Sometimes life's lessons unfold in the most unlikely places...
My dad was born in 1952 in Youngstown, Ohio. Dealing with poverty was a daily endeavor that he and his two older brothers became accustomed to. The fact that he had only a few sets of clothes or limited food to eat didn't bother him. What did sadden him was looking into his father's eyes after an eight-hour shift at the Youngstown Steel Mill, as his father wondered how he was going to pay bills to keep his family from having to sell the house. My dad decided at a young age that he didn't want to be poor like his father. He promised himself he would pick a profession that would make him rich and never have to worry about money. In 1977 Arthur Johnson became Dr. Arthur Johnson, and a few years later he found himself with more money than his parents could ever imagine. He got married in 1977. He and his new wife, Laura, decided to buy a car, but not just any car. They wanted a car to show that they had arrived in the social world, and they were now a part of the upper class. They decided to buy a 1978 450 SEL Mercedes-Benz. It was a 6.9 liter automobile with a V-8 engine. Its most impressive feature, however, was its bright orange color. That's right, with all the knowledge Arthur had obtained throughout his illustrious academic career, his first car was bright orange.
After purchasing the car, he drove it to Youngstown to show his father. "What the hell is that? Did Laura tell you to pick that color?"
"It's a Mercedes-Benz, Dad!"
"I don't care what it is. What color is that? Did you buy that so I could spot you just in case you get lost? I hope nobody saw you drive into my driveway with that thing, I mean that Mercedes-Benz."
Thus, the orange Mercedes-Benz was off to an inauspicious start, but as everyone knows, a Mercedes-Benz is made to last, so this car would have many opportunities to redeem itself.
I came into the world on May 21, 1979. A few days later I rode in the orange Mercedes for the first time, accompanied by my older sister, Patrice. My father strapped me into the back left safety seat and we headed home.
Perhaps it was because it was the first seat I ever rode in, but I became very passionate about the back left seat. I considered it my seat, and I would scream and fight anybody who threatened to take it. Therefore, I wasn't a happy camper when my mother returned from the hospital in May of 1982 with my baby brother, Timmy, riding in my seat. While family members were busy adoring Timmy, I marched to the kitchen and found a black marker. I then proceeded to the back left seat of the Mercedes and made my mark. After closing the car door, I decided one mark wasn't enough. If I made many marks, then they would never forget who owns the back left seat!
I received my first spanking in the back of the orange Mercedes. I remember my dad whaling away while my mother scrubbed furiously at the seat. "Arthur, why don't you try? I can't get it off!" my mother exclaimed. They switched positions, my mother whaling away while my father scrubbed. He was eventually able to remove most of it, but not soon enough.
I endured a 20-minute spanking due to my antics. "Should have just done one mark!" I thought to myself. But it was too late. The damage had been done.
My new seat in the Mercedes was in the middle. Despite my pleas, my parents weren't moving the child seat from the back left. So there sat my little brother next to me whenever we would head out in the Benz. He was unable to talk, but I had an inkling that he knew he was in my seat. Add to this the fact he would slobber on me while my mother drove, and he was beginning to drive me crazy. My sister, who sat on the right, was even worse. She would poke at me several times until I released a flurry of cuss words. My mother would turn around to see me glaring at her, while Patrice put on an innocent face and shrugged her shoulders. My mother would then swing her fist wildly at me, trying to kill me and keep her eyes on the road at the same time. Patrice would giggle as I endured my mother's blows.
It was December 24, and the whole family was in the Benz headed to Newark, New Jersey, to visit the grandparents. No more than one hour into the trip Timmy was slobbering on me and Patrice was poking at my side. "Dammit, Patrice!" I yelled. Without hesitation my mother took her arm and stretched it all the way to the back right seat. In one swift motion she flung her arm so she hit Patrice in the head, and without losing any momentum the fist was headed my way. Before I knew it, I got knocked so hard that I was in the back left seat, with my brother on top of me. My sister and I were both thinking the same thing. How in the world did Mom do that? What an amazing piece of athleticism! Had she been practicing that maneuver? It was quickly named the "swinging sledgehammer" and it made us think twice about arguing in the Mercedes.
I began to realize that the color of the car was very unusual. Each time my grandfather came to visit he would make a comment, but until this point I had never paid close attention. "Come to think of it," I thought to myself, "I have never seen an orange car on the road. How odd! Out of all the cars, my dad picks the best brand and the ugliest color." The color reminded me of the Sunkist pop bottle, so I began to call it the Sunkist. My grandfather was amused but Dad surely wasn't. He was so passionate about the orange color. One day while reading the paper, I asked him, "Dad, why is the Mercedes orange?" The question annoyed him. Perhaps it was because while he had failed to see the hideousness of the color, his toddler son had keenly picked up on it.
