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Think Small

Jean Shepherd 1967

ISBN #32-00-93391

Copyright: 1967

A six page essay, "My Dream Car", by Jean Shepherd is included in this small book which was used as a promotion of their cars. The other night, as I lay safely sealed in the warm, comforting womb of my trundle bed, dozing fitfully after my long nightly bout of Late Late movies, the strains of Donald O'Connor's high, piping voice still ringing in the echoing caverns of my mind, an old, troublesome vision glowed faintly somewhere near the vicinity of the ceiling and then vanished. I sat up, beads of sweat instantly forming themselves on my pinched brow. I had seen that same vision many times over the years. It was an old enemy, and had caused me hours of soul-searching, and indeed perhaps accounts for my well-defined but nicely-hidden sense of deep inferiority. I had never spoken of this problem to others since, after all, there are some things best left lying quietly in the closets of the soul. But now I feel, since there could conceivably be others dogged by the same inadequacy, that in a spirit of Public Service it had all better come out. It concerns that ubiquitous feature which runs over and over and over again in all Male-type magazines: My Dream Car. Hardly a Male periodical goes to press these days without a spectacularly illustrated piece by somebody named Ken something-or-other entitled "My Dream Car." It is as classical a piece of writing as a Hollywood western or a Broadway musical. It always follows the same well-worn paths and arrives at the same comfortable old destination. Its opening lines go like this: I will never forget the day I stood 6y the side of that dusty country road, my hand comfortably held by the work-hardened miff of my colorful grandfather Ebeneezer. There was a cloud of dust and a deep-throated, heart-warming, thunderous boom as a great yellow speedster roared past, sing swirling clouds of dust and exhaust as it boomed over the hill. Crouched over the wheel, his oil-bespattered goggles glinting in the sun, sat Dan Dangerfield, the local playboy and a student of that big college up in the city, named Harvard. Instantly my eyes glazed over as I fell madly and forever in love with that belching monster. When the ground had ceased (rambling under our teat, old Grandpa cackled wheezily: "Son, that's the greatest car Man ever built. That's the (Blank Bank]. It was then 1 knew that some day I had to own a (Blank Blank]. The blanks are invariably filled with (7) Stutz Bearcat, (2) Mercedes 540 SK, (3) Mercer Raceabout, (4) Dusenberg SJ. The piece then invariably goes on to tell of the author's harrowing thirty year search for the [Blank Blank] and how, finally, tracking down an idle rumor heard in a barbershop, he encounters in a broken-down old barn a [Blank Blank] owned by a spectacularly folksy (t) Presbyterian minister, (2) crusty New England farmer, or (3) eccentric collector of Yugoslavian coins, who then takes an instant liking to the author and consents, after thirty years of loving care, to part with this priceless family heirloom. The piece is always accompanied with a magnificent four-color illustration of a classic [Blank Biank]. Now I don't take issue with this delicious bit of confection. I suppose, in the end, it is as harmless as a Doris Day/James Garner romance, but it has nevertheless left its scar on what remains of my self-respect. It Is difficult to admit, even to your closest friends, that you have never had a love affair with a Dusenberg or a Stutz Bearcat and, in fact, don't even remember hearing of them, much less seeing one, in your mis-spent youth. Furthermore. it is an even crummier feeling to have a dream car that you're even ashamed to talk about. I might as well let ii came cut now even though Ken whatever-his-name-is (it's something like Perky, or Puppy) would probably not even wish to acknowledge my existence if he ever hears of this, which I doubt. The truth of the matter is I'm not sure that my dream car even exists, or ever was. It is never in classic car shows. It is never mentioned in glossy volumes of great automobiles of the past. And on the few occasions that I have dared to bring it up, I get nothing but blank stares. It all began when I was a pale-cheeked lad hurling newspapers into drainage gutters a Northern Indiana mill town. Daily I would take a short cut through a shoddy, wind-blown Used Car lot where many a humbled used car buyer had been bilked of his life savings and then some. It was not exactly a Used Car lot; more of a defeated car graveyard. Elderly battered hulks, their original color and shape long since lost in the misty shades of the past rested in ragged rows, hubcap-deep in beer cans and cigar butts, awaiting hopefully one last owner. Overhead, a red and white sign banged in the wind: "HAPPY HARRY THE HUNGRY ARMENIAN CARS BOUGHT AND SOLD WE NEED CASH! LATE MODELS OUR SPECIALTY NO SIGNATURE NEEDED." Occasionally Harry himself, his beady eyes glowing in the naked lightbulbs that hopefully lent a fictitious sheen to the hoods of his mortgaged clunkers, could be seen skulking about the premises, stuffing a wad of gum into a leaky radiator here, or dusting stove black over a cracked block there; always cheerful, always confident, ready for a deal. Every night I hurried through Happy Harry's