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Down Memory Lane In Overdrive

Car collectors today would kill for the vehicles my parents once drove, like the 1926 Ford coupe, complete with running boards. But at the time, they were simply old cars with old-car problems (for some reason, only my mechanically-challenged mother could start the coupe).

And then there was the 1964 Fairlane, the only new car my father ever owned. She was the clear blue of bright October skies, with a fast white streak on each side and a white roof. The blue vinyl seats with their quilted ridges smelled like a new doll at Christmastime. She was gorgeous. And she was ours!

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All of us felt like the Millers had finally arrived. Even the neighbors were excited, gathering around to exclaim over each feature. Some went for a spin around the block while Dad demonstrated the marvels of overdrive and the latest in air-conditioning systems.

Years later, my husband and I were driving our first new car home. "Oh no!" I said. "They forgot the air conditioner!"

He puckered his eyebrows at me and pointed to a tiny button on the dash. "It's right here."

"The whole thing?" I asked. I felt cheated. I was picturing the Fairlane's flashy chrome monster that hung below the dashboard. It literally blasted us with frigid freon-scented wind - the only time I ever felt cool enough during those California summers.

Sunday-afternoon drives were a mandatory family activity. In the back seat, my brother and I, by nature of seniority, each had a window. Our little sister was doomed to be flanked by her siblings. If that wasn't bad enough, she had strict boundary lines. Metallic silver piping outlined an extremely slender middle section of the seat. If any portion of my sister strayed, she heard about it.

We liked to look at other people's houses on our rides, commenting on landscaping, house colors, and styles. Unselfconscious of our collective lack of musical gifts, we'd sing enthusiastically. We played 20 questions. My parents told stories about their childhoods.

One sparkly clear Sunday afternoon, Mom turned around. "What's wrong with you today?" she asked me.

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"I'm not looking forward to Spanish class tomorrow," I said. "Everyone laughs at me because I can't roll my R's."

"Look," my sister said, "you put the tip of your tongue up behind your front teeth. Then just go rrrrrr." In her mouth, it was a melodious hum.

"Er," I said.

"No, rrrrrr! "


"No. Now, look at me. See? Rrrrr."

This went on for what must have been to my parents an excruciatingly long afternoon. And, ask me today to roll my R's, and I'll say, "Er." But, when I think back to that day and my 10-year-old sister, I smile. If I'd looked hard enough at her then, I would have seen the elementary school teacher she would someday be.

I was a poverty-stricken college student in 1976, and I was thrilled when my parents gave me the Fairlane. My male friends were highly impressed with my wheels. "Hey, overdrive!" They'd say. "Do you mind if I take it out for a spin?"

We all thought the old car had tremendous character. The hood had oxidized to a rich, rough red-brown. I mended the split vinyl seats with black electrician's tape, which oozed adhesive onto my blue jeans. The Fairlane may have looked bad, but she ran beautifully. I just had to remember to add power-steering fluid every time I started her up.

When the driver-side window fell down inside the door, I resolved to enjoy the breeze. I taped an old shower curtain over the hole when the rains came. On the freeway, the curtain billowed, brilliant tropical fish swimming across it.

Graduated and settled into a new job, I resisted peer pressure: "You're kidding, right? You don't really drive this?" At last, I could afford to fix the window and treat the old girl to a professional wash and wax each payday.

By 1981, I was commuting over an hour a day, half of that time after 11:30 at night and along a nearly deserted coastal road. The Fairlane odometer read 300,000-plus miles. My head overruled my heart. I bought a new car with mega dependability and zero personality.

I sold the old car for $300 to a young man whose eyes sparkled as he spoke eagerly of "classics." But I couldn't bear to watch him drive away.

I don't know where the Fairlane is, but I like to think I've glimpsed her in passing. In that flash of recognition, she was restored to her original blue-and- white glory. I might have seen a proudly smiling driver. The head next to him would have been turned to the children squabbling or singing in the back. I'm not sure, but I thought I heard a little girl's voice, "Rrrrr," and another one saying, "Er." And they could have been looking for houses to admire. But I know one thing they were doing for sure: making memories. Enough for a lifetime.

Who knows? Maybe someday I'll step into a parking lot, and there she'll be. The owner will invite me to slip behind the wheel and take her out for a spin in overdrive. The way I sometimes do in my dreams.

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