July 25, 2022 at 3:45 p.m.
The ‘53 Chevy
It was high summer, and she was decked out in a stunning sapphire blue. She wore an expression that seemed to say, “Take me home.”
Which I could have for a price. The sum was stated explicitly on a hand-lettered sign. But it would have been difficult to explain to my wife why I brought home a 1953 Chevrolet.
It’s because that particular model was my first, and a guy never forgets his first.
Today’s youth find it difficult to form strong automobile-associated memories. Modern cars are forgettable, computer-designed conglomerations that contain only trace amounts of steel.
There once was a time when carmakers put tremendous effort into design. Cars changed radically from year to year, with vertical tailfins one year, horizontal tailfins the next. This made it possible to discern a car’s make and model from great distances, perhaps as far as low earth orbit.
Automakers knew how to build cars back then. This was shortly after World War II, and there was plenty of steel available. Car manufacturers would buy surplus battle tanks and stamp fenders directly from their armor.
I don’t know when our parents acquired our mouse-brown 1953 Chevrolet. They already had it by the time they had me.
Thanks to her generous rear deck, the ‘53 was a wonderful car for small children. A kid could nap in the back window or simply lie there to watch the world glide by.
Nowadays, a child dozing in the rear deck would elicit a visit from the authorities. So would the simple act of riding in a car like the ‘53, with its unpadded, bulletproof steel dashboard and passenger windows that could be opened without a writ from the Supreme Court.
Our family grew, and the ‘53 could no longer accommodate us all. It might have been possible to stuff two adults and eight kids into the ‘53, but this would have made us look like we were a clown car act.
Dad purchased a station wagon, and the ‘53 was relegated to field car status. She thus initiated me into the world of driving. This was an era when it was acceptable to put a 12-year-old boy behind the wheel and send him off to the field with a trunk full of 5-gallon cans of gasoline for the tractors.
But first I had to prove myself worthy of the ‘53 by mastering the mysteries of her transmission, a setup called three on the tree.
The hardest part of driving a manual tranny is getting going without stalling the engine. This isn’t an issue in modern cars with their super-duty batteries that have the same electrical output as a nuclear power plant.
Not so with the ‘53, who had a feeble 6-volt system and a battery that couldn’t power a cell phone. Her battery was good for maybe one sweaty-palmed attempt at restarting. After that, you’d better have a plan B.
Plan B usually involved a hill. Using every last ounce of oomph, one might get the ’53 rolling downhill until she attained sufficient speed. You then leaped into the car, jabbed the clutch pedal, yanked the transmission into gear and popped the clutch.
If the ‘53 was feeling charitable, she would lurch and chug and sputter to life. But I would often forget to leave the ignition in the on position, squandering my only chance at redemption.
A more reliable plan B was to bring along friends or younger siblings. If the engine stalled and the battery died, your passengers had no choice but to get out and push. Being the driver, my job was to sit behind the wheel and shout helpful instructions such as, “Faster! Faster! Oops! Try again. I’ll turn the ignition on this time.”
That old ‘53 was an unforgiving mistress. But as with many firsts, I soon left her for newer, more exciting prospects.
The ‘53 was consigned to a secluded spot in our farmstead’s shelterbelt. She remained there, forgotten, until the spring day that we had a barn fire.
Hurricane-force winds pushed the roaring blaze through our grove. The ‘53, unable to dodge the conflagration, was reduced to a cinder.
I later viewed her remains. Her paint was charred; her interior reduced to a twisted mass of melted metal. The rear window where I once napped lay in a million shards. Rest in peace, old girl.
Besides explaining it to my wife, there’s another, deeper, reason why I didn’t buy that blue ’53 Chevy I saw at the roadside. Because even though she may have been similar, there was no way she could have ever been the same.
Jerry is a recovering dairy farmer from Volga, South Dakota. He and his wife, Julie, have two grown sons and live on the farm where Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded over 110 years ago. Jerry currently works full time for the Dairy Star as a staff writer/ad salesman. Feel free to E-mail him at: [email protected].
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