On Saturday afternoons, especially in the summer, I’ve been known to cruise classic car shows. I’m hoping to find a 1956 Chevy Bel Air. A ’55 will do, but not a ’54. The body style is not the same. There’s usually a classic car show on the town green in Colchester, the next town over from Hebron, where I live. You can probably find a classic car show on every town green in America. We are a country obsessed with automobiles, old and new.
When I find a ’56 or ’55 Chevy Bel Air, I’m sixteen again. The sight of those classic lines takes me back to that seemingly simpler time when my world consisted of only two things: cars and girls. When the owner of one of those Bel Airs fires up his V8, just a whiff of exhaust, tinged with a hint of burning 10W40, evokes memories of my first car and my first true love.
These days I see a car as just a means of getting from point A to point B. Don’t get me wrong, my 2014 Honda is fun to drive and has many fascinating features: keyless entry and ignition, automatic climate control, rear-view camera, right-side blind-spot camera, lane departure warning, touch-screen interface display, iPod USB interface, Pandora audio streaming, Sirius Satellite Radio capability, Aha compatibility (whatever that is), Bluetooth connectivity, satellite-linked navigation system with voice recognition, seven speakers, CD player, HDMI interface (to hook up a flatscreen TV?) and lots of other features I’ve yet to figure out. Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock would feel right at home in my Honda. I’m sure there’s a control somewhere on my dashboard or console or touch-screen interface that would allow me to shoot Photon torpedoes at SUV’s driven by those Klingons who cut me off on I-84.
My Honda may be loaded with a veritable cornucopia of twenty-first century technological features – it even talks to me! – but my Honda has no soul. It’s all micro-chips and electronic gadgetry. It even smells of the twenty-first century. More importantly, my Honda has no memories.
When I was fifteen, I couldn’t wait to turn sixteen, get my license, buy a car, and go out on car dates. Like most teenagers, I was passionate about cars and girls, twin passions fueled by gasoline and testosterone, a highly volatile mixture that propelled many a boy into manhood.
To understand these twin obsessions, you have to understand the culture of 1960’s America, especially the early 60’s, before Vietnam. Life seemed simpler back then. I say ‘seemed’ because, as Marcel Proust once said, “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” Looking back over a half century, though, - if you ignored the threat of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union - life ‘seemed’ to consist of stupid parents, stupid teachers, fast cars and pretty girls.
When I was in high school not as many guys had cars as today, so if you had wheels, you were a chick magnet – even if you had a face like Richard Nixon and a body like Nikita Khrushchev. With a car I could take girls to the Starlite Drive-In and Cummings Beach, and if I had the cash, I could even take a date to New York City. Back in 1964, when I-95 wasn’t so congested, the bright lights of Manhattan were just a half-hour drive from Stamford, my home town. And with a car, I could escape the city housing projects where I lived.
To save up for my first car, I stacked shelves at Tony’s Grocery every day after school – for $1 an hour. Later I added a night job at the Ferguson Public Library shelving books for $1.25 an hour – minimum wage at the time. On weekends – when the weather allowed – I caddied at Hubbard Heights Municipal Golf Course. I saved money by working in the school cafeteria during my lunch period in exchange for the free meal.
I turned sixteen the summer of ‘63. Two weeks after my birthday, I went to the DMV, took the test, passed, and got my driver’s license. I had my passport to other worlds. But I still needed a means of transportation. I counted my savings and came up short. The cars listed in the automotive section of The Stamford Advocate were out of reach.
My automotive future – and social life – looked dim, indeed. Until my Uncle Norman, a mechanic, came to the rescue. I’d told him I was on the lookout for a used car – a cheap used car – so he offered to keep an eye out for me. One Saturday afternoon he called and said he’d found a car – and that it was cheap.
“How cheap,” I asked.
“Just come look at it,” he answered. I hitched a ride to Norwalk where my uncle lived with his new wife, my Aunt Jane. Parked in front of their house was a four-door, two-tone green 1956 Chevy Bel-Air.
“It’s yours,” he said, smiling and tossing me the keys.
“How much do I owe you?” I asked, hoping I had enough to pay him back.
“Don’t worry about it. Use the money you’ve saved to pay for your insurance.”
I stood there for a long moment, admiring my car.
“There’s a dent in the rear bumper and rust behind the headlights, but just use some Bondo, sand it down and paint it,” my uncle said. “And it burns oil. You’ll probably have to throw in a quart of oil once a week, and maybe a can of STP.”
I didn’t care if there was a dent in the bumper or rust behind the headlights. I didn’t care if it burned oil. I didn’t care if there was a dead body in the trunk. It had wheels!
