This Old Thing?

The western world is ingrained with the idea of “out with old and in with the new”. It’s new and shiny vs. old and tarnished. Certainly, I do like some of the new and shiny things, but I also value some of the old and tarnished. So I recently got to thinking about the oldest object I still use on a regular basis: my key ring.

Now, what exactly do I mean by the “oldest object” and “use regularly”? Well, that’s a little fuzzy. I have a coffee table that may very well predate my existence, but it did not come into my possession until my twenties, so I don’t feel as strong of a connection to it. I also have a few artifacts tucked away from my early childhood (notably bookcases which are now in the kids’ rooms), but I don’t interact with them very regularly. So it seems that I’m mostly thinking about what object has been in my possession the longest that I still use at least weekly, and that definitely comes right back to my key ring.

As you can see, it’s not a particularly fancy thing, just a metal ring looped around twice so that keys can be slid on and off through the gap. In most ways, it’s completely unremarkable, except for the fact that I have been using it for at least thirty-five years.

When I first got it, it was actually a bit fancier. There were two identical rings held together by about three inches of black leather. I got it when I was a kid, no more than ten, possibly as young as seven or eight, and I paid probably no more than fifty cents. I put my house key on one ring, and hung it by the other ring on a push-pin stuck into my bedroom wall. I know I had it by age ten, because that was the year Mom went back to work part-time and would not be home until thirty minutes after school let out, so this was my way of letting myself into the house.

Eventually the leather strap broke, and the other ring was discarded, but by the time I turned sixteen, I added another key to the surviving ring: the key to my old 1972 Chevy Impala. The years passed, and it saw several dorm keys come and go, including one to my now wife’s room. (Rowr!) Then came the key to my first apartment and then that first rented house. I was married and working by then, so I added the keys to my wife’s car as well as one for the front door of the office.

That’s when the first key came off: my old house key. Sure, some keys had already come and gone. After all, I had to turn in the dorm keys or face a $50 charge for changing the locks. The apartment key had come and gone as well, and I don’t know how many bike-lock keys had passed through like smelly transients. But my house key had stayed the whole time. That one was permanent. Right?

But I didn’t live there anymore, and that point was made clear the first year of my marriage when Christmas rolled around. My mother called to ask when we were driving up to visit. I told her I wasn’t. After all those college years of being apart during the holidays, my wife and I were determined not to travel for Christmas. “But don’t you want to come home for Christmas?” my mother asked, and I finally said the words that slashed the apron strings with all the grace of a machete: “Mom, I am home.”

I took the house key off that very day.

Other keys have come off more easily. We sold my wife’s car, and I handed over the key, taken right off the ring then and there. The rent house key left without leaving an impression, and when we sold that first starter house to another couple, I again pulled the key off and handed it over at the closing. Surprisingly, when I sold my software company and headed off to greener pastures, there was no hesitation at letting that key go. I suppose that meant I was really done.

I used to keep an empty 44-magnum bullet on it as a separator, making it easy to grab hold of the right car key in the dark. That had to go after the 9-11 terrorist attacks in 2001. I thought about simply removing it for flights as some short-term fix, but I knew that was a recipe for misplacing it. Plus, I suppose I realized that the security restrictions were not going to be temporary. I suppose it’s still rattling around in my nightstand, but I haven’t seen it for years.

But other keys have hung on… notably that brass one with the notch. That was the key to my first car. I sold it back in 1997 or 1998, but I’ve never been able to bring myself to remove the key. At first I told myself that I was using it as an easy-access pocket knife for ripping open letters and packages, but now its teeth are so dull that I’m not sure it would tear even Kleenex. Even if that old Impala is still out there and running, I doubt this worn key would still turn the ignition. Yet it remains.

But through it all has been that one little key ring, bought ages ago with coins saved from my allowance as a sign of my impending maturity. Of all the things in my life, all the little icons and rites of passage, it’s funny to see what survives.

So how about you? What’s the oldest thing you’re still using?

My Father’s Car

I’ve been driving my father’s care lately. Technically it belongs to my mother, and I’m the one who bought it, but to me, it will always be my father’s car. To explain why that is, I have to go back over forty years and talk about another car entirely.

I’m a little fuzzy on the date, but it would have been late 1970 or early 1971, and Dad’s old Dodge Rambler was ready to be taken out back and shot. Dad decided to give GM a shot, and we all went down to the Chevy dealer. I was only three, but I remember the trip.

Mostly, I remember sitting in the back seat of a few different cars. One in particular stood out because the seats were upholstered with white synthetic fur. Come on, fur? Who puts kids in a car with white fur? Maybe someone with a cleaning fetish, but not my father.

