When Zoë and Isaac were little, Joan and I and what seemed like the rest of Park Slope rented a house in Wilmington, Vermont, in the summer. I worked in Brooklyn Monday through Thursday and car-pooled up to Wilmington from New York City with the other Dads on weekends. One day, while I was in Brooklyn, I got a call from Joan, who was very upset about our old Volvo. It seems she couldn’t pull it out of the parking spot, and the mechanic told her the transmission had lost REVERSE. There didn’t seem to be an easy fix, and she was without a way to get around. We discussed what few options there were short of buying another car, but there weren’t any.
The old bucket ‘o bolts was the first car we ever owned. We loved that old car, but it was now sixteen and had seen better days. Besides which, Swedes weren’t very good at air conditioning, it leaked oil, and I had done so many repairs on the side of the road in Vermont, the trunk was practically full of spare parts and tools.**
Irwin, my good friend, and go-to person for everything car-related, came along to the Volvo dealership to scout out a replacement for Joan. We bought a new, used Nissan that day from the Volvo guy and drove it up to Wilmington that weekend. On that Friday night, Joan, the kids and I went to a restaurant in town for dinner. I had an idea!
Since the old car was now a liability, we had to get rid of it. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be perfect for the Demolition Derby?” If you haven’t seen a Demolition Derby, I suggest you do. It is truly an American phenomenon. The idea is this: people drive their cars around a circular track, crashing into one another, disabling the other vehicles, trying to be the last man standing. Everything you’re forbidden to do on the highway like bumping into one another is OK, even encouraged, in the Demolition Derby.
I asked our waitress, a local girl if she knew of anyone who drove in the Demolition Derby. Sure enough, she smiled and said, “Oh, yeah. Just talk to Bobby North. His father runs the airport up on the mountain. He drives a car every year.”
The next morning, I drove up to the airport and found Bobby. His eyes lit up when I said old Volvo. Small imports were faster and more maneuverable than the big bulk box cars, the American boats, like the Oldsmobiles and Chevrolets that usually showed up. They are heavier, too, which makes them a formidable player on the track.
“Prepare the car?” I asked.
“Yeah. You’ve gotta remove all but a quart of gas from the tank. You have to remove all of the glass. And you have to chain the doors shut, so they don’t go flying open in the middle of the race. And, just so we’re clear,” Bobby said, “you have to legally sell it to me. I have to buy it from you, and you have to sign a bill of sale. How much do you want for it?”
“OK, sounds like fun. How about giving me a dollar?”
That afternoon, I met Bobby with the old car at a big, empty hangar at the end of the runway. We did all of the paperwork, I got my dollar from Bobby, and Bobby got behind the wheel. “Hey, what’s the problem?” he said, “I can’t go backward.”
“Yup, that’s the reason I’m getting rid of the car,” I said.
“That won’t work,” he said, sounding very disappointed.
“Why? What’s the matter? I asked.
“In a Demolition Derby, everyone drives in reverse. Otherwise, the first thing to happen is you’re going to bang into someone with the front of your car and blow out the radiator. Your car overheats in about a minute without a radiator. Without reverse, you can’t drive in the Derby.”
“Oh, no. What do we do?”
“Hey. I’ll buy the car from you anyway,” he said. I had no idea what he had in mind*, but getting rid of the car was the ultimate goal, so we shook hands.
The next day, the kids and I went over to the fairgrounds to watch the Derby. The whole town turned out for the event. The Fire Department and ambulance services were there. The boys from the high school 4H Club were selling refreshments. Bails of hay surrounded the edge of the field, and colorful streamers were hanging from the fences. Isaac was in heaven; it was the year of the fire truck for that eight-year-old. Zoë wanted a Sno-Cone.
I pulled out my dollar bill. And, all was right with the universe.
*The following summer I saw that old Volvo in the Grand Union parking lot.
**I even carried extra vent windows. Remember vent windows? When you parked the car on the street in Brooklyn in the ’80s it was bound to be vandelized. The thieves, in an attempt to be kind, would break in through the vent window instead of one of the bigger pieces of glass. While I was at the junkyard looking for parts earlier that year, I picked up a few spare vent windows to keep for just such emergencies. Besides, the vent window cost more to replace than anything the thieves could possibly have taken.