Location: marengo, il, United States

Thursday, February 03, 2005

The Inspection Sticker

Pap lit his pipe before answering me. This was a favorite trick he used to gain time and think.

He kept several different styles of pipes laying nearby on his workbench, with at least one ready and packed with fresh tobacco. I tried to stand at ease and wait while watching blue smoke curl upwards from his spent match after he shook the thing out.

A few draws on the pipe stem didn’t accomplish much, so he struck another one and puffed away on the bowl, making loud smacking noises.

Come on, dad; say yes. I have to have my own car. I just have to. Using yours is too embarrassing. Who can look cool while driving around in that black panel truck of yours with its chrome-plated adding machine mounted on top? I am only sixteen, dad. I can’t take this shame any longer. Please say yes.

He pursed his lips and blew a great cloud of tobacco smoke right in my face.

Not a good sign, but don’t move. This was the wrong time to gesture or do the usual choked coughing routine, so I stayed still and allowed my eyes to water up, thinking maybe tears might work in my favor.

He stopped to hold the last burnt match up in his free hand. Waving it about like the last one, he cleared away some of the pungent fumes before returning to draw once again on the appliance.

“So you want a car, eh?”

I smiled like a loving son and nodded, perhaps a little too fast. He gazed at me intently with his hazel-green eyes that were barely visible through the thick smoke, and as he puffed away in silence, a picture of a red Morris Garage roadster, replete with running boards and leather seats, sped past in my mind. I couldn’t see myself at the wheel just yet, but I had the hopes bad.

“Well,” He said, and he turned his swivel chair around, reached across the desk and put the smoldering furnace down. Another ruse, dad. I get it.

“I’ll think about it, son.”

And with that he picked up a screwdriver laying next to the pipe-filled ashtray. Then after tilting the frame of a dismantled typewriter backwards on his turntable, he looked back up at me and asked,

“Did I show you how this rigid dog is skipping, and why? I may have to replace the part, you know.”

He wanted me, the only son, to take over his business. I had no such ambitions, but I knew when to act interested, especially if it would help my cause, so I bent over to watch while he explained the whole procedure.

Somewhere between the pinion gear and the loose dog, my mind began to wander.

Several weeks passed without the subject ever being mentioned again. I knew better.

In the meantime, hot rod magazines and double-dates filled the void. Then the unimaginable happened. My dad agreed to my yearning after I returned home one night with a mysterious blowout I experienced with his family sedan. I suspected that he knew when I lied to him about how it occurred, but he never challenged me. Instead, he announced he had found an automobile for me.

He then took me for the longest drive of mt life that afternoon. It seemed to last forever, impatient as I was, but several miles out of town, he turned off onto a dirt road that led up to a farm house. There, amid a pack of barking hounds, an unknown man led us both out to his barn. Inside the dark structure, and covered with a number of dusty horse blankets, lay hidden something I had never imagined.

The man slipped one blanket off, and I saw a blue fender. Dad pulled at the second one and a shaft of light hit the square rooftop. My mouth dropped.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Son, this here is a ‘34 Ford coupe. One of my boys owned it. Been asittin’ under wraps for a couple of years now, and I got no more use for it.”

“How’s it run?” My father wanted to know.

“It ran good last time I cranked her up. I put in a new battery last fall, so she starts right ever time.”

After folding his blankets, he pulled a key from his overalls and handed it over to dad. Dad passed it to me after joking with him about old-fashioned hand cranks, to which the somber farmer responded by showing him an object behind the seat. He said it really worked, if we ever needed it.

The man then pointed to a green decal plastered in a corner on the windshield.

“She passed her last inspection, too.” A Texas-shaped sticker plainly displayed the current year.

I jumped in and closed the door. A slight musty smell enveloped the dim interior. A portion of the faded headliner hung in tatters. The steering wheel appeared huge, and felt stiff to my hands. I placed both feet on the floor pedals and grinned.

While I fumbled with the key, the farmer went to swing open a larger door. I turned the ignition switch, and at once the engine sprang to life. It sounded wonderfully loud inside the huge barn. I sat and let it idle for a minute, and then tried to engage the gears, but failed twice to do so smoothly. Dad beamed while the old farmer stood to one side, patiently holding on to his barn door.

