My brother David was 22 when he was killed. At his funeral, I remarked he did a lot of living in that brief time. However, he did even more driving. I think his whole life could be summed up in the cars he bought, drove and sold. They gave him purpose and a direction in life. Even in death, David still seems to have a way with cars.
My brother’s first car was an old-school Camaro from the last seventies. Painted bright yellow, my family called it the “banana car”. He drove that for awhile until the brakes began to fail. David didn’t know much about cars at that point, so he got rid of it. After that, he had a dirt bike. He rode that around my dad’s house. One day a neighbor asked if he’d like to trade the dirt bike for a little Austin Healey roadster. David jumped at the chance. The dirt bike was on its last legs, but considering the work required on the Austin Healey, I’m not sure who got the better of the deal. David learned all about cars. I remember he started making trips to all of the local junkyards, picking up a cap here, a connection there. He learned all about electrical systems (and the fact that English cars are essentially backwards in more ways than just the steering wheel). He drove it a few times, but it primarily sat in the garage at my mom’s house.
My brother did get a nice car after that. It was a nearly new Trans Am. It was black with Hurst Hatches and leather interior. David was working at Just Tires. Unfortunately, an uninsured driver hit the car one evening. It should have been totaled, but a repair shop said they could fix it. While the Trans Am was in the shop for repairs, David needed some form of transportation. He picked up an old Datsun B210 that had seen better decades. However, out of all the cars my brother had (with the possible exception of a go-cart he owned for awhile), this was my favorite. The door hinges had rusted away, so if you opened the doors, they would fall off. Instead, you climbed in and out through the windows, like the General Lee on The Dukes of Hazard. Once we went over to the bank together. We had been painting, so neither of us was exactly dressed to impress. We pull up in the B210, climb out the windows and get in line. Two people in front of us get out of line to go move their cars! The Trans Am was never right after being repaired, so that got sold off. David and his friends puttered around with the Datsun to see how – in general – car engines worked. They had the entire engine out at one point. It was put back in, but something was lost in the translation. The car leaked radiator fluid and essentially burned up.
Around that time, my grandma decided to sell her Buick Skylark. It was ten years old by then, but it was showroom clean. In fact, knowing my grandma, it was probably cleaner than the showroom. David picked it up and basically put ten years of dirt into it within a few months. It had a couple of problems. The biggest one was the windshield wipers didn’t work. David delivered pizzas and I worked at Radio Shack. Any time the sky clouded up, I could guarantee David would be showing up in the parking lot to borrow my car. He also used my dad’s old Plymouth Horizon hatchback for a awhile. He didn’t do much to it other than replace the AM radio with a stereo numbering in the thousands of watts.
David got a deal on a little BMW from the mid seventies. While it was close to twenty years old at the time, it still looked pretty much like a BMW. It had some problems with the heater. If you drove too long, steam would begin to pour in through the vents. David thought he fixed it and got it ready to sell. Someone came over to test drive it, prepared to pay ten times as much as David paid for it. They backed down the driveway and – blam! The engine erupted in this geyser of steam and radiator fluid that blanketed the neighborhood. Needless to say, David had to come down on the price.
At the end of the year, my brother got a better job and felt he could afford a nicer car. He got a Jeep Grand Cherokee that was charcoal gray and pretty much decked out. I remember a white knuckled drive with him in the snow on New Year’s Eve as we “tested out the four wheel drive” by doing donuts. Unfortunately, the Jeep threw a rod. My mom took pity on him and bought it so she could trade the Jeep and her Oldsmobile in to get something new. I remember we threw about six quarts of Motor Honey into the engine block to quiet it down long enough to get it to the Toyota dealership. By the way, it didn’t help; I also remember we had to look completely innocent (read: stupid) when the salesman came back from the garage to inform us that the engine would have to be replaced.
So, David was back to really old used vehicles. He found an old Toyota pick up truck from the Carter Administration that turned into a labor of love. The metal was mostly gone, replaced by Bondo. It was painted a flat black, courtesy of about 20 cans of spray paint. The fumes from the blowback in our garage got so bad, our goldfish died. Despite the appearance, the truck did run reasonably well. David used it to haul all sorts of things hither and yon to various flea markets.
Since the pick up had been such a success, David and his friend Aaron Ratzkoff decided to go into the car reselling business. They picked up a full-sized Delta 88. When I say full-size, I mean full-size. Even parked diagonally in the garage, they couldn’t close the door! They found a buyer in a college town who was going to pay them more than they had spent on buying it. I wished them luck as they drove off. A few hours later, David was back.
“How much money did you get for the car?” I asked.
“We got better than money,” David replied. The “better than money” turned out to be a couple of dozen vending machines. David was pretty creative when it came to schemes to make money, but even he was stumped as to what to do with the machines. The problem wasn’t the machines themselves, but rather what to put in them. Originally they were for maps, but the maps they had left were all outdated. They didn’t have money for new maps. They thought about chocolate bars, live bait, even shares of stock in the “Franzkoff Corporation”. That was my favorite idea; too bad it was illegal.
Another $150 went to the purchase of a Cadillac Coupe DeVille. It was from 1979 and the term “land yacht” was invented for it. The backseat had never been used and it was about the size of a regular couch… and just as comfortable. If portable DVD players had been around then, David could have used it as his rec room.
His final car purchase was an old van from a senior center for $100. “You can’t go wrong for $100,” was his mantra. If something ran, no matter how icky the rest of it was, he felt he could flip it for a profit. The $100 van ran. On the way home, we had to stop to add oil; it was about six quarts down. Inside, the van was decked out in shag carpet and wood paneling. There was this indescribable smell; it always reminded me of someone who had vomited a lot of chocolate. Still, David cleaned it up, ripped out the shag, and did manage to sell it off for more than he paid for it despite the fact he never did get rid of that smell.
David ended up working as a mechanic with a dream of opening his own shop. He was certified in heating and air conditioning and did a good job installing brakes. He was working at a garage that serviced the cop cars for Cook County when he was killed while changing a tire. The driver had no license and no insurance and his car – an old Delta-88 – had no brakes.
Though David died in 1998, he achieved a sort of immortality in Chicago. Ten years later I still get letters demanding payment for parking tickets from the early 2000’s. I always wonder who he votes for there in Chicago. David was buried in a cemetery where you are allowed to plant a flower box in the spring, but you can’t leave it there permanently. Every winter, his flower box gets wrapped up in a trash bag and I throw it in the trunk of my car. Our garage is a mess and full at the best of times. So, it stays in my trunk through the worst driving season of the year. I feel comforted having a little piece of my brother in the back… think of it like having a really big St. Christopher’s medal.
While his flower box was allowed back at the cemetery in March this year, I waited an extra six weeks until it seemed like spring really had arrived. Daniel and I planted new flowers and drove out there one Sunday to put it back at the head of his marker. Unfortunately, in the intervening time, my dad had gotten sick of looking at the patch of bare earth where the box normally went. He had replaced it with a piece of sod that was fully grown in when I got there. It sat a good inch taller than the surrounding ground and I hadn’t planned on doing any digging. I opened the trunk in the off-chance there might be something, anything, I could use. Underneath the planter I found an ice scraper. Through the winter, I probably had half a dozen floating around my car, in the front seat, back seat and in the trunk. However, I had cleaned them all out at the beginning of April, or so I thought. David’s planter had hidden one from view and I was able to use it to hack out the sod, smooth down the soil and get the flowers put in their proper place.