In the summer of 1984, my older sister Connie landed a great job with Sears credit hassling people for money. If you knew my sister, you would understand that hassling people is her special gift and she was highly successful as a credit collection agent. Twenty-one years old, with a great job bringing in real, grown-up money for the first time in her life, she did what every other bleach-blonde disco dancing queen would do, she ran out and bought a slinky little MGB convertible.
My dad, as he was known to do on occasion, screamed and yelled about the purchase. It wasn’t that he hated British cars, he was angry that hadn’t been consulted in the purchase and had not, therefore, been able to give the car a thorough once over before Connie brought it home. I think he agreed that it was a pretty little car and the body was in great shape, but he had a feeling about the car. It turned out that he was right, the electrical system was an absolute wreck. My dad was an excellent mechanic but rather than try to fix it, he intervened in the situation and took my sister back to the dealer. I am not sure what transpired but my dad was legendary for making people offers they couldn’t refuse and they came home later that day with an equally cute, slightly used 1980 Datsun 200SX coupe.
Like the MGB, the Datsun was a sporty little thing with an engine that loved to rev. Prior to 1980, the 200SX had been a dowdy little coupe with an odd roofline, a huge sail panel for a c-pillar and a swooping rear quarter window that worked together to make the car look like a giant snail. Today, that design looks very cool and has all the features of a Japanese classic, but back then it was old hat and it was better off gone. The 1980 redesign was the future and it featured good looking square lines that would become the hallmark of 1980s Nissan design. The coupe was particularly handsome, with an upright greenhouse that offered good all around visibility. It was just the right car for a girl who was just setting out in the world, on her way up and out of the nest and headed for better things.
The best thing about the little Datsun, however, was that it was a real go-er. Backed with a 5 speed transmission, two whole gears more than the three on the tree in my Nova, it gave the driver a real sense of power and speed. Like most Nissans I have known, the suspension tuning was spot on and it did better on the curvy roads near our home in the hills of Western Washington than any car I had driven up to that point. My sister, like everyone else in my family, loved to drive and she became a regular terror in the little car.
The birth of my niece Lauren changed all that. Connie calmed down and a lot of her bad habits fell away. She even started wearing her seatbelt. That seems an odd statement today, but the truth is, as many of you will remember, most people didn’t use seatbelts back then. My dad, for example, was an excellent, safety conscious driver and didn’t use them until they were mandated. Although he never complained about it, I think he really didn’t think they were necessary; none of us did. Until Connie’s big wreck.
It was almost dusk on a Friday night when we got the call. Connie had been in an accident on the river road, a road near our home that was notorious for the number of accidents that occurred along its length. Fire and police services were on the scene and my sister was OK, but I remember that, in her shock, her first concern was for her baby who was, fortunately, at home with grandma. She simply had no idea what had happened. I set out immediately for the scene of the accident and arrived about 10 minutes later.
The little Datsun was on its top, half submerged in a roadside swamp. A car driven by a teenage girl who had been playing a game of cat and mouse with her boyfriend in another car had rounded an off camber curve a little too hot, crossed the double yellow and struck my sister broadside, spinning her car off the road. It was an absolute disaster scene with pieces of glass and plastic scattered all over the street. The two kids stood across the road from the scene, surrounded by policemen and emergency responders, and I recall they projected an odd sense self-rightous detachment towards the carnage they had caused. It was almost as if they didn’t believe they were responsible for the night’s events. Connie sat in the back of an ambulance, her clothes muddy and wet, her expression shocked and sad, but she was otherwise unharmed. “You know,” she said as I arrived, “I decided today that I since I was a mom now, I better start using my seat belt every time. I think it saved my life.”
The little Datsun was eventually dragged out of the mud and hauled away to a body shop in town where it sat, a broken, shattered hulk, for several days across from the high school along the main drag. The police decided the kids were indeed the wrongdoers and the insurance agents came and looked at the little car. It was obviously a total loss and the decision was made to go ahead and scrap the car. They cut a check and, after a brief period with a Chevy Chevette loaner, my father and sister went out and chose a drab, lifeless, dark blue Chevrolet Cavalier coupe to replace the sporty little Nissan. The fun had obviously ended and the responsibility of adulthood had set in.
Years later, I would think of the little Datsun fondly as I, belted securely in my seat and at the tattered end of my own personal rope, mercilessly flogged my own 200SX turbo along those same roads. I always slowed just a little, however, whenever I hit that slightly off camber curve on the river road and let my eye wander ever so slightly to the mud and reeds of that roadside swamp. The curve behind me I would stand hard on the gas and accelerate away from that time and place. The lesson had been learned and internalized, a part of my sister’s childhood ended there through no fault of her own. My own, however, still continues.
Shameless plug here for my sister, “The Moss Boss.” If you live in Western Washington and have issues with moss on your roof, my sister can help: NW Moss Removal.
Thomas M Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.