Memories of Steel

How a vintage car brought tears to my eyes — and my father back

By Jason Mott

She wanted to cry when I said those painful three words: “I’ll take it.”

Maybe she never thought I’d actually buy it, or maybe she always knew I would and, sometimes, knowing does nothing to lessen the hurt. “Really?” she asked, her voice quivering just a little. “You’re really going to buy it?” I understood the look I saw in her eyes. It was that familiar mixture of surprise and horror, like screaming at a snow-covered mountain only to discover what a part of you has always suspected: that your voice, as small and familiar as it has always been, does have the power to cause an avalanche.

Selling the 1966 Mustang she’d had since she was 16 . . . this was Ramsey’s avalanche.

It was mid-March when I was bitten by the classic car bug. I was driving down Carolina Beach Road and saw a black 1970 Mustang for sale. I pulled over and checked it out, only to find that it had lived a rough life and wasn’t a car I wanted to buy. But seeing those old American curves and lines was enough to plant the idea of owning one in my head. So I contacted a few friends and asked if anyone had an old Mustang for sale. Turns out a friend from college named Ramsey had one and, now that she’d started a family, needed the garage space. So I went over one afternoon, looked the car over, and bought it, much to Ramsey’s disbelief.

That particular flavor of disbelief? I know it well.

When I was a kid my father owned a 1967 Chevelle. It’s probably what you picture in your head when you think of classic American muscle cars. It was a glorious car, painted the deepest, richest, bluest blue anyone has ever seen. When my father turned the ignition, it sounded like some monster clawing its way to life. I can remember almost everything about that car: the wide wheels, the heat of the vinyl seats in summer, the sound and feeling of the wind pouring in through the open windows as the sun shined down on empty back roads as my father listened to Marvin Gaye on his 8-track and sang along in that deep baritone voice of his that I always hoped I would grow into some day. He loved to drive. And I loved to ride with him.

Those were the salad days of my youth. But salad days never last.

By the time I was a teenager my father’s prized car had become nothing more than a rusted-out lawn ornament. I can’t remember what the issue was that caused him to park it in the first place, but whatever it was proved terminal. Over the next 10 years I watched that car fall apart and be consumed by wind, rain and rust. My father always said he’d fix it one day, but that day never came. Eventually, I took up my father’s oath and promised to fix it “one day.” But that day never came either.

Eventually, my father’s Chevelle became an empire of irrevocable ruin. Flat tires, broken windows, rusted-out floor, rats living in the air conditioning vents. In the end, I sold that car to a stranger who came calling one day. He was a junk man who wanted the car for scrap. I hadn’t planned on selling it, but then, all of a sudden, there I was — misty-eyed and with a slight tremble in my voice, just like my friend Ramsey — saying, “Really? You’re really going to buy it?”

And, just like that, my father’s car was gone.

A few years later, my father would be gone too.

Ten years after that I walk outside my house, headed for the garage to clean it out and make room for my newly purchased piece of Americana, and I look up at a bright blue Carolina sky and, as sudden as a lightning strike on the ocean, I’m crying. I’m crying because I realize I’ll never again see a blue as deep and beautiful as that old Chevelle. I’m crying because I’ll never again hear the roar of that engine or the boom of my father’s booming voice singing Marvin Gaye as we slice through the shadow of cedar trees on a two-lane blacktop lined with cornfields and drenched in sunlight. I’m crying because cancer took him away just like rust took his car and nothing will ever change that. I’m crying because he can’t help me work on my new car. I’m crying because I’m not a child anymore and, yet, no matter how old I get, I’m always my father’s son.

All of this because I decided to buy some hunk of steel and rubber.

But that’s the thing about cars: The good ones are never just cars. The good ones are memories that we can touch. The good ones become part of our lives. They carry us to the hospital after nine months of anticipation, they carry us to that nerve-racking first day of school where we first learn to let go and watch those we love walk away. Cars becomes places where we teach our children about persistence as they battle rusted nuts and bolts. Cars are where we talk about life as we fix flat tires. Cars hold us as we move across the Earth, traveling from beach to bayou to theme park to home as we move, mile after mile, from just being people to being families.

That’s why we can go out on a spring afternoon to work on an old Mustang and remember a father’s Chevelle and, for a moment, it’s like he’s right there beside us and, suddenly, there’s no reason to cry because it feels good to have that memory walking with us. And, if we’re lucky, we call out our own sons, daughters, nieces or nephews to help hold the light and, in doing so, we create new memories that the steel and rubber will always hold. Because sometimes it takes something as simple as a car to remind us that memory is meant to be a blessing and not a curse.

Jason Mott is a New York Times best-selling author, a UNCW alumnus and current UNCW writer-in-residence.

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