Chrome, Leather, and Love: A Story For The Ages

14 Jul

Thought I might share with you something special.

This weekend I was in Peterborough for a family reunion. My mom’s brother Chris, who was in town from Vancouver, was among the people who had come far and wide to be with us and celebrate each other’s successes. It was a great time, but something personally significant happened to me. It involved my uncle, a car, and a dream of mine that has quite literally defined me.

My Uncle Jimmy (my mom’s other brother) bought a 1959 Cadillac Coupe DeVille in the mid-eighties from his uncle’s friend. It was a beautiful accent to his wedding, and a prominent feature in his family’s life for several years. It was (and continues to be), however, a very old vehicle, and as such required quite a lot of care. (Care, in this instance, translates as money.) It inevitably became a bit of a financial burden, and he sold it – to my father.

Before I continue I have to tell you about this car. This car – or “the Caddy”, as we came to call it – was a work of art. When I saw her in Peterborough at Uncle Jimmy’s place when I was tiny, it was like love at first sight. I still think she’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. 19 and a half feet long, with tapered Batmobile fins and wicked cone brake lights, it is a vision in gleaming chrome and crimson. The whitewall tires, the dual headlights, the couch-like seats that you sank right into (no seatbelts, of course), the huge, thin steering wheel. Power windows! Oh, and the sound – that V-8 growl that seems to trigger some primeval sensor in the male psyche, where someone starts it up and every man’s head within five miles looks up sharply and grins. Even the smell of the interior: sitting in that car, and taking a deep breath, you inhaled the exhaust and the old leather and the miscellaneous garage smells that complete the masculine experience. It was like some designer took all the collective 50’s fascination with flashy science fiction and melded it with the quiet class of the lumbering giant cars of the 40’s. They called them “land yachts”, and after taking a ride in the Caddy, you understood why: it felt like you were gliding along the pavement on a cloud. You understood the sparkling, post-war zeitgeist of the fifties as they slid stylishly into the sixties, and you felt you were part of it as you purred along the highway. Driving at night, you’d look up into the sky and expect to see Sputnik.

And on top of all that, the Caddy melded itself into my youth in an inextricable way. I was fifteen when I really started paying attention to it, and its importance to me. It was a time in my life when girls had just begun to become a reality – when they changed from just another kind of person – smoother, softer boys, essentially – into beautiful, mystifying, entrancing things. The girls I knew were all extremely smart, and in addition to their beauty, this made them infinitely attractive. The Caddy was, I thought, the ideal way to attract smart girls – because who could resist it? I couldn’t imagine (and still can’t) anybody not being as bewitched by that car as I was, and I deduced that if they loved the car, and I was in it, they would love me, too. My logic was crystalline. Flawless. And to my intense delight, it worked. I don’t know how people’s opinions of me changed once they saw my dad growl up their driveway as he dropped me off at their houses, but I know it was for the better. And of course, it drove the girls wild.

Because of this, my adolescent fantasies were steered down an eclectic path. I built my youthful persona as an antithesis to what I saw everyday, and honoured instead the era that spoke to me. Instead of The Offspring, I was listening to Elvis. Instead of skater shoes, I was wearing a fedora. And instead of taking my first date to the movies and making out, I was driving her out to Pinhey’s Point and lying on the hood of the Caddy under the stars, listening to Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity. I am not ashamed of this. It’s cheesy, yes, but it’s no more ridiculous than anything any teenager did, and it coloured my life and my growth as a person in a way that is nothing if not interesting. And it’s all thanks to that car.

So, it must not be a stretch to imagine my devastation when my dad sold the Caddy around the year 2000. I won’t exaggerate and say it was soul-shattering; it wasn’t that bad. I was still growing, and it was hard to be too attached to things. In fact the worst part about it to me was that he sold it right before I turned sixteen, and therefore right before I would have had the chance to drive it. Thankfully it was kept within the family – he sold it to my Uncle Chris – but it was still a blow for me. She drove out of my life, and took a bit of my youth with her.

Vancouver, especially the part of it Uncle Chris inhabits, is very urban and not ideal for a car that’s twice as long as most cars on the road. It didn’t make much sense to take it with him, but he still felt very attached to the Caddy (I imagine in a way similar to my own), so he kept it in storage in Peterborough until it could be taken out and enjoyed when he was in town.

Enter today, this afternoon – July 13, 2009. It had been literally years since I had even seen the Caddy, let alone given it much thought. Every now and then my mind would wander and a spark of the old experience would light up in my head – I’d get a flash of the old leather smell, or a rumble of the engine, or a gleam of the paint behind my eyelids. The one nagging thing for me was that I never got the chance to drive my dream car. I always joked that I’d never forgive my dad for selling it at the worst possible time. Beyond that, I was too busy growing up and doing things and going places to spend much time reminiscing. Now, at twenty, I still have lots of growing to do, but today I was given a delicious slice of nostalgia that will probably give perspective for years to come. Uncle Chris surprised us all and brought it out of storage, cleaned it, and took it for a drive. Apparently she started up like a dream, as if she’d been lovingly maintained for all these years instead of lying dormant under a tarp in a garage.

And, after all these years, I got to drive her. At long last, I got to drive the Caddy!!

It was exactly as I remembered, and just as sweet as I’d imagined it would be. Everything came rushing back to me when I saw her, all the smells and sounds and memories, and when I got behind the wheel, heard the growl of the V-8, it felt like I was fifteen again. I was grinning from ear to ear. And the trip was painfully short – literally up the street and back – but I got lost in those short seconds, and it seemed like a lifetime.

We took her back in because she was leaking engine oil, and as we stood in a cloistered circle around her, Uncle Chris testing the oil and talking to my dad about it, I reached out and put a hand on the hood and tried not to cry. It was beautiful.

*

With her resurrection today, the Caddy instilled in me a sense of childlike wonder I haven’t felt in years. One gets bogged down by the drudgeries of daily toil, and to be reminded of the simple, real, visceral pleasures in life is very wonderful indeed. I love the Caddy, and with my dream realized today, I can die a happy boy.

-Justin

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