Cars Make Me Smile

Photo for Cars Make Me Smile

It’s different for most of us, maybe the same for a few of us, but there’s that one thing that takes us all back to a better time, a good time, sometime special in our past. For me, it’s cars.

I remember my first car, a pale blue thing with squishy seats that smelled of cigarettes, perfume, and oil. I still remember standing on my father’s lap holding the steering wheel and laughing. I don’t think the car was moving and maybe my father was tickling me, but there it is, and I still feel warm with the memory. Later I would learn that it was a “Nash” and my parents owned the Nash when we lived in Wilmington, Delaware and “for Heaven’s sake, you were only three the year we owned the Nash!”

My Uncle Jim came to visit us while my dad was stationed overseas one year. He arrived in a new Cadillac convertible, but I don’t remember the color. The seats were a soft creamy brown, and when the top was down and we were on the Interstate going so fast that my eyes would water, I always felt very special. Alone in the back seat with my all-day sucker from Stuckey’s, my hair would try to fly away with the wind. I thought nothing could be better than my Uncle Jim’s car and I can still see my mom in the front seat leaning on the door, her hair gone wild in the wind like mine, and we are all smiling. I went to thirteen schools before I graduated from high school and I can’t remember the names of most. I remember the cars though.

There were always station wagons in my past; blue station wagons and always Chevys; station wagons that took us from post to post from one end of the country to the other, and back again. My mom is always driving because my dad is stationed someplace we can’t go or he is already someplace and we are going to join him. The station wagons break down and I have to leave my coveted area in the rear with the luggage. My brother and sister fight in the back seat until my mom would have enough, find a place in the shade to drink a beer, and wait for help to arrive. One time, the station wagon flew with my mom behind the wheel when the furnace exploded and my brother got burned. She smiled later when she remembered me and found me in the back of the car, sleeping.

The station wagons never broke down when my dad was home and they took us on grand adventures to places most people can only dream about. The station wagons were the best when my dad was home and we would take Sunday drives on back roads with hills that made you fly up from the seats. Daddy and I would laugh, mommy would have another beer, and my brother and sister didn’t fight. My dad always whistled when he drove and I learned to whistle in a station wagon. I can still whistle a recognizable tune today.

The last station wagon was, of all things, a Ford, and it was bright red! I think that Ford was the first new car my father had ever bought. Red inside and out with a large rear section behind the back seat just for me. The Ford took us on our last grand adventure as a family. My brother left home for good that year and my sister a year later. That was the year I learned to really drive and my dad would fall asleep when I drove because he trusted me. It would be late at night when he’d pull over and turn the wheel over to me. I’d pull away slowly, window down, and always, I’d whistle some soft tune or another and my dad would smile and put his head back for a little while. The road went on forever those nights in the direction of another post, and I remember I was eleven that year, maybe twelve.

For a couple of years there were cars my father bought me at auctions. The first was a 1941 Plymouth I called the “Grey Ghost,” but it only lasted a few months before the tie rods went out and I screamed as I flew across the pasture, the front end of the car digging into the hay and all that dust. I don’t remember my mom or dad laughing that day, but there were words thrown about regarding heart attacks and questions about where my dad had gone wrong. He did say that day that I must indeed be the evil twin; the gypsies have stolen the one with some sense between her ears. I remember my mom getting drunk that day and leaving me and my dad to wave goodbye to the “Ghost” as it took its last ride to the junkyard. The next day my dad had us back at the car auction where he bought me a 1958 Chevy Biscayne with rusted out floor boards and dented everywhere else…. but it had a nice engine. We all smiled for different reasons that day. With a grin, my father reported that by the time I had the bodywork done there was a good chance I would gain some sense, and I’d be old enough to get my license. My mom smiled because I was “wheelless” and I smiled because it had a nice engine. That night with help from a friend, I cut holes in the manifold and rigged a pull cord to the interior that, when pulled, slid the cut open beer cans back and I had “DUMPS.” My mom got drunk the first time I pulled the cord; three chickens died of fright, and it took my dad two hours to get the Billy goat off the roof of the red station wagon. It was actually a GREAT engine.

