First Cars

always assumed that the clandestine street racers I heard late at night originated from, or at least had connections with, the shade tree mechanic operations I passed on County Road 32. When I was a child, these racers played in my imagination like outlaws. Little did I know that a brief foray into that world would signal the beginning of a partnership unlike any other during my teenage years.

I was turning 16, and Dad said he had a car for me. My grandmother’s old sedan was parked in a barn at her abandoned farm in north Mississippi. He thought he could get it running and bring it home.

A week later, I returned from school to find a ’72 Oldsmobile Toronado parked in the driveway. It was a beige land barge with a hood like a dance floor. It had some dents and scratches, but it was mine, and I couldn’t have been happier.

I drove the Toronado across the highway and parked it in the shed. 

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My school friend Hank had painted his own car, and I figured there was no reason I couldn’t do the same. I slapped Bondo over the dents and sanded it smooth. Then I went to the auto parts store and bought spray cans of primer and paint and went to work.

I soon discovered that you can’t actually paint a car with spray cans and expect it to look like the new car I’d imagined. I needed an expert who I knew worked on old cars like mine.

His name was BooBoo, and he had a crude sign on a sheet tin building that advertised painting and auto bodywork. He was a man of few words. He looked over my project for a minute, then told me to bring it back on a full moon.

“Full moon?” I asked.

He nodded. “I only paint at night on a full moon.”

I told him I didn’t know when the next full moon was, so he said he was fine with me leaving the car with him for the rest of the lunar cycle.

For a couple of weeks, I went outside every night and looked up at the sky. Finally a slice. A half. Full. Two days later, BooBoo called and said the car was ready.

It looked like new, in an antique car sort of way. I had arrived.

Besides the paint job, and the fact it was mine, there were other aspects of the Toronado I was equally proud of. It had a giant 455 V8 engine that roared like a beast chained under the hood. Back then, it was all about spinning the tires, and I could burn one to the radials in less than 20 seconds. The peculiar fact that it was front-wheel drive only added to the monster’s personality. While my friends were spinning their tires and fishtailing out of control, my machine hopped and clawed its way up the asphalt like an insane gold digger.

There was no end to the accessories either. On the dashboard, I installed “the Button.” It was something I found on a truck stop novelty rack: a plastic stick-on clicker that read “TURBO.”

“Don’t ever push that, ” I told my passengers.

“Why not?”

“Just don’t.”

They always hovered their finger over it, tempted to test the Button, but no one ever pushed it.

I went to the junkyard and got a horn off an 18-wheeler, brought it home, and wired it under the hood. I installed a household light switch beneath the steering wheel to activate it. More fun. I was in love with my Toronado. I would die for it, and I soon found out that it would do the same for me.

One of my friends told me about an older model car he had that would backfire on command. He told me all you had to do was get going about 45 miles per hour, turn the engine off for a few seconds and coast, then turn it back on.

I had to try it out on my own vehicle, but I should have already known the old girl was going to give me her best. The back end jumped, and it sounded like the gas tank exploded. Black smoke, rust, bolts and nuts blew out the rear. Then a loud clattering commenced beneath the chassis like I was driving through a pile of scrap metal. Finally, I swerved free of it all and watched my muffler and tailpipe cartwheel into the ditch.

I took a deep breath and pressed the accelerator. She had a new voice. Now she sounded like a logging truck … Even better.

First cars. Oh yeah. 

Watt Key’s novel, “Alabama Moon, ” was recently listed by TIME Magazine as one of the top 100 young-adult books of all time. Watt’s next book, “Among the Swamp People, ” will be released in September of this year.

Text by Watt Key

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