My first car was a green 1958 Ford Custom, which meant it was customized to my father’s own frugal specifications. It came complete with a steering wheel, a gear-shift lever, turn signal indicator, accelerator, brake, clutch, door handles inside and out, a cigarette lighter and ash tray. No radio. No air conditioner. Until we suffered an epic blue norther one winter, it had no heater, either.
This was the car that took us on vacation every year, a time when the lack of air conditioning was mourned but only by me. Dad said an air conditioner only made you feel that much hotter when you got out of the car. Though I have come to realize that he was right about most of the things we disagreed on back then, he was dead wrong about that.
Dad coached our Little League team for a few years, which came to entail picking up any number of players and taking them to practice on any given day. It was surprising how many people were unable to take their kids to Little League practice and games once they found out the coach would do it if they couldn’t. My teammates and even kids from other teams had two things in common. We loved baseball and we found it somehow satisfying to stomp and grind the floorboard with our cleats. I have no idea what happened to the floor mats. If they cost extra, we never had any.
At any rate, it didn’t take long for a small but expanding hole to appear in the floorboard. On the other side of the hole, just a few feet away, was the pavement rushing by in a blur that was, for a kid, exciting because it looked like a good way to get hurt if I tried hard enough.
Since I spent most of my car-time in the backseat, I had plenty of time, especially on long road trips, to transform my idle brain into the devil’s workshop where I pretended I was Robert Mitchum in “Thunder Road,” dropping stuff out the back to slow down the darn evenuers, or I might be James Bond, dispensing ingenious gadgetry that blew up the bad guys chasing my Aston-Martin. I fantasized about how cool it would be to lay my hands on some firecrackers but…my parents were right there in the front seat.
If I was quiet, mom and dad didn’t pay much attention to me but when I made explosion sounds with my mouth, they turned around to see what I was doing. In this case, they had some question beyond that. They wanted to know how long this had been going on and exactly what kind of objects had been dispersed onto the highways and byways of America. Dad was right about litter, and he was right for a long time. That episode marked the last time I ever littered a street, road, or highway. Ever.
Dad later redeemed himself in my eyes by allowing me to pee out of the hole, thus saving time and, to his way of thinking, money. Time is money, even on vacation.
My parents eventually traded the Ford in for a snazzy Chevrolet Bel-Air, complete with a radio, heater, AC, etc. The Ford was “passed down” to me. The Ford Custom was only a few years younger than I was; in five years it would be old enough to drive itself. My dream was to leave Lubbock, but I couldn’t see doing it in that car. No radio.
Less than a month after I got my driver’s license, on just my third try, I found myself negotiating a devilish piece of road in Lubbock known as the Tahoka Traffic Circle where traffic merged and exited from all directions. It’s been gone for more than twenty years but back in the day it was good practice for turning left for an extended period of time and then either slamming on your brakes because someone darted in front of you or getting honked at because you darted in front of someone else. The worst thing you could do was stop. It was raining that day and, fortunately, windshield wipers hadn’t cost extra when dad bought the car.
Just when I thought I had my exit from the circle plotted – I’d been driving in circles for a while now – a peculiar thing happened: a dust storm rolled in. All of a sudden, with no warning and having done nothing wrong, I was driving blindly around the Tahoka Traffic Circle in a raging mud storm. The nightmare lasted a minute, maybe two, but I honestly remember it as an hour or more before I got off the circle.
When it was over and the Ford and I were off the road and the mud was starting to turn into the more familiar dust, I had a little breakdown there on the side of the road, yes I did, and I vowed loudly and with great emotion that I would leave Lubbock as soon as I could, possibly that very afternoon.
Three years later I did that very thing, but not in the Ford Custom. My dad gave it to our favorite mechanic, who kept it running far longer than it was designed to run in that age of built-in obsolescence. I know you’re supposed to feel loyal and sentimental about your first car, but the only thing I missed about my old Ford Custom car was the added feature in the back floorboard.