Thursday, July 2, 2015

My Dad and His Cars

Growing up, my dad loved nothing more than a good deal. Especially when it came to cars. He preferred the classics, preferably American made but really anything that caught his eye. 

I can remember more than a couple of times where we were driving along, sometimes on vacation, when suddenly Dad would do a double take, his head halfway out of the car as he hit the brakes and told us to hang on. Then he'd pull the car around for a better look at some old clunker with those two precious words scawled across the windshield:

For Sale.

“Let’s just take a quick look,” he’d say to us, his fingers dancing on the steering wheel. 

There wasn’t much he loved more than popping the hood of some roadside vehicle, muttering in some foreign language about cylinders and horsepower. Most of the time he’d hop back in the car and we’d get back on our way. But other times—when he got that look in his eyes—my stepmom knew that she was about to take the wheel and follow some sputtering heap home.

So many Saturday mornings I spent with him, driving out to the edge of town so that he could see about some unpolished gem. With a boyish gleam, he’d tell me how he’d bought and fixed up his own first car at fourteen, then another at sixteen. Then at seventeen…and so on.

Where most people saw a hunk of junk sitting in a field at the edge of the woods—tall grass creeping up the dry-rotted tires and a dull coat of spray paint on the hood—my dad saw a memory. I think those cars took him back to that carefree place of yesteryear, of saving and fixing up a car and hit the open road without a worry in the world.

One particular evening after work, Dad was all geared up about riding out to take a look at a “classic”. While my stepmother wasn’t exactly unsupportive of these ventures, she didn’t share his passion for them either. How could she? My dad brought home used junkers like a little girl with lost puppies. Nevertheless, we loaded up for the trip, my stepmother's face a paint-by-number portait of frazzle and my father's slapdash smile bouncing along as he gushed about the '57 Chevy we were about to see. Oh, and by see he meant buy.

I think the rest of us were a little underwhelmed when we saw it. Sure it had the cool fins stretching off the back and the rounded windshield, but even I could see that there was a lot of work to be done. But Dad didn’t even flinch, hopping out with stars in his eyes.

After a quick test drive came the haggling. No stranger to negotiation, I watched a master at work. And just as soon as the handshake, my dad whipped out a screwdriver from his back pocket and proceeded to unfasten the license plate from the front of our car and secure it on the rust-kissed back bumper of our new “project” car. Yes, we were driving that beast back home, because to my dad, inspection stickers were mere suggestions. If it cranked up and had four tires, it was ready to roll.

Today, being married myself, I can only imagine what went going through my stepmom’s mind as she followed us home. Was she praying that the brakes didn’t give out on that rolling wreck she was tailing? Or maybe hoping that her madman husband would stop honking and pumping his fist, revving the engine at every stoplight and drawing attention to the sketchy vehicle with unlicensed tags.

Meanwhile in the Chevy, Dad and I were born to be wild. He looked over to me, the wind in his hair and his arm hung over the door, nothing but pure satisfaction on his face. I tried to smile back but I was a bit preoccupied with my task of "keeping an eye out for cops".

We pulled into the driveway. I was somewhat relieved to see that my stepmother hadn’t made a run for it. I guess by then— after the DMV had already contacted my dad about getting a dealer license due to his incessant buying and selling of cars—she’d come to grips with my father’s impulse decisions.

Dad coaxed the lumbering antique onto a patch of dirt just under the maple tree, where it would come to rest for the next year. For a nine year old boy, having a car sitting in your front yard was a dream come true. I still remember that giant, rope-like steering wheel in my hand, as I became a ship captain in stormy seas, an astronaut, or just a regular getaway driver. With push buttons and gauges, roll down windows and more, that old car became my own personal playhouse.

Dad spent the weekends tinkering with the engine. He started mending the bench seating. I imagine the neighbors began to hate us. There was me, scaling the greenish-blue hunk of metal as part of my obstacle course. Our german shepherd barking from the carport. The gravel driveway chocked full of cars. Did I mention I had a mini-bike?

At some point my dad grew tired of the Chevy. With its rust and tears and exhausted engine, it turned out to be a little more than a man with three kids and a full-time job bargained for. One Saturday another man came out to look at the car, and I couldn’t help but notice that he had that same nostalgic gaze in his eyes. I watched as my clubhouse on wheels sputtered out of the driveway, and I’m not quite sure of it, but I do believe there was some celebratory singing coming from the living room window.

As the old car stalled and stammered down the road, I glanced up to Dad to see how he was making out with the deal. He put his arm around my shoulder and with a familiar look on his face, he said, “So I was thinking about going to look at a dune buggy. You wanna come along?”

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