Here’s the third installment of the Betsy saga. I’ll be done and on to less self-indulgent stuff next week, I swear to God. This is a lot like Harry Potter books: start with one idea and each subsequent installment gets bigger and bigger. Here’s thefirst andsecond part of the series. As per last week, if you feel I’m personally the cause of all the dead birds in the Gulf, the global war for oil and the reason why we don’t have hyper-buses that run on positive feelings, feel free to skip this or use “planet-killing vehicle of extinction and death that I should be ashamed for loving” in place of every referent to the car.
If you’ve lived in an area for as long as my father has, you
tend to develop a network of “your people.” You’ve got someone who knows
restaurants. You’ve got someone who knows babysitters. You’ve got someone who
knows real estate.
And you’ve got someone who knows cars.
Whenever I had a life-altering decision, Dad didn’t always
have the answer. However, he always had “a guy who knows something about”
whatever I was looking for.
The year I started college, Dad had “a guy” who could get me
a moped I’d need in order to make it from Ag Hall to Vilas in the 15-minute
window I had between classes.
The year I couldn’t get a U-Haul to take a ton of my stuff
home for the summer, Dad had “a guy” who could get us a truck for the day.
The time I needed to insure several vehicles and pick up
some renter’s coverage, Dad had “a guy” who ran the numbers and figured out how
I could save a ton of money.
Dad always had “a guy.”
After I saw the Mustang, I was not only having an argument
with myself, but also with Dad.
He wasn’t a mechanic, but he wasn’t stupid, either. Cars
don’t last 42 years without developing some problems. He saw what the inside of
the car looked like and he knew what stuff could end up costing me. He also
knew that we didn’t get the motor running, the brakes checked or anything else
for that matter.
When it came to certain things, Dad presumed the worst.
Quite often, he wasn’t wrong.
Of course, I was presuming these things as well.
But for some reason, I still felt a strong pull.
Finally, after two days of circular logic, it came to a
“Look,” I told him. “You’re not wrong about anything you’ve
said. It could be a worthless friggin’ disaster. But you don’t know that and
neither do I. Do me a favor: Go take it to your guy this week. If he says it’s
a pile of shit, I’ll forget about it.”
“OK,” he said, nodding slowly. “I’ll take it over there.”
The next week was a blur of phone calls, plans, changes,
more plans and a heavy dose of anxiety.
Dad took the car to His Guy for a look. The answer was
pretty simple: If your kid wants a show car, it’ll cost more to fix this than
it’s worth, especially if he can’t do it himself. He could dump upwards of
$5,000 into the interior if he has to hire it out. But, the core is solid, the
engine is good and the transmission is great. Someone poured a ton of parts
into this thing and it has got no frame rust. The cowl is good, the body is
solid and things look OK. If he wants to drive it and he’s a bit handy, this is
a good car.
The last thing he said sealed the deal:
If your kid doesn’t want it, let me know. I’m looking for a
car for my kid.
When Dad took the car back to the dealer, another guy was
waiting to take it for a test drive.
Dad called Thursday and told me all of this. I had no idea
what the next move would be.
The Missus knew.
“Call him back, set up a test drive and if you want it, buy
I was stunned. You sure?
“Yes. Just call.”
“We’ve got enough in savings. If you don’t want to spend it
all, take out a loan for half. It’s what you’ve always wanted. Go get it.”
I called Dad back and told him to set up an appointment for
Saturday so I could drive the car.
He called back about 20 minutes later.
“They said they’re closing up for the weekend tomorrow at
noon. They’re taking the car with them to Jefferson to sell it at the show.”
“Can you make it down tomorrow before noon?” he asked. “I
can get you in for a test drive then.”
I calculated the 812 things that would have to happen for
that to occur. None of them were plausible, really, without upsetting a few
apple carts. The Missus would have to miss part of work to put The Midget on
the bus. I’d have to be back no later than 2:45 to meet the bus after school.
It was a two-hour drive and the place didn’t open until 9. I’d have to figure
out the money in the mean time, which mean moving pieces like a meth head
playing chess. Plus, I’d have to figure out if I wanted the car within about 10
minutes of driving it. This wasn’t going to work…
My wife sensed it was slipping away.
“Go. Now. I’ll figure it out.”
I turned my attention, what little attention I had left, back
to the phone.
“I’ll be there tonight. Tell them we’ll be there first thing
in the morning.”
I remember being a kid and coming home from my grandma’s
house, dead tired, late on Christmas Eve. I’d be limp as a rag doll, eyes at
half-staff, completely unable to utter a coherent sentence.
And yet, the minute my head hit the pillow, I couldn’t
What would Santa bring? What would be under the tree? Was I
good this year? Did anyone know I was responsible for the “mystery stain” on
the living room rug?
My mind would race and my heart would pound. Each minute
would be an hour, each hour would be a day.
Have you ever really tried to sleep? Like forced yourself
It didn’t work then, and it didn’t work now.
