Remembering Bessie

I was scanning some photos when I came across this faded one of my first car, a 1956 Chevy. No, it wasn't the V8 Bel-Air model, it was a straight 6, 2 door, three on the tree, Model 210. The picture was taken in 1975, at Hobart Street Park in Pampa, Texas shortly after a new paint job. It wasn't a particularly fine paint job, but it was affordable. I called her Bessie.

I thought that I should scan the photo, save it, before it completely faded away.

Bessie had a semi-interesting history. Uncle Lonzo, my Dad's older brother, Marion Lonzo, bought the car for his daughter, my cousin Sue. Sue lived in California and though I'm not completely sure of the history, at some point M.L., which is what the adults called Uncle Lonzo, drove the car from California back to Texas. Through some brotherly dealings, and probably because it had several mechanical problems, Dad ended up with the car and drove it as his 'work car', as opposed to the 'family car' which was usually the newest model sedan in the fleet, though that didn't necessarily mean it was any more mechanically sound than the others. 'Work car' simply meant that it was safe to throw a transmission in the trunk or haul livestock in the back seat when necessary.

The car eventually ended up on blocks (meaning cinder blocks for those of you unfamiliar with the practice) in our back yard, behind the garage. At 15 I had an unquenchable lust for independent transportation so I started bugging my parents for a car, particularly my Dad because I knew he had a weakness for buying automobiles. Dad generously "gave" me the 56 Chevy, and thinking that might be my only shot at having a car of my own, I took it.

Aside from battery, tires, belts, hoses, muffler and assorted fluids, the car also needed a steering column, suspension bits, a shift linkage and U-joints. It probably needed an engine overhaul, too, but that was beyond my expertise and finances. At the time I took ownership I had no idea of the extensive repairs needed because the first order of business was to remove the four foot weeds growing up through the front grill and de-flea the trunk that had served as a dog house and nursery for some recent batch of puppies.

By the time I got my license, and with some mechanical assistance from Dad and friends, Bessie had come to life. Later, with financial assistance from Mom, came the paint job and a new vinyl interior. Bessie had been transformed from a back yard junker to, if not exactly stylish and enviable, at least unique transportation in an eclectic sort of way. I was 16. Eclectic was cool.

When I was a senior, Dad found a deal on a 1971 Chevy Monte Carlo at a used car lot in Booker, TX. It had a 350 V8, air conditioning, an automatic transmission, forest green metallic paint, rally wheels and a black vinyl roof. I was in love. My friend Don White rode up to Booker with me and Dad to pick it up one night in March. Don and I took it for a test drive while Dad negotiated. It had little or no gas in it so we put $5 worth in it at the Allsup's. Dad's comment was if we were going to spend that much on gas we might as well buy it. We drove it back in a dust storm. Bessie was parked again, but at least this time in the relative shelter of a tin garage.

In 1983, not long after I got married, I wrecked a 1974 Monte Carlo that had replaced the '71. I had no insurance and ended up selling the '74 to help pay for the damage on the other people's cars. We were living in Atlanta so I called my brother Bill, probably collect, and asked him to do what was necessary to get Bessie drivable. Cindy and I flew to Amarillo and drove Bessie from Pampa to Atlanta in the middle of summer. Cindy learned the value of a Kool-Cushion before we made it to U.S. 287.

Soon after we moved back to Texas, to Victoria, Bessie was again put into storage. After keeping her in the garage for a couple of years, with all the best intentions of doing a proper restoration*, I finally gave up the dream and sold her for $1200 to a high school kid who was lusting for some transportation.

So now, Bessie's memory, and photo, are preserved and though I may be the only person that cares, it is done.

Previously I mentioned Mr. Nooncaster, my senior English teacher at Pampa High School. One of his standard assignments was the infamous "Thursday Paper." We would show up in class, a topic would be written on the board, and we had the class period to write an essay related to it. When we returned to class on Friday he would have picked out exactly two papers to read to the class as examples of good compositions. The reason I bring this up here is because the only one of my Thursday compositions he ever read was one I wrote about my car, Bessie. I just remembered that fact. And I also remember the topic which was something like "details a casual observer might miss."

A lot of my life has, unintentionally I think, been devoted to preserving memories. I try to teach my son the things I was taught about family and community and country and God. I tell stories, not because they are historically important ... who cares about the old cars I have owned ... but because regardless of the topic, stories are more than preserved facts. We all read between the lines to assess ourselves and to understand the author. I worry about details a casual reader might not get, but I trust a careful reader will. I remember that Mr. Nooncaster chose my essay, and I remember the topic, and I wonder what I have done that will be remembered.

* example of a proper restoration


  1. It was 1963. I was a senior in high school. My brother Bill was a sophomore. Dad gave him a car, a 54 brown Plymouth. I pitched a fit. So, Dad relented and let me have the car half the time.

    Once I went out to the car, and it had snowed so much that it was on high center. I don't know how we got home that day. We lived far south of the railroad tracks, and the school was far north.

    Another time I got tired of waiting for Bill. I usually had something to do after school as I was editor of the high school newspaper. So, it was nearing 5 or so. I walked into the gym, and Coach Keival threw a towel over my head. But I had caught a glimpse of naked boys. It was the day for physicals.

    I usually took Dexter to the babysitter's house on my way to school. Four-year-old Dexter would make bird sounds - tweet! tweet! tweet! - probably just to bug me. I don't remember Bill riding to school with me, or me with him.

    When I was in college, I did get to take Myrtle, the '53 Chevy to school once. It was only three weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, and to keep someone from having to come get us, I talked Dad into letting me drive Myrtle. I had to park her at a service station because I wasn't allowed to have a car on campus. I lived in a dorm that housed students on scholarship. We worked five hours a week and one Sunday a month at some duty (once I cooked breakfast, once I mopped the dining hall).

    Myrtle was a little cantankerous. When the gears jammed, I had to raise the hood and even some doo-hickeys. She also had holes in the floorboard. Natural air conditioning. Also, a little scary if you looked down there when you were speeding down the highway.

  2. Bessie was magnificent!

    I remember seeing her for the first time on blocks in the Turner's drive. We were jazzed to try out our finely honed mechanic skills. After all, we had completed 9th grade small engine repair class with flying colors and had even renovated Dex's old go cart with a modicum of success.

    Once we started working on Bessie, however, my enthusiasm faded fast. Every nut and bolt on the old girl was tighter than an octogenarian at a five and dime. Smashed fingernails became our badge of honor. Long after I had given up on seeing the old girl run, Dex kept the faith and the results were astonishing. New exhaust, check. New paint, check. New upholstery, check, but only after breaking into the shop and taking her from the drunk who held her hostage.

    She became a legend. No other car could accomodate seven beautiful bare-assed butts pressing pane Saturday night on the drag.

  3. I remember Bessie.

    I remember the dash board, and the dusty smell she had when it sat in the driveway, before the new seat covers. I remember that we put gas in behind the tail light? I remember the brass nameplate Dexter made for her at the hardware store where he worked. I remember when we took it to the mechanic in 1983, to get it fixed to drive again. I was 15, and unable to drive, but Bill had me steer while he pulled. He told me when to hit the brakes, and the best part was he never yelled at me for doing anything wrong. We had to pull it down hwy 60, not too far, then over the tracks at Price Road. That is a steep inbankment, and I was most proud of that. So, 25 years later I still can't drive anything with a standard transmission...but I could steer Bessie!

  4. Cold beer. Z.Z. Top's Rio Grande Mud. Good Times.