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WOSTER: It's all original, except for a wheel

Terry Woster

After Easter break my freshman year at Creighton University, my big sister and I returned to campus in a 1956 Pontiac station wagon. We needed a vehicle to bring our stuff home at the end of spring semester.

After Easter break my sophomore year at South Dakota State University, I returned alone to Brookings in a 1957 Chevrolet, again because I'd need a vehicle to bring my stuff home. The '57 Chevy compared to the '56 Poncho wagon sounds like a trade up. It wasn't.

The Pontiac had an eight-cylinder engine, an early prototype of the thrust package that eventually propelled the first moon rockets into orbit. It also had a body that weighed more than an intercontinental ballistic missile, with three seats inside and miles of chrome hanging all over the exterior. It had an automatic transmission, and when you floored the gas pedal and kicked the thing into passing gear, it roared like a feed grinder as the fuel gauge clocked its way toward the left peg.

When I write '57 Chevy, I suppose the first thought is the classic V-8, an eye-catching, two-door hardtop or convertible like, you know, the one Johnny Castle drove in the movie "Dirty Dancing.'' My family's '57 Chevy had a six-cylinder engine with an overdrive lever under the dash, four doors and so little chrome or ornamentation you'd think we'd sold it off for scrap. It got great mileage, and the trunk held as much as a Conestoga wagon. I could get it from zero to 60 -- sometimes -- in the distance between the main stop sign in Brookings and the city limits of Volga, if I really stood on the accelerator coming off the line.

I make fun of both vehicles half a century later. Back in the day, however, the simple fact of having a car on campus gave a guy a huge boost in status, even if the car was a three-seat wagon. It also gave a guy a ton of friends who "just need to dash down to Fergen's and pick up a couple pairs of slacks they altered,'' or "I really need it just for Saturday night to take this sophomore from Waneta to the movie.''

Guys who wanted to borrow the car always promised to bring it back full of fuel. Sometimes they did. Other times, their idea of "full of fuel'' fell well short of the "F'' peg on the instrument gauge. My dad warned me that having a car on campus would increase my cost of living. He was right, but, boy, it was hard to admit that to the old man when I had to call home and ask him to carry me financially for the rest of a semester, "just until I get to working again in the summer and can pay you back.''

(Never mind that I worked for my dad and uncle as hired farm labor from the time I was big enough to pick up a grain scoop until the time I reached senior year in college and in return for that labor, nearly all of my basic college costs were underwritten.)

I learned sometimes to just park the Chevy in the Brown Hall lot when I was low on cash and gas. I'd tell pleading buddies that the car was out of fuel, and they could use it if they hiked to the station and came back with a five-gallon can of gas.

I did that at the end of that sophomore year. The Chevy sat for three solid weeks. When I finally decided to take it somewhere, I discovered the right rear tire was flat. As I started to change the tire, I saw that the rim was bent something fierce. Then I saw that the rim wasn't the one that came with my Chevy. Someone had jacked up the car, stolen my tire rim and all and taken the time to bolt their flat tire with their misshapen rim onto my wheel, then lowered the Chevy and lit out for the territories.

I struggled to believe that, but not nearly as much as my dad did when I called to borrow money for a new rim and tire.