Life Lessons from a LeSabre: Part 2
"Find what you love and let it kill you."
In our last installment, I waxed ecstatic about the acquisition of my very first car, a 1978 Buick LeSabre Custom Landau Coupe. To continue the epic saga, we travel back to the fall of 1995. The "Dot Com Boom" was in full-swing, alternative music was big, and I was in the best shape of my life at the age of sixteen. Why, I was a mere 180 pounds and jogging daily and weightlifting at oh-dark-thirty to stay fit. Soon, my waistline and my automobile would explode. I'm not kidding.
The day after the LeSabre became my sole mode of transportation, I strolled through the halls of Antioch Community High School with a pair of GM keys, one square and one round (you know what I'm talking about folks that grew up in the cool part of history...when you needed TWO keys for your car!). I told everyone I came in contact with that I, Daryl Scott, had my own car. Yes, it was mine, and yes, it was a coupe. I was officially accepted into the cool kids club, even though I learned that the LeSabre's shimmering sheen had quickly worn off.
How could that be?
A few reasons.
First, the car had a slight knock when we started it up the next morning. Dad & I surmised that it was a wrist pin, but I think that was our way of pretending it wasn't a connecting rod about to let loose. Hey, it ran, right? That's the main thing. I drove to the Lindenhurst True-Value store in search for Motor Honey to quiet down my noisy 301 V-8.
One problem solved.
Next, we noticed the Buick had a different color steering column than the rest of the burgundy interior. It also featured an early General Motor "Smart Switch" that had cruise control that didn't work. I just assumed someone tried to steal the car and it was replaced at some point with a tan steering column. "No matter, I'll paint it to match the rest of the interior" I thought. Off to True Value I went in search of maroon Krylon. While I had the dash apart to paint the steering column, I re-wired the idiot lights to read "Cruise" every time the instrument lights came on. The theory being that even though my cruise control didn't work, I was always cruising. Get it? Problem(s) solved!
We noticed the steering column in the daylight, of course. When you buy a car at 10pm, you pick up on several things in broad daylight the day after. Speaking of broad daylight, did I mention that the car's trunk looked like someone spilled battery acid all over it? Because it looked like the top layer of paint had been eaten off of the trunk. One rear quarter panel was made up entirely of Bondo, and a filler panel was a metallic light green color. Hmm, this wasn't spotted earlier. Oh, one more minor thing...the trunk lock was encased in a large triangular chrome "anti-theft" trim piece. It looked like someone had broken into the trunk with a crowbar and it was hastily repaired. Another trip to the local True-Value, some Plasti-Kote touch up lacquer and a quart of Bondo later...we were back in business. I had performed my first successful autobody repair! As long as we're focusing on cosmetics, I had to do something about the lack of hubcaps. So I called some nefarious hubcap place in Vernon Hills and made the trip to purchase a complete set of original Buick "top hat" hubcaps for the LeSabre for a princely sum of $100. It didn't matter to 16 year-old Daryl, this would "complete the look" of the car. One more thing that needed tending to was the interior. The rusty floorboards needed attention, so I ripped the seats out one afternoon after school and plotted my attack. After another trip to True-Value and a few dollars in sheet metal, caulk and stainless screws...my floors were solid again! I turned my attention to in-car entertainment.
I liked the aftermarket cassette player, and I even found some cassettes buried under the front seat...but they weren't my style. One single was titled "Bitch Betta Have My Money" by the group AMG. Yes, this family-friendly chestnut cried out for radio play, but it was just a little too racy for primetime. The flipside was a little more tame, a ballad titled "I Wanna Be Yo Ho", and after a cursory listen I decided the garbage can was a more fitting place than my Kraco stereo.
|Life was better before environmental regulations spoiled our fun. Look at this playground!|
Following my fun with cassette tapes, I wanted a Delco radio for the car, just like it came with from the factory. Since eBay and the internet were both still in development, the only way to find old car parts in 1995 was by actually traveling to a junkyard. In our case, it was Herb's Used Auto Parts (Motto: You Crack 'em, We Stack 'em) in Antioch, Illinois just off Route 83. A trip there yielded me a few radios which I pieced together to form one solid unit & installed in the LeSabre one afternoon. I also nabbed a good headliner from a Pontiac Catalina to fix my sagging headliner and wham, two problems were solved!
After several weeks, the LeSabre shined like new! Here was the finished product...
|This is the only other photo I have of my first car, taken by my Grandmother in the spring of 1996.|
Once the Buick was 'finished', I drove it all over the place. There were weekly trips to band rehearsal, part-time work at Crate & Barrel, spring break trips to antique stores in Richmond, and even a few drives to places I shouldn't have been...all in my trusty coupe that I fixed up myself. For the first time in my life, I wrenched on a car and saw how my hard work paid off. I was hooked on the feeling of pride that emerged with every small project I did to the maroon missile. Working on that car instilled a feeling of satisfaction that I'd never felt before.
