Tag Archives: Cars

The Demise of Maria: The Not So Exquisite Corpse

8 Dec


                Contrary to the Broadway tune, “Maria” is not “the most beautiful sound I ever heard.” When I hear  this name,  I form an image of an unsightly and  ill-tempered Chihuahua with multiple shiny patches of fur.  Raised on expresso and sugar doughnuts,   Maria was jumpy, nippy and exceedingly fat. Her black shiny piggy eyes bulged from a nervous mound of tan flab—  like a canine Brando.

            Maria belonged to our friends Johnnie and Julie Green.  My wife, Diane and I would often visit them up North  to play whist.  They indulged this unseemly dog like a favored child. While we played cards,  Julie held the mongrel on her lap   removing its many fleas. Her technique  was to   dab  the flea with Vasoline Petroleum Jelly,   pinch it off, and  deposit it in an ashtray.  This unwholesome and possibly intentional distraction  hampered our card playing and made us wonder why we  were so pathetic that we had gone over there in the first place. Johnnie always kept score,  writing down “Champs” for  their score and “Chumps” for  ours. They were card sharks and as they put it we were (s)not.

            At the time, we  drove a slightly used silver,  AMC Concord — the deluxe edition with a plush maroon interior and plastic wood grain dashboard. The car was lousy but  its worst feature was a perpetual motor oil hemorrhage. This oil leak was the source of constant embarrassment  as it ruined our driveway and stained  parking lots throughout town.            

             Whenever we visited  Johnnie and Julie, I’d parked the car on the grass to avoid staining their driveway and to be spared a lecture on proper auto maintenance by Johnnie. Maria  was  in the front yard when  we arrived one evening. She welcomed us with a loud bark and vicious snap and then dashed under our car. Then Julie came running  out of the house calling  for her. Suddenly Maria dashed out from under the car yelping. “Gee whiz, what’s   this black stuff on her back? ” Julie asked Johnnie.  Smirking Diane and  I dummied up,  knowing full well that the little monster had just been anointed with some  really hot motor oil whilst loitering under the Concord. Feeling perkier,  Diane  kept score that night  writing down “Starwarriors” for us  and “Gangreens” for them. They were not amused.

            We all tired of cards and Johnnie suggested that it would be very healthful if we took a  long walk. Johnnie and Julie loved to lecture us on health and especially diet, as Judy took great pride  in her nearly  anorexic physique.  Despite our  objections they insisted on bringing Maria along,  but refused to put her on a  leash.  Maria constantly ran ahead or straggled behind while Judy frantically screamed for her in a shrill voice.  As we walked down the dark road  this  shrieking was  beginning  to unnerve Diane. “Don’t worry about that damn dog. She’ll be all right.”

Suddenly we heard the crescendoing  roar of an engine as a sinister-looking black sedan came barreling down the road, drawing a bead on the unsightly dog. It looked like a demon car from some  Stephen King novel. It must have been going ninety and Maria was frozen in its highbeams, looking like a fat brown piglet in a centerstage spotlight.  The car from hell never slowed and with a blunted “thwunk” Maria was thrown  three feet in the air into dog heaven.  In shock,  Johnnie and I  retrieved our car and a Maria-sized  cardboard  box, while Diane and Julie waited beside the chubby still warm corpse.

            When we got back to the house, Johnnie  and Julie asked us if they should wake up their kids and tell them about Maria. We said, “No, absolutely not!” But they went ahead and did it anyway. Then they asked if  they should call  Julie’s elderly mother and father who were the dog’s godparents. Again, we said, “No! Absolutely not. But they went ahead and did it anyway.

            Within minutes the whole house was thrown into high hysteria.  Johnnie, Julie,  her mother, and the kids were all hugging and crying, while Judy’s father described the elaborate wooden coffin he intended to built for the late great Marie, who by now had stiffened up considerably and had an eternal snarl frozen on her muzzle. Tommy had her laying in state in the garage ironically on top of a  box of Quaker State Motor Oil.

            Diane and I tried  to appear supportive but when we saw an opening we grabbed our  kids, expressed our regrets, and headed for Daylight.  Feeling slightly guilty but immensely relieved in the tranquility of the incontinentConcord, off we went.  It was the last time we ever played whist.   

My apologies to all Chihuahua lovers everwhere, I look forward to your constructive comments and suggestions.



Home Alone Again

7 Dec

Last year syndicated columnist Lenore Skenazy got into hot water when she wrote about letting her nine-year old son ride a New York City subway home from Bloomingdale’s all by himself. It took him about 45 minutes, but he arrived safely, feeling independent and proud of his accomplishment. Skenazy, however, didn’t fare as well. She ended making the rounds of talk show, defending her actions after the national media dubbed her “America’s Worse Mom”. Skenazy now advocates for the “free-range kid movement”. Her approach opposes the currently fashionable “helicopter parenting” style, in which parents are constantly hovering over the child, ready to swoop down to the rescue at the first sign of trouble. The only problem with “free-range parenting” is that it’s hard to distinguish from what might otherwise be called neglect. The National Effective Parenting Initiative suggests that no child under 15 years, should be left alone for extended periods, particularly overnight.

