His Father's Oldsmobile

The enduring testimony of a working class man of God and the void his absence creates is the grist behind His Father’s Oldsmobile. Although it runs against the grain of modern feminist revisionism, we can never underestimate the importance of a father in the spiritual formation of children. The legend of St. Christopher, once a centerpiece of Catholic piety (and now nearly forgotten) is recounted in this tale.

        When the paint-spackled tarp was removed in a cloud of musty dust, the look on Jody’s face was not unlike that of his young daughter on Christmas morning. 
        “Been sittin’ here collecting dust nigh on 25 years.  My woman says it’s time to start cleanin’ up the barn and getting rid of my ‘buried treasures’”, chuckled Melvin.  “It hasn’t been cranked in fifteen years, but she was sound as a dollar the day we put her in storage.”  The farmer hitched up his overalls, assessing the relative value of the old car from Jody’s appraising eyes.
“You didn’t say it was ’55 Olds 88 2 Door Hardtop.”  The nondescript ad, which had piqued Jody’s professional curiosity, simply read

‘55 Olds for sale.  Good condition. Stored/covered 25 yrs.  B/O.

 “My Dad had one just like this”, offered Jody, as he began his survey of the vehicle. 
The tires were flat and dry-rotted, but there was no serious body damage.  His practiced eye noticed some rust-through on the driver’s side rocker panel.  The windshield had a crack that had snaked from one corner to another and the side view mirror was hanging by one loose bolt. The remaining glass appeared to be intact and undamaged.  Jody caressed the rear deck lid and felt the gritty results caused by years of neglect.  All the plastic signal lenses were good, he observed as his fingers reverently traced the contour of the distinctive bullet tail light.  To his surprise, when he turned the key in the trunk it opened with only a slight creak and four hubcaps neatly surrounded the original spare tire.  The doors opened nicely, with no sagging and Jody chuckled that the previous owner had placed the familiar magnetic medallion of St. Christopher on the sculpted metal dash.  Carpet, upholstery, and rubber seals would all need replacing, but with some sweat and TLC, this classic Detroit relic could be made to roar again!
        “I’ll give you fifteen hundred cash,” announced Jody.
        That was five-hundred more than Melvin had decided was his bottom line. 
“Well, I don’t know.  Old car like this is hard to find.  I just don’t know.”  The farmer scratched his stubbled chin thoughtfully, telegraphing reluctance.
        “Sixteen hundred, take it or leave it.”  Jody started to walk away.  He knew the car was worth at least twice that amount.  It would take him three months and eight grand to do a full off-the-frame restoration but he had a collector who would pay thirty thousand dollars for the finished product.   
        The farmer panicked at the abruptness of the brash city-slicker.  “Whoa, hold on a second there!  My woman really wants this thing outta here…sixteen-fifty and we have a deal!” 
        Melvin did not see Jody’s beaming, victorious smile.  When Jody turned to face him, he was instead treated to a mischievous half-grin.  “Melvin, you drive a hard bargain.  I came too far to quibble over fifty dollars!”
The transaction was closed with a handshake and an exchange of large bills.
        “I’ll have a trailer here tomorrow to pick it up.”

        On the long drive back to the city Jody contemplated his new purchase, sifting unfamiliar emotions.  He had restored dozens of classic cars – that was his livelihood.  And while every new project was ripe with challenge and pleasant anticipation, this was going to be different. 
His mind played back dreamy scenes from long lost days of innocence and wonder.  In his mind he watched himself watching his father washing the Olds Rocket 88 in the idyllic warmth of a summer afternoon.
        “She’s a beauty, son.  Look at those lines…bold, clean but not too flashy.  Detroit designers went a little crazy after this.  Too much chrome…and fins that would embarrass a Mako Shark!  Nope, for my money, ’55 is the epitome.  Nothing overstated here.”
The full grill flashed its confident, robotic grin as Jody delighted in the tenderness with which his father polished the chrome hood ornament made to resemble a rocket in flight.  Because of an innate sense of artistic balance, he shared his father’s disdain for the excesses of the ’59 models current at that time.  It was true, the Olds 88 was beautiful to behold.
        After the two-tone finish was dry and gleaming, they would roll down all the windows and drive to the Dairy Queen.  Before they started the engine, Dad would gaze appreciatively at the open side vista afforded by the pillarless expanse of the hard top design. 
        “Jody, a 2 door hardtop is the poor man’s convertible.”  Dad would always touch his hand to his lips and transfer a kiss to the round medallion of St. Christopher. The throaty V-8 would then roar to life and they exchanged smiles as the wind blew through their hair when they hit the open highway.
