Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Another Lesson in Serendipity

About a week ago, I completed a 3,200-mile round trip from Florida to Pennsylvania in my 44-year-old Mustang. The 12-day journey provided several good experiences. In one regard it was a tune-up for a cross-country odyssey of about 8,000 miles planned for next year. It was also a test of the new steering and suspension components installed last month. Except for one temporary glitch, the car performed remarkably well, especially considering the awful heat wave that gripped the eastern US in late July.

There were several purposes for my trip, including a visit with family, a speaking engagement, a car show, my 35th high school reunion, and a research opportunity. All of them kept me busy as I drove back and forth across Pennsylvania for several days.

The trip north began on Wednesday, July 27 with a loosely- planned route of secondary highways through Georgia and into South Carolina. I started early and enjoyed the country scenery as well as the pleasant rumble of the Mustang’s slightly-massaged small block. (I know, it’s a cliché—but it’s also true!) I found my visual reward in Georgia on a stretch of US 19 south of Americus: wall-to-wall crepe myrtle along both sides of the highway for miles. Shortly beyond Americus, up Georgia Route 49, I paid a sobering visit to the Andersonville National Historic Site and toured the notorious camp where thousands of Union POWs died during the Civil War. Farther north, in the lovely antebellum city of Madison, Georgia, the heat of the early afternoon dictated another stop for a much-needed iced coffee at the Perk Avenue Café and Coffee House.

With a schedule to meet, I had to make time the second day and spent much of it on the interstate system. The Mustang hums along just fine at 70 or even better with its late-model AOD transmission, so keeping pace with traffic isn’t a problem; but the sheer volume of vehicles on the road was a reminder of why I dislike interstates. Most are so heavily traveled—often resembling a parking lot moving at more than a mile a minute—that a driver can never relax. Even on scenic I-81 through the Shenandoah Valley, I found it impossible to enjoy the drive. To make matters worse, rain began falling in southern Pennsylvania, and by the time I reached my hometown of State College, I had “leak-checked” the convertible through a series of squalls and torrential downpours.

The Mustang needed an adjustment to its new power steering control valve, so on Friday morning I took it to an independent shop that has serviced my mother’s car for years. While the car was up on the rack, the mechanic noticed that a clamp on the return line appeared to be stripped, and with all good intentions he replaced it. That afternoon, I drove the Mustang to Felicita Resort near Harrisburg for a speaking engagement. I was initially misdirected and found myself at the spa on the opposite side of the valley from the main resort. While I was turning around in a parking lot, the newly-clamped return line suddenly blew off. In a matter of seconds the power steering fluid drained out. The car was rendered useless at 4 o’clock on a Friday afternoon—not a good time to be stranded.

I had a GPS unit with me, so I looked up local repair shops and phoned the nearest one. After nobody answered by the 20th ring, I dialed the next business, a truck and auto repair shop in the nearby town of Dauphin. I didn’t have much hope, but the call was answered on the third ring. I hastily explained my predicament: a disabled driver, out of state, with a disabled vehicle. The owner, Dave Szostek, explained that he might be able to shuffle some things around and take a look at the problem the next day—if I could have the car towed to him.  So my next call was to AAA. I was not first on the list, however, as there were several fender-benders in the Harrisburg area. I waited nearly two hours before the rollback arrived, and as soon as the car was chained to the flatbed and taken away, I gave my scheduled presentation.

Here’s where the story really gets unusual. The presentation was a PowerPoint tribute to Glenn Bowers, an original member of the World War II Black Sheep squadron, who was being honored with a memorial golf tournament to raise money for the Semper Fi Fund. Glenn had been a replacement pilot for Pappy Boyington’s squadron in 1943, and had arrived in the South Pacific after first learning to fly at Penn State, my alma mater. More coincidentally, he and my father knew each other at Penn State before the war: both shared forestry classes in their respective majors in the College of Agriculture. I met Glenn in 1995 and interviewed him for my book on the Black Sheep. He passed away in 2010, at which point I began corresponding with his son, Toby. As luck would have it, Toby is a car guy—he drives a Shelby Cobra replica—and he helped tremendously at the event as we dealt with my disabled car. He graciously offered to drive me all the way to State College (a three-hour round trip for him), but got a partial reprieve from my brother Chris, who met us halfway.

I called Dave on Saturday morning and he assured me that he was working on my car. Unfortunately, the day-long setback meant that I could not attend the car show that I had registered for: the 19th annual Moonlight Memories sponsored by the Greater Hatboro Chamber of Commerce. The event, which began that afternoon near Philadelphia, brought in over 500 vehicles and I was disappointed about missing it. (My registration, mailed from Florida, had prompted an interview with a local reporter that appeared in the Hatboro newspaper a few days before the show.) I was excited about sharing the story of Sweet Chariot with spectators, but it was not meant to be.

Dave called back Saturday afternoon and told me the Mustang was ready.  He had fabricated a new aluminum return line for the power steering and spent about three hours working on the car. I figured the repairs and labor would run a few hundred dollars and steeled myself for the bad news. I asked, “What are the damages?  I might need to stop at an ATM on my way to your shop.”

 “Seventy-five dollars,” he said.