I thanked my uncle, hugged my aunt and drove off. Even though it was a chilly day, I rolled down the window and hung out my elbow. I turned on my radio, tuned to 770 AM, WABC New York, and cranked up the volume. The DJ must have heard I had wheels now and was on the loose: “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “I Get Around,” and “Pretty Woman,” blasted from the radio. My radio. My car radio.
I smiled and waved to the pedestrians I passed on my drive home:
“Yeah, I’m driving. That’s right, I’m driving my car. Check it out,” I said to anyone who looked my way.
When I got back to the projects, I sat in my Chevy for a while playing the radio and revving the engine, hoping everyone in the neighborhood – especially the girls – would notice. They did. My Bel Air burned more oil than expected. In fact, it wasn’t long before I filled our courtyard parking lot with white smoke. Later that week, as my uncle had warned, when I stopped off for gas – Gulftane at 28 cents a gallon – I had to add a quart of oil.
But I didn’t care. It was mine, a 1956 Chevy Bel Air, two-tone green (Sherwood green and Pinecrest green), front and rear chrome bumpers (like an empress dowager covered in jewels, my Bel Air was festooned with chrome), four doors (with hand-cranked windows), eight cylinders (a 265 cubic inch, 165 horse power V-8 that got 16 mpg), three-speed manual transmission, shift on the steering column (three on the tree), push-button AM radio with one speaker in the dashboard (Murray the K, Herb Oscar Anderson, and Cousin Brucie were my favorite DJ’s), long, cloth and vinyl bench seats (no seatbelts), not to mention enough room in the trunk to fit at least three bodies – I snuck my friend Marty and his girlfriend into the drive-in on a double-date many a night. Air-conditioning consisted of two hand-cranked, side-vent windows that allowed you to regulate the air flow in the front.
As predicted, now that I had a car, I became a chick magnet – sort of. Two girls asked me to our high school homecoming dance. I took a girl I met at a party in Greenwich instead. Jean was nothing like the loud, gum-snapping queens in tight skirts and heavily-hairsprayed beehive hairdos who ruled the halls of Stamford High. She had reddish-brown hair and blue-green eyes. Jean was quiet, thoughtful and very bright – what she saw in me is still a mystery. It had to be my car.
We were an unlikely couple, this girl from Greenwich and the kid from the projects, but we hit it off right away. After the party Jean let me drive her home. And for the next year or so, I drove her to the Starlite Drive-In and Cummings Beach and Bruce Park and Sherwood Isle and Playland and the 1964 World’s Fair. And one magical night, to a fancy restaurant in Manhattan.
And with a car, me and my buddies could go cruising after school. We’d all pile into my Bel Air and slowly patrol downtown Stamford, radio blasting, checking out the girls. We’d head for Tony’s in Shippan where we’d wolf down scalding-hot onion rings and greasy French fries, then sooth our burned tongues with ice-cold Cherry Cokes. We’d hop onto I-95, I’d floor it – put the pedal to the metal - and hit 65 mph back when the speed limit was 55. We were rebels. We were cool. James Dean and Marlon Brando had nothing on us. Life was good. I had wheels. I was in love. To quote my Uncle Bob, I had life by the short and curlies.
When I left for the Army in the summer of 1965 I loaned my Chevy to my mother, expecting to get it back when I came home on leave. “Make sure to add a quart of oil every time you get gas,” I said as I reluctantly handed her the keys. “And throw in an oil additive every once in awhile. STP.”
Six months later my mother wrote, “The Chevy died.” I’m sure I cried when I read her letter. It was towed to the junk yard and crushed, then sold to Japan, no doubt, where it was melted down and probably made into a 1966 Honda. As my Chevy was about to be crushed, I’m sure it cried out, “Wait, I have stories to tell!”
I got out of the Army three years later, in the summer of 1968. In the fall I’d be heading off to college – a small teacher factory in Danbury called Western Connecticut State. In need of a car, I combed the automotive section of The Stamford Advocate and found a 1955 Chevy Bel Air for sale. Call it Karma or whatever, but it was the twin of my ‘56 Chevy: two-tone green, four doors, eight cylinders, and, of course, high mileage.
I should have known better, but I didn’t care. I had to have this car. Maybe I hoped this ‘55 Chevy Bel Air would magically transport me back in time, a time before Vietnam. Having drifted apart those three years, I also hoped Jean and I could pick up where we’d left off. But it was not to be. I’d been to war and Jean had been away at college for two years. We were not the same two people who’d said heartfelt goodbyes back in the summer of ’65.
Jean, an English major at UCONN, later mailed me a quote from one of her literature texts:
“ … in the orbit of the world you are the North Pole, I am the South – so much in balance, in agreement – and yet … the whole world lies between.”
