The Brat Chronicles by Michael Ritter is full of stories and experiences all Military Brats can relate to. This excerpt will have you in stitches!
Editor’s Note: The book excerpt below is printed with permission from the author.
Michael Ritter Michael works as a Rehab Technology Specialist for the State of Texas, where he assists people with disabilities. He has been married to the ‘same wonderful, supportive woman’ for twenty-nine years, and makes his home in Austin, Texas.
Since publishing The Brat Chronicles, Michael has lectured at Military Brat gatherings and reunions around the country.
Chapter 7: The Gang’s All Here
Three weeks earlier, I had purchased a 1959, light blue Volkswagen Beetle from an airman who was being transferred back to the States. There was no driver’s education class at our high school, probably because the military was anxious to prevent a bunch of American kids from wreaking havoc across the German countryside. But the old man called in a favor, and I got my driver’s license without so much as a parallel parking test. In retrospect, it seems really crazy that my initiation to the world of driving took place on the German speedway known as the Autobahn, but at the time it was a ticket to ride, and I didn’t ask any questions.
Learning the rules of the road was important, but my more urgent task was to transform an old VW Beetle into unique and stylish transportation. So, my buddies and I took my new car to an abandoned hangar to which Dad had access, and spent the time leading up to the first day of school turning a beat-up VW into what would become known around the base as the “Cream Machine.”
We pulled out the engine and replaced it with one from a smashed Karmen Ghia that we’d found at the junkyard; painted the car green with yellow racing stripes that ran across both doors, created “mag” wheels, with the use of some silver spray paint, and topped it off by decorating the driver’s door with a large decal of a sultry, topless woman. I took some sticky, white shelf paper that Mom had around the house, carefully cut out the letters needed to spell “Cream Machine” and adhered them to the back window. Subtlety was not in my vocabulary; I was out to make a statement, a semi pornographic statement to be sure, but a statement nonetheless. The car still ran like a ’59 VW, but it looked good and, as we all know, an ounce of image is worth a pound of substance.
On the morning of the first day of classes, we had all decided to meet at the Youth Center and caravan to school—a parade of broken down cars filled with teenagers, who were themselves filled with joyful anticipation and far too many hormones. One last look in the mirror, a quick trip upstairs, and I would be on my way.
My brother and sisters were sitting around the kitchen table, slamming down Cap’n Crunch cereal and picking arguments with one another while Mom was busy throwing sandwiches and Hostess cupcakes into brown paper lunch bags. “My, don’t we look hot to trot this morning, Michael,” she grinned, from behind a small mountain of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. “Planning on having a good time today?”
“Yeah, Mom,” I grunted, “I may be a little late for dinner. Have you seen the hairbrush?”
“You’re worse than a damn girl,” Mom replied, wiping her hands on a dishrag. “It’s probably in the bathroom, right where you left it.”
It was … it always was. I had only posed the question to deflect any interrogation about why I’d be late for dinner. It was a preemptive strike; over the years, I’d gotten quite astute at taking a right turn around conversations I’d rather not have.
“What do you mean you’ll be late for dinner?” Mom queried, as she followed me down the hall.
It didn’t always work.
“You know,” I said, brushing my shoulder length hair, “first day of school and all. I’ll want to sit around with my friends, compare notes, check out the new chicks.”
“Now listen, young man,” Mom interrupted, “this is your last year of high school and it’s important that you make the most of it.”
“I plan to.” I smirked as I examined my reflection in the mirror, checking my face for blemishes.
Mom wasn’t amused. “I mean study, crack a book now and then, don’t do anything stupid that will cause any trouble for your father and me.”
“That’s the most important thing isn’t it, mom,” I shot back, as I walked into the living room. “You’re just concerned about how you and Dad look, aren’t you? Don’t worry, I won’t do anything to embarrass you. And if I do, I’ll lie about my name.”
“Oh, yeah,” she said, pointing toward the front window, “like everybody doesn’t know who you are. I can’t believe you’re actually going to drive around in that brothel on wheels out there.”
“It’s called style, Mom,” I responded, “you should try it sometime.”
