October 5, 2015
By Michael A. Calvert
“I need a car,” I said as we sat in the Beverlee Drive-In on a warm June night watching cars parade past us as we sipped on cherry Cokes. Mel and I usually came after work at Kroger’s. Sometimes we splurged on a cheeseburger and a Coke, but usually it was just a Coke.
“What about your ’51 Pontiac?”
“Well, I haven’t told you, but it threw a rod and rebuilding the engine wasn’t worth it.”
“I thought you were letting it sit in the driveway until you saved enough for insurance.”
“My dad borrowed it for some temporary traveling salesman job, and it blew up in Paducah, Kentucky. He caught a bus home. He said he repay the $125 I paid for it, but I’ll never see it.”
“Oh for Christ’s sake, Michael, now you got to save for another car plus the insurance.”
“Yeah. Pisses me off, but nothing I can do about it. I’ve saved enough for the first insurance premium, so now I need a car.”
We watched in silence as Buddy Young’s pale blue, ’55 Chevy slowly rumbled past us. It was “nosed, decked and lowered” and sported chrome spinners on the wheels that flashed in the light. Dave Herfel’s brand new candy-apple red, ’58 Bel Air convertible followed. He and his girlfriend could have been in a commercial. Then some high school kids in their dad’s station wagon slinked by. Charlie Houlihan had his number from the Delaware Drag Strip in his back window to be sure everyone knew he had raced his Pontiac on Sunday.
“Cheer up, Michael. Cathy’s coming our way.” Mel knew I was in love with Cathy, but she didn’t. She was a classic beauty. Dark hair beneath a cocked cap, bright red lips in her alabaster face, tight black pants and a flouncy blue blouse that left a lot to my active imagination. After she flashed her stunning smile, we ordered another cherry Coke. We admired her as she walked back to the restaurant.
“Poetry in motion,” I sang softly. Mel joined me in the chorus of the hit song: “Watch her gentle sway, like a wave out on the ocean. Poetry in motion.” My mood had improved with Cathy’s appearance. I was looking forward to her return with our Cokes.
“You’ve just got your diploma. Why don’t you get a three or four year old Ford or Chevy? A ’55 or ’56. I got a two-year car loan on my Galaxy and the payments are not bad. You’re only young once,” said Mel.
“Yeah, but your dad co-signed. My dad’s credit is shot to hell. Damn bill collectors call our house all the time. Anyway, I want to get started at Ohio State. The tuition is $300 a year and the books are expensive.”
“You could work for a year or two, get a nice set of wheels, and then go to college.”
“I might do that. God, I’d love to have a ’55 or ’56 Chevy. Really like the two-tone hardtops, especially with white over blue. Cool cars.
I’ve got to get a car anyway. Why not something I can be proud of? The closest bus stop is two miles from my house, and I can’t hitchhike forever. I can see myself in a convertible”
“Check the classifieds in Thursday’s Dispatch. My advice is to buy from an individual instead of a used car lot. Used car dealers buff up a car, turn back the odometer, and lie like a rug. So God damned sleazy,” said Mel with his shoulders hunched and his face contorted.
“I’ll look at the ads. Hey, here comes Cathy!”
After she gave us our Cokes, flirted with us a little, and turned away, I said with a sigh, “Definitely poetry in motion.”
* * *
Late Thursday night, I spread the section of the classified pages labeled “Automobiles – Used” on the dining room table. My dad often reviewed the “Employees Wanted” section. Like him, I circled the ads worth considering with a red pencil. They were late model cars – mostly Chevies, Pontiacs, and Oldsmobiles. I was not a Ford guy. I envisioned myself at the wheel of a gleaming, late model, two tone beauty, maybe a convertible, cruising through the Beverlee, nodding to the people I knew. I went upstairs to bed replaying this dream, almost entranced, until I fell asleep.
Early in the morning, I took my bowl of oatmeal into the dining room, and looked at the circled ads. In the gray morning light, I focused on the prices. I calculated how many months I would have to continue hitchhiking before I could save enough to buy one of those fine cars? Dad’s signature wouldn’t help with a bank, but Kroger’s Credit Union, where my savings went before I touched the money, might give me a loan. I had been a part-time bag boy, stock boy, and cashier for over two years. I would have to work full time to cover the payments, but OSU wasn’t going anywhere. I could be an older student. College girls might like older guys.
Then a conversation with our produce manager at the store intruded on my thoughts of coeds and cars. He said he planned to go to Ohio State, but delayed it for a year, then two years, and before he knew it, he was married with a kid. My dad’s friend and mechanic told me he was going to go to college after his hitch in the Navy, but never did. Similar conversations with other men streamed into my mind. They regretted that they didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, and they all sternly urged me to get a college degree.
Father Duffy had spent several classes in our senior year at St. Charles deciphering Robert Frost’s poems. I did not expect to ever give those poems a thought after our final exam, but that morning at the dining room table, somehow these lines came to mind: “Two roads diverged …knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted that I should ever come back. I shall be telling this with a sigh someday.” The poem was “The Road Not Taken.”
I went to the stove, ladled lukewarm, congealed oatmeal into my bowl, heated some milk in a pan, poured it over the oatmeal, and added too much sugar. I reviewed the ads again and checked out the older cars with understated descriptions, “reliable transportation” and “city car.” One said, “good for fishing trips.” No “sharp, two-tone convertibles.”
I would get an older car, pay the annual insurance insurance premium, and still afford tuition and books in winter and spring quarters. I hit the table with my fist to confirm the deal I had made with myself, and the spoon bounced out of my empty oatmeal bowl. I was committed. No sir, I thought, I would not be sighing about not going to college someday.
