On Christmas of 1968 I got a two-wheeled surprise. Honda had introduced its Z50 Mini Trail in Europe and Japan a year or two before, and would release the bike in America in 1969. My Uncle Graves was the financial backing behind Patterson Honda, a local dealer, and he got one of the first Z50A models brought into the country. It was waiting for me in the garage on Christmas morning. That was the first motorized vehicle I could call my own.
My parents were always good to me and my sisters, and Mom & Dad never fought or argued. However, I don’t have a single memory of my mother ever being NICE to my father. (To be fair, my sisters, who are over a decade older than I am, say that things were different when they were young.) Mom was always running Dad down in little ways. One example I remember was when some new friends my parents had invited to dinner asked Dad why he had chosen the Navy over the other military branches when he had enlisted. He told them that at the time (1941), he felt the Navy had the best flight program.
Understand that my father had received his civilian pilot's license in 1936 at age 20 and graduated 4th in his Navy flying class out of over 700 cadets. He then went on to become a wartime instructor, and after the war when he was in the Reserves, flew everything from fighters to 4-engine transports.
After Dad explained to this couple about his belief that in 1941, the Navy had the best flying program, my mother turned to them and said, "That's not it. He just didn't want to get his feet muddy."
This kind of dismissal made no sense to me, since Dad was a great guy. He was smart, fun, good at building things, and great with kids. He made everyone around him (except Mom) smile and feel good about themselves. He was always having me do fun and exciting stuff with him, like exploring the woods or the riverbank, or teaching me to fly and use tools.
Anyway, after years of being treated like a second-class citizen in his own house, Dad decided he’d had enough and moved out. I could hardly blame him.
My parents divorced in December of 1969 and four months later, on March 5th of 1970, Dad learned he had pancreatic cancer. He was six feet tall and normally weighed 180 pounds, but by the time he died on October 5th, seven months later, he was under 100. Before he died he told me he was leaving me his Corvette, with the request that he didn’t want me to drive it on public roads until I was 17 and had one year of experience in traffic with a more normal vehicle
I was in the 8th grade then, and that period when he was dying of cancer was the worst time of my life.
The day after Dad died, Mom told me she was proud of me, how I hadn’t complained ever and had kept my grades up while Dad was dying. She wanted to get me a present, something special, that I would learn with and get good use out of. I was full of bottled-up anger and frustration, and I knew exactly what I wanted.
I wanted to go racing.
John Steen, an off-road motorcycle competitor and owner of a company in California that sold Rickman motorcycle frames and other competition parts, was importing Hodaka Ace 100 dirt motorcycles and prepping them for competition use. The Steen SS, as it was called, had better suspension, engine mods, better rubber, and a bunch of other details. A local Harley(!) shop had an unused one for sale for $575, which made it about the least-expensive competition-ready motor vehicle in the country. (Even in those days, a track-ready race kart cost over $1000 new.)
Mom bought the Steen SS for me, and I welded up a carrier for the back of her station wagon so she could take me and my bike to Riverdale Speedway, the dirt track that was ten miles from the house.
I raced for two seasons, until I was 15, and managed to win a few first-place trophies in the 100cc class. I was hanging out at race shops about as much as gun shops in those years.
My Corvette mostly stayed in the garage. Mom drove it some, but she was 57 years old, didn’t like getting in and out of it, and she didn't seem comfortable driving it. Mostly I think it reminded her of Dad, and not in the good way that it did for me. I made sure it got started and warmed up to operating temperature every week if Mom hadn’t driven it, and I changed the oil probably more often than needed.
And then something happened that made me angrier than I had ever been in my life.
My other uncle, Ben Wells (Mom's brother-in-law), was an executive whose employer provided him with a company driver. This chauffeur was a fat man named George Gidorzi. One day Gidorzi was bringing Uncle Ben and Aunt Katch by the house for lunch just as Mom was putting the Corvette in the garage on one of those rare times that she drove it.
Gidorzi asked about the car and Mom told him it was mine. She explained that Dad had left it to me but I wasn’t 16 yet, so she drove it occasionally. He then apparently began to express horror that someone planned to turn a new driver loose with a Corvette, and that there was a good chance that I would be crippled or killed in it. She explained that my father had asked that I not drive it on public roads until I was 17 and had a year’s experience, and that I accepted that.
Gidorzi was undeterred. I wasn’t there at the time, but the obese jerk apparently went on for several minutes about the car being a rolling death trap. This, I found out later, was only the first of several such conversations that Gidorzi initiated with my mother.
Two weeks later, the school carpool driver dropped me off at home and I walked in the kitchen. Mom had a big smile on her face, but something in her happy expression didn’t seem right.
“There’s a lot more money in your bank account now,” she said brightly.
“Why?” At this question, her smile vanished.
“I sold the Corvette.” I could not believe what I had just heard. I felt like I couldn’t breathe.
“When?” I asked finally.
“This morning, after I dropped you off at school.”
“Who bought it?”
“A mechanic at Barford Chevrolet.”
“How did a mechanic at Barford Chevrolet come to believe that MY Corvette was for sale?” At this question her face collapsed and the whole story came out. The mechanic was, of course, a friend of George Gidorzi.
“Don’t you even want to know how much money I put in your bank account?” Mom asked finally.
“I already know the answer to that: Not nearly enough. But since you want me to, I’ll ask. How much did the nice man at the Chevrolet dealership give you for a 435 horsepower Corvette with aluminum heads and less than ten thousand miles on the clock?”
“Twenty-five hundred dollars.” I knew it was worth three times that amount, but I said nothing and just stared at her. “Please say something.” I remained silent. “Please, you can’t just never talk to me again, let’s talk about this.”
There was, of course, nothing to talk about. The title was signed over and the man’s check had been cashed. The Corvette Dad had given me was gone.
My mother’s expression changed to one of anger, and she raised her voice. “You’ve GOT to say something, I’M YOUR MOTHER!”
“Yes, you are, and I’m amazed Dad stuck it out with you for as long as he did,” I told her, and walked out of the room.
I am more ashamed of uttering that sentence than all the other bad things I’ve ever done in my life put together. Not because it was a lie, but because it was true.
In the morning I apologized to Mom and she said said she understood why I was angry. I wasn't sure she really did, but that was of no consequence. Two seemingly unrelated things were about to happen to me in the next week, and I was going to have my frustrated anger channeled into something more productive and profitable, albeit of questionable legality...