At 38 years old, I am nearing the most troublesome and frightening stage of my life. Middle age doesn’t bother me; I like to think I grow better with age, like a fine wine or a classic muscle car.
No, the thing that turns my blood to ice and loosens my bowels (I like to work the word bowels in whenever I can) is a simple, upcoming date. It’s a date as ordinary to you as yesterday or tomorrow, but to me it strikes a fear that is almost beyond comprehension. That day is April 18th, and that day my daughter turns 16 years old.
Old enough to drive.
This is what a simultaneous heart attack, stroke, and brain embolism looks like.
And therein lies the horror. I remember the feeling of freedom I experienced from the small laminated card the secretary of State gave me, showing that I was qualified to drive all by myself. I remember thinking of how much luckier I was going to be with the ladies now that I had my license. Most of all I remember thinking the shackles of oppression my parents had bore on me for so long would somehow be cast off, leaving me that much closer to being an adult and moving on with my life.
Growing up, freedom and sex. I pretty much don’t want any of those for my daughter. I prefer to keep those shackles secured tightly for as long as I possibly can. Now she’s going to go out and turn sixteen.
Damn you, endless march of time! Damn you to hell!
A year ago, in a perfect act of stupidity and lack of foresight, I made a deal with my daughter:
When she turns sixteen, if she has a job, I’ll let her get her license and buy her a car.
Webster’s defines a dolt as a stupid, oafish person. It goes on to define moron as an adult mentally equal to a child. Apparently, I am a moronic dolt. Or a doltish moron. Your choice. It appears my daughter has gone out and gotten herself a full-time job for the summer. It also appears I am going to have to put my money where my mouth is.
I love my daddy because he’s…special.
So, the other day I found myself sitting in the living room scouring the want ads for a good used car. I had already gone down to my State Farm agent to find out how much insurance was going to cost. It turns out, the insurance for a 16 year old, first time driver costs just a little less than Snoop Dogg is paying for his Escalade with the solid gold “ree-ims” and built in bong. It is also a little more than the Bulgarian immigrant down the street who has three DUIs and a Fleeing and Eluding charge is paying for his 1997 Firebird. I reflected that with the cost of the car, insurance, clothes, braces, food, and entertainment for my daughter, it would have been a lot cheaper back in 1991 to just go out and pick up a nice little addiction to crack. Also, crack doesn’t backtalk.
But I digress…………
I sat there looking for the most rare creature known to man; the dependable used car under $3,000. As I traced a finger over the Cavaliers, Grand Ams and Escorts, my mind wandered to some of the jalopies I had owned in my life.
Oh, and there had been some winners.
Don’t get me wrong, at present I own quite possibly the greatest mode of transportation in the modern era of the internal combustion engine; The 2006 Chevrolet Three Quarter Ton Pickup Truck (you’ll note I capitalized all the words, just like they always capitalize God and America). My truck is in no way a jalopy. It exudes testosterone. If young women get too close to it they can actually impregnate themselves. I am afraid to let my wife drive it, lest she become lesbian and start to find women attractive. It is that manly of a truck. But I sure didn’t start out that way. Not by a long shot.
I lent it to this thing in 2007 to help it move.
My first car was a 1975 Chevy Caprice Classic. No standard Caprice for this cat, Classic all the way. This was the first year the Chevy’s took unleaded gas, so I got to pay another nickel a gallon at the pump. It had a fuel economy gage and a sweet vinyl top. That’s right, Vinyl. All the upkeep of a convertible without the pesky wind in your hair. The piece de resistance, however, were the fender skirts. Nothing will get a chick’s shirt off quicker than fender skirts. It had a V8 engine that got just under ten miles per gallon and a sweet-ass eight track player.
First the champagne, strawberries, and Barry White and then…these babies.
On my 16th birthday my mom took a few hours off from work at lunch. She came and got me at school, took me to the Secretary of State’s office and got me my license. Then, she dropped me off at home so I could drive my car back to school. Of course, I repaid this loving and generous act by totally wrecking my car three hours later. I was fish-tailing down a dirt road with a girl in the car, showing her how well I could drive.
Before 1700 hrs (that’s 5:00 P.M. for you soft, undisciplined civilians) on my 16th birthday, I had gotten my license, gotten my car, wrecked my car and surrendered my license. For the next month my laminated card of freedom sat safely snuggled in my dad’s wallet.
Only 1939 Germany has less “Freedom” than this
When I had driven my Caprice into the ground, I needed a new set of wheels. I had a lot of trouble deciding between a Corvette or a Mustang. In the end I opted for the 1981 Chevy Citation. I owned the car for a year and a half and my happiest moment with it was when I actually got all 4 wheels off the ground going over the railroad tracks on my way to work. I sold it, and both back windows simultaneously fell out 20 minutes after the guy left my driveway.
Oh Well, Caveat Emptor.
After the great flying citation, I joined the Army. A car wasn’t on the packing list for basic training and it turns out they didn’t give me much time to use one if I had one there anyway. I didn’t own another car until I was stationed in the land of the midnight sun, Alaska.
