My first car was my first love.
Oh, I had other crushes – but nothing came close to love.
That car, that was love.
She wasn’t much to look at, just a green ’65 Rambler with only one working door – but in those days I wasn’t much of a catch either.
My brother said it best. He took one look at her and quipped, “that’s the kind of car you don’t want to fill with gas for fear of losing your investment.”
But what did he know?
That car wanted no more than I could afford and for someone as clueless to the two way nature of love as I, it was the perfect starter relationship.
I worked in a steel foundry back then. My shift ended at midnight and every night I left work dead to the world – but there she would be, waiting in a pool of soft light at the far end of the parking lot.
We would spend the rest of the evening together, washed by the wind, cruising the sleeping city and listening to the radio until the first blue light of dawn.
We didn’t say much during those drives, we didn’t have to – love grows just as well in silence.
After the foundry, I moved into a rooming house while I attended college. There wasn’t much space there, so she slept on the street.
It was hard on her, especially during winter. Her starter failed that January and since I had no money, we had to make due.
So I parked her on a steep hill overlooking the Mississippi and every morning I woke her gently by easing off the parking brake and releasing her to coast down the slope.
As we rolled slowly down the river bluff, I would look out at the long snake of the Mississippi curving toward the south and watch as the steam curled off its dark waters and rose into the reddening sky.
Near the bottom of the hill, when she gained enough speed, I popped the clutch and she sprang to life. There was pure joy in that.
In those days, we had nothing. We wanted nothing. It is what bound us together.
But that is the thing about young love. What binds you together is often the very thing that tears you apart.
Owning a cheap car is never cheap.
Over time, the guys at the NAPA auto parts store came to know us by sight. I would walk in with a part dangling from my hand and before I could say a word the counter man would sing out, “That’s a AMX DX1858-B, we’re out of stock but the Coon Rapids store has two, should I call ’em?”
To which I would mumble, “Yeah sure”.
As our visits became more frequent, I became more resentful. It’s what happens to a lot of relationships when the arcs of life diverge.
One partner rises, one falls.
Our last night together was a nightmare.
I know I shouldn’t have but I took her on a long trip to see a girl I had met. It was not something we had talked about – but she knew.
Along the way, what started out as a light misfire grew steadily into a nagging cough. Soon she developed an unquenchable thirst; one that cost us more and more time..
North of Saint Cloud, I pulled in to a gas station to top off her radiator and noticed the pulse of compression throbbing through her coolant. I knew what that meant. She did too. She had a cracked block.
All I wanted that evening was to see the girl. So I selfishly drove her harder and harder and she, the one who was always faithful, did all she could. She was dying but still she thought only of me.
She faltered several times that night, losing power and sputtering to a stop – but each time she picked herself up and pushed on.
Forty miles south of Brainard, her will could no longer sustain her strength and she coasted onto the shoulder, trembling and gasping for life. I had never seen death and it frightened me. I always imagined it as something sudden and peaceful but never as the panicked thrashing of a loved one.
I shut off her ignition but she refused to give up and instead dieseled on her oil. In a panic, I violently threw her into gear to kill the engine but she was too strong. She staggered forward, lurching painfully along the shoulder in a mad attempt to escape death.
It was more than I could bear.
I took her out of gear and just sat there. We were both caught at opposite ends of the same struggle, she for life and me for her death. I didn’t know what to do, so I just walked away.
To this day I can still hear the thunk of her engine crying out to me through the fog as I walked along the roadside leaving her to die alone.
On the face of it, this story does not say good things about me – but in the end it does because the guilt of what I did changed me for the better.
There will always be a part of me that keeps trying to walk back through that fog, back to the one who taught me the greatest lesson of life.
It is a lesson has served me well as a man, a lover, a husband and a father – that giving is its own reward.