Yesterday I found myself on a plane en route to Montgomery, Alabama for Christmas. The only perk of having family in the military is that you never know where you might need to end up on a given holiday, and this year was no exception. I was looking forward to spending some time in the real South for the first time. I like visiting places that I've never been and the South was one of those, save a week stint at Disney World when I was a kid and I don't think that counts. Throughout my 5 hour airborne journey, I had plenty of time to think about this years Christmas and what it was to mean to me and my family. Perhaps even what it was to mean to the spirit of Christmas in general. Of course Christmas itself, and the act of giving is one of the most rewarding aspects of the holiday. Ultimately however, it comes down to people. My father would tell you that spending time with those that you love is the meaning of life. I can't say I disagree with his wisdom.
My family is as normal as anybodie's I suppose. And by normal of course, I mean FUBAR. "A fine balance of In-laws and Murphy's law" I like to call it. But don't get me wrong, we've also had our lions share of great times too. For instance, I remember the time my dad almost killed us while off-roading in Colorado. Now, that might not seem like a great time, but in hindsight it was and it quickly became a legendary moment amongst our family. I remember each of us occasionally taking our shot at Uncle Ray's backgammon title, in defeat every time I think. Rest in peace Uncle Ray, we love and miss you. I remember the day my sister Sharon asked when the 4th of July was. That was a good one. I remember the legend of a certain buttermilk biscuit/hockey puck. I remember the Castle in the Sky. I remember when the real police responded to the house on account of my brother Scott's misguided indie-movie murder scene. Or the time when that guy broke into our hotel room in the middle of the night and Dad chased him naked all the way down the hallway. I remember Sgt. Pepper. I remember setting the entire lawn aflame on Easter Sunday via a killer amateur firework display gone wrong. I remember when my oldest nephew Matt was born. My mom's whistle is a distinct sound I could never forget. I remember James Gibson, may our dear friend rest in peace as well. I remember that one time my brother Nick got me to school before the final bell sounded. I remember a Six Flags trip whose score included 2 huge stuffed Garfield's, 1 life sized stuffed clown and a dropped down Buick for the ride home. I remember that time I fell through Scott & Kandy's ceiling, racking myself on an I-beam in the process. Matt's rehearsal dinner is something that will forever be etched into my brain. I remember that time Sharon drove somewhere and didn't have an accident or citation to prove it. But most importantly, like many families I suppose, we have our quirky holiday traditions. If it isn't ham on Thanksgiving, it's lasagna on Christmas. If it's not pumpkin bars, it's banana split cake. If it's not Oreo Cookies as an actual present wrapped and all, it's the time we had to nail the tree to the floor because Dad snatched one out of the woods that was far to big for the stand. Of course, I couldn't go on without mentioning our most important tradition of all, the Secret Santa gift exchange.
As much as we'd like to, our family is too big for each of us to try and buy gifts for everyone else. So years ago, we adopted a policy of a secret exchange as I'm sure many families do for similar reasons. Each year after all the gifts are opened, everyones name goes in a hat and you'll draw one to see who you'll be buying for next Christmas. The rules are simple: The kids don't participate, you can't have the same person two years in a row and the max is $100. This means that you have an entire year to figure out what you want to buy your Secret Santa Getter Person, as I affectionately call them. If perchance throughout the year you forget whose name you drew, it'll cost you a 5 spot for the holder of the list (the oldest child under 18) to refresh your memory. Last but of course not least, you have to keep it a secret. You can't say who you have and you can't ever ask who has you.
As sounds of engaging flaps and landing gear locking into place filled the airplane cabin, my thoughts wandered further towards this years gift exchange that was quickly approaching. But, we can't just simply start here. In order to completely understand the upcoming event and the ripple of episodes that preceded it, one must understand what took place last month during the SEMA/AAPEX auto show which invades the Las Vegas Convention Center annually. Furthermore, to fully understand the event that took place last month on November 1st, 2006, you must understand the event that took place many many years ago, on May 17th, 1987.
So the story as it goes, begins there....