As a kid I remember my mother throwing me out of the house after cleaning it. She would tell me to go blow the stink off myself and wouldn’t let me back in all day. I would ride my bike all over the place, without any supervision whatsoever. As soon as I was tall enough to reach the coin slot, I was riding the bus alone across the Mississippi River to downtown St. Louis to go to movies. Always independent, self–reliant, and more than a little rebellious, my wife Diane was even worse. As a teen she twice took her bike went on overnight camping trips, by herself, while her parents were out town (This involved a tiny bit of prevarication). She was also infamous for exhausting her seven-year old sister by taking her on an unauthorized 30 mile bicycle trip to go swimming at a lake. Diane really likes to swim. Under Indiana law, a parent is responsible for the supervision of their children until they reach age 18. Parents, however, frequently leave younger kids unattended or in the care of older siblings. State law gives parents a lot of discretion in these situations, considering factors such as the child’s maturity, possible dangers, and access to help.

My parents would often go out on Friday nights and leave me home with my older brother, Norman. I suppose there were some hazards in the house, such as the circuit box that had hot electrical wires sticking out in all directions (my father was an electrician), an old shotgun that was cleverly hidden in the attic (where we all knew exactly where it was), and the gas burners on the stove (which my mother used to light her Lucky Strikes). Before mandatory flame retardants, this stove once set my pajamas on fire when I tried to make some cocoa. But the biggest danger in the house was unquestionably Norman, himself. If he was not giving me the “Indian burn”, pounding my shoulder, or subjecting me to the Chinese water torture, he was watching “Spook Spectacular” on television. I was scared to death of this show, which featured old horror movies. Norman would turn the volume way up so I couldn’t escape it, even if I locked myself in the bathroom, which I frequently did on Friday nights. Leaving any living thing in Norman’s care should have automatically been an indictable offense.

Norman owned a little egg-shaped car called a Renault Dauphine. This car was renown for its poor performance, bad handling, and lack of reliability. Car Talk named it the “9th Worst Car Of The Millennium” and Time Magazine said “it could actually be heard rusting”. When I was 14, Norman sold me the car for a hundred dollars. It did not run, but made a great conversation piece. I naively planned to fix it up and drive it when I got my license. This car figures in a chain of events that began one weekend when I was left home alone. My parent were out of town and Norman, who was supposed to be watching me, immediately took off with his hoodlum friends to do God knows what. A friend my mine came over with some new kid named Donny. Donny was nicknamed “Football” because of the unusual oblong shape of his head. Kids are always so sensitive. Anyway, we opened the garage door and stood around the Renault, hoping to attract some girls. No girls came, but several carloads of teenage boys, cruising for girls, stopped by to offer their expert automotive opinion on what has been called the worse feat of French engineering since the Maginot Line. Donny vanished only to reappear later, evidently a bit liquored up. With six or seven guys standing around the car, Donny said, “You know this car would really be a chick magnet, if it only were a convertible.” Everyone nodded agreement and suddenly the situation spun irrevocably out of control. The next thing I knew Donny , and two other guys I had never seen before, were hacksawing the top off my car, cheered on by the small mob that had assembled. In the ensuing frenzy even I warmed up to the notion of possessing a Renault convertible with a cool “chopped top”. The boys managed to cut through the front of the car’s roof and then worked on the sides. All was going well until the back window fell out and shattered. When they lifted off the roof, the entire car fell in upon itself and imploded. Donnysuddenly remembered some previous engagement. Within a few minutes I was alone in the garage with the remains of the Renault. I locked the door and prepared the story I would tell my parents. My only consolation was that Norman would also get into big trouble, since he was suppose to be home to prevent things like this. I told my parents a day or so later, just before my father went out to the garage. He called a tow truck and they had to tie together the car together with a rope to keep the sides from dragging on the road when they towed it away.

I was grounded indefinitely, as my master plan to attract girls faded away along with the Renault. Norman, who referred to me and my associates as a band of yard apes, thought the whole thing was hilarious, until my parents asked him what he was doing during this fiasco. Thinking back I nominate Norman for “America’s worse teenage babysitter”, with Diane perhaps coming in a close second.