My father moved the paper and peered down at me. "Well, son, why are you black?" he said sarcastically. He then hid his face behind the paper again.
"That's a good question," I thought to myself. I guess the car can't help being orange anymore than I can help being black. "Well I'm gonna call it Sunkist!" I told him. My father offered no response.
I hated going to the post office with my mother in the summer. Every day, right in the middle of Thunder Cats, my mom would yell "Patrice, Tyler, and Timmy! Get in the car ... we're going to the post office." We would all pile into the car and head down Hamilton Road seven blocks to the post office. Now seven blocks may not sound like a long drive, but Arthur Johnson's Sunkist had a tan leather interior. And when it's 100 degrees in the summertime, your skin practically sticks to the seats. Add that to the fact that your younger brother is slobbering all over you while your older sister pokes at your head, and it seems like an eternity.
I remember one day in particular. After the torturous ride down Hamilton Road, the Sunkist made its way into the post office parking lot. My mother had just stepped out of the car when a white man with a shaved head approached her. "Where did a nigger like you get a car like that?" Big mistake. My mother may have been driving the rich upper-class car of the 1970s, but her background was of the poor lower class from the projects of Newark. Laura Johnson attacked that man, both verbally and physically. She chased that son of a bitch right to his car. So it was on that day, in the Sunkist, that I learned despite my future endeavors, I would never gain everybody's respect.
It was a well-known fact in the Johnson household that if anything was stolen, Patrice was the culprit. She stole everything from your favorite toy to the dog's leash. It never made sense to any of us. Why would she steal Fluffy's leash? The kleptomaniac actually began her stealing ways in the orange Mercedes. It all began when my mother summoned us into the car to go to a plant store. While munching on a Hershey's chocolate bar, my mother realized that she had left her purse inside the house. She stopped the car, put her candy bar on the dash and went inside to get her purse. Patrice then asked Timmy and me if we wanted to play hide and go seek until Mom returned to the car. She said we could get out and hide anywhere while she counted to 10. Since Timmy and I were always up for a game of hide and go seek, we took off out of the car to find a place to hide. By the time we reached our spots, we heard my mother coming out of the front door with her purse in hand. We ran back to the car to find Patrice with chocolate smeared across her face. She had put the wrapper back on the dash as if the candy bar had not been tampered with.
My mother put the car in drive, and we were off to the plant store. About midway through the trip, she saw the wrapper and realized she had never finished eating. She put her hand inside the wrapper reaching for the elusive candy bar. "Which one of you guys ate my candy bar?"
The three of us said, "I don't know," in unison.
"Well then, do you guys know what the punishment is for stealing?"
"The swinging sledgehammer," I said.
"No," said my mother, "even worse. Whoever steals goes to the devil!" The devil petrified all of us. We weren't quite sure who or what he was, but none of us had any desire to meet him. Patrice began to cry, confessing that she stole the candy bar and that she didn't want to go to the devil. My mother told her that she wasn't going to the devil. But she still received the sledgehammer.
"Patrice, Tyler, and Timmy ... Let's go to the mall!" We dropped our toys and came sprinting up the steps. The mall meant three hours of boredom while my mother picked out clothes for us with big ducks and furry bears knitted on them, but it also meant ice cream if we were good. In retrospect this wasn't a fair deal, but how were we to know?
We were in the parking lot when mother became ecstatic because someone was pulling out of a front row parking space. She turned on her blinker and, to her surprise, a minivan directly in front of us had its blinker turned on as well. I saw the anticipation in my mother's eyes. As soon as the spot opened up, she pressed down on the pedal and cranked that 6.9 liter engine to its limit. The minivan turned on the gas as well but it was no match for the Sunkist. My mother pulled into the spot first and the minivan was forced to quickly apply the brakes. I could see the satisfaction in my mother's face. The driver of the minivan, however, was pissed. "That was my fucking spot!" the man yelled out of his window. Mom laughed and instructed us to head into the department store.
"Come to think of it, I think the minivan did have its blinker on first," she said with a smile. Three hours later we came skipping out of the mall with vanilla ice cream covering our faces. Before opening the door to the Benz, I noticed a long scratch on the surface of the car, running from the rear lights to the front tire.
"Mom, there is a scratch on the car and I think Patrice did it," I said. My mother came quickly. Her jaw dropped when she saw how deep the scratch was.
