An Ode to Vlad the Impala

CHRISTINA KELSO                     FEBRUARY 25, 2015                    THE NAVIGATOR

“I hate that car.”

My fiancé Kyle grumbled with a familiar, understandable frustration when I called to update him on Vlad the Impala’s latest trip to the mechanic.

Expecting his animosity, I just smiled and answered back, “I love this car.”

I really do. Vlad the Impala was my first love.

I remember the day that my dad handed me the keys to the car and told me that, “I could drive it.” My 16-year-old brain had never comprehended words more wonderful.

He didn’t have a name then. He was my dad’s car, a 2000 Chevy Impala with white paint (peeling just a little), black stripes, a CD player, a spoiler and a sunroof. It was the car my dad taught me to drive in, and now, under the condition that I would pay for gas, insurance and maintenance, he would be mine.

I named him Vlad, and for six years he brought me faithfully to all the places that I should and shouldn’t have been. He took me to my classes at Middleburg High School, to my first job at Steak n’ Shake, to football games, to beach trips, and sometimes, with the headlights off and the gear in neutral, he helped me to sneak out.

Later, he brought me to college tours, graduation, and, with all of my stuff packed into the back, to move-in day at Jacksonville University. From there we went to new jobs, to internships and new adventures.

I have loved, and will always love that car.

Granted, he’s had his problems.

In 2010, it was a faulty security system locking the controls and stranding me in parking lots all over Clay County.

In 2011, the power steering pump went out and the windshield wipers broke in a rainstorm.

In 2012, the transmission started slipping.

In 2013, his new thing was shutting off the engine while I was driving. One time, he got me at 35 miles an hour down Riverside Ave. Luckily, I was able to kick the engine back on (turning the key back and forth in a panic did wonders) before we earned ourselves a slot on the 6 o’clock news.

Last February, he couldn’t accelerate past 40 miles per hour without overheating. My mechanic, suspecting the transmission, advised us to cut our losses and sell him. But, we refused and after almost two months of my rockstar dad and uncle stubbornly tearing into the engine, they found one small part that was causing the problem. With timing that couldn’t have been more perfect, Vlad was resurrected on Easter Sunday.

We were rolling. Then, on an otherwise calm day this October, one of Jacksonville University’s large tree branches fell onto his windshield. Because there happened to be a light rain outside, JU kindly refused to replace it. I was told that it was “an act of God.” So, if you ask the university’s insurance company, God had it out for my car.

Regardless of what the universe may or may not have thought about Vlad, with $200 from my student loan and twice that many tears later, he was roadworthy again.

Until two days later, when the headlights went out.

“Oh, well that’s not that bad,” I thought. He’s been through worse.

I was wrong.

Everything in that car remotely related to the headlights that should have been working, was working. And, something that I thought would be small turned into a problem that not even weeks with my dad and uncle, hours with three mechanics from Sun Tire, or an entire day at an auto electrical specialty shop could figure out.

After all that we’ve been through, I would have never guessed that it would be the headlights that would take Vlad from me. If anything, I thought that if we were going down, we would go down in style, with flames or at least sparks or something.

I had hoped to keep him with me until we could ride around in class with an antique license plate.

But instead, after that phone call, I made the hard decision to let him go. After graduation this April, when Kyle and I relocate to Dayton, Ohio to start the next chapter of our lives, Vlad won’t be coming.

At this point, he can’t be fixed, so I will be returning him to my dad, who will try to get him operating when and if it is feasible, and I will be searching for another car.

It’s harder than I thought. Looking at AutoTrader almost feels like a betrayal. He was a great car. Sure, sometimes he tried to kill me, but I found his attitude endearing.

Sitting in the driver’s seat of the Impala feels like going home. When I think of my time in that spot, it’s not the memories of smoke coming from the engine that stick with me.

Instead, I see my dad beside me in the passenger seat, telling me to speed up, calm down, or stop tapping the brakes. I see us in the parking lot of Wal-Mart for two hours, with him teaching me how to park. I see my friends hanging out of the sunroof while I laughed and hit the accelerator on Middleburg’s backroads. I see my baby brother smiling at me when I drove him to his first day of high school, and his terror when we switched seats so I could try to teach him to drive. I see all the lessons I learned there, like how cars don’t like it if you don’t check their fluids.

And yes, I see all the times I sat there while my dad, my sister, Kyle, and my friends went out of their way to pick me up from the side of some road or another when he broke down.

It may seem overly sentimental. Vlad isn’t alive. He’s just a piece of machinery. But, sometimes, I think that there isn’t enough sentiment in our day-to-day lives. Sometimes we replace the things we own like they’re nothing, “upgrading” our cars, our homes, our technology, and sending the items of the past to be swallowed in a landfill.

Rather than complain about what something we owned couldn’t do for us, I think that it’s more valuable to appreciate what opportunities it, and the people who helped us get it, gave to us.

When I think of Vlad, it’s important to me that I reflect on what happened in and around that car, the lessons that the responsibility of owning him taught me, and how much it meant to me that I keep him and take care of him.

I’ll never have another car that was a gift from my dad.

What I do have, is a stream of good and bad memories, and a little bit of money tucked away to find another car to take me through my next level of life experiences.

I think I’m going to name him Sam.