        Jody was only five years old the day his father excused him from his kindergarten class so that he could accompany Mom and Dad to the plant in Flint, Michigan where the car was to be assembled. 
In those days you could custom order a car from the local dealership and arrange to visit the assembly plant to witness its construction.  Wide-eyed, Jody marveled at the choreography of workers and machines as the moving frame took shape and, in the course of a few hours, became their car.  That was the beginning of his love affair with the automobile, and until he witnessed the birth of his first child, that day at the assembly line was his most profound impression of the beauty of creation.
        For five long years, under the meticulous maintenance of his father, the Olds faithfully served the growing family.  When a fifth child was born, Mom convinced Dad that they needed something more practical, perhaps a station wagon.   Ever the automotive connoisseur, Dad could not bear the bland mediocrity of a station wagon.  He reluctantly traded in the Olds for the innovative and stylish Corvair Greenbriar, America’s first true ‘mini-van’.  The rear-engine oddity was spacious (with windows everywhere), economical and attention-getting. It proved to be both practical and exciting. 
But unlike the crash-worthy tank that was the Olds 88, there was no buffer of engine and steel to protect a driver in a front-end collision.  It was on a routine trip from the hardware store that a dozing driver of a large Ford pickup swerved head on into the van.  The driver survived without a scratch.  Jody’s father was killed instantly.
In their attempts to offer condolence many folks pointed out how ‘fortunate’ it was that no other passengers were in the vehicle at the time.  Jody was not so sure.  Even after thirty years, he still missed his father, missed the things he so wanted to learn from that larger-than-life presence who was able to find joy in everything and everybody around him.  Jody realized that he was now as old as was his father on that fateful day. 
The next morning Jody stood in the driveway with his wife and daughter as the tractor trailer unloaded the Olds.  With one arm around his wife’s shoulders, the other draped across Melissa’s forehead, he took on that faraway look that signaled the beginning of another restoration adventure.
“So this is your new mistress for the next few months”, quipped his wife Katy.  “Quite a looker…do you think I can compete?”
“Baby, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!  This one is special.  I think you’ll fall in love with her too.” Jody gave her a peck on the cheek and tousled his daughter’s hair.
“Jody, I know it’s faded, but I really like that color.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen it on a car before.  Can you match it?” Katy asked.
“It’s called Mint Green.  I can have it custom blended from original paint charts.  The first new car I can remember looked just like this.  Same model, same color.  It was Dad’s pride and joy.  Go ahead, check it out.” 
Katy loved to explore the nooks and crannies of Jody’s new acquisitions.  She would often find old coins or unusual time-dated mementos in glove boxes, under floor mats, in ashtrays, or in the recesses of seat upholstery.  Jody always enjoyed this ritual, awaiting her squeal of delight as she discovered some long forgotten treasure.
Katy was rummaging through the glove box.  A comb missing a few teeth, a soiled and creased Texaco map, a half-empty Kleenex ‘Travel Pack’, and a funky pair of sunglasses were carefully placed on the driver’s seat.  She reached to the very back and produced the owner’s manual. Jody raised his eyebrows appreciatively.  An original owner’s manual was always a real plus for the prospective collector.
Katy flipped through the yellowed manual, looking for curious notes, maybe even an old love-letter or greeting card.  She suddenly stopped and studied the handwritten notes in the maintenance section.  With a grim expression, she then returned to the face page of the manual, where owner registration information was recorded.  Her eyes dilated in surprise and she covered her mouth to suppress a moan.
“Oh my God!  Jody, look at this!” She handed him the manual.
With tentative caution, he examined the handwritten entries.  His face paled and he collapsed on his haunches.  A mixture of joy and shock colored his countenance.  “Katy!....This IS my father’s Oldsmobile!”  Jody’s long fingers lightly traced the neat block letters of his father’s writing.
“Hon, are you gonna be alright?” Katy asked.  Jody did not talk about his father much and his wife intuitively surmised that there was pain in those memories.  This might open unchartered waters for her and she wanted to be prepared.
He looked back at her with the winsome boyish grin that had so captivated her years ago.  “It’s gonna be alright, Babe…this job will just be different…special.  I can handle it.”
The professional in Jody went into automatic pilot as he once again tackled the awesome job of restoring a classic car to pristine condition.  A typical compliment on a completed restoration was “…looks like it just came out of the showroom!”  But any restorer worth his salt knew that nothing could be further from the truth.  A true restoration involved the complete deconstruction and re-assembly, bolt by bolt, of every component of the project. 
