By Jefferson Weaver
Yeah runnin’ down a dream
That never would come to me
Workin’ on a mystery, goin’ wherever it leads
Runnin’ down a dream…
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
It took weeks of negotiations—all right, begging—but I had finally talked the Old Man into it. If I could talk her daddy into it, could bring her home.
She had teased, tormented and tortured me from our first accidental meeting; I made up excuses to drive past where she lived. I dreamed of her. I talked about her incessantly. Her rose-colored skin was more alluring than any siren’s song, and she had curves no young man could resist. I spoke to the man of the house where she lived, and managed to at least convince him to discuss the possibilities.
Imagine my letdown when I found out she was unattainable at any price.
“Nope,” the gentleman said. “I’m gonna fix her up one day. Bought that car from the dealer new on the showroom in ’49. Don’t see how I can get rid of it right now.”
She was a 1949 Chevy convertible (list price new, $1,700), and despite my beloved and steadfast ’55 Bel Air, I was of an age when I wanted a convertible. I managed to scrimp and scratch a few bucks together, more than I thought would be needed for a car that lay lost and forgotten in a utility right of way, covered in blackberry vines and brush. The top and interior were long gone, but her red paint had only slightly faded (or so I thought, staring at her through puppy-love eyes).
The Old Man, of course, was far more sensible. The last thing I needed was a project car. I had my ’55, which Mother also drove and was worthy of restoration, and my ’61 Chevy truck, which could double as a mosquito sprayer with enough 10W-30 poured through the chrome filler cap. I didn’t need a car that wouldn’t run, and needed major restoration, when I had two that did run, were perfectly functional, and would be better uses of any extra dollars I managed to find.
There have been times since then I have kicked myself for finally selling that first Chevy truck or my Bel Air, but back then, the truck was only 20 years old, and the car went to help Miss Rhonda and I buy our first home.
Years before I became somewhat responsible, I wanted that faded red ragtop.
I could imagine what it would be like, with the locked-up straight six yanked from under the hood and some firebreathing piece of fuel-consumption impracticality under the hood. I was still under the mistaken impression that I had some mechanical skills at that point, being caught up in the fever and verve of youth, and I had convinced myself switching an engine was no big deal.
Whether the owner of the convertible had a visit from the Old Man, or whether he knew better than I what was best for me, the faded Chevy was destined to stay where she was, and not be dragged protesting home on the tow bar I created just for that purpose. It would be years before I realized I already had a much cooler car than the ragtop every would have been; still, I sometimes fantasized about pulling up beside my friend Jackie’s “Super Cougar” on the road to the dump, and proving once and for all that Chevy beats Ford hands down in the quarter-mile.
It wasn’t quite as common back then for young’uns to rush off to the beach every weekend, unsupervised; a lot of things weren’t as common 30 years ago as they are now, but that is neither here nor there. Most of us dreamed of driving down the strand, far too cool for our own good, irresistible to the girls and invincible to the other guys—especially if our car was cool enough. Smaller engines and better gas mileage were slowly chipping away at the heritage of Detroit iron back then, but there was still something about the sound of dual Flowmasters fed by a true four-barrel through a set of custom headers that commanded respect. The only thing louder than the engine’s purr would have been the Meat Loaf, Rolling Stones or Lynard Skynard coming through the auto-reverse cassette stereo.
I could see that rosy ragtop rumbling and roaring along, drawing admiring stares from all within her realm. I even found a set of only slightly tarnished Cragar mag wheels that would have completed the look. The last of the semi-customs, as by that time stock muscle cars were becoming more available to those of us with big dreams, small wallets and part-time jobs.
All that, only to have the dream crash down—or rather, slam on brakes with squealing gatorback whitewall tires—with a casual refusal, combined with the vague plan to someday “put her back on the road.”
A while back, I perchanced to talk to someone who lives along the same road where my rosy seductress was parked. The dear lady and I are contemporaries, although I would never say a lady’s age, under any circumstances. When I found out where she lived, I mentioned how I had so wanted that red ragtop back when her hair was big and mine wasn’t yet striped with gray.
“It’s still there,” she said, then my spirits fell further. “There’s a tree growing through the middle of it now.”
I thought of my friend Perry Dixon, and how he restored his “baby” after judicious use of a chainsaw and a snake-killin’ stick helped him recovered the Sleeping Beauty from her tomb in a thicket out in the piedmont. When Perry was telling me about the car, there was a shine in his eyes I am sure my own reflected at another time.
Briefly, ever so briefly, I thought about taking a road trip back up to that old country road, a good two hours from home, to see the old girl. Like the song “Martha,” I had a bit of a sentimental attachment, a soft spot long healed over but still there for my former love.
Maybe I will head past there sometime; ever two or three years I get within a few miles of where my own Sleeping Beauty waits, resting and rusting quietly. I know her original owner has long since passed away (he was a good man, by all reports, even if he wouldn’t let me take his baby).
I’d like to go in the early spring, before the briars have lost their brittleness and haven’t awakened to go back to work protecting treasures and tearing unwary flesh, before the greenery has covered her again like a protective cloak, and see if the rose has faded into rust red; her tires were rotten thirty years ago, so I know they are gone completely now. Perhaps her windshield has survived decades of extreme temperatures and bored kids with .22 rifles, but I doubt it.
I think how I might like to see her again, but the more I realize it, it likely would be a disappointment. I’m better off remembering what it was like to court a lady in red, with big beautiful eyes rimmed by chrome and a heart of iron waiting to beat again.