Seatbelts, bike helmets, knee pads, safety vests... There were no such things when I was a boy.
I remember standing on the bench seat next to my father as he drove his two tone turquoise and white 1955 Ford Fairlane. My arm was slung around his neck, and I hung on as he turned into the S curves of the Wampanoag Trail, a serpentine stretch of road on the outskirts of Barrington, the Rhode Island town I once called home.
My brother Dave and I felt the torque of that old V8 as dad put the pedal to the metal and grinned. Our backs pressed against the tweed seats as we rolled left and right with the curves, cheering him on.
Mom didn’t drive because she was blind in one eye, and her lack of peripheral vision made her nervous. In the eyes of my brother and me, until our sister Annie got her permit, driving was a male endeavor.
I keep inventory of boyhood events by the particular cars that carried me:
Dad driving Dave and me to see the Yankees at Fenway Park- baby blue 1959 Ford Galaxie wagon.
The family trip across the country to California- a brand new metallic blue ‘64 Chevy Bel Air wagon.
Learning to drive a stick in a turquoise 1963 Ford Falcon, a gift to Dad from the widow of an old friend.
Mom and Dad taking me out to Indiana for my freshman year of college- a gold 1970 Ford Galaxie sedan
It would bring my father a great deal of joy to know that his namesake, my brother Dave, grew up and became CEO of the largest Automobile museum in North America. Besides the New York Yankees, our love of the automobile bonded us. We anticipated autumn with enthusiasm because it promised the debut of all the new car models from Detroit with monikers like Mustang, Thunderbird, Grand Prix, Continental, Corvette, and Bronco, names to be lived up to.
We Madeira men had a romance with cars.
Dave and I shared the ’63 Falcon in high school, which he eventually took to college in the late ‘60s. It was a “three-on-the-tree”, meaning it had a standard transmission whose gearshift was on the steering column.
Ford introduced their compact line, Falcon, in 1960. The humble car was named for the bird of kings, the king of birds. In folklore, the falcon often represents the warrior, passion, intellect, keenness, and vision.
My Falcon came to me from my mother, a generous gift and an expression of belief that I was becoming a man.
In 1973, Mom took the pocket change she had made playing piano at church, and bought me a 1964 Falcon station wagon for $150. I parked it at parents’ house and patched the holes in the floor and the fenders with sheet metal and Bondo, and then sprayed it with metallic blue paint, and I thought it looked pretty glorious.
In truth, it wasn’t much to look at, but it was mine. And it got me down the road, and back without much trouble for about 4 years. Not bad for $150. I named it Felix.
On my first trek West in the summer of ’73, I was about 45 miles from my destination when the clutch failed. I found a mechanic and it was fixed within hours. It lasted for as long as I kept Felix.
Every 18 months, the battery would die, and I would go to a junkyard, fork over five bucks, and walk out with a used generator, which I would install within minutes. Maintenance was up to me; I couldn’t afford to pay for repairs that were within the scope of my technical abilities, so I learned to figure it out.
Felix was my Kon-Tiki, my whale, my Santa Maria, my literal vehicle into manhood. Through blinding blizzards and zero temperatures, that old car faithfully delivered me to university and back home at least twice a year. I remember leaving Barrington in the dead of night, knowing I would avoid the congestion of New York City and all roads leading there if I chose to drive in darkness.
I would drive Felix 900 miles from Rhode Island to Indiana, with an AM radio keeping me company until the signal faded somewhere on Interstate 80, leaving nothing but a black sky, the Pennsylvania hills, and the wind whistling through the cracks in the floor.
Under an ink black canopy, I watched stars fall. On winter treks, snow flakes replaced stars, and sometimes the roads were barely traversable, but Felix and I would proceed cautiously, or so we thought.
I'd crack the little triangular vent window so commonplace on yesterday's cars, and try to cool off as the defroster kept the windshield hot, and once in a while my headlights would be so encrusted with ice that I'd have to pull over and chip away at them with a screwdriver.
Meanwhile, I'd find some groovy late night DJ playing blues or jazz, and somehow Felix seemed to pick up on the energy of the music, and we'd find ourselves cruising at 80 miles per hour. Occasionally, a tobacco soaked voice would announce whose music was moving us, and I'd make a mental note of who it was. Taj Mahal, Dave Brubeck, Sonny Rollins, Miles, or Muddy. Sooner or later, the bend in the road would take us behind a high, lonesome hill, and the signal would distort and then disappear into the blackness.
Just as I'd lost one signal, another might appear, maybe some black preacher, hollering salvation at fever pitch, or possibly making a sales pitch. It was hard to tell the difference between the prophets and the profiteers, but the cadence of their voices carried us down the road.
One night, the radio picked up a soulful voice from Atlanta which promised, "I'm goin' to getchoo outta th' ghet-to' an' into th' get-mo'!"
For all the gospel shouting, my soul didn't feel any closer to God Almighty, but the road seemed a little staighter and the hills seemed a little shallower. We might've been running on fumes, but when the radio was working, Felix ran like a top.
The radio also connected me to Nashville, a place I had no romance about, nor the slightest inkling that it would one day become my habitat. In the wee hours, old school country and western tunes would bleed through the little mono speaker hidden beneath a grille in the center of the metal dashboard. Someone from WSM was keeping the truckers awake with twangy etudes from Buck Owens and Dave Dudley.
Those were beautiful times.
The fondness I have for that old Ford Falcon is greater than all the combined affection I’ve given to many cars I’ve owned, matched only by a Mercedes Wagon that is long gone.
I’m sentimental that way.
I like the new cars just fine, but they don’t make ‘em like they used to. Hell, they don’t even name them like they used to! What does Prius mean, anyway?
I would trade my Infiniti for a good running Falcon if given the chance.
The tribes of the past sent adolescent males on lone journeys, during which they would transition from boyhood to manhood. Communing with nature, hearing the voice of an owl or a wolf, and perhaps starving just enough to be in a state of altered and open consciousness, the boy/man would return to the tribe with a word, a prize, or perhaps a vision that could be celebrated by the entire community.
Western society has substituted television and cyber-worlds for real living, and the vision quest has faded from view. Yet, something in a boy’s heart knows he must seek beyond the borders of comfort. Something tells him that he will find fulfillment and knowledge, excitement, and adventure if he cuts the apron strings and ventures into the unknown.
When I graduated from college, I had bachelor’s degree in Art, something I have never formally used. Nonetheless, I returned to my parents’ home having fulfilled the task they had sent me away to accomplish. Moreover, I returned with friendship bonds that have lasted for nearly 4 decades, stories that have served to remind me about the breath God Almighty continues to fill my lungs with, and lessons learned on the ribbon of road with that beautiful old Falcon.
A college friend hounded me to let go of Felix when I relocated to Upstate New York in 1976, and I reluctantly did so, but the lessons linger. Maybe brother Falcon had more magic under its hood than one would expect from an oil guzzling straight-six engine.
Maybe it gave me wings.