Cars Connect People: The Ride of My Life
I was 19 years old in the summer of 1967. This “Summer of Love” witnessed the Beatles joining Sergeant Pepper’s Band and marching off the touring circuit for good at the same time that 100,000 hippies descended on San Francisco. For me, it may have been ’67 but I was hell-bent on experiencing it like Route 66.
The ad read 1961 Corvette, Honduras Maroon with white cove, two tops, 283 with dual quads. A brief conversation revealed that it had been sold, but was again available because the previous buyer could not swing the bank loan. $1300 was a lot of money in 1967.
I parlayed my savings from selling paint at Sears and Roebuck, delivering dinners for Chicken Delight and selling my 1959 MGA. After subtracting the $440 for my junior year of college tuition, I had enough to buy the Corvette.
Foot to the floor, I drove straight into the heart of the summer of 1967. I entered an American Graffiti experience rich with Jersey Shore adventures and Main Street cruising across North Jersey and beyond.
Unthinkable for the youth of today, but in ‘67, summer nights witnessed young drivers across America in cars of every description cruise around the center of town. A hormone laced dance of cars, flirting glances and laughter played out against a backdrop of deep throated Detroit iron and the aroma of engines running rich on Sunoco high test. I loved it.
When I bought the Corvette, my father gave me a stitched clear acetate sleeve into which I could put my registration etc. I still keep my papers in it. Recently, for the first time in decades, I looked at it - closely. In the bright sunlight I saw two names otherwise lost to history except that they were faintly etched into the clear sleeve. I then recalled back in the late ‘60s when I met two cute teenage girls at, where else, a Dairy Queen. I didn’t have paper so I scratched their info onto the sleeve with good intent but, ultimately, never to be used. I hope, as they approach their 70 th birthdays, Julie and Cookie are doing well.
A lot of life happens in 50 years. “Time passes. Life’s milestones, challenges, adventures and events populate its passage. At times the minutes go slowly but always the years fly.
The early 70s saw me leave teaching and return to graduate school. A lasting memory finds me alone and cruising along Route 81 north of Binghamton, New York bound for Syracuse University. The Chevy small block smoothly rumbled at speed. Midnight approached. Wind swept through the open cockpit. The sky hung like rich black velvet populated with diamonds twinkling in a jeweler’s case. A full moon poured moody light upon the sleeping village below. Cruising at 70 mph, I climbed a high banking turn where the valley quickly fell away. For me that frozen moment in time captured a peace and sweet loneliness that connected with me in a way that freed me from ever again wondering why I so loved the open road.
Life, like a road, has rough spots. My father had two addictions, cars and smoking. I acquired one. The other killed him. By 1980 emphysema had robbed him of his ability to breath. His heart beat strong but his lungs were gone.
My father was hospitalized in his last days. Finally the doctor told me there was no more they could do. My father could go home. They would get an ambulance.
He would come home but there would be no ambulance. I fit the Corvette with an oxygen tank and we took our last ride together, his last ride...home, the three of us...my father, my car and me.
1994 found my mother who had nurtured my appreciation for great books and love of history suffering from the mental ravages of Alzheimer’s disease.
Her affliction had reached the point where her recognition of me was fleeting. I learned a lot about Alzheimer’s during that time. One thing I learned was that memory does not deteriorate uniformly. I would wheel her out to the nursing home parking lot on sunny days and bring her by the familiar Corvette. I would open the passenger door and sit on the sill facing her in her wheelchair. Sitting there under blue skies old memories would flash across her face like short-lived sparks and disappear. My mother would smile.
As time passes I find that others with cars and stories gravitate to like souls.
In July of 2017 a local newspaper covered a celebratory driving event I held to mark the day in 1967 when I bought my Corvette. There were 40 cars and 50 or so friends. A few days later I received an email. It congratulated me on owning my car for so long and then continued to relate a memory. The writer recalled a favorite science teacher back in the late 1960’s with the same name as mine who had a Corvette the same color as mine. By any chance had I been that teacher?
Yes, Rocco, that was me. Rocco went on to relate that he had gone on to graduate from the same engineering school as I did and now, as he considered retirement, he restored classic GM muscle cars for a hobby and owned a 1965 Corvette.
Fifty years later, Rocco has returned as a participant in my adult school course on collectible automobiles.
It just confirmed what I have long known; a cared for and driven old car gives birth to fresh new stories with pleasing regularity.
I am blessed that these are the best days of my life. As I continue my journey into the next 50 years behind the wheel of my 1961 Corvette, my only certainty is that fresh memories await me.
By Burton Hall