In 1965, two weeks after starting sixth grade, we moved to a neighborhood in Montoya in the Upper Valley; traveling west on Doniphan, we turned left on Montoya Road to our house at 371 Ontiveros Street. The following story occured in the 1967. I was 13, out of school for the summer and ready to goof off for three months. Nothing could go wrong.
Papa owned a 4 door, all-white 1959 Oldsmobile and worked swing shift at Border Steel Mills. I became a chauffeur by default at the age of 12, when I started driving the Olds on the side roads to take mom to the grocery store.
She shopped at Farmer’s Market located at the NE corner of the “crossroads” – where Mesa Street ends at Doniphan Drive. It was one of those family stores with a diner inside, but its long since gone.
Summer days were moving right along and there was a little family reunion at our house. My oldest sister Gloria, came to visit from L.A., and likewise, my other sister Vicky and her husband Charles drove all the way from Fort Wayne, Indiana in a VW bug.
My brother Vince was noticeably absent, stationed overseas in Da Nang, Viet Nam. Concerned for his well being on a daily basis, we all watched the CBS evening news with Walter Cronkite – hoping and praying the war with North Viet Nam would end.
He’d easily spend an average of four hours getting loaded, smoking his Marlboro’s, bullshitting with friends, singing, playing “dados” ( yahtzee ), smoking and getting loaded some more.
Then he’d get in his car and drive home, negotiating turns and traffic lights in a condition that would alarm the most hardened city cops.
He somehow avoided getting pinched by the mexican police, crossed the border hoping the U.S. Customs agents wouldn’t detain him, avoided the El Paso police and the State Patrol along the Doniphan corridor to Montoya – for a total of 15 miles. Amazingly, he would make it home in one piece and collapse on his bed.
We were always beyond relieved when he got home.
I couldn’t help but feel that it was miraculous every time he went to Juarez and returned home in such a state. Papa must have had a giant-sized guardian angel as his co-pilot.
It had to be Gabriel, the Archangel. Because of having to watch over such a high-maintenence mortal, an extremely fatigued Gabriel must have made weekly appointments with his therapist.
When papa finally quit drinking cold turkey in 1970 due to doctor’s orders, I bet that poor angel put in for an early retirement and bought a beach front home in Malibu. He earned it big time.
One afternoon during the visit, Gloria, Vicky and Charles were chatting in the living room. Mom turned to me and said, “Go get your dad’s
thermos and lunchbox from out of the car. I need to get his things ready soon”.
Papa’s shift started around 5 pm and the big bear was in his den snoring away. I went out to the car, walked around to the driver’s side…and stopped dead on my tracks.
I was standing next to a white Oldsmobile with a design on the side of the car. It had a sideways V-shaped paint job that came to a point at the front door and widened further back towards the rear left fender. It was a shade of aqua with aluminum trim.
“What?”, I said to myself outloud, “That is not our car. Ours is solid white!” Confused, I opened the door thinking that Papa’s thermos and lunchbox would be on the front seat.
Wrong. No thermos, no nothin’…and, the interior was a completely different color. I sensed something really bad and ran back in the house. Mom was in the kitchen making another batch of flour tortillas. I told her the car outside wasn’t ours.
With a puzzled face she followed me, and I pointed to the color trim on the sides. Her expression changed to a look of concern as I opened the car door and revealed the interior. Panic set in.
She ran back inside and interrupted the conversation in the living room. Gloria, Vicky and Charles’ expressions changed in less than a heartbeat as they all hoofed it quickly out the door.
With mom and I close behind, my eyes shifted from one family member to another. There was murmuring and there was whispering. Perplexed, we all went back inside.
I sat with the others in the living room. Do we wake dad up? Are you kidding? He worked hard and we had an unwritten rule to never-ever wake him – unless the place was on fire.
Thankfully it never came to that; mom and I monitored him and would slip the cigarette away from his fingers at times when he dozed off.
So we faced a most unusual dilemma as I Iistened to my sisters discuss the “what, who, why, where and whens”. I sat transfixed, wondering what the hell could have happened. My thirteen year old mind was not able to attempt a detective’s process of elimination. The words “That is not our car”, were still ringing in my head…sounding like a broken record.
The first thing everyone asked about was dad’s set of keys. Yes, they were his. Mom and I checked them out and verified it.
Bewildered, we looked at oner another and asked, “How could this happen? How could these keys fit a totally different car?”
David Copperfield would be totally impressed. He would have hired Papa and used him in a new Vegas act, “And now, the Amazing Antonio and his wonder car!”
We talked over this scenario: Papa always parked close to the bar’s entrance. The other Olds must have been close by or worse, directly next to our car.
As he walked out of the bar with a giant-sized buzz, Murphy’s Law had set him up to fail: he walks up to the wrong car, the keys opened the wrong door and he was able to start the wrong ignition. Three strikes in a row…a triple-whammy. What are the odds? And where was the parking attendant…also in the bar?
A creature of habit in his altered state, the only thought in his foggy mind was to drive home and he did; in a mostly white Oldsmobile. Hey, close enough….I can end the story here.
After more discussion, a plan was hatched: first on the list was to take dad’s keys and return the imposter Olds and park it close to the bar as discreetly as possible – at 2 in the afternoon in the middle of summer, no less.
We held our breath and hoped our Oldsmobile would still be there in order to pull off the ol’ switcheroo. And that’s how it went down.
Gloria drove the mystery car while Vicky and Charles followed in the VW.
Mom and I stayed home and waited a couple long hours, till we finally heard them drive up. It was dad’s white Olds with Gloria behind the wheel and Vicky and Charles right behind.
They made it back in time – Papa was gonna be getting up soon. I wasn’t in on any additional conversation and don’t know if mom had any pointed questions once everyone returned. I was just glad that our car was back so I went to a friend’s house.
My sisters were setting the table as I walked out the door.
During dinner I’m sure that Gloria, Vicky and Charles dissected the day’s adventure – analyzing it once more in greater detail, then they probably turned to our quiet mom and said, “Great chile rellenos, mama”.
Did anyone tell Papa about this escapade? Hell no. Knowing my family, this unusual matter fell into a category you readers know very well as “better left unsaid”. And I never again thought about the mysterious Oldsmobile and who it belonged to. One of his drinking buddies? The bartender? A tourist?
But there was one thing. I should have stuck around that afternoon when Papa entered the picture and sat at the dinette table, with everyone’s curious eyes upon him.
Finishing his meal and coffee, and getting up to leave to work in his stoic manner, and with a five-day hangover for sure, I wish I could have said to him with a cat-that-ate-the-canary look on my face, “Have a nice day, papa”.
And Gabriel? I can’t thank you enough.