Lulu, a fast car and a big truck

Published February 18, 2007

The plane bounced along the taxiway before easing to a stop in the midst of the Panamanian jungle. I peered out the window, past the spinning propellers, toward the open-air gate where my grandmother Louisa stood waiting for me.

Her colorful floral dress set her apart from the crowd. Even in the hot tropical air, she looked cool, and not at all like a grandmother. Indeed, not many people outside the family knew she was one. She had married young, she dressed fashionably - and she drove hot cars.

I had heard about the sleek, seductive 1965 Mustang convertible she had just bought. The prospect of driving it filled me with almost as much anticipation as the moon landing scheduled that summer of 1969.

But I feared that landing on the moon might be slightly easier than getting my hands on that Mustang. The car had become the love of her life. It reflected her style. It conveyed her youthful, energetic and enthusiastic persona.

Lulu - she wouldn't let me call her Grandmother - had lived in Panama for some time, having moved there to work for the USO, organizing entertainment for U.S. Army troops. I had lived in the Canal Zone when my father was stationed there. She knew how much I had enjoyed it. And she was ready for someone from the family to visit her.

For me, at 17, the idea of visiting her and driving the Mustang seemed like a dream. I envisioned myself sitting behind the wheel, the top down, speeding down the highways that sliced through the lush green vegetation.

But that would have to wait. Lulu had left the Mustang at a friend's house. We drove there in a borrowed car, and she led me to the carport.

Her eyes sparkled as she showed me the Mustang. Her hands caressed the dashboard. She slid them over the steering wheel. Her right hand gripped the gearshift. She seemed excited about giving me the keys. She had no problems with my driving it - so long as I didn't have any problems while I drove it.

"I love you," she said. "I trust you. I'm sure you will bring it back in the same condition that you take it out."

I understood. No dents. Not a scratch. I nodded.

She handed me the keys. I drove off to pick up my friend Ricardo. He and I had gone to St. Mary's Mission School together in Balboa. That afternoon, we drove the Mustang everywhere in Panama City. On our way back to the Zone, we pulled off a busy two-lane highway to check a map. Then I tried to ease my way back onto the road.

The car ahead moved forward. I nosed the Mustang back in. Then I heard a truck behind me gun its engine. I felt a jolt. I heard the sickening sound of metal smashing metal. The truck tossed the Mustang aside as if it were a toy.

I watched the truck lumber down the road with impunity. Shock turned to anger. Anger became fear - and dread. What would Lulu say? She had trusted me. We got out of the car. The driver's side sported black, snakelike lines, the truck's ugly signature.

What am I going to do? I muttered. Ricardo told me he had a friend at a body shop. We drove to a seedy section of the city. Dismembered cars littered the area. Ricardo's friend said it would cost $100 to fix. I didn't have that kind of money. He looked at Ricardo. Okay, he said, he'd do it for $70.

I pulled out my wallet. I found $40. Would he take that? No. Then Ricardo pulled out $30. That was a lot for both of us. Ricardo never said a word. I promised to pay him back.

We picked up the car a few hours later. It looked perfect. I dropped Ricardo off and drove to see Lulu. It would be the ultimate test. When I arrived, she came out to greet me. I thanked her for letting me use the car. She smiled. Any problems? I shook my head.

I spent the rest of my visit alternating between having a good time and being scared to death she might notice something amiss. She didn't. I left Panama the following week. I was sure she suspected nothing.

Some months later, Lulu called my father. She told him she knew all about the accident. She didn't say how. It touched her that I had fixed the damage on my own. She offered to reimburse me for the repairs.

I declined the offer. Youth should pay for its own mistakes. Especially when it involves a grandmother - no matter how young she thinks she is.

Aly Colon is the writing, reporting and editing group leader at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which owns the St. Petersburg Times.