A Last Ride

June 29, 2005

I owe my car life to two men. And when one of them left us today, I kept his Duesenberg and his Rolls-Royce.

Last Friday my sister called. She doesn't call at 10 in the morning. So before I took the phone, I made a checklist - gas up the Honda, put my black suit in its bag, don't forget my long socks. In an hour, she was ready too, and we drove back home to Washington for the funeral that had been a long time coming.

My grandfather, William Grove, didn't just love cars. He was part of the car life in America. His grandfather puddled steel in Pittsburgh and at 70, moved to Detroit to build cars. His father was a taxi driver and, when he was able to see clearly after long nights chasing GIs' wives around Sunnybrook Tavern during wartime, an avid car buff. Both are probably why Granddad spent his nights collecting used cars to be wrecked, in the days when people only bought new cars.

Instead of wrecking them, though, he'd rescue them. The Cadillac with a nut-sized dent in the fender became the car he parked on the northeast block off K Street in D.C. The Duesenberg he briefly possessed - when Duesenbergs fell from fashion - was stationed on another block. At one point he had seven cars, including the Rolls-Royce he saved to squire Grandma around town. Gas was cheaper than Coke; tags were $1.

By the time he moved my mother and the rest of the extended family south into Maryland farm country he'd already owned a gas station, and would own another in the 1980s where I first saw a '55 Thunderbird. Where I first lusted after a Mustang. Where I saw my first girly calendar on the greasy wall in his office. And where I would sit for hours while my dad and uncle passed humid afternoons all summer long, air lines hissing tires to life like friendly cobras and the smell of raw gas never more than a few dizzy feet away.

The stations are long gone, and so are the Duesie and the Rolls, preceding me by 50 or more years. But I kept them with me today, and when I drive all the new cars back home as I do often, I'll drive by Granddad and let him see them. Because I know he'd want to.

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