The Duster Chronicles III: The heart of the matter, Don Henley, and the first week of September
Nine days after I wrote part II of the Duster Chronicles, posted below, on my birthday then, like today, I might add, I wrote this. While it's s not completely about the Duster, it was inspired by some of the memories and feelings that bringing it home had inspired. I don’t own the lyrics to the song, obviously, so I’ve had to edit this a touch for what became THE BEST OF ALOHA KUGS: VOLUME I, which is aviailable here!
As you may have heard, I bought a car recently. Not just a car…an adventure. This isn’t about the car but it was inspired by it circuitously, plus, it’s my birthday, so, like every other day, I get to write about whatever I want. That includes the things in my chronically overlong title. So, let’s talk about them. As some of my stories go, it begins long ago…
It was the first week of September, 1990. I’m certain there was something of note going on in the world but I had just turned 17, had my license, had a car, and my world was falling apart. My father was dying of cancer. He would die in October of that year. I was starting my senior year of high school and handling it, along with a number of other emotional and personal challenges, with varying degrees of success.
What does this have to do with Don Henley? Well, not a ton, actually. He’s the guy that co-wrote and sang a really great song, “Heart of the Matter.” That in and of itself is not noteworthy here, though it’s a great song and all you Eagles haters should just settle down and hang in there. A good song is a good song.
This is all about timing.
Dad was in the hospital and Mom was with him most days. My sister had just graduated college and was out in the world creating her own personal brand of awesome so, I had a lot of time to myself. I was at the hospital a lot too but school had just started and it was decided, between my parents and I, that I should try to have as normal a senior year as possible. So, I tried. It was amazing how quickly going to Princeton Hospital became a daily occurrence.
Among other things that should be mentioned as this backstory gets longer, is that I had just had a rather long-term relationship end, honestly as nicely as was possible, so that was on my mind too in the first week of September, 1990. It had just been my birthday. I got as a gift for my 17th birthday a car stereo of my choosing to be installed in the Nissan, not the old Duster, as for the time being, I was going to using that car more often than not. So, I went and picked one out and it got installed and it was as a wise man once said, “Most excellent.” AM radio AND FM, plus a sweet cassette deck with AMS, digital display, and METAL to non-metal cassette distinction options. Later on, I even got an adapter to plug my giant portable CD player into it…but enough about how old I am. (42 is as special number!) It was really cool and I had an extensive cassette collection (still do) and I was really happy with it.
When I picked up the car after the installation, I started it up and the radio was all static as none of the stations had been set yet so, I set about fixing that before I pulled out of the parking lot. I started with everyone’s favorite station in those days in Mercer County, NJ, 97.5 WPST, right out of Princeton. The moment I tuned it in I heard the opening chords of Don Henley’s “Heart of the Matter” and I just sat there listening to it. It wasn’t a new song, really. The album it was on was over a year old, so I know I’d heard it before. Just never in that time and that place.
Have you ever had that moment where someone said exactly the right thing at exactly the right moment? Or you just happened to be in the right place at the right time for something significant to happen to you?
This was that in every possible way. The first song on the stereo that would be the last gift I would receive from both of my parents plays this song at that moment, when pretty much every lyric in the song speaks to something that had significance to what I was not only experiencing, but also the things I was avoiding. I was avoiding the idea that I might have to learn to live without my father. I was avoiding the idea that everything was changing and that life would have to go on. I was definitely holding on to a lot of anger, despite the fact that I knew it would consume me. I did that for a lot of years afterwards, too.
