The last roommate (before the current one) and I were sitting around one evening, talking cars.
He was a car guy.
He went through his mental inventory, describing all the cars he’d had, what he’d done to them, how fast they would go, etc. His ride at that time was a ’61 Corvette convertible, on which he had done considerable work – engine, headers, carburetor, tires, etc.
It didn’t even smooth out, he said, until you got it up to about 120 mph.
I took his word on that. I only got to drive it once and got a ticket because he told me to “punch it.” He said that because he saw a police car I did not see, and thought it would be fun. That ride cost me about $80.
[Note: The only other time I drove a hot car – a Pontiac Trans-Am a college friend and I took to Austin – the owner also urged me to “punch it.” This was during a light rain. Shortly after I “punched it” we found ourselves on the median, going backward.]
Anyway, after the roommate held forth on cars for a long time, he realized he was the only one talking. He tried to draw me in.
“What was your first car?” he asked.
“Uh, that’s it. Down there in the garage.”
Yep, I replied. I was out of college and working, living on my own, making decent money, and I was still driving the four-door family sedan I had purchased from my dad for $200 when I turned 16.
He looked at me like I was the least interesting person he’d ever met. From an automotive standpoint, I surely was.
But I wish I still had that ’68 Impala.
It was ash gold, with a white vinyl roof and a 327 V-8. It would pin you back in the seat if you punched it, which was like flushing the toilet – you could watch the gas gauge go down.
But gas was less than a dollar, so I punched it a few times. It was behind that wheel that I met most of the fine Texas law enforcement officers who have written me tickets.
What little I know about cars, it taught me.
I had my first wreck in it, about 20 minutes after I got insured, backing into someone’s door in a parking lot.
I spent a summer working just to replace the engine block after it cracked one winter in Lubbock. I had left it in the parking lot at a college dorm while I went on a choir tour, but a deep cold spell taught me a lesson about anti-freeze.
I changed the oil, changed a few tires, jump-started and got jump-started, and one night, on a narrow New Mexico highway, I learned about brake fluid (you have to have it). I also learned that when you have an extremely close call with a carful of passengers, your windows fog up – instantly.
That car took me on my first date, a tentative let’s-go-get-a-Coke-after-church excursion shortly after I got my license, and pretty much every date thereafter. I think the only girl I dated who never rode in that car is the one I’m married to.
I drove it all over America. I drove tired, drove happy and sad, drove with both feet, drove with the windows down and the wind tangling my hippie hair. I never lived in it, but I ate and slept in it. I did use some of that carefree bachelor money to install a good stereo system with those new-fangled cassette tapes, and at times, I drove loud. I gave rides to lots of friends and a few strangers.
I will always look back with joy on the time when I could put everything I owned in that Impala and hit the road.
After I moved back to my hometown, a guy I worked with in the press painted it for me, then ended up buying it. Not long after that, I married a girl who had a T-Bird. I became a pickup guy and have been one ever since.
Then a few months ago, my dad gave me his car. He knew he wasn’t going to be driving anymore, and wanted it to get driven. It’s a big Buick that he bought new and cared for immaculately. He kept it in the garage, had the oil changed every 2,000 miles and documented everything he did to it.
In 14 years, he put just 62,500 miles on the odometer. In about four months, I’ve already put 9,000. It’s not even transferred to my name yet, but it’s already been totaled, when a sweet little 80-year-old lady pulled out in front of me as my son as we went through Dickens.
She had good insurance, and it’s as good as new, thanks to Johnny Ward. I’m so glad – I just wasn’t ready to say goodbye.
I guess I’ve come full circle, once again driving a big, four-door, family sedan I got from Dad.
I’m still not very interesting, I’m afraid. But that’s fine. My current roommate is OK with me hanging onto it.
As long as I resist the urge to “punch it.”
Bob Buckel is editorial director of the Messenger.