For my father, one winter many years ago, that meant not putting any money into the old Chevy pickup he drove.
When rust first appeared on the tailgate, my father put a Superman decal over it. It gave us something to pick on him about. After the bumper rotted away, he dragged out a beam of reinforced steel he had laying around the shop and welded it in place. The thin spots on the panel and the holes in the bed weren’t a big deal because even though it was my father’s only way of getting around when my mother took the car to work, it was still a farm truck – all its roughness fit the profile. However, one day the brakes went. My father didn’t want to pay for them, but he still needed a truck.
Hence, he drove the Chevy without brakes.
Our farm is in a dip between hills. Whatever direction a vehicle is coming from, it is coasting down a steep slope to reach us. My father held his work shoe over the brake at the top of the hill, and by the time he reached the bottom he’d still have to violently swing the Chevy into the turn and hope there were no cars coming. Inevitably, sometimes, there were. My father would either have to freewheel past our driveway and go to the top of the next hill to try again, or cut in front of oncoming traffic. He went slowly through town and tried to time the intersections. Sometimes he’d have to wave in apology when he got it wrong and passed through a red light.
Everyone who knew my father drove the Chevy without brakes also knew the inevitable was going to happen, Superman decal or not. No doubt, part of my father knew it too.
My parents were heading to town to do their weekend grocery shopping. My mother’s car, without four-wheel drive, must have been dubious on that particular winter day. The wind on our hills drags snow across the fields and onto the pavement, whether it is actually snowing or not. The snowplow is less diligent during times the school bus doesn’t pass by, and in the countryside, it can be hit or miss anyway.
My father put the Chevy in its lowest gear and started up the hill. The truck fish-tailed slightly, but he didn’t take his foot off the gas, knowing it is almost impossible to restart on a snowy hill. The transmission became louder as it had to work harder. Both of my parents were silent. My father rubbed the dashboard with his hand and winked at my mother.
The old Chevy began slowing as it climbed, and then the backend started swinging. Knowing my father, he turned the radio off as he tried to compensate with the steering wheel. He probably talked to the truck, while my mother probably yelled at my father. The top of the hill is deceptively far away – you think you’ve made it when you crest the steepest part, but there is still another hundred yards of incline. The engine groaned as the wheels started turning freely. Eventually the truck slowed to a stop.
My parents looked at each other.
And then the Chevy started going backwards.
The sound of snow crunching beneath the worn tires raised in pitch as the truck picked up speed. The whine of the transmission grew louder, too. My father looked over his shoulder and steered, watching the next hill in the distance for oncoming traffic. As the truck gained momentum, it became harder to keep on the road, let alone on his side of it. I don’t know if they made promises to God or each other in that moment, but either would have had to been quick because they were moving backwards fast. There was a small gravel pull-off above one of our fields where the county sometimes left equipment. My father had a quick decision to make: try hitting that short driveway or take his chances in our lawn at the bottom of the hill.
He whipped the truck around and timed it well enough to make the county’s parking spot. My parents exhaled and congratulated each other. My father laughed out loud. He probably said something understated like, “Well, that was interesting,” while my mother would have used the Lord’s name in vain. While all this was going on, however, the truck kept rolling. My father instinctively hit the brake, which did nothing more than to provide a sense of irony as the wheels still turned. And, in fact, they kept going, leaving tracks in the snow until the Chevy rolled backwards into a ravine.
My parents walked to the house without saying anything. When they arrived, my father took the tractor and chains and pulled the Chevy out of the gully. Then he called a mechanic to pick up the truck.
My father married into a German family that had survived the poverty of the second world war and had since always upheld frugality as a value. However, even in explaining the story to them, they reached the same conclusion as everyone else: Once in a while, there are some things worth paying for.