It was the weekend before Memorial Day, 1987. My oldest brother Scott, had his week long plans to continue construction on the tree house in our woods curbed when a thunderstorm decided to persist throughout the day. Scott having already reached the age where the novelty of playing mud bowl football with his younger brothers had worn off, sought refuge inside. Not that there was much to do in there either. For these were the days where Beta Max still had a leg up on VHS and the internet hadn't even been invented yet. That didn't matter much however because even if it had, there was no way we could have conned the old man into letting us have it. Hell, we couldn't even get Dad to spring for more TV channels. Although there was no internet, there was cable TV. But, you could have fooled Pops on that one. Our TV was born with a set of rabbit ears on it and she never knew any differently. Nevertheless, Scott grabbed a seat on the once neon green, now dark brown disco couch. But of course, not before hitting the power button on the set and choosing between the vast expanse of channels known as either: "4", "6" or "8." For after all, these were the days before remote controls too.
After seconds of warming, the TV finally lit up to reveal "ABC's Wide World of Sports" and their telecast of The Winston Select. The Winston as it became known to NASCAR fans at the time, was the annual mid-season, non-points awarding all star race. Only former champions, pole position and or race winners were allowed to compete. The Winston was a race by champions for champions, where in true bootlegger fashion, the only things at stake were bragging rights and cold hard cash. Prior to that rainy day in 1987, Scott was never a fan of NASCAR, or any other racing circuit for that matter. However on this day, the day of the rain out, the day when all the books on the shelf had already been read, the day when all the boardgames had already been played and beaten, the day when giving the piano one last attempt still wasn't an option, the day with beta max, the day without internet or cable TV, there was something about watching fast cars go around in a circles that seemed incredibly entertaining.
Dale Earnhardt Sr. historians would tell you that this was not the day Earnhardt's legendary status began. In fact he had already accumulated two championships prior to 1987. But they would probably all agree, that this was the day it would vault into the stratosphere.
With seven of the ten laps to go in the mad-dash finale of the star studded event, Earnhardt lead the race with a row of seemingly faster cars immediately behind him. All of whom eager to push him aside and make their own name for themselves in the process. Bill Elliott running second at the time, was doing everything he could to get around the then blue and yellow Wrangler #3 car. But no matter which direction Earnhardt turned his Chevrolet, it managed to be ahead of Elliott and the others at every pass. Most notably including an incident where Earnhardt, with a little help from Elliot, lost control of his car along the front stretch and found himself flying through the infield grass at close to 200mph. Like a madman, Earnhardt didn't lift up on the gas at all and was somehow able to steer his Chevy back onto the track and in front of Elliott and the trail of other cars. Subsequently, Elliott had to drop out of the race with a flat tire and Earnhardt successfully held off Terry Labonte among others at the checkered flag. Shortly thereafter, the phrase "The Pass in the Grass" was coined and the moniker "The Intimidator", was born.
Unfortunately, I did not witness this fantastic display of driving. I was outside playing mud football with my other brother Nick that day.... The day of the rain out. The day with three channels. The "Pass in the Grass" day. The day my brother Scott, fell in love with Dale Earnhardt.
Now, you may take a seat beside my brother on the old disco couch and watch the end of the race if you'd like.
"The Pass in the Grass", 1987 Winston
With each passing race and each passing season, my brothers heart grew more fond of Earnhardt and like any true fan, his collection of all things #3 grew massive along with it. Eventually, the endless array of keep sakes overtook all of the wall and shelve space in his entire basement. For a long time there it was incredibly easy for whomever drew Scott's name out of the gift exchange hat. All that lucky person had to do was find something, anything, with a black #3 on it and Scott was sure to cherish it. But after almost two decades of collecting it became increasingly difficult for the person who drew Scott's name, for the chances were very high that he already owned whatever it was you were thinking of buying him. It was that bad. I mean, God forbid somebody get him a box of nice cigars or some fucking golf lessons. Lord knows he could use those. But that just wouldn't seem right and it certainly wouldn't be in the tradition of things. Because of this conundrum, I'm positive he has duplicates of some artifacts in that basement of his. For it really was impossible for anyone, his wife Kandy included, to determine what he didn't have and what, if anything, he needed. And things had remained that way, until about five years ago.
Sadly, Scott's love of NASCAR seemed to parish along with Earnhardt on that fateful February day in 2001. Eventually Scott made it very clear to anyone that would listen that he had every piece of Earnhardt memorabilia that he ever wanted, with only one exception. His collection was complete save the only item that had managed to elude him throughout all his years of acquiring all things #3. A 1:64 scale diecast model of Earnhardt's 2000 Peter Max designed Monte Carlo.