I thought he had skipped a digit. Maybe my cell phone lost signal for a moment. “How much?”

“Seventy-five,” Dave repeated.

Unable to help myself, I blurted, “Are you kidding me?”

“Is that high?” He sounded a bit surprised.

“Lord, no,” I said, and quickly explained that I was expecting a bill for three hundred or more.
“I’m semi-retired now,” Dave chuckled. ” I work for myself and I only work on muscle cars and hotrods.”

Serendipity. Again. My car broke down near the one guy in the Harrisburg area who could work on a vintage Mustang—on a Saturday. Some things are meant to be.

I called my brother, who was ready to drive me back to Harrisburg when the car was repaired, and we set off for Dave’s shop. To this point I only knew him through a few phone conversations, but the best was yet to come. Following the GPS directions to his garage, we found ourselves on a little country road where Dave and his wife live in a nicely kept home a few miles outside Dauphin. Dave’s garage was in back and the Mustang was sitting in the drive, so we pulled up and met Dave, a sixtyish, salt-of-the-earth guy who gave us a cook’s tour of the shop. The inside of his large metal building was like a museum. Among the classic vehicles were a lovely 50s T-bird, a Dodge “Lil’ Red Wagon” pickup, a custom T-bucket, a hot-rodded 1930 REO, and a treasure-trove of small collectibles.

We had a really pleasant visit, and went on our way after paying Dave’s modest bill. It’s funny how a breakdown far from home, frustrating as it might be, can turn into a gem of an experience and a new-found friendship.

Dave: Here’s to you. They just don’t make ‘em like you anymore.    

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Skin Deep

We’ve all heard it before: the old adage that beauty is only skin deep. What really matters, the saying implies, is what’s on the inside. 

The truism usually refers to people, but it ought to be valid for cars as well.

One example that immediately comes to mind is the Corvette.  It doesn’t matter what year or model, they are all exquisitely beautiful to look at. However, you have to give up a few things to drive one. Seating is limited to driver and passenger, and stowage space is skimpy at best. The early Vettes have a reputation for a stiff ride—like driving a buckboard—so long-distance touring is not typically associated with the Corvette philosophy. It’s a sports car, period. The good news is that real improvements in creature comforts have been made over the years, and the Corvette remains a popular upscale car among the Boomer generation; but you still have to make some sacrifices if you drive one.

A friend of mine has been a car lover all her life, and she’s had some fine wheels over the years. When we were at Penn State, she was driving a sweet Firebird. All I could afford was a used motorcycle, a 1972 Suzuki GT-750 (aka “Water Buffalo) which cost me $500. When I visited my friend a few years after college, she had a Beemer. Now, some three decades later, she drives a 2011 Jaguar XF. Interestingly, she describes it as “gorgeous on the outside…too bad it has a few design flaws.”

Ah, that’d be a bingo, folks. Point made.

If what’s on the inside is indeed important, then let’s segue back to my classic convertible—a car that’s been featured here over the past few postings. In this edition, I’ll describe the car’s interior features and upgrades. In a subsequent post, I’ll discuss the mechanical enhancements.

First, we need to turn the clock back to the year the car was built: 1967. Back in its day the Mustang was an economy car, designed for the masses. This, of course, translates into “cheap to own.” With a sticker price of just around $3,000, my car rolled off the assembly line in January 1967 with some rather unimpressive design characteristics, at least by today’s standards. Corrosion protection consisted of zinc coating in the lower areas of the steel body, whereas other areas exposed to moisture, such as the cowl vents, were untreated. Not surprisingly, the cowl area rotted quickly. (For that matter, so did the floors, despite the zinc coating.)

Sound deadening was also a far cry from current methods. It consisted of thin material spayed on the insides of door skins and roofing (except convertibles, of course), a fiber pad on the inside of the firewall, and thin pads of rubberized asphalt on the floors. All Mustangs boasted molded nylon carpet—a luxurious touch in an era when base-level cars still had rubber mats—but the overall level of noise reduction was well below modern standards

Interior safety features were likewise lacking. Activists such as Ralph Nader were making an impact in automobile safety awareness, but air bags were still a quarter of a century in the future. In fact, the only restraints provided in Mustangs were lap belts. Shoulder belts became available the following year, but only in the coupe and fastback. The early generation Mustangs had low-back bucket seats without headrests, which meant the occupants were vulnerable to neck injuries in rear-end collisions. Minimal padding of the dash and arm rests represented the only other active protection. A seat belt reminder light was optional as part of the “convenience panel,” but was rarely ordered.

Fortunately, the classic car industry provides numerous options for improving the quality and safety of older vehicles. The following is a brief description of the upgrades I’ve made to the Mustang’s interior over the years (still an ongoing process):

1.       Soundproofing and heat reduction: My son Ian helped me dismantle the convertible’s interior in 2007. I then lined the entire floor area with Dynamat, a commercial product described by the manufacturer as “a patented, lightweight elastomeric butyl and aluminum constrained-layer vibrational damper.” In simpler terms, it’s a layer of flexible aluminum bonded to a black tar-like substance. The material reduces squeaks, rattles, and other unwanted noises for the benefit of today’s high-end stereos. It is also an effective heat barrier. The dual exhaust pipes beneath my Mustang act like heavy-duty heating elements, but the Dynamat effectively blocks the heat and deadens unwanted road noise. Although Dynamat is fairly heavy, it can be cut with stout shears and has a peel-off backing that makes it easy to use. As a wheelchair user, I had no difficulty applying it to a large area.

