The yellow car that kept us going

"It's not much to look at, but it runs good," the tall, dark-haired man said. The moment I peered through the blinds to get a look at the "new car" in front of our house, I knew that '90s downsizing had definitely had an impact on my family. Now was not the time to be in the oil industry - ask my father. I, the eldest of five children, was in high school; the youngest was 4. As I watched my parents take the key, my dreams of owning a brand new 1992 Eclipse drifted out the door.

In the meantime, prayers had been answered. My family needed a second car and there it was: donated to us by our church.

It didn't take long for the car to earn the name Old Yeller. If you had seen her, you'd know why. She was a yellow two-door Datsun with a raw steering wheel and torn leather seats that would scrape our legs if we weren't careful. The ceiling fabric was drooping, and the bare floor had a hole in it where we could see the gravel pass beneath us.

The car had a stick shift that my brother taught me how to use along with the clutch - which was ironic, because it ended up we didn't even need the clutch. We could just shift gears as we wished. The passenger door had to be lifted before it could be shut. Old Yeller had no air conditioning, no heat, and no defroster, all of which were needed at some point during the year, given Dallas's climate.

Somehow, though, we survived.

In addition to the red plaid blanket that we sat on in the back seat, we kept extra blankets on board to wrap up in as we huddled to keep warm in the winter. In the summer, we kept the windows down and attached a portable, battery-operated fan to the dashboard. (Those 100-degree days seemed like nothing.)

With time, our family became used to Old Yeller, and my brothers stopped lying down in the back seat when my mom picked them up from school. Despite her looks, the car did run well. We were grateful to have her.

Eventually, my father got a job offer and my family moved to a mountain town in Colorado. There, we rarely used Old Yeller because everything in town was within walking distance.

One morning, about three months after we arrived, we awoke to find Old Yeller missing. "Missing" is actually the wrong word; "hidden" is a better choice. A snowstorm had dropped enough snow to bury our little Datsun. Because we didn't need the car and the snow was so deep, hidden is where she stayed that winter. We forgot about her until spring arrived, revealing tulips, bunnies, and something yellow under a pile of snow.

We were concerned about the car's condition after being buried under several feet of snow for nearly five months. As the last of the snow melted away, we were astounded to find the car had suffered only a bent roof. Still, we had little hope Old Yeller would run again. How wrong we were. When we put the key in the ignition and turned, the car started right up.

A few years later my family moved again, taking Old Yeller with them. (By then I'd started my own life and had a new car with air-conditioning, heat, and a clutch you had to use to change gears.) One afternoon, I received a call. My mother had been in a car accident. She had been running her daily errands when a car rammed the driver's-side door.

The teenager driving the other car was on a test-drive and didn't even have a driver's license. Fortunately, no one was injured. Well, except for Old Yeller. She was totaled, the door badly damaged. A tow truck was dispatched to retrieve her, and that was the last we thought we'd see of her. When my brother Andrew heard the news, he shook his head and said sadly, "Well, we knew it was coming. The original Old Yeller died in the end, too."

Other than fond memories and good laughs, I, too, thought that was the end of the Old Yeller era - until recently.

My brother Paul announced that he had been sitting at a red light in his van, only a few miles from my parent's home. It was a warm Denver day. As the cars whizzed by in front of him. something caught his attention.

Creeping through the intersection and sporting a dented roof was a little yellow Datsun with a newly replaced gray driver's-side door. The driver had the windows down and a mini fan on the dash.

Counting back, I realized it had been 10 years since Old Yeller had first pulled up in front of our house. Paul said, "She was still nothing to look at, but she was running."

That sounded familiar.

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