Each and every one of the thousands of parts and sub-assemblies that comprise an automobile were cleaned, inspected, tested, rebuilt and/or replaced.  Photos were taken at every stage of the process, not only to chronicle the progress, but to aid in re-assembly.  Detailed shop manuals were pored over and myriads of catalogs and local professionals consulted to perform essential services or provide those missing or worn out parts.  The completed project was a carefully hand-built machine that would be the envy of the most experienced Rolls-Royce craftsman.
By the end of the first week, the engine, transmission, interior upholstery, and suspension systems had been removed and sent to the shops where other specialists would renovate these items to like-new condition.  A careful inventory was made of any missing or damaged handles, light bulbs, visors, and door locks that would need to be special ordered as would custom made tires that bore the ‘look’ of the original stock.  He would also have to locate a replacement windshield.  
Jody would now remove all of the body parts from the chassis and frame and begin ‘sanitizing’ the metals.  A process of sandblasting and refinishing that would not only add unwarranted detail never afforded the original, but would also enhance the ‘curb appeal’ of the restored vehicle.  True car buffs were not opposed to lying on the ground to examine the under chassis detail.
Unexpected memories resolved in and out of his consciousness as Jody moved through processes that had always been nothing but routine.  When he removed the carpeting he revisited that stubborn, irremovable stain on the rear transmission hump that chronicled his sister’s violent carsickness during a trip to Pennsylvania.  He rediscovered the hieroglyphic scratches on the chrome ashtray lid that betrayed the creative boredom of a young boy with a paper clip on a similarly long journey. 
During the mundane tasks of disassembly Jody re-engaged the mental debate over the great Cosmic ‘Ifs’ that had plagued his adolescence and young adulthood.  IF Dad had only held out a little longer on trading in the Olds.  IF Dad had purchased the full-size station wagon instead of the crumple-prone Greenbriar. IF, IF, IF… the scenarios and side-scenarios were endless.  
The Olds would have become a sacrificial heap of metal on that fateful day, relegated to endless cycles of reincarnation as lawn mowers, tin cans, or other automobiles.  But it most likely would have saved his father’s life.  Instead it had become a grim time-capsule from which Jody was consigned to exorcise demons that haunted realities that could have been.
And so Jody bore into his task, spending 12 to 18 hours a day consumed in this labor of love.  Katy would bring coffee and sandwiches; they would talk of Melissa and domestic happenings in the world outside the garage. Afterwards she would sit and wonder at what conflicts were brewing beneath the surface of the man she loved…and prayed she could provide some balm of healing if long-buried scars were reopened.
The day of completion finally came, as it always did.  Katy believed she understood the relief a spouse experiences when a husband returns from war or prison. For a while, her husband would return to the world of the living and for several weeks or months life would be full of joy as Jody made up for the obsessive demands of his trade.  He would take on small jobs - minor damage repair to existing restorations, the occasional consultation or purchase inspection for a collector client.  But for the most part, he would enjoy the blessings of domestic tranquility until the next siren call from an irresistibly challenging project confronted him.
Jody looked upon the newly restored vehicle with pride and appreciation.  Such automobiles were conceived in the artistic genius of an automotive designer and birthed by the efforts of gifted engineers.  Although a master at his game, Jody knew he was more akin to the artist who, though he could never rival the masterpieces of DaVinci or Michelangelo, could resurrect the beauty that time and the elements had eroded.  He knew his place, and was comfortable in it. 
The Olds was again as original as modern technology and part availability would allow.  But this was not just any Olds 88; this was his Dad’s Olds 88 and the son could sense that his father’s spirit somehow inhabited the soul of the car. 
Jody went to his workbench and examined the tarnished medallion of St. Christopher that had faithfully waded through years of service on the vehicle’s dashboard.  Jody wasn’t sure if such medallions were even available any more.  Although he had not attended church in decades, he had heard rumors that St. Christopher was out of fashion - probably was more legend than reality - and that a more enlightened Catholic Church had relegated  him to the ranks of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.
Jody had nursed that self-justified anger towards the Deity so common in young persons who are unfairly deprived of a beloved parent through untimely death or divorce.  As the anger mellowed into ambivalence and then later to apathy, Jody could no longer be angry at a God whom did not exist, at least for himself. 
His father, on the other hand, was always deeply religious.  Unembarrassed by outward signs of piety, as were many in his generation, Jody’s father wore his faith openly.  He would say grace in public places before the most modest of meals.  (Even the bounty of a Big Mac and Fries did not escape his gratitude).  He would unconsciously make the sign of the cross whenever passing a church or cemetery. 
