The Continental Pt. 6: A Texas Tune Up
(This article is part of the 15-part series, The Continental, written by Christie Grotheim with photography by Niklas Andersson as the couple takes a six-week road trip across and around the United States in their 1979 Lincoln Continental. Click here to catch up on the full series.)
On the off chance you’ve heard of my hometown, Longview, in Northeast Texas, you would know of it vaguely as an exit off I-20 between Dallas and Shreveport—a sort of rest stop to get gas and take a pee break, maybe grab some beef jerky. Most people drive on by, but Longview was exactly where we were headed. As we neared my parents’ house on a country road, the churning oil pumps became more clustered. They dot the entire area, like industrial rocking horses lurching rhythmically back and forth. Several are within view at all times in the open fields and piney woods. On my parents’ property, there are three within a stone’s throw, so our old Continental must have felt right at home when we pulled into the drive. Gas guzzler that she is, we considered somehow siphoning the oil straight from the source to save some cash.
My parents hurried out to greet us and check out the car. My dad chuckled as he took in the sheer size.
“Well she looks good, but how’s she running?” he asked with a grin.
They had heard about some of our mechanical misadventures, and we now had a new one to share. About forty-five minutes before, we worried she was running hot after a long drive in 100-degree heat. When Niklas popped the hood at a gas station, we had the usual radiator problems—boiling and leakage—and he noticed something new. One of the large hoses that was supposed to be firm and pressurized at all times (we were informed by mechanic number six), was as limp as a wet noodle and even sucked in on itself like a collapsed artery.
I called Dad and told him we’d be running late for dinner because we had to wait for her to cool down in order to check the coolant level. As someone who knows quite a bit about cars, he told us to run cold water on the engine while it’s idling in order to speed the process.
When we pulled up near the water hose and popped the hood, a burly man in a much too tight tank top with a Budweiser in hand ambled over to stand beside Niklas, peering into the hood.
“You gotta tar tool in that thar trunk back thar we need to get inda dat dang dar thermostat or you gown blow the goddamned gasket you fixin’da fuck up yer mothafuggn in-jun beyond repar if ya don’t gimme a tar tool an ‘en I’ma busta hole.”
Niklas looked at me with a blank stare.
I wasn’t sure how to handle the situation or whether to let this character work on our car, especially because he seemed slightly drunk. But on the other hand, he drove a motorcycle and seemed to know a lot about cars. Certainly more than we did.
“Get the tire tool, sweetie.” I translated. We got both a tire tool and a screwdriver, which he also requested in his special way. We watched as he leaned over the engine with his belly hanging into the hood and violently stabbed the screwdriver into what we learned was the thermostat again and again until whatever blockage was there had surely been obliterated.
“That’ll get y’all on down the road thar,” he said. “You need any more help just gimme a holler cuz I live out yonder near Longview,” he said as he scribbled his phone number on a scrap of paper.
“’Preciate it!” I said. Finally, we were back on the interstate, my stomach growling wildly thinking about the Mexican food we’d soon be eating.
Mom and Dad were taking us out to Papacita’s, the restaurant I always choose when I’m in town. So upon our arrival, we packed them into the Lincoln and relayed this bizarre incident on the way. Dad questioned his tactics, but in any case, it had gotten us down the road as he promised.
That night after chatting with my parents, we sat outside in the summer heat and smoked cigarettes, listening to the shrill orchestra of cicadas and crickets, taking in the smell of pines, oil and earth. It was good to be home. The following day was equally enjoyable; Mom cooked a gorgeous brunch and that afternoon was the most relaxing we’d had. We took a nap, staying much longer than we intended. We headed to my sister Corie’s house in the outskirts of Dallas feeling well rested and recharged.
On the drive over, Niklas and I discussed making another appointment with a mechanic there (mechanic number seven) to look into the thermostat and radiator issue once and for all, and to have the leaky brakes fixed. We had already had the master cylinder replaced and the brakes bled in New York but without noticeable results. I wondered aloud if some of these problems we’d just have to live with in such an old car. I’m the kind of person (read: slacker) who when things break, whether it’s a computer or a chipped coffee cup, just works around it, while Niklas is a perfectionist with a technical mind who wants everything running as it should. And it’s hard to argue with a good set of working brakes.
I agreed that it would be fun to spend a couple of extra days with my sister, her husband Chris, and their three kids. In fact suddenly I couldn’t wait to see them and called to see if they’d wait up for us even though we’d arrive well past their bedtime. “Well Christie, the kids and I have been up since 6:00 this morning so I really don’t think we can make it that late,” she said in her responsible mom voice. “We’ll leave the front door open.”
The last thing I expected to see as we turned onto her street after midnight was a group of hooligans—on closer look it was three blond kids and a couple of crazy adults—jump out into the street, screaming and waving wildly. Everyone was animated as they circled the car.
“We knew it was you because the headlights were wider than your standard vehicle!” Chris said, which cracked the kids up.
Chris loves fixing up old cars, and we appreciated his endless energy and enthusiasm the next morning when we opened the hood. He and Niklas worked all day on some issues we hadn’t had a chance to deal with: the left blinker which hadn’t actually blinked since Biloxi, and the small vent window on the drivers side that had slipped out of its socket in Panama City. I came out mid-afternoon to see the entire door stripped out and broken down into a hundred little pieces, but by the time they came in to dinner covered in sweat and grease, the window was back in place and fully functional.
The following day, we made an appointment at a mechanic and arrived to find a couple of old-timers behind the counter, one hunched over slowly scribbling notes while the other turned up his hearing aid as we described the car’s problems. The fact that these fellows looked like they were knocking on heaven’s door was actually a huge relief. After the Pep Boys incidents, we had finally come to the realization that we should never let anyone under the age of fifty look at our car, and these guys looked more than qualified.
For those few days, Corie and I cooked together, we watched The Bachelor together, took walks. We all ate as a family, we played with the kids in the pool, we played Monopoly. We hardly left their house, since it was so comfortable. After all, how often does one have the chance to be around family and to just do nothing? Not Christmas, not Thanksgiving, not a vacation. We just existed together, actually becoming a part of each other’s everyday lives. Niklas and I got a tune up just by being there that we didn’t even know we needed.
When we got the car back, our car was running better than ever. On our final morning, the whole family helped us wash and detail The Cream Dream. For a car that size, it really does take a village. We scrubbed and talked and rinsed and laughed until she was shiny and new, which is exactly how we felt, as we headed west.
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Niklas Andersson is a lighting designer and photographer from Gothenburg, Sweden, who has recently set his sights—and lights—on New York City. With a passion for ’79 Lincoln Continentals and a love of the open road, he offers a unique perspective, from both behind the wheel and behind the lens.
Christie Grotheim is a New York-based writer whose personal essays can be found at Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Ducts, and Smith Magazine. Though her workspace is in the West Village, she prefers writing longhand from the passenger seat with the world whizzing by and the wind in her hair.