 2.     Improved bucket seats: Wanting to find safer front seats with full backs and headrests, I did some research and found that the seats from 1987-1993 Mustangs were a close fit and used similar slide tracks. One online article even described the procedure for adapting the seats into an early generation Mustang. I went to a local salvage yard and bought a pair of bucket seats from a 1990 Mustang for $100. The cloth upholstery was in bad shape but the frames were fine. The seats were reupholstered by Randy Morgan in a combination of black vinyl and heavy tweed cloth, with new padding. Randy matched the stitching pattern of the back seats and added the polished emblems used in the interior décor group. I now enjoy fully reclining seats with good side bolsters and a full headrest. They are comfortable, too. 

 3.       Active shoulder restraints: I ordered a pair of 3-point seat belts from Andover Companies in Columbia, MD. This is a bolt-in conversion. The retractable belt housing is installed in the floor near the rear quarter panel, and an upper pivot point is added to the inside of the quarter panel near the door jamb. Only four holes need to be drilled to install the belts for both front seats. The inertia style, locking reel belts work just like the type installed in modern vehicles.

 4.       Electronic instruments: When driving on a long trip, it’s important to know exactly what’s going on under the hood. The mechanical instruments in early Mustangs provided a basic range only, such as the water temperature sitting somewhere between Cold and Hot. I like having precise info, and found a great system by Dakota Digital, which makes aftermarket instrumentation for a wide range of vehicles and applications.  The fluorescent digital display is mated to an original-style instrument cluster for a neat “old-school” look with high-tech functionality. Now I have exact readouts for water temperature, oil pressure, voltage, speed, rpm, and fuel percentage.

5.       Cruise control: Just about every vehicle has it nowadays, and you really notice the absence in vintage cars. As a disabled driver using a hand control, I use the cruise function a lot to avoid fatigue. One reason for choosing a Dakota Digital system for my instrumentation was that the company makes an integrated cruise control system. It even comes with the controls mounted on a turn signal stalk that screws into the original steering column. I am happy to report that both the digital dash display and the cruise control have worked flawlessly for over 20,000 miles so far.
6.       Air conditioning: Yep, we’re spoiled. Surprisingly, my convertible came with factory air-conditioning in 1967, the first year that Mustangs featured an in-dash system rather than a dealer-installed unit under the dash. The original system was inefficient, relying on a complex vacuum system and a boxy compressor that was prone to vibration. Luckily, the aftermarket industry offers choices of modernized systems that replace the factory components. I chose the “Perfect Fit” package made by Classic Auto Air in Tampa, FL. It’s a nearly invisible conversion except for the more efficient Sanden-style compressor.

As a testament to the overall comfort of the convertible, I have driven it more than 20,000 miles since the spring of 2009. That summer, I made two round trips to Pennsylvania from Florida. The following summer, I drove the convertible to Oshkosh, Wisconsin for the big AirVenture week sponsored by the Experimental Aircraft Association. The mileage eventually took its toll on the front suspension, which had originally been restored in 1994. After seventeen years it was literally worn out again. So during the past month, the entire front suspension was replaced and new rubber bushings were installed in the rear springs. I just finished installing new interior door panels (the integral arm rests on the old ones were cracked), and the Mustang is ready for its next big road trip.

And it starts tomorrow! I depart from Lynn Haven on Wednesday morning, July 27, and if all goes well I’ll pull into State College, Pennsylvania on Thursday afternoon.  The following evening I’ll be giving a presentation at the inaugural Glenn Bowers Memorial Golf Tournament (Glenn was a Marine fighter pilot who flew in Pappy Boyington’s squadron, VMF-214): http://www.golfdigestplanner.com/17294-Glenn_Bowers/ And on Saturday, July 30, I’ll take part in the 19th Annual Moonlight Memories car show, a surprisingly big event sponsored by the Greater Hatboro Chamber of Commerce just outside Philadelphia. http://www.moonlightmemories.org/

After that I face a big decision: do I spend a few days at the National Archives doing some much-needed research, or do I spend that time joyriding through New England? God knows I’d love to do the latter, but work is important, too. Either way, I know the Mustang can handle the long trip. She’s lovely to look at, but also safe and remarkably comfortable, especially considering that she’s now 44 years old.

Let’s roll!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Many Returns, Part II: A Classic Mustang

Last week, my post titled “Many Returns” touched on the philosophical question of whether a machine can possess a mechanical soul. At the heart of the essay is the suggestion that my thirteen-year-old Lincoln coupe is rewarding me for saving it from the crusher.  Can a vehicle and its driver make such a connection?  Or is the sense of reward simply derived from the time and money required to restore the vehicle? 

