It’s 1964 and I’m sixteen. My sister Ilene is teaching me how to drive her ’55 Olds that I will soon inherit. We’re at a red light and a guy with a pompadour and a pack of Lucky’s rolled into his sleeve is revving his Chev. He wants to run it and races away, giving me a middle finger salute. I later notice a hole burned in the backseat upholstery from a Lucky he tossed in.
The Olds is a soothing powder blue with classy white swooshes on both sides. It’s parked across from my Philly row house, under telephone wires with dangling sneakers. The sun glints off polished chrome. I’m ready to see what she’s got.
I take The Olds out to the suburbs and floor it. Fifty…sixty…seventy…eighty…ninety. Warm spring wind rushes through open windows like a hurricane. One hundred is tantalizingly close but a red traffic light races toward me. I let up on the gas.
It’s a couple years later and the Olds is on life support. It only has low gear and no reverse. I lumber the few miles to school, careful to park in a place where I won’t have to back out. I leave the keys, hoping someone will steal it.
No such luck.
It’s 1966 and I’ve graduated high school. To celebrate, my parents buy me a brand new white ‘66 Volvo 122S as a bribe to go to the nearby, large city college. It has comfy red leather upholstery, an automatic transmission, and cool bucket seats in the front. I never attend the large city college, instead opting for a small liberal arts school, but I keep the Volvo. I drive to college, my antenna covered with a flower sprouting over a plastic apple, banana, and orange—all swaying in the wind. The new me includes a red bandana, ponytail, and goatee. A friend added the flowery red velour fabric that turned my Levi’s into bellbottoms.
It’s 1971 and I hitchhike west for a summer vacation that becomes the rest of my life. A year without a car is no problem. But I get a sudden urge to buy one. A ‘64 white Chevy Wagon sitting on a hill with a For Sale sign calls to me. My parents front me $200 and it soon whisks me to my first teaching job. At the end of the school year, I invite four friends, via postcard, to join me on a road trip back East. Only Colleen accepts.
Colleen is a girl friend and quickly becomes a girlfriend during the trip east that takes a right turn to Mazatlán. The Chev proudly sports a plastic pink flamingo over its antenna. We’re surprised when people stare. We sleep on top of the roof in a cow pasture on the Mexican border. A drooling hitchhiker takes us to a beachfront town where everyone feels like they’re tripping. Someone gives us a palapa to sleep. Pooch, our elkhound, looks at us with pleading eyes. He hates heat. He chases rats under a restaurant in Mazatlán, where we stay at a hippie campground. We play gin rummy in the shade and watch sunsets chin high in the Pacific. Heading home, Van Morrison is the sound of magic on the eight-track in Monument Valley.
It’s 1976 and the Chev has been a trusty friend, but it’s starting to wheeze. I keep jerry-rigging the tailpipe back on with coat hanger wire on rainy streets in Portland while not finding a place to live. I’m about to start chiropractic school. Am I making the right decision?
Something tells me to go alone one day on the rental quest. I turn down a random street and see the perfect small house with shuttered blinds, but no For Rent sign. It’s raining. The radio is blasting Jefferson Airplane, flamingo perched on the antenna. I leave the engine on, door open and get out to snoop around. An older guy in overalls comes out from next door, striding slowly like he owns the place.
“Can I help you?”
“Do you know if this house is empty?”
“Do you know who owns it?”
“Yep, that would be me.”
“Any chance you’d rent it to me?”
Oly Olson is the perfect landlord. He brings us home-canned salmon, plows a huge garden for us and thinks it’s funny that we ‘trot’ for exercise. We’re not married but he thinks we are. We feel guilty.
We’ve put a hundred thousand miles on the Chev. Once the antenna, flamingo and all, fell off in Vancouver, BC. We drove around the block, relieved that it was waiting for us. The Chev is huge, like a bowling alley on wheels and Colleen looks like a captain steering a boat on the busy freeways of Portland. We see a blue ’63 Dodge Dart Wagon for sale for $300. The flamingo covered antenna on the Chev is replaced by plastic fruit topped with a flower on the Dart, not quite the same as the one that covered the Volvo.
In 1979, finished with chiropractic school, we load the Dart with everything we own and feel like Okies moving west. But we’re moving east. After a few months, the east is not resonating with us, we turn around. Someone asks at a rest stop, “Are you really from Or-E-gone?” I’ve started my first chiropractic practice in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. After a quick weekend trip to Seattle, we head back home in time to be stopped halfway up the west slope of Snoqualmie, by the ash spewing out of St. Helen’s. The 1980 eruption has closed the roads across Washington. If anything can make it, it’s the trusty Dart. No one seems to know what ash will do to an engine. We decide to go for it, anxious to get back to my fledgling chiropractic practice. Exhaust drifts through the rusted floorboard and that doesn’t seem like a good idea with a pregnant wife. The horn sticks in a busy intersection. I open the hood to fix it. Someone yells, “Hey doc, need any help?”
The good ol’ days of beaters are about to end. Work, family, responsibility, and image all stare us down. We buy a tiny new gold Datsun 310 for six-grand.
Colleen and I have lived in four states, resided in everything from a tipi to a large home, and have driven numerous cars, each with a unique personality, during forty-two years of marriage. We’re both retired now, but still feel a rush of excitement as the road whispers, “There’s uncharted seas ahead…sail that ship!”