Two Jack and Cokes and calming breathing exercises didn’t
help matters, either.
By the time 7 a.m. rolled around, I was up and pacing the
Dad got up, we read the paper and went to the lot. We drove
past several times, as it wasn’t quite 9 yet.
Finally, we arrived. We were alone.
Five minutes passed. Ten. Fifteen. No sign of anyone.
I pressed my nose against the window of the garage. The
Chevy was gone, but the Mustang was there.At least it wasn’t in Jefferson.
Ten minutes later, an SUV pulled up. A fat guy carrying
breakfast in a Styrofoam container hopped out.
“Hey!” Dad called out. “Where were you?”
“We open at 9:30,” the guy said.
“The door says 9,” Dad pushed.
The guy shrugged. His name was Mike, Dad said.
After a deliberate opening of the office, Mike found the
keys for the Mustang and tried to start it for us.
The starter gasped. It gasped again. Not even a crank. Mike
yanked the shifter around with the delicate touch of a man trying to shake a
baby to death. He pumped the gas a couple times. The starter whirred, the car sputtered
and the motor caught.
A few more pumps of the gas pedal and it roared to life.
“Look,” Dad said. “The exhaust isn’t blue. That’s a good
Mike backed the car out of the garage and hopped out of the
“Take her for a ride,” he said. “One thing: the neutral kill
switch is screwed up. That’s why she wouldn’t start. If you shut her off and
you can’t restart her, wiggle the shifter and keep trying.”
I slid into the driver’s seat. Dad grabbed shotgun. We were
on our way.
Try describing your first kiss.
The first time you petted your first puppy.
The feeling you got when your team finally won it all.
The day you became a parent.
Regardless of your skills as a wordsmith, chances are, the
words pale in comparison to the event.
It’s a little hard to explain what it felt like driving that
car. It still is.
The steering wheel was a thin, hard, injected mold plastic,
worn smooth from years of use.The
rumble of the engine had the purr of a classically tuned carburetor, even in
the 25 mph zone along Packard Avenue.
Stopping was a bit of adventure, as the car had four-wheel
manual drum brakes. Cars from about 1970 on had power brakes standard, which
meant a light touch would stop the car. To get the Mustang’s brakes to work, I
had to mash them down and physically stop the car by forcing fluid out of the master
cylinder and into the brakes.
Dad noted he just about shit himself when he went for a
drive in the car without knowing that tidbit of information.
The ignition was on the dash, the brights switch was on the
floor and you had to manually pump the washer fluid out of the tank with a foot
The seats didn’t have headrests.
Every part that would be plastic on a new car was metal on
this one. The dash lights glowed green.
Extra turn signals were mounted in reverse in a pair of hood inlays.
I stopped at a red light before turning back toward the
dealership. I tried to say something coherent to Dad to tell him how
overwhelming this was.
It didn’t matter that I couldn’t explain it. He could see it
on my face.
“You look like a little boy who just discovered his pecker
for the first time. Let’s go back and get the deal done.”
Mike wouldn’t budge on the price of the car from what Lou
had told me earlier. No real reason to negotiate when you realize that you’ve
got all the leverage.
It didn’t matter to me. I was buying the car.
In rapid fashion, I pulled together the money, paid for the
car and drove it off the lot.
We got back to Dad’s house and checked out a few things. We
topped off fluids, checked tire pressure and more.
It was about noon. I needed to get going.
“You want to take the Mustang?” Dad asked. “I can bring the
Civic up on Saturday and Mom can follow me.”
I wasn’t sure. I hadn’t tried it out yet, the brakes were a
bit scary and if the car broke down, I wouldn’t be there for The Midget.
Then again, Dad’s Guy told me it was a good car.
Dad also understood what it was like staring at a new toy
and not being able to play with it.
He bought a1987 Buick Grand National, the fastest
production car made that year. It was delivered the day before he went on a
week’s vacation out of state. The car sat in the garage while he was hundreds
of miles away.
He slammed the hood on the Mustang.
I made it. I slipped behind the wheel of the Mustang.
“Wait a minute,” Dad said. He went back into the house and
got a camera.
He took a shot or two of the car and one of me through the
driver’s side window.
I still have a copy of that photo. I didn’t believe it was
possible to smile that much.
Highway 41 enters the state at the Illinois/Wisconsin
border, working its way through the Fox River Valley, up into Green Bay. It then
crawls along the edge of the Bay through Peshtigo, Marinette and into the Upper
Peninsula of Michigan.
As it winds through the bigger cities, the speed limit sits
at 55. On the outlying areas, it climbs to 65.
The stretch between Milwaukee and home is about 100 miles
and tended to take a shade under two hours when I drove it in the Civic. It was
an easy, calm drive. You could set the cruise control and practically fall
The Mustang had many fine attributes. Cruise control wasn’t
one of them.
She did seem to have one thing I’d not seen on a car before:
The steering wheel formed the outer edge. The speedometer
and fuel gauge formed two big, round eyes. The running pony logo in the in the
center served as a button nose. The horn ring served as a great big smile.
