Al Batt: The family’s trusted Pontiac had an oldometer

Published 8:45 pm Tuesday, February 9, 2021

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Tales from Exit 22 by Al Batt

My father was the last owner of every car titled in his name.

Each automobile went directly from our shed with the big sliding doors to the junkyard. The auto salvage place paid $1 per year for a used-too-much car with more rust than miles if it could roll down the drive in a faked appearance of being operational. A car towed to the junkyard’s driveway could be given a push downhill to the junkyard proper.

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One memorable day, my father proclaimed he had a surprise for us. Dad was giving but wasn’t a man given to surprises. He refused to divulge his plan no matter how many questions I tormented him with.

After the chores were done, we marched to the shed and got into our 1953 Pontiac Chieftain with a straight-eight engine, an image of Chief Pontiac as a hood ornament that glowed in amber when the headlights were lit, and chrome streaks on a hood. I wore my lucky sock. I couldn’t find its mate.

The car made stubborn noises to inform us of its unwillingness to start, but capitulated.

We headed down a gravel road. We were going for a drive, something we did regularly. It was as close as I’d gotten to a seat at the grown-ups’ table, but going for a drive wasn’t a proper surprise. We did the normal things — waved at other cars while we looked at crops, potholes and weeds. Dad missed two potholes in a row. Richard Petty couldn’t have done that. My parents talked of things I wish I could hear about again. We met a car driven by a man with his eyes on the road. You could always spot a tourist.

We dePontiacked (it should be a word) when we drove near newly spread gravel and each of us picked up a handful of gravel to check its quality. My father tried to convince me that should have been a highlight of my year. He was unsuccessful.

After we’d driven up and down the back roads, Dad stopped the car. He told us to look at the odometer. I peered at it from the backseat. It showed 99,999.1 miles. I shuddered as the drive’s purpose became clear.

“We’re going to turn it over to 100,000 miles today,” said my father with more enthusiasm than necessary as he introduced the element of lunacy. His revelation didn’t cause me to become giddy with delight.

“Allen, you do the countdown in tenths of a mile,” he added. I mumbled, not loud enough for him to hear, “Be still my heart, I hope I’m up to it.”

I was as comfortable as if I were wearing underwear made of dynamite, but I counted with the mathematical mastery I’d demonstrated by scoring a C- in arithmetic.

The odometer became nothing but zeros. Dad stopped the car and slid it into park at the end of Neuman Riskedahl’s drive. We stared at those naughts. It was an automotive miracle for a reluctant starter.

My father was the first able to form words. “Who would have thought it?” he repeated a few times. My mother admitted she’d never have thought it. Dad said his brothers Bill and Vern would never believe it and we should have brought the camera to document the moment. My mother said she had put the camera on the kitchen table, but in all the excitement had forgotten it there. Dad suggested shifting the car into reverse and driving backward home to remove miles. We could grab the camera and put the miles back on. It’d be deja vu all over again. My mother rightfully stated it would steal from the moment. Dad pondered that for a moment before agreeing, “You’re right, but who would have thought it?”

It was a simple celebration without confetti being involved. Putting that many miles on a car that didn’t want them was like trying to find a stick with only one end.

My car has many more miles than 100,000 on it. I like my vehicle, but I’ve never celebrated a single click of its odometer.

I’ve never had my name on a door, but I was in the backseat of a 1953 Pontiac Chieftain with a straight-eight engine, an image of Chief Pontiac as a hood ornament that glowed in amber when the headlights were lit, and chrome streaks on a hood when my parents racked up 100,000 miles on the car.

That beats having my name on any door.

Al Batt’s columns appear every Wednesday in the Tribune.