After finagling the gearshift into first, I pulled hard on the wheel while letting out the clutch, and this machine and I then began moving, headed for the open yard. After three circles, everyone acted jubilant. His dogs yelped while dad shelled out an amount of cash, and then the farmer touched the brim of his hat once as I led the way back home. Glorious day, I have a car!

We almost made it, too. At the edge of town the car sputtered once and died. The motor quit, so I steered off to the side of the road where I let the car coast to a standstill. Dad pulled in behind and yelled out after we stopped,

“What’s wrong?”

I had no clue, nor did he, so we called a friendly mechanic out to the scene. Soon after he arrived and lifted up two bat-wing sections of the engine compartment, he found the cause. The motor suffered from vapor-lock, he stated, and needed to sit and cool off before it would start. It was something that would forever haunt the aged car, but it was my car in any case, so I accepted the inconvenience.

With its fold-out rumble seat at the rear, the vehicle held as many brave souls as dared to cram themselves inside. Over the weeks we happily managed eight at one point. The outdated jalopy did quite well under our collective mass, as long as we drove in town. Highway speeds, I found out, brought on too many unannounced stalls, so I drew a contented line at the city limits.

The little coupe had a couple of other minor problems.

Crawling up under the chassis one afternoon, one mystery quickly became solved. Following the length of two steel rods connecting the break pedal to the front wheels, I saw they both had been severed; their cut ends permanently welded to the frame. Vowing to go slower in the future seem to be a decent cure for that malady.

More important was the roof issue. Removing it would provide more space for more bodies.

I discussed the plan for about three minutes with my pal Bobby, who took to the idea. He lived less than twenty miles from town. His father owned the single tool we needed most, so we anxiously set out in the right direction after our hush-hushed conference. He led the way in his prized ‘56 Ford Fairlane.

Halfway there my coupe died, but we came prepared. After tying a strong rope between the two cars, we continued on to his dad’s barn where an acetylene cutting torch lived.

A half-hour later the upside-down roof sat smoldering on the dirt floor next to my newly-created convertible. It was such a beautiful moment. Bobby lifted his welder’s helmet and wiped his brow with a forearm, and we grinned at our joint effort. He laid the torch down while I ran my fingers over the bubbly edges of melted metal. It still felt hot where the final pass had been made.

Then we examined the windshield. The glass had survived intact. The single flat pane, originally kept secure at the top by the roof, had two posts on each side, so it seemed secure enough.

The car still wouldn’t start though.

“Tow me back to town.”

We pushed the car backwards from the barn to the yard where his sedan sat.

“But make sure you don’t go over forty-five. The wheels shimmy too much,” I warned.

“Sure thing,” He said.

“And don’t be stopping fast either. You know how my brakes are.”

I knew he heard me; his prized automobile had that show-room look, and he intended to keep it that way. He nodded and started off slow.

Ten feet of rope lay on the ground between the us, so he eased forward and took up the slack. It jerked at the end but he kept going. I followed, steering out to the highway.

His muffler popped and gurgled while we rolled silently along behind, and the warm breeze felt great. But then the Fairlane began to speed up. I focused hard on my steering while the wind whipped through my hair. Glancing at my side mirror, I thought to comb it after we got home.

The car handled fine. I began watching the tow rope and his rear bumper, while keeping an eye on my speedometer. Everything seemed well at twenty and okay as it reached twenty-five. I gave Bobby a quick thumbs-up. He looked in his mirror and return the signal.

But as the needle climbed to forty, it began to wobble a little bit, and then it began to shake. After that it went crazy. Bobby sped on faster, and the needle started jumping back and forth somewhere between forty and sixty. At this point I lost track of how fast we traveled. I began to wonder if my shirt would stay on.

I tried to signal Bobby.

Slow down! I mouthed and waved.

He kept his head straight.

