Whatever got into Phyllis Diller this particular day, I’m sure I don’t know. She was in a fun and funny mood and decided that she would take us all — secretaries and household staff — for a ride in the Excalibur. And when Phyllis decided someone should do something, it was pretty much a command performance. The Excalibur was a sporty little two-seater convertible modeled on a 1928 Mercedes Benz. Her husband’s car.
So on this day, Phyllis put on her “touring outfit” which would have been the normal white slacks and white short sleeved shirt and a white hood over her hair and she added large goggles that you would see people wearing to drive in old, old movies. It was quite bizarre, but no more bizarre than her driving. Phyllis was not adept at driving a car. Well, obviously, she was able to, but in all the time I worked for her, this was the only time I knew her to drive and I don’t know whether someone had actually taught her or she just sort of picked it up as she went along.
She basically summoned us all to the front porch and announced that she would take us one-by-one for a little spin. Maria, the home secretary, was very excited. She adored Phyllis and the idea that Phyllis was going to take her, Maria, for a drive was just too wonderful. She could barely contain herself. The rest of us viewed this with less enthusiasm.
Mary, one of the household staff, got to go first. I cringed as I watched Phyllis roar out of the driveway, her trademark laugh floating on the air behind her. Mary had a deathgrip on the side of the door. We practically had to pry her out of the car when they got back. Val, the housekeeper, pretended she wasn’t scared at all, as she stepped into the car. Poor Val was a very nervous person to begin with and I think we all wondered if this was the day she was going to have a heart attack. Amazingly, she was smiling broadly when Phyllis wheeled back into the yard.
When my turn came, I slid into the low seat, leaned back, took a deep breath and squeezed my eyes tight shut.
“Ready?” Phyllis asked.” “Abolutely,” I lied.
She pulled down her goggles, hit the horn which made a rakish “omp-pah, omp-pah” sound and took off for the gate. All kinds of things went through my mind like, for instance, why hadn’t I made a will, or at least washed the breakfast dishes this morning.
After a moment I opened my eyes and winced as bushes and trees flashed by. It felt like we were flying down Rockingham Avenue. I told myself that it was an illusion — we were close to the ground and that made it seem like we were going faster than we actually were. Phyllis slowed at the intersection long enough to turn a corner. A moment later she shouted “Hold on!” as she made a sharp right onto the main street, San Vicente.
I heard a blast of a horn as a car careened around us. Apparently someone didn’t like having a sports car shoot out of a side street in front of him. “Ha, ha, ha!” Phyllis laughed. I tried to laugh, too, but it sounded an awful lot like a whimper.
“What fun!” Phyllis cried as the wind whipped past us. “Yes!” I yelled back. “Fun!” “Shall we go to the ocean?” she asked. Oh, God, no. “Pretty far” I managed to scream into the wind. At this rate, we’d be at the beach in another ten minutes. “Better not,” she said suddenly as she slowed the car. Abruptly she made a left turn and went back up the other side of San Vicente — there is a large greensward dividing the two halves of the street.
Strangely, the way back seemed much shorter. Perhaps because I was actually breathing again. Up 26th, a right turn on Rockingham and a quick left into the gate.
“Isn’t this great?” Phyllis asked as I climbed out on shaking legs. “Wow!” I answered.
There have been very few times in my life I have been tempted to kiss the ground. As I watched the Excalibur fishtail out of the driveway with its next victim, I surreptitiously leaned down and patted the bricks on the driveway. Ground. Solid ground.
Shameless Plug: check out my new book: Beyond the Spotlight: On the Road with Phyllis Diller” available at Barnes & Noble and Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Beyond-Spotlight-Road-Phyllis-Diller/dp/0985972882