It was a shot that landed way below the belt. You could call my mom names, question the way she raised her kids, even set her dress on fire, but never, ever, challenge her sense of style. She pouted. “I’ve got more style in my little finger—”
“—than I have in my whole body,” I interrupted. “Yeah, I know this routine. Look, Mom, I don’t have time to do this right now, so I’ll just say you’re right, I’m sorry, and I’ll see you later tonight.”
“Don’t forget your lunch,” she hollered, as I walked out the door.
Lunch? You’ve got to be kidding me!
I bounded down the stairs, through the parking lot, and jumped into the Cream Machine. The car hadn’t come with a radio, but I’d rigged an old AM/FM cassette player under the front seat, so I turned on the morning tunes. This is going to be great, I thought, inserting the ignition key. Look out, K Town, Michael’s on the move!
Rrrrrr … rrrr … rrrr … the car shuddered as the engine tried to kick over. C’mon baby, I thought, don’t fail me now. Not today. C’mon baby, you can do it, you can do … my mental pleading was answered by a loud “pop” and black smoke billowed from the rear of the car. Aauuughhh!
I got out of the car, threw open the hood, and was quickly engulfed in a plume of smoke and gas fumes. Mad as hell, I kicked the rear bumper and cussed my decrepit, albeit highly-stylish, set of wheels. The gang would be converging at the Youth Center, while here I stood, up a creek without a paddle, on the first morning of what was certain to be the best year of my life. Shit!
“That’s quite a style you’ve got going there, Michael,” Mom laughed from the balcony. “Maybe you could just wear it to school.” I ignored her, not an easy thing to do under the best of circumstances, and got back in the car, to ponder my predicament.
My pensiveness was shattered by a knock on the car window, and I looked up to see the smiling face of my sister, Cyndy, peering at me from the other side of the glass. “I’m on my way to the bus,” she said. “Want to walk with me?”
Perfect, I thought, double humiliation…a broken down car, and walking with my sister to the bus. C’mon God, gimme a break here! But, as I sat on the sheepskin covered car seat, which was shedding all over my new jeans, I remembered the best thing about owning a VW … they were very easy to jumpstart.
“I’ve got a better idea, Cyn,” I sweetly smiled, as I got out of the car. “How ’bout I give you a ride to school?”
“On what, your back?” my suspicious sister asked.
“No … in my car. Just imagine how all your friends are gonna react when they see you drive up in the Cream Machine on the first day of school.”
“They’ll think I lost my mind over the summer,” Cyndy responded, backing away from the car. “Besides, it’s not even running, and … oh, no, I am not pushing you and this stupid car all the way to K town, Mike. No way!”
“No, no,” I chuckled, putting my arm around her shoulder, “I’ll push us to that big hill that leads to the Youth Center. All I need you to do is sit behind the steering wheel and pop the clutch when I tell you to. When the engine kicks in, just hit the brakes, then I’ll take over and drive you to school in style.”
“I don’t know,” Cyndy said hesitantly. “Sounds kind of dangerous. I think I’ll just take the bus.”
I could see my dream of arriving at school in grand fashion slipping away, so I resorted to the tactic that always seemed to work on my good hearted sister … pity. “Okay,” I whined, “I guess it doesn’t matter if all my friends think I’m a loser. I don’t really mind being laughed at all day,” I continued, with my head bowed, dejectedly leaning on the car. “The important thing is that you feel safe.”
“Oh, God,” Cyndy sighed. “Alright, alright … but I know I’m going to regret this.”
“No you won’t,” I said excitedly, as I opened the car door for her, and bowed at the waist like the Queen’s chauffeur. “Your chariot awaits, Madame.”
“Chariot, huh?” Cyndy muttered. “I’d feel a lot better if horses were attached to this thing.”
“Not to worry,” I insisted, placing my hands on the front of the car. “Just put it in neutral, so I can turn it around.”
“Where’s the shifter?” Cyndy asked, checking out the steering wheel.
“There, on the floor, next to your leg,” I responded, as I tried to hide my impatience.
For the next few minutes, the quiet morning was shattered by the sound of grinding gears, as my sister tried to shove the gearshift into neutral. “The clutch,” I yelled, running around to the door, “step on the clutch. Damn, you’re gonna kill my transmission!”
“Look, don’t have a cow!” Cyndy yelled back. “I told you I didn’t know how to do this! If you scream at me again, you can just …”
“Okay, okay, sorry,” I cajoled. “Here, let me show you.”