I know the song is, on the surface a song about learning that a former girlfriend had found someone else, and there was that too going on in my life, but in that moment, the song felt like some kind of dispatch, what some call a “God moment,” where it seems like you’re being sent a message. I sat there and listened to the whole song in the parking lot of that car place out on Route 1 between the Market Fair and the Mercer Mall. When it was over, I turned off the radio and drove off into Princeton, towards the hospital to see my dad, but I stopped and parked somewhere first. I don’t remember where. It may have been our church, it may have been my old school, it may have been right on Nassau Street, I honestly don’t recall. I parked the car and for the first time since all the changes had happened; since my dad was diagnosed; since my relationship ended; since my world changed; since I’d been on emotional cruise control for months; For the first time since all of that, I really thought about what it all meant. I thought about what my life was going to look like without my father. I considered how someone I loved had moved on and that I would need to as well. I thought about what forgiveness means. There’s a lot going on in the lyrics of that song and so I thought about it all. I let is all in. Rather quickly, I then let it all out, completely and totally. I lost it both tremendously and cathartically.
It was a good thing. Cleansing to be sure. It was the first time I’d kind of let myself feel any of it to that point. I don’t think I’d been as honest and direct with my friends about what was going on and I think I tried to remedy that in the coming weeks. I remember feeling much more at peace, if such a thing were possible after that. I drove on to see dad and had a good visit with him and mom was there too and we talked with his doctor. Later, mom and I had a real talk about what was going on and how serious it was and what it meant to the family and what we needed to do over zeppolis at the Pizza place at the old Princeton Shopping Center. It was a good conversation and I remember driving home with my new stereo. I had switched to the Jazz show on 103.3 WPRB as I didn’t want music with words right then. I wanted to process what I’d just come to understand: my father was dying and it wouldn’t be long. I was going to have to find a way to live with that and become a real person on my own. I was going to have to talk to my friends about it and I did to some. I wish I’d done more. They were there for me after it happened in droves and to this day I love them all for it. I wish I’d shared more as it was happening. Some of my closest friends didn’t know my dad was that sick. It was a lesson learned. I barely shut up about anything these days. You all have Don Henley to thank for that I suppose…
So, that stereo I got for my 17th birthday went from the Nissan, aka “Challenger,” into the Tracer, aka “Bullseye,” before I had it removed when I bought the first Outback. I kept it in a box. It’s gone through several moves within Jersey to Oahu to Virginia. It stayed boxed up in our laundry room here and then into a box in the old shed that leaked and into the new pretty shed that’s awesome, until I gave it to my new mechanic pals who installed it in the Duster. I was worried it wouldn’t play, but it works just like it did back in the day. This morning, I took the kids for their first ride in the Duster. We connected my old cassette adapter to my iPod and we were soon rocking out to Bruce and Jimi, until it shuffled right onto “Heart of the Matter” as we drove down the Springfield-Franconia Parkway.
It was cool and a little breezy this morning and since the AC hasn’t been re-installed in the Duster, we had the windows open and the air was cool and a little damp. It reminded me of a morning back in early October of 1990 a little actually, when I knew before I was told that my father had died. Hearing that song with the kids, in the car I’ve been dreaming about since before dad got sick, with all of the significance that car turned out to have for me was really a nifty moment. I had a few memories that popped:
I remembered sitting in that parking lot listening to that song and how it had helped me come to grips with the relationships that were ending in my life and the fact that I was going to have to figure out how to live my life in a very new way.
I remembered standing on the high altar at church with my friend Dee who arrived early to Dad’s funeral and gave me a hug and held my hand for a long time. She didn’t let go until I was ready.
I remembered talking to my friend Anne before the service about how I could possibly write a meaningful eulogy and how she helped me through it.
I remembered hugging my Godparents in the room for families, so grateful they were there. I saw them recently so I wasn’t surprised to have them in mind.
I remembered how my sister’s friends had driven all day to come to the service and then had to go right back to take the GRE’s the next day.
I remembered the young woman who held my hand through the very awkward reception afterwards, even though we weren’t a couple anymore. She didn’t let go until I was ready either.
I remembered other things too, but to be honest, I only swam in that for a moment. They were all nice memories that I treasure and have written about before both here and elsewhere.
But then I took a breath and exhaled and draped my arm across the front bench and put my palm out towards the Bear and she grabbed my hand from the backseat and held it and then I thought about how cool it was that I was driving my new old car with my kids listening to that song. I felt again, like something had changed. I felt calmer and a lot more at peace. I liked the moment I was in with the kids and I like very much the way it feels now in my memory. At peace sounds and feels like a pretty good place to be.
