Car DNA

I come from a “car family.” My father use to race his 55-chevy at a Chicago track– that is until he got in an accident an the radiator burst with steam coming out of it. My Mom, emotional and confused (she really didn’t know much about cars at all- and just started driving after I was born) thought the car was on fire and demanded he choose “us” (the family) or the car. Though his car sat, seemingly playing musical chairs from garage to garage stall in storage– his heart never stopped racing when he saw a hot rode, classic car or witnessed a race.
My earliest memories of my Dad always included cars. I’d hold my father’s hand and stroll through the car show as he’d explain to me the different between the 1955, 1956 and 1957 chevy (all of which he would come to own and have a top car in the nation). He had lots of ‘car buddies’ but I was quick to decide in my mind, from an early age, that I would not date nor marry any “car brat.” Perhaps, it was the way the boys at cars shows could only talk about cars that annoyed me. Or, perhaps it was the being submerged in a world, which I love BUT I understood early on, that this world did not hold women in the same regard as males.
Then I discovered “Cha-Cha” (Shirely) Muldowney! She was one of the top dragster drivers. I remember researching about her and asking my Dad about her and “Big Daddy” (Don Garlet). My Dad commented that he really helped her in her career. That there were a few other male drivers that stepped in and helped her or she wouldn’t really be where she was at today. Even at 7 or 8 I wondered WHY gender made her different in this sport?
By 9, my Dad had his 55-chevy restored: candy apple blue and pearl white with chrome highlighting the perfect spots. In true fashion, these cars had no seat belts. It also wasn’t a law to wear them…yet. I can recall many a times hanging my head out the window of the car, in the front seat as a kid, pretending I was Under Dog flying through the air to my next rescue.
While in the 55-chevy, I tasted my first dose of speed while being surrounded by metal and a American ‘classic’ design. I won’t say how fast as by today standards, my father would judged as incredibly irresponsible. Our family calendar for the weekends was either “dance competition” or “showing the car.” Often times we were double booked, but my Dad always put in the effort to see me perform when he could.
I was around 13 when my Mom got her 1966, red, mustang coupe. This was the first car I learned how to drive in…when I was 14 in the back parking lot of the Berwyn Plaza as well as the Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park (about 5 minutes from our house). Again, surely my Mom would be seen as incredibly irresponsible for this. But, I savor these memories with her. I seemed to be a natural. I remember her telling me how expressway driving was so much easier than residential streets. Brace yourself: she let me drive to visit my father in an outdoor car show 45-minutes away from our house on the Eisenhower Expressway (aka I-290). She only paniced when she was the police re-routing traffic because of the show being so crowded. As I put the car in park she said, “Don’t tell your father about this.” This of course meaning my trip behind the wheel. That car was sold by the time I was 15 (I’m not sure why) and I always wished that it wasn’t…
Prior to my Mom getting sick, my Dad brought home a frame for a 57-chevy. She would comment about not being able to drive the 55-chevy because it was stick. So, my Dad brought her out to the side of the garage and announces to her, “Surprise!” To which she said, “What am I going to do with that? Make it a flower pot?” Hence, the cars name: “The Flower Pot.” My Dad had this restored with the sole purpose of it being ‘a ladies car’ — However, with a ‘special engine’ it’s not very lady-like on the street. My friend Jessica and I went out with my Dad one night and felt the rush of…again, I’m not about to go into details about how fast, but the new sports car that began next to us at the line up, was literally left.in.the.dust. My Mom never got to see that car as she passed away before it was complete. However, I think there were many times when she was riding right along the side of my Dad– keeping him out of trouble. My Dad, and his friends, are probably the only middle aged men to get their licenses collected by police getting a call for street-racing. Sure, there were younger twenty-somethings there too…but imagine the cops faces when they turned to my Dad’s license and saw the DOB as 1944.
My dad gave me a 1965 fastback. My brother, also a car enthusiast who has a weakness for GTO’s, had his own successful car upholstery business for many years. That ended when a semi-truck hit him while his pick-up truck was sitting at a red light. He didn’t have a seat belt on and by instinct, crossed his hands over his chest as he saw the truck approach in the rear view mirror. Instead of his chest hitting the steering wheel, his arms took the full impact. Lucky as he was to be alive, I think a part of him did die on that day– his creative outlet through the use of his hands. Surely, not everyone saw what he did as ‘creative’ — I’m not even sure he acknowledged that, but the designs and colors and pieces he would create, were nothing short of creative. He found that after the accident, his hands would go numb while working… I remember going over, having lunch or sitting and watching my brother at his shop. I framed a whole series of car pictures for him to be displayed in the shop. I guess it was my way of balancing out the strategically challenged attire of the poster girls on the walls. I first sat in my mustang at his shop. With my Dad and Brother peeking in the window on each side I said, “How am I suppose to see out of this?” (Referring to the many blind spots in the car.) I remember my brothers smile as if it happened like yesterday. He looks directly at my Dad, “Do you remember…Ma said the same thing when she sat in her car for the first time.”
I drove my mustang EVERYWHERE! It had an alarm on it, so I made it my every day car. On occasion, I would “cruise” with my Dad and his friends. I’m such a visual person, that turning a corner, I couldn’t help but look behind me and soak up the long line of classic cars behind me- all in a row.
