(first posted 4/15/2015) Every one of us has had experiences that have seared themselves into our consciousness. Sometimes these remain at the forefront; other times, such as my experience with a Coupe deVille identical to this one, the experience lingers in the sub-conscious, awaiting its time to emerge and smack me across the face.
It was the summer of 1986. For reasons lost to time, my parents left my sister and me with our maternal grandparents, Iris and Albert. Already at their house was my grandfather’s older sister Stella and her husband Ed, who had driven down from St. Louis in their blue 1984 Coupe deVille to attend a family gathering.
Stella and Ed were happily retired. Married later in life, they never had children and I never did see very much commonality between them.
Ed was a kind hearted, big smiling invader of one’s personal space who could be as annoying as chronic jock itch; Grandpa Albert concurred and referred to him by a number of amusing pejoratives. Ed was a daily imbiber of free McDonald’s coffee although he never once bought an ounce of their food. Stuffing his pockets full of napkins on the way out, he frequented the local park, pilfering items from distracted visitors. Once, upon Ed’s triumphant “finding” of a quilt, Grandpa Albert pondered “who would swipe some poor guy’s whoopee blanket?”
Stella was equally kind hearted, her soft-spokeness punctuated with undertones of her mother’s native German. She was also quite unflappable. Once when using an ice pick to break peanut brittle, she managed to run the tip of it through the palm of her hand with it nearly breaking through the skin on the other side. A quiet curse was followed by a douse of kerosene (a sugar-laced cure all in my mother’s family) before she continued. Despite my grandfather being in his 60s at the time, Stella still babied him.
Ed and Stella also had their mutt dog, Sandy. While I appear to be off-tracking, the stage must be set. Ed and Stella treated Sandy like royalty, giving her the same food and portions as themselves, making her quite rotund. Whenever Ed took Sandy for a walk, her pauses and subsequent pawing at the ground was Ed’s signal to enthusiastically hoist her up by the tail and dig in with all those free napkins from McDonald’s.
Which leads me back to Ed and Stella’s blue Coupe deVille.
At that time Grandma and Grandpa owned their 1985 Dodge Aries two-door. With my sister aboard, three in the backseat would have been cruel and unusual punishment so my one year older cousin Brett and I were instructed to ride the sixteen miles to the county park with Ed and Stella in their Coupe deVille. Grandma and Grandpa would follow us there.
For a Midwestern boy such as myself, when at that time seeing a car not made by Ford, Chrysler, or General Motors was about as frequent as a Friday the 13th occurring on a Sunday, riding in a Cadillac was supposed to be the big time. To my limited thirteen-year-old experience, the stature of a Cadillac could be exceeded only by the height of automotive luxury: Rolls-Royce.
I was told I was in for a memorable ride. Truer words have never been spoken.
Getting into the velour-lined deVille was a pain in the butt. Big doors, climbing over the seat belt – the experience was similar to my parents’ ’78 Plymouth Volare. However, once in, the seat was like a sofa stuffed into the back of a chariot. Soft, inviting and offering stretch-out comfort; it was easy to tell its 3’4″ of legroom surpassed nearly everything I had ridden in. For some then unknown reason, Ed and Stella covered the velour seats of their Coupe deVille with towels. That was a downer, but hey–it was a Cadillac!
When Ed started the engine, Stella announced “It’s warm in here; Ed, turn on the air.” The internet is populated with scathing critiques of General Motors; however, I have yet to see the first gripe about GM’s marvelous ability to create a meat locker atmosphere with their air conditioning. The cooling was nearly instantaneous from that Coupe deVille’s air conditioner, much like sticking ones head in a snow drift. Thermodynamics and refrigeration was a science GM had honed to perfection, and it maintains that talent to this day.
Getting onto the highway near my grandparent’s house, the Cadillac seemed to acquire speed more than accelerate. It also seemed as if there was severe straining going on in the distant expanse of the engine bay. Grandpa Albert would later tell me he suspected Ed and Stella’s Cadillac to be motivated by a four-cylinder given its feeble acceleration. However, I distinctly remember the 4100 plaques on the fenders, indicating the not-so-mighty 135 horsepower HT 4100 was laboring away in a vain attempt to whisk around this 3,986 pound Cadillac with some degree of authority.
Promptly after getting onto the highway, Ed started giving Brett and me a tour of his Cadillac. To say he was proud of this 121.5″ wheelbase deVille would be an understatement.
“See boys, if you press this button, this extra odometer resets to zero so you know how far you’ve driven…”
“See boys, if you turn this knob, the radio speakers will play only on the right side…”
Not really paying attention, Brett was taking his own tour and lifted up one of the towels. Grabbing my arm, he pointed to his discovery. When we pulled the towels back further, the treasures continued; the blue velour was polka-dotted with stains originating from Sandy’s overtaxed digestive system. It was quite unnerving to realize the interior of this nice Cadillac had been so heavily soiled. More unnerving was the realization this cheap layer of cotton was all that separated me from the remnants of Sandy’s gastric distress.
Our horror became palpable soon after Ed oozed onto I-55. Being the ever enthusiastic tour guide, Ed was thrilled about having a captive audience and was paying absolutely no attention to driving.
“See boys, if you flip this switch you can adjust the temperature, just like in your house…”
“See boys, if you press this button, it will come out red hot so you can light your cigar…”
Like a javelin at the Olympics, we were soon hurtling and floating down the shoulder of the interstate at a brisk 65 mph. I could see the wreath-and-crest hood ornament standing proudly on the hood, confidently leading the way to what I hoped would not be a grisly finale. Three miles of this, combined with the incessant demonstrations of this Coupe deVille’s features and other motorists honking and waving in raw fear, proved to be too much for the ever patient Stella during this 55 mph era.
“Ed, pay attention, dammit! You are scaring the shit out of these boys. Get back on the road.”
With his gums still flapping, Ed did as instructed. When we got to the county park, Grandpa Albert’s curiosity got the better of him before the Coupe deVille and Aries were vacated, as he yelled, “Jason, what the hell was Ed doing? I thought for certain I would be seeing you four getting your asses wrapped around a bridge column.”
It is impossible for me to see any early ’80s vintage Coupe deVille without smirking.
(These photos were taken by Tom Klockau. While it’s highly possible Ed and Stella’s Cadillac could have migrated to the Quad Cities from St. Louis, the backseat looks much too nice.)