I grew up in a time when parents abused their children.
My parents abused me by not buying me a car when I turned 16. They believed if I wanted a car badly enough I would find a job to pay for a car.
I got to drive of course. I shuttled my sister to hair salon school and carried my grandmother to Piggly-Wiggly and Rexall Drugs. But the kind of driving I wanted to do - the staying out to midnight on a date kind of driving - remained a distant dream. Mom and Dad were strict about where I went and how long I remained out. Dad would even check the fuel gauge. More than once I added a couple of dollars' worth of gas without noting it in his mileage book. When he bragged about his truck's great mileage I smiled.
At age 23 I finally got a job that promised an income capable of supporting a vehicle. Dad, exasperated with my "borrowing" his truck, insisted I buy my big sister's car. My big sister lived in Columbus, Ohio, a long way from Florida. But Dad offered to fly there and drive the car back. He would loan me the money - $3,000 - and I would repay him by installment. He even made "car payment coupons" I would turn in with my payments.
I wasn't crazy about the idea. I had driven my sister's car once. It was small and bland. But the choice apparently had been made for me. I wasn't in a position to bargain. Dad flew off and I began counting pennies.
I pulled into my driveway on a Friday night and the car wasn't there, which surprised me. Maybe it had broken down. Maybe Dad was stranded on the interstate. Maybe this sister-car thing wasn't such a good idea.
But Saturday morning when I climbed out of bed, there it sat. A 1977 Pontiac Astre. Powder blue. With rust along the bottom of the door panels.
My first reaction was: Ugh. How do I explain this beast to my friends? It was a stick shift, with a lever you had to pull up to shift it into reverse. It came with an AM radio, black vinyl seats, and no air conditioner. It was the homeliest vehicle I had ever laid eyes on.
But as I headed off down the street to pick up the kids for my youth team tennis match, one very large virtue occurred to me: I did not have to ask, hat in hand, for Dad's permission to borrow his truck.
Throughout the match that morning I could not wait to get back into my car. As the kids piled in I suddenly remembered I did not have to take them home and return Dad's truck. We went to McDonald's. Then we went to the beach.
That afternoon Dad briefed me on the repairs my car would need. The tires were bald and the shocks were shot. The spark plugs needed replacement, the antifreeze was past its due date and one of the brake rotors needed "turning," whatever that meant. I didn't even know how to change the oil but Dad vowed that would change.
That night, as I sat in the living room bored to death as the 'rents rocked out to Lawrence Welk, it again occurred to me I was no longer a hostage to Dad's good will. I had mobility. So I got in the car, gassed it up, and simply drove. I cranked up the radio to the only AM station it would receive, WNUE, and drove east, then north, then west, then south. I sang along with Deborah Harry, The Knack, and most memorable to me, Gary Numan's "Cars." That song resonated with me. It suggested the freedom and independence that only a car grants its owner.
Over the next few months I made the car my own. Dad taught me how to change the oil and spark plugs. We replaced the tires and shocks, and got the rotor "turned." The car could never keep a tire in balance and there was always a telltale thump no matter how many times I had the tires shaved. But I did remove the wheels and paint them matte black. I had a black racing stripe painted along the bottom, mostly to conceal the rust, with the name of the car reversed out of the stripe. I made the stencil myself and to this day have a scar on my thumb where I gouged it against the serrated edge of a tape dispenser. I complained to my friend Steve about how "fat" the car looked and he suggested a strip of ding guard down the middle of its ample hips. I applied it myself and the results were better than I could have hoped. All that fatness was broken up and the car looked sleek.
I kept the car five years and put 50,000 challenging miles on it. I drove it to my sister's house in Michigan - they had since moved to Union Lake - and somewhere along the way the spring that popped the shifter into reverse broke and lodged in the housing. I could not shift the car into reverse. Until I got that fixed, parking became something you planned ahead of time. One of the taillights developed a leak and the trunk filled with water every time it rained. The back window mysteriously shattered. The battery tray rusted out and the battery was hanging by the cables. Those black vinyl seats heated to frying pan temperatures in our Florida sun and I was forced to carry a towel with me during the summer. And it was always a thrill when the cheap plastic shifter knob came off in my hand because the threads had worn down.
But it was a great car and I loved it! I overlooked its flaws because it endowed me with something I had wanted my entire life - freedom. I could go anywhere and do anything, provided I had the money for gas. Suddenly I was an adult. I washed it and waxed it, Armor-Alled the inside and vacuumed its jet-black carpeting. After I moved out of my parents house, my roommate Steve and I saw the Roy Scheider movie "Blue Thunder" and we bestowed the car with that name.
I owned Blue Thunder from 1979 to 1984.
I sold it for $1,700 to a family who was searching for a car for their son. I wondered if the son had faced a similar ultimatum as I. During the purchase I warned them of Blue's cantankerous carburetor, its lack of AC and the tendency for all four wheels to want to go in a different direction. They didn't seem bothered by any of that. They said they'd been looking at cars all day and this was the best they'd seen in their price range.
I spotted Blue Thunder once after that. It was parked at the local mall. I hoped it was providing good service for its new owners.
These days I drive a Scion tC. It too is powder blue, and I special-ordered a stick shift. The interior is black, but there the similarities end. It has AC - thank God - an AM/FM stereo with CD player, and two sunroofs. But it also has cruise control, power windows, electric mirrors, a thermometer, ABS, air bags, multiply adjustable seats and a power plug for peripherals like cell phones and computers.
What it does not have is a name.
That's because I don't love it the way I loved Blue Thunder. It is reliable and inexpensive transportation, and not much else. True, I've taken it out on cool autumn nights and driven around Northwest Florida listening to CDs. I may never hear another Coldplay album without thinking of the Scion.
But the sense of wonder, the appreciation of freedom, is forever gone.