Monday, April 21, 2014

Dwight and the golden Mustang

     Thursday, April 17, marked two milestone birthdays. My father Dwight turned 86, and the Ford Mustang hit 50.
     One of them is officially an antique.
     In my life, their paths crossed in the late 1960s, when Daddy promised me a Mustang … IF I made it through high school without smoking or drinking.
     Well, I made itnot because of great self-discipline or incentive but more likely because the Lord spared me from temptation. After all, I didn't get my driver's license until I was 18. The fact that I spent almost half my life as a sportswriter tells you I was in no hurry to grow up. 
     Honestly, I wasn't even thinking of a Mustang the day I graduated from T.L. Hanna High School. No reward is greater than hearing your Daddy say he's proud of you. 
Who could resist? 
     Soon afterwards, we visited White Motors, a used-car lot on South Main Street that had a Bible on the office table and two gold sports cars out front: a 1967 Camaro for $1500 and a 1968 Mustang for $1600. I paid the difference and never regretted it. 
     As far as I'm concerned, the 1967 and 1968 models were the best-looking Mustangs ever. Those were the years Ford rounded and sculpted the original slab-sided bodies but before they really bulked up into muscle cars. Mine was a twin with the one in this Ford promotional photo, featuring a classy white vinyl roof, chrome rocker panels, and amber turn-signal indicators mounted in little scoops out on the hood. Cool!
      Underneath, the Mustang was really just a dressed-up Ford Falconhardly a high-performance car. But I didn't know any better. Late one night on Canterbury Road, I decided to see how fast I could drive around a corner. I wound up in somebody's front yard with the passenger door crinkled against the trunk of an oak. I was able to drive it home, dreading what my daddy would say the next morning when he discovered what I had done. He must have sensed that I had already learned my lesson, because he let me off easy. Once I came up with $360 for Shirley Huitt's body shop, my Mustang was almost as good as new. 
     That Mustang carried me through five years of college and eight trips between South Carolina and Missouri. When Daddy turned 50, I hardly noticed, since I was just a couple of weeks from graduation at Mizzou.
     On the way home from college, my faithful Mustang broke down in Newport, Tennessee. I soon handed it down to my brothers and bought another Mustang, a big 1971 coupe, from my uncle. It lost its charm after I bent a fender in a collision that could have been much worse. 
     Meanwhile, Daddy was driving a station wagon and working long shifts in the metallurgy shop at Owens-Corning Fiberglas to put five kids through college. At 51, he had two heart attacks and had to retire.
     That was also when he quit smokingwhich gave me a newfound appreciation for the deal he made with me years before. As usual, Daddy was doing whatever he could to take care of his family. 
     The day he got out of the hospital following his second heart attack, I bought a green 1979 Triumph Spitfire convertible that rivaled my first Mustang in style if not dependability. That night, Mary and I went for a ride up to Whitewater Falls. Right there in front of God and everybody, I asked her to marry me. 
     As we've raised our family, my cars have gotten more practical, of course. Today I'm driving a fine 16-year-old Accord that carried my daughter Katy through college and has nearly a quarter million miles. 
When we asked my Daddy what kind of cake he wanted, he answered with
characteristic whimsy: "Green!" So my sisters made it his way, and brother
John drove all the way up from Orlando to share the occasion with us.
     Daddy also has gone way past his warranty, living 35 years after his heart attacks. We celebrated his 86th birthday in a rehab hospital, where he is recovering from a stroke. 
     Macular degeneration and arthritis have slowed him down, but his mind is still sharp. He remains a student of the news, the Braves, and audio books. When his insatiable curiosity gets the best of him, he will ask my sister, "Look it up on your Google machine."
     In the rehab gym, he laps the field. He's always worked hard, and he is still determined to take care of Mama and our family. Undaunted by his years, father Dwight is doing the right thing, the best that he can, preparing for whatever comes next.
     If he could still drive, I'd get him a Mustang. Happy birthday, Daddy. 

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