The opening miles of every major trip were hallowed by the recitation of the rosary.  Whenever an ambulance siren sounded, his reflexive response was to openly pray for the victims.  The name of Jesus, whether uttered in reverence or blasphemy, evoked a bowed head from his father.  As he gazed at the medallion, he reflected on these things and felt a sudden blush of shame.  He could not imagine his father condoning his anger, bitterness, or even apathy toward God.  Defrocked or not, he vowed, St. Christopher would ride again in untarnished glory, and so his final effort was to restore the medallion to its brassy brilliance so it could resume its rightful place in the center of the dashboard.
Katy giggled like a schoolgirl as she bounced into the passenger seat for the maiden voyage of the newly restored Olds.  Her hair was done up in a 50’s style pony tail, the refurbished sunglasses retrieved from the glove box rode above her brushed-back forehead. 
Jody had on his ‘Body by Fisher’ T-Shirt and whimsically sported a pack of gum in a turned up sleeve.  He toyed with the radio until he found an appropriate oldies station playing Rick Nelson’s ‘Hello Mary Sue’.
“If only Dad could see me now”, he exclaimed.  “His little boy, finally behind the wheel of the Big Car!”
“Don’t be so sure he can’t see you, big boy.  He’s probably up there on some cloud…more delighted than you are.”
Jody shook his head with a smile.  His hand steadied to turn the ignition key, and then, in an awkward movement, he touched his fingers to his lips and then tenderly patted the medallion of St. Christopher.  He repeated the motion, only this time planting the finger kiss on Katy’s forehead.  As he gazed into her eyes, she returned a look he had seen before, but never from her.  It was the look his mother often cast toward his father. 
“Katy, the 2 door hardtop is the poor man’s convertible”, he announced.  “Prepare to taste wind!”
The Olds purred and growled at all the right moments.  Jody and Katy reveled at the head-turning caused by the gleaming classic as it showered memories on the drivers they passed.  It was a picture perfect day, and for a dreamy moment Jody became, in his mind, his father.  In the distance ahead Jody could make out an expensive sports car sitting on the shoulder of the freeway, its hood raised in distress.  A well dressed gentleman stood beside it mopping his brow in the afternoon heat.
“Gotta stop, Babe.  Dad would never pass a stranded motorist.”  Jody slowly decelerated as the car and driver came into focus. 
Jody appraised the situation and whistled, “Whew!  A Porsche 911.  There’s a year’s salary for some of us!  Nice to see they break down, too!”
Katy gave him a playful slap.  “Now be polite…everybody can’t drive a genuine 1955 Olds Rocket!”
Jody eased up alongside the Porsche and noticed the look of relief on the man’s face.  “Having some trouble?  Anything we can do to help?” he asked, leaning across Katy.
“I can’t believe I ran out of gas,” apologized the man. “I must have been too distracted to notice the low fuel warning.”
“Not a problem,” commiserated Jody.  “I have an empty gas can in the trunk and there’s a filling station about a mile up the road.  Hop in. We’ll have you on your way in no time.”
Katy jumped out, insisting that the man take her front seat.  “My legs are a lot shorter, Sir.  You’ll be more comfortable in the front.  Also, there’s no air conditioning and I think you will cool off a lot sooner in the front.”
“What a beautiful car!” exclaimed the passenger.  “A 55 Olds, right?  Looks like it just came off the showroom floor!”
Jody could feel a gentle kick from the back seat.  “Thank you.  This is her maiden voyage after years of a debilitating coma in an old barn.”
The passenger gently touched the medallion of St. Christopher.  “I sure haven’t seen one of these in a long time,” he remarked.
“Back in the day,” Jody explained “I think it was a law or something that Catholics were required to have one of these in every vehicle.  I think they got a break on insurance or something.”
The stranger took the joke graciously.  “You know, this is going to  sound strange, but the last time I ran out of gas – must have been thirty years ago – I was rescued by someone driving a car JUST like this.  He must have carried that Catholic insurance too.  I remember staring at a St. Christopher medal just like this one.”
“Really!” Jody exclaimed. “A car just like this?  You must have been a kid thirty years ago.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment, thank you.”  The passenger suddenly became very serious.  “I probably owe that gentleman more than just a tank of gas, though.  Matter of fact, probably not a day goes by that I don’t think on that day and the things he said to me.” 
Because of the rushing wind streaming through the windows the passenger was forced to talk in a subdued shout.  It was difficult to continue the conversation so Jody was glad they were approaching the gas station.  He eased up to the nearest pump setting off the familiar CLANK-CLANK as his tires crossed the weight sensors.
Jody shut off the engine and turned to his passenger, extending a hand.  “By the way, I’m Jody and this is my wife Katy.  If you wouldn’t mind, I would love to hear the rest of your story.”
