Illustration for article titled Life in Cars: Part 2: The Early Years

(This is part 2 of a multi-part series. If you wish to start at the beginning, click here)

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To know where you’re going (aka finding “The One”), it’s important to know where you’ve been. It’s also a walk down memory lane—more than that, really, A reflection on life, something we’re often so busy living that we don’t take any time to reflect on with more than a passing depth. Writing about cars has saved not just certain details of the slowly vanishing memories, but recreated the emotions I had at the time, giving visceral connections to 10, 20, 25, more than 35 years ago.

My first memory of cars comes from what had to have been under 2 years of age (this particular memory is more of a recreation from others telling the story). As I suspect a first car memory is for many enthusiasts, this one involves a toy car. And not just any toy car: A Ferrari Dino. Just like all Ferraris in modern days, this one wasn’t mine. It belonged to my older brother, and he still has it to this day.

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Illustration for article titled Life in Cars: Part 2: The Early Years
Illustration for article titled Life in Cars: Part 2: The Early Years
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I don’t know the exact scale, but let’s say this runs about 4-5 times the size of a Hot Wheels. It possessed characteristics sure to gleam the eyes of any child: opening doors, rubber treaded wheels that could be removed (and now gone), and a pullback wind-up mechanism to let it shoot across the floor, hitting Ferrari-like speeds on smooth linoleum.

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As the story goes, the parents, brother, and toddler aged me (under 2) were at a Kansas City Royals baseball game. Baseball doth not captivate a toddler for long and apparently I took hold of, and subsequently fell asleep clutching my brother’s beloved Dino. 5 year-olds don’t typically share well, and he wanted the Dino back. Now!! Unfortunately for him, a sleeping toddler was not something my parents wanted to disturb, and they refused to take it out of my hands the rest of the night. I think he held that grudge for quite a while during our childhood, at least, he seemed to during the regular beating sessions I endured growing up.

No matter. I would soon come into my own fine collection of toy cars: Hot Wheels and Matchbox versions.

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Illustration for article titled Life in Cars: Part 2: The Early Years

What I have today is only a well-beaten, pared-down sampling of the hundred plus that used to be. Attrition took its toll through misplacement, moves, casualties of war (more on that below), or other workings of time. Many years ago, my parents were moving out of our childhood home, and a few were plucked from the depths of dust. When the full collection was brought back to daylight (in a sense of fairness, and since ours had been mixed together with true ownership mostly forgotten), my adult brother and I did an old fashioned draft (“you pick one, I’ll pick one”) over the remainders. I made sure to draft high my favorites from years past. I love these earlier Hot Wheels and Matchbox years, where they often attached memorable names like Front Runnin’ Fairmont, Greased Gremlin, Midnight Magic, Orange Peel, Piston Popper. As a kid, the entendre of these names escaped me, yet were no less enthralling and gave them personality.

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My favorite solitary childhood games revolved around two I could endlessly play with my cars. Neither of the games had formal names, but went something like this: The first consisted of dumping my box of cars at one end of the kitchen floor and then launching them one at a time across the linoleum. The object was simple: whichever car made it across the furthest won. And, oh my, if one could actually jump the small tack strip at the end and travel a short distance into the carpet of the living room….Well, that was almost certain victory (unless, the ultra-rare and adrenaline exciting finish where other cars jumped into the living room too). There were always personal favorites that might have received a “preferential” shove, and occasionally a “mulligan” if they hit a crumb on the floor or the occasional cat obstacle and spun out. Pedestrian traffic had to be dodged as well. The favorites would be the ones that tracked straightest and with the least wheel friction. Bent axle? No chance of winning. Matchbox would often edge Hot Wheels (just sayin’). I could play this game for hours on end, and did so for many years. Towards the end of my childhood, I might have even had the luxury of playing Billy Joel’s The Nylon Curtain LP in the background while playing this game.

The second cars game would have been kind of a mash up of demolition derby, mad max, and personification imagination. Cars would be divided up (drafted) in two teams, and each would have a clear leader (good and evil). The basic game would then be some sort of head to head battle, race, cops/robbers, rescue the damsel in distress, whatever. Crash ‘em up/you’re out/who’s left standing sort of stuff.

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I think the latter game carried over from my daily life. When I was in early elementary school, two main cliques developed among the boys. This division carried into the lunchroom (two separate tables), the recess games of four square, kickball, and soccer. I wouldn’t say exactly mine was the “nerdy” clique. It wasn’t that cut and dry. We were typically the better students and less athletes, let’s say. We had enough scrap to win a share of the soccer and kickball games. We didn’t draw the teacher’s ire as much. I always thought we were the “good guys.” I might have transposed this child Lord of the Flies-like division into my play.

