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The Green Duesenberg

It was early summer of 1957.  My grandfather Webster C. Givens was now the mayor of Stamford, Connecticut.   He had won the election in November on the Republican ticket.  The Stamford newspaper was writing an article and taking photos of the new mayor’s family. We were all invited up to a victory party and to have family photos taken.


Early Friday morning, we all got on a train and were on our way to see our Grandpa.  Shane started with his bad behavior even before we got there.  On the train, Shane insisted on smoking a cigarette in a nonsmoking car.  Then, when a man complained about the smoke, Shane threw his lit cigarette at the poor guy.  Luckily, instead of starting a fight with Shane, the man got up and moved to another car.


Cathy yelled, “Shane, don't you dare start acting up.  My father is the mayor and he doesn't need reporters seeing you in a stinking bad mood.”


Shane just growled some swear words under his breath.


“If you’re going to cause trouble,” Cathy said, “I'll take the kids off the train at the next stop and take the next train back to Point Pleasant.”


“I'm sorry,” Shane said.  “I’ll be good.  I don't want to make a fool of myself in front of the press.”


Shane fell asleep and slept the rest of the train trip.  When he woke up at Stamford station, he was in a good mood.”


The first thing I saw as I stepped off the train was Grandpa Webster standing there smiling, with his arms out ready for hugs.  My mother, who was holding Kathleen, handed her to Maura so she could give her father a big hug.


After Grandpa had finished giving all of us hugs, he said, “Hey, kids, do you want to go for a ride in my new Cadillac?”


Grandpa took us all out to dinner.  He also rented us a hotel room so we could get a good night’s sleep and be rested for the big party in the morning.  The room was large with two queen size beds.  All of us kids slept on one bed and Cathy and Shane slept on the other.  There was also a TV set in the hotel room.  We never got to watch TV.  We didn't have one and no one we knew had one.  So this was a special treat, indeed.  We stayed up half the night watching old movies.


In the middle of the night, when we were all asleep, I heard the sound of breaking glass.  Maura and I sat up and saw Shane standing there with a lamp in his hand.  Shane yelled at my mother and then threw the lamp at a window, breaking it.


“Shane, get the hell out of here!” Cathy yelled.  “Go back to New York!”


“Where are my bennies?” Shane yelled back.  “Cathy, you took all my bennies!”


Shane then went out the door, slamming it very hard.  But as soon as he got outside, a cop was waiting, and knocked him to the ground and handcuffed him.  The police then came in our hotel room and started yelling at my mother.  When they found out Mayor Givens had rented the room and that Cathy was his daughter, one of the policeman said, “Tell your crazy husband if he doesn't stop, he'll go to jail and I don’t care who your father is.”


Cathy said she would make sure Shane behaved.  After the police left, Shane came back in our room and went to sleep.


Early the next morning, Grandpa and Aunt Seon came over to pick us up.  Seeing the broken window, Grandpa asked what had happened.


“I fell in the middle of the night,” Cathy said, “and knocked a lamp through the window.”


“Oh, my god,” Seon said, “are you all right, Cathy?”


“Yes, Seon,” Cathy said.  “I didn't get hurt.  I'm fine.”


I whispered to Maura, “Good thing Grandpa didn't find out Shane had a fight with Gakie.”


“If he knew the truth,” Maura said, “we'd all be back on the next train to Point Pleasant.”


"I hope Shane doesn't have a fight at Grandpa's house when all the important people are there,” I said.


After a short drive in Grandpa's beautiful Cadillac, we arrived at the farmhouse by the lake where Grandpa lived.  Before we had the party and dinner, we all had a family picture taken for the newspaper.  Shane took off just before it was taken, so he wasn't in our family photo.



Later that afternoon, my step grandmother keep yelling at Kathleen and telling my mother how badly behaved she was compared to her grandchildren.  My little sister Kathleen did have a lot of energy and jumped and climbed all over the place.  In the house, she ran after a cat and broke a glass vase.  Grandma Helen yelled, “Cathy, get your kids out of my house and keep them outside.”


While we were outside playing, Kathleen, still full of energy, ran out on the wooden boat ramp.  She ran so fast, she fell off the end of the deck and into the water.  Luckily, Shane was standing on the deck, so he scooped her right back up.  Kathleen was scared, but not hurt.


“See, Cathy,” Helen yelled, “you can't control your kids.”


“Shut the hell up, Helen,” Webster yelled.  “The baby almost drowned.”


That evening, when the grownups were having tea and cookies, Maura and I played in the house with all the babies.  My mother’s childhood best friend, Michael, was over with his wife Kelly and their three year old son Johnny.  Cathy told Michael about Kathleen running off the end of the deck into the water, and what a good thing it was that Shane was standing there to get her out.  Seon told him about the time she saved me when I was two and climbed out of a rowboat and into the very same lake, almost drowning.


“Gogo, just wait until Sarah and Carolyn get older,” Cathy said.  “When Maura was three, she took off all her clothes and put on Aggie’s old flapper hat.  Then she went for a walk down a busy road in Point Pleasant with her doll buggy and teddy bear.”


Kelly said, “Just last week, little Johnny got Michael’s razor and shaved all the fur off the dog’s tail.”


“Oh, no!  The poor little dog,” Cathy said.