Then there were the times that my ‘rare’ right front hub cap would fly off my car! One time it was during a left hand turn with my friend Kelly in the car. I kept driving and told her to look back– if it hit anything we were going to keep going. If it didn’t we’d go back! ha,ha. We went back, she ran out and got it and while trying to put it on again, we were circled by boy after boy….checkin’ on the car, asking questions, blah, blah, blah. We were not exactly the nicest girls! If anyone asked for a ride and they ‘weren’t cute’ we’d us an excuse that it was a 2-seater. Bummer! In reality, the 2+2 fastback folded down in the back…when it folded up, there were 2 additional seats. Oh, the joys of being 19!
Another time my hub cap came off was in the middle of a farm field on a remote road, somewhere in Kane County (surely all developments now back in IL). My friend John and I loved to drive at night, listening to tunes with the stars and the headlights for the car leading the way where the streets truly had no names. I pulled over at sunset to look for the hub cap. Somehow John hit the kill switch on the mustang and the car wouldn’t start! This was one of the longest nights of our lives. We walked for miles upon miles, with NOTHING in sight. Around midnight we made it to a hole-in-wall bar that I will forever be thankful for. We used their pay phone (these were the days when you didn’t have a cell phone!) to call my Dad. Then we had to explain where we were by asking the locals (as we didn’t even know at this point!). It took him almost 2 hours to get us. We went back to the site of the car and he tinkered around with it and got it running. He was so mad, he made my friend John ride with him! While driving, with my father and my buddy John in back of me, a deer popped out in the middle of the road. Knowing that my mustang can not stop on a dime like “modern cars” I made the quick reaction to swerve around it or I would have hit it. We stopped to drop off John at his house and my Dad gave me a BIG hug and expressed how his heart dropped when he saw that deer in front of me. He said, “Most drivers would panic and slam on the breaks. But not you…you’re so smart and have the experience to react quickly. I’m so proud of you and the way you know how to drive.” As a parent -now- I think it is funny how it sometimes takes something like that after being really upset at your kids about …whatever… to put things back in perspective.
The trips to Michigan to hang out at the Krecek’s summer house, the Sawyer beach, the trips to Holland and Twin Lakes (where my Mom and Dad owned 10-acres), the trips to visit my bestie in Grad school down south…picking up my buddy Ian from the airport…driving out to visit my friend Bob…the open windows (there was no a/c) and volume on high and the stick of the leather seats on a hot day…
Though Ashish wasn’t around for my ‘performance’ days (I was an elementary teacher candidate, while teaching dance and theatre), when I met him (just shy of 26 years old), I was still driving the mustang. The gear shaft always gave me problems on that car– It wouldn’t always want to start if it wasn’t “just so” in park. While out with Ashish, I actually had to pop the hood of my car and hot wire it right before his eyes. ha,ha.
Having two boys, I’ve purposely tried to counter-balance stereotypical “boy toys” and topics with stereotypical female things. It’s amazing to me, from an early age- with no encouragement from me- how Nishad can identify certain cars and express sheer-joy over them…and the speed associated with him. Last Halloween, Nishad wanted to be a race car driver. I admit, I got a little excited and went to an extreme of finding him the perfect outfit. Recently, at a local parade, BOTH of my boys were ga-ga over the antique cars on display. I hear them argue over what is a mustang, corvette, etc.
Last summer, I took the boys to their first car show. My Dad would call the small outdoor car shows, “hot dog shows.” Ha,Ha. I’m not exactly sure why, but I think it had to do with the lack of seasoned judges, etc. It’s definitely a different scene than a national regulated show, but I think there should be a place for ALL car enthusiasts to go- regardless. So, I guess by my Dad’s terms, this was a hot dog show. (It just sounds funny!) Regardless, the boys had fun and Nishad found a favorite car.
I feel like a post after this needs a bit of clarification on some points. By all means, the purpose of this post is NOT to encourage people to:
1. not wear seat belts. It’s proven- Buckling up saves lives! And, while you’re at it, make sure your kids belts on propery secure on them too!
2. drive without a license/under age. Not only is it illegal, but it’s just not safe. I’m merely sharing my experiences, but this doesn’t mean that it was “right” or “okay” for my parents to do this.
Some things do naturally run through our DNA… I am proud to come from a “car family.” I have many great memories that evolve around classic cars– but more so, the people in my lives that just happened to share that “car DNA.” My Dad and Mom and my brother too. Their friends that I came to know as well. I’ll always remember the Havelka’s, with their class police car and 1956 convertible that I was honored to take a ride in (back when I had long hair to flow in the wind!)…who came to be like an Aunt and Uncle to me. “Smitty,” Brian B., The Hanna’s, Vale and Al, Art and his wife,…and many other names that I perhaps can’t recall, but are all images that cruise through my mind, every so often.
Despite the challenges (I am not as talented as my Dad or brother when it comes to upkeep or fixing cars) of holding on to this car, I am proud that it is still in “our family.” If it’s up to our boys- it will remain that way too! I’m also excited that I have now passed on a little bit of that “Verner” love for all things classic to my boys. When I finally do visit my childhood home to get my things out of the house- you can bet I’ll be hunting to take my poodle skirt too! Yes, what is a car show if you can’t get all dolled up like you are actually from the 1950’s? Perhaps, another car show is in store this summer.

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