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Open Road

by Catherine Watson
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August 2010 Archives

Muscle Car

I've been driving a loaner this past week, while my aging station wagon has been in the shop for a much-needed physical. It's part of a plan to avoid buying a new car right now because I'd rather spend the money on a trip -- or two -- or three.

Except for color (dark green), my car is the same as its two predecessors - a modest little Ford Escort, easy on the gas and good for hauling everything from boxes of books to the occasional piece of old furniture that I promise I'll refinish someday.

The loaner, predictably, is lousy on gas, and it can't haul much of anything. But I didn't expect it to - the car is a just temporary courtesy from my garage's owner.

"It's the purple one,'' he said, handing me the keys. "Sorry I don't have anything smaller.''

Purple? Big? Oh, come on, I thought, approaching what turned out to be a 1997 Dodge Intrepid Sport. Those last two words have never applied to a car of mine.

The loaner was the color of a can of grape soda, and it glowed - embarrassingly -- in the sunlight. But I had no choice. Like most of us, I seem unable to live without a car, and this day I had to meet some friends for lunch. So I put the big purple horror into gear and gave its accelerator the same tap I'm used to giving my small wagon.

The loaner roared and lurched forward, in a shocking surge of power I haven't felt since the 1973 gas crisis.

"Oh, wow!'' I gasped, feeling my own surge of power and - something else... Youth, I think. In that instant, I remembered the car of my dreams.

The summer before my senior year at the U of M, my best friend's parents gave her a brand-new car. Not just any car, either, but THE car of our era: A Mustang. A bronze Mustang hardtop.

My friend lived in Oregon, and I flew out to meet her and ride back with her while she drove the shiny new pony car to Minnesota.

Why my parents permitted it, I don't know - two girls, crossing the continent alone. Nothing happened to us, except that somewhere early in the Rockies, we stopped at a new drug store on its opening day and encountered a live baby elephant trotting anxiously through the aisles, an unwilling part of the celebration.

And somewhere in Montana, at a mountain overlook, we pulled up next to the car that became my dream. It was another new Mustang, a convertible with a white top and a metallic paint job - aqua, my favorite color.

I didn't get a car of my own until well after graduation, when I started work as a reporter at the Minneapolis Tribune, and the one I could afford sure wasn't a Mustang. It wasn't even aqua.

I bought a fellow reporter's old - very old - Studebaker, drab green, no radio, the floorboard so rusted you could see light through a hole on the passenger side, and a temperamental starter: It would work for two or three days, be dead for a day, work again the next. When the starter was on hiatus, I cadged rides with friends. I believe I bought the car for the price of the tires.

That was a whole career ago, and enough unmemorable cars ago that my dream of an aqua Mustang eventually faded away like the memories of everything else on that college trip - except for the lonely baby elephant in the drug store.

But now, in the big purple loaner, one press of the accelerator had brought it all back. That unexpected jolt of speed and power made me remember the car of my dreams.

I pulled up to the restaurant where my friends were waiting, walked in grinning and, for the first time in my life, was able to utter those classically American words: "You oughta see what I'm driving!''

A few days later, my small station wagon got a clean, if temporary, bill of health, and I had to give the big purple loaner back. I felt a twinge of regret, handing over the keys.

I won't have to replace my car right now, after all, and when I do, I know it will be -- of course -- just another small, practical, non-sporty something that's easy on the gas.

But the legacy of the purple car continues to make me smile. It's nice to know, after all these years, that there's still a trace of Mustang in my soul.