In everyone’s lives, there are a handful of moments in which the figurative lightbulb illuminates in one’s head. One of mine began illuminating in late 1979 or early 1980 when I was seven years old; it took a while for full power but it’s stuck with me like a bug on a windshield.
The Maverick of discussion, a 1971 model which belonged to my paternal grandmother, was likely recycled into a refrigerator long ago but its legacy is still quite vibrant.
Grandma purchased her Maverick in late 1970, special ordered from the one-man band of Stout Ford in Mounds, Illinois. Equipped with the 170 cubic inch straight-six, a three-speed on the column, and a heater, it was as sparse as one could get. Its only real acknowledgement to greater aspirations was being ordered in an eye-catching Grabber Blue.
Upon being unexpectedly widowed at age 45 in October 1966, my grandmother had the unenviable combination of returning to work and raising a twelve year-old. Being the stubborn, bull-headed, and unyielding woman she is, Grandma told me in 1995 this experience made her vow to pay cash for a new car within five years as she didn’t want to be seen as a pitiable, unfortunate widow.
She bought the Maverick in a little over four years.
One day while in third grade I saw a wrinkled yet familiar Maverick parked on this county road my grandmother used daily to get to her job as head cook at the school cafeteria.
Being a very small school district, I was able to tell Mrs. Wilson, my third-grade teacher, I needed to go see my grandmother without having to explain who or where she was.
I found Grandma in the stockroom, doing inventory. She appeared surprised about my knowing of her mishap. In retrospect I suspect she didn’t want to make a production but I ruined that. This event was infinitely more fascinating that multiplication tables and I gleefully blabbed the news to anybody who would listen.
Upon my arrival home, my mother was immediately informed of this Major Event. It was met with a simple “ugh”.
My father greeted the news in his usual stoic fashion. After eating, he and I, along with my aunt’s husband Lyle, piled into my father’s 1970 Ford F-100 and went to fetch Grandma’s car.
My grandmother was quite accustomed to driving on gravel roads but the loose rock she found that day got the better of her. The oak tree that jumped in front of her succeeded in pushing the front bumper into the radiator, with the radiator being shoved into the fan. The hood was crumpled, but oddly the front fenders were relatively unscathed.
How she drove the Maverick as far as she did before the engine got warm is a mystery to this day. Of course, Grandma was always quite lucky in her driving. A few years earlier she had successfully backed the Maverick through a ravine at a state park that most people wouldn’t dare navigate forward unless wearing a four-point harness while piloting a four-wheel drive. She and my great-grandmother were gabbing and bouncing around the interior the entire time, oblivious to what they had accomplished.
Hooking a log chain between the Maverick and the F-100, we started back to the house – the long way, which surpassed the thirteen miles it would have been on paved roads.
Likely trying to avoid my father’s cigar smoke, I rode in the Maverick and could see absolutely nothing due to eating dust from the pickup. In a way, I feel for Lyle’s navigating the Maverick; he was trying to avoid hitting my father but was rendered blind. The ride was a thrill for seven year-old me, especially when any slack in the chain was yanked out, but it would probably be more nerve-wracking now.
Incidentally, it was about this period of time when Lyle and my father did actually have a collision. One frosty morning Lyle was backing his still ice covered ’76 F-100 from his driveway as my father was going to visit his Uncle Stan. Stan lived next door to Lyle and my aunt. Neither could see each other and they connected right in front of Lyle’s house. So maybe Lyle was understandably gun shy about a repeat performance.
My observation about their sheet-metal bending connection being like Rosco and Enos from The Dukes of Hazzard prompted a lively admonishment. It was worth it, although my brutally honest observations still aren’t appreciated by others.
Now is the point where this true story takes a turn from semi-serious to, well, something different. You might also be asking yourself a few questions, among them:
Jason, why didn’t they call a tow truck?
Great question. None was called as a) that would have cost money, and b) a tow-truck was too far away; besides, everybody there at the time owned a pickup. The car could roll, so what’s the problem?
