My first car was an International Harvester mail truck from the late sixties, with the steering wheel on the right side. (My dad, who was a big fan of all things British, thought it would be cool for me to learn to drive in a car with the controls reversed. More on my dad later.) Dad paid the guy fifty bucks and had it towed to our Silicon Valley Eichler, where he and I huffed and puffed for a half an hour to get it all the way up the driveway (Dad had really pissed off the tow-truck guy) and tucked safely into the carport.

Then the fun began. Dad, being a veteran of countless encounters with British engineering, knew the Basic Litany of Starting a Dead Car:

  1. Put in a new battery.
  2. Put in a new alternator.
  3. Prime the carburetor.

The first two steps are pretty vanilla; back then a new alternator for that particular truck was, like, six bucks at Kragen, and we always had three or four extra batteries kicking around the house.

Step Three was the killer. "Priming the carburetor" meant taking about a quart of gasoline and pouring it over the entire engine compartment, in the hope that some of it, somehow, would find its way down into the carburetor. Wherever that was. (Remind me to tell you about the time Dad tried to light the barbecue with camp fuel.)

Here was where I finally had something to do. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, my job in all things Dad-related was simple: whatever it was he was working on, I got to hold it while he pounded on it. He showed me a tiny, spring-loaded lever, somewhere around what would be the car equivalent of a small intestine, and said "Okay, hold this open. I'm going to fire it up."

He did, and this is how it went:

"Click. Whir-whir-whir-whir-whir."


"Clickety-whir-pop!-whir-bang!-whir-bangety-bangety- FOOOOOM!"

With that last FOOOOM! came a four-foot tongue of flame that set the entire engine compartment ablaze. Included in the engine compartment was my right arm, and included in the blaze was the right sleeve of my jacket. I quickly flapped my arm out; luckily there wasn't any actual gasoline on me, just a bit of fire. Dad jumped out of the car, a look of concern on his face unlike anything I'd ever seen before. If I live to be a hundred, I'll never forget what he said right then:

"Jesus fucking Christ you fucking idiot what the fuck did you do? I told you not to let go of that! You lit the fucking house on fire!"

And yes, it seemed to be true: the flames were climbing up over the hood of the truck, rapidly smoking up the inside of the carport.

"Shit! Help me get it out of here!"

We both leaned into it and pushed the evil thing out of the carport--

--and onto the driveway--

--and watched in horror as, gathering speed, the 1968 International Harvester mail truck rolled backwards down the driveway, across the street, between two parked cars with inches to spare on either side, bumped up over the curb, and set the neighbor's tree on fire.

That pretty much took care of any hope I had of learning to drive before my second year in college.