(Author’s Note: Upon taking the dive to present a COAL series, it occurred to me life is a grand soap opera of sorts but with somewhat less melodrama and amnesia. JES)
It was February 1990 when all the talk came to a close. Well, what little talk there had been; I had jumped at the first real opportunity not knowing how long the offer may stand. But as has often been the case with me, making a quick decision turned out quite well.
This was when a stray 1989 Ford Mustang followed me home. It would see me through the most transitory time of my life – and there have been several transitory periods over the years.
Let me preface this automotive memoir by pointing out I was too young, at 17, and not mature enough for what I was about to
endure undertake. Context is everything and this needs context.
As my parents were the first in their families to attend college, they always presented formal education to me and my sister as something that would happen regardless. Similar to puberty and death, there was seemingly no escaping it.
I had zero desire to go. Life had endless possibilities and, being 17, these possibilities needed to be explored. What possibilities were there? Darned if I knew, but I certainly wanted to find out. Plus, I knew if such exploration was to ever happen, this was the optimum time for it.
Perhaps college would have been on my radar later in life but it wasn’t at that point in time. But suffice it to say I was steamrollered, so I started college in August 1990 at nearby Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau.
Not wanting their firstborn to be ill-prepared for a journey in which he was profoundly disinterested, my parents said they would buy me a car as a tool for this endeavor. After a short look at a few candidates, and really wanting a 5.0 Mustang, I settled on a second choice of sorts – a 1989 Mustang with the mighty 2.3 liter four and a four-speed automatic. I truly did (do?) appreciate the car. For reference, this Mustang was obtained when I was 17 years, 5 months in age, three months shy of my high school graduation.
What about the other automotive candidates? Well, I knew with my father being the financier the spectrum of potential acquisitions would be pretty narrow. To him, GM was contemptible and anything with a brand from outside the US wasn’t durable, so the tea leaves were screaming Ford and Chrysler.
It came down between the Mustang and a significantly higher mileage white 1988 Chrysler LeBaron coupe. The Mustang checked my box and the four-cylinder portion checked my father’s box. A trip to Guetterman Motors in Cairo, Illinois, sealed the deal.
Also helping my decision was this being the only late model Mustang to be found that was neither red nor white.
On that magical day, Jason trotted home in his charcoal (so said Ford) colored Mustang notchback. It undoubtedly spent those first 15,000 miles in some rental fleet.
That fall I started college, using the Mustang to commute the twelve miles each way. Upon conclusion of my first day, I went home and announced “well, I’ve now been to college, it’s time for better things”. The look on my mother’s face was priceless. Yes, I do stick my finger in the figurative monkey cage.
I turned eighteen three weeks later.
As an aside, the reason for my college aversion is simple; with all the pro-college spiels poured over me, I had become skeptical. My entire life my parents had asserted how college was the key to success, blah, blah, blah. However, it took about 1.7 seconds to identify successful people who had not been to college and unsuccessful people who had been. Thus the various assertions were, to me, flawed and suspect. Naturally this was pointed out to them.
Such inconvenient observations were as welcome as a turd in a punchbowl.
As another aside, a few years ago I took a personality profile test called a DISC assessment, one of the better ones I have taken over the years. While everyone has traits of each, we all have a majority trait; my majority landed in the “D” zone, which reveals a person who is direct with statements and observations, also mixed with a sprinkle of impatience, and we generally don’t follow rules that make no sense to us. This directness is usually not appreciated by others, particularly those who don’t like being challenged – which is a distinct number of people.
This is mentioned to provide context for the rest of this series.
As yet another aside, I was due to register for the Selective Service in September 1990. For those outside the United States, all males in the US have to register at the post office (likely online now) within 30 days of turning 18. While the specifics aren’t coming to mind, it is a throwback to times when there was a military draft.
My registration was due right as Operation Desert Storm began; with rumors of the draft being reinstated there was a part of me that wondered if this might be an escape hatch – just not one I wanted.