You see, the pride and joy of Scott's collection is a series of little match box sized cars. Each one different and each one an exact scale model of a car that Earnhardt drove at one time or another. Every time Earnhardt changed a sponsor, raced in another circuit or even raced with a special paint scheme, a trend so popular in the sport these days, they would make an exact diecast replica of it to scale for collectors. Throughout the years Earnhardt must have raced over a hundred different paint schemes and cars among various circuits for various sponsors. This particular Peter Max paint design was only raced once, ironically in the 2000 Winston Select All Star race. Thirteen years to the day when Scott had watched Dale race for the first time. The brightly colored attention drawing mirage this car featured was a complete departure from the usual all black #3. Later dubbed "The Rainbow Car", Earnhardt said after driving it that day that he hated the cars colors. He claimed it reminded him of Jeff Gordon's car and he vowed to never drive it again.
So after Scott's collection began to swell and he got his hands on the first few miniature replicas, he knew he would eventually need to find all of them. He saw no point in getting one of them if he wasn't going to eventually track them all down and complete the set. For years there every race he attended, which were many I might add, Scott would spend time sifting through the numerous vendors surrounding the tracks he visited looking for the cars he didn't have. Once finding the missing ones became more difficult, he implored his friends, his family and anyone else who would listen to do the same for him. Of course the more of them that he found, the harder it became to find the remaining ones. It's like playing the McDonald's Monopoly game when you have three of the railroads and you can never seem to find the last one. For all you know, you already have the rare one but every time you get lucky and peel off a railroad, you are able to quickly determine that it's one that you already have. Between his own efforts, that of his friends, family and various Secret Santa Giver Persons throughout the years, Scott eventually had all of them. All of them but the "Rainbow Car" that is. And a collectible that was rare to begin with became near impossible to track down after Earnhardt's passing.
That brings us up to last Christmas, when the small piece of paper I drew from the the hat had "Scott" written neatly on it. I knew immediately what I had to find. Something that years of searching and the efforts of all who knew him couldn't seem to turn up and as of that moment, I was officially on the clock. I had 364 days and a handful of hours to find the 2000 Dale Earnhardt Sr. Peter Max designed Winston Select 1:64 diecast. "The Rainbow Car".
After returning to Las Vegas from last years Christmas trip my quest quickly began. I searched online on Ebay and other miscellaneous online auction houses. I found manufactures. I found private collectors and I found public ones. I contacted them all. I contacted companies that never even had the rights for the thing I was searching for. I called around to the few NASCAR and various sports collectibles shops in Las Vegas, Phoenix, Fontana and beyond. I even drove out to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway one day to visit the store there, hoping less that they would simply have it and more just as a shot in the dark that somebody there could at least point me in the right direction. In some instances, I was able to find the larger version of the car I needed to find. The 1:24 scaled model. That one is closer in size to a remote controlled car as opposed to a HotWheel. Like it is with all collectibles of this nature, after Earnhardt's passing, you were lucky to stumble across anything of value because nobody was selling anything. Ten months of searching revealed no fruit, not even a seed in which to plant. It got to the point that I contemplated throwing in the towel and taking a day trip down to T.J. to smuggle a box of the finest Cubans I could find across the border. That was until the day the calender read November 1st and I just happened to pick up a nice lady at the convention center.
I loaded Marcia at the Sands expo at about 4:30 that afternoon. I had just dropped off there and afterwards pulled right up to the loading area which contained at least hundred or so people all waiting patiently for cabs. I stepped out to help the nice looking middle aged lady place her bags in the trunk. We both climbed into the cab and Marcia soon stated her destination of the MGM.
It wasn't long into our trip until I started in on my, dare I say mundane, conventioneer small talk bit.
So are you buying or selling?
Neither. I'm in the marketing department of the company I work for. I'm just here to help oversee things.
Well that's good you don't have to "man the booth" all day then huh?
No kidding, I don't miss my sales staff days at all.
And what company do you work for?
I work for a company called Action Performance.
Umm, no. What makes you say that?
The Action Performance Company? Based in North Carolina? Sole owners of the licensing rights for all of the Dale Earnhardt Motorsports diecast collectibles?
Yeah! How did you know that?
She asked surprised.
Lady, you have no idea. You seem like a nice person, and I think you might be able to help me. If you don't mind I'd like to tell you a little story if I may?
