In 1965 the world was full of change. Miniskirts were introduced in London and Gus Grissom orbited the earth in the first crewed Gemini mission. In rhe same year, President Lyndon B Johnson launched a domestic program to eliminate poverty and racial injustice, then ended the marriage deferment for the draft and sent 60,000 more troops to Vietnam.
Meanwhile, the Beatles- described by the Los Angeles Times as “appallingly unmusical” and “destined to fade away” – toured the United States a second time.
But here’s the news I remember most:
We got a new car!
A Chevrolet Bel Air with dark red interior, manufactured the same year we bought it. No one, I mean no one, had owned it before. And because my dad could fix anything, this was groundbreaking.
Washers and refrigerators were no match against him. He repaired cabinet doors and bicycles and could make zippers last forever. So it was a shock when we came home from school and a shiny white car was parked in our driveway.
This car had features we’d never had before, like seat belts, air conditioning and an automatic transmission. The exterior was flawless and the interior smelled brand new. That car was my dad’s pride and joy and, like anything new, came with rules and responsibilities for all of us.
We behaved differently.
The red seats were so comfy, we sat up straighter. The patterned cloth was soft against our skin and we kept our feet off the seats, even when we couldn’t see out the window. The “Buckle up for safety” jingle played in our heads with every click of the seat belts.
Sticks and toys stayed out of the front yard and bicycles were parked a safe distance from the car. We cleaned the Bel Air weekly, inside and out. We detailed the tires and rolled the Kirby down the driveway to vacuum the floors and seats. If there was ever any trash in that car, it wasn’t there long.
We made memories.
In August we took a family vacation to Florida in that big, new car. My brothers and I spent days gathering things to occupy us on the 24-hour drive. Thanks to the air conditioning, windows wouldn’t be open. Pages of books and game pieces stayed in place and we could hear each other talk, regardless of how fast the car was going.
On the morning of our departure, my little brothers were up before Dad. When I got to the car, they were asleep in the back seat, their things tucked all around them. Barely 12 inches in the middle were left for me to sit. Yet at our first stop, we traded places and they both gave me tips on where to place my things.
The older we got, the more things Dad taught us about the car. My brothers helped with oil changes and I learned to change a tire. The summer I took driver’s ed, Dad picked me up from class one day and handed me the keys. I couldn’t imagine a more uncomfortable situation, but I had nothing to fear. Dad was patient and soft-spoken and, because he knew every aspect of his car, he didn’t just instruct me to turn start the car. He described how it should feel and what was happening as the ignition turned over. He gave me the names of every street, long before he expected me to turn there. He insisted that I always know what direction I was headed, calling out roads and turns by east and south, not left or right. He calmly and quietly gave me so much information I heard his instructions in my sleep.
Just before my driving test, my family planned a fishing trip to Surfside Beach. No amount of whining could get me out of it. I dragged myself to the car with a radio and enough magazines to make it through the day. My mom was in the back seat and my heart sunk when I saw Dad on the passenger’s side up front.
I got behind the wheel and adjusted the rear view mirror. The panicked faces of my mom and brothers in the back seat brought no comfort. No one said a word, as I backed out of the driveway and onto streets I drove every day. As we approached the bypass to Highway 35, Dad instructed me to go west until we reached Highway 523. Then he picked up one of my magazines and started reading.
Because he drove this route to work every day, he knew these roads without looking. Long before I approached each turn, he described what to look for and when to slow down. Once we were on FM 2004, we were the only car on the road. Occasionally, Dad would look up from the magazine and ask me to go faster.
When we turned onto Hwy 332, we reconnected with traffic. Dad sat up straight and surveyed the situation. The giant bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway loomed ahead and I waited for my dad to instruct me to pull over. He didn’t.
Instead, he told me to stay in my lane and keep pace with the other cars. In the mirror, I could see my mom sitting on her hands- something she did when she was trying to keep her mouth shut.
My heart beat loudly, as I watched the road and waited for Dad’s voice. He never wavered. Somehow he anticipated my every fear and spoke to me as though I had been driving for years.
“You’re doing great,” he said, “Don’t worry about what’s on the other side of the bridge.”
“Just focus on the car ahead of you.”
As we neared the top of the bridge, it got so quiet I was sure I had stopped breathing. Then, just as the bumper of the car in front of me headed downward, I looked up from the road and saw the gulf.
I will never forget how empowered I felt.
It was no surprise that I was the first person to put a dent in that big car. Also no surprise that after wrapping the back end of it around a pole at Dairy Land, I got my first job to pay for the damage.
I wasn’t around when my parents got rid of the Bel Air, but I still handle bridges and crashes, the way I did then. I hope for the best, then push myself to do better. And when I’m overwhelmed, I close my eyes and listen for my dad’s instructions.