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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Flashbacks

Buy a 1969 Camaro

May 2021

These days, it doesn’t matter what war. A Marine, soldier, airman, or sailor often buys a vehicle on return stateside. My husband was no exception. His thought: At age 20, just home from two years in Vietnam, he thought he needed a car. True enough. He bought a new 1969 Rally Sport Camaro. On return from Desert Storm, his “new” vehicle was a 1967 Chevy pickup.

His father, the sheriff in 1969, had owned the Cadillac-Oldsmobile lot in his small town. A Rally Sport 350 Camaro with a standard shift became the vehicle. Red and with white pinstripes, it had a white vinyl top and black and white Houndstooth seats. Smooth to drive and so snazzy to look at, it was also easy to find in any parking lot, even at shopping center.

I stand by the 1969 Rally Sport Camaro. Robert was deployed to Desert Storm at the time of this 1991 picture.

I stand by the 1969 Rally Sport Camaro. Robert was deployed to Desert Storm at the time of this 1991 picture.

On his last trip home from Ft. Riley before flying out to the Middle East, he brought the old blue pickup home. It died on the interstate about a mile from the house. He had it towed to the place where dead cars go and I drove him to the place where they loaded the busses for departure to Ft. Riley. I remember seeing all the soldiers in uniform. I remember seeing all the busses, all the families. I remember the coat I wore and some of the drive back to my office. I felt relieved I had to go to work and would be busy all day.

Brown leather blinders—
Drive the block ahead.
Thank God the road hasn’t changed.
Red light—
Turn left when green. Turn left when green . . .
A horn blasted.
I’m still here
He is gone.
Let me cry against your pillow when
I get home from work.
I haven’t changed the pillowcase:
It still smells of you.

It wasn’t easy saying goodbye when neither of us knew what the future held. I drove the Camaro to my office and, as always, felt comfortable and warm in it. I liked that car so much, I drove it to work and anywhere else I went. I remember it was the easiest car to get in and out.

I found it much easier to welcome my husband home.

Days apart, his unit came home on four different planes. Even though I knew Robert was scheduled for the last plane, I met every one for two reasons: what if a spouse or family member wasn’t there; and, as chair of the Family Support Group, I felt it my responsibility to continue to support the families and soldiers. While the families could meet the planes and greet their loved one, the men and women were bussed to Ft. Riley sixty miles away to come home a couple of weeks later. Robert remembered the route of his bus from Topeka’s Forbes Field and along I-70 as filled with signs of Welcome Home messages. He felt touched as this country had no welcome home for those who came back from Vietnam.

When he came home from Desert Storm, he had no car waiting for him at Ft. Riley. He walked off post, crossed the street to a used car lot and bought a 1967 red and white Chevrolet pickup. Just like that! As usual, he wanted to control the pieces of his own life.

A recent picture of the 1967 Chevy pickup converted to a flatbed.

A recent picture of the 1967 Chevy pickup converted to a flatbed.

To add to the highway signs, Topeka had a parade on Armed Forces Day. He said afterwards that this was his welcome home from his two years in Vietnam (1967 to 1969) and from Desert Storm (1991). He felt the same way about the parade Topeka had for the three units it had deployed—Air National Guard Air Refueling Wing, the 190th as we locals always called it, the Army 410th Evacuation Hospital (Robert’s unit), and the National Guard’s 35th Military Police (MP) unit. In the parade marched the 1,000 local troops who were called to Desert Storm.

Of course, I went to the parade. My memory of it is lots of uniforms marching on Topeka Boulevard. That makes sense. What still doesn’t make sense is my recollection of seeing my husband looking at me with a huge smile on his face, finally feeling welcomed home from Vietnam and Desert Storm. No one in uniform in a military parade looks anything but straight ahead in a most serious and stern manner. I guess I glimpsed into his soul at the moment he passed.

What was the eventual fate of the Camaro? When we moved from Kansas to Alaska, we stopped in Oregon for three months to unload most of our things in the house Robert was reared in. We kept the Camaro in the garage for several years and then realized we would be in Alaska more than we expected. As much as I liked the car and hated to get rid of it, I let Robert make the decision to sell it. He sold it to the man who detailed it off the lot for the same price he had paid—all his Vietnam earnings. I had been offered three times that much in Kansas City ten years earlier, but it was not my car or my choice of its future. My attitude always was that the Camaro and major decisions about it were his. The present owner is a person who shows it all over the Southwest. We’ve even thought about taking a trip to one of those shows just to see the car again. I have learned, though, it is impossible to say farewell to all the pieces of being at war.

The fate of the 1967 Chevy pickup? We still have it, only now it’s no longer a pickup, but, since we had the pickup bed replaced with a flatbed, it looks more like a field truck that belongs on a farm or a ranch.

What I liked about the ’69 Camaro and the ’67 Chevy is the standard transmission. That makes me feel more in control of what I’m driving.

Blinders, from my book, The Soul of My Soldier, Familius, 2015.

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