If effort is the benchmark, then it’s important to point out that I’ve invested far more in another vehicle, the 1967 Mustang convertible that has been mentioned in previous posts. Restored twice over the past 17 years, it routinely earns trophies at car shows, yet it’s no garage queen. I deliberately made it fun and safe to drive, for a convertible is meant to be enjoyed in the open countryside on a warm summer day. That it happens to be almost 45 years old is no reason to take it off the road. Just the opposite: it has been retrofitted with modern upgrades and is capable of being driven anywhere.

The story of the Mustang known as Sweet Chariot begins in Pensacola, Florida, where I retired with a permanent disability at the age of 30. I was fully immersed in the classic car hobby, having driven a restored 1968 Mustang coupe (a well-optioned deluxe model) for several years. In 1994, seeking something a little more collectible, I phoned Jim Salter in the nearby town of Pace.  Owner of Salter’s Classic Autos, Jim was well-known across the Southeast for his meticulous restorations. I asked if he had any convertibles for sale, particularly a 1967 or ’68, which have always been my favorite years among the first-generation pony cars. My timing was perfect. Jim had just acquired a rusty ‘67 convertible from an elderly gentleman in the Florida panhandle, and intended to restore it for himself. Always open to offers, he invited me to take a look.

“Rough” does not begin to describe the condition of Jim’s new find. Already 27 years old, the Springtime Yellow convertible had been stored outside for a long time. Mustangs were economy cars in their day, with poor corrosion protection, and the convertibles were notoriously leaky. This one showed obvious signs of long-term exposure to rain and the Florida humidity. Under the rotting carpet, the floors were disintegrating, the ground plainly visible through huge, jagged holes. The cowling at the base of the windshield was likewise rusted through, and the convertible top was torn. The paint was seriously faded on most of the body panels, which also showed telltale signs of rust underneath the finish. The engine compartment resembled a condo for squirrels, but the two-barrel 289 engine was original, and it started and ran. The car was marginally drivable, though the brakes were worn and a cracked manifold caused a noisy exhaust leak.

But there was also good news under all that grime and rust.  The Mustang had rolled off the assembly line with a nice list of desirable options, including a power-operated top, the exterior décor group with the popular turn signal louvers in the hood, automatic transmission with a center console, power steering, power brakes (with front disc brakes), and in-dash air conditioning.  As the convertible did not come with the GT equipment group, it was not in the “high value” category and was therefore affordable. Jim agreed to sell me the car—with full repairs to the floors and cracked manifold—for $4,000.

Over the next two years the convertible was restored to its original condition—almost. Because the car was not rare, I had no qualms about modifying it for personal preferences. The initial dismantling revealed that the factory paint was Wimbledon White, not the Springtime Yellow that someone had applied later. Neither color scored high on my meter, however: combined with the car’s standard black vinyl interior, they were just a little too plain for my taste. The decision on color was made by my daughter Rachel, then three years old, who wanted the car painted Candyapple Red. Easily the most popular color among early Mustangs, paint code “T” is jokingly referred to as “resale red,” and I thought her choice was perfect.  After all, what could be more iconic than a red Mustang convertible? Another change involved the color of the convertible top, my rationale being that white would be cooler during Florida’s blistering summer days than black. Lastly, I chose to upgrade the interior to the deluxe version, which featured panels of real brushed aluminum in the doors and dash. That particular option was available only in 1967, and looks stunning with a black interior. Jim Salter had a junked ’67 coupe in his “pick-and-pull” yard and sold me the deluxe components for $200.

In September of 1996 the restoration was mostly complete, and I drove the car from Pensacola to Hendersonville, NC, where my family had moved a few months earlier. There, however, the convertible seemed jinxed. It made its public debut the following summer in a Fourth of July parade, but on the way into town the left rear wheel fell off! It was purely my fault for not properly tightening the lug nuts, and with the help of some passing motorists the wheel was back on in time for the parade—missing a lug nut and with a damaged rear quarter panel. I should have returned home. By the end of the parade the engine was overheating badly, and the radiator boiled over the moment I pulled off the route.

Over the next several years I drove the convertible only occasionally. The overheating issue persisted, and a few other quirks, including a tendency for the steering to wander, kept me from really enjoying the car. The situation might have continued indefinitely, but Fate intervened in a most unusual way. In mid-September 2004, Hurricane Ivan moved inland from the Gulf Coast and caused severe damage in Western North Carolina. Among the thousand or so trees that fell in Henderson County, a huge oak smashed the front of our garage and landed squarely across the back of the Mustang. I called a tree service, which arrived the following day and removed the fallen trunk and branches. We could then evaluate the garage, which had sustained over $50,000 in damage.

The Mustang was buried under a pile of sheet rock and other debris. The fortunate news was that the tree had struck behind the rear axle. If it had landed anywhere forward of the axle, there is no question that the car would have been destroyed. As it was, the rear wheels acted as a fulcrum, the weight of the tree lifting the front wheels off the ground. When the tree was removed, we were surprised to find that all four tires were still inflated. The car was then rolled outside for inspection. The tree had crushed the Mustang’s deck lid into an almost perfect trough, and the downward force had bent the convertible top frame, springing both latches. Surprisingly, the car could still be driven and the tail lights were functional. An insurance adjuster was on site the next day and, after some careful calculations, determined the car to be repairable. 


