Like Rodder, Like Son

No doubt my wife and kids would accuse me of the same, but whenever, and wherever my Dad and I were together, there was always that inevitable moment where whatever was being said, done, or attended to was startlingly interrupted by him shouting: LOOK-AT-THE-COUPE! LOOK-AT-THE-MUSTANG! or LOOK-AT-THE-COBRA!
And you would look up or over to where he was pointing just in-time to see the tail-end of whatever it was.
As far back as I can remember, my Dad talked about Hot Rods.
The ones he had, the ones his friends had, the ones he wished he had, and the ones he wished he still had.
To be sure, he was a Hot Rodder way before I came along.
Born the mid 1940’s, he came of age during Hot Roddings’ hey-day.
I’m not sure how many cars he had in high school, but just from the stories he would tell, there was an early ’60’s Corvette, a Hemi-Powered ’33 Chevy Coupe, and a Black-Cherry ’40 Ford.
But in 1966, when I was born, he had a ’65 Mustang Fastback with a 2-4 Setup and a 4-Speed.
It wasn’t around for long, but he’s got a photograph of it somewhere that I’ve seen several times throughout my life.
Plus, I have a cool, if not vague memory of riding in the backseat watching him work the shifter when I was just a toddler.
But the next thing I know, it’s 1972, the Mustang’s gone and been replaced by a Galaxie 500, the likes of which I had never seen.
But the name sounded pretty cool – Galaxie-Five-Hundred – and I was ready to get on board.
But when I asked my Dad about it, the disdain in his voice as he recited the specs was enough to tell me that it wasn’t that cool, and not to get too attached.
Nevertheless, day after day – there it was.
But one particular day, as I got off the bus, and walked up the street toward our house, I saw an unfamiliar sight.
From under our carport, emanating from the end of my Dads’ outstretched arms, was the blinding bright blue light of an arc-welder.
I didn’t know what was happening exactly, but I knew I wanted to know more.
But before I could assess any further, startled by my sudden presence, my Dad abruptly raised his welding hood, and shouted through the anxiety of a worried parent, “don’t look at the light! – it’ll burn your eyes! – get’n the house!”.
So I promptly, “got’n the house”, where I immediately proceeded to look back through the kitchen window to try and figure out what the hell was going on out there.
Convinced of my diligence, eventually, he waved me back out.
“We’re gonna build a T-Bucket”, he said with a hopeful smile.
“All we have for now is the frame”, pointing to the rusty steel structure under the carport on which he had been welding, “but we’re gettin’ a body for it soon.”
I nodded with my own hopeful smile.
As I’ll explain later, life got in the way of that particular build, but not before I was introduced to the business-end of a seven-and-a-half-inch grinder with a wire-wheel attachment.
My Dad explained the evils of rust to a hot rod, and how to cure it with a little elbow-grease.
That is, a little elbow-grease attached to an industrial strength 8000 RPM rotary tool that weighed as much as I did.
But for the next I-don’t-know-how-long, I couldn’t wait to get home from school, change in to some, “work clothes”, and get to work.
Although barely making any significant impact at all, at the time, it felt like I was part of the building of the Titanic.
Just like my Dad promised, “we were building a T-Bucket” – and we were.
But as it often does, life had other plans for us – and as it happened – the good-life for which we seemed to be headed was not on the agenda.

I’d like nothing more than to continue telling the story of a boy and his Dad having the time of their lives building that Hot Rod.
But instead, save for a wholly inadequate divorce-induced-visitation-agreement, we were essentially separated for the next, most critical years of our lives.
Basically, I came home from school one day, and the T-Bucket frame was gone.
In the driveway, instead of my Dad’s Econoline work truck and Galaxie 500, was the mounted deer head that I recognized from our living room wall, peering through the back window of an unfamiliar Emerald Green Mustang II.
My Dad never saw me, but I was sitting in the front yard when he came out of the house with his last load of personal belongings, got in his new Mustang, and though no choice of his own, drove away from a life he would never see again.
I know now that my Dad died a little that day – so did my family – and so did I.
Without the tools and experience to navigate the clouds of dissent left over from our family’s divorce-war, the next thirty years would be a struggle, and would ultimately prove more than either of us could bear.
As a result, the distance that has grown between us has left us as little more than strangers.

In November, 1997, my Dad survived a heart-attack, and although rushing to his bedside, once he began recovery, we slipped back in to an old familiar pattern, although I did try to visit a little more frequently.
But on one such occasion, I would show-up only to find him in a state in which I had never seen him.
Generally speaking, although capable of defensive humor, and my Dad typically sported a guarded demeanor, an overall negative attitude, and a relentless tendency for cynicism.
But to be fair, prior to his heart-attack, he had also been forced to endure an unusually stressful and trying work-related legal affair that would have shaken anybody.
But in its after-math, the added burden of the painful and energy-draining recovery from open-heart surgery was just about all he could take.
He looked as if he was resigned to the fact that he was going to die soon, and that it was probably just as well.
Basically, he had just given up.
While I was there, I managed to keep it together, but I was really shaken by what I had seen, and had no intention of just going back about my business as if nothing had happened.
I had to do something.
Basically, I now had this image of him with his head hanging down waiting to die, and I had to think of some way to introduce just enough hope or excitement in his life to reverse it.
Although I had a few high-percentage ideas, I didn’t feel as though I had much time, and I really needed a sure thing, and there would be no time for do-overs.
What was missing in his life, I thought.
How can I re-create the look of pure-joy that I last saw in 1972, when he looked down at me and said, “we’re gonna build a T-Bucket!”
And there it was  – that thing missing from his life.
Hot Rods!

