Mar 3, 2016

Old Cars, Old Friends and the Haunted Manor

I started my driving career in a rust bucket.
My uncle had a 1963 Chevrolet Impala, complete with rust all along the undercarriage and a dull, gold paint job that screamed “uncool”. When my dad asked if I would be interested in buying the vehicle, there was no hesitation. Although I had never seen the car or had no idea how much he wanted for it, I was all over it. After all, the only motorized vehicle that I had up until then was a Rupp 3.5 HP mini bike. At 15 years of age, my own car represented freedom. And I would buy my freedom with my own cash! Working at the White Horse Drive In, along with a paper route, had helped me to earn and save enough money to afford the car and the small insurance premium. My dad went to Uncle Charles house and brought the car home for me and I immediately jumped behind the wheel to take her for a spin. “Not so fast” dad commanded. “First, I’ll need $100 for your uncle; second – do you know how to check the oil? the water in the radiator? Tire pressure? You can’t just check the gas gauge and take off, son!” I must admit that, although checking the tire pressure was a no-brainer, the oil and water thing was foreign to me. The mini bike was air-cooled and the oil was something that I had never given much thought to. Dad took his time explaining how to do the basic maintenance procedures, pointing out how important it was for a thirsty car to be quenched. The year was 1973, so I had in my possession a 10-year-old car, rusted by constant exposure to the salt and sand of the South Carolina low country. It was a road boat!
After giving dad the C-note, insuring that my oil and water were topped off and that there was an ample supply of fuel, I took off to show my friends my new ride. Watching my dad in my rear view mirror as I drove away, I could see a worried smile cross his face. He had already bid bon voyage to two older siblings as they tooled away in their new rides so I’m sure the smile reflected more pride than concern. I went by lifelong friend (and co-author of this blog) Larry Durham’s place and found Larry and several friends playing basketball in the yard. “Hop in boys, we’re taking her for a spin”. “Your new ride?” “Yep, bought and paid for! Let’s see what she’ll do!” We went all over the neighborhood, me and the younger brother in the front, Larry and John Chandler in the back. We decided to leave the confines of the neighborhood and explore downtown Greenville, SC. Unbeknownst to me, the radiator had also been a victim of the seaside rust and had sprung a pinhole leak.
We continued through downtown and then decided to go through the ‘haunted house’. It was actually an old brick home with a long driveway that wound its way to the home through an urban forest, of sorts. The driveway led up to the home and then proceeded through to another road on the back side of the home. Why this home was purported to be haunted, I’ll never know. It was one of those landmarks that my older brother would point out whenever we went by the property as kids. As we turned into the driveway, hearts pounding with excitement, a curious series of events unfolded. First, the front passenger side seat broke through the floor and dropped to the ground. My brother was holding on, sparks flying from the bottom of the seat as the metal scraped along the road. Stopping the car (and foolishly leaving the engine running), we got out to examine the damage. The entire floorboard under the seat had given way, rusted out. Opening the trunk, I saw a 3ft 2x4 lying there. I was not sure of its original purpose, but it would now find a new home wedged under the front as a support for the bench seat. Problem solved! Well…not quite. By the time we all climbed back in the car and were heading further into the woods surrounding the house, steam started boiling out from under the hood. Hoping to make it past the house before the worst happened, I floored it! No such luck. The car sputtered a couple of times and then died a grisly death right there in front of ghost manor. We all looked at one another, speechless. The hissing of the radiator gave an eerie undertone to the rhythm of 5 beating hearts, the only two sounds that I recall hearing at that moment. I certainly didn’t hear the footsteps of the approaching gardener, who appeared at my window like a ghost. He was holding a pair of hedge trimmers. “What are you boys doing on this property?” Scared shitless, I mumbled something to the effect of “sorry sir, but our car overheated and we were hoping to get some water”. “Get out and follow me” said the gardener. We all poured out of the Chevy and followed the gardener like a bunch of schoolboys heading to the principal’s office. The old man led us to the house, past the garage and around the back of the house. I thought that we were being led to slaughter. No one else knew where we were – the perfect setup for teenage murder. The old man found a large watering can and filled it from the faucet at the back of the house. Handing me the container of water, he said “be sure that you wait until the car cools down before you open that radiator cap. Don’t want you to get hurt”. The way he said it almost made my skin crawl. He then picked up his trimmers and walked around the opposite side of the manor house. We quickly made our way to the car, opened the hood and waited impatiently for the cool down. As soon as it was safe to open the cap, I poured all the water into the bone-dry radiator and secured the cap. We all piled back into the car and remembered our childhood prayer for “Lord, please let this car start”. It did and we were off!
The 1963 Gold, rusted Chevy Impala only lasted another year with me. I upgrade to a 1967 Chevy Impala, white in color and no rust. And we never made the mistake of visiting that haunted house, ever again.