“Oh, what a thing to bring home to my wife and children,” said the truck driver.

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, January 22, 1938.

“Sit easy,” said Jimmie Frise. “Sit easy.”

“Be more careful,” I retorted. “Don’t come up to an intersection at 40 miles an hour and then jam on the brakes like that. Ooze up to an intersection.”

“Heh, heh,” sneered Jimmie. “You broadcasting. Mr. Gregory Clark is now on the air to tell you how to drive.”

“All right, all right,” I countered. “I’m. only trying to help you. All I say is, be more rhythmic in your driving.”

“O. Kay,” said Jim, bitterly. “You whistle the tune and I’ll dance.”

“Jim,” I said, injured, “for weeks I’ve been thinking of speaking to you about the way you drive. I’ve put a lot of thought into it. I’ve studied you. Don’t imagine I am just one of these back-seat drivers that babbles automatically. I tell you. I have made a careful study and survey of the way you drive, keeping my mouth shut until I knew what I wanted to tell you.”

“Ah,” said Jim, letting in his clutch with a sharp angry rasp and tramping on the gas so that the back end of the car tried to go sooner than the front end, with a horrible rocking-horse effect, “ah, so all the time we’ve been driving together, I have been a sort of a frog on the laboratory table, eh? Watching me, eh? Research stuff, between so-called friends.”

“Calm yourself, Jim,” I counselled. “Driving a car is no longer an art, it is an instinct, like walking or breathing. We all walk differently, some of us walk well and some badly. But it isn’t an easy thing to change a man’s style of walking. You might almost as easily change his character. In fact, the way a man walks is usually a manifestation of his character, the same as his driving. Lazy men slouch along; purposeful men walk with a clean, smooth walk. Crafty men walk craftily, on their toes, like a cat. The same with driving.”

“So?” said Jim.

“If you had a sharp and clear-cut defect in your character, Jim,” I began, “you would expect me, as a friend, to mention it to you, wouldn’t you?”

“And you,” replied Jim, calmly, “would naturally expect me to return the favor?”

“Jim,” I stated firmly, “I have been informed by literally scores of people, including some of the most expert drivers, that I am a careful, smooth, efficient, driver.”

“I am not referring,” said Jim, “to your driving.”

“Let that go,” I suggested, after a pause. “But what I am trying to get at, if you will permit me, is that you drive a car as if it were a tractor or an army tank. You lack the delicate touch. You grab and stamp and jerk. Now, a modern car requires no such violence. It is a creature of delicate balance and control. It is, as nearly as mechanical science can design it, built to conform to your very nerves, limbs and brain.”

“What time is it?” interrupted Jim.

“Ten-twenty.” I informed him. “Why?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Jim, “they say there is usually a lull in the conversation at 20 minutes after and 20 minutes to the hour.”

“It didn’t work this time,” I remarked. “As I was saying, the ideal of modern automotive engineers is to construct a car so perfectly that it will, in a sense, be actually part of the human mechanism; tied in, as it were, to our very flesh and nerves, so that, as lightly and instantly as our eyes or hands respond, so will our car.”

It’s a Natural Instinct

“That’s the way they’ve got this car,” declared Jim, giving her a little gas and lurching it wide and furiously past another smartly-travelling car.

“Now what,” I demanded fiercely, “in the name of goodness did you want to do that for? That car was going as fast as we want to go. In fact, you have had to put on a little speed the last minute or so to overtake it. Then you speed up to 45 to pass it. And now, look, you are back to 35. What’s the idea?”

“It is a natural instinct,” stated Jim, “to want to get ahead of the fellow ahead of you.”

“And I suppose,” I scoffed, “that it is also a natural instinct to slow down and get in his way, once you have passed him?”

“Aw, dry up.” said Jim.

“As a student of human affairs,” I declared, “I am trying to get to the bottom of these things having to do with driving. Our world is now almost 100 per cent motorized. It is time we began to think very earnestly about developing a code of morals and manners with regard to driving.”

“Aren’t laws enough?”, inquired Jim.

“No, laws are never enough,” I explained. “Laws are the last ditch. There are laws against murder. But what really prevents murder amongst us is an ancient and long-developed code of morals and manners.”

“You’re right,” breathed Jimmie. “It’s my manners that hold me back.”

