For quite a few years, there was no steady money coming into our house. When it finally arrived, we went for car rides and ate McDonald’s and Hardees for days on end. Mama didn’t like to cook and didn’t really know how. Plus, she didn’t have a thrifty bone in her body. She had no idea what to do with our occasional bursts of money; certainly, it never occurred to her to stock up on groceries or to prepay bills. But she liked to drive, and we all liked to ride. And it goes without saying that none of the four of us kids had a problem with the fast food diet.
At the times when we were a two-car family, Mama always named the car that was ours. Dad’s car didn’t get a name because we weren’t usually allowed to ride in it. On the rare occasions when we did, it wasn’t fun for any of us, so no one felt compelled to give the vehicle an affectionate nickname. Over the years we had a couple of Monte Carlos, a Pinto, a 9-seater station wagon (aptly named “the goat wagon”) that was a piece of crap before we ever got it, and an extremely ugly and extraordinarily loud green utility truck.
We were a musical family, and I don’t say that lightly. Every single day for all five of us, there was music. Mama played the guitar. We sang in the kitchen while we did dishes. We sang in church on Sundays. We sang on the front porch and didn’t care if the whole neighborhood looked on. We sang as we drove down the road on all of our many weekend drives out into the unexplored middle of nowhere in a fifty-mile radius around our small town. By the time I entered the fifth grade, I sang harmony better than any adult I knew, and my brothers (who at the time ranged in age from four to eight) had no problem picking a part — whether it was Mom’s or mine — and sticking to it. Music was our escape. No matter what bad luck or circumstance threw our way, no matter if we didn’t have heat or electricity or hot water or a decent dad, we always had each other and we always had music.
It was about this time — during the height of our music-filled days — that our old Monte Carlo drew its last breath and Mom (in a single afternoon of used car shopping) stumbled upon the vehicle that stayed in our family until I entered high school. I don’t know where she got it or what she paid for it, but my inclination is to say that it must have come from one of the union guys my dad knew. I can’t imagine anyone else in our little town driving around in a rusty old utility vehicle.
I was horrified when I first saw it; I had to ride to school in that thing. My brothers, on the other hand, all thought it was wonderful beyond imagination. The truck was GI Joe green! It had doors and hatches everywhere, was perfect for climbing, and all four of us could ride cross-legged on top of the roll-out bed cover holding on to the rusty iron bar that rose just above and behind the cab. We were all very careful not to get stuck by any rough metal edges on the sides and bed, and I’m sure Mom was vigilant in her warnings of what would happen if we did get cut by something. Nobody wanted a doctor’s visit and/or a tetanus shot, and yet, over and over, the four of us climbed up from the ground, grabbing each other’s hands and pulling one another into position, little ones in the middle.
Mostly, we rode at night. The heat inside the house always seemed worse as evening wore closer to bedtime, and our nighttime rides were the best kind of reprieve — one last cool off lark before the lights went out.
We cruised the neighborhood at a top speed of ten or twelve miles an hour, but mostly Mom kept it around five or six. Almost unfailingly, a kid from the block ran out to the curb to ask if he could ride, too. Mom wouldn’t let them — not unless they rode in the cab with her. She didn’t want anybody getting knocked down from up there, she said, and it was too crowded on top already. We never asked to let anybody else ride. While we rode, we sang after-dark, less raucous versions of our favorite car songs. But a lot of the time, we were just quiet, listening to the night sounds of the world that was sometimes much too hard in the daylight. We all calmed down on those rides, and maybe none of us had even realized we were wound up until we felt ourselves gradually winding down. For as young as we were, we had a lot to deal with in our lives. We just didn’t really know it because we were singing the whole time.
There was happiness on the roof of that old rusty truck in the summertime, but we were just as happy come that first winter when we realized that with the windows up, Old Green (as we lovingly called the truck) was like singing in a concert hall, despite the fact that the five of us were wedged in pretty tight. No one’s voice got lost and every part could be heard. The acoustics were perfect. We sang all the old standards, awed by the full-bodied noise that almost seemed to rattle our eardrums with its intensity. We sang Christmas carols and the typical kid songs that we had learned at school; we sang Peter, Paul, and Mary and Simon and Garfunkel and The Judds until our voices were gone and the windows were too foggy to see through. Then we all sat forward in the seat and wiped our mitten hands in messy, uneven streaks across the windshield until it was clear enough for Mom to slowly steer the way back home.
Although I wouldn’t have had the words (or the depth of understanding) to have voiced such an opinion back then, in more recent years, I’ve come to understand that Old Green was not just a rusty old truck any more than my mother was just different without reason. Her difference — and the difference of that old truck — became the great stories of our collective childhood, not to mention the moments that we clung to when (as my colorful mother would say) “the shit came down.” I feel pretty certain that the four of us owe our survival to both of them.
Years later, when we went to sell Old Green, my mother lifted her GI Joe green and rust hood, pulled a six foot tulip poplar through the smoke-blackened machinery from the ground below, walked around to the driver’s door, coerced it open with not a little yanking (and some growling metal protests from the truck), and started her right up.
“She’s a helluva gal,” my mother told the buyer. “She’ll get you where you’re going.” She patted the cracked dash lovingly, half amazed that the truck had started and half wishing that it hadn’t.
Mom would say, ‘People don’t need to know everything about us,’ so she didn’t tell the man that Old Green had great acoustics. She didn’t say that on nights when you were sitting outside a bar with your four kids waiting for your asshole husband to come out, or come home, or give you some grocery money, Old Green was a great place to sing and pass the time. (She also didn’t mention the time that she nearly ran the bastard down in the parking lot of one of these same bars, my brother hysterically screaming at her from the other end of the bench seat: “Mom! What are you doing?!”) She didn’t say that there was an old pullout metal bed cover in back either, or that on sticky nights, four insanely hot children could catch a good breeze from up there, rolling slowly through a neighborhood on the wrong side of the tracks. She didn’t say that you could fairly easily damage your twelve-year-old for life by dropping her off at school in the Old Girl — not only as a result of the truck’s appearance, but also because one couldn’t exactly make a silent entrance when driving it. While Mama talked and the buyer stood there nodding, I remembered my daily mortification. In short order, I also remembered what Mama always had to say on the subject: “It builds character, honey. One of these days, you’re gonna be awful glad you aren’t like everybody else.” Turns out, she was right.
What she did tell the man who bought our truck (and whose face I cannot recall) was that in cold weather, the Old Girl needed to warm up for a while, that the side storage cabinets were rusted through and wouldn’t keep anything secure, that the starter was on the floor, the shift was on the column, there weren’t any seat belts, and that the passenger door occasionally opened on a whim and spilled out a passenger or two on the outside of a tight turn. He looked a little shocked at that last bit, I remember, but my mother’s mood was not such that she reassured him about what happened after the people had fallen out.
She didn’t want to sell. None of us did. Old Green brought us joyfully through some of the worst years of our lives. She was part of the family.
via Daily Prompt: Harmonize
This post appeared on Discover in August 2017.