Following a quick lesson on clutch/shift dynamics, I resumed my position at the front of the car, and gently pushed until it was facing the right way. I walked around to the driver’s window to find Cyndy, her hands gripping the steering wheel, a look of terror on her face. A kind brother, a considerate brother, would have realized how frightened his sister was, and blown off the plan, but…
“Piece of cake, huh? You ready to get this show on the road, now?” I asked my scared stiff sister.
“Uh huh,” Cyndy murmured, her eyes glued to the steering wheel.
“Are you sure?”
“You’re not nervous, are you?”
“You trust me, don’t you?”
“Look,” I coaxed, “all you have to do is sit there, and when I tell you to, throw the shift into first gear and ease your foot off the clutch. The car will do the rest. It’s really simple, I promise.”
Slowly, I pushed the Cream Machine down the street, and stopped at the top of the hill that led to the Youth Center … my rendezvous point. In the distance, I could see the parking lot where my friends were waiting for me.
“Okay, Cyn,” I hollered from my position behind the car, “this is it. Remember to hit the brake after the engine kicks in. Are you all set?” Through the rear window, I could see the back of Cyndy’s head, nodding her readiness.
Ideas only become bad ideas in hindsight; but, even an idiot should realize that a plan which calls for an inexperienced driver to careen down a hill, with only the vaguest notion of how to work a car, isn’t a very good strategy, still …
“Here we go,” I yelled, while giving the car a big shove, “don’t forget to hit the …”
The car flew down the hill like it was shot from a cannon—a green and yellow streak, wildly lurching all over the road, and sending dogs and small children running for cover. I listened for the sound of the engine, but heard only the panicked screams of my sister, which were fading with the rapidly increasing speed of the car. “The brakes!” I yelled, as I bolted after the car. “Hit the brakes!”
I chased my beloved car and screaming sister as Cyndy hurled down the hill like a ski jumper out of control, bouncing over potholes, and swerving to avoid oncoming traffic. “The emergency brake!” I panted. “Pull the emergency brake!” But, Cyndy continued to rocket down the hill, and was quickly approaching the four way stop that stood in her path.
Oh, God, I thought, please let her find the emergency brake before she gets to the intersection. Mom will be so mad if I get my little sister killed!
I stopped and shut my eyes, waiting for the sound of crushed metal, as Cyndy closed in on the intersection. To my amazement, she hit the crossroads at just the right moment, making it through without even a scratch. The car hit the bottom of the hill, and began to slow down as it climbed the upward slope on the other side of the intersection. I watched in wonderment as Cyndy carefully took the turn into the Youth Center parking lot, and the car limped to a halt in front of my now hysterical friends.
“Been giving driving lessons again, Ritter?” someone laughed, as I jogged breathlessly into the parking lot. “Really trying to save on the gas, huh?”
I stumbled over to my car and found Cyndy inside, visibly shaken, her hands gripping the steering wheel. “Are you okay?” I gasped. “Why didn’t you use the emergency brake?” Cyndy didn’t say a word, as she turned and glared at my red, sweating face. “Well, why didn’t you pull the emergency brake?” I repeated. “You could have wrecked my car, you know.”
“Oh, the emergency brake,” Cyndy calmly replied, while slowing releasing her hands from the steering wheel. “Is that what … this is?!” she bellowed, as she grabbed something that was sitting on the seat beside her, and thrust her hand through the open car window. And there it was, my emergency brake handle, with wires dangling from it like strands of spaghetti.
“You broke my emergency brake!” I yelled.
“I’ll break your neck!” Cyndy shrieked as she jumped from the car, wildly waving the detached brake handle above her head. “I could have been killed! This car is a piece of junk! How could you …”
“I didn’t know …” I cried, while trying to avoid being batted with the brake handle. “Besides, you made out alright. Next time, I’ll …”
“Next time! Are you crazy?” Cyndy yelled, throwing the dismembered car part to the ground, and storming off in the direction of the bus stop.
“I’m sorry, Cyn,” I hollered after her. “Don’t tell Mom, okay?”
My friends gathered around my “D.O.A.” car, laughing and making jokes. “Nice wheels, Mike,” Rob chortled. “Just like the car Fred Flintstone drives. Who needs an engine … you’ve got one sister power in this baby.”
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