Over a period of nearly two years, the car was gutted and then rebuilt at a collision repair shop in Weaverville, NC.  The end result was a much improved vehicle, with superior fit and finish. A new top frame was acquired on eBay and fitted with a snug vinyl top—black this time, which requires far less maintenance and cleaning. In July 2006 the family moved back to Florida and I continued to make major improvements to the car. The most important was an upgrade to an automatic transmission with overdrive. Gone was the old C-4, which had only three forward speeds. Thanks to the extra gear in the AOD, the engine now turns at less than 2,100 rpm @ 70 miles per hour.  Other upgrades included a modern air-conditioning retrofit, electronic instrumentation with digital readouts, cruise control, extensive use of sound and heat insulation, and performance enhancements to the engine such as a four-barrel carb, dual exhaust, and electronic ignition. Comfort and safety improvements were also made, including a pair of reclining bucket seats from a 1990 Mustang, modern inertia-reel shoulder belts for the front occupants, and a 240-watt stereo system with an iPod adapter. There’s even a subwoofer hidden in the trunk. She’s a true restomod—a conjunction of  “restored” and “modernized”—which has come to define a popular new category in the classic car world.

The upgrades were completed by the spring of 2009, and the convertible known as Sweet Chariot has been a road warrior ever since. That summer alone she made two round trips to Pennsylvania. In August 2010, she made it effortlessly to Wisconsin and back. Although not entered frequently in car shows (I’d rather cruise than sit for hours in a parking lot), she’s earned a trophy every time. Probably her most prestigious result was a tie for Second Place in the Mustang class at the Vintage Motor Classic in St. Petersburg.

In the past two years I’ve put over 19,000 miles on the digital odometer. By the spring of 2011, some 16 years after the first restoration, the steering and suspension were worn out.  A complete makeover was completed just this month, and we’re ready to clock another 19,000 miles. I swear I can feel the car enjoying every outing. Is it so unusual that I, as a paraplegic driver, share a bond with a car that received a crushing blow to its back--and made it better than before? In a very real sense, we have both been restored. 

Sweet Chariot, indeed.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Many Returns

Have you ever wondered if your ride has a soul? If you’re like me, you might have suspected from time to time that your vehicle possesses a spirit, either good or bad. Now, I’m not so naïve as to believe that a vehicle has feelings, but I’m pretty certain that most driving enthusiasts have experienced some sort of personal connection with their ride—one that goes beyond simple enjoyment or entertainment. Such a philosophical concept is open to broad interpretation, so the best way for me to indulge in the idea is by sharing a few personal examples.

In my three-plus decades of driving, I have owned several cars—mostly coupes—and I tend to keep them a long time. One of my all-time favorites is my 1998 Lincoln Mark VIII, truly a fun car to drive and quite unique in that it represents the final year of production for Lincoln’s long line of luxury coupes. It is the second model I’ve owned, which speaks volumes about the car’s appeal. From 2001 until 2008, I owned a ‘98 Mark VIII base model, but sold it because the tan leather interior was constantly dirty after years of stowing my wheelchair in the backseat. I soon came to realize that it had been one of the best vehicles I’d ever owned, so in the late summer of 2009, I began to search for another. This time I wanted a black interior, and I decided to get the more refined LSC model with a power sunroof. As a resident of Florida, I’ve learned the benefit of ventilating a hot car quickly.

Using Craigslist, I located the right candidate near Asheville, NC.  A 1998 LSC, it was in good mechanical condition with a near-flawless interior. The Midnight Black exterior had been repainted after a minor accident and the finish was very good with the exception of several unsightly dings in the doors. After making the purchase and getting adaptive equipment installed (hand controls), I began making some improvements to my “new” car.  The previous owner had kept up with routine maintenance, but I knew going in that with nearly 90,000 miles on the odometer, the car would soon need some big-ticket repairs. I got proactive and did the so-called “100,000-mile service,” which included new front suspension and steering components. Altogether I spent about $3,000 on necessary improvements, including $200 for a dent removal service that did a magical job of eliminating the blemishes.  For a total outlay of less than eight grand, including the purchase price, I had a completely refurbished car with an original MSRP of over $40,000.

By mid-June of 2010, my LSC was in prime condition. I uploaded several photographs to MarkVIII.org, an online owners’ forum, but apparently this tempted fate. Just a few evenings later, the front of the car was badly damaged by a hit-and-run driver during a severe thunderstorm. Traffic lights had been knocked out by lightning, and I was stopped at an intersection when a slow-moving car struck the front of the Mark and nearly tore off the front clip. The offending car stopped briefly, but then drove away. Because of the darkness and the intense downpour, it was impossible to read the license plate, so I was not able to file a claim against the other driver’s insurance company.

To my dismay, the insurance company declared the Mark a total loss, even though 95% of the car was undamaged. The reason: replacement parts, especially the discontinued HID headlights, are no longer available through the usual vendors.  This raised the repair estimate well beyond the cost-to-value ratio, hence the total loss determination. Although I fully understand how the system works, I felt that it was ridiculous to waste such a basically sound car. Moreover, the insurance laws in Florida require that a total loss be delivered to a salvage yard—it cannot be “bought back” and retitled.

