7 min read
29 Dec

     Who doesn't love a good first car story? We all have some memory associated with our first automobile, good or bad; there is a ways a story to be told. My father's first car was a 1969 Chevrolet Malibu. Ah yes, the almighty Chevelle! I believe I have a picture of it some where in a large box of my fathers photos I have sitting next to me at this very moment (I'll try to post it later. I just learned that my printer doesn't have the ability to scan, only copy and print. Why would it have a scanning function, that'd just be too convenient. I'll figure it out). And my mother's first vehicle was an early 80's Subaru GL (There may be a photo of it somewhere, I'll have to ask around). My wife's first vehicle was a spectacular 1999 Ford Explorer, aptly known as, Gary (a fitting name). My first vehicle is the vehicle in the picture above, in it's natural state! BROKEN! 

     A 1998 Subaru Outback should be, on paper, a good car, a good first car. Reliable, relatively safe, okay on gas, AWD capability and with enough room to squeeze all of your buddies in for a night out at the... river or some random basement. My 1998 Subaru outback was painted in the fabulous "Acadia Green Metallic". It had stock wheels that were poorly plasti-dipped and were peeling BIG TIME. A sluggish automatic, 5 CD changer under the front passenger seat and a tape deck, the thing was had all of the makings of a goooood time. The AWD in the snow was so good. I really thought I was Colin McRae tearing around in the snow. I mean I was so good in the snow I only crashed into one parked car and only destroyed one mailbox. That car was really inspiring, it felt fast (it wasn't) it felt like it gripped well (it really did not) and the steering was butter. 

     I remember the finding the car on craigslist and for some reason, I really dug it, to this day I have a thing for wagons. Something about this car spoke to me through my computer screen. My dad and I met the owner, a guy named Brian whose phone number I still have in my contacts on my phone because I never clean out my contacts list, at a Wawa in Skippack, Pennsylvania. A tiny town with a couple of restaurants and a gas station and that's about it. I saw the car in person and I was sold! I was fortunate enough to have parents who really were too kind and too loving, they lent me the money to buy this car, about 3000 dollars.The car didn't seem like a bad deal! Subarus are reliable, right?   

     When my father and I met Brian at an auto tag shack close to my hometown, his wife pulled in the lot behind him in a Monza Red Mitsubishi 3000GT VR4. I offered to buy that car for 3000 bucks but he wasn't into that deal much. Anyways we did the necessary paper work, waved good bye to Brian and his bride and I had my very first money pit, I mean car! 

The Subaru

     It was glorious! My own car! I remember the feeling of a new freedom washing over me like a duck stuck in a hurricane. On the drive home I remember looking around the interior of the car; the dash, the terrible vinyl seats, the stained carpet,  the crumbs in the cracks of the plastic center console. It was mine, all mine. The key to my new freedom was in my hands.

     Having gotten the car in early August, meant that a new year of school was right around the corner. Being 17, you know damn well, I wanted to show my new whip off to all of my cohort. I cleaned the car pretty vigorously a day or two before the first day of my last year of High School, it needed to be pristine. Minty Fresh! I even vacuumed out of most of the crumbs from the crevices in the cars interior and collected the loose change from under the seats left there by Brian. I collected a very small cash back rebate from the amount of change on the floor of that car. Anyhow, boy did that turd shine! Its metallic green paint glistened in the mid summer sun, the beams reflected heavily off of the freshly waxed exterior, it was blinding (this was the first of the two times, I had ever hand waxed one of my cars [it looked shit])! 

     Parking passes for the student lot at my high school were pricey so I decided against getting one and instead chose to park close to the Intersection at Anderson Avenue and Gay Street. I ran through some backyards after I parked on days I was late (which was most days) to make up some time I had spent putting mousse in my hair and combing it appropriately. And because of my choice to not buy a parking pass, I'm fairly certain, now, hardly anyone ever saw me cruising in the Subaru. Which in retrospect was probably a good thing. Let's be frank: I looked like an elderly science teacher on her way to the farmer's market for some local honey and good vibes. Outbacks... Not that cool; FACT!

