Chasing Tail Lights

when I was in fifth grade, my brother’s muscle car was the coolest ride in town

Ken Szymanski

At age 17, circa 1981, my brother Don set his sights on a Midnight Blue 1964 Chevelle SS Malibu.

327 engine.
4-barrel carb.
Dual exhaust.
8-track player under the seat.

Our father, on the other hand, thought vintage hot rods were bottomless money pits. Not to mention unreliable, loud, and – God forbid – impractical. And when broken-down and propped up on blocks in the driveway, a classic car turned into a classic eye sore.

But on his 18th birthday, Don bought his dream car. For me, all it took was one ride to realize Dad was wrong on this one. I could literally feel the force of acceleration in my ribcage. Pedestrians stopped and looked at us in the Chevelle – sometimes nodding and giving a thumbs-up sign. That never happened in Dad’s Ford LTD.

Another thing Dad’s car lacked was a subculture. One epic evening, Don took my brother Ron and me to cruise night. Before the convoy, cruise night involved hanging out at the classic car rendezvous point, which at that time was the Burger King parking lot on Hastings Way. We looked under the hoods of other cars and had conversations as engines revved in the background.

Chevy guys stood with Chevy guys; Ford guys stood with Ford guys. Rivalries simmered between the groups. Guys stood by their cars, arms crossed, fists under their biceps. I never saw a fight, but there was a cool danger in the air. Was the Chevelle – or any other of those other cars – totally street legal? None of your business.

I was out after curfew on a Saturday night, without my parents, wearing my “Chevrolet #1” shirtall soundtracked by ‘60s rock on the 8-track. It was as cool as I could get, at least while standing in a fast-food parking lot. Then we hopped in our cars to start the cruise. A caravan of 30 or so muscle cars, jacked up or riding low, rolled down vintage six-lane Hastings Way: Doughnut Land, CO-OP Shopping Center, Pied Piper, Woo’s Pagoda, Wagner’s 66, and Mr. Steak.

At every red light, the cars revved their engines – BRR-PUH-PUH-PUH – waiting to punch the gas on the green. Our car probably could’ve looked more badass without the fifth-grader grinning from the backseat (no seatbelt!). Downtown, onlookers stood under the Civic Center underpass, making rotations with their hands, hoping to hear some squealing tires echo off the concrete. I was told to keep an eye out for the cops. If we got pulled over, the police would be greeted with Don’s back license plate frame: I’D RATHER BE DRAG RACING.

Unfortunately, the classic car era in our family ended too soon when Don started a career and needed reliable transportation. It was time to become an adult. In the Chevelle’s window, Don put up the sign: FOR SALE.

When some guy in Mondovi finally bought it, Dad didn’t celebrate, just nodded his head in approval. A neighbor inquired about the missing car, with condolences. “That had to be tough,” he said, sighing like he knew something about adulthood that we didn’t.

Now, all my family members drive generic cars. They get better gas mileage. They’re safer. More reliable. More sensible. But not memorable.

As for the old Chevelle, Don thought he saw it on Hastings Way a couple of times, barreling in the other direction. That was years ago, though. He guesses it was sent to the crusher long ago after all of the salvageable parts were picked clean.

But maybe not. Perhaps someone went through the effort to preserve it. Why? Well, ask any sports memorabilia collector, Civil War reenactor, or archaeologist. Why do they bother? The same reason that right here, right now, I’m trying to polish up an old memory from my own scrap heap. The same reason Don still hangs around car shows and Rock Falls Raceway.

We’re time travelers, all of us, chasing taillights back into the midnight blue.