I told the Boyo, who enjoys specific facts about songs, “Hey-you hear this song? This was the first song this stereo played back in 1990 when I had it installed in Grammy’s old Sentra.”
And he said, “That’s cool.”
And it was. The next song that popped up on shuffle was Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” to which Boyo said, “YES!”
It’ll be 25 years since that all happened soon and, while I wish I could say everything went smoothly after September 1990, that would be untrue and generally uninteresting. There were a lot of years I still carried anger and it definitely ate at me from inside. But I learned to live.
Now, as a delightful postscript, the first week of September 1992 was a real winner. There was this really pretty blonde that kissed me in the stairwell of her dorm on the night before classes started. That worked out pretty well for me. Impeccable timing once again…
If you’d told me while listening to “Heart of the Matter” in 1990 that I was only two years away from the love of my life well, I don’t know what I would have done with that. Probably would have written an awful song or an even worse poem. Be grateful you only have to read me in this form.
Today I am unequivocally exactly where I want to be. My family is healthy and happy, despite of and because of some of the challenges we face. I read to my children every night and it is a source of enormous joy for me. They are funny and fun and brilliant and artistic and thoughtful and amazing in ways I can’t ever imagine having been as a child. My wife is the greatest ever. I am who I am because of my relationship with them and the rest of you fine people. And I know that Don’s song, which he said took “42 years to write and about 4 minutes to sing,” suggests among other things that all things change. I think that’s generally true, but sometimes it’s not. I still love my parents although they are both gone now. I love my wife and my children and my sisters and all of our family; even the ones who like Michigan. That doesn’t change but I think we do. All of us. Well, I won’t speak for you, but I think I have changed at least a little.
The song also suggests that as we age, we are often forced to learn some of the same lessons over and over, but in new ways. I used to feel that line very differently than I do now. I used to take it as “I screwed up and am re-learning stuff I should know.” I took it that way because that was absolutely my experience. I screwed up a lot and had to re-learn it a lot until I didn’t. I like the idea now though, as I feel like it’s possible to look back on old lessons learned and learn them again in a new way. Like reading an old favorite book; one always catches something new on a re-read.
Or maybe I just like the song. Could be that. Could be that Don was writing the song at 42, like I just turned while writing this. Whatever it is, the song, the stereo, the car, the first week of September, whatever it is, in the end, I think that the song, and my past, and my present and future for that matter, has never made more sense to me than it does just now.
I wrote this one week after the post below. In celebrating book #3 in the Avery & Angela Series being handed off to the Beta team, and the fourth anniversary of my purchasing a 1970 Plymouth Duster, I thought it would be fun to revisit the columns that I wrote in the days before and after I brought the Duster home. The following is an excerpt from my first release, The Best Of Aloha Kugs, Volume I, available at Amazon and on Kindle Unlimited... or by clicking HERE!
I bought the Duster. I’ve kinda made a thing about it over Facebook and in real life too, so it’s possible that this is not new information for you. That said, as with all good and interesting things in life, there’s a story to tell.
I flew up to Hartford, CT on Monday where my dear sister met me and we ventured deep into the wilds of Worcester County, Massachusetts. It was an area of New England that I’ve never been to and was very picturesque. It reminded me of parts of Salem County in South Jersey and other parts of that area on the way to shore. The people I worked with when I was at PGHS used to call it “God’s Country” and I can see what they meant: beautiful and quiet and peaceful and full of promise. It was nice.
We drove to the seller’s house and got the grand tour of the property and met his three-legged dog. He showed us the garage where his cars are and had some other amazing cars too, including a mid-fifties De Soto that seems to be his passion. All the other cars were awesome, but my eyes were looking for the unassuming hunter green number I’d seen in the pictures. When I saw it, in person for the first time, I was equal parts excited and nervous as, while it was pretty serious when I booked a plane ticket and equally serious when I went to the bank to obtain a cashiers check, standing in front of the actual car was pretty much “go time” as Mandelbaum might have said. It was time to make a choice. Of course, it’s never that simple.