As happens with all childhoods, there came a time when the cars thing seemed played out…childish. It was time to move on, grow up, and face adolescence. I do recall that there were many times around that transition, where the house might be empty and I might sneak the box of cars out and dump them on my bed once again for a quick play. Just like a lot of struggles during adolescence, I would feel torn between the sheepish feeling that I was “too old” to do such things, and the flicker of joy and recollection that would come from reliving fun and carefree times.

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I had pretty much forgotten them in a dark basement box until I had children of my own. You never know where your kids’ interests will lie, and I tried never to aggressively push mine onto them. My firstborn, a son who I’ll refer to as Mr. Beans, acquired a few cars as a toddler. I thought perhaps as he came into age, he might like for his father to lead him into the world of imagination and cars. As it turned out, his life took a bit of a different turn. At around 9 months of age, Mr. Beans was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy. CP is essentially a stroke in childhood. It can happen before birth, during, or as a result of some brain injury later on. Like adult strokes, how a child is affected with CP depends on the extent and location of the brain injury. In Bean’s case, it has nearly paralyzed the left half of his body, and made it difficult for him to sit or walk during many years of development. Though he had a greater than 50% risk of mental deficits, he is blessed with many intelligence gifts, currently carrying over a 4.0 GPA to the end of high school.

Around age 3 or 4, I wanted to introduce him to hot wheels and matchbox cars. Since it was very difficult for him to sit without toppling over at early ages, a little creativity had to be employed. He had a support chair, so I found and purchased a hot wheels set that came with orange tracks and a plastic C clamp. We fashioned a ramp by clamping the C to a side of another chair and laid out track down to the wooden floor of our starter home living room. Thus was born a “new game,” aptly monikered, “Cars Down the Ramp.” In this game, either his Mom or I could load up a stack of cars on the chair and Mr. Beans could send them down, one at a time. The object was the same as my childhood—which could you get to cover the longest distance. He didn’t spend large swaths of his childhood with Cars Down the Ramp, but I think it will be a fond memory of fun and imagination for him in his later years.

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Illustration for article titled Life in Cars: Part 2: The Early Years

(shortened version of the actual ramp from over a decade ago).

These days, you can still find me casting an extended sideways glance (not too long lest I feel embarrassed) at the Hot Wheels packs in grocery stores and Walmart bins —more looking for current examples of desirable collector cars, or cars I’ve owned. I’ve picked up a few that fit the fancy. I was quite joyous a couple of years ago to find a Matchbox Mustang SSP in a gas station during a road trip rest stop.

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Illustration for article titled Life in Cars: Part 2: The Early Years

Even now, I still have evocative memories pulling these cars out and looking at them. A school friend of mine had a birthday party when were all in 4th grade. His mom put Hot Wheels on top of his cake and let each guest pick one. I managed to score the 911 Porsche. Afterwards, we went to see the recently released Ghostbusters in the local theater. Best-birthday party ever contender right there, let me tell you.

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Looking at this derelict Fire Chief—

Illustration for article titled Life in Cars: Part 2: The Early Years
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takes me back over 35 years when my mom and stepdad were dating. We were all taking a walk in a (mostly dry at the time) manmade spillway behind his house. I looked into a stacked rock wall and saw this car wedged in. Left and forgotten by some other kid, I’m sure. It was as beat to hell then as it is now. But seeing the car, I can see my stepfather’s old house, smell his musty basement, remember the uncertainty of a new father figure coming into our lives, picture their wedding, and smile to think of the love and support he gave us throughout our lives. Not bad for an inanimate object.

I still believe there’s an important place for model/scale cars in the hobby. The “real things” take up quite a bit of space, limiting all but the best-heeled of us. It reminds me of an obscure movie with James Belushi: Mr. Destiny. I won’t rehash the whole movie plot, but think of it as an early 90’s remake of It’s a Wonderful Life. Belushi’s character’s life is of a stable, but dull middle manager who believes he would’ve hit the big time if he hadn’t struck out in the big youth baseball championship game. His fairy godfather (Michael Caine) then alters the “what if” scenario to him hitting the ball and life altering so that now he became the wealthy head of the company, got the dream girl, all the trappings of success. Whereas the former Belushi schlub had a model sports car, the “new” alternate version has a dream garage full of them. As you can guess without seeing the movie, he eventually misses his former wife and life, and longs to go back to them. The memorable car scene to me is that of the wealthy Belushi in a room by himself toward the end, working again on the small sports car model. Someone asks him if he wants to go take a drive in the real thing, and he replies, “Nah, I prefer the small ones.” Yeah, there’s something to our toy cars.

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Please join me for Part 3 of Life in Cars.

Summary

Vehicle(s): Toy Cars

Horsepower: unlimited but by imagination

Torque: unlimited but by imagination

Interesting Facts: Some of my best childhood memories.

Representative Song: “Allentown,” by Billy Joel

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