We rumbled into the driveway with the engine growling like a five hundred pound grizzly bear. It was both exhilarating and terrifying, my arms wrapped around my lover’s waist as we flew down the highway from our college town toward my childhood home. I’d never been on a motorcycle until I found myself in this whirlwind romance. Mere months before college graduation, my sights were set not on my next career steps but on how I could carpe the heck out of the next ninety diems. In my mind, I stepped off that motorcycle in the driveway wearing tight jeans and sexy boots, pulled off my helmet with a flourish, blonde hair cascading across my shoulders as my little sisters ran out to the driveway awed by their cool older sister. In reality, I was probably wearing a college sweatshirt and tennis shoes and the removal of the helmet revealed sweaty, matted locks.
What I do remember with certainty, though, was the look on my mother’s face as she stood in the doorway, wiping her hands on her pink apron. She wasn’t impressed. She didn’t think me cool. Not only was I on a motorcycle, something she’d expressly forbidden when I was in High School, but I was with a boy she’d never met and I was stopping by en route to the beach with no actual plan for where we were staying, which likely meant unacceptable and unladylike sleeping conditions.
“What are you thinking,” she hissed under her breath after she politely greeted my new beau with a forced smile, “You know I DO NOT approve.” We made small talk and drank lemonade in the living room while my sisters snuggled under my armpits and I tried to avoid my mother’s steely gaze.
“Don’t make me have to say I told you so when you’re broken and bloodied in a hospital bed,” she muttered as I came out of the bathroom before kneeling down to say goodbye to my sisters. I rolled my eyes, “Come on mom, John’s a safe driver.”
Then she tried a different approach, tears welling in her eyes and a plea escaping from her pursed lips, “God saved you once, I don’t know that you’ll get another chance.” But I let the screen door slam behind me, invincible.
Yet mom’s motorcycle paranoia had a legitimate root.
To set the scene, you should know that my father was deep in the North Atlantic aboard the USS Alexander Hamilton when he heard the news of his first baby’s birth in May of 1966. Dad had enlisted in the Navy straight out of High School. Had he not done so, he’d have been drafted about two months later and would likely have been a foot soldier in Vietnam. Instead he was one hundred feet under water in a submarine off the coast of Norway monitoring the movements of the Russians.
The Baby Gram, delivered to the twenty-two year-old cadet read: “Your wife gave birth to a 7 lb 6 oz baby girl. Both mother and newborn daughter are doing fine. RADM Laughlin and the Radio Gang send congratulations.” My father had worked his way up to atmospheric analyzer by his third year as a sailor. He was tasked with ensuring that the air quality and oxygenation was within the acceptable range during the 60 days that the ship was typically submerged. He took a deep breath. He was a father.
My twenty-one year-old mother was in foreign lands herself. Born and raised in Brooklyn, she married my father while he was on shore leave. They honeymooned in Niagara Falls for a couple nights then headed to the Navy base in Charleston, South Carolina from where he departed three days later for a nine-month deployment. My mother had never been outside of New York and discovered she was pregnant within a month of moving to the land of sweet tea and mint juleps, and she was alone.
Toward the end of the pregnancy, her mother joined her in the little brick house in Charleston. The baby girl had all of her fingers and toes, but was jaundiced and had to stay in the hospital for several days, until the yellow-orange tint of her skin faded to a more normal rosy color. Additional check-ups were ordered to ensure that the tiny baby’s liver was functioning.
On the way home from one of those check-ups, my mother and grandmother sat on the front bench seat of the two-tone green 1964 Chevy Impala. The baby was in a plastic bassinet between them. There were no seat belts.
Several miles away, a sailor had been just been discharged from the Navy after six years of commendable service. He’d been drinking all night then climbed onto his motorcycle, whiskey bottles clanking together in his saddlebags as he turned North onto Highway 52. But in his haze, he’d turned onto the South-bound lanes and was swerving in and out of traffic. He’d traveled several miles, narrowly avoiding the cars and big-rig trucks in his path before police gave chase.
Mom could hear their sirens before she saw them. And when she saw them many yards in the distance she’d not yet noticed the motorcycle tearing across the asphalt in her direction. She pulled toward the shoulder and rolled to a stop, giving him more room to maneuver past. But he was barreling straight for her car. 100 miles an hour. My grandmother put the baby in the carrier on the floor of the car between her legs and braced for impact. And it was like an explosion. A face coming straight at them. Did he seem to be laughing? No helmet. Her eyes squeeze shut. Breath held. Glass shatters as handlebars slam into the hood propelling the sailor into the windshield as the bike flies through the air landing 10 yards away on the sandy shoulder.
The motorcyclist was dead on impact and later found to have LSD coursing through his system along with the Jack Daniels. Blood dripped through the hole in the windshield. Fragments of glass stuck out of grandma’s arm and cheek. Mom’s face was bleeding from the force that slammed her back before her forehead smashed into the steering wheel. And the baby? "How’s my baby?! " Mom screamed! The tiny girl was covered in glass. And she was silent. Not a sound. Grandma reached down to pick her up. A diaper pin had come lose and as she lifted her, the baby peed all over the blood covered bench seat.
A urine blessing, my mother thought. A second chance.
And yes, I was that baby. My dad found out about the accident when he was finally on leave and met me three weeks later. I was the little yellow child once blanketed in glass who later cavalierly rode out of my parent’s driveway under the blanket of a star-filled sky, one of many times I tempted fate. I was determined no one would ever think me yellow. But bravery looks different in hindsight. My mother at 21 had a lot more guts than I’ve ever had.