I had consulted friends and family and experts far and wide. I had the support of all of these people. I was standing in front of a really gorgeous classic car in amazing condition and while I could feel the excitement in my gut, I found myself, for a moment, falling back into a pattern I don’t like. In the course of several minutes I vacillated between “This is a great car” and “Kugs, are you out of your mind?” and “Look dude, it’s hunter green which is like your favorite color and not that far off of the Eagles color” and “Is this a responsible thing to do?” and “Why not model making a fun choice for your kids in a way that is meaningful” and then “Where are the seatbelts? Will anyone be able to help me with doing the work it needs? Why doesn’t the AC or Radio work?” and then, I thought, “It’s really a nicer looking car than the one I had back in the day…”
I went back and forth like this in my head for a minute, but then, I had a moment of clear and cogent anxiety where I wondered, and not for the first time, “What if buying this car is a life-alteringly bad choice and I still make it and I choose to invest time and money in it and the car blows up on the way home and I die and everyone wonders ‘what the hell you were thinking?’”
And in that moment, being a person who has experience with occasional outrageously silly yet powerful anxiety, I knew that I was seeking a reason to walk away instead of really looking at the situation, measuring the facts and making a rational decision. I was building to a panic to give myself an excuse to run away. It’s something I did a lot of after Dad got sick and later died. Anytime someone got close to me, either as a friend or as more than that, I got overwhelmed and ran away or pushed them away. I was unkind to a lot of very kind people in those days, until the wife essentially smacked me upside the metaphorical (and actual) head and said “enough” and helped me heal from that stuff. I’ve talked about those days here before, but I found it interesting that that same sort of impulse crept up in me with this situation. It hadn’t when we bought the Beach House and it hadn’t in other difficult times since. So, why did it happen here and how did I deal with it?
The “why” is not that difficult to understand now that I have had a few days to think about it. Despite my penchant for taking the family out or making a special meal at home or embracing the awesome power of YES in Wildwood with the kids, I generally don’t spend money in a big way, ever. So, I’m not used to doing it when it’s not related to real estate and my wife’s not telling me where to sign. It was a lot of money to part with. I wondered if I was being selfish, frivolous, insane, mid-life-crisis-laden…all of that.
More than that, I think there was some aspect of standing in front of that car that brought me back in time to 1990. To that time before Dad was sick and when all I had to worry about was my girlfriend, my friends, my grades, and that I couldn’t wait to turn seventeen and get my license and drive my Duster all over Mercer County, maybe even take it down the shore when my folks thought we were just going to the movies because they didn’t want us driving that dark crazy road to Seaside. Those spring months before Dad was diagnosed were so full of promise, that’s really the only word. I was sixteen and junior year had had its moments that I won’t get into here but, as spring rolled around, Dad and I had started to really understand one another and have some things in common. We’d gone to the driving range and planned to golf together. He’d helped me develop a workout program and we did some things together at a local gym. The big thing was that we made a plan to build a deck off the back porch over the summer. We’d done some sketches of how it would look. He was going to put part of his summer painting money with Mr. D, and I was going to chip in some of my summer job money too. I didn’t know how to build anything that wasn’t a theater set, so I was looking forward to learning and doing something “Manish” with my dad. As the spring moved on, I had a steady girlfriend of over a year who was away at school, I had good friends, I was doing well in some of my classes, I was in a really cool musical that was winning awards, I went to Prom with a good friend, I went to my sisters college graduation and most of the family (21 people) came and no one fought at all, not even a little! Everyone got along-that was pretty awesome. I remember driving home from that graduation feeling really positive about our family. I mean, everyone, all the Uncles and cousins and Gram had come and everyone had seemed to have a good time. Mom and Dad even let me drive a little on the trip since I had my permit. Everything seemed so positive coming out of that weekend and I remember getting home and seeing my original Duster in the driveway and feeling like it was only a matter of months until I’d get my license and we’d be free. Pretty sure I washed and waxed ‘ol Monstro that weekend after we got home.
