was The Cornhusker State.
My story has a mixed ending. The sapling maple tree survived the incident, although always bearing a scar where a strip of bark was sundered.
And the Beef State slogan is back, bigger and bolder than ever.
But my schoolmate’s grandmother, unnerved by the accident, never got her license.