A Beautiful Car!
By 1969, the Camaro was extremely popular. Sales had steadily increased during the first years of the Camaro and set a new all-time high, thanks to its long production run (from September 1968 through February 1970). The 1969 was given an updated look that was meaner than the graceful 1967-1968 models. It had a more aggressive grille, slightly squarer body panels, and squared-off rear wheel openings.
Sportier than all get out! The color? Oh, my, that beautiful metallic blue with white stripes was very popular at that time.
I got to drive one frequently. It wasn’t mine, it belonged to Kristy, my on and off girlfriend from high school. Her car had a floor shifter, black interior and looked very much like this example. It was very fun to drive! Little did I know how significant this car would become.
Discovering relationships as I left high school brought a lot of turmoil into my life both with guys and girls. I was already worn out and not sure I was willing to feel the pain that was coming. So as I became an adult, adult decisions were made to protect myself from things I just didn’t want to feel.
The flow of life of this 18 year old guy seemed to be pretty normal on the outside, but underneath I was suffering once again with things I didn’t understand and seemingly no one else did either.
After I graduated from high school I was ready for some changes. I was growing frustrated with working with my cousin at the truck refrigeration company. We decided it was time for me to move on and I applied for a job at a department store. It was called “Younkers” and was similar to Macy’s or Dillard’s. An upscale store with very nice things and with an upper class clientele it was a small chain in Nebraska and Iowa. I took a huge cut in pay but it was time and maybe this would be an opportunity for my future.
I got hired to work in a diverse department handling “Toys, Luggage, and Records.” It was a great place to be since we got to be around other young people who were shopping for the latest 1972 music like Grand Funk Railroad, Bread, The Who, and so many others that lived through the 70’s but didn’t go much farther.
Tom – My New Friend
I worked with a man named Tom Cleese . At 19 years old, he was one year older than I was. He had unruly long hair and always wore the blue suit jacket that was too big for him. We were required to dress up to work there, but his style lacked the kind of class that I think they were looking for. He also mostly wore corduroy jeans underneath the sagging jacket. But something was cool about Tom. He was more of an open minded type of guy. We spent a lot of time talking and he seemed to be so open to discussing lots of things that many people never talked about.
I grew very close to him. I looked forward to every time we worked together because it seemed he liked me too. I had not had a friend like Tom, so this felt pretty special to me. Tom had a few vices. He smoked, and talked about drinking alcohol. I had never really done either one. Throughout my teen years I tried to be good. I held my values to be important and was a virgin in almost every way! Sex, drugs, and rock and roll were just not my speed.
One day, Tom asked me to go with him to a bar in the shopping mall we worked in. He told me they didn’t “card” anyone they knew from the mall and would allow us to buy drinks there. Since Tom had been so nice to me and I was pretty cool on spending time with him I decided to go. He told me about certain drinks that I might like to try and he drank “Jack Daniels” so in wanting to be like him, I indulged. I felt so adult, drinking in a bar with Tom.
After a short while, I wanted to enter one more thing that was like Tom. I bought a package of cigarettes. Feeling, again, very adult, I lit up one, then another, and third. On the third one I felt a tightening of my lungs and said, “That’s enough of those”. And threw the pack away. I wasn’t willing to go that far to be like Tom.
Not knowing what I was really experiencing, I was growing to become pretty emotionally dependent with Tom. I spent a lot of my energy focusing on my time with him and how good it felt to connect, and feel affirmed by this older guy. We went to the bar several more times just to talk and have a drink or two.
Then one night Tom asked me to go to a party with him. He said it was a “bring your own drinks” type of party. Tom said I should try MD-20-20. He said it was a dark red wine and would do the trick to get me feeling pretty good. So he bought me a bottle and I brought it to the party. Before we left he instructed me on how to drive home safely if I was leaving drunk. “John, roll the windows down, its winter and the cold air will keep you alert”. Then further instruction spoke to keeping the radio up loud and eyes open wide. I still laugh thinking about his instruction and my emulating what he had taught me. So, he dropped me off to get my car at the parking lot in front of the store we worked at. I got into my car, obediently rolled the windows down, turned the radio on and got ready to drive home.
I didn’t even make it out of the parking lot. As I drove my ‘68 El Camino forward from the parking space I saw a huge red octagon fly down in front of me. Yep, your right, it was the stop sign. I backed up, slowly, left the sign on the ground and found the exit from the lot and drove home. The sign was repaired with a brace and I saw that brace for many years afterwards, each time I went into that parking lot. My right of passage was so visible to me and I am sure frustrating for the maintenance crew at the mall.
But, I made it home safely and went into the house. I felt so woozy as I walked in. I thought everything was cool but I was late! I had a curfew of 12:00 midnight and it was about 12:30. As I got ready to settle in, my dad came out of his bedroom with his hand out. “John, give me your keys.” “You’ll get them back Sunday night, you’re late.” Nothing more was said and he may or may not have known I was drinking but it was never mentioned.
Tom was a mentor to more for my young adulthood. Maybe not such a good one, but it didn’t matter to me. Tom seemed like the older brother I never had and I loved it. It was the bridge out of high school that I needed to begin my own life as an adult.
So, back to the Camaro, Kristy and girls! Well, the Camaro would come up later. Kristy was still in the picture, but when we were off, there were some other girls in the story. My eyes were looking around for who I liked and who I didn’t. There was a girl in “gift wrap” that was very interested in spending time talking with me. Her name was Barb. I liked Barb as a friend, but nothing about her drew my attention for more than just to talk and laugh with her. She tried her hardest to show me she was interested in more, but I didn’t have the mind to go further. But, one day, someone else struck my interest.
Oh My -She’s Beautiful!