What I didn’t know was that Dad hadn’t been feeling well for some weeks. He faked it well but finally Mom dragged him into the old MET place up on 130, our version of the “Minute Clinic” I suppose. Soon after that, pretty much everything changed. My life went from trying to get off of work to see my friend off to the Prom or to hang out with my girlfriend all the time or performing at theater competitions, to then navigating the parking garage at Princeton Hospital and having my smart friends explain to me what the hell platelets were.
I reviewed my old journals for this section and it is glaringly clear when the change occurs. It goes from an entry on the Surflight Theater Festival “It was such a beautiful day-we went to the beach-I love the beach! There is always a special place in my life for the beach. I practically grew up there. I think I will always need that in my life” to “Ohhhh-well, I knew it seemed funny when my dad was so tired…” in the course of days. Most of the entries after that deal with hospital visits. There was some mention of All State Chorus and a breakup and friends and stuff. There are several entries I’m embarrassed by but I was a kid going through a difficult time. I forgive myself. Some relationships ended and others were strained and it was a difficult time, as we’ve discussed. It was a shite time.
So why was I brought back towards this mindset and these memories as I looked at the Duster? Probably because I have always been a person that attaches meaning to things. Also, to people, places, events. My friends used to call me “overly sentimental” but I don’t think it’s that, exactly. I think it’s more that my mind connects things when emotions are involved and for better or worse, when things happen, I have not only the feelings and the memories, but also things to connect them to, people and writings and music and the like. Connections.
Earlier this week when I stood in front of the Duster, there was clearly a moment where I flashed back in time and it was not the sixteen-year-old kid looking at an exciting future. It was the seventeen-year-old kid who was watching his world fall apart inhabiting my headspace. Neither of them was particularly welcome, but less so that seventeen-year-old dope.
I was grateful in that moment that my sister was there as the cars’ owner seemed quite content to chat with her while I asked for a minute to “make a call.” (What did we do before smartphones?) I took out my phone and just walked out towards the tree line. It was a very pretty area and I only needed to go fifty yards or so to be out of earshot, which was where I wanted to be.
As I look back on it now, I know that I was scared. I was afraid to buy the car because I wasn’t sure it would be able to drive me home. I wasn’t sure it was in as good condition as it seemed. I worried that I’d have an accident. I worried that it was too much work or that it was selfish of me or that it was narcissistic to even want something like this. I was approaching panic attack levels of stress. I messaged with Uncle C and my wife and talked with a Classic Car repair place down here in Virginia and everyone had great answers for all of my concerns. Everyone said “it’s ok. Go for it!”
But I was still anxious. My sister made a great point saying “Don’t think about the money. That’s not the issue. Is this the car that’s going to fulfill that dream you have?” It was a great question. I wasn’t sure. Then I took it for a drive.
I drove down the street in Oakham, past their library and an old cemetery and some nice houses on a long road before turning back and returning the same way. I liked the way the car felt and sounded. The radio didn’t work and I didn’t put something on my phone as I just wanted to drive. It was quiet. The lack of power steering and brakes made me have to work harder and pay attention differently than when I drive the Odyssey. I liked the quiet and it reminded me of the first time I had driven my old Duster at sixteen, around the school parking lot, the deep and sonorous sound of the engine and the feeling of magnificent control that the lack of power steering provided. I felt like the captain of a ship.
By the time I parked the car back at the sellers’ house, I knew I was going to take it home. I had some negotiations to make but I felt like some sort of change had already occurred on that short test drive. We made a deal and I drove it away for the short ride back to Connecticut.
The next day I woke up early to drive it to Virginia. With no working radio and wanting to preserve my phone battery, I drove in silence quite a bit. With no AC and the windows open, I had plenty of noise but found a great deal of pleasure in the silence, the natural auditory haze of the road. It gave me ample time to think and reflect and pray and I did those things on the journey at times, but sometimes I didn’t. It was in those moments that I felt something like an exhale happen within me. Something like a release; like letting something go and it all being ok. I don’t know that I’m certain exactly what that is just yet but I know that it would not have happened without going through this process and being forced out of my comfort zone once again. None of this happens without the advice of friends all over the world, nor does it happen without the kindness of friends of friends who were willing to help just because the friend of a friend asked. It never happens if one is stuck in the past. It doesn’t happen without the support and enthusiasm of one’s household, to be certain, but it most assuredly doesn’t happen if I didn’t really want it to and finally got out of my own way to do so.