I undoubtedly raised some eyebrows when I decided to withdraw my accident claim and fix the car at my own expense. The thing is, I knew what I had in that vehicle, despite the damaged front end. As a wheelchair user, I can attest that there are very few big coupes out there anymore. I greatly prefer the two-door body style, which best fits my unique set of needs. Luckily, I found a reputable body shop that agreed to perform all the necessary labor and paint work for $2000 if I would supply the parts.  And the solution to the latter proved remarkably simple. I browsed the online salvage auctions, where cars that have been totaled can be purchased by licensed salvagers, and found a 1998 Mark VIII with a pristine front end being auctioned in Alabama. After a few phone calls to arrange for a salvage yard to bid on my behalf, I ended up getting all of the necessary parts, along with several extra items, delivered to the local body shop for under $900. A few weeks later, the Mark VIII was back in my driveway as good as new.

Almost a year has passed since the repairs were made and I’ve put another 13,000 miles on the car, mostly on long trips. During a 4,400-mile journey across the Southwest in April, the Mark literally purred while running at over 80mph for days on end.  More recently, I clocked almost 2,400 miles on a road trip to Pennsylvania for a family reunion. I made a deliberate decision to take my time, avoiding interstates in favor of secondary roads, and saw a lot of Americana that you just don’t see from a superhighway.

Shortly before Memorial Day, for example, I drove through Ringgold, Georgia. A month earlier a huge tornado had torn through this hardscrabble town, and devastation was visible everywhere. Yet the community had rallied, setting aside their worries to honor the sacrifices made by our country’s veterans. The main roads, with shattered buildings on both sides, were lined with hundreds of large American flags. At the base of each flag, a white cross listed the name of a deceased veteran from Catoosa County along with the conflict he or she had served in. It was tremendously moving to see so many flags waving proudly amid the destruction wrought by the tornado.

After visiting with my family in Pennsylvania, I took a different route home to Florida, again following secondary roads. The last leg of the trip took me through lovely small towns such as Madison, Georgia, an hour east of Atlanta.  The sight of handsome antebellum homes and blooming magnolias was a real treat. Farther south, near the tiny town of Lumpkin, a Watusi bull with the most enormous horns I’d ever seen stood in the shade of a roadside oak tree. These are the kinds of things you never see on a superhighway, where the only objects that vie for your attention (besides huge trucks) are the ghastly billboards--a blight on the American landscape.

So I really enjoyed my back road touring, and the Mark seemed to be sending a positive vibe, too. I know that a car is just an assembled collection of metal, plastic, glass, and other compounds, but on this fine spring day, I could feel a definite connection. Maybe it was because I had put a little money and attention into making the car look and run its best, and I was simply feeling rewarded.  But I think there was more. I think the car was telling me it was glad I had saved it from the junkyard. That made two of us.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Name Game

When I launched this blog two weeks ago, I decided to include a temporary teaser in the description. It promised to reveal what "a hymn, a B-29 bomber, a lightweight wheelchair, and a restored Mustang convertible all have in common."

The short answer: They share, either literally or metaphorically, the same name as the blog. All are Sweet Chariots. I think you’ll find the common thread interesting, if not amazing.

In my first post (Tuesday, May 3, 2011), I wrote of the independence that a wheelchair provides for people with paralysis. As a paraplegic, able-bodied above the waist, I enjoy almost complete independence with the aid of my custom-fitted wheelchair. To underscore its importance, I referred to it as the foremost of my Sweet Chariots. The very next day, I knew that I had named this blog appropriately. While visiting a local veterinarian’s office, I was stunned when one of the staff paid an unexpected compliment to my vintage Mustang parked outside, calling it “one sweet chariot.”

Coincidence? I think not.

As for the relevance of chariots, let’s just say it’s pretty significant. Chariots were the first cool rides for mankind. Before they existed, the only conveyances on wheels were cumbersome ox carts (which were even slower than walking). But around 2000 BC, someone invented the spoked wheel, which yielded a remarkable weigh reduction. Soon, the carts themselves were cut down to a simple floor with a wraparound shield in front, and pulled by a couple of speedy horses. Voila! Chariots were not only the earliest form of horse carriage, they were the fastest wheels on earth—the first hotrods.

I would hazard a guess that virtually everyone who has seen the epic movie Ben-Hur (MGM, 1959) was hugely impressed by the great chariot race, often hailed as one of the most spectacular action sequences ever filmed. The real stars were the beautifully matched four-horse teams pulling ornate chariots around the dirt oval of the Circus Maximus. Chariot races were a big deal in ancient times, and 2,000 years later we’re still doing it. The Indy 500 and the Daytona 500 are just two of the many racing events held on oval tracks. And get this: a war chariot was known as a car in ancient times. Another word for the chariot, though more obscure, was chair.

Are you starting to get the idea? Even my state-of-the-art wheelchair has spoked wheels. Sure, they feature the latest in lightweight design, with titanium rims and carbon-fiber spokes, but they share much in common with the ancient chariot.

