The Whomobile was a 1978 Oldsmobile Delta 88 rustbucket my dadÂ purchased in 1984. By the time I got around to driving it in 1985, its roof was covered with Bondo to fill the gaping wounds that allowed water to drain into the passenger seats. One spring day, during the end of my sophomore year, I asked my father if I could paint a flag on the roof of the car. The idea was a whim and I doubted he would agree. To my surprise, he asked which flag.
Visions of “Dukes of Hazzard” filled my head and I suggested the Confederate flag. He immediately said “no.” You see, he had taught in Georgia during the ’60s, and the racism he saw firsthand still left a sour taste in his mouth. That flag was an ugly reminder of the past and he wasn’t about to drive around town with it painted on his car. Thinking fast, I spat out “How about the Union Jack?” He thought a moment. “The flag of England?” I shrugged, sure. He curled his lower lip in approval and simply said, “okay.” It took me a couple of weeks to complete the paint job. It wasn’t perfect, but close enough. The Whomobile was born.
I have to give credit to my close friend, Sally, who gave the car its name. For more than a year, that rusting piece of metal on four wheels drove through town with the Union Jack and the question, “Who Are You?” painted in 12-inch letters on the trunk. My dad never complained or asked me to cover it up; I personally believe he got a kick out of being seen in it. Perhaps it made him cool. I’d like to go on to describe the many crazy adventures that took place in the Whomobile, but the truth is, there weren’t that many. Mostly, it was “the car,” a symbol of individually amongst my friends. It was a part of my image and became a symbol of who I was. And yes, I liked the thought of being perceived “cool.” Trust me, I was not.
My most vivid memories of the Whomobile involve the numerous midnight treks through the Cleveland Metroparks with Steve or Matt riding shotgun. Those times sometimes involved deep, personal conversations, or sometimes they involved long stretches of silence while we listened to the classic rock songs we’d discovered on our own. Obviously, The Who were one of those groups. At that time, Steve was enraptured with Quadrophenia, while I preferred Tommy. However we both agreed upon Who’s Next, their classic album full of anthems, including the powerful, “Baba O’Riley,” one of my favorite songs of all time. The majesty of that composition, with its instantaneously recognizable synthesizer intro and Pete Townshend’s thunderous guitar chords has always brought chills to my spine. And when Roger Daltrey let’s out that guttural scream, “They’re all WASTED!” I feel like a kid again; I feel like I did back then, part of something larger than myself. That song is as intertwined in my memory as the Whomobile, both the good and the bad.
There were many dates in that car. The front seat was large enough to make-out without worrying about getting a cramp in your arm. And the backseat… well, the backseat was cozy. Now, I was no Don Juan in high school, but I had my share of girlfriends and I had my share of broken hearts. During the most important breakups and epiphanies, the Whomobile was handy to head out and clear my head.
The August before my senior year I learned that THE GIRL, the one who inhabited my fantasies, had expressed interest in me. This was a dream come true. The evening I found out, I rushed home from work to call Steve with the fantastic news. So excited was I that as soon as the car was in its regular parking place in the driveway, I opened the drivers door and started to jump out, except that I’d forgotten to shut off the car. It rolled forward into the bushes and came within inches of running into the house. Luckily, I was able to slam on the brakes before disaster. No matter, my elation dampened any fears of vegetation damage. This was the beginning of an important relationship with a girl for whom I’d pined for almost a year. The Whomobile was there for the start of this time in my life, and its final gasp was a harbinger of the same relationship crashing to an end some four months later.
The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, 1987, I drove through the main drag of North Olmsted while gray skies tempted rain. After pausing at a red light, the car lurched forward, then clinked and squeaked before finally dying in the middle of an intersection. I was able to crank the wheels and coast into a nearby parking lot, where the Whomobile can to a final halt. Later on, as a tow truck hauled the car off to a mechanic’s garage, I didn’t realize that that would be the last time I saw the Whomobile. It is appropriate that I was driving the car that afternoon; it was appropriate that I was with the dying beast as it left this world. A week later, my folks bought a (belch) conversion van with bucket seats, curtains and a pull out bed in the back. I had no use for this monstrosity. It had no history. It was just car.
The same week the van was purchased, that girl of my dreams walked into the video store where I worked and told me that her family was moving to another state. Suddenly, I was without my heart and my armor. My car was gone and by January, so was my girl.
It took a long time to get over both losses. Many long, lonely nights spent in the basement listening to sad songs by Springsteen couldn’t fill the void in my heart. And without the Whomobile, it didn’t feel the same roaming the streets of my town. First love prepares you for great things in life; first love shows you the possibilities of the wonder of love. Yet, it also sets you up for heartbreak. When you lose that first love, whether it’s a girl or a car, you’re never the same. When the cold winter blues finally melted away, I climbed out of the basement a little more mature and ready to move on. I was ready to rock again. I may not have been a part of some teenage wasteland, but I was ready to travel south cross land and not look back.
You can let the pain control you, or you can use it to make you a better person. For all the love I felt for that girl, it wasn’t meant to be. I have no regrets because my life’s path was heading toward Julie and the incredible life we have. Still, what I wouldn’t give for just one more cruise around the block in the Whomobile with the windows down and “Baba O’Riley” blasting from the speakers.
The 1987 North Olmsted Boys Cross Country Team posing with the Whomobile, August, 1987