Everyone was laughing so hard, they were in tears, when all of a sudden, Webster yelled, “Poor dog, my ass!  What about Bigfoot?  He still had some of that nasty green paint on his paws when he died sixteen years later!”  Webster took a long breath and said, “And what about my Duesenberg?  Cathy and Michael, none of your kids could possibly top what you did when you were little!”


Cathy, Seon, Gogo and Michael sat there looking shocked.  The Duesenberg!


In the spring of 1929, my grandfather Webster had bought a Duesenberg Model J which he paid almost $20,000 for.  At the time, a new Model T Ford cost about $400.  Webster was the only man in the city of Stamford to have such a beautiful automobile.  On Sunday afternoons he’d take the whole Givens family out for a drive just to show off his beautiful Duesenberg.


One hot summer day, four year old Cathy was out in her back yard with her five year old friend Michael.  They were playing with Michael's old, rusted wagon and Cathy's St. Bernard puppy, Bigfoot.


Cathy got out of the wagon and yelled, “Michael!  Your wagon just got brown rust all over the new dress mommy just bought me.”


“I'm sorry,” Michael said, “but my wagon is old and full of rust.  We can't get in it without getting dirty.”


Michael pushed his wagon into the back barn, and was about ready to go play on the swing set with Cathy, when he saw a large can on green paint on a shelf.


“Cathy!  Cathy!” Michael yelled.  “Look over there.  There’s a can of paint.”


“That's the paint Daddy used to paint the shutters last year,” Cathy said.


“I think we can paint my old, rusted wagon with that paint,” Michael said.


“I don't know how to paint,” Cathy laughed.


“It's easy,” Michael said.  “I helped my grandfather paint his fence last week.  I know how to paint and I'll show you.”


Michael took the can of dark green paint off the shelf and Cathy found some old paint brushes by the sink.  The frisky little puppy, Bigfoot, was right behind, as they started painting.  Soon the whole wagon, even the wheels, was painted dark green.


As Cathy was about to put her paint brush in the sink, Bigfoot started barking at an old tomcat that was under the sink. The tomcat hissed and jumped up on the shelf, as Bigfoot starter chasing him.  Bigfoot tripped Cathy.


“Bigfoot, cut it out,” Cathy yelled.


Then Cathy slipped on some paint that was on the floor and bumped Michael, who had just picked up the can of paint.  The can of green paint went flying all over the barn, landing on Michael, Cathy, Bigfoot and the tomcat.  And some of the paint landed on Webster’s prize Duesenberg.


“Oh, no!  Daddy’s car,” yelled Cathy.  “There’s paint on Daddy's new car!”


Bigfoot was still chasing the tomcat when the cat jumped on the hood of the Duesenberg, and Bigfoot, with his paws full of green paint, climbed on the bumper of Webster’s car, getting more paint on it.


Cathy started crying.  “Look at Daddy's car.  He’s going to kill me when he sees it.”


“Cathy, remember when you told me your dad's favorite color is green?” Michael asked.


“Yes, Daddy loves green,” Cathy said.  “Why do you ask?”


“If we paint the whole car green, like we painted my wagon, your dad won’t be so mad.  I bet your dad will be happy to have a green car.  Look at it – it’s an ugly gray now.”


“Well, maybe he'll be happy,” Cathy said.


Soon, Cathy and Michael were busy painting the Duesenberg.  They painted the hood, the wheels, the engine, the fenders and the inside seats.  While they were busy painting, the puppy was running all over the barn, getting paint all over everything and himself.


They were so busy, they didn’t hear Seon and Gogo walk into the barn, until Seon screamed, “Cathy!  Oh, my god!  What the hell happened?”


Gogo was standing in shock, with her mouth wide open, thinking Cathy was going to get the hardest spanking ever when Dad saw his car.


Webster and Charlotte came running when they heard Seon's screams, thinking something horrible had happened to Cathy.  As soon as Webster walked into the barn, he saw Cathy sitting on the hood of his Duesenberg, smiling and all full of green paint.  What a sight she must have been.


“Hi, Daddy,” Cathy said.  “How do you like your car now?”



“Like it?” he said.  “I hate it!  What do you kids think you’re doing?  You just destroyed my $20,000 car!”


Cathy now knew she was in deep trouble and she was crying.


Webster yelled at his wife, “Charlotte, can’t you keep an eye on your own kid?  Take a look at what she just did.   The whole barn is full of paint.  There’s even paint in her hair.  Take her in the house.  I can't stand to look at her now!”


Then he looked at Michael, who was standing shaking. “Gogo, get this little brat out of my sight.  Take him home and tell his father what he did.”


Webster picked the little green puppy up in his arms and walked away.  He stayed away for a few weeks.  When he got back, he never said a word about his Duesenberg again.  That is, until that summer day in 1957, almost thirty years later.


“What the hell did you kids think you were doing painting my beautiful, new $20,000 Duesenberg that disgusting green?  I was so mad I thought I was going to blow up.  The worst thing of all was that poor little puppy.  He was green his whole life!”


Cathy, Michael, Seon and Gogo sat there and didn't say a word.  They were shocked to hear Webster speak about his Duesenberg.  He hadn't said a word about it since the day Cathy and Michael painted it back in 1929.

Then Webster started laughing and everyone started to laugh.  It seemed very funny after all these years.


Shane O'Neill and the Bees


© Copyright 2008 Sheila O’Neill. All rights reserved.


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