So I bought the Duster. I’ve kinda made a thing about it over Facebook and in real life too, so it’s not likely new information for you if you’ve clicked on my link to check this out. That said, there’s a story to tell.
So I flew up to Hartford, CT this Monday where my dear sister met me and we ventured deep into the wilds of Worcester County, Massachusetts. It was an area of New England that I’ve never been to and was very picturesque. It reminded me of parts of Salem County in South Jersey, and other parts of that area on the way to shore. The people I worked with when I was at PG used to call it “God’s Country” and I can see what they meant: beautiful and quiet and peaceful and full of promise. It was nice. We drove to the seller’s house and got the grand tour of the property and met his three-legged dog. He showed us the garage where his cars are-he had some other amazing cars too, including a mid-fifties De Soto that seems to be his passion. All the other cars were awesome, but my eyes were looking for the unassuming hunter green number I’d seen in the pictures. When I saw it, in person for the first time, I was equal parts excited and nervous as, while it was pretty serious when I booked a plane ticket and equally serious when I went to the bank, standing in front of the actual car was pretty much “go time” as Mandelbaum might have said. It was time to make a choice, but of course, it’s never simple.
I had consulted friends and family and experts far and wide. I had the support of all of these people. I was standing in front of a really gorgeous classic car in amazing condition and while I could feel the excitement in my gut, I found myself, for a moment, falling back into a pattern I don’t like. In the course of several minutes I vacillated between “This is a great car” and “Kugs, are you out of your mind?” and “Look dude, it’s hunter green which is like your favorite color and not that far off of the Eagles color” and “Is this a responsible thing to do?” and “Why not model making a fun choice for your kids in a way that is meaningful” and then “Where are the seatbelts? Will anyone be able to help me with doing the work it needs? Why doesn’t the AC or Radio work?” but then, I thought, “It’s really a nicer looking car than the one I had back in the day…”
I went back and forth like this in my head for a minute, but then, I had a moment of clear and cogent anxiety where I wondered, and not for the first time, “what if buying this car is a life-alteringly bad choice and I still make it and I choose to invest time and money in it and the car blows up on the way home and I die and everyone wonders what the hell you were thinking?”
And in that moment, being an experienced person with occasional outrageously silly yet powerful anxiety, in knew that I was seeking a reason to walk away instead of really looking at the situation, measuring that facts and making a rational decision. I was building to a panic to give myself an excuse to run away. It’s something I did a lot of after Dad got sick and later died. Anytime someone got close to me, either as a friend or as more than that, I got overwhelmed and ran away or pushed them away. I was unkind to a lot of very kind people in those days until the Wife essentially smacked me upside the metaphorical (and actual) head and said “enough” and helped me heal from that stuff. I’ve talked about those days here before, but I found it interesting that that same sort of impulse crept up in me with this situation. It hadn’t when we bought the Beach House and it hadn’t in other difficult times since. So, why did it happen here and how did I deal with it?
The “why” is not that difficult to understand now that I have had a few days to think about it. Despite my penchant for taking the family out or making a special meal at home or embracing the awesome power of YES in Wildwood with the kids, I generally don’t spend money in a big way, ever. So, I’m not used to doing it when it’s not related to real estate and my wife’s not telling me where to sign. So, it was a lot of money to part with. I wondered if I was being selfish, frivolous, insane, mid-life-crisis-laden…all of that.
More than that, I think there was some aspect of standing in front of that car that brought me back in time to 1990. To that time before Dad was sick and when all I had to worry about was my girlfriend, my friends, my grades, and that I couldn’t wait to turn seventeen and get my license and drive my Duster all over Mercer County, maybe even take it down the shore when my folks thought we were just going to the movies because they didn’t want us driving that dark crazy road to Seaside. Those spring months before Dad was diagnosed were so full of promise, that’s really the only word. I was sixteen and junior year had had its moments that I won’t get into here, but as spring came around, Dad and I had started to really understand one another and have some things in common. We’d gone to the driving range and planned to golf together. He’d helped me develop a workout program and we did some things together at a local gym. The big thing was that we made a plan to build a deck off the back porch over the summer. We’d done some sketches of how it would look. He was going to put part of his summer painting money with Mr. D, and I was going to chip in some of my summer job money too. I didn’t know how to build anything that wasn’t a theater set, so I was looking forward to learning and doing something “Manish” with my dad. As the spring moved on, I had a steady girlfriend of over a year who was away at school, I had good friends, I was doing well in some of my classes, I was in a really cool musical that was winning awards, I went to Prom with a good friend, I went to my sisters college graduation and most of the family (21 people) came and no one fought at all, not even a little! Everyone got along-that was pretty awesome. I remember driving home from that graduation feeling really positive about our family-everyone, all the Uncles and cousins and Gram had come and everyone had seemed to have a good time. I think Mom and Dad even let me drive a little on the trip since I had my permit. Everything seemed so positive coming out of that weekend and I remember getting home and seeing my original Duster in the driveway and feeling like it was only a matter of weeks until I’d get my license and we’d be free to be. Pretty sure I washed and waxed ‘ol Monstro that weekend after we got home.
What I didn’t know was that Dad hadn’t been feeling well for some weeks. He faked it good but finally Mom dragged him into the old MET place up on 130, our version of the “Minute Clinic” I suppose. Soon after pretty much everything changed. My life went from trying to get off of work to see my friend off to the Prom or to hang out with my girlfriend all the time, or performing at theater competitions to navigating the parking garage at Princeton Hospital and having my smart friends explain to me what the hell platelets were.