on my way to the next street, which lay at the end of my endless paper route. Gradually I began to know every battered hulk on Harry's lot. They would came and go. Some would remain longer than others. Some never went at all, and are probably still there, buried now in the mud, awaiting the archeologist's pick. One dark dreary day when the wend bore a cutting edge to it and even Harry's lightbulbs looked discouraged. I first encountered the car which today I doubt even existed. It was square and runty, a strangely mis-shapen, irritated little car. Same machines are majestic; others voluptuous. A few are arrogant end sleek. This car, if it was anything, radiated an aura of aggressive timidity. Ironically, it bore proudly on the pocked and rusted hubcaps in classic bas-relief, the profile of a famous football coach, a football coach who was a demi-god in the Midwest, a football coach whose very name was synonymous with success and victory. I had never seen such a car. My sack of sodden papers hanging heavy on my shoulder, I circled this dun-colored, stunted little entry in the great American automobile sweepstakes. Sure enough, on it's tarnished radiator, in bronze letters, was the name of the coach himself. The wlndshield bore in large runny whitewash lettering its price: eighteen dollars. I circled it warily. Of course, I was far too young to own a car, but I looked at them plenty and thought about them constantly. I peered in at its dim cramped little dashboard and stood back to get the whole picture. Harry, sensing a nibble, was on the scene instantly, licking his chops. "A beauty, ain't it, son?" "Yep," I answered, "sure is." "Just one owner." "Yeah." I answered. "Yep, Baptist Sunday School teacher. Old Lady. Just used it for picnics on Sunday." The cutting wind tinkled the bare lightbulbs overhead as we both gazed approvingly at the little car which noticeably sagged in the middle. "Yeah. You ask your Dad about her. He'll tell you." Harry was gone, back into his little wooden shack to continue his endless game of Deuces Wild solitaire. I scurried over the rest of my route, thinking about the car that I did not realize at the time would become a secret, ghostly mirage in my later life. That night at the supper table, in the warm air of our kitchen an atmosphere heavy with the aroma of red cabbage and meatloaf, I put it to the Old Man. He was a recognized local expert on the folklore and mythology of the Used Car, a walking compendium of the intricate knowledge of a highly complex field of study. He knew intimately the vintage years, the years of drought of all the various breeds of machines that roamed the back alleys of the Midwest. "Dad..." I began. He laid down the Sport page and prepared to dispense advice and knowledge. "Dad, Happy Harry has got a funny car on his lot that I never heard of." "Yeah? What is it?" Such a statement always brought the Old Man's mind to full attention. There were two subjects that involved his entire life; Used Cars and the White Sox, an obscure ball team of the Chicago area. "Well, it's got this guy's picture on the hubcaps." "What guy?" "That football coach." I couldn't remember his name. "Football coach? You mean Happy Harry the hungry Armenian has got on his lot a Rockne?" His voice rose in obvious interest. "Yeah, that's it, a Rockne." "Well, I'll be damned. A Rockne. How much does he want for it?" "Eighteen dollars." I answered. "That crook!" The Old Man laughed appreciatively. He and Harry were old adversaries. "I never heard of a Rockne." I continued gamely, hoping he would say something nice about it. "Son, the Rockne is the second-worst piece of junk ever made! Next to the Essex Super 6. It's got a transmission made out of balsa wood. The only time I ever saw a Rockne do over 25 on the flat was the time I saw one get smacked in the rear by a Western Avenue streetcar going full tilt, end then the guy couldn't get it stopped for two blocks because it didn't have any brakes. Eighteen bucks for a Rockne! Well, you gotta hand it to old Harry for trying." The next day I could hardly wait to get back to the end of my route so I could see the Rockne again. I hurried through the rows of dilapidated heaps to the spot where it stood. It was gone. In Its place an old Hudson convertible sat rusting away quietly. I never again saw another Rockne. Or heard of them, for that matter. And now, at this long last, I have begun to doubt whether they really existed. Did I make up this scene? Was there ever a Rockne? I find it hard to believe that the great giant of the Fighting Irish would have lent his name to such a loser. I have never been able to shake that vague, insistent desire to see one, to sit in one, maybe even to own one. I know it is shameful to admit that my dream car did not thunder, sending up great, billowing clouds of dust as it roared over the brick oval at Indianapolis. Some men dream big. Others dream little. I hope Ken Whatshisname won't think too evil of me for this abject admission. But there it is. A man sometimes has to face himself and admit what he is. Sometimes I awake in the dark in the early morning hours and imagine that I see a scuttling, dun-colored Rockne limping around a corner and struggling into a service station. And moreover then my dream fades, leaving only the sighing wind. Was there ever a Rockne? Or have I dreamed it all?