For the time, the 2.3 in that Mustang was one of the better four-pots I had experienced, but that’s still not saying much. By May 1990, I had driven several Ford Escorts, K-cars, a Mazda pickup, a Nissan Sentra, and my father’s 1988 Ford Tempo. The OHC 2.3 (as opposed to the pushrod 2.3 in the Tempo) had tolerable off-the-line punch with that automatic but all the fun and merriment left the engine room at 3,000 rpm. When one’s power band is that narrow, and only in the two lowest gears, you learn to adapt and improvise while having your patience tested relentlessly.
The Mustang did not fall into the “D” quadrant above where it says “just do it”. That poor, well-meaning car didn’t just do anything regarding momentum with any sense of rapidity. Even the brakes weren’t that awe-inspiring.
The “maybe…someday…eventually” mentality of that 2.3 facilitated my not purchasing anything with a four-banger for nearly a quarter-century.
I commuted from my home on the Illinois side of Cape Girardeau for four semesters. The Mustang did its thing – unexciting, but reliable. The one trick I quickly learned was if one was so bold as to pass anyone, it was wise to turn off the air-conditioner as it gave the galloping Mustang at least another five crucially needed horsepower. Ford should have named these half-engined Mustangs “Tennessee Walking Horse” – they looked good, but sprinting wasn’t their thing.
The fall of 1992 saw me transferring to the University of Missouri – Rolla, UMR. At that time my major was going to be mechanical engineering; I figured if prison inmates can better themselves during their incarceration, I could also. I changed majors to civil engineering in August after working for the Illinois Department of Transportation that summer. The project I worked on, a 5 mile total relocation of Illinois Route 3 in Alexander County, was in the grading phase at that time. It was an ideal introduction to civil engineering.
As still yet another aside, various alumni from UMR include six astronauts, a slew of generals, and a host of politicians. Another student during my time at UMR was some guy named Jack Dorsey; it appears he has found a modicum of success despite never having graduated.
Some comments over time have made mention of the Midwest being flat; that’s painting with a very broad brush. The elevation in Cape Girardeau is 384 feet and the elevation of Rolla, 154 miles away, is 1,184. Granted that is nothing compared to the American West nor is it a constant climb – there is an abundance of climbing with descents, only to repeat itself. My preferred route, seen above, skirted through the St. Francois Mountains (seen below) and it was up, down, turn, down, turn, up, turn, up, turn, down, up…you get the idea.
For all my trips along this route, that Mustang consistently gave all it could. But sometimes giving your all isn’t enough as that poor under-endowed pony required (or dare I say “thrived on”?) being flogged every mile of the way. By the time I parted ways with the Mustang, there was considerable wear on the carpet under the accelerator pedal due to my foot being on the firewall so consistently. The 2.3 was rated at 88 horsepower but it seems some of those ponies were a bit less ambitious than others. The automatic was likely an accomplice to this, also.
I quickly discovered the best way to drive the Mustang in hilly terrain was to simply keep my foot planted on the floor. That was the sole method of not falling far below the speed limit when going uphill. This was also an act of being considerate; there were often drivers behind me and nothing creates frustration like a rolling roadblock.
The Mustang handled the twisty roads with reasonable aplomb; I have always wondered how much the suspension in these differed from the 5.0 models. Yet the Mustang does deserve credit – it was always comfortable and the seat upholstery wore like cast iron.
Upon moving to Rolla my parents began having major squabbles; for whatever reason I got to be an intermediary way too much. It was prompting weekly trips back to the Cape Girardeau area, a lot of driving while I was there, and not much time for why I had moved to Rolla – and I had evolved to the point where college was infinitesimally less repellent and loathsome. By December, my grades reflected my being distracted. I only had to repeat one class, so there was a positive to be found.
My third semester at Rolla found me in a structural analysis class. It was a five credit-hour course, taught by a new professor who had already managed to build an undesirable reputation. However, in retrospect, he meant well but had the entirely wrong approach. With the family garbage going on, I didn’t have time for this class, plus his methodology was lacking, so I dropped it.