In the summer of 1996, I was hired to give part-time trombone lessons to junior high school students in Lake Villa. It was good money, and I enjoyed helping younger musicians keep active during the summer months. It helped me pick up my horn and keep my skills sharp as well! Since a few of my high school friends also gave lessons, I would often carpool with a friend and give her a ride to and from. One afternoon, we decided we were both going to go home over the lunch hour and grab a bite to eat.
After I dropped her off, I drove the LeSabre to the local bank to take some money out for gas (this is before high-schoolers had ATM cards and smartphones.), and headed back to my parents' house for a little PB & J. As I drove down Beck Road and signaled my intention to turn right onto Grass Lake Road I heard a loud "POOF", the engine shut off, and black smoke instantly billowed out of the engine bay. I shifted into neutral and coasted around the corner until I reached the shoulder of the road. I slammed on the brakes and came to a screeching halt. Something terribly wrong just happened.
My friend Jay, who lived on Beck Road just happened to be traveling behind me at the time, unbeknownst to me. I exited the car, and noticed he was behind me in his Nissan.
"I'm going to get a fire extinguisher, hang on, dude!" Jay yelled
He put the Nissan into reverse and gave it all he had. I heard the gears whine louder than ever as he pedaled backwards towards his house and disappeared out of sight.
Without thinking, I popped the hood of the Buick to see where the fire was coming from, but as soon as I wrestled it open a wall of fire shot out at me, flames licking my arms and hands with a fury I hadn't witnessed in all my years as a Boy Scout. No Tenderfoot campfire can prepare you for the wickedness that a grease fire can deliver. Within seconds, Jay reappeared with a small fire extinguisher which he handed to me and yelled "GO!". I pulled the plastic retainer and engaged the handle, shooting directly under the passenger wheel well where the flames seemed to roll out with ferocity . No sooner did I cover the area in white foam did the front passenger tire violently explode, sending molten rubber and steel belts into my shin and leg.
"Forget it, dude. Get back, get back!" Jay shouted.
I kept shooting under the tire and under the hood, but the wall of flames emanating from the LeSabre was likely 10 feet tall by now. The car's firewall was engulfed in fire, and I noticed the windshield was starting to turn black from the soot.
A passing motorist stopped by to say he had called the police with his cellular phone, still a relatively new invention in 1996, and that help would be on the way very soon. It couldn't be soon enough for my beloved LeSabre, which by now was completely engulfed in flames back to the door jambs. I moved further away and prepared to watch this thing explode.
Minutes passed and traffic slowed. No police, no fire department, nothing. Soon I noticed the loud, black 1986 Mustang GT belonging to my friend Clint pass by the busy road and quickly do a 180. He cut in front of the line of cars to get closer and see if I was okay. He got out and said something profound.
"Holy shit. That sucks, dude".
Finally after 20 minutes, a volunteer firefighter in a Plymouth Voyager arrived carrying a yellow raincoat and small fire extinguisher. He seemed out of his element and after surveying the 20 foot tall flames, he decided it was too dangerous to tackle by himself. He waited for the battalion to arrive, which they did a few minutes later...
I watched the crew of firefighters put out my flaming LeSabre in seconds, pry open my trunk and dowse the entire hulk with water. The acrid smell of rusted metal and melted rubber and plastic was stomach-churning. There's nothing that compares with the smell of that, its something that will stick with you for eternity. In less than an hour my shiny Buick was reduced to a charred mess covered in water and foam. I hitched a ride home with my buddy Jay, called the school and told them I wasn't coming back, and felt my pride sink. My car was no longer a car.
Several days later, Dad & I had to go 'claim the body' in the local impound yard in Round Lake. We also had to pay $130 to the towing company for miscellaneous fees. The gentleman at the yard informed us that the Buick had caught fire again, twice, on the flatbed car hauler on the way to the yard. No matter how much love I showed that car, and all the new parts I threw at it, the LeSabre wanted a Viking funeral. The lessons learned were numerous, and they follow me to this day. Be smart about purchasing a used car, and be even smarter when it comes to throwing time and money into it. We never understood what caused the engine fire on the LeSabre. Was it the fuel pump? The carburetor? A bad fuel line? The world will never know.
Part of me still misses my first car deeply because we never got to say "goodbye", save for a few seconds alone with its rusted carcass in a gravel impound lot in Round Lake. I did manage to remove a badge on the rear quarter panel, one of the few parts of the car that wasn't damaged, and I still have it today in my parts stash for old time's sake.Who knows if I'll come across another one, but Lord knows if I do I'll make sure to look it over more thoroughly...and in the daylight.
The great lesson to be learned from my time spent with the LeSabre is a simple one: In life, occasionally things go up in flames. You just need to make sure you're not inside them when it happens.