I oogled along the meander of classic cars in Green Valley Park, on some vague quest — like a cheerful fellow with Alzheimer’s, leafing through a photo album.
What did I think I’d find, amongst the meticulously restored pickups and muscle cars and spit-polished Model As?
Only later did I discover that I was seeking some brief return to the only 45 minutes of my life that I was really and truly cool.
Mind you, I was never a car guy. I read books at recess. I rode my bike to high school. I had a weird sense of humor — and took girls way too seriously. I was never for a moment one of those supremely confident fellows souping up a rusted jalopy on cinder blocks.
So I gawked at the 1957 Chevy pickup with painted flames and dutifully wrote down that it had a 350 engine, a 700 rtranny and a Camaro clip — whatever all that means.
So I made ironic note that the beautifully restored 1955, five-window Chevy truck with the Camaro front end and the 700 r4 tranny had a Pontiac rear end — on what’s likely to be the last weekend before they stop “building excitement” forever and retire the brand.
So I zoomed in on the adorable Betty Boop painted on the side of the 1935 Chevy Coupe with the 305/350 turbo, imagined myself in the 1963, three-speed Corvette with 327-250 horsepower, wondered whether the 1934 Ford two-door sedan with 350 MTR and 550 transmission would have been embarrassed to end up painted tropical peach and barely repressed the urge to sing the national anthem when confronted with the bright yellow, 1948, GMC one-ton dually with the 9-foot bed — complete with American flags snapping smartly in the breeze.
Ah. Man. To be the guy tinkering tooling down the street in one of those beauties with a pack of smokes rolled up in his T-shirt sleeve — the “American Graffiti” fantasy of my youth.
And then I saw her.
Red. Bright red. Stop your heart, fall in love, burn it all to the ground red.
She had her hood up, so you could stare dumfounded at the cleavage of her engine block. Even so, she looked like she was doing about 68, just sitting there next to the handicapped space.
Pause a moment. Take a breath. Yessir, geeks and fools: Look, but don’t touch. That there’s a 1966 Ford Mustang — all stock parts.
Then I knew why I’d come to Green Valley Park on a perfect spring day.
I was hoping she’d be there and we could remember the day I was cool — however briefly.
Because here’s the Lord’s own truth: The only time in my whole shaggy, shamble of a life that I was absolutely, perfectly, undeniably cool was the first 45 minutes I spent in a 1966 Ford Mustang.
I had just turned in my learner’s permit for an honest-to-God, official license. And my grandfather was just sliding down the steep slope of emphysema, which was perhaps not surprising since for years he’d been dragging around his little oxygen bottle, which he turned off whenever he just had to have another smoke.
So my dad headed up to tend to him and offered to bring me along.
I jumped at the chance — to have my dad to myself, to see my grandfather — but mostly wondering what kind of car we’d rent at the airport.
We had a family station wagon. Not cool at all. Never even visited cool in the nursing home.
I tagged along to the Hertz counter, mumbling little teenaged prayers.
My dad looked over at me — me so freshly turned 16 that I still had that sickly sweet new teenager smell.
“What shall we get?” he asked.
Hope flared in my heart, but I suspected a trick.
“Not a station wagon,” I mumbled.
“How about Crown Victoria?” he said.
My shoulders slumped.
“No. Let’s get that one,” he said to the Hertz guy.
I looked up.
The man actually handed my father the keys to a Ford Mustang.
“You want to drive?” said my sainted father, just short of grinning.
Oh. My. Gosh.
So I drove us to my grandfather’s house, window rolled down, the wind in my hair — understanding how Caesar felt in that chariot leading the captive Gauls down the streets of Rome.
And after we’d arrived at the house and said our hellos, Dad suggested I take the car into town to pick up some groceries.
Take the car into town.
As in ALONE ... in a 1966 Ford Mustang.
I shrugged, mumbled “sure.” But in my heart, welled up “The Sound of Music” theme song. (I did mention that I read books during recess, didn’t I?)
So I tooled on into town, alone at the wheel of the 1966 Ford Mustang, gunmetal blue, the syncopated road stripes keeping time to my glory.
I drove on up the leafy streets of Caldwell, Idaho, understanding in my heart of hearts that this moment might have to sustain me through all my days to come.
Let it last, dear Lord, let it last.
I came up behind two girls, walking along the street. As I recall, one looked just exactly like Marilyn Monroe — the other more like Sophia Loren. I mean. Not exactly, maybe. But close. Except for being like 15 and gawky. But you could see Marilyn in there.
Let’s just say I glided on past the two most perfectly beautiful women on the planet at the precise peak of my own, smoldering and incontestable coolness.
I smiled as I passed them, wishing I had cigarettes rolled up in my sleeve — but for the first and only time in my life completely confident of the impression I was making.
I went down to the end of the block, pulled a U, and made another pass.
This time, they giggled. No. Laughed. Covered their mouths. Not like a, shy, embarrassed, “he’s so cool” giggle. But like a, “what a dork” snort.
I was puzzled, right up until I got to the other end of the block and saw the one-way street sign.
I screeched to a halt, backed up, hit the curb. went forward, jerked to a stop barely short of the curb, backed up, got turned around — and drove past the two laughing girls.
It all came back to me, standing in the bright sunlight beside the heartbreak-red 1966 Ford Mustang in Green Valley Park: My father’s grin, my grandfather’s cough, the stripes in the road, the first sight of Marilyn from behind, the light through the trees, the jolt of the curb, the musical laughter of beautiful women.
And, of course, that 45 minutes — my perfect memory of being cool.
I ignored the sign in the windshield of the bright red 1966 Mustang (all stock) and patted her affectionately on the front fender.
“Baby, I love you for that — ever and ever,” I whispered.