A story about the convergence of events, and also about my father. During my last year at art school, I was bolted awake from a morning sleep-in by my ringing telephone. As soon as I heard my father’s voice, I knew something was wrong. I just had to call you to hear that you’re alright. The daughter of his ex-partner, Delbert Mann, had been killed in a car accident. Two nites ago, head-on crash. I felt my blood flash-freeze. The morning prior I’d awakened from a dream unlike any dream before or since — so vivid I’ve never forgotten it.
I was floating above a highway in the midst of the desert. The moon above me was so bright that the landscape below seemed unnaturally lit… neither day nor night but some netherworld in between.
This was no dream of liberated flight. I felt tethered, restrained, unable to move under my own power. I watched helplessly as two vehicles approached from opposite sides of the highway and hit head-on in a violent crash, the terrible sounds of metal and glass breaking the silence. I screamed to try to warn the drivers, but no sound came out of my mouth.
As though the hoods were cut away, I could see the occupants of both vehicles, as their bodies ricocheted violently from the impact like crash test dummies. Shattered glass and carnage. I started to cry, because I knew the occupants of one car, a close friend and her boyfriend. And they were dead.
I woke up with my heart pounding and a roaring in my ears, crying for real with a keening sound that seemed to come from someone else. There were tears on my cheeks, and the t-shirt I’d worn to bed was drenched in sweat. It was late, maybe 9:30-10 in the morning and the sun was high, coming through my bedroom window. Reviewing the particulars of my nightmare, I actually felt relieved. My friend was a dark brunette… the dead girl in the car had strawberry blond hair and freckles. I shook it off, jumped in the shower, and went about my day.
Susie Mann had strawberry blond hair and freckles. I hadn’t thought about her in years.
My Dad had begun his producing career at MGM with partners Delbert Mann, the director of “Marty”, and Dale Wasserman, the screenwriter of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. I was in 4th grade, and three of Delbert’s four kids attended my elementary school. Although I hardly knew them, I soon had a crush on the entire Mann family. Delbert was a highly successful man, yet seemed warm and accessible, like a TV Dad (from TV’s golden age). His wife Ann was classy in a Hitchcock-blonde kind of way, soft-spoken with a hint of southern accent. Fueled undoubtedly by Dad singing their praises at our dinner table, the Mann kids just epitomized All That: brainy, popular, athletic. Basically, school royalty. Long before I was conscious of the cracks in my own nuclear unit, I gleaned that the Manns were the real deal, A Happy Family.
One Saturday, my mother casually mentioned that Mrs. Mann might stop by later with daughter Susie. Susie was older, one grade above me. I spent the rest of the morning feverishly cleaning my room (no small feat) fantasizing that Susie and I might discover some common ground. Hell, she might even say “Hi” to me in the hallway at school after this. But Susie didn’t come over, and we never exchanged a single word that I can recall. Within a couple years, Dad’s partnership ended, Susie moved on to private high school, and the Manns slipped off my radar.
A week or two after Dad broke the news, we shared a moment in the den of the house I was raised in. He was in a reflective mood, as we spoke of the tragedy of Susie’s life cut short and the Manns losing their only daughter. Dad got me to promise that I’d avoid driving at night when I could, especially long distance driving. Then he caught me off-guard, asking if there was anything he could do for me. I answered the first thing that came to my mind; I could use a new bicycle to replace the bike I’d had since age nine or ten, nothing fancy. Dad just looked at me for a beat, then threw back his head and roared (laughing), breaking our funereal mood. He was expecting a new car, or a trip to Europe. Primed and ready to give me a big reward just for breathing, and all I could come up with was a Schwinn.
* * *
I would be driving that new car a lot sooner than we thought.
I’d put about 80K miles on my first car, a red Datsun 510, up to that hot day in August when I was broadsided by a geriatric driver. He sailed right through a red light, his mid-century model American car a TANK compared to my Japanese tin can. This was a Sunday morning, mere weeks before my graduation from Art Center College in Pasadena. I was clueless about my future plans. I had just broken up with a guy I was seriously (but hopelessly) in love with. Here I’d thought things couldn’t get much worse.
Fortunately, he hit me behind the driver’s door, but the impact caused my car to swerve and flip over. Assisted by witnesses, I climbed out disoriented but physically unhurt. I’d taken the advice of the classmate I was on my way to see and worn my harness belt for the very first time. It saved me, suspending me upside down (Thank you, Ramone Munoz). Honk, if you’re old enough to remember when the lap and harness belts were separate. My best friend and neighbor, Bob Francis, collected me and drove me home, after a precautionary detour to the local hospital for x-rays of my neck and back.
When I couldn’t put it off any longer, I fortified myself with a glass of wine and called my parents, who were in Palm Springs at the time. After I’d convinced them I was unhurt and the accident wasn’t my fault, we hung up, and that’s when it really sunk in. The car was totaled. But for the grace of wearing that harness I could have been seriously injured, suffered a concussion at minimum.
I thought about Susie Mann and the fragility of life; one minute it’s business as usual, and the next you’re done. Later that evening, a thunderstorm barreled through. The light just below my garage apartment window illuminated the rain on the empty space previously occupied by my trusty Datsun. I couldn’t call my ex-beau, who’d broken my heart. Feeling shaken, alone and bereft, I cried myself to sleep like a two year-old. Some of those tears were shed for Susie. The girl I never really knew, whose path I’d never cross again.
A few days later, my father insisted upon seeing the car. Our visit to the lot where the car had been towed made me squirm with nervous anticipation. I suddenly noticed (and was sure Dad would notice) how poorly I’d maintained my Datsun. I’d waxed it once (maybe) and had been too lazy to park it in my garage, like ever. So, its red paint was hideously corroded. The white vinyl interior looked worse, filthy from three years of carting around art projects and supplies.
I also projected that Dad, who believed that 99.9% of life’s accidents could be prevented with enough foresight and planning, would subject me to one of his famous safety lectures. But, for once my father said nothing. Not one word. He just looked at that sad heap of metal, and hugged me.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad.