Just a few months after earning my driver’s license, I killed my father’s favourite child. It probably wasn’t entirely unintentional. He had tortured our entire family with his classic car obsession since long before my birth and the temptation of butchering one of those behemoths had tantalized me for years, at least subconsciously. Whereas he found it fun to insist all of us – my two siblings and mom – spend every evening and weekend working on his wrecks, we’d long lost interest after miles of mishaps. He was mad for muscle cars – stuck in the 50s and 60s – thus we never drove any post-Kennedy clunkers. His favourites were “5, 6, and 7 Chevys,” by which he meant Bel-Airs from ’55-’57. What they made up for in style and size, they lacked in steadfastness and safety. We rarely went anywhere that an alternator didn’t expire or brakes didn’t break. They were “rolling piles of crap,” as my mother would say, and they conveyed me, unreliably, into adulthood.
This folly wasn’t entirely his fault; he was a born to a motor maniac. His mother, made maternal at just sixteen, had been born and bred in the deceptively dubbed “Biggsville,” which was anything but. Desperate to depart their domestic dysfunction, my grandmother set her sights on the Adair brothers, Don and Dale. To her they were interchangeable; when Dale dumped her she settled for Don. Accustomed to cast-offs from his older and more popular brother, Catherine suited his sense of second-bestness, their vows being as much about vaunting his victimhood as they were a bon voyage to Biggsville. He was her vehicle and when they fled in his Ford to elope in Kahoka, MO, she had already started to fantasize about soon driving her own Dodge or something similarly de luxe.
Women in her family didn’t drive; they didn’t exactly demure, either. Her mother, Mona – a woman my mother always referred to as “the flesh-eating troll” because her slight stature, questionable coif, and cutting quips called to mind a pint-sized Pol Pot – had forfeited that freedom when she flung my infant grandmother from her doorless Model T into an adjacent field. Just as her mood was perennially poisonous, her speed was curiously constant: she drove at 25 mph regardless. One day in ’27 as she was hauling several of her kids to Burlington, IA, for food, she careened around a corner and catapulted Catherine into a crop of corn. She survived, surprisingly, but Mona motoring did not.
As a result, Catherine suffered motor mania from the moment she heard the tale that everyone else considered cautionary. Not her: it proved she could survive everything, including unplanned flight. She dreamed of the day she could drive, decide, demand. Her ambitions, by today’s standards, weren’t grand: she wanted a new car to drive. She was willing to work for it, and Don made sure she did. “Good enough for you,” was his standard response to everything with which she made do, including himself. She acquiesced, though she didn’t exactly agree; when it came to cars, however, she never caved.
She bought her first Buick with bras, though this is not nearly as sexy as it sounds. In fact, of all the adjectives anyone ever used to describe my grandmother, sexy was never one of them. She proudly proclaimed to anyone who would listen that she hated sex and slept atop the bedclothes for the entirety of her forty-three year marriage. “You only have to do it once,” she would warn my mother moments before she walked down the aisle in ’67, and she wasn’t kidding. As soon as dad went to grade school, she hired on at Formfit, a local undergarment factory. When Don found out, he threw a fit. Working twelve miles away would require transportation. Initially this meant riding to Monmouth with him as he delivered hogs to slaughter. He sympathized with their imperilment as he felt certain she would also slit his throat, figuratively speaking, when she got the chance.
He wasn’t wrong; after about six months she’d saved up a down-payment on that Buick. It took tacking thousands of bra straps in place, but she didn’t care. She’d have her ride. She would barrel into Biggsville and bellow about that Buick in its improbable blush pink and buff painted brazenness. She’d show them – and she did. In the next couple decades, she’d trade cars every few years; always for something new and pastel. Her house may have been Spartan and her clothes homemade, but nobody outdid her car. She embodied the American Dream behind the wheel, arrogant and overbearing. Those cars were her weapons: they fought off her cumbersome quagmire of a past and dared anyone to defy her presence.
Of course it was a little hard to take her newfound pretensions seriously when the car was parked in the driveway. From that vantage, the entire neighbourhood could see not only her diligently detailed car, but also her halfway hidden outhouse. My grandparents bought their house at a bargain, but only because it was really the halves of two houses pulled together. How one finds a half a house hanging around waiting to meet its soulmate, no one could clearly explain, though I’ve been asking for decades. Nevertheless, this mismatch becomes readily apparent when considering its side-by-side front doors and oddly placed mini-staircases to reach the rooms on the west half of the second floor. The entire structure was an architectural palimpsest whose half-obscured undergirdings no one wished to decipher. The fact that it had no bathroom was neither a shock nor a deterrent; Grandma prioritized Pontiacs over potties.
She transferred that logic to the interstates, too. Once she secured her transportation, she developed a major mania for movement. I think of her, in some ways, as the spirit of that age. The ‘50s, at least on the surface, which was her dominant place of dwelling, were turquoise and teal – pastels aplenty – with outsized, chrome-covered cars and kitchens. They were road-ruled and ready to recreate. Real freedom meant motion – preferably perennial – with ceaseless services – gas stations, motels, diners, and tourist traps – queueing up curbside to tempt travellers. With Catherine, though, there was a catch; she could afford the vehicle to travel, including the petrol, but there was no money for stops. She carried a Community brand coffee can in the car for nature’s number one call; she would brake for number two and nothing else.
Dad spent his early days in a back seat that doubled as a bathroom. Catherine received two weeks’ vacation each summer and she dutifully plotted out a point impossible to reach without distraction-free driving. They slept in the car – just a few hours at a time – and took sink baths while someone pooped and she topped off the tank. They survived on Dr. Pepper and hard salami sandwiches morning, noon, and night. Grandpa, on a diet of his own, usually skipped the sandwich for a Salem with the window barely cracked. The smokiness leant an air of mystique and religiosity to their relentless roving, as though some unseen priest praised their peregrinations. Once they reached the turning-point, Catherine would gesture wildly at some landmark or another and then start making dark prognostications about whether they could actually make the return trip quickly enough for her to appear at work on time.
“Look Donald, there’s XXXXX!!!” became his childhood catchphrase, as he caught a glimpse of the world through the back glass. Like life in an itinerant snow globe, one could see the world without exploring it. An unusually passive child, this detachment rarely troubled him except for the year they visited Disneyland. It was early August, 1955 and Catherine was intent upon hauling her family to Anaheim so that Dad could return to school with stories about their travels America’s latest, and greatest, attraction. Every time she daydreamed about his classmates’ disappointed, jealous faces at hearing Donald had been to Disneyland she pushed the pedal to the metal. Speed and a greed for besting others propelled her. After dozens of Dr. Peppers and melted ice soaked salami sandwiches, she finally shrieked, “There’s Disneyland, Donald!” did a u-y in the parking lot, and headed for Illinois, despite his pleas, protests, and pules. She couldn’t imagine why he was in such a state; he’d seen Disneyland and could tell his classmates all about it. That was more than she ever had in the eight years she attended school.
Disneyland was the death of Dad’s childhood. Shortly after they returned, Grandpa took him out to the privy and forced him to smoke Salems till he puked in the hopes it would head-off the forming of a habit. That same fall Grandma insisted he start working at odd jobs around town. He’d be needing his own vehicle soon enough and she wouldn’t pay for it. Since cars were their Catholicism, he saw no reason to resist. He started running errands for Clyde Goff, whose service station he hoped one day to own. He not only dreamt of the vehicles he would purchase, he harbored a hankering to overhaul them. Shortly thereafter, his great-grandfather gifted him a rusty Model A to restore, finally eradicating Mickey Mouse from his memory forever.
In the decade that followed he fulfilled his mother’s every ambition. He bought and traded cars with unmatched frequency. Every Sunday transpired in the family garage repairing, fine-tuning, and detailing. Grandma followed, always two steps behind, cleaning up every tool or splash of grease he dropped. At day’s end, she hauled out her newly acquired Electrolux, which looked like a mini-motorcar, and vacuumed his ride, certain that a clean interior secured a successful week. She didn’t even bat an eyelash when Dad’s best friend backed over her vacuum in a frenzy of car-cleaning. Such a sacrifice seemed superficial; if the car gods demanded such a tribute so be it. He bought Corvettes, Camaros, and Cameos. His madness for motors satisfied her every ambition as she imagined friends, neighbors, and relatives reeling in rage over the Adairs’ vehicular victories. Nothing else mattered in the age of the automobile.
When Dad was drafted in ’65, Catherine was only too happy to hotfoot his sexy Stingray to Fort Campbell for him to drive after basic training. His euphoria lasted about six weeks before they shipped him off to Germany and the car had to be collected again. During his months of absence, his Corvette and Cameo commiserated in forlorn silence, cloaked in a dustcloth in Catherine’s garage. Mom eagerly awaited news of his experiences, proclamations of his love and longing. When airmail packages started arriving, she was alight with anticipation over the precious presents they surely contained. Instead, she found stacks of European car magazines. His masturbatory fantasies, she surmised, were more pistons than Playboy. When I arrived in the late 70s, those muscle car mags were still secreted under his side of the bed – mattress material for the married, apparently.
Whereas my grandmother found upward mobility and class consciousness in her cars, Dad discovered midcentury masculinity. Jan & Dean, The Beach Boys, and the Everly Brothers built his brain; they sang his song. They helped him understand cars come first; girls make great hood ornaments; sound and speed are more seductive. Rather than racing to a destination, he careered competitively; drag was his drug. He hauled Mom from Cordova to Havana – which isn’t nearly as globetrotting as it sounds – to test the strips at opposite ends of Illinois. She ate burnt hot dogs and lost the upper range of her hearing, as well as the lower limits of her patience, as she sped toward disinterest at an alarming rate. His vision was so blurred by velocity that he barely noticed. Clearly everyone understood the indisputable supremacy of the souped-up showcar.
By the early ‘70s, however, her caprice had far more to do with kids than classic cars. We arrived in quick succession and the Corvette was sold for station wagon – a ’57 Nomad, to be exact. For a while Dad had insisted fatherhood not forfeit his favourite four-wheeled children, but after a police warning for hauling us around in the package tray of a fawn-coloured Corvette, mom insisted on the trade. It was a devil’s bargain, as it was then that he started to fantasize about familicide. He still had his vintage vehicles, but the kids consumed his cash. As a result of what he considered our overconsumption, we always drove cars just about to crash; it was our penitence for rendering his auto fund virtually penniless.
There was the ’56 Bel-Air with the gas cap under the taillight and a metal milk crate for a driver’s seat. It had no interior whatsoever, a fitting configuration for father’s existential crisis. The exterior shown in Candy Apple Red and Almond two-tone, the interior operating as a log-rolling session among we three kids every time he turned a corner. Perhaps he hoped to launch one or more of us as Mona had Catherine, but he never succeeded because the lack of cranks meant the windows were stationary. Then there was a ’63 Impala that couldn’t keep a clutch; mom slam-shifted everywhere she went, the motherly Mario Andretti of our formative years. One Chevy II, Flinstonian in its floorboards, could have been pedalled had our legs been longer. Some days we felt like we were extras in an episode of Falcon Crest or some other silly soap opera in which brake lines get cut and kids go careening as Mom barrels towards a bush hoping for the best. We were never hurt – not physically anyway – and we learned the meaning of adversity early on.
Our gas gauges had all given up sometime in the ‘60s. Dad didn’t compensate by gassing up regularly, so we got used to marching in front of Mom as she creatively cursed Grandma and Dad. None of the dials were dependable; we guessed how fast we were going and how hot the engine might be. The indicator in the radio didn’t even tell the truth; his cars were conspiratorial contraptions that held together only so long as he was at the helm. The minute Mom left home with us, tires flattened, axels cracked, and transmissions bid farewell. One cracked distributor cap left us stranded in a car wash, waxing wrathful and wishing daddy would, finally, take our T-Bird away. Our little coupe, without question, was deuce.
By the time I reached driver’s ed, I could tell any car enthusiast far more than he wanted to know about the vicissitudes of vintage vehicles. I ruefully recounted lost weekends foraging for fenders and seeking six synced screws; I could clearly colour accounts of calibrating carburetors and primering, puttying, and polishing past-prime hoopties. I could even tell tales of smearing STP on a primed-but-not-yet-painted passenger fender so that no paint would ever adhere – an act of defiance not yet forgiven thirty years hence. Dad taught me how to drive in a white ’64 Chevy Impala with a clutch he’d adjusted to such stiffness that my mother’s right leg started to look like a linebacker’s. His favourite infliction was to make me park on a hill and then launch as the car clipped backwards; I learned how to do so, but only in third gear, which infuriated him. He never could figure out how I managed it, failing to understand my delight in defying his decrees that no such thing was possible.
He paid me back, however, by sending me for my driving test in a blue and white ’55 Chevy Bel-Air with a hot-wire start, a speedometer that registered 75 mph at about 25 mph, no seat belts, and no horn. In Illinois in those days, no horn meant no go, so mom and I were sent home immediately to remedy the situation. In typical fashion, he rigged one up – exposed wires and all – and sent us back. I pleaded for a speedometer solution, but he swore they wouldn’t care, so off we went. After blowing our homemade horn to prove its potency, I explained to the examiner about the gauges and she stared dead-eyed and disinterested. Off we went and soon the speedometer indicated I was going at least 90. The DMV diva oscillated between telling me I was going too fast according to the speedometer and telling me I was driving dangerously slow. In the end she flunked me for it.
I finally got my license a week later by borrowing a friend’s car. Dad couldn’t grasp my frustration with his nifty fifties nightmare. That’s not terribly surprising considering that strandings, flat tires, and empty gas tanks were his idea of fun family outings. Later that year, on a tour of my future undergraduate alma mater, he would expel the entire exhaust system from our jalopy as we hurdled a speed bump in full, gaping view of half the student body. It felt like evacuating one’s own innards while onlookers munch popcorn and slurp sodas. He barrelled forward, blithely, immune to our mortification. I wanted to shrink onto the floorboards, but I wasn’t altogether certain they wouldn’t give way under my weight. Plus, we were well conditioned to know that we were only allowed to huddle in horror on the floorboards when mom screamed, “Get down!” which usually meant the brakes were on the blink.
That same summer, I hit the highway. While my friends were ambling about in fresh-off-the-lot Firebirds and cheap-but-cute Cavaliers, I was driving the battle axe Bel-Air that doomed my driver’s test. Nearly forty by that point, its keys were so worn that the ignition no longer required them to start. In addition to its wide array of function-free gauges, it also sported a cracked distributor cap that stranded me whenever the car got wet – thunderstorms, car washes, puddle splashes. The heater was always on, though one could run the aftermarket air conditioner to balance its effects. After about four minutes, though, it would freeze up and leak warm, chemical-smelling water on the carpet. In high summer, the after effect of this decision was somewhat akin to what it must be like to drive a dirty dish sponge.
When I suggested I might like to get a job and buy a car of my own – one of the Buick Regals or Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme’s that were cool then – dad refused. He never fully transitioned mentally from being a seventeen year old car junkie, and he wasn’t going to allow me to forego the fun he knew I could have if I’d just relax. He was convinced the other kids thought my ride was rad and that I was just being bitchy. He couldn’t grasp that when we saw my friends and classmates pointing and smiling as we drove by, no one thought we were cruising in the American Dream-mobile. To all of them, we were bizarre, behind-the-times, and baffling in our Bel-Air. In fact, the only admirers I ever encountered were creepy clones of my father; eager middle-aged gawkers making near-obscene hand gestures at stoplights and striking up uncomfortable conversations at gas pumps. More than once, thanks to the car’s utter lack of technology, I soaked my shoes with unleaded as the tank overflowed, distracted by their unwanted auto advances. Stranger danger, for me, became much more relevant at sixteen than it had ever been at six.
While fending off their car courting – a misguided move to recapture their youth – I couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for them. “Car guys” as my mother called them, seemed to see the world as one endless loop of American Graffiti – Grease mashup, sans the singing. They were as distinctive as they were delusional; they bought the Leave it to Beaver/Beach Boys midcentury madness without concern or critique. They moved through the world without ever acknowledging – whether from blindness or denial, I can’t say – that poodle skirts, saddle shoes, and sweater sets had gone the way of Sandra Dee. They betrayed no understanding of the fact that, despite our town still having one, drive-in A & W root beer stands were no longer a thing. They averted their gaze as they passed the Blue Moonlight Drive-In Theatre to avoid assimilating the reality that it now served as a parking lot for farming implements. In getting their kicks, they had to pretend that Route 66 wasn’t potholed and past-prime. To them, I was Dinah’s latest disciple, seeing the USA in my Chevrolet; I Shore-d up their muscle car masculinity by maintaining motor mania.
That was a heavy mantle and one I found mostly meaningless. Even then I considered their neglectful nostalgia annoying; it ignored the retrograde reality of their formative years. While it was hardly a new technology at the time, automobiles had recently become accessible to most of the people my family knew in the years following WW II. To be sure, most aspects of their lives weren’t as glamorous or glossy as the images they were consuming on their newly acquired television sets – as well as from newspapers and magazines – but their cars were a different deal. They could shoot for style in that arena because, broadly speaking, it was attainable and often over-the-top in that era. Cars were large, chrome-y, and colourful; practically speaking, they were also manageable in terms of size and sunk costs. They defined not only literal mobility, but also metaphorical movement. They telegraphed the hopes and hype of an era obsessed with progress, motion, and the future.
If you were to peruse our family scrapbooks and home movies from the 50s and 60s, you would find cars featured as frequently as family members. That’s no accident. Our cars – whether I like it or not – were family members to my father, grandmother, and many other folks. There was a ’36 Ford pickup called Henry; the Bel-Air I drove was always lovingly labeled “The 5.” “I’ll pick you up from school today,” Mom would say when we were younger, “look for me in ‘The 5,’” because, of course, it was manufactured in ’55. As a little kid, though, I always imagined it was because our family unit was comprised of us 5 and much as I often hated it, that antiquated example of the once space-age future emblematized our quirky quaintness as the weird family stuck in the 50s. I don’t think that’s the future its makers fantasized when they formulated its space age spaciousness, but it’s a narrative of our nuclear family that now seems distinctly our own.
That dream of the 50s – shiny, bright, spacey – was amnesiac in its affect; the world wanted to forget the 40s in all their horrific heartlessness. It marketed innocence and wholesomeness as uniquely American values, a mode the auto industry manufactured in a major way. In its uncritical capitalizing upon a war-wounded world, they gave a generation the gift of auto-mobility. A cool car established a sense of power, however illusory, and a position in a world that lacked logic. Little else mattered for some of those guys – my father being one of them – as everything else took a back seat to their rides. There are, of course, “car guys” from subsequent generations but, in my unwillingly extensive experience, they can’t compare to their elders’ ecstatic, even erotic, embrace of all things auto. In fact, I’m convinced that if it were possible to enter my father’s synapses – now nearly 74 years old – we would soon learn that he still believes most fervently that the perfectly restored sedan will somehow solve all that ails us, cruising us forward into a better future filled with milkshakes, sock hops, and the turquoise tranquility of technological triumph.
In my case, however, “the 5” propelled me directly into the trunk of an ’83 Chrysler E-Class. Ever unsusceptible to the seductions of my classic car, I found solace in its capacity for speed. Dad had souped it up, as one does, so that it easily did 110-120 mph. Despite his certainty in the car’s certain safety, it bears mentioning that, as a parent, he should never have let a stupid 16-year-old drive a car with such dexterity. After all, the car sported not a single safety feature: no seatbelts, airbags, or anti-lock brakes. In addition, I had spent my entire life as a passenger as both of my parents drove dangerously and at incredibly high speeds, including imitating James Dean-style drag races. They often took challenged one another to contests of speed to see who could make it home first; we once made a 40 mile trip in 20 minutes so as not to miss my eye exam. Of course by the time we arrived my eyes were so watery we couldn’t continue, but I digress. I loved one thing about that gas guzzler: it could blow the doors off all my friends’ new cars.
Each afternoon as school was letting out, my younger sister and I would jump in our jalopy and throw gravel as we drove out of the lot. This isn’t as dramatic as it sounds; we were always stuck behind a line of cars and school buses as we fought our way onto the two-lane country highway toward our population 250 town. In my first few months as a licensed driver, the razzings about my car were relentless. Once school resumed in the fall, however, I had found my métier: the simultaneous multiple car and/or bus pass. I would wait for my opening and then floor the car – windows rolled down, bat wings wound open, Wonderbar blaring – and tear past as many vehicles as I could as though I were starring in Red Asphalt. I soon developed a reputation among my peers for fearlessness – and probably stupidity – as I harnessed the hot rod’s horsepower for hedonism. The rush of racing finally made sense to me and I loved hotdogging in the vehicle they all considered garbage. It didn’t hurt, either, that on the days my friends couldn’t drive, my land yacht, to paraphrase Fred Schneider, could seat “about 20.” For them, passengering with me was like jumping on a carnival ride, and I did my best to make the show worthwhile.
While it lasted, that is. In total, I think that particular pass was about six weeks. The last day I drove “the 5” to school was a Thursday and I was looking forward to the weekend. My friend from down the street, a soon-to-be butch lesbian, informed me that she was sick of me kicking her ass on the race home, so she wasn’t going to take it anymore. Certain of my skill, I gleefully accepted her challenge and we cat-and-moused it back to Little York. Rather than returning directly home, we played a bit of hide-and-seek through the limited streets of our hamlet, in a fashion not unlike my parents’ vehicular hijinks over the years. What we didn’t realize, however, was that the county commissioner had recently oiled and gravelled the street that sets the boundary between town and country. My friend, confident in her conquest, quickly took the corner, hit the gravel, and slid in the ditch. I followed suit, ramming her ride right in the trunk, rupturing my radiator.
As we stood in shock, I knew right then that I had destroyed his dream; I had finished off the fifties. Free-wheeling wanderings gave way to teenage twits and endless obligations. We couldn’t afford to fix my fuck-up, and I didn’t even have a decent defence. Panicked and paranoid, my friend and I fled. Her car only had a creased trunk; mine was DOA thanks to that ridiculous radiator. When she dropped me off at home, terror overtook me and I started to bawl. I knew I had to call one of my parents and announce my idiocy, but I couldn’t decide which would be worse. My mother is the disciplinarian to this day, so I defaulted to dad even though I was calling to declare his dearest had died. We were not supposed to call him at work, so he answered on edge. Rather than making it some dreadful dialogue, I blurted out “I wrecked the car!” and hung up. When the phone rang not 30 seconds later, I opted not to answer. In retrospect, this was not the sagest decision.
In my mind, however, when one has recently, and wantonly, sacrificed another’s offspring – not to mention the choicest of children, at least in his estimation – there is little left to say. I was guilty and would not protest. Plus, how would I explain that after defiling his darling I also left her for dead in a ditch? Nope – there was no defending that, so I went mute. Approximately twelve minutes later he roared into the driveway in the ’64 Impala. True to form, he didn’t burst into the house to inquire about my health. He offered no platitudes about the replaceable nature of cars or his gratitude for my survival. I understood this; he had two other children but only one 5. Later that evening, when the wrecker – driven by stern family friend called Smiley – arrived, there was something of a cortège with my father following solemnly behind. The silence that characterized the entire affair was stifling, as my father began behaving as though I were the son slain in the day’s events.
He would not speak to me for nearly a year after my calamitous collision. In the intervening months, he restored the wreck in the fashion favoured by Dr. Frankenstein; he paired disparate parts, punishing them into a parodic approximation. After bending, de-denting, bondo-ing, sanding, priming, painting, and buffing, he still knew that she was not herself. Her parts, an unholy pairing, bespoke betrayal and brokenness. He felt certain that anyone who beheld her freshly buffed beauty would immediately divine the deception at work; here was a surgically enhanced enchantress. She may as well be one of those fibreglass kit cars guys with too much cash and erectile dysfunction denial bought to make themselves feel better. For him, she was sullied and there was no return, no matter how he had returned to her the spark of life. Despite this death, however, his dream of car-vana continued, but with less fervour.
He eventually started speaking to me again, though with slightly more clipped phrases and acid tones. Ever the critic, I introduced the apple into his Eden and therefore could not be trusted. A few years later when I defected for a German auto – they status symbol of my generation – he recalled the Huns against which his parents’ ‘merican made cars stood as a rebuke and felt vindicated by my vehicular vindictiveness. My sister ultimately ended up with “the 5,” wrecking it twice, once while driving out of a DQ drive-in, another firm reminder that his awful offspring were intent upon killing his classic cars and all they symbolized. The final assault proved too overpowering and he ultimately auctioned her to a balding broker with a glint in his eye. Dad regarded him with all the pity of a newly confirmed cuckold, ridiculing him for thinking the thinking the past could be purchased, that youth could be regained. That car, he thought, had too much history; he would seek out one unsullied and start again.
Joshua Adair is an associate professor at Murray State University, where he serves as the director of the writing centre and coordinator of Gender & Diversity Studies.