I reviewed my old journals for this section and it is glaringly clear when the change occurs. It goes from an entry on the Surflight Theater Festival “It was such a beautiful day-we went to the beach-I love the beach! There is always a special place in my life for the beach. I practically grew up there. I think I will always need that in my life” to “Ohhhh-well, I knew it seemed funny when my dad was so tired…” in the course of days. Most of the entries after that deal with hospital visits. Some mention of All State Chorus and a breakup and friends and stuff. There are several entries I’m embarrassed by, but I was a kid going through a difficult time. I forgive myself. Some relationships ended and others were strained and it was a difficult time, as we’ve discussed. It was a shit time.
So why was I ever so slightly brought back towards this mindset and these memories as I looked at the Duster? Probably because I have always been a person that attaches meaning to things-to people-to places-to events. My friends used to call me “overly sentimental” but I think it’s not that exactly. I think it’s more that my mind connects things when emotions are involved and for better or worse, when things happen I have not only the feelings and the memories, but also things to connect them to, people and writings and music and the like. Connections.
Earlier this week when I stood in front of the Duster, there was clearly a moment where I flashed back in time and it was not the sixteen year old kid looking at an exciting future, but rather the seventeen year old kid who was watching his world fall apart inhabiting my headspace. Neither of them were particularly welcome, but less so that seventeen year old dope.
I was grateful in that moment that my sister was there as the cars’ owner seemed quite content to chat with her while I asked for a minute to “make a call.” (What did we do before smartphones?) I took out my phone and just walked out towards the tree line. It was a very pretty area and I only needed to go fifty yards or so to be out of earshot which was where I wanted to be.
As I look back on it now, I know that I was scared. I was afraid to buy the car because I wasn’t sure it would be able to drive me home. I wasn’t sure it was in as good condition as it seemed. I worried that I’d have an accident. I worried that it was too much work or that it was selfish of me or that it was narcissistic to even want something like this. I was approaching panic attack levels of stress. I messaged with Uncle C and my wife and talked with a Classic Car repair place down here in NoVA and everyone had great answers for all of my concerns. Everyone said that it’s ok. Go for it.
But I was still anxious. My sister made a great point saying “Don’t think about the money. That’s not the issue. Is this the car that’s going to fulfill that dream you have?” It was a great question. I wasn’t sure. Then I took it for a drive.
I drove down the street in Oakham, past their library and an old cemetery and some nice houses on a long road before turning back and returning the same way. I liked the way the car felt and sounded. The radio didn’t work and I didn’t put something on my phone as I just wanted to drive. It was quiet. The lack of power steering and brakes made me have to work harder and pay attention differently than when I drive the Odyssey. I liked the quiet and it reminded me of the first time I had driven my old Duster at sixteen, around the school parking lot, the deep and sonorous sound of the engine and the feeling of magnificent control that the lack of power steering provided-I felt like a ship captain.
By the time I parked the car back at the sellers’ house I knew I was going to take it home. I had some negotiations to make but I felt like some sort of change had already occurred on that short test drive. We made a deal and I drove it away for the short ride back to Connecticut.
The next day I woke up early to drive it to Virginia. With no working radio and wanting to preserve my phone battery, I drove in silence quite a bit. With no AC and the windows open, I had plenty of noise but found a great deal of pleasure in the silence, the natural audio haze of the road. It gave me ample time to think and reflect and pray and sometimes I did those things.
Sometimes I didn’t and it was in those moments that I felt something like an exhale happen within me. Something like a release-like letting something go and it all being ok. I don’t know that I’m certain exactly what that is just yet but I know that it would not have happened without going through this process and being forced out of my comfort zone once again. None of this happens without the advice of friends all over the world nor does it happen without the kindness of friends of friends who are willing to help just because the friend of a friend asked. It never happens if one is stuck in the past. It doesn’t happen without the support and enthusiasm of one’s household, to be certain, but it most assuredly doesn’t happen if I didn’t really want it to and finally got out of my own way to do so.
Whatever becomes of this Duster, (still working on a name) it was a choice to be made and I made it. Those moments of silence on the road bringing her home were transcendent in a way. I won’t go so far as Thoreau about it, but I felt very early on in my 360 mile drive home that something had changed. I was peaceful. I felt like things were going to be alright and that I needed to continue to have faith and work hard. It made me feel like I had moved on from something to something even better and that everything was going to be fine.
Whether that’s the case of course remains to be seen. I like how I feel owning this car now though and I think I’ve grown into not only the man I am now, for better and worse, but have grown into the guy that owns this car. I hope it’s a good car and that I’m a good man. I feel like bringing this car into my life is giving me the opportunity to bring some level of closure to the past. I think I like thinking of it that way, though I’m tempted to wonder, “What would have become of me had my dad not gotten sick and my life were different and I never got stuck on a 1970’s Duster?”
I don’t know the answer to that any more than the other “What if” scenarios I used to torture myself with all the time as a kid and young adult and adult and maybe last week. I don’t know anything about that but I do know that I love this new car. I know that I love and appreciate my family. I know that I’ve been very blessed in my life. I know that my past has often held more weight over my present and future than I would like at times, but I also know that that fact may have just changed for me. There’s a calmness here that works for me and I hope it’s not fleeting.
I know that something changed on the ride home. I hope that whatever it is helps me be a better father, a better husband, a better brother, a better son, and better friend, and better man, a better person. I hope that very much.
Can a dream fulfilled do all that? Can a car? I don’t know honestly, but in the end, I think the image of the kids running out to see the Duster and sit in it and taking pictures of themselves, and the image of picking up the wife at the bus stop and driving her home the other night are amazing starts.
I was told to step out on faith during this process. I did. The promise that my original car held is very much part of the past. I’m ok with that. Letting go of that might have been a vital part of all this as now I find myself looking more to the future and at our present.
Perhaps that’s the most important change. Perhaps it is time to look forward instead of backwards. What could be better for that process than a 1970’s Duster?