Then her jaw tightened and her eyes peered. She was out for revenge. She entered the car and gave us our orders. "If you guys see that minivan you tell me! Do you understand?!" We all shook our heads, wondering what we were about to get ourselves into. We crept around the parking lot scrupulously examining each car. After 30 minutes, my mother gave up.
"So you guys are headed down to Alabama to see Uncle Tommy, huh? Riding in that nice Mercedes-Benz. I bet you'll stop at one of those fancy Holiday Inns. I remember the last time I made the trip from Alabama to Ohio. We couldn't stop anywhere. We were always on the lookout for the KKK. I hope you guys are grateful." Aunt Myrtle always made us feel guilty for not growing up in the early 1900s. I remember my dad saying she was just jealous that we would travel back to Ohio in a Mercedes-Benz while she had had to arrive via the Underground Railroad.
We packed our bags and headed down to Alabama in the Sunkist. This was the first trip during which the swinging sledgehammer stayed in the tool belt. The poking and name-calling were less prevalent as we got older. While driving along in Tennessee, we heard a loud noise and our car began to maneuver uncontrollably between lanes. My father applied the brakes and we safely managed to pull off to the side of the road. "We got a flat!" he yelled. I didn't really care much about the flat. I was more concerned about Aunt Myrtle's stories, and I began watching out for the KKK folk!
"Tyler, get out here, son. Your old man's gonna teach you how to fix a flat." I rushed outside to see my father hovering over the front passenger tire. "Here's the deal, buddy, you never wanna fix a flat tire on a hill, 'cause if she gets loose, she'll squash you like a pancake." My dad was very dramatic. "Your first step is to loosen the lug nuts, and then use the jack to lift the car up. Never put your body underneath the car while it's jacked up. Something goes wrong, you'll get crushed like a grape. Take the lug nuts off the wheel, put the spare on, and then tighten the lug nuts. Then you can jack her back down, and she's as good as new." So there it was, a father and son bonding while fixing a flat tire.
My mother hated Fluffy. Ever since he became part of the family she despised him. She never called him by his name, but rather the "damn dog." "Someone take the damn dog out for a walk. Has anyone fed the damn dog today? The damn dog pissed all over my carpet." I think Fluffy sometimes thought his name was "damn dog."
Fluffy had created a fierce competition with the orange Mercedes. Whenever it pulled out of the garage, he would run up next to it and bark at the tires. This would force the driver to slowly back down the driveway to avoid hitting him. Once the car was down the driveway, Fluffy would race the Benz to the end of the street. Realizing Fluffy's game, my mother would speed to the end of the street just so the dog would lose. Mom loved to start her day hearing him whimper after defeat.
One morning we were running late to school and my mother decided we had no time to play games with Fluffy. Once Fluffy heard the engine of the Benz, he came sprinting around the corner, barking ferociously at the tire. To his surprise, the tire went in reverse without warning and ran right over his left leg. Fluffy let out a loud yelp, but that was nothing compared to my mother's laughter. She could hardly control herself. "Damn dog thought he was so tough! Look at him now!" I personally wasn't upset about Fluffy being run over by the Mercedes, but Patrice was horrified. She was so angry with my mother that they didn't talk for weeks.
My dad bought a brand-new gold Cadillac Alante. It had a leather interior and was much less flamboyant than the orange Mercedes. He had also purchased my mother a Town and Country minivan, so needless to say, the Mercedes was seeing much less action. His allegiance to the car had deteriorated slightly, but not enough for him to put it up for sale. Instead, he made the Sunkist the official vehicle for soccer tournaments. The orange car was the butt of jokes at every tournament. Undeterred by the harassment, the Mercedes made it to each one. My mother put a bumper sticker on it that read "Soccer Mom," and we even got our team's logo made into a magnet and stuck it on the hood. No matter where the tournament was being held, teams from other cities knew from the orange Benz that the Blast Football Club had arrived.
On May 21, 1995, I turned 16 years old. I had always dreamed about getting a new car on my birthday. In my heart I wanted a silver convertible Corvette. I wanted to come home from school on May 21 to see it wrapped with a huge red bow, like in the commercials. I could see the girls standing at the bus stop, begging me for a ride to school. I'd be the most popular guy at school. I'd be known as the stud athlete with the hot wheels. Surely no female would be able to turn me down. I arrived home from school on my birthday to find no new car in sight. I waited all day for my parents to say something about my driving situation. Later that evening my father spoke. "Tyler, your mother and I are very proud of you. You get good grades and comments from your teachers and you've always done what we've asked. To reward you, we're gonna give you a car!"
"Hell, yeah," I thought to myself. "I'm getting my own car."
"We've decided to give you the Sunkist." My jaw dropped. I couldn't believe I would have to roll around in that orange car. I definitely wouldn't be known as the stud with hot wheels. My wheels sucked!
