MY YOUNGEST BROTHER Richard once told me that I should buy a BMW. “It’s your kind of car,” he said.
I’ve recently been thinking about his comment, and what he meant by it. So I asked a friend of mine who loves BMWs to explain why it’s such a superior car. She had a quick answer.
“It’s made of superior stuff,” she said. “Read about what the Germans intended to do by building this car. They believed that the BMW is a finer expression of what a car should be.”
I thought about that. Then I thought about the Datsun B-210 I once owned. I’ve wondered since then if I shouldn’t have just chosen a BMW in the first place.
As my friend concluded, “A Datsun just fits in. It can get beat up. It doesn’t argue.”
MY DECISION TO restore that Datsun, of course, was inspired by a book. I was 12 at the time I picked up the 1953 novel Street Rod. Even today, H.G. Felsen’s novel is timeless — what boy or girl doesn’t have a dream?
Ricky Madison’s powerful desire resonated with me as I watched him build a car that would beat his archrival, Link. He risks everything to achieve his goal.
Along the way, he finds romantic love in his childhood friend, Sharon, who now has long blonde hair with a dusting of freckles on her nose.
Ricky’s girlfriend supports him as he restores his beaten-up ‘39 Ford Coupe and enters it in a statewide auto design competition. She it is who comes up with the radical color scheme that makes his car win: pink skin, gold wire-rimmed wheels, and warm brown leather interior.
Romantic love and beautiful cars — they somehow hang together in my mind. I suspect that graphic arts designers feel the same way, because most high-end car ads feature a beautiful girl.
There is still something special about Street Rod. Yesterday, I punched the title into Google — and found a series of reader reactions that each told of the impact the story had on them. They love Ricky, the teen who turns a beat-up coupe into a competitive weapon, and Sharon, the girl who tries to tame him.
It is the ending of the book — shocking for its time — that makes it linger in the memory. Horror novelist Stephen King is reported to have said that the book was one of the few that scared him.
I once read the novel aloud to an English class. Did it scare them too?
WHY DO I LOVE this book? Because I lived it. My father was once the owner of Hi Gloss Body Shop in Hartville, Ohio. He operated out of our family garage, located beneath and beside our house. As a painting bay, the garage wasn’t exactly air-tight, so on days when he spray-painted a client’s car, dinner tasted a bit tangy.
As the firstborn son, I was the foreman in his shop. All my four younger siblings answered to me, especially when I could find them. I did everything from sanding primer to grinding rust to painting cars with an air gun. I knew what it was like to transform a rust bucket into a like-new automobile because sometimes the cars we restored looked that way afterward.
My father never managed to purchase the equipment he needed, beginning with an actual shop. A garage is a garage is a garage, after all. But he tried his best with a can-do attitude. Add to this the fact that my father had turned his eight children into primary employees — my father never much cottoned to child labor laws — and you see how it was.
So I knew what it would take to rebuild a car. And I determined after reading Street Rod that I would someday make my dream a reality. I would buy a beaten-up car, preferably a BMW, and turn it into the most beautiful car on the planet.
MY DREAM BECAME a reality in the fall of 1982. The nation was at the height of the Reagan recession — economic times were tough, and even I would have known Fed Chairman Paul A. Volcker on sight. I had just turned 19 and was working full time as a helper for Dave Schlabach’s construction crew.
My life had the splendid variety that a dog chained to his doghouse enjoys: some days I pushed wheelbarrows of concrete to help pour footers, some days I mixed mud and wheeled it to the mudboards to help the layers build block basements, and some days I mixed mud and wheeled it to the layers to help them build brick exteriors.
I spent unpaid hours in the truck every day going to and from work. In order to keep his guys employed, Schlabach took on jobs as far away as Indiana. I’m not complaining, but for a boy of 19, I was in hell.
ONE LATE afternoon, my brother Dave and I were driving along Mount Pleasant Road in North Canton when I spotted my dream sitting in a field. Now it wouldn’t have looked like my dream to just anyone. It was a 1974 Datsun B-210, deep forest green, fiercely oxidized. You remember the days when slamming the door of a Japanese car produced only a tinny clank? Yeah? Well, it was that type of a car.