Jason, didn’t the police take a dim view of pulling a car thirteen miles with a log chain?
A good question based upon a false premise. For law enforcement to take a dim view of anything, there has to be law enforcement. Where I grew up any thought of law enforcement was a novel and abstract concept. I never even saw a car marked with “Alexander County Sheriff” until I was seventeen years old; there were all of two state troopers in the county, neither of whom would have batted an eye (for what it’s worth, my dad had gone to school with one and my mother was friends with the older sister of the other; he had also been a neighbor for a brief while). To give you a flavor for the area, the sheriff’s department would later have all have their cars repossessed.
Jason, what exactly was the plan?
Plan? What plan? You haul it back to the house and let it soak up some sun for a few days until inspiration hits. Of course, the Maverick was put under a shade tree where the best automotive inspiration seems to take place.
My grandmother wasn’t going to pay anybody to fix her car anymore than a cow produces bourbon – and filing an insurance claim was not an option due to increased premiums. Somehow she rooked my father and Lyle into fixing it. As a witness to this whole bizarre spectacle, I’m still not sure how it all came together so well.
One Saturday morning, after Lyle and my dad had basked in their British heritage by smoking a King Edward or three, the sweet tidal wave of inspiration swept over them both. Dad got his socket set, a sledgehammer, and his old Ford tractor.
The hood came off and was tossed on the ground. The self-draining radiator was removed. Chunks of the shattered grille were tossed in every direction. The log chain made a triumphant reappearance and was wrapped around the radiator support. It was obvious things were about to get interesting.
After some incoherent, smoke drenched confab, Lyle got in the Maverick and stood on the brake pedal. Dad began to cremate another King Edward and climbed onto the Ford tractor. Clinching the cigar in his teeth, he revved the old Ford tractor up to three-quarters throttle and gingerly dumped the clutch.
The Maverick lurched and shimmied while the Ford dug its large drive wheels into the ground. Hitting the clutch, dad backed up and repeated the process for what seemed like half the afternoon.
After howling protest from all parties involved, the radiator support was slowly bent back into some semblance of being perpendicular to the fenders. The finesse of a sledgehammer provided the final, delicate touches.
A new radiator reluctantly obliged to being connected to the crinkled radiator support. Points were not scored for inconsistent gaps as functional had been the name of the game all along.
With the radiator in place and the cooling system filled, a preliminary start of the engine yielded no leaks, smoking, knocks, rattles, or other unpleasantries. A quick cruise around the nearby cemetery showed the Maverick didn’t track sideways, so all was good in the world.
Getting back to the house, my father and Lyle continued to partake of activities guaranteed to make any auto-body teacher nauseated. Flipping the hood on its belly, they took turns jumping onto it, slowly turning the tangled mountain of sheet metal into a plateau that could reasonably be seen over.
Reattaching the hood, the log chain made an encore by being welded to the underside of the hood and wrapped around the front bumper. A padlock held it all together. The license plate was screwed onto the tractor straightened bumper and the Maverick was now ready to terrorize the highways of America.
Time for some more likely questions:
Jason, how did the car pass its safety inspection?
What safety inspection? Illinois didn’t have them for passenger cars at that time and they still don’t.
Jason, did your grandmother actually drive this monstrosity?
Why, yes, she did and for well over a year.
Riding in Grandma’s Maverick post-oak tree was a blast. Taking off from a stop, you knew when she had hit 35 mph as air would take the slack out of the chain and raise the hood about three inches. Dropping below 35 would result in a “clunk” as the hood settled back down. It was great fun.
This whole true and sordid tale ultimately developed my practicality mindset. It was also a great lesson in not worrying about silly stuff, not stifling creativity, and exercising self-sufficiency. It’s paying dividends to this day.
And what about the Maverick? After driving it for a year or so, she sold it to some down-on-their-luck family for $200. They drove it for several more years before it vanished.