My First Stolen Car

Before we start, here’s a picture of my fourth grade class. The story happened a few years later but this is the last picture we are both in so here it is. That’s me back there in the last row. I’m the fifth one back. R is in here too but I’m not going to tell you who he is. Take a minute and study the faces. Any idea which one of these choir boys will be leading me astray?

My fourth grade class, the last picture we are both in

I was in eighth grade so how old could I have been, probably about thirteen. I was hanging around with R, a kid from my class who had already figured out how to steal cars and go joyriding. I never knew how he had learned, older brother, friends, whatever, regardless he had learned how to wander along the street, nonchalantly eyeing the locks for doors left open, then looking for keys still in the ignition. It was December, early in the Chicago winter. The neighborhood streets were glowing with Christmas lights, the houses warm and cheery looking. Thick snow was falling; big soft flakes floating down in the calm night air. Everything was perfect, the world turned a glistening white, all the edges softened and blurred, a postcard.

We were sitting in a 53 Oldsmobile, not ours. I was cold, my gut filled with animal desire to flee, I sat hunched forward on the seat, shaking and scared but R was an old pro. He started the engine and dropped it into drive. Stepping on the gas he pulled away from the curb, driving slow. After a block or two he found the heater controls and cold air came rushing out of the vents, blowing on the windshield and fogging the windows worse, then slowly better. In a few minutes the heater was blowing and the car filled with warm air. I stopped shaking and sat there warm and feeling good, at peace with the world.

We drove through the sleepy streets alone in the falling snow, looking out at the houses and cars passing by and enjoying our dark ride in the middle of the winter wonderland. The sensations of that ride have never left me.

That’s the whole story. Nothing happened. We drove the car back to where we had found it and left it there. Then I walked home in the snow and never again went joyriding. It was always more serious after that.

All this happened sixty years ago and lately I’ve been wondering about why it’s still part of me. The other kid wasn’t very interesting, the act not worth repeating and the story not worth telling for all these years. But the feeling of riding wrapped in the night remained alive, remembered and part of me till this day. It warms my small boy, the one who has never left me, the one who hungers for sensation and comfort and doesn’t always care what you think. World, you paid a heavy price for taking my father.

I dreamed of riding a Whizzer like this down the hallway at Von Steuben. I almost succeeded.

PS, a few years later I bought a stolen Whizzer from the same guy. Then I was dumb enough to bring it to school to show to a science class. Excited by the prospect of using my ride to explain internal combustion and propelled by a vision of riding it down the hallways I overlooked the question of where R might have gotten the bike to begin with. After class I was taken down to the principal’s office where two policemen were waiting and the questions started. They weren’t about internal combustion.

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