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Rheta Johnson: Kinda like Cuba, cruisin' the coast

 

Rheta Grimsley Johnson

 

PASS CHRISTIAN --  Long ago, my Uncle Cary bought this new and totally cool '67 Thunderbird. He was cool himself. The car was silver with a black top, and in the back had the so-called suicide doors hinged on the rear. 

 

It obviously was a Batmobile, so we used it to play Batman whenever he -- my uncle, not Batman -- drove it to my grandmother's house. We'd run around sing-screaming the television show's signature anthem: Dadadadadadadada -- Batman! 

 

I saw an identical T-Bird the other day, during something Mississippi Gulf Coast promoters call Cruisin' the Coast. They bill it as America's Largest Block Party -- and longest, I might add. The extravaganza lasts an entire week. And that week adds about $20 million to the local economy, drawing old car enthusiasts from 40 states and Canada. 

 

My uncle's T-Bird didn't go through Katrina, but the one I saw at Cruisin' did. Its new owner bought it with that grim knowledge, fixed it up and now drives it every day. It's not so much a show car as a showy car that he uses. 

 

I saw only one of the official Cruisin' events, but you can't miss the old cars parading up and down, up and down, old Highway 90 by the ocean. It was like visiting Cuba, or what I imagine it would be like if our politicians would let so-called free citizens visit there, where frugal citizens keep old American cars running with spit and spare parts. 

 

The Mississippi Sound was gleaming like a ditch full of diamonds on one side; the eager businesses on the other were enticing Cruisers with free gifts, food and libations. So royal and retro was the welcome, I wondered if the car owners felt like Fonzie and Pinky Tuscadero. One local bank had old 45-rpm records swinging from pink and black ribbons in its trees. Festive, truly. 

 

I kept expecting to hear an "American Graffiti" soundtrack, or see Richard Dreyfus' elusive dream girl in her '55 Thunderbird. Every third car or so on 90 was an antique, which doesn't exclude lots of Camaros, Corvettes and Mustangs. There was a parking lot full of those. Around 6,000 restored cars in all, the registrars reported, from Model T's to Studebakers. 

 

Men and women both stood around comparing notes on gleaming automotive specimens. Now, I don't know an alternator from an astronaut, but I do know the feel of driving certain cars. I can outline my life by my car choices. 

 

My first was a VW bug; it cost about what you now pay for a pair of good shoes. The Pinto years were lean indeed, though I always thought that car got a bad rap so far as dependability goes. 

 

My MG-B convertible, on the other hand, made me feel like a goddess if only it had stayed out of the shop for two weeks running. The used Alpha Romeo sedan that replaced it wasn't much better. 

 

Those frivolous forays into foreign resulted in two decades of Fords -- Mustangs, Explorers, a van and a couple of pickups. Fords made me feel sensible and got me where I was going. 

 

I'll have to admit, though, my all-time favorite car is the one I'm driving now. Perhaps it signals a second childhood. 

 

My Mini-Cooper lets me pretend I'm in Paris, even when I'm tooling the streets of Iuka. I wouldn't have traded my Mini for any duded-up car on the coast, except maybe that silver and black T-Bird worthy of Batman. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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