I worked all summer the year I turned fourteen in the family restaurant (without pay) and in the fall, my father took me to a used car lot and told me to pick the car I wanted. The ’58 was gone and I had been given a relatively new, two tone blue Karmann Ghia. Embarrassing to drive, but surprisingly fast for such an ugly car, I think my father had just given up with my tinkering to get a little more out of the damn thing. Recently retired from the army, he stood at at-ease as I walked around the car lot. I made it to the third row and stopped, grabbing my father’s arm, jumping up and down, and generally acting possessed. All I could do was point and my father smiled and laughed and hugged me and we were full of joy and more excitement than two people could contain. I saw the teal and white 1955 Bel Air, my dad was looking at the baby blue 1957 T-Bird parked next to it. My dad never stopped smiling, but in classic military fashion, came to attention and asked if I was sure about my decision as I literally threw myself on the hood of the ’55 Chevy. I was 14 years, 6 months old when I took my driving test in that Bel Air for a farm permit license in the state of Kansas. I sat on a cushion and had another cushion behind me so I could operate the car. I was four feet two inches tall, weighed 57 pounds, and I passed on my first attempt.

I don’t know how my parents survived the next year or so. My friends were all “gear heads” that drove ’55, ’56, & ’57 Chevys and what we could do to cars was, well, more than the manufacturer’s specs for sure. I remember my mom drinking more beer when the gang was at the house, but she smiled a lot and my dad was often under the hood with us. A year later my dad took a job with the military in Florida; the ’55 had died a glorious death when a rod went through the engine and I was back in the little German car. I had found two 1958 MGAs in a farmer's field and I had plans. The day we left for Florida my mom drove the Chrysler Imperial; my dad drove the red station wagon and pulled a trailer with the two MGs on board; and I made up the rear in the Ghia. I don’t think anyone but me smiled that day; but then I was the only one to follow two “cars in the making” with miles and miles to plan.

Debbie and Her MGAPhoto by David Jensen Photography

There were a lot of cars after the first MGAs; new cars, old cars, and even a Chevy van for a while (350 V-8 short van with three on the column and Holly four-barrel carbs). There was the Vet that threw me back in the seat when I punched it. That, of course, pulled my foot from the accelerator. I didn’t like the Vette and it went away (without the Holly carbs). There were two brand new Grand Ams that were nice and an old Barracuda that just drank too much gas. There was even a Pontiac Sun Bird, fully loaded and with a V-6; a quick little devil and the cause for my only ticket ever…compliments of Texas! And then there was the brand new 1987 Pontiac Firebird I kept until 2015. I drove it from Key West, FL to Anchorage, AK with two cats and all the junk I could pile on top. Last year, I promised it to a student if he graduated on time and he did. The Firebird went away, but the memories of it remain.

I’m down to three vehicles now, or as my late husband would have called them, “my rolling stock.” I have a big, new, GMC pick-up that I can’t work on, and a 1993 Chevy truck that runs well and looks great, but I can’t work on it either. And of course, I have my 1959 MGA Roadster that I tinker with all the time. Not too difficult, with such a small engine, and I smile often looking down at my greasy hands holding a beer and think, “I don’t need no stinking gloves!”

I think about cars and smile the most often when my little “A” and I are surrounded by classic muscle cars in the two street rod clubs I belong to. I laugh out loud when people stare at my little “A” nestled safely between a ’39 T bucket and a lime green giant MOPAR as we cruise down the highway like bats out of hell. And I always smile and laugh when a friend in a powder blue ’57 T-Bird pulls up and I remember that ’57 T-Bird I could have chosen so many years ago. It’s the one time, my father told me years later before he died, that he had ever been close to being disappointed in me. “I wanted the T-Bird,” he said, “and you chose the Bel-Air and I thought at the time that you weren’t the daughter I raised.” Yep, cars still make me smile dad, and so do you.

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Last updated on August 31, 2016.