My Brother and a Corvair


The year was 1969.

The family had just moved north after dad was transferred by his employer from Hendersonville, North Carolina (where I was born) to corporate headquarters in Neenah, Wisconsin. That was the year Neil Armstrong took the first steps on the moon, the year of Woodstock, the year Nixon became president. On the radio, we heard Aquarius, Pinball Wizard , and Whole Lotta Love.

I was a high school junior and my brother was a senior, which meant Dad’s transfer had uprooted both of us in the middle of everything important to teenagers.

Marty and I knew no one at the new high school, so in the beginning we hung out mostly with each other, a first for us considering our social worlds in North Carolina had never—God forbid—mixed. After all, Marty started out a buttoned-down math nerd, and I, a wannabe cheerleader.

As you can imagine, the combination of it being 1969 and the move from the south to the north changed my brother and me. A lot. Six months in, Marty had grown a mustache and let his hair grow to his shoulders. I stopped trying to tame my naturally frizzy hair with two-inch brush rollers and said to hell with wearing a bra. In other words we got in the grove of driving our parents crazy.

One thing Marty and I noticed about Wisconsin was that it snowed a lot. That’s an understatement, of course, still the state kept the streets clear for traffic. I didn’t have a learner’s permit yet, but Marty had his driver’s license, so he did the driving whenever Dad let us take out the smaller family car, a ’66 Corvair, to do a little local exploring. My guess is our parents realized we’d been challenged by the move up north—I mean, c’mon, the locals said “you guys” instead of “y’all” and it went downhill from there—so they gave us a little more leeway.

Anyway, at first I didn’t mind Marty doing all the driving. It left me to navigate and look around as we drove. However, it wasn’t long before I wanted to learn to drive the Corvair’s stick myself. It looked fun. My Driver’s Ed class only taught automatic.

One late Saturday afternoon, not long before dark, Marty finally gave in and said he’d teach me but on one condition. He’d been slipped a marijuana joint by somebody in class. If I wanted to learn stick I’d have to smoke the joint with him because he didn’t want to do it alone.

It was a first for both of us, although I can’t say I hesitated to make the deal. I really wanted to drive the Corvair.

This is what I remember of that day.

It was snowing, neither heavy nor light, just snowing. The forecast called for a few more inches to be added to the foot of snow already covering the roofs and lawns of our subdivision. The relatively wide streets that had been plowed that morning were getting white again, but it was so cold the snow just blew along the asphalt concrete like sand on a sand dune. Everything seemed quieter than usual, super-muted. Also prettier. Fairy-tale like.

Marty showed an uncharacteristically mellow attitude as I ground the gears the first few times. I suspect the joint might have had something to do with that, but it really wasn’t long before I was changing gears like a pro. I’d like to think I had a natural talent, but I suspect the pot might have mellowed me too. I don’t remember being anxious about driving—or smoking dope—at all.

I couldn’t tell you what became of that Corvair. Marty went off to college the next year, and I don’t remember driving it during my senior year, so Dad must have traded it in for something safer after that first winter. Since the Corvair’s motor was in the back, its front end tended to lift in the wind, and it could get very windy up there off Lake Winnebago. Looking back, I hope the car ended up with another teenager who‘d enjoy the fun of driving it.

Because it was fun, stoned or not.

Oh, the other thing I remember about learning to drive a stick was singing along loudly to my then favorite song that played that day on the Corvair’s radio: “Wichita Lineman” by Glen Campbell. Marty, who’d become a rock n’ roll purist by then, made fun of me for it. In fact, he’d continue to pick on me about it, right up to the time he passed away in 2019, exactly fifty years later.

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