By Bob Shaw
When I was 16, not long after passing my Montana driver's license exam, I went on my first car shopping expedition. No, I didn't go alone.
My search for a first vehicle was led by a very wise truck mechanic whose most notable feature was huge and rugged hands... grease stained paws that were covered with calluses and short a half a finger from years of crawling around in, around and under 18-wheelers... a job that made him much older than his years. His birth name was Benjamin. He always signed his name Keith. And truckers from coast to coast knew him as Pete. He's my dad.
I remember the day I announced that it was time that I have a car. He pointed at me with a finger on one of those great big hands (that I'd always thought intimidating but had never once been raised in anger) and said, "I'll help you look for a car, but you have to pay for it...including the insurance." I knew that he meant it, because that's the way he is.
I had been working at an after-school job at the local grocery store (soon followed by a job cleaning the cattle pens at the livestock auction). Not too many Saturdays went by when my dad, true to his word, announced that we were going to look at some cars.
First, we went out to a ranch somewhere out in the foothills of the Bear Paw Mountains where an equally grizzled rancher swung the doors open on a shed to reveal a 1930 Model A coupe inside. A little gas down the carb and a jump saw the dirt-covered car spring to life; it's little 4-banger echoing out of a straight brass tailpipe that once saw duty on a pull-chain toilet. That sound alone stirred feelings not unlike those I experienced when my friend, Buck showed me a Playboy magazine. The old rancher wanted $60 for it. I was about to scream, "I want it!" when my dad proclaimed, "We'll let you know" and off we went.
The next stop was in town down some street and into an alley. There sat a 1937 Ford 60 tudor sedan. When that tiny V/8 started up, I forgot all about that Model A and paid no attention to the family of mice that scurried out the open door. The owner insisted on the princely sum of $70 for the faded blue gem. Lucky me...that's exactly what I'd saved so far! Once again my vocal chords prepared to shout acceptance of this chariot, my dad again intervened, "We'll let you know" and off we went.
This time, the ride was pretty short as I recall, maybe just across town. He hadn't given me any advance knowledge of any of the cars we'd looked at and this time was no exception.
Soon, he wheeled the International pickup around the corner and stopped in front of a driveway. And there it was... a 1953 Studebaker Champion coupe. My mouth must have been agape because I remember him smiling as he watched my reaction. You see, I drew cars a lot as a kid and a lot of those cars looked like a Studebaker coupe.
My dad knew how much I favored that sleek design. And there in front of me was a light gray Champion whose six-cylinder motor purred like a kitten. Its 3-speed overdrive shifted flawlessly and whose driver's side window was among the missing, as were numerous threads in the upholstery. Still, I knew that this car would be beyond my means. The price of $125 seemed like a million dollars. How could my dad be so cruel? I looked at him, but he just turned and said to the man, "We'll think about it".
It wasn't until that night at the supper table that my dad asked me if any of the cars struck my fancy. I can clearly remember wanting to say, "the Studebaker!" but instead said that maybe I'd get the Model A because it's only $60 and I'd still have $10 left over as a head start on the insurance.
My dad nodded at my logic, then replied, "I suppose, if it's alright with your mother, we could loan you the $125 to buy the Studebaker and you could buy the insurance out of your $70...but you'll have to pay it back out of your pay." Right then and there I swore a blood oath that I would make weekly payments. Dad said, "Okay, we'll go get it tomorrow."
And we did. And I loved that car, even though I never could afford to fix it up much (like putting glass in that broken window). And dad made sure that I made those payments to the last cent. Now, more than four decades later, I still remember how I felt driving that 53 Champion into the Havre, Montana A&W on a Saturday night. And my emotion is magnified by knowing what I know now...
At the time my parents didn't have $125 to their name. Raising three kids on barely 80 bucks a week took every cent and certainly left nothing for dad and mom.
But somehow they scraped it up... for me...so I could drive that faded gray Studebaker with a cardboard window instead of a Model A with a brass toilet pipe for a tailpipe. Well, that's the story of my first Studebaker.
But now that I re-read it, maybe my story is actually about something even more precious than a Studebaker memory. In fact, I'm sure of it.
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