I was trying to feel out the car a bit. With manual brakes,
I found myself following cars with a lot bigger buffers than I normally would.
I was sitting between 60 and 65 on a wide-open road when I felt a rush of air
blow past me.
A red Porsche had to be going at least 80 and was continuing
to put distance between us.
I looked at my car and had a heart to heart.
“I know you’re old, you’ve been in a barn for a long time
and I really don’t know how you’re feeling, but what do you think? You got it
Her gauge eyes seemed to sparkle. The horn-ring grin seemed
to grow wider.
“Why don’t you find out?” she whispered.
I stepped down on the gas and was immediately hugged back
into the seat. The orange needle climbed quickly from 60 to 70 to 80 to 90. It
kept climbing. I could feel the engine like a herd of galloping ponies, driving
forward harder and faster.
I pulled up alongside the Porsche, passed it on the left and
then pulled in front of it. I then backed off the throttle and forced it to
pass me on the left.
I’ve never driven that fast before or since.
Upon conveying that story to The Missus, she immediately put
the over/under line for me getting my first speeding ticket in almost 20 years
at 3 months.
In 1976, Johnny Cash recorded his last #1 Hot Country
Singles hit, titled “One Piece at a Time.” In it, he tells the tale of a sad
autoworker who always wanted a Cadillac but can’t afford it. He hatches a
scheme to build his own by ferrying away one piece every day or so from the
Such was my life for the next six months, as I kept improving
the Mustang one piece at a time.
The rule I set for myself was this: You’ve spent a ton of
money already. You’re not cash-strapping the family for your own entertainment.
Thus, my salary was off limits.
However, extra pay I could pick up from judging debate or
forensics tournaments was fair game. Thus, weekends were spent driving her to
small towns throughout the state, listening to high school kids ply their wares
and collecting a couple bucks and a cold-cut lunch for my trouble.
and rare off weekends were spent picking up spare parts and teaching myself how
to fix the car.
The guys at the local auto parts store got to know me on a
first name basis. I was like the kid in this commercial.
While I loved working on the car, I was scared to death I’d
screw something up. Each time I started a project, I’d visit with Brad at the
store. He was the one who convinced me to start hacking.
“Dude, you got this,” he’d say. “Piece of cake.” And away
The first thing I did was fix the neutral kill switch and
rebuild the shifter. She now starts every time and the shifter is hard as a
rock. The switch was $40 and the shifter bushings were a buck each. I checked
with Dad’s Guy and found out that it would have cost at least $300 for a garage
to do it.
He was right. If I was handy and patient, I could probably
save a lot of money.
I swapped out the radio for an old cassette deck Dad had in
his garage. I sanded and repainted the engine compartment, the air cleaner
housing and the valve covers. I redid the valve gaskets.
I built my own set of choke tubes to replace the rusted
ones, drilling out rusted bits of tube out of the manifold. I also managed to
swap out the temperature sensor to get the temp gauge to function again.
Then, I got more adventurous.
I pulled the heater core, rebuilt the heater box and
installed a new vacuum distribution tree. After about four re-workings, I
managed to get the heater to work. The day I pulled that off, I drove around
with the heat on full blast, giggling like a schoolgirl.
It was about 72 degrees outside and I sweated like a pig.
As the winter descended upon Wisconsin, it was time to store
her in the garage. I pulled the battery and worked on stuff that didn’t need
I pried loose the shocks and replaced them.
I lubed the window regulators and fixed the rear quarter
I reupholstered the driver’s seat.
I sanded down the floor pan, Bondoed the holes and repainted
it all. I relined the trunk, built a new rear deck and installed speakers.
I filled in the holes on the quarters and in the trunk. I
gave her new battery cables and fixed a leaking freeze plug. I steam cleaned
the carpeting to get rid of the barn smell and I relined the windows with new
fuzzies and channel liners.
The work was fun, but it was taking a toll on my body.
I’d caught a face full of antifreeze and several mouthfuls
of rust. I’d gotten more crud in my eyes than I thought possible. I also
managed to cut my hands in every way imaginable. In replacing the channel
liners on the windows, I’d lost my grip and slashed a hole in my hand near my
thumb. It was so deep, The Missus screamed when she saw it.
“I can see your FUCKING TENDON!”
It was too late for stitches
and it eventually scarred over. When people asked what happened, I told them my
pony had given me a kiss.
Waiting for spring to arrive or at least the snow to melt
was killing me. Aside from the work on the car, I researched her from top to
Ford, like most manufacturers of the day, tagged every
single piece that went on the car with a production number. I studied the door
tag and buck tag to learn where she was made and when she was made. I pulled
the starter off the car to figure out what day the block was cast. I examined
every part I could find to learn more and more about her.
No matter how much I learned about her, one question still
gnawed at me.
And I wasn’t going to find the answer stamped on the car.
(Concluded next week)