Half-hidden behind a hedge at a gas station on the way to San Miguel, it was barely visible as we sped by. When I saw it again though, its features were unmistakable even if marred by layers of bad paint and stickers slapped on like makeup and tattoos on an over-the-hill hooker. Particularly cruel was the iridescent red paint sprayed across the nose.
But the huge grille, menacing as a shark's teeth, was still there, in between the two undersized headlights set too far apart, which give the car a vaguely disoriented, wall-eyed look. Also intact was the bumper, including its protruding cones called "bullets," looking more like two impressive but useless chrome breasts. The scandalous front didn't go at all with the puny, demure tail lights.
General Motors' promotional one-liner for its 1954 Chevrolet was "Brimming with Beauty!", a typical adman's delusion. The '54 was no beauty. It was halfway between the matronly models of the early '50s, all curves but no sex appeal, and the late 1950s, when car designers lines fell in love with wings and fins. Just check the rear end of the 1959 Chevy with its three-piece, elongated tail lights framed by enormous swooping eyebrows. From behind the car looks permanently startled.
The '54 Chevy sitting forlornly at the gas station was especially unbeautiful. Not only had it not been restored but several add-ons, like plastic sideview mirrors and rubber bungee cords to keep the hood and the trunk lid shut, showed no respect for the original design.
It was a particularly sad sight to me because a baby-blue 1954 Chevy was our last family car in Cuba. I remember it well because it arrived when I was seven years old and a boy's car mania had begun to stir in my head.
My dad was a lonesome and taciturn man, not one to take the family on a jolly spree to look for a new car. The car just appeared in front of our house, and like him, it was a sensible and prudent choice. No red convertibles or sporty two-doors. Ours was a four-door sedan in a reticent color, with a manual transmission. I don't know when the Powerglide automatic transmissions arrived in Cuba but we certainly didn't get one.
Despite its lack of pizzazz, the new Chevy looked as sleek as a barracuda compared to our family car during the previous six years, a constipated-looking 1948 black Chevrolet my dad had bought shortly after I was born.
I never got to drive the 54 Chevy, just as I wasn't supposed to touch his hi-fi system and collection of classical LPs. "Supposed to" because, of course, I did play his records when I came back early from school and that's how I learned about Chopin, Beethoven and all the long-haired guys.
Though Cuban exiles like to go on and on, and on again, about how wealthy they were in Cuba--as if the entire country was a quilt of lush plantations and mansions before Castro showed up and ruined everything--our family's situation in fact was nothing if not modest. The car, the LP collection, our two-bedroom house, and my dad's printing shop was about it for our our net assets.
I don't remember ever driving the Chevy, but my dad did put me on his lap and point to all the dials and buttons on the dashboard and of course, the horn. I think this was his idea of a man-to-man talk.
The biggie were the gears, which he demonstrated while driving. Out and down for first gear, then straight up--past neutral--for second, and straight down for third.
First gear was the trickiest, my dad explained, because of the car's tendency to lurch and choke unless the play between the clutch and the gas pedal was performed seamlessly. Reverse--out and up--was inconceivable and scary to me. I've retained a preference for manual transmissions.
We also went under the hood and learned about the distributor, radiator, spark plugs and the fan. Tires frequently went flat, so I learned about the jack--make sure the emergency brake is on and loosen the lug nuts before trying to jack up the car--a lesson that has come in handy in later life.
My dad's loving care for the '54 Chevy was matched only his obsession for the record collection. He washed and waxed the car constantly and his only accident, when he was lightly rear-ended at a gas station in Havana, made him swear off ever venturing into the maelstrom of traffic in the capital.
After that, the Chevy stayed in the snoring provincial capital of Santa Clara where we lived, except for occasional jaunts to my grandmother's or to the beach. Even then we had a tragic experience, when we were the first to arrive at an accident involving an overturned flatbed full of poor farm families returning from a day at Rancho Luna, a beach near the later-famous Bay of Pigs in southern Cuba.
Bloodied people clamored to get in the car and be taken to the hospital. Their faces were green from panic and from grass stains. A woman sat next to me with a wailing child who later went silent. I found out when we got to the hospital that the kid had died in transit.
My dad's twin obsessions ultimately went for naught. Castro took power in 1959 and he and my mother had to leave Cuba, and everything they owned, in 1965. In retrospect he should have used the records as frisbees and taken the family for one last, mad drive in the baby-blue Chevy and crashed it into a tree, all while flipping Castro the bird.
The records went somewhere. I hope someone enjoyed them.
As for the car, that '54 Chevy by now must be coughing and wheezing, its innards full of cannibalized parts and improvised fixes, conscripted into the army of '50s cars still rolling around in Cuba. In fact it may be in better shape than its cousin at the San Miguel gas station.