Chapter 5—The One Hundred Dollar Car
Ol’Bruiser was originally offered to my dad as a “parts car” for his dream car. The guy selling it wanted only $100 dollars for it. He told us that we should plan on towing it home as it didn’t exactly start anymore. My dad aggressively sought clarification from the poor guy, “Are you saying it doesn’t start, or are you saying it doesn’t run?…uh-huh…yeah…but when it actually does start it runs right? So you are saying, in other words, that is to say, if it starts, it still runs well right?” My dad was relentless—the kind of relentless I thought only existed in the old courtroom dramas.
When my dad got off the phone he announced jubilantly that he found a car that he could fix up and use as a “winter car”. He cavalierly scoffed at my mom’s concerns that he may not get it home without towing. “He said it runs well—once you get it started. I will take my tools—it shouldn’t take too much to get it started. I will get an old starter and some new plugs—trust me, I can get her started!” My mom rolled her eyes and quickly set about to conjure up ways to be too busy to join him in bringing the car home. I can’t prove it, but I suspect my mom would have actively sought a suspended license, if she had to, in order to get out joining my dad in picking up the car.
I still remember the moment that Ol’Bruiser pulled into the yard. The engine sound was like nothing I had heard before. It was like a cross between a helicopter, a tractor, and icebergs calving. I ran to the window, and my mom advised me not to stand so close to the window. I couldn’t blame her really—even I knew a sound like that usually precedes an explosion of some kind. When I finally shoved past the shielding of my cautious mother, I saw a tattered, highly eroded and rusted shell of a car. I am no expert in sound wave technology, but that shell looked so fragile that it seemed nothing short of miraculous that the engine didn’t cause the body fly off in shards of centrifugal mayhem.
My dad seemed oblivious to the overwhelming lack of aesthetics in this car. He was jubilant—the proud mighty and hunter who just bagged the trophy stag. “Heh?! HEH?!” He was smiling and nodding waiting for someone to see what seemed so obvious. “Isn’t she something!?” My dad was slightly more excited than the child who actually sees Santa delivering the train set, bee-bee gun, ten-speed bike, and live pony on Christmas morning.
“Something is not the exact word I would have used” offered my mom wryly under her breath, “piece of crap, death trap, junk-bucket….” She trailed off deploying more obscenities as she did.
This was a year or so prior to my getting my learner’s permit, so I was too young at that point to be too emotionally involved. I hung back not unlike Jane Goodall observing the apes. The behaviour of all adults was so fascinating and captivating that I just couldn’t look away for long.
My dad spent months planning the rebuilding of that engine. He sought out, hunted down, and bought many a refurbished car part. His costs soon far exceeded his initial investment by a large exponential factor. My mom quietly seethed as she sorted the receipts. To my dad’s credit, his efforts were not without some progress: eventually the car’s sound went from ear-splitting pending doom to something more turn of the century tractor-like. Unfortunately, the outside of the car still looked reminiscent of barf covered in shit. I know that sounds harsh, but that is the kindest, yet most accurate paraphrase of my mother’s characterization I can offer. It looked nasty!
My dad was unstoppable, and unflappable. He was only half done in his project. Not long after he began rebuilding the engine, he set upon researching body work options. I can still remember the first shop he went to. The technicians were laughing so hard they had lean on each other in order to remain standing. They just couldn’t believe he was serious, and then when they realized he was, their laughter exceeded hysterical. My dad seemed miffed, but undaunted. His next stop was the dealership—they would understand his passion there.
His instincts about the dealership were somewhat accurate. They were more sympathetic and they were diplomatic in a way that could only be described as Herculean. I remember watching the shop manager scratch his head, and wince. He used the word “ummmm” a great deal. My dad was adamant that something could be done, and he was desperately seeking a collaborative dialogue of ‘spit-balling’ or idea sharing. Eventually my dad got the guy to grudgingly admit, in theory, hypothetically that the body could be rebuilt, rhetorically speaking, using fibre glass paste, and that, in theory, with enough carefully applied layers, proper sanding etc, the body then, possibly, could be painted any colour he wished.
My dad was exuberant, he all but screamed “Eureka!” His belief in this car was not only mollified, it was, to his perception, validated by the experts. My mom winced outwardly, but on the inside, I am pretty sure she died a little. In that moment of stark and harsh clarity, she realized she was bound, until death, to an obsessed madman. Shortly after this day, my mom started taking her tea with a hit of gin.
Much to my dad’s pride and surprise this part of the vehicle’s restoration took much longer than originally anticipated. He had a bit of a learning curve, plus he was struggling hard against the odds of hard, cold reality, and gravity. He started with the most challenging places first. I remember the weeks he spent working on the back fender. I swear he was channeling Michelangelo or something. His intensity was nothing short of terrifying. He sculpted, sanded, sculpted and then sanded some more. Finally when the fender was ‘done’ he started to move towards the back door, and as he began the first bout of sanding, the back fender cracked and fell off the car.
I remember hearing the primal sounding “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”, followed by a string of obscenities that could make a trucker blush. Windows rattled, walls lost plaster, and all living creatures ran for cover. While I was hiding in the neighbour’s bomb shelter, word on the street was he threw every tool within his grasp as far and as hard as he could. Thor had nothing on my dad in that moment.
By dinner time that day, my dad had put the whole incident far from his memory. To him it was only a little set back, and thankfully, he learned what not to do very early on. My mom laughed. Not the laugh of someone relieved, no, she laughed like someone who was scared shitless and planning an escape in the dead of night. Two days later, my mom and I went on an impromptu holiday to visit my grandparents.