(Revised since first being published July 3, 2013) The 1977 Impala seems to have become one of the more rare of the downsized B-bodies and simply aren’t seen very often. Upon finding this specimen, a flood of memories from a nearly forgotten road trip washed all over me. I’m still tying to determine if such a stimulus dredging up long lost memories is good or not.
For those trepidatious about seeing another B-body, don’t worry; this won’t be professing fondness for, or poetic platitudes about, the downsized GM B-bodies. From what I am told the ’77 Impala belonging to my grandparents was a real turd – even about the same color – and was one of two reasons they took a fifteen year sabbatical from purchasing any GM product. Not all B-bodies were bastions of amazement and grandeur.
In September 1983, my mother was concerned about my younger sister and I possessing scant memory of her maternal grandmother. I had met her once in mid-1975, when I was two and my sister was just a few months old. To satisfy my mother’s concern, I traveled with my parents, sister, and maternal grandparent’s – “Albert” and “Iris” – to my great-grandmother’s house near Houston, Texas.
We made the trip in Albert and Iris’s 1977 Chevrolet Impala over Columbus Day weekend in October 1983. I had just turned eleven.
When learning of the trip, I was concerned all six of us would be stuffed like sausages into my parent’s 1983 Plymouth Reliant. Such was not to be; we were going in the Impala.
The trip from my grandparent’s house, south of Scott City, Missouri, to Houston was about 14 hours and 725 miles. Grandpa Albert’s focus in getting to Houston was legend within the family, so I was looking forward to seeing what would happen. Unfortunately for me, he had mellowed by age 59.
Sitting in the middle of the front bench seat between my father and grandfather, I kept an eager eye on the speedometer; sadly, it never went above 60 mph. Part of this was due to the Impala having been born with a 250 cubic inch inline six; it was pulling a fair amount of weight and, with 110 horsepower, it was no thoroughbred.
Somewhere around West Memphis, we made a pit stop at a rest area. Once inside, I got my first exposure to the foibles of the digestive system in aging men. Standing there next to Grandpa Albert, I hear a loud “rrrruuuppp.” Without missing a beat, Grandpa says “Damn floor has a squeak in it, Jason.” The floor was concrete; why would he say that?
Time has certainly opened that treasure box of knowledge.
My father soon took over the chore of driving. Being 6″ shorter than Granpa Albert, I had to contort myself such that I was peering out the right front window while we merrily chugged down the interstate. My mother and Grandma Iris were catching up about the various people they both knew. At some point, it was mentioned somebody had a drinking issue. This triggered a memory in Grandma Iris.
Now, about Grandma Iris….she’s a patient person but has a short fuse with stupid. One time when talking to my grandfather’s older sisters, she made the statement “that was enough to make me lose my religion.” Unable to forego a prime opportunity, my grandfather replied “that doesn’t take much to do.”
Anyway, Grandma, while not a prude by any means, has no tolerance for alcohol. I got to learn part of the reason why.
“Albert, I hope you remember your brother Clem’s wedding. You were dipping beer out of a bucket with a soup ladle and drinking as much as you were dipping. Then you claimed to get hot and cut the sleeves off that brand new dress shirt. When I finally got you hauled home, you started whining about feeling nauseated. You plopped down on the couch holding your army helmet between your knees so you could puke in it.”
Grandpa acted as if he hadn’t heard a word.
“I called the girls in to watch the show you were putting on. When you finally got to the toilet, you were hanging your head over the bowl, sounding like a dying cow from having the dry heaves. I called Sherry and Connie in and said, ‘girls, look at your father. See what drinking does to a person?’ Anytime a person drinks very much, they just end up making an ass of themselves.”
The rest of her aversion to alcohol goes back much further. Born in 1927, she was the granddaughter of a Prohibition moonshiner who would take her and her two older sisters to various churches on Sunday mornings and then sit in the front row. His arrival signaled his availability and he would take orders after the service. She has never appreciated being used as a prop for the sale of home-brewed hooch.
The Impala was like a locomotive for the entire trip; acceleration was best described as nose bleed, but once up to speed, it did an admirable job of doing what was required. Other than having oxidized paint, a complete inability to track a straight line, and a trunk that collected water like a cistern, it wasn’t a bad car.
After an overnight stop, we arrived bright and early at my great-grandmother’s house. For reasons I’ve never learned, Grandpa Albert called my great-grandmother “Bill”. How he got that from Pauline is a mystery.
