Seeing Clearly: What a Father's Clean Cars Have Taught His Son

by Rob Brinkley

Of all Dad's Cadillacs, this was his favorite: his 1976 Cadillac Eldorado convertible.

Of all Dad's Cadillacs, this was his favorite: his 1976 Cadillac Eldorado convertible.

I think of Dad and I smell Windex. He had a funny — in every sense of the word — ritual that used to drive the rest of the family berserk. There we'd be, Mom, me and my brother, piled in the car and ready to go, probably already late for wherever we were headed. But where's Dad? We'd wait. We'd wait. We'd wait some more. Finally, he'd appear, on the driveway, with a spray bottle of bright-blue window cleaner in one hand and a roll of paper towels in the other. Sffft. Sffft. Onto the windshield the Windex would go. Wipe. Wipe. Wipe some more. Another spritz. He'd missed a spot. Dad could not drive until that windshield was sparkling.

Left: Me, at 18 months, and Dad, the man whose great and crazy qualities I inherited. Right: Dad and me on the day I graduated from college.

Left: Me, at 18 months, and Dad, the man whose great and crazy qualities I inherited. Right: Dad and me on the day I graduated from college.

I unquestionably inherited my love for cars — and owning clean, well-shined cars — from him. He'd spend hours on a weekend washing and waxing his prides and joys. He had many, and they were almost always Cadillacs. (In the Midwest, a Cadillac meant you had made it.) Dad had a cabinet in our garage jammed with polishes, creams and cloths. When a toothbrush had had its day in the bathroom, he'd promote it to car-cleaning duty. (Nothing gets between the buttons of a car radio any better.) Dad's clean Cadillacs, I think, were his way of controlling what he could. Someone might've ticked him off — Dad was high-strung — or one of his crazy business ideas might've gone nowhere again — Dad was a dreamer — but when he set sail in a shiny Sedan de Ville, he was King of the World. 

Left: I wonder if my dad learned how to clean and care for things while he was in the Army. Right Top: Me, left, and my brother David and the family wagon, a 1967 Ford Country Squire. I guarantee we had time to take this photo because Dad was cleaning the windshield. Right bottom: The near-twin to Dad's second favorite Cadillac, a 1974 Sedan de Ville. We did family road trips all over the country in that car. I sat in the back, on the right. Such happy memories...

Left: I wonder if my dad learned how to clean and care for things while he was in the Army. Right Top: Me, left, and my brother David and the family wagon, a 1967 Ford Country Squire. I guarantee we had time to take this photo because Dad was cleaning the windshield. Right bottom: The near-twin to Dad's second favorite Cadillac, a 1974 Sedan de Ville. We did family road trips all over the country in that car. I sat in the back, on the right. Such happy memories...

 

Dad thought success meant money and all the symbols that you had some. I've learned that he was wrong — and that he was his own worst enemy. He was a genius mechanical engineer. He could solve any logistics problem. He was a quiet thinker. But he was also the life of the party, a jokester who never met a stranger. He'd talk your ears off. He'd stop to help anyone with anything, anytime. He was hard on himself, though, up against some kinds of demons never discussed. He was bottled up. He was ebullient. He was, as they say, a character. He died 12 years ago from — no surprise — a heart attack. His latest Cadillac, a big, navy blue one, had sputtered to a halt on a country road. He stomped to a McDonald's for help, shouted something and fell to the floor.

 One of my vintage cars, kept immaculately clean - just like dad would've. I think of him a lot during my weekend rituals of washing and detailing my little fleet.

 One of my vintage cars, kept immaculately clean - just like dad would've. I think of him a lot during my weekend rituals of washing and detailing my little fleet.

I think about Dad the most when I am waxing one of my cars. I've got some prides and joys. (Dad wouldn't necessarily be thrilled that they're all foreign-built.) I spend hours on the weekends washing them, drying them, detailing them. Toothbrushes that once polished my pearly whites now whisk the last bits of dried wax from around the door handles. My radio buttons are the cleanest in town. But I'm never more like Dad than when I get to the Windex part. I spritz. I wipe. I spritz some more. I catch myself doing it just like he did. Sometimes I cry. Most often I smile. Look at that windshield sparkle.

Left and Right top: I kept Dad's favorite Cadillac with me in Dallas for about five years, before returning it to Kentucky where my mom and brother - and his now-big family - are. Right bottom: One of my vintage cars, kept immaculately clean.

Left and Right top: I kept Dad's favorite Cadillac with me in Dallas for about five years, before returning it to Kentucky where my mom and brother - and his now-big family - are. Right bottom: One of my vintage cars, kept immaculately clean.

ROB BRINKLEY is a writer and editor based in Dallas. He has written for Esquire, Elle Decor, Architectural Digest, Veranda, Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman. He was the editor-in-chief of FD, the style magazine of The Dallas Morning News

Posted on June 15, 2016 and filed under Words of Wisdom, Lifestyle, Inspiration.