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Sunday, August 16, 2009

LULU'S NEW CAR......You Can Never Go Home Again - But You Can Re-Live a Little Bit of the Past


Harry and Lulu with her "old" original Dodge in Pennsylvania

Lulu in her "new" 1986 Dodge 600 Convertible

Lulu and I were watching some old family videos last week - you know the ones of the kids growing up doing school events. In a video of one of Keith's cross country meets - you see him running past an old white convertible. I saw Lulu's eyes water up as she muttered, "I wish I still had that car. It would be a perfect Florida car. She forgot about how hard it was to put the top up and down because the frame was so bent. She forgot about what a dog it was because it needed a new catalytic converter. All she remembers is the wind in her hair - the kids learning to drive in it - and all the old folks admiring it.

I felt like the grinch that stole Christmas. I convinced her to bid on a new Miata roadster on ebay back on a snowy January Sunday morning in 2003. There was only an hour to go on the bidding so it was really an impulse buy.

You might think "poor little rich girl" as Lulu drove that Miata for 6 years and the odometer barely read 15,000 miles. The Miata car spent every night in our garage and still looks spanking new.

After seeing a post on facebook of Lulu saying how she missed her old car - my Herculean task was set. Life is too short. I thought if she wanted that old Dodge convertible back - I was going to get it for her. Lulu seldom asks for anything - it is my job to find it for her - even if she ends up paying.

When Lulu was in high school - they used to call her "surf." No one loves the sun or the beach more than she does. I have to look forward to a condo on Miami South Beach when she finally retires from FSU. And her ride will always be a convertible.

Lulu bought the old Dodge on a whim in 1992. It was 8 pm the night before we were going to the University of Arizona for the summer. In those days Lulu made her name by teaching summer classes all over the country. As much as I tried to talk her out of it - we drove the 40 miles to Reading in the dark to see the car. A young Jewish girl had put 97,000 miles on it in 6 years and her Dad was selling it for $3200. Lulu worked the price down to $2875 - whipped out the cash - and soon I was following her up highway 61 in the old rag top.

For the next 6 weeks it sat in our garage. After a new top and air conditioner hoses - it was not a bad looking or driving car.

Our boys always gave Lulu the business pretending to hate it - but both of them had some pretty neat adventures in that car. I can't tell this story without mentioning how Keith took the car one night - before he passed his driver's test - and drove it from Pennsylvania to Chicago to show us he was a grown up. Drew took it to Duke his senior year because kids on financial aid were not allowed a car on campus unless it was 10 years old or worth less than $1000. The Dodge qualified in both categories. How that old car made it through a year of Dukies piling into it for nights out is beyond me. But it did make it back to Pennsylvania a year later and Lulu drove it for 11 years.

We won the eBay auction and had to navigate the 100 miles to Jersey in a foot of snow to pick the Miata up. Sad story - the owner bought it new in June of 2002. He had cancer and died in September - just three months and 1500 miles later. His wife kept it in the garage refusing to go in it or take out his personal effects out. Finally in January of 2003 - it ended up on eBay and it was my job to empty his personal effects. The car looked like it just rolled out of the showroom.

Lulu has been top down driving it to campus every day for 6 years - 2 miles each way every day except on the days when she takes my Vespa because of terrible campus parking. But deep in her heart there was an empty spot for the old Dodge ragtop.

After putting away the old videotapes of our little family back in the coal regions - it was my job to fill the void in Lulu's heart. My idea was to find an exact replacement and have it restored to like new condition. I scoured the Internet looking for a similar car. I checked eBay - I checked Craigslist - most of the cars I found looked like they were 23 years old and had 6 digit odometers to prove it.

After several hours of searching - like a miracle - one turned up on a farm outside of Rockford, Illinois. The owner claimed the car had 9000 miles on it. He claimed that he had the original dealer's invoice - window sticker - and bill of sale. He had a story about the car that was hard for a skeptic like me to believe.

The man worked for the local Dodge dealer for years. The dealer bought the car for parades and other promotions. When the dealership franchise was lost - the owner got two vehicles from the dealer in lieu of cash owed. The story seemed too good to be true.

I asked the owner to send me pictures - but his internet connection was a slow dial up out in the country. I contracted with someone else to take pictures and look the car over - but that fell through. After a little prodding - I convinced the owner to borrow his sister's camera and take some pictures that she could e-mail to me.