Chariots figure prominently in the Bible, of course, such as the chariot of fire that takes the prophet Elijah to heaven. About 150 years ago, a former African-American slave was inspired by the imagery of that heavenly carriage to write a spiritual about embracing death and preparing for the afterlife. Wallis Willis is credited with writing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” sometime before 1862. Within little more than a decade, the spiritual was popular in the United States and Europe thanks to a traveling African-American chorus, the Jubilee Singers. Recorded for the first time in 1909, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” has remained popular for generations. Not only is it found in the hymnals of most church denominations, it has been rerecorded or performed by many contemporary entertainers including Eric Clapton, B.B. King, and Beyoncé.

“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was one of the all-time favorite hymns of my father, Hays Gamble. Raised as a Methodist, he was only fifteen when his father died of pneumonia during a business trip. The tragedy shaped my dad’s entire outlook on life, and I believe he found a great deal of comfort in the lyrics of the hymn. When he went off to war, flying a B-29 heavy bomber over Japan in 1945, he quite literally took that comfort with him. Like almost every combat plane in the US Army Air Force, his bomber was adorned with nose art; but unlike the great majority, which featured some iteration of a half-naked female, his was simply a cloud with the words “Sweet Chariot” in shaded vertical script.

My dad flew fifteen combat missions from the island of Guam in 1945 and never got so much as a scratch, though his plane was hit by a bullet or two. A generation later, Guam was my first duty station as a young navigator in a Navy electronic reconnaissance squadron. Again, borrowing from the title of my second posting here: was my assignment to the same tiny island a matter of coincidence, or providence?

You decide, but whichever way you lean, you can't ignore the remarkable thread of  the various Sweet Chariots that fill  my life. I am blessed.

Post Script: When my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1995, he had time to arrange portions of his funeral. "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" was one of the three hymns he requested.

Friday, May 6, 2011

We got Lucky. So did she.

Lucky was laid to rest yesterday beneath a pretty oak tree in our yard. We weren’t prepared for her to go so soon, but our prayers were answered as they were meant to be.

X-rays and blood tests on Wednesday afternoon revealed something amiss in her abdominal region, and she had an uncomfortable night. After some consulting and weighing of options we decided to go ahead with exploratory surgery on Thursday morning. Lucky was anemic and had been refusing food for a few days, so the surgery was a calculated risk—but it quickly proved to be the right choice. The doctor discovered almost immediately that Lucky had advanced cancer of the liver, with indications that it had already spread to other organs. There was no point in trying to save her. The vet sutured her abdomen and kept her under anesthesia while we called the family together. We were all with her and shed copious tears as she passed.

Lucky was much more than a special dog. She found us in the spring of 2003 as much as we found her. A stray, evidently abandoned, she was a homeless two-year-old living under a footbridge not far our home in Hendersonville, NC. My 8-year-old son had already been asking for a dog, specifically a Golden Retriever, and one day there she was. Dirty, malnourished, skittish. She'd obviously borne a litter recently but there were no pups to be found (their fate remains a mystery). And she had apparently experienced some bad storms, for she never got over her fear of thunder. Before deciding to take her in, we dropped her off with our vet, Dr. Don Zehr, for an examination. He called as soon as he was done. "She's a great dog,” he told me. “You got lucky." So naming her was a no-brainer. She quickly assimilated with our family and became one of us. We had a joyous eight years together.

 Lucky took her last ride with me in the convertible yesterday. This morning, I discovered some of her blonde hairs on the passenger seat. I put them in an envelope that will always remain in the car, so she will be part of my future journeys, wherever they may take me.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Coincidence or Synchronicity?

I have seen enough examples of providence in my lifetime to believe that certain events transcend mere coincidence.  Just today, less than a full day after launching “Sweet Chariot,” I had an experience that raised goose bumps.

Our beloved family dog, a Golden Retriever named Lucky, is suffering from a yet-undetermined ailment, so I made an appointment with our veterinarian to have her examined. As a “wheeler,” I’m not usually the one to take our pets to the vet, but on this occasion everyone else in the household was either at work or in school.

 On the spur of the moment, I decided to drive Lucky in my classic Mustang (which I haven’t even introduced to readers yet) for the simple reason that the dog weighs 70 pounds and has claws that could easily mar the leather seats of my other car, a pristine Lincoln coupe. The vintage Mustang, modernized for long trips, has been retrofitted with reclining bucket seats upholstered in heavy black tweed—impervious to dog damage.

Lucky was cooperative and climbed into the passenger seat, then waited patiently while I dismantled my wheelchair and stowed it in the backseat. Arriving at North Bay Animal Hospital in Lynn Haven, I reversed the procedure and transferred into my chair, then grabbed Lucky’s leash and led her into the waiting room. Soon it was our turn to be ushered to an exam room, whereupon Lucky was escorted away for some x-rays.

I had been waiting for just a few minutes when technician Kaylen Biggins popped into the doorway and asked, “Is that your Mustang in the parking lot?” When I answered in the affirmative, she heaped on the praise: “What a beautiful car!”

It turns out that Kaylen is very fond of Golden Retrievers as well as vintage cars. Her “other half” (as she called him) still drives the AMC Gremlin that he owned in high school, though it’s now upgraded with a V-8 and is totally restored. So she was understandably enthusiastic about my Candyapple Red 1967 convertible, which really does look sweet, if I say so myself. While we were chatting, Lucky was brought back from her x-rays and sat at my side. So here’s where we get to the good part.

