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James R. Stout

Leper

            Do you know anyone who names their car? I have an old friend who had a weathered and much used 1965 Chevrolet coupe. By the time I got to know him it was about 9 years old. My friend named the car “Old Paint”. It was appropriately named. I knew a couple who had a 1963 Mercury Comet. It was not street legal. When I think of that car, I think of a line from a Jim Croce song that goes, “It was held together by wire and a couple of hunks of twine.” They named it Rusty. Again, quite appropriate. When I was a kid, we owned a blue 1961 Ford Galaxie 500 that we named “Old Blue”. But for the most part, we didn’t name our cars.

            In January of 1986 we needed a spare car. A work car that worked. We only had $750 to spend and even then, it was going to mean doing without some things for a while. But it was necessary. My wife took a part time job that was 18 miles from home. I was working for a delivery service and drove 200+ miles a day. I had to have a truck for that job. That truck of mine was rode hard and put up wet most days. Well, we started looking for a good used car. Good is a relative term. We finally found a 1975 Toyota Corolla that a guy had been using as a work car. He said it ran great but didn’t look great. He was right about one of those things. It didn’t look great. By the way, never buy a car in the dark. We paid the man $750 for that car and thought we had made a good deal.

            The next morning, I went out to look the car over in the light of day and my first thought was how embarrassed I was that it was parked in our driveway. It was that bad. I named that car Leper. Sometimes I referred to it as “The Leprosy Car”. The paint was worn and faded all over. Down to bare metal in some spots. The seats had chunks missing. The carpet was worn clear through to the floor on the driver’s front. That car was simply a mess.

            In the summer of that year we made a plan. I would finally go get a college degree so that I could support my family better. I had a whopping 6 hours earned back in the 70’s. But we sat down and made a blueprint of how we would get it accomplished. It was going to take almost 4 years to get it done, but I was determined. The first thing we did before the fall semester started was, I quit the that delivery job. I was going broke doing the job. With expenses (gas, insurance, etc.) I was making a net of about $5,000 a year. We sold the truck, moved in closer to town, my wife took a job just a few miles away, and we worked out a cockamamie schedule that I think back on now and wonder how on Earth we did it. I was 31-years-old when we embarked on that journey. We had Leper to get us there. Sort of.

            My wife used the car to go to work in the morning. I stayed home with the kids (ages 1 & 2) to save money that would have gone to daycare. I would be ready and waiting at the door for my wife to get home from work by 5:30 p.m. A quick kiss and hug and off I went. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I went to a job delivering pizza. I also worked on Saturday nights delivering pizza. On Sunday we went to church. Period the end. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I headed downtown to the University of Houston for 3 classes. I studied when the kids were napping during the day or after getting home from delivering pizza. This was just the first semester. Each semester after that varied in hours, days, jobs, etc. Meanwhile, that leprosy car got me to school and back, my wife to work and back, and to church on Sunday. I always felt like the poor relations when we parked at church.

            By the time the spring semester of 1987 was in full swing I started noticing a loud noise and rattle coming from the front end of Leper. I just had to hope it wouldn’t fall apart because money was very tight. But, after a couple of months several things started to demand immediate attention. The master brake cylinder went out one night while I was delivering pizzas. It was the wrong pedal to the metal. Well, I had never changed out a master brake cylinder, but paying a mechanic to do the job was more than we could think about. So, I bought a new one at the auto parts store, went to the library and made photocopies of how to change it via Chilton’s guide, and undertook the job. Changing the cylinder wasn’t so bad. Bleeding the brakes was another story. I finally called my brother-in-law and he helped me get them bled given it took someone pumping on the brake petal while the other adjusted the brakes. That job got done just in time for Leper to give me another headache. That noise in the front end was very bad. The steering was getting pretty loose and wobbling about. I also realized that I needed a couple of tires. Steel belts were poking through. So, I sold some things at the pawn shop and went to get the car repaired. It turned out the tie rods were hanging by a thread. Two new tires and new tie rods later I was down $400. But there was good news. My wife’s parents took pity on us (truth be told they wouldn’t have given me a Matchbox car found in a landfill, but for their daughter, they took pity) and gave us a 1978 Honda Accord. It had over 100K miles on it, but it ran much better than Leper.

            I continued to drive Leper for another year. No A/C, no heater, and looks that literally could have killed. I would love to tell you that after all these years I have grown fond of memories in that car. I can’t do that because there simply weren’t any. It was a means to an end. We stayed on course and did what was necessary to get me through school. A scholarship to Houston Baptist University was a huge blessing in 1988. I worked part-time jobs including two stretches of delivering morning newspapers 7 days a week while working another part-time job three nights a week. My wife started working part-time when I transferred to HBU because my classes were all during the day. We were still two ships passing in the night for the next two years.

            I think back on Leper and that bleak period of time and I’m very glad that I’m not there now. I do realize that there could have been worse things happen to us, but that leprosy car stands for all the hard times we went through back then. I haven’t named another car since that car. I haven’t had any car nearly as bad as that one either. For that I am most thankful. When I think of that car, I think of how embarrassing it was to go to church and pull into the parking lot in a car that rattled and looked like it had leprosy. I think of climbing out of that coupe and wearing threadbare clothes because they were all I could afford. At least the kids were dressed nicely. My wife made some dresses and I always made sure that the three of them came first. I think of the time that me and the kids went to buy groceries in that car. I inadvertently locked the keys in the car with the kids in the car. They were only 2 and 3 years old. I started to panic. I spent 10 minutes coaxing my 3-year-old son into pulling up on the lock lever. He thought it was a game and laughed the whole time. Oh, and the groceries were in the trunk already and I knew that the cold stuff would go bad in that summer heat if I didn’t get them home soon. Finally, my son pulled up on that lever and I yanked the door open. I smothered both the kids with kisses and after we got home, unloaded the groceries, and the kids were occupied with the TV, I went into the bathroom and sunk down to my knees. I thanked God that nothing bad had happened and I sat there praying that we would get through that period of time quickly. And then I heard my mother saying something in my head that she said many times when I was growing up. I heard her say, “Don’t wish you life away.” Good advice no matter how hard the times may be.

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