"Wow! Thanks Mom and Dad." It was so difficult to pretend like I was excited. My dad passed me the keys and we took it out for a spin. He spent the entire ride lecturing me on responsibility, while I was thinking of alternate ways to be a ladies' man.
Every school had their nickname for them: cantaloupes, hooters, watermelons, etc. Well, at ours we called them bouncies. I'm not quite sure who invented the nickname, but if you yelled bouncies anywhere in school, the guys knew exactly what you were talking about. Word made its way through the grapevine that the hot girl who sat in front of me in homeroom had a crush on me. I was so excited because she was gorgeous and she had a nice set of bouncies! I decided to ask her out to get ice cream one weekend. She told me she would love to go and to pick her up on Saturday around 7.
Leading up to the date, I was beginning to get nervous. I was truly confident in my skills with the ladies, but I wasn't quite sure how she would feel about rolling around in my orange Mercedes-Benz. That question was quickly answered that Saturday when she asked me if I wanted to go to the back seat. We pushed the front two seats forward to give ourselves more room. Once in the back, I discovered one of the tremendous assets to the orange Mercedes-Benz. It had one of the most spacious back seats on the market. I was thanking God that I didn't get that tiny silver Corvette for my birthday. "Unbelievable!" I thought to myself. "I can't wait to tell the guys about this." Well unfortunately, the guys weren't impressed. They, too, had seen her bouncies in the back seats of their cars.
I was driving the Sunkist back from a soccer tournament and my father was in the passenger's seat. We were both elated over my championship winning goal and tournament MVP honor. That elation soon turned into panic when my father began to complain about pain in his stomach. He told me it hurt to breathe and his right extremities were going numb. We were about 15 minutes from Columbus and I stopped at Mount Carmel East Hospital. My father stumbled out of the car and we headed to the emergency room. Doctors responded immediately and I heard them talking about a possible stroke. At night's end, it was determined that my father didn't have a stroke; it was multiple sclerosis. "How ironic," I thought to myself. "The car my father bought to symbolize wealth is the same car that brought him to the hospital to learn that he'll never be able to work again."
My parents had a simple rule regarding driving. If you get good grades and stay out of trouble, you can drive. Patrice always managed to violate this rule. As mentioned earlier, she developed a habit of stealing early in her life. Tack on her 1.0 GPA from her junior year in high school, and the chances of her driving one of my parents' cars were slim to none.
One weekend my parents took the minivan out of town and left me in charge of the house. That Saturday it was about 2 a.m. and I wasn't able to sleep. I went down to the kitchen to get a glass of water when I noticed the headlights of the Mercedes were on in the driveway. The car then proceeded down the driveway and off to the main street. Thinking someone had stolen my car, I called the police and issued a report. I also called my parents, who surprisingly were undeterred by the news. "Tyler, go see if Patrice is upstairs!" my mother demanded. I ran upstairs to find my sister's bed empty. I was instructed to turn the house alarm on and lock all the doors. She had the pleasure of spending the night in the Sunkist in the cold December.
I was awakened the next day by pounding on the front door. It was Patrice, wrapped in a blanket from the Mercedes, pleading with me to open the door. "I'm not allowed to let you in. Mom said to tell you that you better hope you're frozen by the time they get back. I have to go now. Timmy and I are going to start a fire in the fireplace. Have a wonderful day!"
It was time to get rid of the Sunkist. She was beginning to cause too many problems. First it was the air-conditioner, then it was the brakes, and then it was the carburetor.... I was kind of sad when my dad took me car shopping. I had become accustomed to that orange Mercedes-Benz. Once we entered the car dealership my father fell in love with the Volkswagen Jetta. "Look Tyler, she's silver just like you like them. And she only has 13,000 miles on it. Look at all these safety features...." Now while my dad was salivating over the car's amenities, I was most concerned about the size of the car.
"How in the world are me, my girlfriend, and her bouncies gonna fit in the back of that little car?" I couldn't express my concern to my father so I just pretended to be excited. The next thing I knew, he was shaking the car dealer's hand. The Mercedes was to be turned in to the dealership the following day. I went home and said my goodbyes to the Sunkist. She had made it nearly 20 years and given me many memories. I never really appreciated her until she was gone.
*"Tyler Johnson" authored this essay as part of a class assignment for "History of the American Automobile," taught by Professor Stuart "Bill" Leslie of the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology Department. Leslie, who assigned students the task of writing their own "auto"-biographies, was honored in May with the Student Council's President's Cup for excellence in teaching.
Names and some other identifying details have been changed at the author's request.
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