October 2011 Bonus- Those special first vehicles

It’s hard to forget your first. Big or small, old and used, or new and … new – like many people, my first vehicle holds a special place in my memories. Painful memories. But like a sharp stone, the river of time has worn off the rough edges of those memories, leaving nothing but the rounded curves of nostalgia, and the bitter aftertaste of the vomit that metaphor just induced.

I actually had a few “first” cars. Growing up in the rural mountains of Maryland, my family tended to run cars until there was nothing but a shell left to rust behind the barn. One of the first vehicles I drove was a beat-up Ford Fiesta, a car that was barely bigger than me- I didn’t get into the vehicle, I put it on. This was the car I used for my driving test when I was 16. I’m not sure how old the car was in 1986, but I do remember that even though I passed my test, I lost points for not braking properly and not shifting smoothly. I didn’t plea my case, however, because I realized she probably would not have been swayed if I told her that if I wasn’t careful with the pedals, I’d put my foot through the floor boards.

This vehicle was great on gas, but not so much for my image. Still, having a vehicle to get around in was more than a lot of kids my age had, so I was willing to overlook the after-market radio bolted to the underside of the dash, wired to two speakers laying in the back seat. With only two radio stations in town, neither worth listening to and one of which I worked for, I was lucky that the radio also had a working cassette player. In the winter, however, the cassette deck would freeze, and I would need to turn the radio on for awhile to warm it up enough for the cassette to play. This usually happened late at night, when I was heading home from work. At the radio station. That was now off the air. So I would listen to static until the cassette would finally, sluggishly, begin to play, Alphaville and Eurythmics sounding like the slower, less articulate cousins of the Chipmunks. The heater didn’t work either. The shocks also frequently froze, resulting in a bumpy ride and lower back pain. The car was really more a carnival ride than anything.

It didn’t have low beams, but it did have fog lights, so I’d drive with both sets of lights on, and then turn off the fog lights to trick oncoming traffic into thinking I’d dimmed my headlights. Yes, my high beams were on all year long, not just when it was cold.

Another vehicle I occasionally drove that sticks out in my mind was a farm truck that went forward at a slight angle to the left. I remember this truck because the switch for the high beams (which actually worked) was on the floorboards next to the clutch, and the gear shift was on the steering column, something I’d heard about but never seen before. The transmission also made a low, moaning sound that increased in pitch until the next gear was shifted into. The haunting quality of this sound also made this truck seem like a carnival ride.

As fun as those vehicles were, my real “first” vehicle was a 1976 Datsun pick-up truck my Dad gave me in college. He picked it up for a few hundred dollars- it had been totaled, but a second totaled truck was thrown in for free, so over the course of about a year my father and my brother combined the two into one working vehicle. And it looked like a combined vehicle- while this truck was blue, the other truck was yellow, so I spray painted the various body parts taken from the yellow truck with blue spray paint. But while the color of the cap may have matched the existing paint, the paint inside certainly didn’t. Still, it was better than yellow, and the black roll bars taken from the other truck and mounted in the back drew the eyes away anyway.

Parts of the dash were gone, so I replaced it with cardboard I painted black. None of the light switches worked, so I re-wired the lights to toggle switches mounted in a small, plastic box of matching blue that I mounted by the gear shift. The radio was accessed by opening the glove box. The overall effect was very backwoods James Bond.

As a finishing touch, I painted a black skull on the hood of the truck. For better or worse, there was no other vehicle like it on campus.

It had its problems, of course. One of the headlights fell out while I was driving once, and I never did get it back in position properly, leaving the truck looking like it had a lazy eye. The engine wouldn’t start when it rained, and at some point, a previous owner had replaced the original fuel pump with an electric one that was connected by wires jammed into the fuse box, which had melted as a result. Sometimes, the wires would come loose, and the fuel pump would stop, making the engine cough and eventually die. Usually while driving down the highway. If I was lucky enough to have a passenger with me when this happened, I’d have them take the wheel while I dug around under the dash, trying to get the wires back in place so I could re-start the engine.

Backwoods James Bond, indeed. That truck was awesome.

It may sound like a dangerous vehicle, but it was solidly built out of steel; even the repaired areas. And it couldn’t go over 55 miles per hour on a good day. This didn’t help me when a deer ran out in front of me while I was driving home one morning, after working all night at the other local radio station that wasn’t worth listening to. Although I was only going 40, the front grill was made out of plastic and the collision embedded broken bits of it into the radiator. I dragged the deer off the road by its hind legs, but while I was looking at all the radiator fluid draining out onto the ground, the deer got up and took off, stunned but unharmed. Not so much my vehicle. I was truly in the middle of nowhere at 6:30 in the morning, and not knowing what else to do, I drove the rest of the way home. Unfortunately, this destroyed the engine. Fortunately, the other truck was still rusting behind the barn and its engine was okay. Unfortunately, after the engine was replaced, it still wouldn’t start when it rained.

This truck and I eventually parted ways when my father traded his vehicle for mine, leaving me with a powder blue Ford Escort that used a pen barrel to work the turn signal, a steering wheel sticky with embedded engine grease, and a hood that once came open all the way while I was on the interstate. Drivers Ed class really can’t prepare you for just how brown your pants will turn when that happens.

My father claimed at the time that we had to switch vehicles because my truck was easier on his back during the long drive to his mechanic job, but to this day, I still believe he wanted to trade just because my truck was cooler than his car. Sadly, I never got the truck back before it rusted into unuseability, but a few years later, I did rescue the hood, and hung it proudly on the wall in the college art gallery as part of my senior art show.

Those vehicles are long gone now (although that hood is still tucked away in the corner of the barn.) What I drive these days is far more sensible, and much less adventurous. But while my first wasn’t as glamorous as I would have liked at the time, looking back now- I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Those were exciting times. I think driving home tonight, I’ll leave my high beams on the entire way, just for old time’s sake.

And maybe my headlights, too.

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