Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Mudskipper

At my best friend's wedding, I gave a speech that centered on cars and girls. Two things that have bonded us since we were 12. We've talked about both consistently over the years - not sports, not politics, not fashion, not work just cars and girls (now wives). He's got the better collection now but a long time ago, I was the one with the headstart.

Every teenager growing up in the Midwest dreams of one thing - a car. Not everyone cares about sports though most do. Dating in private is only possible with wheels. If you were unhappy at home as all teens are, long drives to nowhere were a great tonic. It was no different for me. The shame of my mother picking me up after school or practice grew by the day. I was the only student in my class not yet driving and I was without any friends who were willing to carpool out of their way. My life felt stunted.

In my home state, you could get a driver's permit six months before you were 16. The law was that you had to pass a written test and drive with passenger that have had their license for more than 2 years. Realizing I was rapidly approaching that age, seeking to drive with my parents - it was somehow concocted that having my own car would be better since I could practice without borrowing the family car. Practice was really just driving up and down the street and gradually within the confines of the neighborhood. No main streets, no stop lights and nothing over 25 miles per hour. So with great anticipation I awaited for the best Christmas present to come into my non-denominational life in February.

Unbeknownst to me, the idea wasn't hatched so as to help me learn how to drive in the relative safety of my own slow car. It was much more machevellian. My father wanted to spend nothing to buy a car, in fact he didn't want to even buy a car since it would inevitably include insurance, oil changes, part replacements, and all manners of repair of damage I would inflict on said machine. But an opportunistic colleague was relocating to a foreign country and wanted to get rid of his car. Maybe my father would take it off his hands for $800? That winter, Bob drove up our short driveway to officially hand over the car. It was a ten year old Honda Accord Coupe. Somehow, it was in superb shape for it's age. Best of all, the car only had 80,000 miles. It had literally been Bob's college car and he'd kept it all these years for sentimental value. It was the first car he bought with his own hard-earned money plus, he hadn't really driven it for the past half decade.

The Mudskipper was going to be a slow and obviously dated car. The temperature controls meant very little in extreme weather. Rain meant water in the car, wind meant more noise and the clutch was really an anvil. It had power steering, no power locks, no power windows, a stick shift, two doors and a hatchback. It was the color of wet riverbank sludge with two thin gold pinstripes on the side panels. The bumpers were a worn matte black plastic. The equally brown cloth upholstery just re-affirmed the seriousness of the color scheme. Still, it ran forever on a single tank of the cheapest gasoline, the lack of electrics meant nothing could go wrong .The stereo wasn't even top of the line when it was brand new, though it did come with 4 speakers. I came to like the old cassette player and the nuances of a manual radio dial. The sound was terrible but other than having no bass, Public Enemy was still frantic and angry.

My first task was getting the car into first gear. The first day was complete frustration and bone-jarring engine fits. Finally, I managed to start the car and not stall immediately when I released the clutch. Reverse gear took another day. On the third day I managed to drive out and then back into our driveway. Second gear came faster. I didn't get much beyond that for the next two months. Just driving out of my driveway, up the street, doing a three point U-turn, then back again repeatedly at 20 miles per hour was exhilarating enough.

Soon though, I was 16 and I started my adventures with the Mudskipper in earnest. It may have been short, brown, slow and ugly but it moved and that was all I needed. The prospect of wheels trumps all else. It didn't matter that the car wasn't a looker, or that it lacked every basic creature comfort, or that it was deliberately designed to go slow. I drove it to school and back every day. And tried to use my newfound fortune to ramp up my social life.

By chance, one of the prettier girls in my class needed a ride to a volunteer event one evening. She casually asked to carpool with me and I acted like I had done similar acts of kindness when I agreed. Her introduction to the Mudskipper was relatively tame. I picked her up from her place and we had idle chit chat. On the way back, she was more comfortable and her usual spritely self. She asked me to turn up the music - P.E., because I wanted to impress her. And the puny high pitched speakers wheezed like a grandmother lecturing little brats. Disappointing yet still interesting she remarked. Then she decided that I should drive faster to show her what the car could do. The next stoplight, we were lined up with a Mustang. She wanted to race him. I hesitated. She reached over, honked the horn, and gestured to the Mustang that we were racing. He quickly revved up his engine. I did mine. At green we both took off. As expected, the Mustang took off much faster. All the yelling and screaming didn't work though she ended up laughing furiously and we got a thrill just by being in that impromptu drag race. The Mudskipper may have been slow and tone-deaf but it still managed to make a pretty girl smile and laugh.

My first driving year with the Mudskipper, I made no upgrades or modifications and there was no damage small or large. There were no trips out of the city, and no adventures worth noting. It was a very reliable and economical high school car. At the end of that first year, as a reward for responsible driving and good grades, my parents traded in the Mudskipper for a brand new car. I believe the dealership gave us $1500 for it. A tidy profit. I never saw that car again.