Worse, the body inside and out was a sieve of rusty holes. When my brother and I got into the car for a test drive, and we bumped through the adjoining field, we could reach through the floor to grab the clover passing beneath us.
Yes, my dream car truly lacked all redeeming qualities. But perhaps I felt sorry for it. Perhaps I believed that it represented me. Whatever the reason, I could make it fit my dream, I thought, and so I decided to make the owner an offer.
BUT I WANTED to be sure. I needed a sign from God that this was exactly the right car. So I offered the owner 50% of the price he had scrawled on the windshield with a bar of soap. I offered him $80. Only a starving bluegill would have bitten at a scrap of bait that measly.
Well, wouldn’t you know? It took that bluegill only 24 hours to decide. Then my parents’ phone rang, and I became the proud owner of the worst-looking car in Stark County, Ohio.
As I drove my acquisition towards Market Avenue and home, I noticed a few things. The smell of ancient French fries rotting beneath the seat, a rust hole punched through the passenger door the size and shape of a fist, and a three-inch scratch engraved on the right lower side of the windshield. Plus, it wasn’t a coup — it had four doors.
This made me question my decision. But instead of turning and driving straight to the junkyard, writing it all off as a learning experience, I ignored my doubts. Doggone it, this car was mine. I would make it into something of value, something finer than it ever thought it could be.
Dreams are powerful.
SO I PARKED the Chrysler boat of my adolescence under the old apple tree behind the house. My dad must have found another car aficionado to love his own dream, because it soon disappeared.
Meanwhile, my father and I began working together again, this time in the evenings. We argued about each decision, somehow curing the Datsun’s most troubling diseases. We changed tires, installed new brake lines, replaced the rear bumper.
It was a chance for my father to bond with his son. When I had turned 14, I had rejected his offer to run his auto body shop, choosing a career in construction. But I had not forgotten my father’s teaching.
The real point of our time together with my Datsun was this: the car proved to my father that his firstborn son had a kindred spirit. We were both suckers for cheap cars and impossible dreams. They nourished our souls.
IN JANUARY 1983 I attended two terms at a conservative Mennonite Bible School. The campus was situated in the small town of Lansing, Minnesota – not far from the Twin Cities. Young people over 16 boarded for three weeks at a time, taking classes ranging from biblical theology to basic psychology to child rearing. It was intended to produce future leaders within the church, or at least good church members who were properly educated in church dogma.
But we all knew better. We knew that Maranatha Bible School was a church-sanctioned space where a young person could find and meet a helpmeet, a biblical term that loosely translates into modern English as the phrase “marriage partner.”
It would have been a fine place for me to meet my future wife, had I wanted to marry a nice conservative Mennonite girl, which I clearly didn’t. During the times when I doubted this, I merely had to remember what I had told all interested helpmeets: I wouldn’t be getting married until I finished college.
Most of the available girls thus turned to other, more willing candidates. Perhaps they realized that I was on my way out, that I saw marriage as another brick in the wall, a trap to prevent me from reaching my dreams.
MEANWHILE BACK at home, my brother had taken full advantage of my absence. When I returned, I discovered that he had become an altruistic taxi driver for the most attractive girls in the youth group. Kind of. My brother should have been a casting director, or at least a pickup artist. He was that good.
Dave was a senior in high school. In order to facilitate his social life, he had ruthlessly painted onto the door of his cab — wait, this was MY car! — the words: “Dave’s Limo.”
Grr. You’ve heard of Cain and Abel? Of the fight they had which led one of them to kill the other? To beat him into a tiny bitty piece of pulp? Well, that was nothing compared to the epic battle my brother faced with me when I discovered what he had done to my car.
Several nights later in the dead of winter, I sneaked into the garage and cleaned off that paint. So when my brother awoke the next morning and came out the door looking for his forest green, oxidized limo, all he saw was MY forest green, oxidized car with me parked in the driver’s seat. I had staked my claim, I thought. After all, I am his oldest brother.
