In the mid-1960s, when I was 19 and very concerned about being “cool,” I owned a 1956 Chev two-door hardtop. My first wish would have been a ’57, but at least the ’56 seemed better than ’55s, and to my mind the ’58 Chevs had already lost a good deal of their charm, while the ’59s with their massive tailfins had turned into “boats” which were far more lavish than cool.
My car had a few other drawbacks, too. It was painted light brown, almost a diarrhea colour, and where the power train should have been a 283 V8 with automatic transmission, mine was a mere six-cylinder standard, not allowing quite the smooth takeoff I’d have preferred. Also, the former high school classmate from whom I bought the car had sanded the tips of the tailfins down to the metal, and I spray-painted them white (to my later chagrin), where they should have been cream-coloured like the rest of the decorative paint on the sides. Nevertheless, a two-door hardtop was several cuts above other cars, just below convertibles, which were the most coveted of all. My Chev had whitewall tires and large chrome hubcaps, and also a radio. Sometimes I kept a solid-body electric guitar in the back window, without a case, to show it off the way construction workers did their hard hats.
My father and I did a lot of work on that automobile. Once we raised the engine to remove the crankcase and install new piston rings, and within a few days had it all put together again. Another time we dismantled the head to get the valves ground. And there was the weekend we replaced the brake shoes and had the drums honed. That Saturday evening after supper we went back outside to finish the job and worked until it was too dark to see. The only thing left was to re-fill the master cylinder with brake fluid and test the lines. Dad said this would take only a few minutes, and we’d do it in the morning. I was thankful to be finished and to get into bed, because the next day I had a hot date with a girl from Melfort, which was a two-hour drive from home.
On Sunday morning as I put on my best suit, Dad went to the workshop and found the brake-fluid can, and when I got outside he was already emptying it under the hood. We tried the brakes and they held firm, and I drove from the yard with fantasies going full tilt to pick up my cousin Ted and his girlfriend Bertha — this was to be a double date — and the three of us headed east for the hour’s drive to the junction of the Melfort highway.
It was a fine summer morning. The Chevy cruised along, we rolled down the windows and turned up the radio — it would have been CKOM, the coolest station for playing rock’n’roll.
As we neared the junction I began slowing down, and approaching the stop sign I pushed on the brake pedal. It went straight to the floor, the car kept rolling — we had no brakes! — and at the last second I hauled on the emergency-brake handle, and with a shudder and a squeal the car came to a halt, its hood ornament far out in a lane of the new highway and the white tailfins well past the stop sign of the old.
It was at least another hour to Melfort. Although I knew there were service stations along the way, most were closed on Sundays, and by now my girlfriend was surely getting dressed
for our date, which was supposed to be lunch at a restaurant of her choice.
For the next few minutes we limped along the highway, then for another 10, and 15 more, rolling slowly into every service station we came to, to see whether by chance one was open on Sunday after all. Mile after excruciating mile we went on, until finally we arrived at Melfort and turned down the gravel road leading to my girlfriend’s farmhouse, lurching into her driveway and with another application of the emergency brake stopping at her front door.
Mercifully, the rest of that day is largely a blank to me. We drove back to Melfort as haltingly as we’d come. Ted offered to let us have our meal while he and Bertha hunted for a mechanic who might be willing to figure out what was wrong with our new brakes.
We drove first to a service station at the outskirts of the town whose restaurant was open. Their mechanic was not on duty. My girlfriend and I went into the restaurant and got seated at a window table, and saw Ted easing the automobile away while other vehicles came and went at the gas pumps with all their brakes plainly in working order.
As I recall (or choose to recall), the girl was gracious about this. But what did we have for lunch? What did we talk about? I have no idea. My thoughts would have been preoccupied with how boorish I must seem to her, or how my cool hardtop had let me down. My words would have tried to sound cool if not romantic, but underneath there would have been a silent bleat: Please, please give me another chance.
I don’t know how long we sat there. But at some point the ’56 Chev pulled up beside the window and skidded to a halt in the gravel, with Ted grinning broadly in demonstration of our now fully working brakes.
The two of them came in and joined us. The mechanic they found said that someone had poured gasoline into the brake lines, which had soaked and stretched the rubber ends of the cylinders so they quickly began to leak, and the master cylinder had been empty long before we got to that stop sign at the junction.
It was my dad’s doing. He’d forgotten that he kept an old brake fluid tin in his workshop filled with gas for the lawn mower. All that hard labour of ours, and then this little slip . . .
That was one of the last dates this not-very-cool guy had with the Melfort goddess. She soon found someone closer to home and eventually married him. With 50 years of hindsight it’s probably just as well. But Ted and Bertha ended up marrying each other, and they’re still together to this day. One summer Sunday they came through for me, and today I felt like saying thanks again.
Ratzlaff is the author of three books of literary non-fiction published by Thistledown Press: The Crow Who Tampered With Time (2002), Backwater Mystic Blues (2006), and Bindy’s Moon (2015); and editor of Seeing it Through, an anthology of seniors’ writings published by READ Saskatoon. Formerly a minister, counsellor and university instructor, he now makes his living as a writer in Saskatoon.