By noting the phone numbers, I identified and crossed off the car lot salesmen using their first name and masquerading as individual sellers. I saw a ’51 Pontiac like my car that my dad had abandoned at a Kentucky junk yard, and immediately moved down the column. I saw an ad for a $100 car that I could tell was near my neighborhood by the telephone number. A ’48 Nash listing said “good condition, low milage, original owner.” I thought approvingly, the owner must be old, and, as the saying goes, “only drove to church and the grocery store.”
An older woman answered the phone and said, “I am selling the Nash. It was the only car my husband bought new, and I could’t sell it all that time he was laid up. He always hoped he would drive it again. Now he’s passed. Do you want to see it?”
Mel drove me to take a look at the $100 car. On the way, he discouraged me from buying an ugly, old car that would break down in the middle of nowhere. He reminded me that I didn’t know how to change spark plugs let alone repair a dinosaur like this, and suggested that I join AAA for road repair and towing service.
I tried to ignore Mel, but I was appalled, too. Al Capone might have been a passenger in this gray behemoth with bulbous fenders. It was a foot taller than new cars. The gray wool fabric on the interior had no tears or stains, but it was painfully dull. The odometer showed almost 89,000 miles, but there was no space for a digit in front of the number. It might have been 189,000 or 289,000 miles.
“Howard loved this automobile, maybe more than he loved me” said his widow with a shrug. “Here’s the bill of sale and owner’s manual from when he purchased it off the showroom floor in 1948. Want to drive it?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” as I accepted the keys. Mel climbed in next to me. After inserting the key, I pushed the button on the dash and the engine came alive. I pulled the gear shift that rose from the floorboards into first gear, lurched along the driveway, and pulled out onto the road.
“You can’t buy this, Michael. For Christ’s sake, it’s ugly as homemade sin. Drives like a tank. Do you want to be seen in this old clunker at the Beverlee?” asked Mel as we came to a stop back in the driveway.
“It’s transportation for $100, Mel.”
As I followed Mel toward our neighborhood, looking over at the roofs of newer, passing cars, I wondered if this was something I would regret. I replayed the reasons that seemed so compelling at the dining room table that morning. This ridiculous vehicle would make it possible for me to enroll in the Winter Quarter at Ohio State. I would not be like all those people who said they were sorry they didn’t go to college.
I was able to increase my hours by working the overnight crew that unloaded a semi-truck on Wednesday nights and stocked shelves until the store opened. I caddied on Sundays when the store was closed, earning $8 for 36 holes or $6 for 18 holes. I put $10 in the back of my sock drawer every week for tuition and books. I also squirreled away a few dollars behind my underwear when I got to payday with a few dollars in my wallet. There were weeks when I had to buy groceries or help Mom keep the power on, but I was saving for a better car some day.
In September, I was not going off to school for the first time in 13 years. Every morning my younger brothers and sisters were hustled out the door early. Dad took Mom to her job at the DMV, and he usually had a big opportunity to pursue that he told Mom about over and over. There were periods when he came back home and retreated to their darkened bedroom with a touch of the flu he said.
My part-time job at Kroger’s left me some free time at home. The Nash was still a chalky gray after I washed it. At Mel’s suggestion I scoured it with rubbing compound and uncovered a shinier color that I coated with Simoniz wax.
The interior was still hideous. The Western Auto store advertised seat covers “to fit every car” and white rubber floor mats that would brighten it up the old Nash, but the gray doors and headliner were deadly dull. I pried away the door panels and decided that I could recover them. I bought yards of plastic material with a faux leather pattern. I chose scarlet and gray, Ohio State’s colors. Through several trials and many errors, I reupholstered the interior. I also spray painted the dashboard scarlet. The old gray Nash and Ohio State merged and reflected the path I had chosen and now harbored a secret pride in this commitment.
I doubted my choice on numerous occasions. The Nash drank motor oil. Every time I filled up the gas tank I had to add a quart of oil. When the nights turned cold, I learned that the heater didn’t work. When I asked the mechanic at the Esso station to look at it, he said the only way to get parts is to cannibalize an old Nash in a junkyard. I made do with an old quilt over my legs.
The radiator also had to be filled every time I got gas. A minor leak was not a big deal; water was free. But Prestone anti-freeze was not free. When the temperature dropped below freezing, my only choice was to lay down on the ground, open a valve at the bottom of the radiator, and drain it when I got home at night or left the car for a few hours on frigid days. Soon I had a small rug for performing this ritual on cold, wet evenings. In the morning, I closed the valve and drove to a gas station to fill the radiator before the engine heated up.
When the windshield wipers failed in the fall, I improvised. I tied a length of fishing line to each of the wipers, threaded the ends into the car through both front windows, and tied the ends together to make a loop. Holding the steering wheel with my left hand while toggling the string back and forth with my right, I could see the road every few seconds. After a particularly difficult time getting home one night in a freezing rain, I went to a garage run by an old mechanic. He simply connected a loose hose, and I had swooshing wipers again. The Nash was as cold as a tomb and draining the radiator was a pain, but I was happy to have windshield wipers again.
I stoically accepted this inconveniences and comforted myself with a perverse pride in my perseverance. When I went to the Beverlee, most of my friends were puzzled and offered condolences, but I decided I was not going to apologize for the car I dubbed the ’48 Nash Whippet DeLuxe. Nor would I say it was all I could afford or that I was saving for college. I was proud of my improved car, a classic from the past. Although the car was often frustrating and sometimes exasperating, but it was also a reminder that I was taking the road I had chosen.
The winter quarter found me on OSU’s campus, and in another year I had saved enough for a ’56 Chevy, two tone, white over green. I sold the Nash, but I cherish its memory.