What happens when two roads diverge

What happens when two roads diverge

By Joseph Bauers

The school parking lot was filled with cars that no teenager ought to drive, at least from my father's point of view.

The summer before my senior year, I had purchased, on his advice, a 1949 Chevrolet, my first car.

I had paid Texaco Bill $150 for it, money I had earned caddying. It was a very old car even then, but it had enjoyed a nice semi-retirement, ferrying customers from Bill's shop to the commuter rail station, or chasing after parts to fix other vehicles.

From my father's point of view it was perfect: It was heavy, which was good, and it was slow, which was very, very good.

I had spiffed it up nicely for its initial appearance at school, but in contrast with the more exotic rides that my more well-heeled classmates drove, it was barely noticed.

Morning parking lot rituals revolved around students admiring each other's latest chrome, and quite a collection it was. The big American cars were joined occasionally by even more dazzling foreign examples.

By far the most spectacular was a 1953 MG TD, a British sports car in mint condition that had been given as an early graduation present to one of my more annoying classmates, Bob B.

It was done up in British Racing Green, with tucked-and-rolled leather upholstery, an exotic wooden dash and steering wheel, and chrome spoke wheels. It had long, graceful fenders and a gleaming chrome grill.

Bob B. would arrive in this thing with great fanfare, wearing a black beret set at the perfect angle, and downshifting to give the exhaust a chance to growl as he glided into his preferred parking space, which he seemed to think was his birthright.

If rain were in the forecast, he'd ritualistically attach the leather tonneau cover that came with the car to protect the interior, as if it were the Holy Grail.

I was in many classes with Bob B., and he reflected the self-assurance — which most of us lacked — of someone who had it made, and knew he did.

As early as our sophomore year, he had announced that he would be attending Dartmouth College, where his father had gone. He lounged in class comfortably, sizing up classmates and, it seemed to me, judging just which ones might join him some day on the lofty peaks he would soon ascend — and which ones, like me, who obviously would not.

He had about him the way of the bully, offering mock encouragement to shy classmates when they would occasionally get up the nerve to answer in class, and a slow shaking of the head when some lesser being would respond in embarrassed dunderheadedness, as if to say, "Poor soul!"

Bob B. wore a perpetual smirk, and he walked with a swagger that belied his tender years.

By graduation, I was well sick of Bob B. In fact, I was tired of the whole high school experience. I never was one of those who hated high school, but I didn't love it, either. I was glad to trek off to a state university, whose prime advantage was its affordability.

College was a liberating experience, and the confidence I lacked in high school slowly seeped into my consciousness. This was a good thing, as I entered, first, graduate school, and then the working world. They were busy years.

And so it seemed impossible when the invitation to our 10-year class reunion arrived. My initial response was negative — why would I want to revisit that scene?

But then I smiled, thinking of some of the nicer kids I knew, and I even wondered about Bob B. How would the new, improved me handle him if he were still perched atop his high horse?

The reunion was held in a swanky Chicago hotel, presumably near enough O'Hare so that the elites in our huge class might jet in from their exotic locales. When you arrived, they gave you a name tag and a reunion program, which I tucked under my arm as I ventured to the punch bowl.

I took a seat, sipped my punch, then opened the program.

There on the very first page was a glossy shot of Bob B., above which was written "In Memoriam," and under which were written the year of his birth and the year of our graduation which, apparently, was also the year of his death.

I was stunned. I had not stayed in touch with high-school classmates, so this development was a complete surprise.

I sought out more information, and noticed Tall Steve, an affable friend who had become a detective in the local constabulary. I asked him about Bob B. He scrunched up his nose as he scanned the room for females, just as he had done in the school cafeteria years before.

"Auto accident," he said in that economy of speech favored by the police. "Killed instantly." I wanted to know more.

"Remember that little foreign job that he drove to school? Well, he had loaded it up and was on his way out east to that fancy college he was always talking about. Hit a patch of rain, lost control, and rolled the thing. Light as a feather. Like I said — killed instantly."

And then he offered an after-thought.

"He'd have been better off in that old jalopy that you drove."

It was a strange confluence of emotions. I studied Bob B.'s face in the picture, and I could not detect the smirk. He looked almost angelic.

And I wondered: If there were such a thing as a time machine, might I have gotten through to him before his fateful ride that he needn't wait for Nature to teach him humility?

And I thought of his parents and how they must have felt, having sent their golden boy out into the world in such an inappropriate vehicle.

And I thought of my dad.

Joseph Bauers is a freelance writer in Champaign.

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