But as I watched Dave view the driver’s door, I saw the ghost of a smirk on his face. Alarmed, I got out and took another look. In the morning light, I saw faint white remnants of paint.
It’s all about ownership. It is why a dog lifts its hind leg beside your tire, why the cat rubs his head against your furniture. It’s called marking your territory. Until I removed all traces of white paint, it was still my brother’s car.
I SUSPECT THE CONFLICT with my brother arose because of our difference in perspective. For example, consider the way Dave remembers the acquisition of the Datsun.
“I actually found that car,” my brother recalled. “I was riding on the back of the garbage truck, and I saw it, and it called out my name,” he said.
Funny. I had forgotten that my brother once worked for Kurtz Rubbish Service in Hartville.
“So I took you to see that car,” he said, “and I said, ‘Steve, here’s a car we can afford.’”
“I don’t remember that,” I told him.
“Oh, yes,” he shot back. “The emotional part of that car was mine. You just paid for it. I really did think I was the owner.”
Humph. When you hear Dave talk, you can see why I needed to establish ownership.
Oh. And just for the record, it was my name on the car’s title.
SHORTLY AFTER taking back the car, I made the executive decision to begin rebuilding it. Of course, it had nothing to do with the fact that I couldn’t clean off all the white paint. It was just time to make my dream a reality.
Surely, the process would produce a blonde girl with a dusting of freckles on her nose.
So through the roaring drifting snow months of that winter, I worked in my father’s garage, starting to restore my Datsun. Its sagging and rusted-out parts evoked pity, and so I threw myself into the task of bringing new life to my car.
I first had to fill in the holes created by the salty slush that grows on the roads of Northeastern Ohio. This meant that I had to learn how to weld with an acetylene torch. So during all my spare time that winter, I was in my father’s garage welding sheets of scrap metal into the holes in my car.
The logistics of this, of course, were a little disturbing. The original metal on my car was thin, which was the norm in the ‘70s for all cars from Japan. Thus, the heavy American metal I was welding into place was tougher than the crappy original metal.
No matter. Filler covers a multitude of sins, my dad believed.
Somewhere in my planning, however, I failed to ask the fundamental question: is it ever possible to make chicken shit taste like chicken salad?
NOW I SHOULD correct something I said earlier. There was one aspect to the car that was good when I bought it: the engine. It ran well and used no oil — but since the car had over 100,000 miles on it, I decided to have the engine re-bored and rebuilt anyway. Just to be safe.
After all, I needed more power. I was aiming for a BMW, remember? Unfortunately, as my brother Dave likes to remind me, this was crucial mistake.
“I was proud of the fact that I didn’t agree with your decision to rebuild the engine,” he said. “That car moved when you first got it.”
I had to agree with him there. But then he dropped in a revelation.
“I drag-raced David Arnold when we first got that car,” he said. “I had three stout Mennonite girls in the car, and he had only himself and one other person in his car.”
My brother paused for effect.
“I beat him. And then I raced him in his Honda Civic as well, and I beat him in that.”
AS I CONTINUED to restore my car, I ran into the problem of color. Unlike Ricky in Street Rod, I was not about to paint my car pink. A car is an extension of a man’s personality, I thought. And real men drive muscle cars, right? Or at least sleek, silver BMWs with all leather interiors complete with a young woman who wears long blonde hair and a light dusting of freckles on her nose.
Yes. When I imagined my shiny new vehicle, it kept showing up silver, looking faintly like the BMW in that magazine ad I had once noticed.
Unfortunately, it hadn’t sunk into my puny brain that forest green 1974 Datsun B-210s never grow up to become muscular 1982 BMW’s. And they most assuredly don’t turn into cars with blond-haired beauties sitting in the passenger’s side of the car, adjusting their makeup in the mirror.
