Richard Kagan, who lives in Queens, is sports editor of Education Update and has freelanced as writer for 15 years, contributing articles about sports to Newsday, amNewYork and the Western Queens Gazette. He also conducts outreach and writes book reviews for the Queens Library’s innovative Mail-A-Book program, which e-mails books and provides a toll-free chat line to the homebound and elderly.
On a warm spring Sunday in 1968, while a junior in high school, I had an unforgettably exciting moment, thanks to my father. We lived in a pretty, bucolic suburb, Highland Park, 25 miles north of Chicago. Highland Park is famous for being the summer home to the Chicago Symphony, and when I was growing up you could see popular groups such as Peter, Paul and Mary and the Chad Mitchell Trio. A few years later, Janis Joplin played there and I listened to her near a fence just outside the grounds. Her voice came from the gods.
As for the relationship between my father and I, it was hardly what I would call the greatest. It felt like he was the sergeant and I a private. I carried out prescribed duties, like taking out the garbage, mowing the lawn, cleaning out gutters full of leaves, and being a pair of observant eyes around the house. My parents divorced and I became the surrogate father of the household. My mother was unable to drive due to an illness and my younger sister, Linda and I needed to get around.
On this particular day, my father was driving us around Chicago, near Lincoln Park, just north of the zoo, in his spiffy Oldsmobile Toronado. We parked, and my Dad, Linda and I got out of the car.
They both wore poker faces. Yet somehow I suspected they knew something I didn’t know.
We walked around, and saw a lot of cars parked on the street. New cars, older cars. My Dad loved cars, and he sized up the cars there that day, even looking into the windows. I’d seen him do that before.
We walked maybe 100 feet and we came upon a navy blue Ford Mustang that looked shiny and new.
“Wow!” I said.
“Do you like this car, Rich?” my father asked me. “What do you think?” His light-hearted tone of voice told me he was enjoying this moment.
Linda trailed a few feet behind, watching both of us. I looked in the window and saw the automatic stick shift on the console and thought, That’s so neat. The interior was a dark blue that looked so inviting. I felt like a young child gazing at the store window of the great Manhattan toy store, F.A.O. Schwarz.
“Gee Dad, this is a cool car,” I said, all the while thinking, What kind of game is he playing here? An adult version of cat and mouse?
“Why don’t you get inside and look it over, see how it feels?” he said.
Get in the car, I thought, growing ever more curious. What’s he talking about?
“Here, Rich,” he said, sounding a little more serious now. “Get inside and take a look.”
Just then he reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a set of keys. My eyes widened and I looked at him in shock. For a teenage boy this was equivalent to finding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.
“Rich,” he said. “This is your car. It’s new and it’s yours. Now you can take your sister wherever she needs to go. Just don’t drive fast.”
“Sure thing,” I said, nodding up and down. He put the keys into my hand.
Linda jumped up and down in glee. “I knew, I knew!” she said. “And I kept it a secret!”
“Oh My God!” I said. “How will I drive it home?”
“Don’t worry,” my father said. “You’ll get home. Just drive safely.”
The inside of the car smelled brand new, as if the leather might pop. I put my hands in the steering wheel. It felt scary yet comfortable. I was in a daze as I drove back to the suburbs in this shiny new Mustang.
I drove so carefully on the expressway, wanting only to keep my sister and I alive and avoid smashing up the car, that a cop actually pulled me over for driving “too slow.” Gave me a ticket, too.
We made it home just fine. There, I stared at my new car for hours. The next day, I drove Linda to school. For a long time, because of my father’s kindness, I was so happy it felt as if my feet never touched the ground. Life brings you plenty of surprises, but that one had to rank among the very best I could ever have imagined.