Friday, December 12, 2008

Something Old, Something Blue

Sometimes on warm summer evenings I think of her and wonder whatever became of her. When I was 16 she was all I ever wanted. For some reason, at that age, I didn't realize that she wasn’t much to look at. Compared to others I would own later, she was downright ugly. But at the time, all that mattered to me was that she was mine and she took me where I wanted to go…. most of the time, anyway.
She was a blue 1953 Chevrolet six cylinder straight drive four-door sedan. At least most of her was blue. The gray primer spots on the passenger side door and right rear fender only served to give her more character. Important note: the radio worked fine and picked up WKIN, the only rock and roll station around. In those days, AM was king. FM stations played elevator music with no commercials and nobody (at least nobody I knew) listened to FM radio.

I bought the car from my father, who owned a small used car lot near the Tennessee-Virginia border. A customer had traded the Chevy in for a newer model Plymouth station wagon. The bulbous blue hulk was not perfect, but the price was right. I could have it for what Dad had in it. I handed him my life savings. The wad of bills amounted to $175, and he made the title out to me.

There was a giant rip in the driver’s seat. I fixed that with a $5.00 nylon slip-on cover. The floorboard holes I covered with plywood and rubber floor mats. After rubbing every speck of grime from the paint, I hooked up the wet-dry vacuum and removed 10 years of accumulation from her insides. The sun was fading and she was as clean as I could get her that day. So it was time to go cruising -- she with a cloud of blue smoke belching from her tailpipe and I with my arm out the window and my wrist draped stylishly over the steering wheel.

If there had been a contest in the 1960s to gauge the “cruisability” of small American towns, Kingsport, Tennessee would have scored high on the list. Broad Street was a half-mile long with circles at each end. It had four lanes and five stoplights. The south end had a U-turn at the old train station and the north end terminated at “Church Circle”, so called because of the five large brick churches that ringed the top of the circumference.

And so, on a warm summer evening in 1964, with the moon a muted spotlight and three bucks in my pocket, I nosed the ’53 Chevy into a right turn off Center Street and joined the sluggish line of traffic for the first time as a driver of my own. With the windows down and the radio up, Jake Pyle and I traversed the half-mile stretch again and again, listening to the Dick Biondi show on WLS Radio in Chicago. Another station we were able to pickup after dark was “WOWO” in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The Beatles were all the rage then. That, and what we would now call "golden oldies". WKIN signed off with the Star Spangled Banner at sundown, yielding the higher watt stations.

Elbows out our windows, Jake and I cruised for hours, watching in silent wonder the occasional “Chinese fire drills”. These were performed with great precision by cars with six or more occupants. At one stop light, the doors of a jet black 1957 Chevy flew open at and a scramble of teens leaped out, circled the car, and reentered on cue, slamming the doors as the light changed. The driver “burned rubber” and the car lurched forward 40 feet or so before slowing for the next stoplight.

“Showin’ off,” said Jake.

“Yeah…Daddy’s car goes real fast, “ I said, my envy transparent.

The summer of 1964 ended and my senior year in high school began. “The Blue Bomb ferried me to school faithfully that year. There were the occasional breakdowns so I learned to be a mechanic of sorts. I at least knew how to change dead spark plugs, replace burnt rotor buttons and cracked distributor caps. I knew how to coast off hills and pop the clutch to start the engine when the six-volt battery failed me. I carried a case of oil in the trunk and with every fill-up, replaced the quart that had leaked out of the motor housing or blown out the tail pipe.

In the years that have followed, I have owned many cars - new ones, used ones, big ones, small ones -- but all of them were just cars that took me where I drove them. None stay in my memory like that old blue Chevy. It was an automobile.

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