     One of my earliest memories in the car definitely brings to light a more angsty time in my life. A little bit of pain, a little bit of anger and a whole lot of confusion. The second half of junior year, months before I bought my trusty Subaru Outback, was a bit tasking. My girlfriend at the time had just left me (I am in no way blaming her for the following, I was just hurt is all) and I was angsty. I was sort of mad at the world. This is starting to sound like a bad Screamo song. I was just a bit confused and to compound that, I was listening to way too much Modest Mouse. So for whatever reason I decided I couldn't be friends with my closest friend, Luke, anymore. I didn't know how to cope with my emotions and I hurt my best friend, instead of going to him for a shoulder to lean on, I ghosted him. I really don't know why, to this day, that was the decision I made. I hung out with some other friends that summer and frankly it was not the same. A summer without your best bud is a summer wasted.

     I recall that on that first day of senior year, with my Subaru parked in its spot on the street, I spoke to Luke. He doesn't remember me talking to him on the day but either way, shortly after returning from summer break, I made it a point to mend our friendship. On a different day after school, probably two weeks or so after getting back, I saw Luke making his way home. He hadn't made it very far so I pulled up next him and asked if he would like a ride. He accepted my offer and the second his ass hit the vinyl seat, I knew, in my gut, things were gonna get better. The healing could really begin. 

     Band practices, trots to Philadelphia, late night diner excursions, jaunts to the cafe... Gooooood memories. But let me level with you reader, it wasn't all wide eyed and rosy cheeked fun, oh no, quite the contrary with this car! Allow me to reminisce and acquaint you with one of my favorite memories I have with the mighty Ru! 

     It was mid October 2013, the sky was clear, mostly, a cloud or two maybe. The air was warm for that time of year but still warranted jackets.That day, my boys, Luke and John, and I decided to take a little foray to the art museum down town. We all loaded into the wagon, cranked the Molly Hatchet and got rolling towards the big city, Philadelphia that is. The trip to the city was no problem, a routine drive down Route 76; heavy traffic, people driving like complete jackasses, weaving around potholes that led to China, entirely ordinary. Our time at the Philadelphia Museum of Art was lovely, which was to be expected. We didn't spend too much time there that day, when the early evening light shined through the windows, we figured it was time to head out. 

     With the warm October sun just beginning to go down on our cool fall day, we departed from the art museum and made haste towards home. For whatever reason, I decided to take some peculiar back road on the opposite side of the river from Route 76, I didn't know where it would lead us, my sense of adventure pulled the three of us in. It was a reasonably narrow road with lots of bends and banks so naturally I put my foot down a bit and tried to connect some turns and enjoy the road. A quick glance at my temperature gauge showed me that my trusty Subaru's EJ22 was getting a bit hot. "No need to worry, I'll just back of the gas..." I thought to myself. Much to my relief the gauge showed the engine temperature return to a normal level, I thought all was well under the hood of the wagon. Boy, was I wrong...

     Merging onto 76 from this backroad I had taken out of the city, we ran into traffic. Normal merging traffic, nothing crazy, despite it being rush hour. Chugging along, joking with my pals I start to notice a bit of steam emanating from underneath of the hood. A glance at my temperature gauge would confirm my suspicion, the needle is making a b-line for the peg on the "HIGH" side of the gauge. I immediately pulled of onto the right hand shoulder and killed the power. John and Luke, oblivious to our imminent peril up until this point, stayed in the car as I popped the hood release latch and quickly got out of the car. Within no time at all, I was standing in a pool of my cars coolant. I cursed the Subaru as I propped up the hood to be able to get a closer look at why exactly this engine was boiling. I lowered my head down next to the very hot radiator to try to find a leak and determine how boned we were. I found it odd that there wasn't any sort of hissing or any sort of peculiar noise from anywhere around the engine bay, nothing terribly significant anyways, just the pings and crackles of a hot engine cooling down.      

