Stolen Cars, Stolen Memories

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I stood in the parking lot, listening to my dad argue angrily with the stranger who drove the vehicle hauler to meet him. The stranger wore a ridiculously tall cowboy hat, black pants and shirt, and to complete his ensemble wore some type of brilliantly white tennis shoes. There were at least six vehicles stacked on the hauler. A couple were Chevy Cheyenne pickups, a particular specialty for my Dad. The others were cars, including one exotic black Oldsmobile Toronado. The exchanged words grew more intense as I attempted to back away surreptitiously from the two angry men. Though the ending is spoiled by me telling you that no one was killed that day, the anger I remember was as real as any I’d had the misfortune of experiencing. My dad had a gun tucked in the back waistband of his pants. That he was a convicted felon never slowed his tendency to carry a gun everywhere. It might be in the glove box, tucked under tools, or slipped under the seat. It might even be a sawed-off shotgun. Though we went without many things growing up, dad never shorted himself the right to have a few dozen firearms.

“I don’t give a good g-damn what you were told, Bobby Dean.” The stranger moved his legs apart. He was expecting a fight. Dad wasn’t going to throw a punch. Someone was going to get ventilated by gunshot. People knew all the rumors about my Dad’s legendary and violent alcoholic disposition. That was only half the truth. He was much more dangerous when he wasn’t drinking. While less likely to be violent when not drinking, if his temper was lit, he seldom controlled it.

I don’t remember whether we were in Siloam Springs or somewhere else along the border between Arkansas and Oklahoma. We drove most of the way via Highway 68, the precursor to 412. Most of my recollection revolves around riding too long in the bed of dad’s pickup truck. Why I was chosen to go with him wasn’t clear. Duke, Dad’s dog, accompanied me on the windy ride.

At least a couple of the vehicles were stolen. Dad worked for ______________, a family member with a car lot and a dealer’s license. Between Dad and my family member, they knew how to disguise a stolen vehicle as legitimate. I should know. They stole a Ford Galaxie from me in the mid-80s. As for the family member, I didn’t realize until years later that he was related to me by marriage. Dad committed arson for him at least twice that I know of. More than once I heard Dad brag that anyone could burn a house down using the water heater or the stove unless they were total morons. That last bit isn’t relevant but somehow seems important.

“I’ll give you $500 less than agreed. Anything more and you can go _____ yourself.” Dad seemed adamant on the amount.

“You’re going to have to drive the hauler to Springdale then. I’ll pick it up in a couple of days,” the stranger answered. Dad shook the man’s hand. All the anger seemed to have disappeared once the money issue had been settled. Dad handed the stranger his truck keys. It must have been honor among thieves which prevented Dad from worrying about his own truck being stolen.

Since I wasn’t going to witness a murder, I emerged from the other side of the hauler. Dad handed me a stack of papers, titles, and mechanic records. “Put’em under the driver’s side seat,” he shouted at me. He went to look inside each of the vehicles on the hauler. In a few minutes, Dad climbed into the vehicle hauler cab. “You’re not riding in the cab. Go ride in one of the cars on the trailer. And don’t let anyone see you.” I don’t know if he thought he was conferring a privilege or what. Since he wasn’t screaming, I didn’t question him. I wasn’t surprised that Dad’s dog was going to ride in the cab of the hauler on the way back while I was banished to the vehicle of my choice. There was no way I was going to try to climb onto the top level and ride the curvy highway back to Springdale with Dad driving. I have to admit, though, it was both a little scary and interesting sitting in the Toronado. The car looked sinister to me even then. I spent a few minutes searching through the glove box and under the seats of the car I rode inside as Dad drove the hauler. I pressed the cigarette lighter in at least two hundred times on the trip, watching the coil glow red. This was a cardinal sin around my parents, who treated smoking as the religion they failed to possess. They were unconcerned if I burned my face off with the electric lighters. Their only issue was to find themselves without a constant means to light a cigarette.

Dad pocketed the $500 he shorted the stranger who drove the vehicle hauler to the border of Arkansas. He told me to keep my mouth shut or get a broken nose when we stopped by the road in Tontitown. I wouldn’t have known if he hadn’t threatened me.

All the cars were sold as if they hadn’t been stolen. To make it easier, another cousin had a permit to do vehicle inspections, notary work, and many of other details needed to steal a car. He lived over near 40th Street. Dad was a mechanic by trade and could do welding, electrical, plumbing, and a thousand other things. Because I was uninterested in anything related to Dad, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the conversations about stolen vehicles or stolen parts. There were a couple of  junkyards that had the dubious specialty of looking the other way on just about everything. Everyone involved had convinced themselves that they weren’t doing the stealing, so it was okay. I did ask once, “But if people like you didn’t buy them, who would they sell them to?” That’s the sort of question to earn a punch in the middle of the chest if I was lucky – and in the face if I wasn’t. It seemed likely that I shared a lot of history with the children of Mafia bosses.

Several years later, Dad made a few runs to pick up vehicles in other states. I can’t say with certainty that they were stolen, but those involved with the cars were being careful. One of those cars was a 1978 Dodge Cordoba, painted metallic green. I’ll never forget it because I had to sand every inch by hand. The Karate Kid had nothing on me for those countless hours of fun. Dad ‘gave’ the car to Mom and sold the one she had without asking her for her opinion. She gave it to him anyway, at high volume and under the influence.

P.S. I’ve never acquired a taste for cars. I admire an interesting one, though, especially some older ones I was able to see when I was young. The 1966 Toronado holds a place in my heart – and for all the wrong reasons.

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