A sweet ride and a family secret

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My buddy Zag, so nicknamed for his love of Zagnut candy bars, obtained his driver’s license a few days after his dad purchased a new ’54 Mercury Monterey. Zag assumed he would be tooling around Guthrie Center in the flashy green vehicle. His father, proud and possessive, had other ideas.

“What does your dad say about you driving the new Merc?” I asked.

“Not much, Kibbie. Every time I ask about it, he says ‘we’ll see.’”

I rolled my eyes at my friend’s response. I knew all too well what “we’ll see” meant when coming from a parent: it ain’t gonna happen. And I had a dog in this fight. A year short of a driver’s license, I anticipated riding in the new Merc.

Weeks passed without Zag’s dad giving ground. “Are you ever gonna get to drive the new rod?” I asked.

My pal winced. “It doesn’t look like it,” he replied. “Dad’s so proud of his new wheels that he goes out to the garage every evening to check it out. Funny thing, though. He never turns on the light.”

“How d’ya know he doesn’t switch on the light?” I asked.

“I can see him go in the garage from my bedroom window. The light never comes on, and he doesn’t stay long.”

“Maybe he just likes to sit in his new car,” I offered. “I know I’d like to.”

Zag sighed. “Yeah, me too. But that’s not likely. He keeps the car locked even when it’s in the garage.”

“Well, I guess that makes sense since there’s no lock on the building. But wouldn’t it be neat if we could just sit in the thing. You know, check it out and listen to the radio and stuff.”

“Don’t hold your breath. I’m still getting nothing but “we’ll sees,” and I’m tired of asking. What the hell’s a license worth if you don’t have wheels!”

More weeks passed until one day Zag approached with a twisted smile. “Guess what I’ve got?” he asked with a wiggle of his hand in a pants pocket.

Before I could reply Zag showed me a set of car keys. “Did your old man finally come through?” I asked.

“Nah. I took the car keys while he was at work and made copies of ‘em at Rowley’s Hardware.”

“Gee whiz,” I gasped. “ You could get in big trouble. Besides, what good are the keys if your dad doesn’t let you drive the Merc. You can’t do it on the sly in a little town like this.”

“I know. But at least we can sit in the car when dad isn’t around and check it out. If he ever breaks loose with his keys, we’ll be ready to go.”

Our opportunity to inspect the Mercury came several days later when Zag’s dad was out of town. We absorbed the new car aroma while checking out everything the automobile had to offer, from the three-on-the-tree stick shift to the floor dimmer switch, from the cigarette lighter to the roll down windows. We did everything possible on our mythical drive — except make the wheels turn.

As the time approached for Zag’s mother to come home from a Women’s Christian Temperance Union meeting, we decided to end our “ride.”

“What’re you gonna do with the keys?” I asked. “If your dad finds you with an extra set he’ll go ape.”

“Yeah, I know. I don’t dare keep ‘em in my room or on me.”

“How ‘bout just putting ‘em in that old spare tire hanging on the wall?” I suggested.

“Good idea, Kibbie. That thing’s been there for years. I don’t know why the old man even keeps it.”

Zag approached the worn old tire and dropped the keys in it.

“Clink!”

“Hey, did ya hear that?” my buddy exclaimed. “ There’s something in there.”

Zag reached into the tire and pulled out a brown sack containing a bottle. He removed the bottle and read the label to me: “Four Roses: American Premium Blended Whiskey.”

“Whadya make of that?” I asked.

“Well, I guess we closed the case on why pops makes daily trips to the garage. It wasn’t to admire his new rod.”

“What would your mother think if she knew your dad was sneaking booze?”

“Oh, my God. She’d flip her wig. Ya know she’s the chapter president of the WCTU.”

Zag handed me the bottle containing an amber liquid. I had never touched a bottle of whiskey or even seen one up close. My parents belonged to the same Methodist Episcopal Church as Zag’s where alcohol was considered evil.

“What d’ya think?” I asked.

“It sure explains a lot. Not only dad’s trips to the garage, but also his habit of chewing Sen-Sen so much. He said he likes the flavor, but now it seems he‘s just trying to cover his booze breath.”

“What should we do now?” I asked. “You can’t leave the extra car keys in the tire. Your dad’s sure to find ‘em.”

“I’ll just have to look for another place. I guess I’ll just put the bottle back as I found it so pops won’t know I’ve been into his booze stash.”

“Hey, wait a minute. I’ve got another idea,” I suggested. “So what if your dad knows you’re on to his booze. You’ve got the indian sign on ’im. He might even loosen up with his car keys.”

“What’re you getting at?” Zag asked.

“Your dad knows you keep your bicycle in the garage and have a reason for going in and out. No one else does. If you alter his hiding spot, like putting the bottle back without the sack, he‘ll know someone is on to ‘im, and that someone is probably you. And he can’t give you any static for fear you’ll squeal to your mom. You’ll have him eating out of your hand.”

“Hey, that’s a good idea. Gimme me that thing.”

Zag placed the bottle back in the tire as we dreamed about breezing around town in the new Merc.

My pal entered the garage each day thereafter and changed the position of the bottle in the tire to indicate someone was sharing the secret. He observed his dad’s daily ritual closely, noticing he seemed puzzled after returning from the garage and chewing on a couple of Sen-Sen tablets. When his dad continued closemouthed, Zag became impatient and broke the silence.

“Dad,” he asked with a grin. “D’ya think I could have that old tire in the garage. Some of the kids are using ‘em for snow sliding. Winter’ll be coming soon and I’d like to get it ready to go.”

Zag’s dad got the message. He and his son were sharing a secret. And soon, as we had plotted, my buddy and I were zipping about town in the green Merc.

As weeks turned to months and then years, Zag made a point of checking on his dad’s hidden sin, mostly out of curiosity. Invariably, he found a bottle of whiskey in the old tire.

After graduating from Iowa State with a degree in geology, Zag took a position with Shell Oil, married, and began raising a family in Texas. On a Christmas trip to Guthrie Center a number of years after his first discovery, he went to his dad’s garage for another inspection. Sure enough, he found a half-filled bottle of his dad’s favorite beverage in the old tire. This time, to be a bit ornery, Zag added a new bottle of Four Roses with a red ribbon around the neck.

Later that day, the family opened Christmas presents. Zag’s gift from his father included a card with an added notation: “Thanks, son,” it read, “for your untiring efforts to keep peace in the family.”

• Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who now lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean. Comments: cmckibbi@calpoly.edu

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