For me, it was the Mustang — the twinge of glory and shame. But that’s just me.
I spent a perfect, sun-drenched, cloud-spattered, green-grass day in Green Valley Park on Saturday at the 20th annual Beeline Cruise-In classic car show recollecting those glory days — and eavesdropping on other lives.
One guy told the tale of outfitting his pickup truck with a little propane tank during World War II, so he could run on natural gas despite the gasoline rationing.
Another guy started off rebuilding a Model T, then moved on to a Gran Torino — adding onto his garage until he had an 1,800-square-foot house and a 3,400-square-foot garage.
Three women with hairdresser-perfect grey hair and sandals paused in front of a break-your-heart red Camaro, lingering there. “Boys used to come for me in cars like that,” sighed the ringleader. Her friends nodded. Then one added thoughtfully, “and VW Beetles.”
Tattooed bikers leaned in beneath the propped-open hoods of a gleaming, glorious chrome history of the muscle car, talking in a language I always yearned for and never mastered — like my high school French.
A little girl clinging to her grandfather’s hand stopped in front of a Studebaker with a running board you could play tennis on. “I had that car,” he said proudly, fondly. The little girl looked up at him, wide-eyed. “Were you a gangster, Grandpa?” she asked.
Hundreds of people spent the day filing past the gleaming array of memories and engines, on a small-town, high-country, spring day so perfect Norman Rockwell should have set up with a sketch pad somewhere on the green swale.
The amiable crowd munched on the bargain basement brats and the pricey steak sandwiches, ventured among the vendors, marveled at the before-and-after photos, watched kids roll down the green embankment and swayed to the vintage rock and roll rolling out of D.J. Craig’s sound system — like a blessing from The King.
After a parade through town on Friday, more entries than ever set up throughout the park. The cherry restorations of the Rim Country Classic Car Club dominated the parking lot in front of the historical society museum. Car lovers from all over the state set up throughout the rest of the park, with a record number of entries. They lined up along on the brilliant green grass alongside the war memorial. Lots of cars had little American flags and stick-on magnetic ribbons saying “We Support Our Troops.”
Me, I got stuck on the lurid red, 1964 Mustang, shiny as my memory of the day I drove her — well, not so shiny then — but I’d swear it was her.
I had just converted my learner’s permit to my driver’s license — that very weekend. I could now drive the family Rambler station wagon, all by myself. This was a mixed blessing for a bookish 16-year-old with with no admirable vices whose mother was chairman of the English Department. Tooling around in a yellow Rambler would do nothing for my street cred.
Then Father asked me to fly to Boise, Idaho with him to check on his father, who’d started the long, drawn-out process of dying from emphysema, tethered to an oxygen tank he had to turn off whenever he wanted another of the cigarettes that killed him. Addled by hormones and insecurities, I didn’t grasp the significance of the trip, nor my father’s inarticulate sorrow until much later.
What I remember best is standing at the rental car desk at the airport as my dad pondered the car options. He was about to take the Ford LTD, then turned and looked at me with a funny half-smile. “No,” he said to the car rental guy. “Let’s get the Mustang.”
My heart leapt up. We walked out to the parking lot and there she was, just waiting — all hood and gleam. I walked around to the passenger side. My dad grinned and tossed me the key. “You drive,” he said.
My dad flew B-17s in World War II, worked 12-hour days all his life, didn’t talk easily about his feelings and left little poems of astonishing courage and lilt in his bedside stand drawer I found only after he died of cancer. But at that moment, I was astonished to find that that man I thought did not notice me could instead read my mind — since I was 16 and crippled with self-absorption.
We drove out to the farm and I asked Dad for the keys to the Mustang with all the nonchalance I could muster.
The bomber pilot handed me the keys with a small smile, maybe sad — maybe just wistful.
I jumped in that car in the gravel driveway of the farm and fired it up, the intoxicating exhaust smell mingling with the overpowering aroma of the alfalfa.
I flew down that highway back to Boise, windows rolled down, the radio blaring rock and roll. That was my glory day, the 10 miles back to town, riding my internal combustion dream.
In town, I cruised the streets until I saw two girls walking along a sidewalk, all legs and pony tails. I was the hero in a Bob Seeger song, “Felt like a million, felt like number one, the height of summer, I’d never felt so strong. Like a rock.”
I slid past those girls, casting my eyes back over my shoulder, knowing I’d never look so good again, not if I lived to be an old man with an oxygen tube of my own. So I got to the end of the block, pulled a U and cruised on back past them, so I could make eye contact. Maybe get a number. Maybe come back tonight.
I slowed as I passed them.
They laughed. I laughed back. They kept laughing. Too much. Not like, ‘He’s so cool.’ Something else. Got down to the end of the block before I saw the one-way-street sign, and me going the wrong way.
So I fled back to the farm and sat with my father and my grandfather, which was better in the end than sneaking back into town. So much I didn’t know. So much I wish I’d had known to say.
But you know, standing there in front of that cheery-red Mustang in Green Valley Park with the sun pouring down and the music drifting past, I remembered that 10-minute drive into Boise with the engine rumbling and the window rolled down. All these years later I have learned that life’s only perfect in fragments. Don’t miss it. Don’t forget it.
Glory days, brother. Glory days.
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