In 1966, I had it all.
A full-time job, college scholarship, draft deferment, steady girlfriend, fifth-row tickets to a Bob Dylan concert and a blue and white ‘57 Chevy Bel-Air sedan.
By 1968, it was all gone.
The passing of my railroad job coincided with the demise of the great streamliners. The scholarship ran its natural course and the deferment was replaced by the promise of temporary employment with the U.S. Army. I lost the girl not long after the Dylan concert and the Chevy fell victim to youthful naivetè and benign neglect.
Losing the car hurt the most.
It was my first car, the product of a hastily arranged deal between my father and a neighbor in which I would surrender the motorcycle I had just won in a radio station contest and a few hundred dollars in exchange for the car, which had 75,000 miles, more or less.
Best deal I ever made, probably.
For over three years, I spent a good share of my waking hours in that car. Ultimately, I spent quite a few hours sleeping there, too, catching cat naps between classes of my senior year of college.
Looking back, my relationship with the car was fatuous. It was, after all, just a ton and a half of mostly sheet metal, cast iron and chrome.
But when you shocked that 283 small block V-8 to life, threw the Turboglide transmission that GM said was “smooth as velvet underpants” into gear and saw the future break between the twin rocket-shaped windsplits down the hood, you knew why Chevy said “the road isn’t built that can make it breathe hard.”
If it weren’t for the couple of square feet of vulcanized rubber hugging the road, you’d swear you’d be airborne any minute.
So many of my friends in Council Bluffs had ‘57 Chevys, we used to joke that General Motors must have been cranking them out until 1962, at least.
The first time I drove 100 miles an hour was in my Chevy. The engine shivered and the whole car rattled as we broke 80...90...then the magic number, which I’m pretty sure was legal, in that state at that time.
My Chevy took me to the only love-in I ever attended, in Lincoln, Neb. It took me on camping trips, dates, to Eugene McCarthy rallies and my first newspaper assignments.
It took me and Gil Cerveny to Topeka, Kansas, where I promptly lost almost all my cash to a fair carny, walking away with a stuffed purple dog and just enough gas money to get us home.
On warm summer nights, I would roll down its windows and play my guitar, smoking English Ovals while struggling with the chord progressions to Gloria and Wild Thing.
But life with the Chevy could be difficult, too.
The radio quit just about the time we drove it off the dealer’s lot. I tried to replace it with an expensive Blaupunkt, but could never figure out the wiring. For the better part of our relationship, the Blaupunkt sat on the front seat, powered by D cells.
I lost the oil pan drain plug on one weekend jaunt to Des Moines and nearly burned up the engine before I found a hospitable gas station in Stuart. On another occasion, the distributor cap decided to crack about 2 a.m. when I was passing through an undesirable area of Omaha. Vapor lock was common.
One winter, I spent hours with my back on frozen concrete while wrestling with its starter. On another frigid winter day, the guys at my railroad job towed my car to the bowels of Union Station in Omaha, where they applied steam heat for hours, trying to relieve the engine block of a gallon of 20-weight sludge.
The car was forgiving, though, and suffered well through all its infirmities, until The Great Transmission Caper.
The transmission starting slipping in and out of gear as I lurched down Interstate 29 after covering a high school baseball game in Logan. I flooded the transmission with new fluid the next day, but the slipping got worse.
An understanding guy in a transmission shop in Omaha said he’d check it out. He called the next day. Better get down here, he said. I’ve got something to show you.
The shop was typical of its day, unidentifiable auto parts covering every possible surface, a half-dozen or so mechanics in grease-dappled outfits and petroleum hanging heavy in the air.
The understanding guy fetched a part he claimed came from my transmission and held it out for me to check.
“Feel that,” he said, pointing to the lip of some cylinder-shaped metal. “Feel that groove? That’s your problem.”
Yes, I could feel that groove, but he could have told me anything.
Fortunately, he could fix it, he said. Unfortunately, it would cost me $300. Cash.
I needed my car. I paid, after getting a promise of a complete, guaranteed repair within two days.
Three days later, I found my car, parked in a lot behind a hastily vacated former transmission shop. I was surprised to discover its Turboglide transmission intact.
Perhaps they repaired it, I thought.
The engine purred to life easy enough, but the transmission was as bad as ever. I hoped it would lurch long enough to cover the five miles or so to my home. But it clanked to a dead stop, right on the Nebraska-side entrance to the Ak-Sar-Ben Bridge.
I briefly considered ripping off the license plates and leaving it there, but was strongly encouraged by an Omaha policeman to have it towed back to its home state, which I did.
With my entry to the service just weeks away, I had little choice but to dispose of a car that I could no longer properly care for. Then came the ultimate indignity: I actually had to pay someone $25 just to tow my prized ‘57 Chevy to its final resting place.
I could barely watch as the tow truck driver pulled my car down the alley on its final ride. I’m pretty sure I saw a smirk on his face, though, and could almost hear him mutter to himself, “Sucker.”
For the next few weeks, I covered my newspaper assignments in a company-owned car, or in a borrowed salmon-colored Plymouth Valiant with one of those pushbutton transmissions.
I’ve owned eight or nine cars since, including a sporty AMC Javelin that survived at least one inadvertent flight over a retaining wall and an unfortunate meeting with a mountain in Utah, but there’s nothing like that first car, especially when it’s now a classic.
Whenever I spot a ‘57 Chevy with the same Larkspur blue and India ivory scheme as mine, my heart skips a beat and I wonder...did they ever get that radio to work?