BUT OF COURSE, changing from forest green to silver takes more than just an outside paint job. The inside of the car was also green. This presented a problem: how to make the dream come true? I would have to paint the car inside and out.
The engine was already out and at my next-door neighbor’s place — he had taken a Small Engines class in high school, so I could trust him to increase power in my Datsun.
Time to take the next step — so out came the seats and cheap vinyl upholstery.
By now it was June, construction work was booming, and I simply didn’t have the time to think much about the shell of my car sitting on blocks inside my dad’s garage.
Thankfully, my father’s business had failed about a year previous, so he didn’t need the garage to work. He had gone back to Schumacher Lumber Company in Hartville, making screen doors again.
So there my Datsun sat — without an engine, without wheels, without an interior. Stripped naked, the car waited. And it might have waited until the Resurrection, except for a significant turn of events.
MY FATHER AND mother didn’t share my enthusiasm for my college dreams. In fact, my father forbade me from attending college — the family couldn’t afford it, and he didn’t want me influenced by the worldly ideas the professors would teach me, anyway. College caused people to question their faith and leave the church.
My parents and pastors could point to any number of examples of this. There was never any thought given to the idea that the church might be wrong — that some of the new ideas discovered by scholars might actually be right. No. Higher education caused people to doubt and fall away from God.
If I wanted to start college at 21 when I was on my own, they recognized they couldn’t stop me. But in the meantime, I was expected to support our large family by giving 2/3 of my income to my father.
THE MOST HOPEFUL conversation about my future occurred while I was washing dishes with my older sister, Rose. She told me that she thought I’d make a good teacher.
“But how was I to become a teacher?” I thought. I was a construction worker who hated my job. I was trapped by my family’s economic situation. In my 19th year, I had watched my best friends prepare to enter college without me.
For years I’ve wondered why I respond so deeply to the film, It’s A Wonderful Life. Today, I know why. My feelings from that time in my life are so exquisitely voiced by George Bailey.
BUT THEN something unexpected happened — something wonderful.
EVERY YEAR, the Midwest Fellowship of conservative Mennonites held its annual conference, which was a weekend of long services. In July of 1983, its conference was held at the Hiland High School’s overheated high school gym in Holmes County. I attended, seeing friends from Maranatha I hadn’t seen in several months.
While I was there, one of my new friends who had lived briefly in Arizona told me that Sunnyview Christian School in Phoenix needed a principal. She didn’t know me very well, but she thought I’d be perfect for the job, and I should talk to Dan Yoder, the chairman of the school board, and he was here at the conference.
Several hours later, I happened to run into Yoder. He had already heard I was interested — he was a good recruiter, Yoder was. I don’t remember much from our chat, but I do remember telling him that the chances of me coming to Phoenix were pretty slim.
Come on, I thought to myself as Yoder walked away. Moving to Arizona to become a principal and teacher? I had never lived away from home in my life. I had no confidence as a leader. Zero experience in the classroom. And until the past spring, my friends had regarded me as shy, or at best, really reserved.
It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to lead. As I look back on my teen years now, I realize that I had been fulfilling leadership roles for years — editing my high school newspaper, running our youth group committee, managing a men’s quartet — but I worked behind the scenes. I was never the front man.
This job would demand that I take center stage. I would become a public figure in the church and school community. I would be responsible for approximately 45 students and two older teachers. A lot of attention would be directed towards me.
PERHAPS IT WAS my experience at Maranatha Bible School over the past winter — I had arrived in January without knowing a soul and had left in February having made scores of friends — that gave me the courage to consider this job opportunity.
Of course, at Maranatha, I lacked the ego needed to take credit for my success. Instead, I told myself, it was all just because I came from Hartville. People from Hartville were supposed to be visible and social leaders: ergo, I became one.
Simple. Deceptive. As I made friends at Maranatha, I feared the whole time that my new friends would find out the real truth — I came from a poor family with no social capital.
But as I stood there in July watching Yoder move away, glad-handing everyone in sight — was there anyone that man did NOT know? — I reflected on what had happened when I returned from Minnesota in February.