I bought my first brand new car in Alaska. One day I looked at the mountains, walked the trails through the aspens, hiked across shallow rivers and decided I needed a 1988 Toyota Tercel. Let’s face it, nothing tames the last frontier quite like a two wheel drive Japanese compact.
Actually, it was all I could afford, the cost of living in Alaska being what it was. I paid $227 per month for the Tercel and $228 per month for the insurance. It turns out speeding tickets and accidents tend to come back to haunt you. Who knew? I drove that little bastard into places most sane men wouldn’t take a Land Rover. Mountain goats would see a silver blur go bouncing by and ask each other “Was that the Tercel DX or the Tercel EX?”
On any given day between April and December that car would have gun barrels and fishing rods sticking out of every window. It was like a cat going up a mountain hill and took to icy roads like a mechanical Wayne Gretzky.
My mom and dad visited me one year. As I wrestled the “Tercel from hell” up a near-vertical, slate strewn mountain logging trail to show them the Mendenhall Glacier, my mother, in a state of near panic, made a sound that normal humans are incapable of making. Wolves and dogs all over Southern Alaska cringed in pain as the scream/moan/shriek hit their sensitive ears. The last Alaskan Bearded Condors flew away and have yet to return. The natives still call my Mother Ini-kitchet-Ilit, which means “woman who makes crazy ass noise” in the Inuit language. In my defense, she was over-reacting. We had at least three wheels on the ground at all times.
Easy on the mom, Nanook!
The Yota had a 25,000 mile warranty and at 28,000 miles I blew the engine. I guess you’re supposed to change the oil every once in a while, but who really has time for all that. It took a Puerto Rican Freemason and a shady Toyota dealer but I got a new engine and a year later sold it for about half of what I paid for it. I’m not kidding about the Puerto Rican Freemason either. I had been talking to my buddy Manuel and told him about my bad luck. He told me to take it to the local Toyota Dealer and tell them Manuel said to take care of me. The next day I had a brand new engine, no cost. In this case old Manuel hooked me up but the power of those Freemasons still scares the S^#t out of me.
But all of those fine automobiles pale in comparison to the biggest hooptie of them all. It was a car I owned for almost a year when I first got to Fort Wainwright. It was an automobile in only the loosest interpretation of the word. I referred to it only as:
The Chevette was born in 1980 and was sky blue. I bought it from a soldier who was being transferred to Texas and paid $250 for it in 1988. I needed a car to get me around post and drive back and forth to the Military Police Station for work. Without a car it was a half-mile march to work every day. A half-mile march in temperatures that sometimes reached -50 Fahrenheit.
Warmest June in 30 years.
When I went to pick up the car I noticed the license plate was from 1983. I asked the corporal I was buying it from what was up with the license plate.
“Oh, I never really got around to getting it licensed.” He told me off-handedly.
“Can I get the title so I can go get it licensed?” It seemed like a reasonable request.
“Well, that’s one of the reasons I didn’t get it licensed. There really isn’t a physical title, so to speak.”
“How do you get insurance without a title or registration?” I asked. He looked at me like I had just told him 3 + 3 = 71.
“Look kid, this thing has no title, registration or insurance. It runs OK and gets you from here to there. If you want it, buy it. If not, don’t waste my time.”
I asked him if he was worried about getting in trouble with the post Military Police.
“Don’t worry about them. Those guys won’t even notice.” He asked.
I informed him that I was, in fact, an M.P., figuring he would start stammering and apologizing after confessing to numerous law infractions in the presence of the post law enforcement authority.
“You’re an MP?!?!”
“Yes, I am.” I stated simply and proudly.
“Then what in the hell are you worried about?! You want this thing or not?”
I swallowed my pride long enough to hand him the $250 in cash I had in my pocket. I did a quick walk around of the car to see if I had any questions and when I looked up the corporal was halfway to Fort Hood, Texas. I never saw him again.
I drove the car around post and passed three or four MP patrols. True to the corporal’s words, they didn’t even notice the plates on my sky blue Chevette. As I drove around Fort Wainwright, I found out quite a bit about my new ride.
The door locks were broken in the unlocked position. They would not secure the vehicle against theft, pilferage or most importantly, practical jokes.
The key was not needed to start the vehicle. A simple turn of the ignition would start the car while the key sat happily in my pocket.
The car’s maximum speed was 45 miles per hour.
The car had a four-cylinder engine but for reasons I later surmised were designed to increase gas mileage, it only ran on three of them at any given time.
Every once in a while the hood would just fly open. When slammed shut, it would clasp tightly and no amount of force would open it, but at random times (usually while driving the car’s maximum speed of 45 miles per hour) the hood would just pop open and slam against the windshield, eliminating any view of the road ahead.
The tires were unencumbered by anything remotely resembling tread.
Eventually, I made it back to the barracks and parked in the lot, backing the little guy in against a fence, shielding my license plate from view. I was disappointed in all the problems with the vehicle, but it had only cost $250 and I needed something to get me back and forth to work.
Every day for the next year, I drove an uninsured, unlicensed, un-inspected deathtrap to the Military Police Station and parked it 30 feet from 12 patrol cars. If anybody noticed, they didn’t say a word.