In the end, he settled on a 1971 Chevy Impala. It was gold, and it quickly became known as Goldie in our house. Ironically, the white car was never Whitey, but that was probably a sign of the times. But good old Goldie became not only dad’s commuting car, but we also took it on a number of vacations. It eventually gave up the vacation role to a 1976 Chevy Impala with a trailer hitch, but it remained his main commuting vehicle for more than twenty years.

In the 80’s, he bought me my first car, a used 1972 Chevy Impala. It was almost the same as his, except that mine was what they call a “hardtop”. For you classic car aficionados, no it was not the two-door collectible version, but rather the four-door. It ran well, and it had the same bit 350 cubic inch V8 that Dad’s had.

I have fond memories of that car, and I often thought it was neat… you know, me and Dad in our big roadsters. You didn’t so much drive them as you sailed them. The ride was that smooth. You didn’t feel speedbumps so much as you heard them.

But in 1995, Mom got a new car, a police package 1995 Chevy Caprice. It was in many ways the proper heir of the old 1970’s Impala. The smaller, underpowered (but more fuel efficient) Caprice of the 1980’s had been stretched, given a bigger engine, and the police package made it a peppy little car. It had the Corvette’s LT1 engine (again, a 350-V8 descendant), and the cam shaft was geared for high torque. While nothing compared to modern sports cars, it had a very respectable 0 to 60 time of 7.1 seconds.

But it had the nice, new interior, so it became Mom’s car while Dad was relegated to her old 1986 Caprice with the smaller engine. Yes, it could go nearly 600 miles on a tank of gas, but I could tell that at some level, Dad felt he’d been relegated to the kid car. He tried to hang on to old Goldie for another year, but it was old, faded, and according to Mom, “just plain ugly”. So he had to get rid of it.

I didn’t want to see him have to hand it off to the junkyard, so I bought it from him for about $200. I managed to keep it going for another year, but when the transmission went, I decided it was time to junk it. Dad understood, and I think that year had given him enough time and distance to let it go.

But he was still in that underpowered 1986 Caprice. He said he wished that he had bought a second Caprice like Mom’s, but 1996 was the last model year, and by the time he realized it, it was too late. Notably, the famed Impala SS of the 90’s was essentially the Caprice police package with a few styling changes and a slightly different suspension. The trend in the 1990’s was away from four-door sedans and towards the larger SUV’s, so the Caprice production died off early in 1996.

By now, my 1972 Impala was on its second engine and its third transmission and was showing its age. I wasn’t ready to let it go quite yet, but I decided it was time to get something newer, and I also bemoaned the untimely demise of the big Chevy Caprice. But then I noticed that they were still in steady use by police departments, and a vague memory that they retired them after a certain number of miles.

What began as a research project eventually led me to the quarterly auction of Texas’s Department of Transportation. I bought myself a 1994 Caprice in the spring of 1996, a retired DPS patrol car. It had 92,000 miles on it, but it had been expertly maintained. My research on the vehicles ahead of time let me avoid any with collisions or persistent problems. It was very bare bones, exactly like you’d expect a police car to be, but it made a great civilian car. There was that one time the mechanic found some shell casings rattling around under the hood, but that’s another story.

Eventually, I got one for my wife, and my brother came down to get one himself. Then, finally in the fall of 1998, I bought one of the last 1996’s for my father. You don’t get them in the original black and white trim. They repaint them in a solid color before putting them up for auction. This one was gold, so once again, Dad had Goldie.

He was grinning ear to ear when I presented it to him. He knew, of course, that it was in the works, but I hadn’t told him the color until he came to town to pick it up. It was smooth, roomy, and peppy — everything he had been missing from his old Goldie.

I was a little disappointed at first to discover that he was mostly keeping it in the garage while continuing to drive the old 1986 Caprice to work, but then he explained. He wanted to drive the old one into the ground, while preserving the newer one for his retirement. He still took it out and drove it for pleasure on the weekends, but he kept it otherwise pristine.

Alas, that retirement never really came. In 2003 he was diagnosed with stage four cancer, and while he got some use of it that year, his health deteriorated to the point that he could no longer safely drive.

He died seven years ago today. The car had only had another fifteen thousand miles put on it.

Eventually, Mom moved that car down to Austin so that she could have a car here when she flew in for visits. It’s technically her car at this point, but I still drive it every now and then to keep it shape.

But now all the others are dead or dying. The engine block cracked on my wife’s car two years ago. My brother’s died a few months later. In the last year, mine has started having transmission problems, and I’m still debating whether to repair it or let it go.

With that, I guess I decided it was time to pull Goldie out of reserve. Even without as many miles, it’s showing its age. So I’ve been driving it.  In some ways, it’s my last physical connection to my father, and if I could, I would try to keep it forever.

But time passes, and no matter how much these things may recall your youth and the things you’ve lost, they won’t last forever. Enjoy them now, while you still can.