Likewise, in true Hot Rodder fashion, regardless of my lack of disposable income at the time, I was building a ’67 Chevelle, and my first thought was just to give him that.
Problem was, he’s not really a Chevy-Man, and Chevelle’s are deep-cut Chevy’s.
My Dad’s more of a Shelby Cobra/Mustang, Model T, or Gasser of the ’41 Willys or Henry J kind.
So the hunt was on.
As luck would have it, the very next day, I ran in to one of my Dads best friends at the grocery store.
We chatted for a minute, then he inevitably asked, “how’s your Dad?”.
By the time we were done talking, he had helped me arrange to collect a ’65 Mustang Fastback from where it had lived unseen and untouched for decades.
No promises on condition of course, but considering I was operating on a zero-dollar budget, any condition would do.
So after rounding-up the usual suspects – a few guys with whom I had been repairing, hauling, racing, wrenching, and rescuing cars for a virtual lifetime, we proceeded to the approximate location where I had been told this Mustang would be waiting.
We would-up in Central, Louisiana, on a remote stretch of private property on the edge of a wooded area seemingly too dense to navigate with any of our three-quarter ton pick-up trucks.
I had walking directions from there, so we took off through the woods on foot, eventually coming to a small clearing that appeared to have once been some sort of dwelling that had been abruptly abandoned long ago.
There was evidence that there had once been a house there, and maybe this area was just off the back porch, but we couldn’t be sure.
After snooping around a little, at once, we all kind of stopped and looked toward the elephant in the clearing – unseen for who knows how long, the glorious site of a genuine 1965 Ford Mustang Fastback…
..with a tree growing out of it – which is a whole other story.
Suffice it to say that the effort by all to then de-tree the car, drag it on four frozen wheels though dense forestation using two four-wheel drive trucks, a winch, 3 and a half tons of chain, and a snatch-block was in a word: Herculean.

So now I have the car.
It’s rough, but I have it.
And just in time to clean it up, and prepare it for delivery to my Dad the following weekend, which although not planned, just so happened to be Father’s Day.
Now, for the average person, the 2800 pounds of steel I was about to deliver as a, “gift”, would be nothing more than scrap metal.
But to a Hot Rodder, a virtual treasure.
But it was a gamble.
It crossed my mind that my intention would be missed, and that instead of a gift, my Dad would just see a massive amount of work for which he neither had the time, money, or inclination to advance.
But being my Fathers son, I felt not only that I knew what it would take to reinvigorate and bring him back to life him, but that I was the only person who would know.
And boy was I right about that.

The last time I had seen my Dad, he looked physically sick, demoralized, and mentally defeated.
To be clear, my resignation was that if my idea of re-introducing cars back in to his life was relatively well-received, that it would be a low-key, slow-developing process that would involve incrementally increased visitation, where just a little-at-a-time, I would try to coax him in to working on the car together.
I never considered the other possibility though.
That it could likewise wind-up being one the best days of our lives.
My Dad’s reaction that Father’s Day at the sight of my truck hauling that Mustang up his driveway was an event for which I was wholly unprepared.
He came running out of the house full-speed like he was shot out of a cannon.
There was an un-retractable smile on his face, and a light in his eyes that I hadn’t seen since I was a kid.
The plan had most assuredly worked, and of all the things I’ve done in my lifetime, was without a doubt among the most rewarding.

My Dad spent the next twenty years building that Mustang, and three other cars that would define the rest of his life, and that he still enjoys today.
I was a part of much of that time, and have many great memories helping each other with our cars, taking them to shows and cruises, and talking on the phone for hours about our next big car projects.

But the underlying reality, is that my Dad and I see very little else through the same lens, and our relationship has since recoiled to its all-too-familiar and dysfunctional state.
Even though conversation is a virtual impossibility, I prefer mostly to focus on the aspects of my Dad that are not open to interpretation, like making me birthday cards out of Fel-Pro gasket boxes.
Or, as an 8 year old, afraid of being ridiculed if my ball went in the gutter at a crowded bowling alley, watching him throw bowling balls down the gutter for 15 straight minutes just to show me that nobody cared, or was going to laugh if I did the same.   
Regardless, the memories remain, and no matter what, we will always have that one incredible, and spectacular Father’s Day in 1998.

My name is Bobby Duthu, I’m a father, husband, music fanatic, nature-lover, and all-around car-nut.
But deep-down, I’m really just a Hot Rodder – just like my Dad.

– BD

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