“Nice job, son. Pull in up ahead and we’ll get a treat.”
It was a weekend in early spring, 1977, and I was the proud owner of a driving permit. My father had let me drive for over three hours all over the Tucson area; we had driven the freeway, most of the major thoroughfares and some side streets and rural desert roads. I was tired; at that age it was hard for me to maintain that level of focus for so long, but I had performed admirably and my reward was forthcoming in the form of decadent, sugar-infused pastries. Life was good.
I pulled into the Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot and approached the only space available at the front of the store. My father praised me again and started to open the passenger door as I slowed to the curb. I took my foot off the gas pedal in order to apply the brake, and it was at this point that things began to go wrong. Remember, I was tired after all that driving and not yet sixteen years of age; I offer this bit of information not as an excuse, but more by way of explanation for what occurred next. I assume that my foot hit the side of the brake and then came back down on the gas. As the car lurched forward, I did the logical thing, which was to apply the brake harder. Unfortunately, the brake was the accelerator, and off we went: over the curb and onto the sidewalk. My pubescent, overburdened brain brilliantly surmised that we really needed to stop soon, so I then pushed the pedal all the way to the floor. The 1973 Ford Maverick responded beyond all published specifications: we roared through the front window and into the store.
Fortunately, there was but one person in the direct path of the car; I will never forget her face. She was a Vietnamese girl, perhaps fifteen years of age. I imagined her as a recent immigrant, her family having endured the ravages of war and just barely escaping the advance of the communist North Vietnamese Army in the aftermath of the American evacuation. She had seen the worst of what can be seen through the eyes of a child: the horrible deaths of some of those closest to her and the cruelest, most evil intentions of mankind. She and her remaining family made it to the coast and were among those floating aimlessly for days at sea, until by God’s providence they were rescued and eventual transported to the United States for a chance at prosperity and the American dream. Life had been difficult for them in this country and only now was her family beginning to prosper in their new home. And now, after more hardship and heartache than one should endure in an entire lifetime, it was Mi Lai all over again. She found herself pinned between the counter of a donut store and the grill of a raging machine driven by a crazed young man with a vacant, catatonic stare. She looked at me over her shoulder, eyes filled with abject terror, back arched and one hand on the hood of the car as if helplessly trying to push it away.
This had all happened in a second or two, though it seemed like minutes to me. My father quickly threw the gear shift into park and shut the engine. I opened the driver’s door and ran outside, horrified by what I had done and whom I may have killed.
The police came quickly, no doubt agitated by a senseless attack on one of their most-prized hangouts. One of them came over to where I sat on a curb and tried to reassure me.
“Don’t feel too bad. This kind of thing happens a lot. It’s just an accident and could happen to anyone.” I felt briefly better as I followed him back to the store, but reverted back to devastation when I heard him chuckle under his breath as he walked ahead of me.
When I returned, things were much more stable and I started seeing things again through the eyes of a selfish fifteen year old. No one seemed to be seriously hurt. The Vietnamese girl was shaken up, but apparently okay. She was likely used to suffering, and in any event it was good for her to learn that not all was butterflies and tweeting birds in this country either. A mother had dropped her infant baby when the car broke through the glass; other than a superficial cut, the baby was fine. The incident served to show the world how unfit this woman was for parenting (who drops their baby at the first sign of danger or, for that matter, any sign at all)? While the donut display had been obliterated, Dunkin’ Donuts was still able to sell some undisturbed “Donut Holes” to customers who walked in through the front…gaping hole, and there were several (customers, that is – only one gaping hole). An elderly lady sitting at the still-intact section of counter on the left provided me with some much-needed comic relief.
“Will someone get that (ding-dang) piece of (doo-doo) out of this store!?”
Things could have been much worse. Someone could have been killed, but other than the dropped, neglected and cut baby and the slow Vietnamese girl, everyone was fine. One guy later sued, claiming he was hit in the back by a piece of board (he got $900), but Dunkin’ Donuts took care of the damages themselves (foolishly, they failed to capitalize on my demo work for a drive-thru) and no one else bothered to litigate. The debacle made the local news that night (there was a lot less going on locally back then; people were less inclined to kill each other and the media therefore had fewer options). I told my girlfriend at the time about what happened; curiously, the whole school knew about it the following Monday.
I learned a great deal that day: stores should place large concrete planters in front of each parking space (the one I had chosen that day was the only one without); if my father had purchased a car with a standard transmission, the whole thing may never have happened; I may have issues with accepting responsibility; and never trust a high school girlfriend.