     At this point, a friendly PENDOT employee appeared and offered me his services. I asked him if he had any jerry cans of water or coolant or any sort of liquid. Chicken noodle soup would have worked just fine, any liquid to help me solve the mystery as to why this engine spontaneously combusted. He obliged and handed me a jerry can of water. I quickly unscrewed the radiator cap and starting pouring water into the hot radiator (very poorly might I add, nobody had a funnel). After a few minutes, the water I had just added to the cooling system was pretty quickly exiting from beneath the car, at the outlet of the radiator. "Ah ha!" I asked the friendly PENDOT man if he had a flat head screwdriver I could use to tighten the clamp around the lip of the radiator and the hose that lead to the engine block. He scrambled to his truck and pulled out his toolbox and tossed me a long flat head screwdriver. Beginning to tighten the clamp, I quickly realized that the clamp wasn't loose because the it had backed off over time, it was loose because the outlet nozzle on the radiator had completely crumpled and collapsed from age. I knew, at this point, that my companions and I were S.O.L. 

     The friendly PENDOT man approached me and asked what could be done, I asked him for a tow. At this point he chose to not be terribly helpful and left us with only: "I'll find someone" as he swung his truck door open and sped off into traffic. I was baffled, was he coming back? Was he going to send help? Would I ever see the Phillies win another World Series? These are the things I wondered as Luke and John both exited the car to get the 4-1-1 on the situation. I filled them in on the what had just happened; they were equally as concerned as I was. This was the first time any of us had broken down somewhere without our parents. Would we see our loved ones again?! Naturally we were a bit worried. Minutes passed by as quickly as the traffic, not ten minutes after the Friendly PENDOT man had exited our lives, we spotted a flat bed truck muscling it's way through the river of cars. Could it be coming to save us from our rapidly approaching demise? The truck pulled over in front of us and out jumped a man. He seemed to take his time making his way to our car, which frankly was fine because none of us had the funds to pay this man if he was to save us. Surely, he would require payment. Every bridge has a troll toll and it must be paid! I hop out of the car to meet him at the edge of the hood, a pool of coolant still at the nose of the Subaru. "I'll take the car to the gas station, the Sunoco, right off of the next exit." he muttered in a bothered tone. "Alright sounds good!" I hollered over the roar of the motorway. I wasn't going to ask anything of this guy, we were broke. Wherever he wanted to bring the car, he could bring it. New Delhi, I didn't care, as long as we were off the motor way. He quickly loaded up the Subaru after Luke and John exited the cabin. While we watched the Subaru roll up the angled flat bed, I noticed that this truck only had a standard cab, so at most, it could safely carry three people including the driver. "But there is four of us total..." I thought to myself. Tow Truck Man had gotten the wagon fully onto his truck, strapped down tight, ready to go. "I can only take two of yous!" he exclaimed. Frankly, none of us really felt like sitting with this man in his truck. Besides that would have given Tow Truck Man ample to time to inquire about our financial situation. So we told him we'd walk to the gas station. He shrugged, got himself back in his truck and left us there on the side of Route 76. 

     Luckily, right below the roadway there are some operable railroad tracks that we decided would be safest to walk along. We hop over the guard rail and lower ourselves down from the highway through some thick bushes to the tracks below. There, our foot tour of the local area began. Concerned but almost unfazed, the three of us talked and laughed and threw rocks at billboards. Almost aimlessly, we wandered through the night, we really didn't know where this supposedly existent Sunoco was, right off of the next exit apparently! At this point I realized it would be in our best interest to have someone come and pick us up from this gas station, naturally I called my dad, who was, at that moment, not far from where we were. Luckily he picked up his phone, which to this day can be a rare thing. "Hey dad, could you come pick John, Luke and me up from a Sunoco across the river from Manyunk?" I asked him. Naturally his reply was a confused one: "Why? Is everything okay?". I gave him our situation and we forged a plan, it was a simple one too. We would walk to the gas station and somebody would come pick us up. My dad wasn't able to leave work, so he would find somebody to retrieve us from our rendezvous point. 

