Friday, May 14, 2010


I'm not sure if driving habits can be hereditary or if there's some possibility that automobile DNA is somehow transferable. With a less than stellar driving record, my Grandpa Norbo must have had at least some impact on my family and our driving.

One Christmas vacation in 1990, Jonathan was 2, Rob was 3 and Christy had just turned 5. We decided to go out to Abbotsford and visit Cathy's brother and his family. With a 600 mile drive ahead of us, we didn't get away until later in the day. Cathy's folks were driving their car and we were traveling together. We owned a Ford Taurus at the time and because the kids were all so young, we had 3 car seats lined up across the back seat. Driving long distances with 3 small children can tax anyone's patience and we made some effort to make these trips as smooth and painless as possible. This was long before DVD entertainment systems in vehicles was the norm. We loaded up with Adventures in Odyssey cassette packs from the library, brought along some of the kids favorite music, books, drinks and snacks and hit the road.

Canadian winters can be brutally cold and this winter was no exception. Driving through the mountains can be even more treacherous. Just west of Canmore, in a small hamlet ironically called Dead Man's Flats, we decided to stop for gas, potty break and to switch drivers. I filled up the Taurus and went inside to pay. Cathy and Grandma were in the bathroom with Christy and Rob. Grandpa was filling his car at the pump and keeping his eye on our car where Jonathan was sleeping.

As I was paying the attendant, he looked out his window and said, "Isn't that your car driving away?" I glanced up and sure enough, there was the blue Taurus heading out of the gas bar. Looking again, I saw Grandpa in full pursuit, arms and legs flying as he gave chase. I rushed outside and the car was now heading out of the parking lot. In an instant the car came to a halt as it went up over a curb and crashed into a giant snow drift on the service road. Grandpa and I reached the car at the same time. Opening the door, we found Jonathan sitting in the driver's seat screaming.

While everyone was busy, he had unfastened his seat belt, climbed out of his car seat, up and over the front seat, and put the car in drive. This was before you had to have your foot on the brake to put the car in drive. He was then able to steer the car as he stood at the wheel. Narrowly missing a large fuel tank, he landed relatively unscathed in the pile of snow at the end of the road. I carried him, still screaming, back into the station where Cathy was able to calm him down. We then went back to see about pulling the car out of the snow drift. We were very thankful as it could have been much worse. Good for the car companies for adding the "step on the brake" feature, before a vehicle can be placed in drive!

Flash forward to when the kids were quite a bit older and we were getting ready to head out on our summer vacation to the Shuswap Lakes in British Columbia. This was an annual pilgrimage for us and we spent many good summers there with our kids and several other families, at a couple of cabins on the water. It seemed that before a vacation I was often under a lot of stress, trying to get everything done before we left. Calls had to be made, faxes sent, record company deadlines met, Fed Ex packages dropped off in Calgary, all the while making sure the vehicle was serviced and countless other tasks.

The afternoon before we were to leave, I stopped at the post office to drop off a couple of letters and pick up the mail. Parking right beside the building, I figured I could just leave the van running, duck into the post office quickly and be on my way. I greeted a couple of people as I bounded up the stairs and hurried to the back to check our mailbox. As I was exiting the building, Wentwoth Pike said to me, "Isn't that your van driving away?" Wentworth (or Wentforth as we humorously called him) and his wife Dolores were standing out on the steps visiting with another couple. I looked in the direction he was pointing and sure enough there was the green Transport heading directly north on 3rd avenue. I knew Jonathan wasn't with me, so it couldn't have been him driving! Perhaps it had been stolen right in broad daylight?

By now I had taken off running at full speed, mail in one hand, mail keys in the other. This was made somewhat difficult as I was wearing my thongs, or as they're now called,"flip flops". Traveling 170 feet, the van made a sharp left turn in front of Kirk's Sheet Metal and headed across the street. I could see into the front window and there was no driver to be seen, so that ruled out the theft theory. Moving along at a steady pace, it started across an empty lot north of the Victory Church, narrowly missing two telephone poles as it rolled right between them. I was trying my hardest to catch up, but the van was not slowing down. As it motored a full block across the lot it went right between two parked cars that were on the east side of the next street. Having moved another 330 feet, it narrowly missed a parked car which was on the west side of the street. The vehicle went up the opposite curb showing no sign of coming to halt. Straight ahead was a house. With the right set of tires on the driveway and the left set on the lawn it just kept truckin'. Gaining some ground I managed to reach the van, open the driver's door, jump in and slam my thonged foot on the brake just as it was crunching through the downspout. I was completely out of breath and shaking as the van came to a stop, I was relieved to find it hadn't even grazed the house.

The unpiloted van had journeyed a total of 500 feet or 166 yards. I was a decent 100 yard dash sprinter in school, but this had taxed my limits! After I regained some of my composure, I went up the front stairs and rang the doorbell. The son of the owner was home and I tried to explain to him what had just happened. He looked at me as if I had just come from the bar across the street. I offered to pay for the damage to the drainpipe and he said he would explain it to his Dad. Thanking him, I turned to go back down the stairs to the van. Looking up I and saw a small crowd of bystanders at the other end of the field, peering across to view the outcome of my adventure.

I wish I could blame this occurrence on faulty brakes, negligence by the manufacturer or some other mechanical malady, but alas, I think the bottom line was that in my hurrying and stress, I simply forgot to put the van in park when I got out. It's a miracle that no one was hurt, no vehicles harmed and no real damage done. I called the home owner that evening and he assured me that all was well and he was able to straighten out his down spout.

I'm not sure if they keep Olympic records for races with men in thongs, but I just may hold one.

© 2010 Stephen J. Rendall - All rights reserved.

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