It was 1967. We were on our way home from a spring break trip to Myrtle Beach.
In hindsight, I’m surprised my parents let me go. There were four of us, all teenaged boys. We piled into Gary’s 1957 Chevy, threw some bags into the trunk and headed toward the fun, sun and excitement that we just knew awaited us on the shores of Myrtle Beach.
The drive down through West Virginia was unremarkable. As you might expect from a car full of teenaged boys who are totally on their own in a party city, our nights on the beach were somewhat stupid. We didn’t get into any real trouble. I was only 16 at the time and I’m sure we did quite a few things we would never want our parents to know about. But, we survived our adventures on Myrtle Beach and headed home. The trip home through the Smoky Mountains was quite remarkable.
We spent our first homebound night near Maggie Valley and headed across the mountains the next day. It was a gorgeous day and was going to be a beautiful drive. We knew we wanted to visit Clingman’s Dome at the top of the Smoky Mountains, so Gary steered the car up into the dark, green forest and morning fog that is the trademark of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
The 1957 Chevy we rode in would be a valuable, vintage, collectible car today. But, at the time of our trip, it was a 10-year old, tired, workhorse of a car. Gary wasn’t known for taking good care of his car. Put in some cheap gas. Add a quart of oil when it gets low. Buy some recap tires when the old ones get slick. Having a muffler that might drag a little was no big deal. That was Gary’s idea of car maintenance. The car was only 10 years old, but they had been 10 hard years.
We made it into the rock-strewn parking lot of Clingmans Dome. There were some black bears in the area. At that time, nearly 50 years ago, it wasn’t unusual for tourists to being loaves of bread to feed the bears. We climbed the trail to the viewing tower at Clingman’s Dome. It was a wonderfully clear day. It seemed like we could see forever. Seven states were in view that day. We could probably see nearly 100 miles.
We walked a short piece of the Appalachian Trail. We climbed on rocks and threw bread to the bears. Everything was fine until we started the long downhill drive from the highest point in the park to Gatlinburg.
We were still on the Clingman’s Dome access road when we noticed something was wrong. There were no guardrails and Gary was taking the mountain curves faster than we liked. His response to our shouts to slow down? “Shut up. I think I’m losing my brakes!”
He was right. We were losing our ability to slowdown. Luckily, the Chevy was a three-speed, manual transmission, on the column. Gary was able to use the little bit of brakes we had left and downshift to a lower gear so we still had some speed control; not much, but some.
My Dad taught me to drive. He always cautioned me about taking care of my brakes. Dad said over and over, “Don’t slam on the brakes or ride your brakes. Pump the brakes. Slow down gradually. You should never wear out your brake shoes.”
I’m not sure who taught Gary to drive, but his brakes were totally stripped and worn out by the time we reached Gatlinburg. As soon as we reached the valley, we found a garage and had the brakes repaired. We also had the muffler wired up so it would finally stop dragging.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about brakes — not just the brakes on our cars that allow us to slow to a stop, but the brakes in our brains that should allow us to slow down before we say something stupid. Some people say we should all have filters between our brains and our mouths to keep the bone-headed things we think from spilling out into the air as spoken words.
Yes! We should all have filters or brain-brakes to keep us from saying hurtful, regrettable things, but during the electoral process it often seems that some candidates turnoff their filters or strip out their brakes to say the most outlandish things their minds dream up. I believe they often do this because they know the press will eat-it-up and report it over and over; giving them more air-time than their opponents. Shameful, but it always happens.
This year seems to be Donald Trump’s year to speak whatever thought comes into his mind — speak without braking or filtering anything he says. He might get away with it for a while, but like the old ’57 Chevy, his inability to brake himself is going to catch up with him.
Someday soon he’ll run right off the campaign highway and won’t be able to get back on the road.