     Now further down the tracks, we had a reasonably large obstacle that stood in our way: The Schyulkill River. At this point, we were still on the side of the river that we needed to be on, the side with my car and the gas station where we would be picked up. But, because of the shape of the road, how the railroad tracks ran around us, and the topography of the land, we could not have made it easily to our meeting point. We had to cross the river! Luckily there was an older train bridge not too much further down the line that we could use to easily pass over the river. Scaling the hill to reach the edge of the bridge wasn't too difficult, though it was dense with vegetation of various types. Many pointy species of local flora lived under the bridge and probably still do to this day. We eventually made it to the opposite side of the bridge after hopping a couple of fences that had tried to keep us off of our one way to freedom. After what seemed to be a few hours walking, by this time the sun had gone down and it was a dark night, we found ourselves walking up a hill towards a gas station that we could only assume was the correct Sunoco. That's when we spotted the Subaru and knew we were in the right place. I wondered where the Tow Truck Man was; he was nowhere in sight. I could only assume that this man had helped us out of the kindness of his heart and not for any financial gain. What an angel! 

     I called my father back and he relayed to me that a coworker of ours was on the way to save our hides. Jordan, if you're reading this, thanks again for picking us up that night. I'm sure being asked to leave work for an hour must have really chapped your ass. We eventually made it to my father's place of work. I gave him the full run down on what had happened but thanked him again for the aid. "So we have to go fix your car, then I guess. Or get it towed to a shop." stated my father. He didn't seem to keen on working on my beloved wagon for some reason. I told him I knew what the issue was and assured him we could fix it in a jiff. He agreed that it would be an easy fix. 

     The next day my father and I acquired the necessary bits and threw the pieces we need into his trusty, green tool bag. We hadn't purchased any of the parts yet, we didn't know what we needed and we didn't want to go to the parts store twice so we made our way to the broken Subaru and made up a plan and found a place to fix it. An empty lot just up the road would suffice, it even had just enough gravel to make laying on the ground properly uncomfortable. It was perfect. I bounced into the driver's seat, looking forward to working on the car with my dad and frankly to test out my ability to wrench on the car. We quickly drove the car up the road, being careful not to run it too long without coolant, parked it, popped the hood and got work. 

     After making up a quick list for our trip to the parts store, we actually decided to look at where the nearest part store was; Norristown. From where we were Norristown was 30 minutes away. "Damn, a half hour?!" I asked my dad. That couldn't have been the closest auto parts store. NAPA, Advanced Auto Parts, O'Reily, Pep Boys, anything closer? Nothing. So, frustrated, we got into his truck and headed to the Advanced Auto Parts in downtown Norristown. Thankfully this store had everything we needed: the correct OEM radiator, the proper hoses and hose clamps that would fit properly, the works. We sped back to the broken mule and got to work, thats when I snapped this picture that is at the top of this post. My old man, dawned with white latex gloves, socket wrench in hand, mid repair on what was my first car. 

     The Mighty Subaru was never the same. A month later she got too hot again while I was driving to work for my evening shift after school on a Tuesday. All fall and winter long I dealt with that car boiling itself over and over again. My dad and I knew this thing most likely just needed new head gaskets, but it being mid winter, we sure weren't going to do that job without a garage and a source of heat. And for whatever reason, we never brought it to a shop or even got an estimate, that was a pretty poor call on our parts. In retrospect, we should have just gotten the work done, it probably would have been a 1500-2000 dollar job. Kind of pricey compared to the value of the car. I should have known that this car had not just had it's head gaskets replaced as mentioned in the craigslist ad, when the muffler fell off on my way home from ultimate frisbee practice a day or two after I bought it. I knew it had a leak but I didn't think the rust was just going to give way one day, letting half of the exhaust drag on the ground for a few blocks before I found it after parking. The poor Subaru met it's demise too early, in my opinion. She got sold to We Buy Any Car for a whatever she was worth in mid march of 2014, after a long and frustrating winter. Somedays the old wagon ran great! Other days it couldn't make it down the street and back. Was it the thermostat? Was it the headgaskets? The world may never know. All I know is that, I liked my first car, a whole lot. I didn't have it very long but I always regret the way I treated that great lump of Japanese steel. Hindsight is 20-20, ya know? 


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