Looking through the LP’s was this young lady and her mom. As I looked down at her hands I saw such beautiful fingers and her nails colorfully painted. Then I looked up. Her hair was blonde and flowing. She was so pretty, and nice! Her mom was nice too, but I couldn’t believe my eyes and the pitter patter in my heart when I saw her. She didn’t buy anything and left the department. I wanted to follow her all the way out. Immediately going to Tom, we talked about girls and attraction. He was dating Ellen who went to school in Chicago, so she wasn’t there often. He talked about how much they loved each other and something tripped in me at that time. I didn’t know what it was but Ellen wasn’t a part of Tom’s local life so I didn’t pay much attention to it.
I didn’t like to hear Tom talk about Ellen because it took the attention away from me. But we kept finding other things to talk about. We especially tried to figure out a way to find the beautiful blonde, but I never saw her again. Another step in our friendship occurred that I’ll never forget.
Tom liked football and would talk about it sometimes. Feeling distant from those conversations I wanted so much to tell him that I didn’t like football but I feared he would think I was weird if I said anything about it. I had NEVER verbally told anyone that I didn’t like it. But standing next to the stereo’s I remember distinctly a conversation when I said, “Tom, I don’t like football.” Expecting to see shock as I waited for his response, he really didn’t have one and said, “That’s ok, John.” I was amazed that the sky didn’t fall when I admitted to him one of the most scary things of all. I didn’t like football! I felt even more accepted at that point. It was the beginning of even more honesty in my life. I didn’t die so maybe I can talk about more things with Tom.
So, still no Kristy on the scene but she would come into the store periodically and we would go out on a date some times. But, overall, my focus was on my friendship with Tom. He moved to a different department and I really missed having him closer to talk with. I would wander over to where he was to talk, but it just wasn’t the same. I got into trouble sometimes because I would stray from my post. Then one day, the most fearful thing of all occurred.
What? You’re Leaving?
“John, I am going to move to Chicago to be with Ellen and go to school.” What, you’re moving away? The shock was extreme and I went home that night with more pain than I think I had experienced in a long time. What would I do? I was going to lose Tom. I talked with a friend of the family that night and she asked me what was wrong . So, I told her about my friend moving away and finished the conversation. At that moment I started sobbing in pain. Tom moved and my life felt so empty and void. But there was a friend of Tom’s that I also had gotten to know who’s name was Gary. I liked him and spent time with him but it just wasn’t the same as Tom.
I made a plan to see Tom again. He was eight hours away in Chicago. I felt older now and knew I could drive my 1968 El Camino there and spend a weekend with he and Ellen. Well, It would be ok with Ellen there, she was nice. So, Tom told me he was living in the school dorms with Ellen and that I could sleep in the “pod” of the dorms on the couches there. My plans were set and I took my first trip across country alone and went to Chicago. Upon arriving I found that Tom and Ellen were living in her dorm room together. He mentioned it was not in agreement with the rules but no one knew and others covered for them. I was a little disappointed in their arrangement. It didn’t line up with my moral values. I didn’t let that get in the way. After all, that is another experience with being an adult. We had some fun and we ate at “Uno’s” pizzeria, and talked a lot. My response surprised me even more. I was jealous of Ellen more than I had expected. I was also jealous of the intimacy they had with each other. I felt rejected and hurt. I didn’t enjoy the weekend at all and was really emotionally shut down.
I talked to Kristy once while I was in Chicago. I was feeling so badly. She became a comfortable, familiar place to grab some connection. While on the phone I told her that I had something to talk to her about when I got home. I had decided in my heart to reconnect with Kristy and move forward with our relationship. Maybe even into marriage. I was really hurting and didn’t want to hurt any more. I thought, maybe if we got married the relationship struggles I was experiencing would go away. I didn’t want to play the look around, dating, game anymore. I was certainly wounded from what had happened with Tom. Maybe the single life isn’t for me. I just wanted to settle down and move on.
I had parked my El Camino on Michigan Avenue, where Tom had told me to park it for the weekend. On Monday morning I walked over to get into my car and it was GONE! I looked up at the sign which I had not seen earlier. It said that cars could park there until 2:00 AM on Monday morning. My car had been towed away. I felt some resentment towards Tom for knowing what the laws were for parking there.
I called Tom and he instructed me on how to find it and $75 dollars later I had my car and was on my way home. Thinking about all that happened during the eight hour drive I became resolute. I was going to ask Kristy to marry me.
Let’s Get Married
When I got home Kristy and I got together and I talked about the weekend. I don’t think I mentioned anything about my painful reactions to Tom’s relationship with Ellen. I didn’t really have that much personal awareness at that time in my life. I did, however ,remember saying, “Kris, maybe we should get married.”
There was never a formal proposal or on-the-knee, request. We just accepted that we were going to get married and began talking about our plans with others. The ring came along, and a date was set. October 12, 1973 would be the date of our wedding. I appreciated Kris’ strength in the area of wanting kids, taking an interest in homemaking and the way she cooked great things for me to eat. She would make a good wife and mother. She must be the one for me.
I never saw Tom again. There were some letters written back and forth but our friendship waned and each of us moved on into our own lives. I often wonder what ever happened with Tom and Ellen. I suspect they got married- or maybe not. They were kind of like Ryan O’Neal and Alli MacGraw in “Love Story.” They were each kind of out of the box thinkers and went against the norms of society.
So, the 1969 Camaro?
What happened with that car? Oh, the story of the Camaro isn’t over and it played an important role in my life and my upcoming wedding with Kris. Stay tuned. Our wedding plans kept us busy but my heart was to be broken again soon. And my 1968 El Camino would get a pretty big dent that created more problems for the Camaro.