In putting this together, I realized that I really am one lucky son of a bitch. Not just for the car, but for having a place like this to write about it and folks like you who indulge me by reading it.
So, thank you, and have a great weekend.
Journalism isn’t just about reporting or writing. It’s about
I can teach students how to be great writers and great
reporters, but I can’t teach them how to be nosy.
That’s one of those traits like brown hair or brown eyes.
I’ve got both. And the nosy gene.
When I bought the Mustang, I poured my time into fixing her
up. Once the winter came about, I poured my time into researching everything
One of the neat things that came with the car was a large
manila envelope filled with documents. The owner’s manual had a list of every
oil change and grease job from 1968 into the mid 1970s. Receipts for paint,
parts and more were thick and informative. The original owner’s card was in
there as well.
However, the neatest thing was the annual registration
cards: one for each year from 1968 to 1979. They charted movement from
Wisconsin to California and back again. The remaining cards were missing, but a
copy of the title that had been signed over to the Hott Wheelz guys was in
there as well.
They all had the same person’s name on them.
Her name was Virginia. That’s about all I knew.
Fortunately, I was nosy.
I dug into everything I could find to figure out who was the
former owner and where she might be. I used several databases to track her by
her maiden name and her married name. I tracked the car as well and managed to
parallel the car with her.
In the end, I managed to triangulate the documents and they
pointed to one person.
She still lived in Milwaukee and I not only had her name.
I had her address.
In journalism, your beat area tended to dictate the kinds of
stories you’d cover.
The education reporters got to cover budgets, graduations
and first-grade classes making hand-print turkeys.
The regional reporters covered outlying towns, spending time
getting to know guys who wore flannel shirts to town board meetings and
conducted interviews while fishing.
The city and state reporters covered meeting after meeting
after meeting and political spat after spat after spat.
I spent the majority of my journalism career working crime
beats and night desks.
Let’s just say very few hand-print turkeys were involved.
I was the guy who had to ask the coroner what caliber of
bullet blew the head off of a teaching assistant.
I was the reporter who interviewed a mother whose young son
died of AIDS.
I had to drive down a snow covered two-lane road to pick up
pictures from the families of three people who had died earlier that day on
that same road when conditions were better.
I knew the arson investigators by their first names. I had the
special “wives only” phone number to the coroner’s office. I hung out in
hospital waiting rooms, police interrogation rooms and at accident scenes.
I’d seen stuff that would make a Billy goat puke and gotten
along just fine. Bothering people was never a problem.
I’d managed to locate the name and address of the only other
real owner the Mustang ever had. I had a million questions for her.
And a million reservations.
The woman had to be in her 60s at least. Possibly her 70s.
Hell, she might be dead.
The car was sold twice in between and someone who held on to
a car this long only to sell it might not have wanted to sell it. Being reminded of that might make for some unwelcome unpleasantries.
I asked some of the folks on my Mustang chat boards about it and
they were even more reticent. One guy noted that one of his friends had gotten
a car that was sold out from under a grandparent who lost control of his own
Another had purchased a car that later turned out to be
Someone else noted that upon asking someone for a story
about the car they’d purchased, they found a story of real heartache involving
As my buddy Pritch used to tell me, “Don’t borrow trouble.”
And yet, I was nosy. And undeterred.
I wrote a letter that was better than any story I’d ever
written. I added more background information than I’d ever noted before. I
provided her with pictures of me with the car, a business card and more. I told
her all of this with the idea that this wasn’t a prank or someone trying to get
her to believe she’d won the London lotto or something.
In the end, I thanked her for all the love she gave to the
car and the fact she hung on to that car for so long. I asked for any memories
she had of the car.
It was hard. It was weird. It was necessary. I put it all in
an envelope and sent it off about a week before Christmas.
During my time studying Greek myth, one of my favorite
figures was Theseus, owner of the coolest paradox ever.