Whatever becomes of this Duster, (still working on a name) it was a choice to be made and I made it. Those moments of silence on the road bringing her home were transcendent in a way. I won’t go so far as Thoreau about it but I felt very early on in my 360-mile drive home that something had changed. I was peaceful. I felt like things were going to be alright and that I needed to continue to have faith and work hard. It made me feel like I had moved on from something to something even better and that everything was going to be fine.
Whether that’s the case, of course, remains to be seen. I like how I feel owning this car now though and I think I’ve grown into not only the man I am now, for better and worse, but have grown into the guy that owns this car. I hope it’s a good car and that I’m a good man. I feel like bringing this car into my life is giving me the opportunity to bring some level of closure to the past. I like thinking of it that way, though I’m tempted to wonder, “What would have become of me had my dad not gotten sick and my life were different and I never got stuck on a 1970’s Duster?”
I don’t know the answer to that any more than the other “What if” scenarios I used to torture myself with all the time as a kid and young adult and adult and maybe last week. I don’t know anything about that but I do know that I love this new car. I know that I love and appreciate my family. I know that I’ve been very blessed in my life. I know that my past has often held more weight over my present and future than I would like at times but I also know that that fact may have just changed for me. There’s a calmness here that works for me and I hope it’s not fleeting.
I know that something changed on the ride home. I hope that whatever it is helps me be a better father, a better husband, a better brother, a better son, and better friend, and better man, a better person. I hope that very much. Maybe even a better writer? We can all hope.
Can a dream fulfilled do all that? Can a car? I don’t know honestly but in the end, I think the image of the kids running out to see the Duster and sit in it and taking pictures of themselves and the image of picking up the wife at the bus stop and driving her home the other night are amazing starts.
I was told to step out on faith during this process. I did. The promise that my original car held is very much part of the past. I’m ok with that. Letting go of that might have been a vital part of all this as now, I find myself looking more to the future and at our present.
Perhaps that’s the most important change. Perhaps it is time to look forward instead of backwards. What could be better for that process than a 1970’s Duster?
Bucket Lists, Comfort Zones, and the Inherent Promise that lies within a Plymouth Duster
Four years ago this week, I was just a boy, standing in front of a 1970 Plymouth Duster, asking it to love me...Sorry, Notting Hill fans, I couldn't resist.
That said, I thought it would be fun to revisit the columns that I wrote in the days before and after I (spoiler alert) brought the Duster home. The following is an excerpt from my first release, The Best Of Aloha Kugs, Volume I, available at Amazon and on Kindle Unlimited... or by clicking HERE!
Why do they call it a bucket list anyway? I mean, who puts things of value in a bucket? Or do they go in the bucket after you’ve done them? I’m confused, though I’m sure there’s a logical explanation but I don’t feel like googling it just now. I’m too excited and nervous.
So, here’s the backstory:
My older sister had a 1974 blue Plymouth Duster that she drove through high school and beyond. We called it “Monstro” after the giant whale in Pinocchio. We were clever. I loved that car. When she was ready to move on from it I bought it from her for $500, a tidy sum to me then as well as now. I was sixteen and not even legal to drive yet, but, I owned a car. Along with that came the promise of freedom and excitement and I was just in love with that thing and all it represented. I still have the handwritten receipt that we wrote on an index card somewhere in a box. I washed it and waxed it and treated it magnificently. I saw such promise in it. It wasn’t the BMW’s or Suzuki Sidekicks that some of my classmates were driving and it certainly wasn’t the convertible ’68 Mustang or Vintage Oldsmobiles that a few of my friends drove. Those were awesome and I felt like my Duster fell somewhere in between all that. It was cool, but not head-turningly so. I liked it. It had character. The car needed a few repairs and I was saving up for them in the months leading up to my seventeenth birthday.
