August 22, 2015

Recovery run today, I was thinking about cars.

Jimmy was a patient and positive guy. As I continue to recount these stories, I am amazed at how resilient he could actually be. We grow older, we grow wiser.  As I began to grow older, there was a period of my life that I was not growing wiser. I understand that these are collectively called the teenage years. When I was old enough to get my driver’s license, there was a car in the driveway meant to be for the general use of the licensed drivers in the household. To me, this meant only one thing. It was my car. Oblivious to the fact that there were now seven licensed drivers in our house, I had my heart set on the freedom of the open road. The car was a 1973 Volkswagen 412 Fastback. It was yellow, not a pastel yellow but more of a cross between an over ripe banana (it had rust spots) and a caution sign. The car was in great shape when my father purchased it. He bought it as a slightly used car from a work colleague. The “licensed drivers” in the house began to put their own stamps on the car. These stamps presented themselves on the left-front quarter panel, the rear right quarter panel, the hood and all four doors. Hence, the rust began to overtake the steel body of the car and further enhance the over-ripe banana image.

As mentioned, Jimmy was a positive guy. There were notable exceptions to this trait and one was the VW 412. Jimmy hated this car. He hated it while parked in his impeccably swept driveway or parked within an eight block radius of his house.  It is extremely important to mention two things. First, we had a single file driveway and if you had your car in front of all the others, it was a Sisyphean exercise to move all the cars out before you could pull your car of choice out of the driveway. Second, Mt. Prospect city parking ordinances forbid parking on the street from 2:00 am to 6:00 am, every night. In other words, you had to park your cars in your driveway. While my father hated this car, I absolutely adored it. I had pet names for the car and kept bumpers and rear-view mirrors on the car securely fastened with love, duct tape and bailing wire. German engineering is well-renowned to be the finest in the world but this car was falling apart from the outside, inward. One particular design feature of the car put serious question into the engineering prowess of the German engineer. They put the car battery under the front driver’s seat.

One night, after a particularly long night of studying or some other activity, I came home in the VW 412 and was the last to pull a car into the driveway. A very important rule was that I was required to pull my father’s car out of the driveway, pull the Volkswagen in and then pull my father’s car in behind the Volkswagen. This would allow my mother to drive him to the train in his car, not any other, without having to jockey cars. It was late, I was tired so I reasoned to myself that I would get up early and move the car so it was not blocking dad’s car. I pulled in, parked the car behind my dad’s car, entered the house and fell peacefully asleep in a warm bed.

Before the dawn, my father arose for a morning run. It was a cold damp morning but perfect for running. As he came to the end of the driveway, he saw the ripened banana car behind his car and said a prayer for my well-being. After finishing what might have been a refreshing run with the buddies, he returned home, showered, readied himself for work, ate his breakfast and grabbed the key to the yellow Volkswagen. My mother would be warming his car for his ride to the train station. He approached the VW cautiously, teenagers could not be trusted and he expected to find someone or something sleeping in the car. He opened the door, which almost fell off its hinges (up, then out was the proper way to open this door) and entered the vehicle. After what I am sure was an extended trial and error period trying to actually start the car (neutral, twist down then turn the key), the beast roared to life. Jimmy was feeling pretty proud that he had accomplished this task but still hoped that the neighbors had not seen him in the vicinity of the monstrous car. He was about to put it into reverse when he caught a whiff of something. He was not sure what he was smelling, teens tend to leave foodstuffs in their vehicles, lockers and book bags. Nevertheless, he popped the car into reverse and began to back it out of the driveway. The smell was stronger now and was easily identifiable as smoke, something was burning. Not only could he smell it, he could now recognize that smoke was filling the car. Halfway down the driveway he slammed on the brakes, stopping the car and exited the vehicle. Something was on fire and he did not know what. Jimmy peered into the vehicle and could not identify the source of smoke nor could he see any flames. As his attention turned downward he now saw that his precious London Fog raincoat was fully engulfed in flames. For anyone growing up in an urban setting, the London Fog was part of all of the dad’s daily uniform. You purchased a London Fog once, maybe twice in a career. Now this standard component of his daily wear was on fire. I can only imagine that he immediately removed the raincoat and threw it on the wet, muddy ground.  He then proceeded to stomp out the fire with his polished black wingtip trying to prevent the embers from damaging his Brooks Brothers dark blue pinstripe trousers.

When the Mt. Prospect forensics squad and fire investigators had completed their investigation, it was determined that the London Fog had caused a short, while my father was trying to start the car. The battery under the driver’s seat set the box cut, wide lapel, tan London Fog raincoat ablaze. The blame for the incident was directed at an unnamed German engineer that had created the battery storage design flaw. Although Volkswagen had never actually recalled the 412 Fastback for this glaring error of design, I too felt somewhat responsible for what had transpired. Although there were no serious injuries that morning, I do remember being awakened at an earlier than anticipated hour that day.

This car, only yellow. Favorite song today, Ring of Fire performed by Johnny Cash.

More yellow!

More yellow!

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