Mechanic-Depressive Psychosis

27 Oct



            I  heard it said that in California all you need for happiness  is a good doctor and a good divorce lawyer. I would like to add that you also need a good auto repair mechanic. Once the magic of the warrantee wears off, this person will become one of your most intimate confidants.  As in all crucial relationships you must learn to choose wisely. Although some people have more than one mechanic at the same time (poly-mechanicogamy) most of  us practice the serial version.  The rest of this work is devoted  to cataloging and describing these important men in my life. I have  altered some of the identifying information as to avoid large lawsuits and perhaps a tire tool across the back of my head.

            I was young, it was spring  and it was my first car when I met Henry– my first mechanic. Henry worked for my step-father who ran a small auto and lawnmower repair shop. Henry was a short, phlegmatic alcoholic,  shaped sort of like a compact  bowling pin. Always dressed in oily coveralls,  he wore one of those train engineer striped hats. Taking to him was usually an exercise in futility, but when sober he had a knack for  instinctively identify the source of auto problems. Returning from  senior skip day  I  managed to tear  the oil pan off my Corvair by backing over an old concrete gasoline pump island. Henry became my hero when he savaged  a replacement part in the local junkyard. A short time later, however,  my step-father fired Henry for almost burning down the garage trying to barbecue a wild pig with a blowtorch.

When I graduated from college the first thing I did was impulsively buy a brand new MG Midget. I was thrilled with my “sports car”, although my mother said it look like a god damn roller skate and feared for my life. I soon learned that the MG had a clutch the size of an aspirin and was constantly in need of repair. That’s when I met Harold, my English mechanic, down at British American Auto Repair. Harold had this cool Ronald Coleman accent and event the most mundane oil change sounded like something from a Regency  novel. “It was a far far better  filter that I replaced than I had ever replaced before.”

 I liked impressing other people saying I had to call Harold, my English mechanic, but unfortunately I found my self saying this constantly. Soon Harold had acquired all my shillings and I had to dump both him and the MG.    

After this continental fling I settled down into a more mature relationship with Chuck from Chuck’s AMACO. From the very beginning Chuck  acted like we best friends. By that time I was married with two kids and the MG had been traded in for a used Chevette Hatchback. This car always had a strange haunting odor that lead the kids to call it the “cheese car”.  Chuck faithfully tended  the “cheese car” for several years until the fateful day it threw an oil plug and cooked the engine. Chuck towed it in and emotionally incapable of separating from the Chevette, he ended up buying it from me. I think he dropped new engine in and managed to find a buyer without  a sense of smell.

            We eventually  moved and there was a period of time when car repair became just a series of one-night-stands involving muffler shops and quicky lubrication places. We managed to upgrade our automobiles and a quiet period of mechanic celibacy followed until disaster struck and threw me into the arms of Eddie from Quadruple-A Transmission Universe.  Eddie recommended a complete transmission replacement and we were committed. For the next two years our car called Quadruple-A its second home. Due to some inscrutable  torque converter problem, Eddie and the guys at Quadruple-A replaced the transmission  at least three times. They even had to pay for a replacement  Transmission when it broke down on our vacation inTennesseejust outsideNashvillenear the machinegun factory. After that Eddie grew standoffish and  I think he wanted to break up. While in the mist of this looming relationship crisis, I was sitting at the lunch table at work and someone said, “Hey look at this article about these crooks at Quadruple-A Transmission Universe.” To my horror there was a photo of Eddie on the front page being arrested by investigators from the attorney general’s office for auto repair fraud. Eddy unsuccessfully tried to disguise himself by  putting his hands  in front of his face, but the transmission fluid stained fingers,  dark slick  hair, and the enormous name tag reading “Eddie”  on his work shirt pretty much gave him  away.  Eddie was never heard from again.

            Quadruple-A closed its  bright yellow doors and a few months later they painted the building blue and opened a taco stand which I always figured was  just a front  for another transmission repair shop. I always got a sinking feeling wherever I drove by there,  sort of like my transmission was slipping.

Repairathon Man

8 Apr

If you have three small children and a broken dryer,  you have some idea of what hell is like.  A few weeks ago we were at my daughter’s house and   her bathroom was covered with hangers holding various articles of clothing, while a large fan whirled relentlessly.  The dryer had broken and they were waiting fir a replacement part they  ordered online. She had not yet resorted to that epitome of despair– taking her wet clothes to the  laundromat. 

For me the  laundromat, always   triggers traumatic memories of when I was single and spent   a large portion of my life at the “World O’ Suds”. I would  s put this off until the last possible minute and then I would schlep down there looking like a hobo in the only clean clothes I had left, in order to spend a fortune in quarters trying to get those darn towels dry.

Just a few months ago our dryer broke down. I decided to save a few bucks by seeing what the internet could offer. I eventually found a website that showed my dryer, and exactly what I needed to do to repair it. It seems that all the fuss was caused by a minuscule plastic fuse that cost about five dollars and takes 10 minutes to replace.  I went to the appliance store  where I bought the dryer and they sent me to an appliance parts warehouse out near the airport. This place actually had the fuse I desperately  needed hanging on a display rack near the cash register like it was a box of TicTacs®.