It was during this time that my father developed the cancer that would take his life. Needless to say, the car and its needed repairs and pretty much everything else in my life got put on hold. When my birthday came, my ex-girlfriend drove me to take my road test in my mom’s old Nissan Sentra. That one was nicknamed “Challenger” for a variety of reasons. I received a new car stereo as a birthday gift from my parents and it was decided that I would have it installed in the Sentra, “For now. We can always put it in the Duster later.” It was a difficult time and a lot of it blurs together now but the Nissan became my daily use car and my hope was to get Monstro up and running in time for the Senior Prom, at least in my mind.
After Dad died a lot of things changed and a lot of priorities shifted and I’ve talked about that in previous musings here, so I won’t belabor it, but in general, life became very much about somehow muddling through the rest of high school and getting myself into a college. The Duster didn’t make it to Senior Prom (my lovely date was probably OK with that) and my new plan had been to work towards saving up for repairs over the summer so that it would be ready to cruise down the shore the following summer, after my freshman year of college.
When I left for college, I remember patting the Dusters’ hood and thinking that it was getting to be time for us to fulfill the promise I had felt when I’d been allowed to test drive it in the elementary school parking lot at sixteen. I had to pretend I’d never driven a car before but I think I pulled it off. When I settled into my dorm room I remember hanging a few pictures of friends of mine, mostly in formal wear in front of the car. It had become kind of a thing for us before Proms and semi-formals, I’d usually do a picture with my date or friends in front of it. And then I went about having a freshman year. I didn’t think much about the Duster until I came home for Thanksgiving Break and noticed its absence from our driveway.
“Um, Mom, where’s my car?”
“Oh, I sold that to one of Mac’s friends. He needed a car to drive to Texas. The Sentra can be your car now. It’s newer anyway and your stereo is already in it.”
She’d taken $200 for it. It had been a hard year for all of us with Dad passing and the challenges that brought. As I recall, I don’t think I said anything to her about it at all. I just said, “OK, mom.” I never really told her how it made me feel to have that dream, that promise, so suddenly and irrevocably interrupted. In the years before she passed we would kind of joke about it, yet there was a small part of me that was deeply and profoundly disappointed. It seems a silly or possibly even selfish thing for me to have felt, especially considering the year our family had had. But the memory of that promise lingered.
Life moved on and “Challenger” gave way to a 1991 Mercury Tracer that we nicknamed “Bullseye” because people kept hitting it with their cars. Then there were the Outback years, which ended when we sold my Green Outback before moving to Hawaii. Our family has been a one car, Honda Odyssey family ever since.
Over the years, I would peruse the old “Auto Trader” magazines and once the Internet became a thing I would check online for a ‘74 Duster now and then. Craigslist and eBay would occasionally present a temptation and then real life would pull me back in from those fantasies. In my heart I always hoped I would get the chance to have one again, but as the kids got older and our priorities shifted, fantasy was just about where I had to leave such thoughts.
While I loved the car, I’m not a mechanic or even all that knowledgeable about classic cars, so I always felt intimidated by the prospect of even pursing one for real. That said, every now and then I would see one on the road and it would all come back to me: that dream of freedom and driving down the shore with the windows open and just the promise of fun. It was all about fun and being open to it that would make me start to search all over again. If you’ve known me for any length of time, it’s likely you’ve heard me talk about this a little or maybe I’ve talked your ear off. While I would look occasionally, it never really went anywhere. There was a romance to the idea that was intoxicating but I was always able to come back down to Earth.
That is until last week. The wife’s Uncle, who is a big-time car guy and among my favorite people, has been keeping an eye out in his world for a Duster that would work for our family. I told him last summer at a family wedding that all I really wanted was “A Duster that’s in good shape that we can actually use as a second car for the family.” I don’t need to be a Car Show guy or garage the thing and never use it. We’ve managed as a one car family for almost eight years now, though we get a rental a few times a year when we simply can’t get things done with the one vehicle or public transport. As the kids’ lives and activities get more involved, it’s become increasingly difficult to manage.