The pictures just blew me away - the car looked brand new. I was convinced that even if I had to buy a new engine - this would be a great car. It still had the original tires on it although they were dry rotted. The owner sounded like a country bumpkin - just like me - and I believed him when he said I could drive it back to Florida with just a new set of tires. I decided to go see the car - inspect it - pay cash for it - and drive it the 1000 miles back to Tallahassee. I thought it would be a good story to tell my grandson Jack someday. Maybe he would even want to drive it.

I had a few travel vouchers and bought a round trip ticket. Some people say I have a brass pair - but I was not that confident to get a one way ticket. At 6 am Monday morning I was sitting in the Tallahassee airport - excited about the big trip - scared that I would come home embarrassed or worse yet with a broken down clunker somewhere in Tennessee - Kentucky - or Alabama.

The flight was uneventful. As I navigated the corridors - there was a guy singing one of Lulu's favorites - "A Bright Sunshiny Day." I call Lulu "Sunshine" because one time I found a tape of her singing "You Are My Sunshine" in her childhood tape recorder.

I still had a to find a ride to Elgin, Illinois - a town surrounded by 7 foot high corn stocks about 50 miles away. Someone said there used to be a bus to the Holiday Inn there - but that was closed down. I checked with the cab company and they wanted $120. Since I had a large wad of 100's in a shoe - I was tempted to accept the cab's sky high fare. Then it hit me. Why not hitchhike? No - I didn't stick my thumb out on the highway. I decided to do the "Tomahawk Chop."

I headed back to the luggage pickup carousel from my flight. I started doing the chopping motion while saying I needed a ride to Elgin. After a few strange stares one young lady said, "We're going to Elgin." I could see the disgust in her husband's eyes as I said, "Thank you." In minutes - we were in their van driving through some pretty rough neighborhoods before the corn fields abruptly began. Elgin came up quickly - they refused the $20 I offered - saying that I insulted them with money - my kind of people.

I called Steve Jones - the car owner - and pretty soon his wife dropped by to pick me up along with her son Mike. The ride was short - just a few minutes out Elgin Road to their farm.

There is was - the Dodge - sitting on the tarmac in front of a giant pole building. The closer I got - the prettier it looked. But what drew my attention was the eclectic collection of classic muscle cars inside the open barn door. Only auto nuts would recognize cars like - the Dodge Little Red Express - the Hemi-cuda - the Dodge Superbee - and the Dodge Charger with the big high wing on the back. All of them were in pristine condition - reminded me of a scene out of American Grafitti - but on steroids. Steve was in the doorway.

I choked up as I approached the nimble little white Dodge convertible. It looked like brand new - the exact same colors as Lulu's old Dodge - white on the outside with a tan top and tan leather seats - almost golden. But something was different - it looked a bit more muscular. This car was the one with the rare ES Turbo package that added $3700 to the $18,000 sticker way back in 1986. For that bonus you got a turbocharged engine with 50% more horsepower - a digital dashboard - 15 inch allow wheels - functional louvered hood scoops - a radio with equalizers - and "Corinthian leather." I was truly dreaming and expected to wake up any minute to see a rusting skeleton with tattered strips of an old convertible top flapping in the Illinois breeze.

After a cursory inspection and short test drive - I returned and was ready to deal - but nothing could come out of my super smile except - "I'll take it." I made a handwritten bill of sale - laid out my $100 bills in cute little piles - Steve signed the title - and gave me two sets of pristine keys that still had the dealer stock number tags on them.

I had forgotten my Florida license plate that I planned to "screwdriver transfer" for the 1000 mile drive home. Steve must have seen something in my eyes - as he reluctantly screwed his dealer transfer plate on the rear of the Dodge. I was almost ready to go home. I doubted that the old original dry-rotted tires would make it home - so Steve led me to a Sam's Club and waited until I had new tires mounted and ready to go. The tire man was astonished that he was changing tires that were on a car 23 years and they still held air. I reminded him that they only had 9000 miles on them. He was the first of many people that just stopped and gaped at the car.

After hugs for Steve and Mike - I set the GPS to Tallahassee - it said 1060 miles to home.

After a call home to Lulu to say the deal was done - I headed east and south - trying to avoid the big city. My buddy Darrell was in Chicago at a convention - but he would have to wait to see Lulu's new old car.

