(Above: My 1969 Chevrolet Impala, nicknamed “The Chariot of Death.”)
April 4, 1985 was a Thursday. The end of my junior year of high school was in sight. While many of my classmates were making plans for the junior prom, I had no such prospects. Instead, I made a rather questionable investment of about $700 and bought my first car.
To say that the car was rough doesn’t tell the whole story. It was a 1969 Chevrolet Impala sedan that read about 65,000 miles on the clock. In reality, it was probably 165K, but the V-8 327 in it was said to be a solid engine, so there was no worry about it running longer. My friend Bill and I rode over to the Brementowne area of Tinley Park together to get a look at it, and I decided that I had to have it, despite the body work that it needed. One of the fenders was shot, so we decided to remove it. Our spring break was spent in junkyards on the south side of Chicago trying to locate another fender. We finally found one – a light blue one – to match the lime green, gray primer, and Bondo that made up the car’s exterior.
Having access to a car was access to freedom – at least when I could finally drive it. I didn’t get my driver’s license until the first week of July, so the car sat in the garage for three months getting a little work here and there until I could start legally driving it to my first job at Brian’s Mobil at 159th and Harlem. (Yes, the first station I worked for sold gas.) I’d close the station three times a week, carefully counting up the unused four-cent-a-gallon cash discounts not claimed by people who threw a $5 or a $10 on the counter for their fuel and ran out. Most nights it would add up to about three dollars, which got me more than two gallons of gas. At ten miles per gallon, every little bit helped.
The summer of 1985 was probably the last carefree summer of my life, and I spent it driving around in this car. I say it was the last one because after that it was all about preparing for college and/or chasing jobs. I simply had my gas station gig some days and time with my friends the others. The thing is, after 30+ years I can’t remember most of what we did, with a few exceptions:
–Throwing donuts. We did that a lot. Some people get in cars and do donuts; instead we threw them. My friend Dave worked for Dunkin’ Donuts, and was allowed to take home the day old donuts deemed unfit for sale. We ate what we could, and then drove around throwing the rest of them, since they were free. Sometimes classmates were the target, but most often the recipient of the strafing was this guy in the Catalina neighborhood of Orland Park who owned a giant motor home. In the summer heat the glaze from a donut becomes adhesive and sticks neatly to a camper. (The more you know!)
–Heading to see Bruce Springsteen. Six of us piled in this car to head to the Soldier Field show in August. After the show I set my personal best commute record: from downtown Chicago to the White Castle at 159th and Harlem in 22 minutes. I don’t think that’s even possible anymore.
–Flying the car. Yes, this was the vehicle in which I made my first solo flight. The week I got my license I picked up Bill, Dave, and some donuts and went for a drive. We were on a gravel road behind the high school and I decided to open ‘er up a bit. What I didn’t see were the huge holes in the road. We hit one, went down into it, popped up, and became airborne, landing in a field of soybeans. Dave ended up flipping over into the front seat from the rear, and donuts went everywhere. We pushed the car to the road and got the hell out of there, hoping that the farmer who owned the field saw nothing.
On the way out something was wrong. The car wouldn’t accelerate. We made our way to the high school to see if we could troubleshoot the problem. Dave and Bill opened the hood and started removing the soybeans. For some reason we all lit up Swisher Sweets cigars while doing this. I started to clean up the inside of the car and solved the problem. In all the excitement a chocolate long john got under the gas pedal, effectively raising the height of the floor by one donut and limiting top speed to about 30. I scraped out the donut and had a good laugh. About that time Mr. Johnson, our history teacher, came walking out of the school, saw us with our cigars, donuts, and soybeans, and shook his head, not unlike Mr. Hand in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Those are the things I remember most about high school. Silly memories of a time and place, and they all came as the result of spending the prom money on a crappy Chevy. (I never did make the money back: when the car died the following spring, I got $55 for it. $35 came from the guys at Victory Auto Wreckers, and the other $20 was won from my mother, who bet me that I couldn’t sell the car.)
So how does the song fit into all of this? One night, on the way home from work, the radio in the car died. It was the original stock AM radio, which limited me to WLS for music. Right in the middle of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” the sound faded out to silence, and nothing else came out of the box. I took the radio out of the dash to see if I could fix it. Not only could I not fix it, I couldn’t get the radio back in the dash again. Fortunately, the opening for the dial was the exact same size as a White Castle box, so that went in the slot instead. Like so much about the innocence of youth, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Pretend it’s the Summer of 1985, on a warm August night, and you’re driving around Tinley Park with a bag of sliders listening to WLS. Click here.