When visiting his office to get the paperwork signed, he asked why. Having disclosed there were personal matters to address I politely mentioned his picking people out in class for public interrogation was doing him a disservice. I reminded him this was new material for everyone, yet he was compelled to call out and relentlessly probe people who were trying to comprehend what they had just heard. He asked why that was wrong. Not holding back, but remaining polite, I told him he tended to choose those who most appeared to be struggling with the material and this public embarrassment approach made him look like an asshole.
For perspective, a third of the original class had dropped this course by the time I did. There was no alternate instructor; this course had only one class per semester.
He was apoplectic. I told him he had potential as an instructor, but his methods needed polish. In disbelief, he signed the paper and I left. By the time I graduated three years later his reputation had changed, he was winning teaching awards at the university, and he always spoke when he saw me. Despite wanting to think I played some role in his transformation, it would be wrong to assume I did.
This led to a sizable part of my time in Rolla being anything but enjoyable. Too many family distractions while trying to get settled in plus adjusting to the dynamics of a different university all took a toll on this then-20 year-old. Yet, as previously stated, I knew things could have been a whole lot worse.
It would have really been worse had I believed all the fecal-laden sales pitches about college; I would have been wallowing in disappointment for a decade.
One can only have their optimism bombarded for so long before it starts to become dulled. The never ending drama and other garbage caught up with me as one humbling day I realized all these disclosed (and many undisclosed) events had me wishing time away. I realized my constant search for tomorrow and not making the best of the moment. It was a scary realization.
Part of this meant driving that Mustang all over the place, exploring the area around Rolla and beyond. I drove that Mustang to several trout hatcheries in the region, visited local wineries (where I discovered the virtues of blueberry wine), explored the Lake of the Ozarks area, and used it on my less frequent trips back to the Cape area.
One of those weekends in Cape found me visiting a friend and his fiancee. The fiancee had a female friend at her apartment; a tall, slender brunette, she made an impression on me. However, there was no immediate spark as for some inexplicable reason my sister was with me. The brunette, I later learned, thought my sister was my girlfriend.
The Mustang continued to transport me back and forth through college and into a new career. Its repair needs were minimal but annoying. The thermostat was stuck open from about the time I had it; I just figured it had crummy heat. This was discovered / realized a few years into my ownership. Later, something in the steering column broke, rendering the blower motor and turn signals inoperative. At some point a noise developed in the rear axle, the result of a seal having come apart.
In the 80,000 miles I put on the Mustang, the spark plugs were changed every time the odometer read a multiple of 30,000. Every time, in each cylinder, the electrodes had a quarter-round shape. I’ve never seen anything similar since. Fuel mileage was nothing stellar, often around 22 mpg.
My last transitory experience with the Mustang was when I moved to Jefferson City the first time in January 1996. It snowed heavily during the first day of my new job. Leaving work, located in the middle of town, I fought the snow and local traffic to return to my newly rented duplex. Given its four-cylinder engine, the weight distribution on that Mustang was quite good, making it deceptively good in the snow. But it wasn’t perfect.
When going down the mild hill toward the turnoff to my street, I slid past my turn. Not thinking things through, I simply attempted to turn around in the driveway of a nearby house. For whatever reason, I could not back up but discovered I could go forward. Again not applying much thought, I turned the wheel to the right, mashed the throttle, and drove through a corner of their front yard (a stupid, yet pragmatic, move), dropped over the curb, and got back on the street. I hot-footed it back to my duplex and parked in the garage.
How I didn’t get stuck is beyond comprehension, but, as it always did, the Mustang pulled through for me. That is worthy of tremendous respect.
Having a new job, with a decent income, I soon realized I was no longer on a search for tomorrow. So in April 1996 I went car shopping to celebrate; also, the noise in the rear axle had reappeared. What I would special order was twice the car, with twice the engine, and it netted me the same, to better, fuel mileage.
But first we have a mild diversion…
(Note: Search For Tomorrow aired on CBS from September 3, 1951 to March 26, 1982; the following Monday it began airing on NBC until the show concluded on December 26, 1986. Ironically, that is the day I took possession of my 1963 Ford Galaxie, which has been covered extensively on these pages.)
A related and prior COAL about my 1975 Ford Thunderbird, purchased while I had the Mustang, can be found here.