My dad let me use his car on the weekends when I would visit. I just had to buy my own gas (and do well in school, of course). Gas was about 75 cents a gallon and my dad’s Datsun (not Nissan) Pulsar got pretty good mileage. I bought a road atlas and I’d plan expeditions through the week, basing it on how much time I had and how much gas I could afford. Through the fall and winter, my friend Dave (of “Kill Dave” fame) and I drove all over northern Illinois and into Michigan and Wisconsin. My dad was unaware of this. I always thought if he asked me where I was going specifically, I would have answered. But since he didn’t… One of our favorite drives was to jump on the expressway by Woodfield Mall and drive down to Mannheim Road and back. It was about twenty miles there, twenty miles back. We could blast the radio, drive fast and blow an hour just “cruising”. We usually did this run every Sunday night before I had to drop Dave off at home and drive the car back to my dad’s house.
Dave was only born a week after I was, but he had to wait an additional six months to get his drivers license. It seems his older brother had to wait until he was seventeen to take drivers’ education and so it seemed “fair” to his parents to make Dave wait until he turned seventeen before he could drive on his own. However, he finally got to use the car in February of 1987. The first weekend, we went out to see Platoon. The OIL light came on, so we bought a quart and added it to the engine. The light went off and we didn’t think about it again. Sunday night, Dave picked me up and we decided to go cruising a bit. He jumped on the expressway and we put on the radio. Dave took the car up to sixty or so and we were having a pretty good time. Suddenly a Porsche blew past us like we were standing still.
Like an idiot, I pointed to the Porsche and asked, “Are you going to let him beat you?”
Like an even bigger idiot, Dave replied, “No!”
He slammed on the gas and the car lurched into passing gear. Did I mention we were racing a Porsche in a 1984 Chrysler LeBaron? I cranked up the radio and – for some reason – we decided to roll down the windows. Icy February air poured in at hurricane strength as Dave hit seventy, then seventy five. I remember the Beastie Boys song “You’ve Got to Fight for Your Right (to Party)” was playing. Dave was starting to gain ground on the Porsche as we whizzed past other, much slower cars. The speedometer read eighty, then eighty-one… eighty-two… eighty-three… This was a LeBaron after all. I think we topped out around eighty-five and we finally passed the Porsche around the exit for Elmhurst Road.
We started our victory chant. “We- beat- the Porsche! We- beat- the Porsche!” Between “We” and “Beat”, there was this large BANG sound. Blue smoke began pouring out from the edges of the hood and blowing into the cabin through the air vents. Every idiot light on the dashboard lit up and there was this awful KA-CHUNK KA-CHUNK sound. Our speed dropped, but we were able to get off the expressway at Mannheim Road before the car totally died. There was a Shell station at the end of the exit ramp, so Dave and I pooled our remaining money and walked up there to buy another quart of oil. It had worked well the night before, maybe it would work again. The hood was still hot to the touch by the time we got back. Dave gingerly added the oil and we crossed every finger we had when he started up the car.
KA-CHUNK! KA-CHUNK! KA-CHUNK!
This was beyond our capabilities. Dave carefully put the LeBaron into gear and we slowly drove up the ramp to the Shell station. This was back in the days when gas stations actually were service stations. A guy in a dirty Shell jumpsuit came out wiping his hands on a rag when we turned the car off.
“We have a problem with our car,” Dave said.
“So I could hear,” he replied. “Let’s take a look.” We popped the hood and Dave started the engine. The KA-CHUNK sound was still there. The guy looked over a few things and put his hand down on the engine. The sound stopped. Dave and I looked at each other and breathed a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, the guy took his hand away and the sound returned.
KA-CHUNK! KA-CHUNK! KA-CHUNK!
The mechanic waved us to turn the car off. We got out and he shook his head.
“Well,” he said, “looks like you threw a rod.” I didn’t know all that much about cars, but I figured that was probably bad. Dave took small engine shop at school. All the blood in his face drained away.
“Can we drive home on it?” I asked. The guy shook his head.
“Wouldn’t recommend it. The rod might just rip through the hood.” I must admit there was a part of me (a small part of me) who thought that would look pretty cool. The rest of me was worried.
I asked, “How much would that cost to fix?”
“Well, you’d have to replace the engine,” he said. “Probably run you a thousand dollars.” Dave fell against the car. He wasn’t going to be any more help tonight. I followed the guy in and got change for my last dollar. I thought I would call my grandma. My grandparents lived in LaGrange, about a ten minute drive from where we were. I walked over to the phone booth at the edge of the parking lot and stepped inside. The light went on; I put my quarter in and dialed her number.
My grandpa answered the phone. “Hello?”
“Grandpa, is Grandma -”
“Grandpa! You need to turn on your hearing aid -”
“Hello?” The phone went dead. I put in another quarter and redialed the number.
“Grandpa! Your hearing aid! You need to -”
“GRANDPA! HEARING AID!”
“Hello?” The phone went dead again. I took a deep breath and tried one last time.
“HEARING AID!!!” There was a brief rustle, a whistle of feedback and my Grandpa cursed a bit under his breath. I offered a silent prayer and asked for Grandma. Unfortunately, she was still at work at The Flame. She wouldn’t be home for another couple of hours.
It had started to snow. Big flakes fluttered down and melted against the glass. It was 9:00 now on a Sunday night. We were technically in trouble for being out too late. I had one quarter left. I decided Dave would have to suck it up and call his parents. I stood outside the booth as he resigned himself to calling home.
“Hello, Dad?” Dave started, “Is Mom there?” I closed my eyes. Dave’s dad could be generously described as having a Type-A personality.
“No! I just need to talk to Mom about something…”
“No! We just… ”
“No! Can I just…”
I couldn’t hear exactly what Dave’s dad was yelling, but his tone was loud and clear, even through the glass. I don’t know if Dave ever got to speak to his mom. I’m surprised he was able to explain where we were. In any event, Dave hung up the phone after being remotely lambasted for what seemed like an hour and we went back to sit in the car. We didn’t say much. The only reaction I got out of Dave was when I took his picture. He was less than pleased.
Dave’s mom picked us up around 10:30. His younger brother Todd was in the backseat.
“I don’t know what you did, but Dad’s standing outside, waiting for you in the yard,” he said.
Dave didn’t miss a beat. He turned to me, “Can I spend the night at your house?”
It turned out the LeBaron had over 64,000 miles, but no one had ever changed the oil. While we happened to be in the car when it finally blew up, it really wasn’t – completely – our fault. Ironically, I was the one who got in trouble. I didn’t get home that night until after 11:00 and I didn’t call to say I’d be late. On a school night that was verboten. I got my drivers license taken away for two weeks.