We drew near another intersection, and I sat up to observe the phenomenon of Jimmie’s method of handling the situation. At 37 miles an hour, he charged the intersection, where the red light was on. Two cars were already ahead of him, halted.

At 37, Jim charged down, and then, three car lengths from the stop, he jammed on his brakes, half rising in his seat to give the pedal his full weight. The car staggered under the drag of the brakes. And just as Jim neared the stop, he suddenly decided not to get in behind the two cars ahead of him, but to swerve out and draw alongside of them, for a quicker getaway.

But as he swerved, another car from behind at the same instant tried to come into the open space Jim was swerving for. With a wild snort of horn and a screech of violently applied brakes, the other swung his car far out to the left, so escaping hitting Jim’s fenders.

“Well, the darn fool,” gasped Jim, angry and startled.

The newcomer ran down his window, stuck his head out and shouted outrageous and scandalous remarks at Jimmie.

Then the lights changed, and we all went merrily on our way.

“That fool,” said Jim, “mighty near smacked our fenders.”

“If you will permit me,” I stated, “as an unprejudiced and impartial observer, to say something…”

“The car behind,” cried Jim loudly, “according to law, is always responsible. If he had smacked us, he would have been legally to blame.”

So indignant was Jim, he made a terrible sound trying to shift into second gear at the next turn. It was a toothed, rasping screaming sound, such as demons make. This unsettled him and he tramped on the gas again, causing the car to stagger as from a blow. To correct this. Jim tramped the brakes with authority, creating further staggers; and then, to relieve his feelings, he pressed the heel of his hand on the horn, though there was nobody ahead of us.

“Jim,” I remonstrated.

“Aw,” rasped he, all flushed, “go to blazes. Let me drive.”

So I sit back and let him drive. We steamed resolutely to intersections, as usual, and braked suddenly to let a car cross ahead of us; or, with a sudden flood of gas, leaped ahead to nip past ahead of a crossing car. We came to a traffic jam at a crossing where we wanted to turn right, and just as we tried to work in on the right-hand lane, somebody else curved in ahead of us, blocking the right-hand turn, though all they wanted to do was go straight ahead, with the jump on the others rightfully ahead.

“In New York,” muttered Jim,” they’d skin that guy alive for blocking that right-hand lane.”

A moment later, we came to another jam, with which we wanted to proceed straight ahead; but, seeing the right-hand lane open, we sneaked into it to save time. And immediately, a car came in behind us and tooted indignantly.

“Aw, dry up,” said Jim.

We got in straight ahead lanes, and were held up while somebody in front wanted to turn left. We ran up alongside of cars only to have them force us outward because they wanted to pass a parked car. We backed and filled. We started and stopped. We crawled and crept. And it was all done with gritted teeth, and gritted gears, and brakes grabbed and steering wheel wrenched and engine raced.

“Say something,” challenged Jim, through his teeth sideways.

“We’ll have to develop a code,” I stated, “of traffic morals and manners. And we will have to start teaching it in the first book of the public schools. It is far more important. than many of the things they teach in the public schools now. It doesn’t matter how bad people’s table manners are. That is a private affair. But driving is a public affair. And public manners have to be brought under control.”

“It’s human nature,” said Jim, “to fight and compete.”

“It’s time,” I countered, “that we realized that human nature is animal nature, and we’re all like hogs at the trough.”

“You’re a radical,” declared Jimmie.

“I’m worse than that,” I admitted. “I’m a cannibal. I eat pork.”

With which pleasant thought, we worked our way out of the down-town congestion and proceeded westward out on a fine open highway, and came at length to a well-known V intersection in these parts, one of those V intersections which the police, with their usual skill, have guarded with two large yellow signs, inscribed with the word “Caution.”

I saw the truck as soon as Jimmie did. All I did was draw in my breath and press my two feet on the sloping floor boards.

It was a massive truck, with, that authority in its manner that those season box holders at the hockey games have. It was, in fact, a sort of Big Business of a truck. It had speed, weight, power.

Coming up to the V intersection, both Jimmie and the truck were travelling about the same rate of speed, slackening only slightly in honor of the large yellow signs.

To me, it was a sort of drama. The truck started to slacken, and so did Jim. I could see the big truck begin to respond to that expert tap, tap on the brakes which such great drivers as Sir Malcolm Campbell recommend, at the same time that Jimmie, while I held my breath, tap, tapped at his brakes, alert, watchful, calculating.

