Had Instagram been a thing when my parents were a young married couple, the highlight of their account, based on the notebooks I found that listed literally every expenditure they made during their first years together, would have featured an item something like this.My parents were not given to the dramatic gesture – even when they could finally afford it. They began married life and raised a family in a tiny, poorly insulated, wood stove heated shack in rural Missouri. My mother, even when we became (comparatively) flush, was genuinely excited about receiving a clock-radio for Christmas. Our idea of a social event was attending Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting. A big night on the town was dining on the special at Chicken Mary’s.1
Yet, once upon a time in the 1960s, my mother roamed the highway in the leather-upholstered driver’s seat of a brand new Thunderbird. Now, lots of matriarchs were no doubt the proud owners of T-birds. Heck, Ford incorporated the notion into their Thunderbird: Unique In All The World advertising.
See those folks in that ad? Those were not my parents and the setting was not our home. That my mom ended up behind the wheel of the vehicle Ford marketed as their personal luxury vehicle was the essence of the most surreal era of my adolescence. I’ll explain.
The Back Story
First, keep in mind that Mom is best known on this site as the curator of the collection displayed on the wall of their cabin south of Branson and featured in In My Mother’s House Are Many Tchotchkes. I grew up in, and, more pertinently, my parents always lived in the Ozarks,2 an area where the only gated communities were inhabited exclusively by cattle, and luxury home was spelled “d-o-u-b-l-e-w-i-d-e.” This was not what one would consider a Thunderbird friendly environment.
Second, my dad was a unsuccessful farmer who later built an impressively profitable business buying used cars in Flint, Michigan, transporting them via tow bar or car carrier trailer to the back yard of our Diamond, Missouri home, and wholesaling them to nearby dealers.3 It turns out that being a member of a family whose livelihood depends on buying and selling a dozen or so cars each week is a mixed blessing. On one hand, I always had a car to drive, beginning with an immaculate turquoise and white 1957 Chevy (first purchased by a local farmer who immediately added plastic seat covers).
And, at one time or another, I piloted more than my share of impressive vehicles (well, impressive to kids in the late 1960s), including muscle cars like Pontiac GTOs and Chevelle SS 454s, pony cars like Camaros and Mustangs, and a outrageously gorgeous 1964 Ford Galaxie convertible. (Full Disclosure: I also drove more than my share of less impressive or downright embarrassing cars — a 1959 pink and white Buick LeSabre comes to mind.) Further, the fact that Dad had a full time employee who did expert paint and body work was a not insignificant perk for a teenager like me.
There was, of course, a catch — every car my parents or I drove was always for sale. Consequently, my tenure behind the wheel of any given automobile was perpetually at risk. I was once leaving on a date in a red Firebird when Dad stopped me to shop the car to a dealer who had just arrived. I picked up my date in a brown Mercury Monterey. I returned from trips home to medical school in a different car than I the one in which I had departed campus so often that the University finally issued me the only transferable student sticker in service that year. Other than that 57 Chevy, which was mine for two years, no car stayed in our family more than a few weeks.
I spent most Saturdays working on Dad’s cars: washing them, changing the oil, mounting and balancing tires… Mom’s days were filled with not only housework but also keeping the books for the business, handling titles, license plates, and other paperwork, making runs for parts, etc. Potential buyers assumed they were welcome anytime. Finding a dealer from Tulsa waiting on our porch when we awoke at 5 AM was not cause for surprise. Meals were interrupted so frequently that one of Mom’s specialties was twice-fried pork chops.
The primary inviolable principle was that Dad dealt in used cars. He bought, sold, and drove used cars. So I drove used cars, my brother drove used cars, and, of course, Mom drove used cars. Except…
In the early 1960s, when I was on the pubertal verge, my Mom, never an automotive aficionado, somehow became infatuated with the Ford Thunderbird (in those days, invariably referred to as the “T-Bird”). In fact, referring to “when Mom gets her T-Bird” became a reliably amusing inside joke. Then. one day, it wasn’t a joke but a reality.
Naturally, there is certainly a great story explaining how this brand new, magnificent automotive beast appeared in the driveway of our modest home/used car lot in Diamond, Missouri and make its home there for a few years. Unfortunately, I don’t know that story. In our family, information was provided on a strict need-to-know basis, and there was precious little that was deemed essential to share with the offspring. So, there may have been all manner of parental negotiations of which I was unaware: begging, threatening, proffering of sexual favors… My fantasy, however, is that Dad one day realized that his wife’s craving for what was then a $5,500 machine4 was not an indefensible whim but an opportunity to make her happy. (I believe that because his son came to similar conclusions many years later.)
Regardless, I was, for a brief time, the kid whose mother had the hottest car around. It was a one shining moment thing.
Credit Due Department: Ford Thunderbird emblem by Ellin Beltz – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link. Coca cola ad by Billy Hathorn – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link. Thunderbird photo by Sicnag – 1962 Ford Thunderbird Hardtop, CC BY 2.0, Link. Chevy photo by pony rojo. Ford Galaxie photo CC BY-SA 3.0, Link. Amphicar photo by user:Enslin – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
- Not to be confused with Chicken Annie’s a few doors down the road in Pittsburg, Kansas. Chicken Annie’s put out a perfectly edible product beloved by many, but the Showalters were Team Chicken Mary’s. [↩]
- With the exception of two years we spent in Tulsa [↩]
- Other than the fact that Dad undeniably bought and sold used cars, he had so little in common with the caricatured image of a fast-talking, sharkskin suit-wearing, fast-and-loose-dealing predator hustling suckers into buying wrecks at inflated prices that the title used car dealer is misleading. My father preferred overalls, never slapped a back literally or figuratively, and had a reputation for honesty such that auctioneers at auctions limited to dealers would routinely note when he was the owner of the automobile on the block as a certification of the accuracy of the information they offered about the car, a tactic I never heard associated with another dealer in the eight years of car auctions I reluctantly attended. [↩]
- I’m absolutely positive he got a deal from the Ford dealer and made a profit when they finally sold the car [↩]