I reluctantly drove off to college that fall in my 1955 Chevy Bel Air.
But like my dream of picking up where we’d left off in 1965, a few days short of Thanksgiving, my Chevy also died. Before it was hauled away, the tow truck driver told me that the ’55 Bel Air had a critical design error in its engine oiling system. Both my Bel Airs, it seemed, had died from a dearth of 10W40.
In dire need of transportation, I bought another car – a 1963 VW Beetle. Eventually, I also found another girlfriend – her name was Christine. But she was no Jean.
That summer of 1968 I learned the hard way what Thomas Wolfe wrote long ago:
“You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love … back home to lyricism, to singing just for singing's sake … away from all the strife and conflict of the world … back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting …”
On the rare occasion when an owner lets me sit in the driver’s seat of a ’56 Chevy Bel Air at a car show, I’m back at the Starlite Drive-In or Cummings Beach or Bruce Park or Sherwood Isle or cruising downtown Stamford with my buddies. I run my hand along the bench seat and instinctively look to my right, thinking I might find Jean next to me – hoping I’ll find Jean next to me.
If I close my eyes, I swear I can smell Jean’s freshly-washed hair and the scent of her perfume – Shalimar was her favorite. I feel the warmth of the Starlite Drive-In’s in-car heater at my feet – even though I know I’m at a car show and it’s only the sun streaming through the side window. I can almost taste the stale concession-stand popcorn and the cardboard-like concession-stand pizza.
I sense the warmth of Jean’s body next to mine as we huddled on those cool nights at Cummings Beach – again it’s just the warmth of the sun reflected off the vinyl seat.
I run my hand along the seat, a bench seat as long and smooth as a three-cushion sofa, a bench seat that allowed your girlfriend to slide over and sit so close she was almost in your lap.
My Honda sometimes speaks to me – it’s a woman’s voice – “In one hundred yards turn right onto North Main Street” – but it doesn’t speak to me like Jean spoke to me those nights at Cummings Beach when we gazed out over Long Island sound and listened to soft rock on the radio. Every night Murray the K on 1010 WINS greeted the lovers parked at the beach with, “Hello all you submarine race watchers out there.”
Those spring and summer nights were a feast for the senses – and an assault on restraints and inhibitions: the fragrance of Jean’s perfume, the taste of her lips, the soft touch of her hand on my face, the salt air from Long Island Sound, the twinkling lights from the opposite shore and the constellations above, the whisper of waves caressing the sand, the soft music from car radios tuned to stations that played love ballads just for us –“A Summer Song” by Chad and Jeremy was one of our favorites. Sometimes you’d hear giggles or even laughter coming from the surrounding cars. If you listened carefully, you might catch the sound of softly-whispered promises.
This woman’s voice that occasionally speaks to me while I drive my Honda from point A to point B probably comes from a computer chip hidden somewhere behind the touch-screen interface or under the dashboard. Is it still called a dashboard?
I don’t know this woman in my Honda. I don’t recognize the voice. But I know it’s not Jean. And though this woman may recognize my voice, does she really know me? How can she? We’re complete strangers. And I know this woman in my Honda isn’t really there. I look but there’s nobody in the seat next to me.
I can’t touch this woman’s fingers, hold her hand in mine, caress her arm, her neck. I can’t smell her hair or breathe in her cologne. I can’t look into this woman’s eyes.
I can’t feel her breath on my neck. She can’t run her fingers through my hair or caress my face. She can’t speak to me with her eyes.
I can talk back to this woman in my Honda, but does she really hearme? Does she hear me? If I said, “I love you,” what would she say? I’m sorry. I don’t understand.
There are many gray heads in the crowd at these auto shows, old men lost in thought as they stand next to those classic cars – Mustang, GTO, Barracuda, Bel Air, Corvette, T-Bird, Camaro – old cars that take these old men back to that summer when they were sixteen and all that seemed to matter were cars and girls. They’re back to that time when Gulftane, Shalimar and testosterone fueled their world. They all have stories to tell, these old men and these old cars.
“We can’t turn back the days that have gone. We can’t turn life back to the hours when our lungs were sound, our blood hot, our bodies young,” said Thomas Wolfe.
Thomas Wolfe was wrong. I’m sixteen again. We’re all sixteen again.
About the Author: Mike Mulvey is an instructor of English at Central Connecticut State University. He holds degrees in English and an MFA in Creative Writing. He’s had over twenty short stories published in well over a dozen literary magazines and journals, print and electronic, in the US and the UK, some dubious, some noteworthy, some you’ve probably never heard of, and a couple that are now belly up. But last year he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He lost.