So, Uncle calls me while we are on the concession line before we saw the “Shaun the Sheep” movie. He says that he’s found a possible car for me up in New England. Says he’s talked to the guy and likes what he’s heard so far. He gives me his number and says good luck and to keep him posted.
So, I call the seller and I like what I heard too. It’s very low on original miles and it’s been garaged pretty much for ever. He sends photos and Uncle and I and anyone else whose opinion I could get pore over them. Long story short, it looks promising.
But beyond that, something started to happen as I learned more about the car and the people involved. The previous owner had bought it from the original owners’ family back in the late 1990’s. He had a Duster in college and wanted to revisit that experience as an adult. That certainly resonated with me.
I liked what I was seeing and liked what I was hearing but, I figured there’s no way I should really think about this right? This isn’t the sort of thing people actually do, is it? I started to get a little intimidated by the process and started looking for someone in my life to talk me out of this and off the ledge. I asked my wife, my cousin, my sister, my friends, my in-laws, my financial advisor, total strangers, the kids, our fish, God and anyone else that was in ear shot. “What do you think?” I asked. Outside of a few logistical and safety related inquiries, in general almost to a person the response I got was “Go for it!” My finance guy even asked for pictures and recounted stories of one of his pals back in high school who drove a Duster.
So, no one was going to take this cup away from me. I was either going to have to drink it or pass on it all on my own. And it still kind of scares the daylights out of me. But I was reminded of something my pal said to me when we were debating whether or not to make the move to Hawaii back in ’07. I was having real anxiety about leaving Jersey. He said to me, “Dude, this would be a huge move out of your comfort zone, and you seriously need to be moved out of that-take a chance.” And we did, anxiety and all, and it turned out to be a very good thing for our family. So, I’m reminded of that in this process as every potential roadblock to this coming together has miraculously worked out. I wanted an “impartial car-guy” to look it over for me but didn’t know anyone up there…and a friend found one. I didn’t think I’d be able to get the paperwork to drive it home and wasn’t going to ship it…and a friend found a way for me to take care of that. I figured I was being selfish and didn’t deserve to even think about doing something like this and while I still don’t think I deserve it, I was told by the wife that, as long as she gets to drive it too, it’s something the family needs anyway.
So, I’m going up to see it in person next week. I don’t know for sure if I’ll be driving it home or flying home alone, but I only booked a one-way flight. So, I know what I’m hoping for but plan to be smart about it. I’m nervous and anxious but only a little more than usual. Realizing that is actually quite a bit of growth for someone who has struggled with anxiety in the past. When I really look at the things I’m anxious about as this process pulls me further from my comfort zone, I find that it’s probably a good thing to be a little scared. Buying anything from 1970 is likely a risk these days. But I find my anxiety is tempered somewhat by my excitement. I won’t know until I put my hands on it and sit behind the wheel whether or not I’m going to buy it, but I can’t wait to find out.
Life is short. The years I owned my old Duster, where our time together was over before I got to really enjoy it, were turbulent and challenging. This won’t be that car any more than I will be that seventeen-year-old kid and I’m glad for that. It’s been over twenty years but I feel like I’m ready. If this one doesn’t pan out I’ll be disappointed but, as a wise man told me recently, “There’s always another car.”
I’ve been chasing this car for years and I feel like I’m pulling into the parking lot where it’s waiting for me. The kids think it’s cool. The wife thinks it’s cool. Outside of that, I’m not sure what else I need. I’m not sure I did a particularly good job of explaining what this possibility means to me but I’m not sure I can articulate it. I just know I’ve felt like I had a place in my heart and life for an old car. An old Duster. I’ve always felt like it might bring full circle that feeling that anything is possible that I remember feeling before my dad got sick.
Or maybe I just want to look like a badass in the pickup line at school…I dunno, but I hope to find out. Stay tuned.
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