Kaylen, being a dog person and especially a Golden Retriever person, talked to Lucky like she’s just another human in the room. Her face beaming, Kaylen gave the dog her full attention and said, “Boy, Lucky, that’s some ride you got out there. That’s one sweet chariot!”

You could have knocked me over with a feather. Who says “sweet chariot” in casual conversation? It’s an unusual expression, to say the least. Unable to help myself I asked, “Did you just say ‘sweet chariot’? She laughed and said yes, at which point I blurted out, “Just yesterday, I started a new blog by that name! This is unbelievable!”

Next the vet came in. I first met Dr. Bo Bergloff at a charity banquet a couple of years ago, and we've seen each other once or twice at a Lynn Haven church. He hasn’t even told me about Lucky yet, but he’s heard the staff talking about the Mustang and has taken a peek outside for himself. We shake hands, and he pulls out a photo album with—get this—pictures of a 1969 Mach 1 he has owned for twenty years (and is still in the process of restoring). So the vet’s not only a car guy, he’s a classic Mustang guy, too.

Just  coincidence, or is there something more like guidance at work here?

Either way, I made some new friends today. And I know that Lucky will be in good hands. I can’t finish this post without mentioning that she is about ten years old, quite long in the tooth for a Golden Retriever, and we still don’t know yet what’s wrong with her. Your thoughts and prayers for a beloved pet will be greatly appreciated.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Getting Out There: The Difference between Dependence and Independence

Greetings! If you’re a first-time visitor, you might be wondering what this blog is all about.  I promise to clue you in, but it will take some time. You see, we’re going on a journey together—one that could span weeks, months, or maybe years. It’s my sincere hope that you’ll learn something useful along the way. A little about the important things in life; about the call of the open road and the things we can discover in this beautiful country of ours. And I especially hope you’ll discover something about independence, about accepting what we’re given in life and making the most of it.

I’m an eternal optimist. Life is pretty good, even though I haven’t walked in more than twenty-two years. Not one step. Yep, I’m a paraplegic—and I’m lucky.

On the 27th of December, 1988, I spent 14 hours on an operating table in Bethesda Naval Hospital while a team of neurosurgeons tried to eradicate a malignant tumor that had been growing for months inside my spinal cord. They did a wonderful job, but there was no possibility of removing such an insidious growth without harming the ultra-delicate nerves inside that narrow space. Between the surgery and follow-up radiation treatments, many root nerves were irreparably damaged, leaving me permanently paralyzed below the T-10 level. To those well-versed in the language of spinal cord injuries, I’m a “para.” Many people in the general population think of me as confined to a wheelchair, and I’ve even been described that way by the press.  It’s a blunt and outdated expression, but it’s also partially true. I sleep in a bed just like most folks, and I can get in or out of my wheelchair whenever I want, but I must perpetually accept an important fact: without the assisted mobility of a wheelchair or some other conveyance, I am going nowhere. Strictly on my own, I could crawl or drag myself for a matter of yards, at most.

I would guess that a great majority of you reading this blog have rarely, if ever, given a second thought to your ability to walk. Let’s say you are sitting in your favorite recliner and you want something in another room—a snack from the kitchen, perhaps. You just get up and fetch it. Ba-da-bing, ba-da-boom, you’re back in your easy chair. But for people who have lost the ability to walk due to paralysis, such a simple activity is either a major challenge or downright impossible. In my case, I would first transfer from said recliner into my wheelchair, then maneuver the wheelchair into the kitchen and fix a snack while sitting down. To carry my treat back into the living room, I’d have to put it on a tray and balance it on my lap while wheeling to the recliner. After setting down the tray, I’d transfer back into the recliner and enjoy the fruits of my effort.  Such effort, especially the transfers, requires considerable upper body strength. Jake Sully, the paraplegic Marine in the movie Avatar (played by Sam Worthington), made transferring look easy—but for many people with paralysis, it’s not. 

Which brings me to the reason why I’m fortunate to be a paraplegic. During the months I spent in a VA hospital while undergoing rehabilitation, I was on a spinal cord injury ward with numerous quadriplegics, or “quads.” Their paralysis began at the cervical level, and although some with low-level quadriplegia had limited mobility in their shoulders and arms, they were still dependent on some form of human assistance to conduct the majority of their daily activities. Those with high cervical injuries—think Christopher Reeve—could only move their head.  It’s all relative. Without the use of your legs, you can still be independent—a factor that allows one to enjoy a most rewarding quality of life. Lose the use of your arms as well, and you are at least partially dependent on other people for virtually all of your daily needs and activities.

Now you can understand why I feel lucky: in a very selfish way, I’m grateful that I’m not a quad.

And so, good readers, perhaps you can appreciate the importance of my lightweight, specially-fitted wheelchair. It’s much more than a tool. It enables me to enjoy an essential element of life that many of us take for granted: independence.  I don’t think of it as a thing of confinement, like a punishment or a prison cell. To the contrary, it represents my freedom to come and go as I please.  It’s the foremost of my Sweet Chariots.

Coming soon: The Essence of Independence—Rubber on the Road