Monday, June 01, 2009

Buick convertible nights

I’m glad my dad, gone for nearly 23 years, never lived to see the bankruptcy of General Motors.

He was a GM guy. He routinely bought GM cars. When he didn’t, he learned to regret it. I remember his cursing a 1948 Ford he bought my mom. It refused to start on bitter cold January mornings in Illinois. He bought a ’50 Ford, but it refused to start even in the summer.

He replaced it with a ’52 Chevy and never looked back.

In the ‘50s my dad bought a new car annually. After a few Chevys, he graduated to Buicks, just the way GM wanted him to. From the start he bought convertibles. During the war, nimble Jeeps may have given him the open-air bug as they transported him to the B-29s crews he attended.

In the Buick line-up (Specials, Centuries, Supers, Roadmasters), he settled on the hot rod Century. Small body (at least for its time), big engine (for any time).

He’d keep a Century for himself for two years and then buy another. In the off years he’d buy my mom a new Buick, usually a Special. Small body, small engine. The Special, like the Supers, had three, not four, fake portholes. Dad would make her car a convertible too though Mom had fair, delicate skin and never put the top down. Dad probably anticipated that he might need to “borrow” her car, especially after I got my license.

Dad was nuts about new cars, and the nuttiness got into me. As a kid, I’d anticipate delivery dates weeks in advance. The night before the big day, I wouldn't sleep.

It took about 60 years for me to cure myself of the fascination. And while I could never match my dad’s extravagance, there was a time when I’ve cycled through cars just the way he did.

Recently I’ve mellowed. And though I’m tempted, I’ve stuck with my practical 1999 RAV4 for a record five years. It's about as far from a Buick Century convertible as you can get. Toyota is still in business and far from bankruptcy.

Dad was a urologist (he called himself a "plumber") back in the days of house calls. The houses were spread out across north-central Illinois and southern Wisconsin. Rockford was our home, but he’d do surgery and visit patients in Freeport, Belvedere, Rochelle, Monroe, Woodstock, Beloit and Janesville.

As a kid, I’d often go along with him in the summers or on Saturdays or even Sundays as hard as that is to believe. He knew all the back roads, and ,with the top down, he’d unleash the big engine and we’d slice through the thick summer’s air. The cornfields whisked by in flickering rows. Often he would sing into the wind and I’d join him. We made a motley duet belting out “Old Man River,” “Summertime,” “She’s Funny that Way.” Fortunately only the corn, the blackbirds and the cicadas could hear us.

Sometimes, on the weekends, the four of us — Mom, Dad, my kid-sister Kate and I — would take off for Milwaukee to see the Braves play. Or we’d drive in to Wrigley field to see the Cubs. I remember none of the games, but oh the long, two-lane drives home in the top-down nights. I’d stretch out on the back seat and stare up into a vast sea of stars. As Dad negotiated turns through the towns and the curves out on the highways, the stars would wheel above, first this way, then that, until, mesmerized, I’d drifted off to sleep to the wind song and the crickets.

I’d awaken to the silencing of the big engine and the shutting of the doors. Then I’d somehow stagger up to bed to dream.

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