According to mythology, Theseus had a ship that contained 30
oars. Upon his death, the Athenians held onto the ship as a tribute to this
As the boards rotted out of the ship, the Athenians replaced
them. Eventually, all of the boards and oars had been replaced, thus leading to
the question of if something that had all of its parts replaced, could be
considered the same.
That thought occurred to me as I spend a number of cold,
miserable months swapping out parts on the Mustang.
Time passes slowly during a Wisconsin winter. Each day of
summer that flies by crawls by when the ice and snow coat the roads.
When you’ve got a car like a Mustang sitting in the garage,
each day gets even longer. Bring it out too fast, you end up driving through
snow or suffering a frozen carb float. Bring it out too late and you’re missing
out on precious days of driving that you can’t get back.
I was blessed with an Indian Summer the year I bought it. We
didn’t get actual snow until just after Thanksgiving. Once I pulled the battery
out of the car, storage was a done deal. I’d given up my slot in the garage and
had taken to getting up extra early to warm the Civic and scrape her windows.
When I had time to myself, I’d been augmenting the Mustang.
I added three-point seat belts, which was an adventure. Despite explicit
instructions that came with the seat belt kit, I wasn’t exactly thrilled or
confident when it came to drilling holes in the floor pan of the car.
Still, safety first.
I also fixed the dash, which had rotted away in spots and
cracked in others. During my pursuit of a replacement dash, I learned that at
some point, Ford had managed to destroy the original tooling for the dash and
thus an “original replacement part” was impossible to find. The folks at Dashes
Direct managed to put something together that worked pretty well.
I also retooled the package tray again, improving on my
original efforts. The speakers fit better and it looked good, too.
I took out all the seats from the car to polish and rework
the mechanics of them.
At a certain point, I’m sure it was more than I needed to
do, but I was happier when I was working on the car. It felt like spring was
I got the sense that the car was happier too.
I was not only blessed with a late winter but an early
spring. As March rolled around, temperatures began to creep into the 50s,
making it completely acceptable to put the battery back in the car and get her
The anxiety regarding this resuscitation was not without
I’d screwed around with the engine, the cooling system, the
exhaust and more. I’d putzed with the valve covers and the temp controls. I’d pulled the
starter and reinstalled it.
I hooked up a new set of battery cables as well.
Of course, without a battery, I couldn’t check on it as I
did stuff, so it was all by faith, not by sight.
I lugged the battery to the local mechanic to check the
charge and load in it. I offered to pay the guy, but he refused.
“Come back when you’ve got an actual problem,” he told me.
I took the battery back and hooked her up. I pumped the gas
a couple times and tried turning her over. She cranked and started to sputter.
She coughed and died.
I pumped twice more and turned her over again. This time, it
She roared to life. I let her idle and warm up as I putzed
around in the garage.
The smoke was still white, the heat still worked and she
still ran beautifully.
The next day, the temperature dropped into the 30s, so I
kept her in the garage and took the Civic to work.
Things got worse that day. I missed a meeting, managed to repeat a
lecture I’d already given and barely got home in time for The Missus to go to
I parked in the driveway, grabbed the mail and headed into
The Missus was sitting in her chair, wearing pajamas and knitting.
“What the hell are you doing?” I asked. “I thought you had
“I’ve got today off,” she said. “Didn’t you check the
Of course I didn’t. It was that kind of day. I’d had it.
“Son of a bitch…” I began and stopped.
“What is it?” she asked.
I was staring agape at a large manila envelope under the stack of bills I had grabbed minutes earlier.
I looked up.
“She wrote back.”
For all the digital communication we have, from PDFs and
emails to Twitter and Skype, nothing compares to a good old-fashioned letter.
The one from Virginia arrived almost three months after I’d
written her. I hadn’t exactly forgotten I’d done so, but I had kind of given up
on getting an answer.
On two pages of legal paper, she answered all my questions.
“I was happy to receive your letter and learn that “Betsy”
as I called her has received a good home. Sorry for taking so long to write you
back. You certainly have done your research and it seems to be correct. Betsy
was my first car and I always loved her…”
She explained how she bought the car, moved to California,
worked, married, divorced and came back to Milwaukee. Her cursive was
beautiful, a strong contrast to the type-written letter I sent her, apologizing
in advance for doing so. I figured if she was going to be able to read it, I
needed to type it.