Although I had tried to retreat back into the expected role that people had created for me — a caring servant leader — something essential had changed in my personality, due to the social success I had experienced in Minnesota. I had emerged from the cocoon of my teen years. Maybe what my friends now saw in me was the reality.
Was it my awareness of these changes taking place in me that gave me the confidence to even consider accepting Yoder’s offer?
PERHAPS IT WAS the fact that after the conference I got pneumonia — in the middle of an Ohio July. It’s the only time in my life that I’ve ever contracted it. It still makes no sense — especially since I was as physically fit as I’ve ever been before or since, due to my work in construction.
So there I was at home, lying flat in bed, with nothing to do but read and think and read and think.
“Was it a sign from God?” I wondered. “Did he strike me with pneumonia to get me to stop and think about the direction of my life?”
I still don’t understand my rationale today, but I decided that I should take the job. And so I did. In a rapid order of events, I called Yoder, accepted the job, recovered from pneumonia, and decided that I had just enough time to finish renovating my Datsun.
This was about July 15. I was due in Phoenix at the end of August.
THE SITUATION BEGS the question: how could a young man with only a high school diploma — whose 20th birthday fell on his first day of teaching, by the way — become the administrator of an entire school, grades 1-12? Today the questions boggle my mind.
The simple answer is this: the most important thing Sunnyview Christian School demanded in their principal in the fall of 1983 was that he had to be male — the parochial school board couldn’t hire a female principal, no matter how many degrees or how much college education she had.
Practically speaking, this meant that I was in charge of teachers who were older than I was, one of whom had years of experience. I don’t remember if she had a teaching degree. It didn’t matter. In fact, higher education would have made her suspect.
The second most important thing was this — well, actually, there was no second most important thing. That was it — the principal must be male. God was male. Therefore, his educational and church leadership structure needed to be male, as well.
That was the culture in which I began teaching.
I PAINTED THE CAR and got the engine installed in time, back into my now-silver dream car. I cleaned up the upholstery and put in new carpet. I shined the gauges and the gearshift and the steering wheel. I restored my car to the flush of its first beauty — if you imagine it was silver, rather than green.
But thence lay the problem. The car was still a Datsun B-210, 1974 edition, a penny-ante car that clinked instead of clunked when you shut the door. It sang tenor rather than bass when you goosed the engine. It moved its entire body when you leaned against it.
My Datsun, I realized, would never be a BMW. You really can’t make chicken salad out of chicken — well, you get the idea.
I FINISHED PUTTING the car back together the night before I left for Phoenix. We didn’t even have time to try it out on the road. Over 40 hours of travel lay before me in a car that was completely untested.
It was a new start for me. Suddenly, everyone was telling me what a significant leader I had been to the church youth. Who, me? They gave me a dramatic sendoff, flattering me with their comments that the youth group couldn’t go on without me.
Even the church had me give a speech the last Sunday before I left, explaining what I was going to be doing in Phoenix. Everyone promised to pray for me. My parents looked at me with new respect: like my father before me, I was leaving home to serve God in a far, distant country. Phoenix.
The night before I left, I hung out at the home of my best friend, whose father, John H. Miller, was an experienced middle school teacher, a dog-lover and a hunter.
Miller took me for uncertain and gave me a “Pull-Up-Your-Socks” speech. He told me not to smile until Christmas, and that he always comes in late the first day of school and then stands in the doorway of the classroom, eyeing his new students up and down and letting them know who’s in charge. Yes. Good advice, I thought. I’ll do that.
I don’t remember the actual send-off from my parents. But knowing my family, we probably all stood around the car in a circle, hands held, praying for my safety.
And then I was off.
MY NEWLY REFURBISHED silver BMW Datsun’s maiden voyage, which coincided with my journey to Phoenix, was a classic profile in courage.
Imagining the dangers of traversing Death Valley in my little car, and being worried about what might happen if it broke down and left me dehydrated, starving, and dying on the white sands of the Great American Desert, I had chunked several gallons of water into the trunk of my car, which also happened to be stuffed with my favorite books and everything else I owned in the whole wide world.