I laid on the horn, but his noisy exhaust drowned out the faint sound. Then I saw him reach over to tune his radio. That’s when my windshield began acting strange. It first arched and bowed in the middle. Next it began to bulge and then expand toward the steering wheel and me.

I lifted an arm just as the glass shattered. Most of it flashed past my head. A sudden blast of wind slammed into my face. Stunned, I gripped the wheel with one hand while gaping at the section draped across my forearm. Like an old towel I hurled the thing over my shoulder. Up ahead, Bobby’s head rocked in beat to some song. I caught a glimpse of a single shard laying in my floorboard on the passenger side. On it, the green state-of-Texas label, my only proof of inspection. Happy day, I thought.

The city limits soon came into sight, so I rode out the last few miles and hung on. Then I remembered a set of railroad tracks just around the curve up ahead.

Bobby slowed down hard just like he always did – and I slammed smartly into the back of his chrome bumper, spoiling the finish as well as his treasured bumper sticker.

The thing spelled out COPS in giant red letters, and just below it, printed in smaller type, “Stay far, far away!”

Being pulled over by any indignant patrolmen gave him decent bragging rights.

He acted upset with the damage at first, but he soon forgot about the incident. I acted more concerned about my windshield than my cut arm, but since the top was no more, we called everything even.

A week later the ragged-edged convertible and I went flying down busy Fifth Street, traveling way over the legal limit. Up ahead a traffic light turned yellow, so knowing my brakes, I stomped the gas pedal.

We shot through the red light without incident until I noticed the patrol car waiting at the curb. I also caught a glimpse of an astonished patrolman’s face as I went zipping past.

After that I went from gas to break pedal.

He will be here soon. I might as well pull over first.

The officer drove up behind the jalopy and parked. Then he got out and walked slowly toward us.

I didn’t bother with my new drivers’ license; who needs that? Instead, I bent down and reached across the floorboard for something more important. I heard the crunch of gravel cease as he stood next to the drivers door, so I raised up and faced the man.

Looking into a pair of mirrored sunglasses, I held up the shard of glass, and I smiled.

He stared at it, taking in the moment. And he stared at me. He looked back at the sticker again. His jaw began working sideways, but then he shook his head slowly before turning to walk away. The officer got back into his car, shut off the flashing red lights, and then the man drove away.

I felt blessed ever since.


Blogger Gone Away said...

Ah, the impetuosity of youth. Don't remind me of my first cars, Harry, I believe they are still looking for me and expect a rap at the door at any moment. They were happy days...

5:31 PM  
Blogger Jay said...

That's insane. You tell the story well, but I still can't help wondering: shouldn't you have known better?

7:45 PM  
Blogger Gone Away said...

Since when does youth know better? It has nothing to judge it against.

7:56 PM  
Blogger Ned said...

Well, you know my transportation difficulties... I am ashamed to say I drove without an inspection sticker for a year and a half. I am not usually a scofflaw but with mirrors hanging off, bad tires, bad alignment, no headlight, well... it was a worry how I was going to explain to the cop, "But I can't get a sticker officer, my car won't pass". Luckily, none saw fit to ask after the missing item until I had managed to get one. Now I realize, I just had to break the windshield of a car that had one and carry a piece of it around with me. Loved it Harry.

8:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Delightful, as always. ....... Harvie

12:23 AM  
Blogger PiggyCanHack said...

Heh nice man, btw I am using your skin too now :)

2:31 AM  
Blogger Hannah said...

Absolutely your best ever!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

4:46 AM  
Blogger Harry said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:00 AM  
Blogger Harry said...

"Shouldn't you have known better?" Jay asks. That gets me thinking. Should I have known better to:

1) Ask my dad?

2) Buy a Ford?

3) Drive at 16?

4) Drive, period?

5) Want friends?

6) Call them "friends"?

7) Leave home?

8) Use rope?

9) Trust Bobby?

10) Tell this particular story?

12:08 PM  
Blogger Ned said...

I vote for numbers 2, 5, 6 and sometimes 8 (always use duct tape). You can include 9 if Bobby starts wearing silk shirts and ties, sells Fords to his supposed friends and asks everyone to now call him "Rob".

12:52 PM  
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