My dad didn't debate much beforehand about certain types of purchases, so my mother, my two younger sisters and I came to expect the unexpected sometimes when he arrived home from work.
He could show up with just about anything: a remote control airplane to fly above the Highland Park reservoir; a new SLR Honeywell Pentax camera with lots of cool attachments; a nifty slalom ski for water-skiing on the Allegheny. While frugal in many aspects of life, purchasing quality items never fazed him.
One day he arrived home with a game-changer in my young life: a 1964, 4-on-the-floor Corvette Stingray, complete with removable hardtop that transformed it into a convertible.
My eyes popped at the shiny silver paint job and snazzy black leather interior. Atop the hood was that cool and distinct emblem front and center -- two racing flags crisscrossed.
As Dad set out to "jazz up" the horn, which he would be using a lot to collegially beep at other Corvette drivers, my mother freaked out and so did I.
My mother's reason was obvious: It was too fast, too expensive and too frivolous (though I also thought I detected an ever-so-slight sparkle in her eyes).
I was excited in a different way. About to turn 16 and Daddy's oldest child, I was considered capable of anything, including driving this powerful beast of a car. I can still hear the engine rumbling on the spring afternoon it arrived, along with the hard beats of my teenage heart about to burst over its new love -- even more so when Daddy said he would take me out for a driving lesson.
He drove me the short distance to Highland Park from our house, demonstrating the clutch and shifter and its four positions. Then he found an easy spot to park at the circle near the reservoir and cut off the engine.
"Your turn," he said.
Um, really? Under my control for the first time, the Stingray promptly bucked and stalled. There I was, trying to learn to drive a standard shift with more raw horsepower than a person could ever possibly need.
"You have to give it some gas while you let out the clutch," he said calmly.
I tried again, releasing the clutch as I gave the hungry engine the gas I failed to provide the first time. Good thing Daddy had parked in a spot where no cars were close ahead -- the Corvette was suddenly in gear and lurching forward madly! I remembered the brake pedal just in time.
And then -- whump! -- it stalled again.
The experience was like learning to ride one of those bucking broncos the cowboys never could control. But I had my mind-set to master this sweet dream of a ride. It was a sweaty-palms afternoon, but determination prevailed. Before the day was done, I had made it round the circular park road, shifting gears like I owned that Stingray as the wind lapped my hair into my happy face.
Soon, I got both my driver's license and the blessed permission to take the car out on a beautiful summer day. In the summer of '64, that meant picking up my friend Beth and heading to Walnut Street, which was the street on which to be seen.
We parked to take a stroll and soon spotted a girl who was my rival for a boy. She drove grandly past us in a yellow Mustang convertible, giving me a cute little honk of her horn and waving with glee. Clearly, she thought she had the edge.
This was a cue for Beth and I to get back in the Corvette and round the corner onto Walnut with the engine making its sweet growl. I can still see the shock on my rival's one-upped face as I beeped back at her from my Stingray!
I never did anything much crazier than that with Daddy's car, though I had fun flirting with guys at red lights who acted like they wanted to drag race. I'd keep the clutch pushed in securely and rev the engine while smiling sweetly. Then I'd giggle as they took off wildly, with me waving goodbye, still stopped at the light.
I would have never done anything reckless to risk losing my driving privileges, knowing I was a very lucky "Sweet 16" and driving the best car ever made.
Deborah Hetrick Catanese of Churchill, a former businesswoman who edits the projectmotherhoodnyc blog, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The PG Portfolio welcomes “Cruising Memory Lane” submissions about memorable car experiences, in addition to other reader essays. Send your writing to email@example.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.