It was a sort of after-you-my-dear-Alphonse business. The truck started to take the crossing at the same instant Jimmie did, and as Jim braked, so did the truck. Then they both started again at the same instant, and then both braked. It was, in fact, silly.

“What the…” said Jim, impatiently, and tramped on the gas with a will.

And at the exact same instant, the truck driver, no doubt also muttering “what the…” tramped on his gas.

And the result, which I had sensed from the start, was inevitable. With a brief, sickening grunt the two of us, the giant truck and our car, slammed noses.

But such was the nature of things, the great, massive truck and the light family car, that while the truck got nothing more than a slight corrugated dinge in its front fender, our poor front end collapsed like a worm tin.

We all piled out. Jim, with tight lips, was refraining from saying anything until he got his ideas co-ordinated.

But the truck driver was a spectacle.

He seemed weak with fright. For such a measly bump as he got, he seemed to be excessively disturbed. With a great moan, he came around and leaned on the fender of his truck.

“Oh, oh,” he cried brokenly. “What a terrible thing to happen.”

“You truck drivers,” began Jim, tensely, “with all the weight you’ve got, should realize … look at my car!”

“Oh, me,” cried the truck driver, piteously, “gentlemen, you don’t understand. My poor little wife. My two little kiddies”

“What’s that?” cried Jim sternly.

“Oh, ho, ho,” wept the big fellow, bending down, to look at the trifling dent in his fender, as if to see a wound in his child’s leg. “O the pity.”

“What’s the matter,” shouted Jim, “look at this mess.”

And he pointed dramatically at his own mushed front end. Our car had the expression of a bulldog, so flattened was its countenance.

“Ah, yes,” said the big truck driver as he glanced briefly at our car. “Yes, gents, that’s all very well. It means little to you, that damage. For a few paltry dollars, you can have it fixed, or maybe your insurance company will do it for nothing.”

“It was nobody’s fault,” declared Jim. “We both did it.”

“That’s the pity of it,” said the truck driver, wiping his brow. “Oh, what a thing to bring home to-night to my little wife and children. Here I was within two weeks of getting the bonus.”

“The bonus?” we chorused.

“The bonus,” said the driver, with a catch in his voice. “My employers pay a bonus of $50 a year to every driver who goes through the year without a scratch. I’ve driven 50 weeks of the year… and now this happens. Now this!”

And he leaned back and looked as if he could not believe his senses at the two trifling nicks in his fender. Our poor old wreck yawned and grimaced before us in vain.

“The law is…” began Jimmie.

“Yes, the law,” said the driver sadly. “And the insurance. If you report it to the insurance, they take it up with my employers. And I’m sunk… even if I could afford to have this dent fixed up on the quiet.”

And he paused, speechless, beyond leaning back to look around the engine of his truck at a couple of cars loudly complaining about being held up in traffic by us. He merely moved his mouth and scowled at them, but you could read his lips. The cars quit complaining and backed up and went around us.

“Well,” said Jim, surveying the front of our car, “after all, I suppose there is only a few dollars of damage done here.”

“How much have you got on you?” I inquired of Jim quietly.

“Four,” muttered Jim, “four-sixty.”

“I can lend you three,” I murmured.

So we made up $7.50 and handed it to the truck driver, who could scarcely believe his eyes.

“Why,” he stammered. “I’ll be able… I’ll be able to have it mended up here a piece … maybe I can … maybe they’ll never find out!”

“Forget it,” said Jim. “Forget it, my boy.”

And we waved him on his way, and bent up our front left fender so it wouldn’t scrape on the tire, and started the engine and sure enough it went, almost as good as ever, but with perhaps a slight quiver.

“As a matter of fact,” said Jim, as he turned her head back down-town to take us to the garage where we get these thing fixed up now and then, “as a matter of fact, do you know what caused that collision?”

I had several reasons and was selecting one when he went on:

“Manners,” he said. “Manners. If both the truck and I had simply barged ahead as usual at that intersection, this wouldn’t have happened.”

“That’s right,” I assured him. “Blame me.”

Editor’s Notes: While reading this story, all I could think is that they had no seatbelts back then.

Sir Malcolm Campbell was a contemporary British racer.

“After You, My Dear Alphonse,” is an expression that comes from a comic strip Alphonse and Gaston, by Frank Opper.