The Dodge was quiet - the top went up and down like a dream. After years of tugging and pushing on the original Dodge's top - this one worked like on TV - up and down with one button. Soon I was on I-65 south - top down - radio blasting - wind in the hair - and 40 years younger. I was going to be the hero that returned the "prodigal son" car.

As I cruised down the highway keeping it under 65 mph - many folks passed giving me the thumbs up sign. The car was the ultimate chick magnet even though most of the chicks were over 70. I expected to get home by Tuesday night - the GPS said I would be home by 11 pm - but as I drove that time got pushed back more and more. When it read 2 am - I decided to stop for the night.

West Lafayette is home to Purdue University - and Lulu searched the net to find a cheap hotel room for me. I slept soundly - but every now and then I woke up to look out the window to make sure the Dodge was still there. It was.

The next morning I toured the Purdue campus and took a picture to remember my odyssey. Back on the road - next stop was Indianapolis. With a little luck I could visit the Indy 500 Museum and get a picture of the Dodge on the racetrack there. I was not disappointed - another Kodak moment. After a few pictures from the IUPUI campus where Lulu taught for two summers - I-65 and home beckoned.

Next stop - Bowling Green to visit the National Corvette Museum and the factory where they made America's sport car for 36 years. No one was along to stop me from visiting all the "brown sign places." A few more camera clicks - and I pointed those turbo hood scoops toward the Tallahassee Panhandle.

It was rush hour as I made it to Nashville - but that wouldn't prevent a stop at the Parthenon. I am not sure who decided to put an actual size replica of that wonderful Greek temple there - but I love it. A few raindrops fell as I took pictures of the Dodge in front of it - top up and top down. Time flew - the was way too much fun.

When it gets dark - my old eyes encourage me to stop for the night. After a visit to the Parthenon it was ironic that Lulu found an economy room in Athens, Alabama. Next morning I woke up singing , "6 days on the road and I'm going to make it home tonight." It felt that way. I-65 got longer and longer.

As I was circling Birmingham for the home stretch - my iPhone was ringing. Buddy Darrell - a professor at UAB now - was home and wanted to meet for brunch. When Darrell was a professor at FSU - we were two souls united by a common bond - old cars. I double backed a few miles - something I would not do for anyone else - but I wanted to see Darrell's reaction to Lulu's new ride. Darrell's office at FSU was right down the hall from Lulu's and he was the coffee baron and everyone's friend. A Waffle House was where we exchanged gossip and I got a picture of Darrell behind the wheel - even before Lulu saw the car. I sent it home to her on the iPhone - she quickly replied with a call to Darrell for his evaluation of her dream car.

Next stop - Tallahassee. I was pretty confident as I sailed through Montgomery - then Dothan - and Mariana. The Dodge and its turbo loved the windy two lane roads and for the first time I was pretty sure I would make it home.

At Midway - I exited on US 90 - with dark clouds ahead. Someone told me that a purist could not even find their convertible top - let alone put it up. As I looped around Doak Campbell Stadium - it poured - and the top went up. A few seconds later - the rain stopped and the sun dried the rain drops before they could leave watermarks.

I phoned home and asked Lulu, "Maverick to Tower - permission for flyby." It gave her time to gather up on the runway to see her new car zoom down Seminole Drive at about 35 mph - to heck with the speed bumps. As I taxied up to the driveway - I never saw eyes smile so much. I picked her up like in "An Officer and a Gentleman" and put her in the seat of her new ride.

Dreams of the old days in Appalachia - following the team bus to basketball games - driving the kids off to college - and just milkshakes and miniature golf at Heisler's Dairy Bar. Someone said child is the father to man. As I zoomed past Chicago - I thought of my 16 year older and his adventure half way across the country. This time was Dad's turn - I wonder if he had as good a time as I did. He never said.

Who knows how long the Dodge will hold up? Who knows how long Lulu will want it? But for one shining moment - Lulu is "Surf" again. Her pretty blonde locks shining in the Florida sun and the breezes from the Gulf whip it around like her hair is on fire. And that's the way I love her.


2 comments:

Jolylady said...

The story was worth the wait. How beautiful!

SandiJ said...

I've been waiting and waiting to read it. . . It is fabulous. You made me cry. You are a sweet, sweet man. My pastor one time talked about a "labor of love" I think I have the perfect example here!