In mid-Missouri, a 60-degree day in January is cause for celebration. For owners of classic cars and trucks, a warm and sunny Winter day is a perfect excuse to wake-up their hibernating hot rods and go for a cruise. That’s exactly what a good friend and I did last Saturday.
After charging the battery of my ’57 Bel Air, dusting the car off, and priming the carburetor with a splash of gas, the 62-year-old beast fired right up, eager to breathe in some fresh air. I pointed the Chevy’s twin hood rockets north toward Columbia and did my level best to obey the 70 MPH speed limit posted on Highway 63—a task made much more difficult due to the delightful sound the dual exhaust pipes make when the car’s 300+ horses are allowed to run at higher speeds.
I met up with my friend, who was all-too-happy to get some seat time in his beloved Super Sport, in a parking lot on the southside of College Town, U.S.A. There, he and I talked about the cars we have, the cars we’d like to have, and various other topics—some of them car-related, some not.
In the midst of our light-hearted conversation, a man pulled up near us in a new Mercedes SUV and engaged us in some classic car-talk. He pointed at my Bel Air and said, “I used to own a couple of those.” He pointed at my friend’s car and said, “I’ve got a year-correct motor for your ’66, if you’d be interested in buying it.” A short time later, the man mentioned that he’d bought a 1969 Camaro at an auction that the previous owner had done some questionable modifications to.
The way he actually described the Camaro’s customization was too crude to print in this or any other newspaper. Essentially, he said that the customizer had messed up the car, only, he didn’t use the word “messed.” Instead, he used the past tense of the “N” word.
I’d like to say I was shocked that a perfect stranger would use such a hideous word in the course of a friendly conversation with two people he had just met, but I’ve lived in Missouri all my life and have heard that word spewed from the mouths of countless racists over the years.
For a moment, I thought about calling the man out for his unabashed bigotry. But as I struggled to find the right words, I suddenly remembered that my friend, who was also taken aback by the racist remark, is married to a black woman. If anyone was going to give a stern lecture or a throat-punch to the jerk in the Merc, it was going to be him.
Before my friend (who I am choosing not to name here in order to protect his and his wife’s privacy) could begin to respond, the bigot turned in his seat and said to someone in the back of the vehicle, “I know, pal. We’ll leave in a minute.” It was then that my friend and I realized that behind the limo-tinted glass of the luxury SUV was a small child—an innocent kid with a racist father who assumed every white man he saw was as bigoted as he was.
Soon, but not soon enough, the racist and his child drove away, leaving my friend and I to shake our heads in dismay. “Don’t you just love casual racists?” I said to my friend. He just chuckled a little and continued to shake his head. I’m sure it wasn’t the first time he had been confronted with the reality of being married to a black woman while living in a state with more than its fair share of white supremacists.
It infuriates me when people think I share their delusions of racial superiority simply because I am white. My friend’s wife is an intelligent, witty, fun-loving, and kind person who enables her husband’s classic car habit—just like my wife. She is a far better human being than the racist blowhard who in one short conversation mentioned his lake house three times and his gated community twice after bragging about buying the “messed” up Camaro simply because he had $100,000 cash in his pocket and nothing better to do with it.
Despite the unfortunate intrusion upon our otherwise delightful afternoon, my friend and I were glad to have had the chance to enjoy our cars, the beautiful weather, and each other’s company. Although the balmy temperatures were atypical for this time of year, a little fun-in-the sun mixed with some casual racism was unfortunately not that unusual for mid-Missouri.
As my friend would tell you, the relics worth saving from the pre-civil rights era are vintage cars, not prejudice and bigotry.