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First Car

The brown and cream-colored seats felt like overstuffed leather lounge chairs. The dashboard was caramel brown metal with glass dials that displayed the speed, the time, the oil pressure and the engine temperature. Directly in the middle of the dashboard under the art deco style clock was the AM radio that searched for radio stations with the slightest touch of the silver Wonder Bar and magically landed on each radio station whose signal it heard.

The steering wheel was caramel brown plastic with evenly spaced finger grooves molded into its round shape. A chrome ring that triggered the horn encircled the inside of the steering wheel, seemingly floating in air as if unattached to the steering column. A hub the size of small saucer, rested directly in the center of steering wheel embossed with the profile of an Indian head and covered with a smooth clear dome.

A chrome and plastic gear shift rod that controlled the Power Glide automatic transmission was connected to the steering column and to a tiny arrow that moved inside a semi circular dial marked with P, R, D, L and N – the abbreviations assigned to the various movements of the car. The carpet was slightly worn under the rubber-ribbed floor mats. The odometer had six small black vertical rectangles with white numbers etched in them and one white rectangle with a black number. The black numbers indicated the actual miles traveled while the white number turned every tenth of a mile until it went from 9 to 1 and enabled another black number to move forward.

The car, a 1955 Pontiac, was comfortable, powerful, and roomy. Its design reflected a post Word War II fascination with simplicity and a desire for “affordable” luxury.

I was six months shy of my 16th birthday in 1966 when I bought this ten-year-old car for the grand sum of $25. I used money that I had saved form my paper route delivering the Columbus Dispatch. It had been parked on the back lot of Marty Pontiac for nearly two years; a trade-in that didn’t have much appeal to the buyers of the faster, sleeker, new Pontiacs of the mid-1960s – GTOs, Firebirds and Tempests. Besides, the transmission slipped, two tires were flat, the battery was dead, and the body paint had faded to a dull, unattractive version of its former self.

My brother Jim helped me get it home. He was working at Marty’s at the time and borrowed one of the dealer’s license plates so we could drive it on the highway. After charging the battery, filling the tires with air, and putting $3 worth of gas in the tank, we drove it home.

The garage behind my grandmother’s house on Southwood Avenue where we lived wasn’t fancy. You might say it was barely safe. It had grown over the years through a progression of additions to a small one-car shed that my Grandfather had built from scrape lumber, tarpaper, and second hand windows. It had a dirt floor, one overhead light fixture with a single 60 Watt light bulb and an extension cord connected to an outlet in the shed. It was dry, however, and one section was just big enough for the car.

My plan was simple. Buy the car. Put it in the garage and spend six months getting it ready to drive. I couldn’t drive because I didn’t have a license but I had six months to get the car ready for the “big day” when I could. Getting it ready meant hand-rubbing each inch of the body with rubbing compound to bring the paint back to its original luster. I followed that by hand waxing and buffing the newly restored finish – at least a dozen times. The leather interior received so many coats of Pledge furniture polish that it was difficult to sit upright on the seats. It was like sitting on a sheet of wax paper.

It was cold and snowing the night we arrived with the car. I opened the garage doors. The double doors swung outwards from the middle and drug through the frozen dirt. They hadn’t been opened in a while and resisted each inch of the way. The frozen ground made it somewhat easier but it was obvious that once we got the car parked inside the garage, the doors would remain shut until spring.

Jim drove it into the garage – front end first. There were only twenty-four inches or so on each side of the car. There was even less space in the front and back. The garage doors actually touched the rear bumper when we finally were able to get them closed.

“Don’t scratch the sides,” I said. Jim acted like he didn’t hear me. I think he ignored me because he was more concerned about how he was going to get out of the car now that he had driven it into this tiny space. At over six feet tall he was going to need more than 24 inches to open the car doors and make his exit. The saving grace was that his six feet frame only had about 150 pounds on it – so he was able to squeeze out. “Leave the headlights on and the key in the ignition,” I said. “I want to check it out.”

“You’ve got ten minutes and then I want the keys back,” he said. “Make sure you turn off the engine,” was his last bit of brotherly advice. “No kidding, Sherlock!” was the thought that crossed my mind. I think that his veteran status as a driver for all of ten months had made him the in-house car authority. He’s eleven months older than I am but at that time that meant a whole grade in school, a year of legal privileges (such as a driver’s license and a draft card, buying 3/2 beer) and self-imposed importance. All I know was that he could drive and I couldn’t. I made sure I turned the engine off.

He went into the house leaving me alone with my new best friend. I sat in the driver’s seat and marveled at the lights on the dashboard. The odometer read 66,032.9 miles. I remember the number because it was 1966 and Jim Brown, number 32 of the Cleveland Browns and the greatest NFL running back ever, had just shocked the world by announcing his retirement from football to star in a movie named The Dirty Dozen. Why I made that association at that moment, I will never know. But I remember sitting behind the steering wheel in the winter of 1966 thinking about a change that I didn’t quite understand. Why would Jim Brown quit football and why now? Why would something that seemed so natural and so much a part of my life change so inexplicably? I had watched him run over opponents and single-handedly dominate NFL defenses every Sunday for as long as I could remember. It would be only one of many changes that I didn’t quite understand as I was turned 16 years old.

I didn’t dwell on that question because the heater warmed the inside of the car to a toasty level and I couldn’t wait to try every button on the radio. I hit the Wonder Bar on the radio and got WMNI the country station. Eddie Arnold was singing something about broken hearts. I hit it a second time and got WVKO the only Black station in Columbus and listened to Otis Reading sing Try a Little Tenderness. Les Brown was the DJ. He had just arrived in Columbus and was in his 20s. I was fascinated at the fact that he was one of the main DJs at the station and was still so young. He played everything that was cool and had a great way of introducing each funky, soulful song as if he had lived each verse. But my favorite station was at another spot on the dial.

The next push on the bar landed on 1230 WCOL, the rock and roll station. I listened to Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Righteous Brothers, the Beatles and Stevie Wonder, and every other group that was worth listening to. Even though I was in a dilapidated, dimly lit garage, in the freezing cold, I felt like I was in my own private world surrounded by leather luxury, music, and amenities that I didn’t have in the apartment I shared with my brother and mother on the second floor of my Grandparent’s house on the Southside of Columbus.

It is hard to describe how listening to the car radio could expose you to so many different aspects of life and to encourage your imagination to dream. I turned on the heater and my little world became an oasis that I would return to many times before I first drove the car out of the garage in the summer of 1967.

I went to bed that night in 1966 a car owner. I didn’t know it at the time but I had begun a right-of-passage that affects me to this day. I have owned many cars since 1966 and I suspect I will own more. None have had the impact of that 2-door, 2-tone, brown and beige 1955 Pontiac.

I still remember that cold winter night when I thought the world was mine for the asking by simply pressing the Wonder Bar.

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