When I got home I managed to lose about half of the little metal screws that hold the back cover on the dryer, but after 10 minutes— all I can say is “Mission Accomplished”.

            Last winter, I used the Internet to fix  our furnace.  We have an oil furnace, which always manages to run out of fuel on the coldest day of the year. When our oil  furnace    completely runs out,  it  requires that you run some fuel through the line before it will start pumping again. So even when we finally got our fuel tank filled,  the furnace wouldn’t work.

I looked all this stuff up on the Internet and had decided to try to fix it myself, although I was very worried about what might happen in light of the unfortunate incident of the Coleman® Stove. I was alarmed to find that the process of running fuel through the lines is called “bleeding”, a term which has been often associated with my home repairs. I was also worried because the furnace in the pictures did not look very much like our furnace so I wasn’t exactly sure what I was doing. With ticking  parts and colored wires sticking out all over, the furnace resembled  a large time bomb that I was trying to defuse. Call it “beginner’s  luck” or more properly “dumb luck”,  but I managed to bleed the line, only spilling  a gallon or two of No. 2  fuel oil over my coat and our basement floor.

            I must admit that I usually try pawn off calling the repairman on my wife, Diane. I also   make a point of not being around while the repairman is there and I have even  been known to take several trips around the block,  waiting for the repair truck to leave our driveway.

I think I do this for a couple of reasons. First it seems less than masculine to have another man come to your house to fix something that you should be able to repair yourself. Secondly, repairmen all seemed bent on giving me  a lecture on how I  can  make the repair myself in the future should it break again. Having no intention to ever do so,  I nod my head knowingly and have no idea what they’re talking about when they rattle on about   broil plates, solenoids, mullions and my personal favorite “the infinite heat switch”. Then I say that I understand perfectly and make a mental note that if it breaks again I will definitely have to get Diane to  call another repair guy.

Finally I  am embarrassed that they might   disparage my lame attempts at fixing the appliance before they came. They might ask what happened to all the metal screws on the  back cover, for example,   or ask what is all that duct tape doing wrapped around the infinite heat switch.

Years ago I had a van that would stall out all the time because the carburetor’s butterfly valve  would  not open and car didn’t get  enough air.  I discovered that if I shoved an object into the carburetor, it would open the valve enough to allow the engine to run. Generally I used a screwdriver for this purpose, but once I couldn’t find one  and instead   used  an old  bayonet,  I had  nagged my dad in buying me at the army surplus store when I was a kid. 

A few weeks later the car had other problems  and I took it into the garage, completely forgetting  about the bayonet. When the mechanic saw it  sticking in the carburetor he pulled it out as if he were King Arthur extracting Excalibur.  He said “I think I see your  problem, someone has engaged this van in hand to hand combat”.   I never lived  it down.

When we visited our daughter again on, thankfully,  her dryer was working again. We knew it was working because we could hear a continuous loud squeal emanating from her basement — or should I say “her downstairs”.  She has a walk-out  ground floor that she hates to hear us call  “a basement”.  I’m not sure what was wrong with the dryer, but I  told her if should  could  find me a large dagger of some sort,  I’m  sure I could fix it.


Wayne and the Mayor: Another Steeltown Story

15 Feb


               Like many local politicians in Steelyown, it wasn’t exactly clear how Stan Mayer made his living but it had something to do with insurance and real estate, although Stan never seemed to actually transact any business. He spent mpost of his time in back booth at the Trojan Cafe. Wayne Flynn was a harmless and delicate  delinquent and Steeltown’s number one Beatles’s fan.  He was basically too intelligent to work for the cityand annoyed everyone by roaring around town in a silver Corvette he had tricked his father into buying. The deal Wayne made was that in the unlikely event he graduated from high school, his father would pony up for the ‘vette’. 

            Wayne had spent less time in high school than Abraham Lincoln, but somehow   graduated anyway. For four years he never knew his locker combination, which was fine because he didn’t know where his locker was anyway. No one knows how he managed to graduate. The day after graduation he got the silver corvette. He had a local sign shop paint a discreet “Loner” on the back fender and became a local legend.

            The summer after graduation Mayor Stan spotted him in Glik’s Department Store and asked,  “Well Wayne, have you found any honest employment yet?”  Reflexively Wayne replied, “Nope, have you?”

            Despite the  bravado,  Wayne desperately needed a job to pay for the expensive car insurance the fiberglass corvette required, so he went to the Illinois State Employment Office, with his Steeltown High School diploma proudly in hand. Wayne’s diploma would have been more functional if it had been printed on the back of a shop towel. 