A short while later, Grandma Iris’s sister Margie came by in her Grand Marquis as did their oldest sister Wanda. Both of them referred to Grandma Iris as “Charlie”. With Grandma Iris having been the third child, everyone had been hoping for a boy and nicknamed her after Charlie Chaplin.
As a reminder this was Texas in 1983, Wanda, who drove a red International Scout, wore a t-shirt announcing, “I Love to Hate J.R. Ewing”. At the time I couldn’t understand why people in Houston were so interested about events in Dallas.
The Impala later carried us to John and Margie’s house near Cut-and-Shoot; their son Clay and his overwhelmingly pregnant wife Joyce arrived shortly after. Sitting outside, we watched them approach in Clay’s Pontiac Formula. Margie said, “Charlie, watch this, it’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen.”
After Clay shut the engine off, he dutifully got out of his Pontiac and opened the hood. Joyce spilled out and waddled around to the front of the car. She leaned over the hot engine and heavily inhaled about four or five times. She then paused and did it again.
Margie had tears in her eyes from laughing. “Charlie, girl, isn’t that the damnedest thing? I know pregnant women get weird cravings, but can you believe this? She’s been doing it for three months!” The rest of us sat in disbelief, amazement, or complete confusion – I’m not sure which; maybe it’s all three.
Everyone’s childhood helps form who they become as an adult, maybe this trip is part of why I’ve turned out the way I have.
We left the next day and spent the night in Texarkana.
Grandpa Albert’s concept of roughage in his diet is eating biscuits and gravy for breakfast. Since he had been commenting for two days how he was in the mood for some, and one particular restaurant had had billboards for miles, this place seemed to be a natural. Pulling into the parking lot at 8 am, nobody was concerned the parking lot was empty and we were the only customers. This place had biscuits and gravy, dammit.
We were served the greasiest, most wretched, foul, and distasteful biscuits and gravy I’ve ever had. I’ve seen diarrhea that looked more appealing. I couldn’t eat it and took my leftovers with me.
Later that morning when making a pit stop, I shoved the remainder of my biscuit in the ashtray and slid the door shut. Getting out, I threw the container in the trash. Problem solved, right?
Somewhere south of Little Rock, Grandpa Albert found himself in a talkative mood. He started talking, but addressing it to my father.
“Ed Shafer,” – he always calls my father by both names – “you remember the flood on the Mississippi River back in 1948 or so?” My dad would have been four for most of 1948, so it’s probable.
“This old boy had a big old dragline out by the river. Hell if I remember what he was doing. The river was rising and several people told him to get that thing out or it would flood. He was too hard-headed, so he left it there and sure enough it got flooded. It then sat there for two years. One day I saw him and asked if he wanted to sell it. He thought I was crazy but shot me a price of $75. I pulled out my wallet and bought that drag-line. I went and bought a case of dynamite and a sheet of plywood. Clem and I went with our older brother Lyle and started scrapping it. Clem and Lyle would put charges on that dragline and then run the line to where we were hunkered down behind that plywood. Clem would drop the hammer and we would knock some more off, load the pickup, and head to Cape.
“One day this old boy was out squirrel hunting with his dog. He saw what we were up to and said we’d get ourselves killed. But he wanted to watch so we told him to find a spot. We’re all hunkered down behind the plywood when Clem drops the hammer. Just when Clem is dropping the hammer, that dog spotted a squirrel and was ready to take off. That old boy grabbed that dog by the tail and yanked him back just before it got hit with a chunk of metal. When the dust settled, that old boy stood up and said ‘You bastards are crazy!’ and left.
“I made a boatload off that dragline.”
Grandpa later explained the beauty of fishing from a john-boat in the Mississippi River while using dynamite as a fishing lure. Dynamite does make a trot-line obsolete.
Two weeks after we got back, Grandpa discovered the biscuit in the ashtray. It had fossilized, but not molded. I was the recipient of a coaching and counseling session on leaving items behind in the automobiles of others.
The Impala stuck around until 1985 when my grandparents unceremoniously traded it for a new Dodge Aries two-door which was then replaced by a Dodge Dynasty in 1988. They left Lido for the General in 1992 when they purchased a B-body Buick Roadmaster. With the Roadmaster requiring 2 engines, 3 transmissions, and 5 torque converters, they were two for two on shitty B-bodies.
I’ve been looking for a ’77 Impala for quite some time as there are actually many snippets I remember from my time in one. Finding this Impala, and writing this story, has made me realize how it’s sibling was such a supporting character in my younger years. Having grown up around such regular and unpretentious people has certainly kept me grounded in life. That’s a lot like how the Impala was the regular and unpretentious B-body.
Found in Quincy, Illinois, Summer 2012