Since my church didn’t believe in radio, I had installed a tape deck, and on this I played Christian rock music like Silverwind, 2nd Chapter of Acts and, of course, Simon & Garfunkel — secular rock music with a good message. When I wasn’t in the mood for music, I listened to sermons. My favorite was one by Howard Hendricks called “How to Lead”: I had to think of it recently when I scanned through a copy of Rudy Giuliani’s book Leadership.
Unfortunately, the water bottles leaked long before I arrived at the Great American Desert, causing water damage to some of my favorite books.
SOME MECHANICAL ISSUES with the car emerged not long after I started the trip. For example, I realized that my neighbor probably wasn’t going to have a career as an auto mechanic when the rebuilt engine began to voice a clicking sound as I drove along, trying to push my car past 50 MPH. What DID they teach him in that high school shop class, anyway?
But no matter how many garage repair shops I visited along the way, no one — including the jolly mechanic in Texas and the tobacco-spitting one in New Mexico — could figure out the problem. So I continued on, wondering if my car was destined to break down in Death Valley, leaving me to die of thirst and heat. Eventually, I checked the map and discovered that my path didn’t lead me through Death Valley.
I ended my trip by coming down the mountain during the wee hours of the morning, four days later. Far below me in the valley, the lights of Phoenix glittered. Beside me, 18-wheelers honked their horns, trying to avoid the little silver Datsun ahead of them struggling to keep up with the speed limit, even while going downhill. And then I arrived in the city, pulling into the first motel I could find.
I had a hard time sleeping that night, due to the excitement I felt about my new, upcoming life. In the morning, I ate breakfast at a Waffle House and then went to meet my new employers.
AS PRINCIPAL OF the school and single, I was housed with a young couple, the bishop’s son, Leon, and his wife Barb. Just returned from their honeymoon, Leon felt very good about married life in general.
I’ve never heard a cultural value expressed more clearly than the one Leon shared with me just before we ate our first meal together. It occurred as we were relaxing in the living room, Leon and I, waiting for his new wife, Barb, to prepare our meal — she played the role of housewife when she wasn’t preparing lessons or teaching at my new school.
The Man of the House kicked back on an easy chair and surveyed me as I looked through Rod and Staff magazine, one of the periodicals supported by the conservative Mennonite establishment. He was probably trying to figure out why I hadn’t gotten married yet, I thought to myself. I was right.
“You know,” he told me, “I’d never want to be single. Look at me. My wife cleans the house, washes my clothes, cooks my meals — why would anyone want to be single?”
I don’t remember what I said, but that conversation made me think. Shortly thereafter, I was at a Napa Auto Parts store when I spotted the perfect license plate holder. So I bought it and installed it that afternoon.
It amused Leon. He liked to recite it to me, especially when I later dated one of his nieces. I guess he never figured out exactly what it meant.
The holder read, “Happiness Is Being Single.”
I ONLY TAUGHT for a year in Phoenix, opting to return home to begin teaching at my alma mater part-time the following year while I began my college education at Malone College in Canton, Ohio.
I parked my Datsun underneath the branches of the apple tree in the backyard and bought a white Ford Escort on a payment plan.
Several years into college, I realized I had moved past my little silver dream. So one Saturday morning, I called the local junkyard owner and had him send out a tow truck. I paid him $60 to haul away the car, and I never saw it again.
In the summer of 1989, after finishing my undergraduate degree by spending a year in London on a Rotary Foundation Scholarship, I came home and met an Italian girl with sparkling eyes whom I had liked while I was attending Malone. Her curly dark hair and warm humor taught me that a real relationship extends far beyond the confines of an ad in Forbes.
My father was disappointed that I gave up my dream car, but he got over it. Occasionally, he’ll remember that little Datsun, and the fun we had working on it. He’ll tell me that I should have kept it longer. But mostly, we don’t talk about it.
This piece was originally published in HuffPost on December 30, 2007.