            The State Employment Office people took one look at Wayne and quickly sent him to a green block building on the outskirts of town. Inside were dull-eyed men who were taking long metal rods and putting them into a machine that bent them into 90-degree angles. On the other side of the building another group of zombies were taking long metal rods, that were already bent into a 90 degree angle, and putting them into a machine that straightened them out. Wayne didn’t like the looks of the place at all and immediately roared home and and spent then next two weeks listening to the Beatles’s Magical Mystery Tour.  Later he told us  it must have been some sort of government job.

Auto Enmity

11 Jan

I hate cars. Any remainder of my adolescent infatuation has evaporated and and abiding hatred of all things automotive has filled the void . It started at James Monroe Senior High summer school, June 1966. The first day of driver’s education class I’m waiting for my name to be called as the roll is read by assistant football coach, Cedric Kamper. “Smith, Linda… Smither, James… Stark, Denise… Starnes, Roger…” “Good ole Roger Starnes –he’s been in line in front of me for the last 10 years. I’m next and I’m sure this jerk’s going to mispronounced my name and embarrass me.” “Stuh… Stuh…” (“It’s pronounced Stay War. Stay !War! Idiot!” ) “Stuh… Stuh… Strawberry… Strawberry, Terry… Terry Strawberry here?” Everybody busts out laughing. My face turns as red as a strawberry. I wish I was dead. No, I wish he was dead. I should have known then and there that oil and strawberries do not mix.
Mr. Kamper ploughed through the book stuff –power trains, carburetors, tire pressure, and stopping distances –lickety split. We watched a few gruesome flicks about drunk drivers who end up impaled on steering columns with axles rammed up their noses and mysteriously learner permits are bestowed upon us and we’re ready for the open road.
My driving cohort consisted of Mr. Kamper, Wilburt Jasper, Sandy Richards, and me. Wilburt was a thin nervous black boy who was an excellent alto saxophone player and very mediocre basketball player. He wished it was the other way around. Sandy was more academically inclined but her real claim to fame was that she once wrote a letter of complaint to the Continental Baking Company about how Hostess Cupcake wrappers stick to the icing and three weeks later a Hostess truck pulled up to her house and delivered a free case of cupcakes. Mr. Kamper had earned a reputation as a teacher to avoid. His real calling in life was football and he viewed teaching as a necessary evil. He taught basic science and driver’s education and his lesson plans were pretty much the list of movies he intended to show. He also had a mean streak and would cull out vulnerable students to hound unmercifully I was afraid he had my number after the strawberry incident.
The driver’s education car was a big white Chrysler with a large “Student Driver” sign on top. It had an extra brake pedal for Mr. Kamper to stomp on if it was necessary to save our lives. One late June morning Wilburt was chauffeuring us around a state park when Mr. Kamper says, “Let’s see how you do under pressure.” Wilburt winces but is afraid to avert his gaze from the road. Mr. Kamper produces a 4 inch firecracker, balances it on the dashboard, and lights it. Now, I knew it was fake, being somewhat of an fireworks expert. My dad was a volunteer city fireman and every Fourth of July the city cops would roust local teenagers and confiscate their fireworks. They would take the fireworks down to city hall, where other policemen, firemen, and city employees would take them home for their own kids. Well either Wilburt was no expert or he was already anxious just being in this car full of white people that he was unable to see through Mr. Kamper’s lame joke. As the fuse started sputtering, Wilburt started swerving and only by luck escaped ploughing into the largest man made object in North America, the great Cahokia Indian Mound. Mr. Kamper jammed his brake pedal, delighted to claim another victim and have a finally have an opportunity to use the brake. I felt sorry for Wilburt, but I was really glad it wasn’t me.
As if to make up for it, Mr. Kamper took the wheel saying, ” Now, I’m going to teach you punks something really important.” and winked conspiratorially. He pulled out a cigarette, matches, and a Coke. “Here’s how you light a cigarette while drinking a beer and steering the car at the same time.” Speeding up to 65, he put the Coke can between his legs, the cigarette in his mouth and managed to ignite the match while steadying the steering wheel. He light the cigarette, flipped the match out the window, snatched the Coke, and took a big slug. Wilburt was still pouting over the firecracker, Sandy had closed her eyes, and I was unimpressed. Although Mr. Kamper was good, I’d routinely seen my dad do much more dangerous things in the car and in a much more debilitated condition. Mr. Kamper didn’t even have a suicide knob for goodness sake.
Despite Kamper’s shenanigans, I passed the class, but flunked my driving test. I was terrified of parallel parking, but I didn’t even get that far. I blew it before I even started. I was so anxious that when the license inspector said, “Go.” I took it literally and shot across the parking lot into the street, completely ignoring a stop sign. He said excitedly, “Didn’t you see that sign?” I said “Sure but I thought I was suppose to do exactly what you said and you said go.” He looked at me with a mixture of amazement and disgust like I had just soiled my pants or something. He officially concluded that I needed a little more practice, but the truth is he thought I was too dim-witted and dangerous to drive on public thoroughfares.
