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Moving Forward While Looking Back from a ’56 T-Bird

January 27, 2019

You might think a car built more than 50 years ago is ill-equipped for the rigors of this century, wholly uncomfortable and outdated in every way, drafty in winter, no AC in summer, “hi-tech-amenities” amounting to a single cigarette lighter and a pair of wipers, zero cup holders -- and forget about GPS, which wouldn’t arrive on the American automotive scene until 1995 when Oldsmobile unveiled a navigational system dubbed GuideStar.

You would be right.

So why do people, young and old, from all walks of life, express delight when they’re in the presence of a vintage car like the Thunderbird in “American Graffiti”? The question has tugged at me since our trek across Florida’s cattle country in one to visit Steve’s dad. It is upon an old leather bench seat, as I crank the chrome-trimmed window down, that I begin not only to see what all the fuss is about, but to appreciate the roads we’ve been down as a nation to get where we’re going.

Our first stop is to fuel up, and before the tank is topped off, a man in a long gray beard ambles over and stops to look at the black-and-white car that looks almost like a toy compared to the size of the cars in its midst. He appears in faded fatigues inquiring after the year and marveling over the hood scoop, flourishing his cane like a professor’s pointer in the direction of the 1956 model. Before he walks into the store, he says respectfully, “Keep the history alive,” as if the words are a mantra or sacred dictum from which we can learn.

The day has been filled with perfect strangers, comfortable approaching us to learn more or to share their own stories.

This old car is not a showpiece. Far from it. It’s what my wheeling, dealing, Yankee trader of a husband calls “a driver” -- a set of wheels in decent shape that he can count on when the weather’s nice and the trips are short.

Just after the motor roars to life, a clean-shaven baby boomer in a white T-shirt pulls up in a new pickup to tell us his father has one and that he’s hoping to find one, too. “They’re just beautiful,” he says.

I can’t help but think that the car, designed as an answer to the Corvette, rolled off the assembly line at a time in history when there were a mere handful of women seated in the U.S. Congress, and even fewer acting as state governors. Elvis had made his hip-swiveling appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and in just a few years, we’d rocket to the moon. Brown v. the Board of Education became precedent. Change was driving possibility.

At the time, an average American house cost just under $3,000, a gallon of gas was 22 cents, and rock ‘n’ roll was sweeping the globe. The Federal Aid Highway Act was signed, rolling out a promise of 41,000 miles of interstate across the country allowing drivers to hit the open road in comfort, panache and speed that afforded independence and adventure. More high-school seniors than ever were heading to college.

Possibility was in the driver’s seat.

It was an era of growth and movement when things were built to last. It was a time when people planned ahead for their futures with a spirit of positivity while looking at the long view, a time we think back to as romantic in terms of the American Dream, and a time when the middle class was thriving. Still, there was plenty to worry about -- the coming Cuban Missile Crisis, the building Cold War and the ominous precursors to the struggles for civil rights and the Vietnam War, just to name a few.

At the same time, automobile designs reflected the optimism and industry on which the nation prided itself. Cars were becoming pieces of art you could drive. The 1950s ushered in the idea of transportation that would surpass the practical, a kind of transportation that could transport us in new and wonderful ways.

When I pick Steve’s brain to better understand what the big deal is over an old car, I expect him to point out the power of the pistons or the lines of a material thing representing the classic in classic cars. Instead, he simply says, “It’s nostalgic.” To me, nostalgia means Sunday family drives in our old Plymouth and a picnic in a field where we get to fly kites and play tag. But Steve has history with this car that speaks in tiny volumes of where he has been and where he’d like to go and how he’d like us to get there. He wants to slow down and smell the roses from the open seat of an old Thunderbird. He wants to be a teenager again. Perhaps it’s this idea that possibility is possible.

He has memories of riding next to his dad in a 1956 Thunderbird, the wide-open sky above, nothing between the two of them but the shared rumble of the engine and before them.

We make another pit stop, and a woman in business dress stops to admire the old car and share her story about her Cuban heritage and the many old cars just like this one that you can rent if you travel there now. (It’s on my bucket list.) A young boy in a minivan gives a thumbs-up as we stand in the parking lot and we all trade waves. A black woman stops to say, “What a beautiful car!” She’s still beaming as she climbs into a hybrid. There are saluting toots and admiring onlookers as we cross Route 60 heading towards the Gulfside.

The car is old, but it has proven itself, having made the 250 miles or so without event.

There’s a down side to these little hunks of history. They don’t tell all of the story, and often the story is in the eyes of the beholder, and it’s those beholders on our trip that speak loudest to me. This is what all the fuss is about. We’ve met all kinds of people along our trip, and the conversations we shared will stay with me for a long time.

I realize that these old cars are just as much for the people who don’t necessarily get behind the wheel but benefit from the nostalgia just the same. There is something about the craftsmanship that speaks to a time when industry was purring, and manufacturing meant lots of jobs and a way of life families could depend on and live by. Perhaps it’s the novelty of seeing something for the first time, as shown in a child’s eyes when he waves from a passing car on the highway or rolls a window down at a traffic stop to give a friendly hello.

And it’s that looking back to see where we can go that is important. We learn from our experiences. We are reminded of the things that are so good about the past and try not to throw the baby out with the bath water as we evolve.

There is a kind of freeness about these old wheels that invites time to slow down and people to come in, and that’s a good thing, especially at a time when it’s more important than ever to keep the conversation about American life going.

These cars roared to life with the American Dream, telling us that we could get up and go, that we could blast off and set foot on the moon, that we could go where no man or woman had gone before. So much to aim for. So much possibility.

For me, this old car is a reminder to get unstuck, like it appears Congress and the president may have finally done. We need to look back to move forward.

Let’s approach life as if life itself were “a driver.” A good life is not all about show. On the other hand, it shouldn’t be about driving a dangerous hunk of metal just to prove a point.

To the open road and to moving forward with an old spirit of joy and a new direction of possibility. That is what all the fuss must be about.

Bonnie J. Toomey teaches at Plymouth State University, writes about writing, learning, and life in the 21st century. You can follow Parent Forward on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ bonniejtoomey. Learn more at www.parentforward.blogspot.com or visit bonniejtoomey.com

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