“Jeremy Waddell, glad to make your acquaintance Jody…Katy.”  He nodded to Katy, who looked up with wide eyes, full of anticipation.  “Please, Jeremy”, she pleaded, “I would also love to hear your story.”
Waddell blushed slightly, but appeared appreciative to have such a rapt audience.  “Are you sure you want to endure the ‘rags-to-riches’ confession of a reformed ‘juvenile delinquent’?”  Both Jody and Katy nodded in assent.
Waddell took a deep breath, dragged his palms down his cheeks and composed himself.  “Today I ran out of gas driving to the shareholder’s meeting of a multimillion dollar company of which I am the CEO.  Then….I ran out of gas driving a stolen car to the river….where I was going to plunge it into the current to end my life.”  He shook his head slightly in fond remembrance.  “What a loser…couldn’t even pull off a decent suicide.  Anyway, there I was, out of gas on the side of the road when this gorgeous Olds pulls up alongside me to offer assistance.  What was I to say…’Please let me lay down in front of your car while you run over me’….or ‘You wouldn’t happen to have a loaded gun in your glove box I could borrow for a few minutes, would you?’.  No, I simply said, ‘I’m out of gas.’  And, like you, this gentleman just happened to have an empty gas can in his trunk and told me to hop in.”
As he spoke, Waddell traced his fingers on the raised image of St. Christopher.  “This fellow, I believe, sensed I was out of more than just gas.  As he noticed me staring at the medal, he asked me if I knew anything about St. Christopher.  I didn’t.”  He laughed gently, “But I do now!  Have you ever heard of the legend of St. Christopher?” inquired Waddell.
Jody nodded.  “It’s been awhile, but yeah, I think I know the gist of the story.  But go on, I could use a refresher.”
Waddell launched into his hagiography with well-rehearsed aplomb. “The man we know as Christopher was a fearsome Canaanite, a giant in stature.  Because of his might he decided only the greatest of kings was worthy of his fealty, and so he served the king of Canaan, who was reputed to be the greatest king alive. But then, one day he observed the king crossing himself at the mention of the Devil.  Well, on learning that the king feared the Devil, he departed to find and serve this more powerful master.  He came across a band of thieves, the chief of which claimed to be the Devil incarnate, and so our giant served him.  That is, until one day, he saw his new master go out of his way to avoid a roadside cross.  Upon questioning this behavior, he discovered that the Devil feared Christ, so he left him and began searching for Him”.
Looking at each of his hearers, Waddell drank in their anticipation and so continued.
“He eventually came across a hermit who instructed him in the Christian faith.  When Christopher asked how he could serve Christ, the hermit suggested that because of his size and strength, he could serve Christ by assisting people across a dangerous river, where many perished in the attempt to cross.  The hermit convinced him that such service would be pleasing to Christ.
      And so, for some time Christopher performed this service.  Then, one day, a small child asked to be taken across the river.  During the crossing, the river became swollen and the child seemed as heavy as lead, so much so that Christopher could scarcely carry him and found himself in great difficulty. When he finally reached the other side, he said to the child: ‘You have put me in the greatest danger. I do not think the whole world could have been as heavy on my shoulders as you were.’ The child replied: ‘You had on your shoulders not only the whole world but Him who made it. I am Christ your king, whom you are serving by this work.’ The child then vanished!”
Misty-eyed, Waddell paused, staring at the medallion on the dash. 
“That was the story the man told me.  He treated me to lunch and we had a very long talk about life…and death…and hope.  My father walked out on us when I was a child, but I think during the hour and a half that this man spent with me in that restaurant, I received a lifetime of ‘sonship’.  Over the years his words were like echoes in my head, and I can’t tell you how many times his wisdom guided decisions, inspired right choices, literally saved my life.”
     Jeremy Waddell at last looked up, and faced Jody again.  “Of course, I had to confess my intentions.  He pressed two twenties in my hand and told me he would take care of the stolen car.  He then drove me home and wished me well.  Ironic, isn’t it?  Instead of plunging into the river, he carried me to the other side.”  The narrator laughed. “I’m not sure if he was St. Christopher OR the Christ Child.” 
     The car was very quiet now.  Waddell stared calmly through the windshield, and again placed his fingers on the image of the Saint.
        Katy was trying to conceal uncontrollable sniffling in the backseat.  Jody reached for the medallion, placed his fingers next to the passenger’s, and when they met, Waddell again looked him in the eye.
        “I never saw him again.  I was so dumbfounded; I just stood there as he drove away.  I never even had the chance to thank him.”       
       “Jeremy, it’s OK…I think you just did!”