I got my license three weeks later when my dad took me to the state driver’s license bureau. The inspector there was more relaxed, probably because he didn’t have to test 35 teenage boys high on driving hormones. The inspector was so fat he couldn’t buckle the seat belt, so one quick spin around the block and I was finally street legal.
Getting your license and getting a car were two different things in my family. After a traumatic experience with my older brother, my dad wasn’t about to have his car insurance cancelled or his rates doubled again, so I was banned from the family Impala and began a quest for my own car.
I owned two cars that I never actually drove. The first was a 1957 Plymouth Belvedere that I bought from Burt Franklin for 25 dollars. It looked fine and the motor ran, although it didn’t have any brakes. Burt towed it into my backyard and I worked like a Trojan for two months fixing the brake hoses. Then I parked it on the street next to our garage. This got my mother off my back, who was mad because the brake fluid had killed most of the grass in our backyard. Without insurance, I still couldn’t drive the car, but I could work on it.
About two blocks from where I lived a guy named Dave Sukowski built and raced drag racers. Every evening until midnight there would be a crowd of super cool guys hanging around his garage drinking beer, checking out his Super Stock Dodge Super Bee, and talking about motors. To the consternation of neighbors they would periodically fire up the engine which sounded like Krakatoa erupting. I decided that I would shoot for a piece of this celebrity with the younger and more naive crowd.
Using spacers I jacked the back of the Plymouth three feet in the air, painted on a racing stripe, and fashioned a spoiler from auto body putty. Through Hot Rod Magazine advertisements, I ordered decals for Hooker headers, Thrush mufflers, Valvoline motor oil, STP oil treatment, Holley carbs, Hurst shifters and Isky cams. I plastered both sides of the car with decals (strategically covering rust spots) and damn if it didn’t look like a race car. The Plymouth had a black roof and an antique Egyptian white body with extra wide fins, a hydromatic push button transmission, and a 318 cid engine desperately in need of a ring job. At nigh I would lean over the car like I was working on it and suddenly guys I didn’t even know stopped to talk to me. Daily I would start the 318 and drive 10 feet up the street or back again so the cops wouldn’t tow it in as an abandoned car. Each time the engine started, it produced enough thick white smoke to kill all the mosquitoes for a three block radius. Although it was a good summer, it really wasn’t the same as driving. And then there was that sad winter day when my dad called O’Dell’s Junkyard and had the Plymouth permanently put out of its misery. In my attempt to remedy the smoke problem I filled the crankcase with high viscosity STP which was fine in summer but once the temperature dropped, the stuff solidified and the pistons stuck in the STP like pickled pigs feet in gelatin.
That next spring I acquired the second automobile that I would never actually drive. It was a french import —a Renault (pronounced in the Midwest “Renn’-Alt”). It originally belong to my older brothers’s girlfriend’s parents who sold it to him for sixty bucks and which he then sold to me for 75$. You could use a manual crank to start it — just the thing for a cold Illinois winter.
The Renault was kept in the garage and one weekend when my parents were out of town, I was messing with it with my friends, Mickey and John. We talked about how it was a shame that it wasn’t a convertible so we could put the top down and attract girls. Mickey had a younger brother, Pat, who was kind of crazy and worked for an auto repair shop sweeping up the red stuff they throw on oil stains on the garage floor. Pat stopped by with his equally crazy friend Bobby (who had a head shaped like a football hence his nickname Bobby Footballhead) and tried to convinced us that we could easily convert the Renault into a really cool convertible using only a chisel and hacksaw. We were still discussing the possibility when impetuously Bobby Footballhead and Pat started hammering and sawing away. There was no turning back and within an hour the car’s top was completely chopped. Pat’s knowledge of structural engineering was a bit faulty and as soon as the roof was removed the entire car collapsed in upon itself like a jellyfish out of water. When my Dad got home he called O’Dell’s Junkyard to tow away the imploded Renault, making me 0 for 2 in car acquisition game.
My next car was bought at a car auction when I was a senior in high school. It was a 1960 Chevy Corvair with a three speed transmission. I customized it with two racing stripes, rear hood scoops, and a spoiler. I put baby moon hubcaps on the front wheels after painting them metal fleck blue and chrome reverses in the back. I even had insurance and could drive it. I really loved this car, but right away it started to betray me. On my very first outing I learned three things about Corvairs: 1. A Corvair can really go ninety miles an hour. 2. The Corvair has only one long fan belt that runs the oil pump, alternator, and pretty much everything else, and 3. This fan belt is very likely to break, especially if you are going 90 mile per hour and that’s why you should always have a spare fan belt.
