Hoping Young Drivers Learn to Be Wary

Young drivers are the most likely to be involved in car accidents. So many parents of young teenagers dread the day their children start to drive. Commentator Susan Straight counts herself among those parents. As a warning, her daughters see the places where other young drivers were killed and makeshift altars are put up — often near palm trees.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Palm trees are part of the signature landscape of Southern California. Commentator Susan Straight lives in Riverside, where the palm trees provide more than shade and scenery.

SUSAN STRAIGHT:

Three blocks from my house, on the busy four-lane avenue where we live, a palm trunk is adorned with flowers; stuffed animals arranged around the rough base. Two 17-year-old girls were speeding and flew onto the parking strip. One girl died; one girl lived. The palm bark is wrinkled like elephant skin, scarred from the car's impact.

The palm trees--they're such an integral part of our Southern California mystique, our prototypical landscape, the one mythologized on postcards and in movies, avenues like mine--lined with the tallest, thinnest palms and the thicker-trunked Washington palms and the elegant date palms. Thousands of trees making streets visible in the sky with their procession of fronds at orderly intervals, like the toothbrushes of gods.

And now that I have a 14-year-old and I think about her driving in two years, I see all the headstone trees. `When we started driving,' I told my three daughters when we passed by the makeshift shrine, `older people told us the palm trees could walk, and they walk in front of teen-agers.' The anonymous palms on Victoria Avenue, a straight route for miles through orange groves. When my ex-husband and I drove that street last week with the girls after their basketball games, I couldn't help it. `Tell them,' I said. `Walking palm trees,' he said, and listed the high school kids we knew who'd smashed cars into the trunks and been killed.

That night alone I thought about the two trees neither of us had mentioned, the one he'd hit when we were newlyweds in Massachusetts, a gnarled oak, ancient and totemic where he totaled my Honda hatchback on Christmas Eve 1984. An old man nearby told him, `You're about the 30th, but that tree's still here.' And the palm tree, anchoring the grassy strip in front of the Jack-in-the-Box a mile from my house, where my brother crashed his truck and then died, on February 13th, 2002--I drive past that tree almost every day on the way to work and on the way home. It hurts me that the tree is bare.

For weeks afterward I kept flowers and candles there. But this is one of the city's busiest intersections. When I lit candles, drivers stared at me. I would tremble at that tree. My brother's soul left his body there.

On my brother's birthday and Christmas, I tuck bougainvillea flowers into the truck and left small pyramids of oranges and grapefruits because my brother was a farmer. But I couldn't do it forever. Now when my van idles near my brother's tree, since that's what we call it, my daughters measure my glance toward the fronds. I have no words of warning for what happened. I hope my daughters will need no more warnings when they begin to drive, having seen for all these years the totem trees, nondescript again, like so many others where I know someone who met fate there in the spongy wood. The palm fronds glowing and rustling like electrified sparklers at night when I visit my brother's tree and stand there in the moonlight.

BLOCK: Susan Straight lives in Riverside, California.

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