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Jack Smith

Me? Exaggerate? Never! Well ... Maybe Once or Twice

September 20, 1993|Jack Smith

A critical letter from a reader puts me in the embarrassing position of admitting I exaggerated when I wrote that my wife drove 80 miles an hour on our recent trip to Cambria.

I have a code in writing this column: I never invent dialogue, I never invent situations, I never exaggerate. Well, hardly ever.

In my years as a reporter, I was never accused of misquoting anyone. I insist on the same accuracy in these informal essays. If I say a waitress told me, "Don't eat the soup today. It's scum," you can believe that's exactly what she said. (None ever has.)

The passage that aroused the ire of Teresa Lopez of Ontario was this one: "The trip up had been glorious. My wife drove her Maxima at her usual average speed of 80 m.p.h. When I suggested she might be going too fast, she said, 'I'm just keeping up with the traffic flow.' It was true. Even at 80 we were being passed."

That passage is accurate except in one detail. While it is true that the speedometer often hit 80, it is an exaggeration to suggest that this was my wife's average speed. To average 80, of course, she would have to have exceeded that speed from time to time to compensate for the times she had to slow down.

As she told me later, "Most of the time I was only going 65 or 70."

It is also true that when our son called us on my wife's car phone and asked where we were, he estimated that we would arrive in Cambria in two hours.

When I asked him how he figured he said, "Because Mom drives 80 miles an hour."

I quoted him accurately, but I assume that he was exaggerating too.

Mrs. Lopez pointed out the danger to us and to others when we were going 80 m.p.h. "In this day of liberty and freedom on the road, you might have not been able to call her mind to her thoughtless driving, but surely you could have hinted or got off at the next possible stop, which was probably not your destination. . . . Haven't you and Mrs. Smith ever learned that the maximum driving speed is 55 m.p.h? I am thoroughly disgusted with people like Mrs. Smith who think nothing about other people much less of the people driving with her."

Mrs. Lopez adds that she will never read my column again.

First, let me say that 80 m.p.h. is too fast. So is 70. Speeding is reckless; it is dangerous, and it is scofflaw. This crime is not mitigated by the fact that many drivers do it. The traffic flow on highways like 101 is often 80 m.p.h.

As for my hinting to my wife about our speed, I did hint. As for my getting out of the car, it would not only have obliged me to undertake some arduous hitchhiking, but would have seriously strained our family relations.

Meanwhile, my wife points out she is a responsible driver, has never had a serious accident, does not run red lights, make impetuous lane changes or commit other mindless errors, and goes 80 only when the highway is straight and clear.

OK. It's still too fast. That's my last word on the subject of driving 80 miles an hour.

I do not stick to the 55 m.p.h. speed limit; almost nobody else does, either. I have had highway patrolmen pass me when I was doing 60.

Though my usual maximum speed is 60, I have received only one speeding ticket in more than 50 years of driving.

That was in 1935, when I was in the Civilian Conservation Corps. I was driving my brother-in-law's Ford one morning, hurrying to get back to my post at March Field by 9 a.m., and passed a CHP officer on the road south of Riverside. Being otherwise alone on the highway, and having nothing else to do, he overtook me and gave me a ticket. I was doing maybe 65.

Years later, when I was working for The Times, I got a ticket for going too slow. I was on my way to an interview with Ella Fitzgerald. I had heard that she was rather a difficult subject, being shy and reticent. I had read two or three magazine interviews with her to prepare myself. I was driving out the Hollywood Freeway, and evidently alternating speeds, driving now slow, now fast, as I concentrated on the upcoming meeting. A cop pulled me over. He said I was driving too slowly and erratically. He said I should stay in the right lane.

I told him I was on the way to interview Ella Fitzgerald. He was not impressed. He gave me a ticket.

So there's something to be said for moving right along.

Jack Smith's column is published Mondays.

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