He drove a dark blue 1938 Buick Roadmaster. I wouldn’t have known the year, the make or the model if my parents hadn’t told me.
It was a relic. Whenever I saw it rolling down our street, I half expected gangsters to be hanging out of the windows, brandishing tommy guns. It didn’t even sound like any other car on the road. All the cars I knew hummed or revved. This one clicked, like an egg timer.
But its driver seemed even more ancient and mysterious. We knew him only as Old Man Hopkins. None of us had ever met him. Even our parents called him Old Man Hopkins.
He lived at the end of our street in a house that was so much older than all the others in our neighborhood. Once in a while, I would see him driving past my house. Maybe it was those small car windows. But I never got a good look at him. This, of course, only added to the mystery.
In the summer of 1970, when I was 12, I decided to make as much money as I could by cutting grass, and I went door to door looking for customers.
Old Man Hopkins’ yard was huge, and it was a mess. So one morning, I psyched myself up, rode my bike down to the end of our street, walked up his long gravel driveway, climbed the steps to his front porch, took a deep breath and knocked on his door.
The front door opened. I could barely see him through the outer screen door. He looked smaller and even older than I expected.
“My name is Bill. I live down the street. I was wondering if you might need someone to cut your grass.”
“Do you mean you?”
“How much do you charge?”
“I have a pretty big yard.”
“That’s OK. I can handle it.”
“I’ll give you five. When can you cut it?”
“This afternoon,” I stammered.
“Deal. I’ll be here. Come see me when you’re done.”
I had never cut a yard so big. It took three hours and two tanks of gas. When I was finished, I knocked on the old man’s front door. He stepped out on the porch and looked around.
“Nice job,” he smiled.
“I think you’ve earned a little more than five dollars today,” he said, handing me a twenty. “That should cover your gas too.”
“You’re welcome. You thirsty?”
“Hang on. I’ll be right back.”
In a minute, he came back out with a cold, eight-ounce bottle of Coke.
“Here you go.”
I chugged it.
“Can you cut my grass again next week?”
“Sure. What day is best?”
“Whatever works for you. I’m here all the time. Just knock when you’re done, and we’ll settle up.”
“Sounds great. Thanks again, Mr. Hopkins,” I said, making my way down his steps.
“See you next week, Bill.”
I ended up cutting Mr. Hopkins’ grass every Wednesday morning that summer. Nobody could believe it. I could hardly believe it myself. And what was even more incredible was that each time, when I was finished, Mr. Hopkins had lunch waiting for us on his front porch.
“I suspect I’m a bit of a mystery around here,” he said the first time we sat down for lunch.
“Yeah, you might say that.”
“Well, I understand,” he grinned. “What would you like to know about me, Bill?”
His question caught me by surprise.
“How long have you had that car?”
It was a stupid question but the first thing that popped into my head.
“I bought it new in 1938. Would you like to see it?”
After lunch, we walked the gravel path to a one-car garage behind his house. He struggled to lift the door, so I helped him push it up.
And there it was, like some rare antiquity on display in a museum.
“It looks so old,” I blurted out.
“It is. But it still runs well.”
“Is that why you’ve kept it?”
He told me he bought it when his son, his only child, was a boy and that he used to take his wife and son for long drives in the country on Sundays.
Then he told me that his son was killed during the war and that he lost his wife to cancer less than a year later. He had been living alone in that house ever since.
“I keep this car because it’s my only link with the two people I’ve loved most in this world,” he told me. “You hold on to what means the most.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said.
“Thank you, Bill. Would you like to go for a ride?”
And that’s the way it went every Wednesday that summer. I would cut Mr. Hopkins’ grass, he would serve us lunch and we would go for a ride in his Roadmaster.
When my friends found out, they wanted a ride too. Who wouldn’t want to ride in that car? I asked Mr. Hopkins. He said yes.
And so every Wednesday afternoon, my friends would pile into the back seat, and Mr. Hopkins, who seemed lit up by our oohs and ahs, would take us all for a ride. I always got to sit in the front.
That winter, Mr. Hopkins died. In his will, he stipulated that all his assets be sold and the proceeds given to charity.
Except one thing: his car. He gave that to me.
I keep it in my garage. I don’t drive it much, but it still runs well. And with my kids and their friends, it’s legendary.
You hold on to what means the most.
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