The 1950 Chevrolet was black. In front of the regular windows on the driver’s side and passenger’s side were triangular windows (wing vents) that could be turned in such a way as to force a blast of wind against the face. The breeze felt so good on a hot day! The windshield was in two halves joined by a thin metal connector moulding. When Robert was sitting in front (which was most of the time because he suffered from motion sickness when seated in the back), his eyes would focus first on the metal moulding then on the distant view then on the connector again, until he was well on his way toward nausea!
Joe and Ida drove differently. Joe was far-sighted and enjoyed perusing fellow farmers’ fields to his left. While doing so, he slowly veered the car to the right until the right wheels were off the road and onto the berm. Miraculously, he never lost control of the vehicle but gradually brought it back onto the pavement, only to repeat the experiment immediately afterward. Ida, meanwhile, played with the throttle. Her small foot, usually wearing a sandal in summer, wore out the gas pedal by depressing it and lifting up right away, depressing it and lifting up right away. The car lurched forward and hesitated, lurched forward and hesitated in response. Robert was anxious when Joe drove, nauseous when Ida drove.
When most of the corn had been picked, Robert was riding with Ida at the wheel. She was driving out to visit with Robert’s great uncle Marshall and his great aunt Anna. Down went the gas pedal, up went the gas pedal, down went the gas pedal, up went the gas pedal.
Robert had developed the bad habit of standing in the front seat. On this occasion, he swayed backwards and forwards in time with the motion of the throttle.
“Sit down,” Ida told Robert.
“Come over here where I can put my arm around you,” Ida said.
Frustrated, Ida said, “Alright! See if I care if you lose your balance.”
Robert was near the passenger door and was having a hard time keeping his balance while the car briefly gained speed and momentarily slowed, gained and slowed, gained and slowed. He felt slightly dizzy. He smelled his mother’s new permanent. (Ida had to have curls in her straight hair!) The Chevrolet was lurching and hesitating while heading east along the gravel road that ran in front of the McFatridge farm. The car dipped down the slight hill leading to the intersection with the gravel road that ran south past the Anderson farm.
Tall corn in the fence corner blocked the view to the right. Ida obeyed the stop sign, but the corn was planted so close to the road that she could not see around it. The tan leaves rustled in the cool breezes of autumn. Ida slowly entered the intersection only to discover that a road grader was bearing down on the intersection from the right. The corn had hidden the big machine! Ida slammed on the brakes, and the road grader just missed the front bumper!
Robert flew headfirst into the hard metal dashboard. He ricocheted back toward the seat and slid onto the floor. He was watching stars sparkling and spangling before his eyes.
Ida put the car in parking gear and muttered, “Why don’t you ever stand close enough so I can grab you?”
Ida did not yell at Robert. She felt terrible about what had happened.
She gently lifted Robert back into the seat. Using her hankie, she stanched the blood flowing from the gums where Robert had knocked out his two front upper teeth. Robert was beginning to see his surroundings again, and the pain was starting. He knew he had been wrong to stand on the seat. Now he sat where he was supposed to sit, and he whimpered.
Ida turned the car around and went home to ask Joe what should be done. Joe and Ida took Robert to Dr. Sullivan, their dentist in Attica, a town ten miles to the south. Dr. Sullivan explained that there was nothing to do but to wait for Robert’s permanent teeth to come in.
At first, Robert’s pronunciation changed to a lisp, but, instead of retreating into his early fear of talking, he pushed through the obstacle and learned to place his tongue a little farther back so that he could say the consonants that otherwise would become hisses. By degrees, he was learning to be more confident and assertive.
A little less than a year after the incident—and just in time for Robert to enter the first grade without embarrassment—Robert’s permanent teeth came in. Owing to the injury, they were separated by a gap, or diastema. Whether Robert liked it or not, his diastema became a trademark. Terry–Thomas was a popular British comic film actor in American movies. Robert always enjoyed his performances because, like Robert, he had a pronounced diastema.
Robert’s teeth were somewhat yellow from the antibiotics he had been given for his frequent earaches. Worried about his diastema and his yellow teeth, his parents took him to see an orthodontist in Lafayette, Indiana. Taking children to an orthodontist was a very modern thing to do. The orthodontist had offices in a very modern building not far from Smitty’s, a large independent grocery store near Purdue University. The very modern orthodontist said that he would apply hydrogen peroxide and heat to whiten Robert’s teeth. When the very modern orthodontist told Joe and Ida that correcting Robert’s diastema would cost $2,000, they asked Robert if he really wanted to have his incisors properly aligned through wearing very modern braces. Robert hated dentists, so the answer was easy. With vast relief, Robert said no to the very modern era. Also relieved, Joe and Ida did not have to pay $2,000 for a closed diastema and whitened teeth.
Ever after that, whenever Robert brushed his teeth, he recalled the hard old dashboard of that 1950 Chevrolet.