Handwriting has never been my strong suit…
“She remained my primary car into the ‘80s and eventually
just sat in the garage. I didn’t drive her, but couldn’t seem to sell her
I understood. Everything about the car seemed to indicate a
sense of holding on for one more day. The parts that were replaced were done so
due to atrophy, as opposed to neglect or abuse. The paint was still bright, the
windows still clear and the engine still strong.
Letting go for her was like letting go of an old friend whose
health had deteriorated before he died: You knew you had to but you didn’t like
doing it. You can be both pragmatic and sad at the same time while you still
hope for better things to come.
“As I write this, I have a smile on my face and I’m glad you
will be driving her around. Now that she is a classic, she probably needs a new
name! Thanks for taking the time to write.”
I read that last part over and over and over again. I could
imagine a woman who was about my parents’ age sitting at the kitchen table,
writing this out longhand and smiling. I didn’t know what she looked like and I
couldn’t really picture how anything else would look around her, but the smile
had to be similar to the one on my face reading this.
She signed it “Ginny.”
Ginny and Betsy. Betsy and Ginny.
I wrote back a short time later and thanked Ginny for
everything. I offered to keep the line of communication open, but knew in my
heart that wouldn’t happen. I was right. I never heard back.
She had moved on a while ago. The letter she sent was closure.
I looked through the other material she sent: invoices,
repair bills and more. It was like a treasure chest of understanding.
Later that day, I went into the garage and looked at the
car. The minute I bought it, The Missus asked what its name was. (No way in
hell was I letting her pick it. She dubbed my Firebird “The Penis Mobile.”)
I told her I didn’t know. Nothing really came to mind. Even
more, I got the sense she already had one. It was like adopting a pet from a
shelter: even though the address and family changes, the pet is still the pet.
You are always you.
Finally, I knew who she was.
“Hi Betsy,” I began. “Ginny says she’s glad you’re here.”
I suppose it’s ridiculous that a car should make me that
happy, but in reading some of the comments on the previous installments, I’m
not the only one out there.
What’s funny is that you meet a lot of people by driving a
car like this. Teenage boys who are driving Mom’s minivan gawk and ask a lot of
questions while I’m filling up with gas. People with classic cars compare notes
at stoplights or give me the thumbs up as they head down the road the opposite
way. People in their 50s and 60s tell stories about owning a ’66 or ’67 or ’68
and how they were sad they don’t have it anymore.
A woman in my department who rarely talks to people saw me
with it one day and came by my office later.
“My first boyfriend had a 1966 convertible,” she said. “I
don’t miss him, but I miss that car.”
As she crossed paths with other cars, I’d seen more than a
few heads turn. It was a nice feeling.
I could imagine Ginny’s smile. Betsy’s,
Yesterday, as I waited for the LeBron debacle, I noticed
more power steering fluid was dripping on the floor than usual. The return hose
had finally rotted badly enough to make a mess.
I visited Brad at the auto parts store. He cut me some hose,
bagged up some clamps and sent me on my way. In between various other projects,
I managed to cobble a new hose onto the old line.
I stopped to watch The Announcement and shared my fellow
fans’ heartbreak. It was about 10 p.m. before I could get off the couch.
I put on my dirty clothes again, went back out to the garage
and began trying to set the line.
After a few false starts, I got the flare nut seated and ran
the hose back to the pump.
The radio in the garage was playing Zepplin.
I hooked up the hose, clamped her down and added about two
bottles of new power steering fluid. I started her up and cranked the wheel
from side to side.
I smiled. On a day where my team got murdered, my kid was
being petulant and the humidity was enough to almost make the Missus throw up,
It was nearly midnight. I turned off the lights and headed into the house. I snapped the light back on for a moment and smiled at her one more time.
“Goodnight, Betsy,” I said. “Thanks again. For everything.”