March 22, 2018


We all have stories about the horror show that was our first vehicle.  It was a rite of passage, having an absolute junker in which to learn to navigate town.  It built character.  Maybe our parents thought that if we could drive that first terrible car, it would ensure that we could handle anything newer and more mechanically intact later, and because it was still a ride, our very own car, we would truly appreciate what we had.

I never got to drive my first car.  We bought it for cash from a guy the next county over.  It was an old Chevette with four different shades of navy blues and grays on various panels.  It was represented to be ugly as a hatful of assholes but sound under the hood.  My daddy decided it was a good idea to buy it; my mother disagreed, but she was out-stubborned by my daddy and me.  He drove it home and it was a miracle it ever made it, given how much smoke started coming out of the back.  We went back to the guy's house twice, but for some reason, in spite of cars in the driveway and sounds in the house, he was never home and no one answered the door.

My daddy took it to someone who "works on cars" but it just wasn't salvageable.  It was towed from there and forgotten.  My mother's smug expression lasted for months.

My "real" first car, then, was the 1981 Mazda 626 in metallic infected-snot green.  It had been sitting for a year on the lot of the dealership where my aunt worked, and they were quite eager to get it out of there for a song.  I started working the day I had turned fifteen, so I had enough saved up to pony up the $500 needed to buy it.  The engine and starter had to be rebuilt immediately.  This was done in the garage of a neighbor who also "worked on cars", side by side with my daddy.  Somehow they knew how to do it.  All of the wiring needed to be replaced, too, another hit to my paltry passbook account at the savings and loan in town, but by the time I turned sixteen, I had a running car.

The first time I drove it, my plastic driver's license still warm from the DMV printer, I drove straight to Virginia because I could, and lost three hubcaps.

That Mazda was kind of a Cadillac in its day.  They were ahead of their time.  It had automatic door locks and windows, power steering, and power brakes, and the interior was brown leather that wasn't ripped up and still smelled good on warm days.  It was just the right size and just the right amount of boxy.

And it developed ... character ... during the two years that I owned it.  At one point, my daddy tired of repairing the solenoid switch on the starter and even showed me how to do it, but it wouldn't stay fixed, so he rigged a wire with a 3.5 mm terminus to the starter and tucked it away.  Every time I wanted to start the car, I had to turn the key to "on" and then pop the hood and touch the tip of the wire to the negative terminal on the car battery.  Vroom.  

This worked well until the latch cable to open the hood broke off in my hand one day.  I had to pry the hood cover up with a tire iron until I could just fit my hand in there.  I like to imagine that people thought I was stealing it all the time.  I could leave my keys in, windows down, doors unlocked, and no one could make off with it.  Character trumps Lo-Jack.

But the first manifestation of its depth of character was the AM/FM radio, which was stuck on our local oldies station.  All music from between 1957 and 1971 was on offer.  Pop and top-40 were not an option.  It was oldies or silence.  If I wanted to play a cassette, I had to have a battery-operated player sitting in the seat beside me.

This led to my best friend and me learning the lyrics to absolutely everything from late-50's bop-rock to Motown and The Beatles.  While the frequency-turning knob was stuck and useless, the volume button worked well, so we cranked it up and sang every word of "Bus Stop" and "My Boyfriend's Back" and "Hey Jude" during the morning ride to high school.  

Familiarity with the older, good stuff is probably what led to my easily keeping away from mainstream music and delving instead into classical and folk and what-not.  I was sad when I had to junk that car two years later (when the transmission decided to select random gears without soliciting my input in the matter).  Even the next car I had, that Pontiac T-1000 that cost twice as much as the Mazda and that once made flames shoot out of the air vents at me, wasn't as much fun.  I never could find anything good on the radio.  And it had a cassette player.

My daddy was right.  I truly appreciated what I had.

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