It was bad enough that the Chevette had mechanical issues and sometimes left me stranded or pushing, but sometimes, the damn thing flat out tried to kill me.
If the temperature dipped below 50 degrees, the car was a little hard to start. You may find this hard to believe, but in Alaska, the temperature sometimes goes below the 50 degree mark. Sometimes 100 degrees below that mark.
When the temps dropped down, the only way to start the car was to open the hood and spray about a half can of starting fluid straight into the carburetor. You then started the car with the gas pedal mashed all the way to the floor. Just before the battery died, the engine would catch, spitting and sputtering on the verge of stalling. A nightstick jammed between the gas pedal and dashboard kept the car running while I ran in and took a shower and got ready for work. By the time I came back out the car would be screaming like a banshee and on the brink of blowing all of it’s gaskets, but it would be warm and ready.
One day I followed all the required steps to get the vehicle started. I sprayed a good portion of a can of starting fluid into the carb and tossed it into the car. I jammed the gas pedal with my nightstick and went in to prepare for work. When I came out I unjammed the stick, sat in the seat and started for work. As I drove, I thought I heard a slight hissing sound. I got out and looked at the tires. They were bald with wires poking out, just as they should be. I listened carefully but heard no sound.
Back in the car and the quiet hissing was back. I quickly forgot about it as my thoughts drifted to the day of work ahead. Soon, my thoughts drifted to people I had known and places I had been. When my thoughts drifted to waves of color and flashes of light, I realized that things might be amiss. When the cars ahead of me turned into frogs and hopped off the road, I realized I was as stoned as Steven Tyler three days out of rehab. I managed to pull the Chevette over to the side of the road without killing myself or those around me.
20 minutes of clean, fresh air and my head had cleared enough to investigate the phenomenon. A short time later and the answer was discovered. When I threw the starter fluid can into the car, it had landed bottom up under the driver’s seat. When I sat on the seat, it depressed the aerosol top, slowly filling the car with starting fluid. Starting fluid is almost 100% Ether. Ether is the chemical doctors used to use as anesthetic to knock out patients prior to surgery.
It turns out while driving to my job as a law enforcement official for the federal government, I was inadvertently huffing like a bored 14 year old.
Law and order…far out, man!
Very crafty, Chevette. Very crafty indeed.
The biggest problem with my car, however, wasn’t mechanical or chemical. It was my friends. My friends and I lived by the axiom, “If you’re going to do something, do it right.” This especially pertained to practical jokes.
It didn’t take long for my friends to find out that my car was unable to be locked and every morning I would find stranger and stranger objects in the old blue Chevette.
Like the morning I came out to find a dead 40 pound beaver sitting in the drivers seat with his little paws wired to the steering wheel. For months, my buddies referred to my car as the “Beaver Wagon”.
On more than one occasion I opened the door on my car to find a plastic blow up pleasure doll sitting naked behind the wheel. I never understood why they were called “pleasure” dolls. They never looked like they were in pleasure; they always looked very surprised to me.
For the duration of the time I owned the Chevette, I found all kinds of things in it, to include a live seagull (that made quite a mess), the potted Fichus plant from our Captain’s office, a live stray dog, and 75 or so empty Labatts bottles. Each time I opened the door, I cringed to see what awaited me.
It was only a matter of time and my buddies discovered that they did not need the key to start the Chevette. From that moment on, I got to play a game called “Find the car.”
Sometimes it would be parked on the 9th fairway of the post golf course, other times front of the post commanding general’s quarters, but every time I found it, I could count on a lengthy explanation to get it back.
The last time I saw my blue Chevette, was also the most memorable. I woke up one summer morning and decided I would use my day off to go fishing. I grabbed my rod and reel and headed toward my blue Chevette.
When I arrived at my parking spot I was not surprised to see an empty space between the yellow lines. I was surprised to see a pair of military issue binoculars sitting on a large piece of paper. The paper had a giant arrow pointing off toward Birch Hill, a couple of miles in the distance. Birch Hill was the post ski hill. It was not much by Alaska standards but dwarfed most popular ski hills in the lower 48 states.
Understanding the intent of the game, I picked up the binoculars and scanned the horizon. It took me about 10 minutes of searching until I saw what I had been looking for.
There, perched at a 40 degree angle, halfway up the side of Birch Hill was a small sky blue dot. The dot had the familiar classic lines of a small, American made, hatchback, compact automobile.
As I sat there looking through the binoculars, contemplating how I was going to get the car down the deadly slope without rolling it, I remembered the glove box, empty of any type of registration. I also thought of the license plate and wondered whose name would come back if someone decided to check it with the National Crime Information Computer.
One thing I knew for certain was whose name would not come back.
Chevette? What Chevette?
As I breathed in a lungful of clean Alaskan air, I couldn’t help think what a great day it was for a long walk to the River to do a little fishing.
So here I am 20 years later and I am still looking for a cheap, dependable car for my little girl. As I mentioned before, she will be driving very soon.
Pray for me.Follow