Meanwhile down at Cadillac Ranch
| Dad hated Cadillacs. Part of growing up was hearing him swear at them. "Damn Cadillacs! They own the road." And they probably did. Bankers, brokers, politicos, all those people who kept their feet on the necks of the working man drove Sevilles, or worse, El Dorados. Dad drove a 1958 Chevy Biscayne that he bought almost new from a co-worker getting a divorce. It was two-toned, sea green and white, had a stick shift on the column, and gave him eight years of good transportation until, after his kids were nearly done college, he stepped up to a Plymouth Fury.
For seven years before the Biscayne, he didn't have wheels. When he'd moved the family to Venezuela in 1950, his battleship gray 1940 DeSoto went to the scrap heap. It was an old New York City taxi he had somehow acquired in 1948 on the recommendation of his brother-in-law Fritz, the doctor. He had painted over the original colors with what must have been war surplus paint. He probably used a brush; it was the way he normally worked. The car had a roof that slid open, jump seats, and nasty doors that caught my five-year-old thumb one day. When we returned to the States, I did not miss the ugly thing one bit.
What irony it was that Herb Wills’ white El Dorado must have convinced him it was time to get another car. It was a Christmas morning, probably 1957. Dad had worked that night; the family was waiting for him to come home. It was getting on toward nine when two tugboats escorted the largest car I'd ever seen into a parking spot near our house. It was white, had a 'Continental' spare tire in the back, and a horn that played a tune that I like to think was "The Eyes of Texas." The doors opened; Dad emerged from the passenger side and a man in a white Stetson and wearing boots slid out from behind the wheel.
As happy as I was to see Dad and the cowhand with him, my eyes bugged out at seeing the behemoth. I think it was a convertible, but that detail is unimportant. Today sellers on Ebay would term it an "Eldo," but no one in that era would have called it anything but a “Cadillac El Dorado." They were new then and were the top of the Cadillac line, and Dad's boss Herb Wills had one. In those long ago sans Lexus days, only a Rolls Royce would have been more impressive.
It had markings on it picturing square dancers doe-si-doeing. That was Herb's other avocation, square dance calling. To my recollection, he talked with a drawl, but that may be my wish fulfillment memory talking. I am sure my father was honored that he’d come into our modest house. He didn’t pick us up and swing us around like Dad’s childhood buddy Rudy did when we were younger and smaller, but I’m sure Herb said “Howdy” to my mother, and to us kids. A few minutes later he left, with a toot of the horn.
After his visit, Herb disappeared from our lives. He and Dad would exchange Christmas cards, and I am sure they ‘touched base’ at work, but for us our only contact was a drive past his ‘ranch’ in our Biscayne. His hacienda wasn’t that large, but the fence around it had western regalia on it, maybe steer horns or the like. Unlike all of Dad’s other Caddy drivers, Herb didn’t own the road. He was more like the strike-it-rich wildcatters that populated Anarene, where, after a man hit his first well, he had to get himself a pair of fins. I guess Herb’s hardscrabble roots were the reason Dad didn’t mind him driving a boat.
Dad sure minded the other Caddy owners. In 1978 he went from the Fury to a Plymouth Volare, a vehicle that placed second in a Ten Worst list a few years ago. As he aged, his driving abilities rusted. He called one night to complain that his insurance company had boosted his premium to $3,600 a year because he had four accidents. “But they weren’t my fault; the other guy hit me.” Right, Dad. In each one you turned left in front of traffic. I was never with him for any of his fender benders, but I suspect he imagined a banker in a Seville was driving the car that was coming toward him.
Dad passed away in ’93; I kept marching on, watching my well-to-do clients buying or leasing Infiniti’s, Benz’, Beemers, anything but Cadillacs. When SUV time came, if it was upscale and American made, it was a hulking Expedition, or better still, a Navigator. Then a genius on Madison Avenue took a trip to the vault and dug out Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” and matched it to a commercial for our forgotten American dinosaur, now dressed in new clothing. For the first run of ads, they located Herb’s El Dorado. A young hunk was behind its wheel; in heavy traffic, he put the car in another gear and suddenly was above the crowd, zipping along on a road out west, transforming the “Eldo” into a new Caddy, all to the heavy beat of Plant, Page and Bonham.
“It’s been a long time since I rock and rolled,
It’s been a long time since I did the stroll,
Ooh, let me get it back, let me get it back,
Let me get it back, baby, where I come from.”
When I hear the guitars and screaming voice, my head bobs up, my feet start to shuffle, and my mind snaps to attention. I, the man who detests the commercials that pop on American Movie Classics, cannot resist this hard sell. If I had a spare 45K I might buy one of those chariots. “Oh, please, get a life,” I hear someone saying. It might be my father in his mausoleum niche, horrified that his son is even considering going over to the other side.
More likely, it’s Herb Wills, taking the needle off a Milton Brown 78 R.P.M. recording of “Yellow Rose of Texas,” yanking it off the turntable and smashing it on the floor. “How can you swing your partner to such awful music? That’s the last time I’ll ever come to your house for Christmas.” His reaction stuns me, like a slap in the face. I’m torn; I like picturing myself behind the wheel of a Caddy, having trains stop to let me through a crossing or parking a Mini in my cargo compartment.
On the other hand, how could a thinking man like myself be swayed by modern advertising? I blush. I’m embarrassed. Yesterday I found myself congratulating the makers of a Miller Lite commercial. Two nubile women pitch themselves into a pool, fighting about whether Lite “Tastes great!” or is “Less filling!” Two young men, observing the action, think the fight would make a great commercial. The camera pans to their dates, two attractive women. The expression on one face is sublime. She does not speak, but her look registers a perfect ‘man, in all his idiotic glory’ message.
I wondered if she could be nominated for a Golden Globe. Am I in trouble? Do I need help? Let me take a walk and think about it. See you later, down at the ranch. Hit it, Bruce.
Long and dark, shiny and black
Open up your engines let ‘em roar
Tearing up the highway like a big old dinosaur."
Valatie January 20, 2003