I drove the Corvair to senior high school skip day and after dropping off my friends, I backed up over an abandoned gas pump island ripping a major hole in the oil pan. My friend Larry opined that it looked like a thousand dollar’s damage (I only paid $500 for the car). The car did freeze up from lack of oil on the way home, but I obtained a junker’s oil pan from O’Dell’s and it worked fine. But new complications arose as the car develop an insidious electrical short. The horn honked in cadence with the windshield wiper cycle, the defroster stopped working and the headlights went out whenever you stepped on the dimmer switch.
I borrowed my older brother Norman’s car to go on a date I and traded him my Corvair, forgetting to brief him on its eccentricities. Norman was driving down a very dark road when he was confronted by a driver who refused to dim his high-beams as he approached. Norman as was his custom aggressively stomped on the dimmer switch to teach the offender a lesson and terrified the other driver and himself when the Corvair’s headlights went out completely. Norman ran off the road into a horseradish field and spent 15 minutes figuring out that he needed to hit the dimmer again to turn the lights back on. He was furious at me when I returned his car. He said, ” You should take that damn Corvair, paint it black, and use it for a coffin.”
Once the Corvair began making clicking sounds whenever I made a right turn. This went on for a few weeks and then one day I was making a hard right turn in front of Schemers’ Supermarket and the clicking got louder I turned the wheel quickly and suddenly it spun all the way around and the steering column came detached from the gear box and I could pull the wheel up about two feet up in the air. I was heading directly for the front display window which contained a pyramid of Campbell’s Pork and Beans. Fortunately the brakes still worked and I skidding to a halt just short of the window.
The Corvair limped along for almost more 2 years. I finally sold it after I hit some loose gravel and slid into a drainage ditch on the way to school at Southern Illinois University. The president of the student body was driving behind me at the time and gave me a ride in his Corvette. He said he was impressed that I didn’t flip the car over. Having my eyes closed at the time, I wouldn’t know, but I voted for him anyway.
Not being able to part with the chrome reverses when I sold the Corvair, I temporarily stashed them in my mother’s basement. They were auctioned off along with everything else in the house 35 years later when my mother slipped off a new kitchen chair while reaching for a chocolate pie, broke her hip, and had to go live in a nursing home near Chicago.
My next vehicle was a Bell Telephone van that was sold because it had over 100,000 miles in mileage. It burned a lot of oil and always smelled like flatulence. Parking was a terrible problem at college but I found that I was able to park the van anywhere I wanted, as long as it was close to a telephone pole. This lasted until an inconveniently situated state trooper gave me my first ticket for not having a valid truck inspection sticker. The trooper insisted that I cover up the Bell Telephone decals, ending my parking scam. I also had to get the van inspected. I knew the van would never past inspection and for a while I drove around with a counterfeit sticker that I had traced and colored with crayons to look like the real thing. I finally took it in and to my surprise it barely passed (Thank God there were no emission inspections in those days.). I got a can of K-Mart gray primer paint and reluctantly sprayed over the Bell Telephone emblems. To compensate for the loss I stenciled “Stawar Enterprises” on the side in bright yellow letters. People were always asking me what business I was in. A few weeks later I traded the van for a metallic blue 1966 Ford Fairlane which I later sold for three hundred dollars when I went away to college that fall. I got three new crisp hundred dollar bills for the Fairlane and I kept one of the bills in my shoe the whole time I was away at college as a pecuniary security blanket.
When I graduated college and lined up a job, I bought my first real new car— a 1973 MG Midget, that cost $2,700. On the day I drove it home from the dealer I parked it over at my brother’s house. I got into his station wagon to run an errand and backing up, I crashed into my own new car, denting the grill. The dent remained as long as I owned the vehicle as a perpetual reminder of the price of unbridled impatience.
My mother’s initial comment was that the MG, “Looked like a damn roller skate.” But I was too excited about my “sports car” to be discouraged. The car had a clutch about the size of a tea saucer and I found that it needed to replaced semiannually if you habitually rode the clutch as I did. I had successfully changed the Fairlane’s clutch and despite a box of left over parts, it ran, but the Midget’s metric motor was beyond me. You had to be a left-handed, double-jointed Australian marsupial monkey to work on that car. The engine had to be pulled just to change the oil. Three clutches later I became closer than I ever wanted to be with Harold, my English mechanic, although I rather liked telling people that I had an English mechanic and Harold certainly enjoyed taking my Yank money.
One night my friend Al and I took the MG to a dive in Memphis — Bad Bob’s. We saw Jerry Lee Lewis pick a fight with some guy at the bar and decided it was a good time to leave. On the way home I hit a slick spot in the road skidding into a very soggy field. The Midget was buried in mud up to the windows and we had to take the top down just to get out. We woke up a farmer and paid him 10 bucks to pull us out with his tractor. The tractor had a cotton planter gizmo attached to the front which scratched the right front fender of the Midget, but it was worth it to get out of there. My feelings about cars were beginning to change
A year later I moved to Florida and driving the Midget through Tallahassee on my way to visit my future wife, Diane, I noticed rain drops on the windshield. I turned on the wipers and they smeared the drops which were not rain at all, but motor oil. Motor oil drops on your windshield is usually a very bad sign. Suddenly all the idiot lights went on and the gauges went berserk like a slot machine hitting the jackpot. The MG had thrown a rod and needed a complete engine transplant. I was real upset. From at point on autos became objects of fear and loathing.
Three weeks and $500 dollars later, I took the bus to Tallahassee to pick up the car. Diane rode back with me to Daytona and two hours outside of Tallahassee the MG started making a roaring sound. I discovered that the muffler had worked its way loose when they replaced the engine. We pulled into a gas station that was attended by a couple of goofy adolescents and talked them in to letting me use the service bay to fix the muffler. It was getting late and I worked frantically on the muffler, burning my arm. A local Lothario cruised by, checking out the MG, and especially Diane who was asleep in the Midget. I was oblivious to everything except the muffler and when the guy walked up and said, “Looks like she’s about had it.” I assumed he was talking about the MG, not Diane and I said, “Nahh, a little tightening and she’ll fine.”
The Midget gave me one final embarrassing moment when I drove my boss to a psychologists’ convention in Washington. DC. Halfway there the car suddenly lost power and wouldn’t go any faster that 40 miles per hour. When we got to DC we were constantly worried the car was going to stop completely and leave us stranded on one of the streets full of hookers and pushers. Prayers and threats prevailed and when we got home, Harold said the MG had a blown head gasket. My boss said a lot of other things and I never lived this down.
By this time my hatred of automobiles had crystallized. In the years that followed this feeling was further aggravated by experiences with other misfit cars. There was the “Cheese Car”. My kids christened it that because of a funky cheesy smell that we endured until the car’s engine burned up two years later. My new mechanic, Chuck, bought the car, replaced the engine and sold it at a big profit. I often wondered if he had anything to do with the engine burning up in the first place.
Next was the “Pumpkin Car”, so named because of its large size and bright orange paint job. One day while shifting gears it gave a cataclysmic shudder and oily pieces of broken gears were strewn about the road. I called the local junkyard and they towed it in giving me 25$ for the remains.
Briefly we owned a large green Chevy van. It lost two side windows while I was driving down a particularly bumpy dirt road through an orange grove. It had chronic carburetor problems requiring the butterfly choke to be forced open once it started. I drove around for three months with an English bayonet stuck in the carburetor. My dad had bought the unsharpened bayonet at the Army Depot in East St. Louis when I was eight years old. It finally came in handy.
This van also had fan belts that slipped and made terrible screeching noises. Once we were driving down a dark foggy street and saw some pedestrians walking ahead. I told my oldest son, Saul, “Watch me scare the crap out of those guys.” I am ashamed to say I snuck up on them slowly, put the van in neutral, and gunned the engine, generating a gigantic squeak which had its desired effect. All ahead squeak factor nine.
Next there was the oil leaking AMC Concord whose engine fire was extinguished by a state trooper who for once was appropriately situated. I drove the car home later when it cooled down, but I had to keep the heater running even in the middle of the Florida summer to prevent the engine from overheating. Once the incontinent Concord overheated and I pulled off the Interstate and parked under the expressway next to a pond. Within minutes a battalion of homeless vagrants were all over the car helping to carry water and giving me the benefit of their automotive expertise. So it seem that all men, regardless of socioeconomic status, are authorities when it comes to cars. The Concord gave way to the Japanese van that could turn on a dime but had to have three alternators replaced in one year.
Last year our station wagon that had its transmission replaced only to burn out again while we on vacation. We were stuck outside of Nashville at a roadside store that specialized in towels and Elvis souvenirs. I called my transmission shop and was told to contact the local warranty dealer. Arrangements were made and we all piled into a tow truck (Diane, our two youngest boys, the station wagon and me) and off we went to see Mr. Transmission. The driver suggested we stay in town a few days to see the civil war battlefield and tour the local machine gun factory. Instead we immediately rented another car and continued on the vacation from hell, like the Pony Express, shooting one lame horse and saddling up another. I thought this year things would be different but the week before vacation the car developed a severe shimmy, prompting Diane to sing “Shimmy Shimmy Cocoa Puff” ever time we bounced down the street. The new tires and front end work wiped out our meager vacation savings and so another reason to despise autos.
God intended for autos to be feared and hated. They are obviously beyond the comprehension and control of most mortals. They are nothing less than malevolent entities bent on mischief and I have the physical and psychic scars to prove it.