She agreed. I think she was just as curious as I was as to where this conversation would lead. So I told her the story. I told her about my oldest brother Scott and his fascination with everything Earnhardt. I told her about how hard he took it when Earnhardt died and how his love of NASCAR seemingly died with him. I told her about his near perfect collection of Earnhardt memorabilia. Lastly, I told her about the gift exchange, how I was on the clock to find the collections only missing piece and how my time was running out. She seemed interested in my story and after I finished she quickly asked the very thing I was hoping she would:
Which one is he missing?
The 1:64 2000 Winston Select. The Peter Max Rainbow Car.
I said and she nodded as if to say, "yeah that is a tough one". Before I knew it we had arrived at the MGM and as I was unloading her bags from the trunk. I closed the trunk lid and practically begged her for any assistance at all with my dilemma.
Is there any possible chance that you might be able to help me with this? Any chance that I can get your card so I might be able to bug you once you're back in the office? Really, I will be forever in debt to you if you can help me out in any way whatsoever....
I'll tell you what, why don't you write down the model along with your email address for me and if I turn up anything I will drop you a line, how about that?
I sensed for the first and only time in the conversation that she really wasn't too excited about the idea of having to go out of her way to help me out. It was strange. Based on her initial reaction I thought for sure she would jump at the chance to help me. Perhaps it was because after all, I am just a low life cabbie. I don't know. I thought briefly about asking for her number again but not wanting to overstep my bounds, I thought better of the idea. I wrote the information she requested down on the back of one of my cards, positive that it would end up in the trash shortly thereafter. I handed the piece of paper to Marcia and thanked her again as she held out payment for the fare.
That's ok, your money is no good here. An act of good faith if you will, towards the person who could make my year and my brothers lifetime.
Are you sure?
She stared at me for a second and I believe in that moment she realized that I was in fact, not kidding. I really did desperately need her help and was willing to do just about anything to get it. After all, I really had no other place to turn.
I confirmed and thanked her in advance for her efforts. But in reality, the only thing I was completely sure of was the fact that that card of mine was soon going to be joining some of its brothers, in the landfill.
I was convinced that the checking of my email throughout the following days was as much of an exercise in futility as I've ever taken part in. But I did it anyway, and for 11 days that's exactly what it was. But miraculously on the 12th day, an email with the subject heading of "Andrew, It's Marcia from Action Performance!" graced my inbox. I couldn't believe my eyes. The exclamation point gave her away and my stomach dropped as I read about her successfully contacting a private collector in Illinois. Coincidentally, located in a town less than an hour away from where I grew up. Apparently she had previous relations with the guy and after informing him of my plight, he agreed to help. He told Marcia that he actually had the exact thing that I needed already and was willing to hold it for me until I contacted him. I dialed the collectors number seconds after reading the email and not only did he provide me with simple instructions in order to obtain the car, but his price even fell within my $100 limit. I couldn't believe my good fortune, and I couldn't believe that good old Marcia, was in fact a lady of her word. I thought at first that surely it was coincidental that I received that email from Marcia on the 12th day. However, I had no choice but to believe in the idea that good natured people are still out there. I had no choice but to believe that indeed, where there is a will there is a way. But come to think of it, I really can't believe in coincidences at all anymore because now I had no choice but to believe, in the spirit of Christmas.
My plane finally touched down in the Southland. I grabbed my things from the overhead compartment and patiently waited for those in front of me to deplane. I made my way to the baggage claim area where my sister and a few of my nephews & nieces were waiting for me with hugs and kisses. After obtaining my luggage from the carousel, we made the 20 minute drive to my sister's place in her giant conversion van. My sister and her family lived in a beautiful white picket fenced home located just off the Air Force Base property, still within an earshot of the nonstop comings and goings of the military crafts. Throughout that rest of that day and night, the remaining absent family members slowly arrived via their various means of travel. Once everyone had made it, we all enjoyed Scott's chili and Kandy's pumpkin bars for supper. We tried to catch up as best we could in the limited time we had and of course, I was cornered into telling a few Cabbie Chronicles. Thankfully, I managed to recall enough material that was suitable for all ages, all the while refraining from telling the story I had traveled so far to tell. That had to remain a secret for one more day. We capped off the evening with family poker night and Mom's special eggnog kept us going until the wee hours of Christmas morning.
Upon waking up this morning, the kids dove into their presents feet first and quickly managed to cover the entire living room floor with destroyed wrapping paper. We cleaned up the mounds of paper much like you would leaves in the backyard, with a rake and a giant black garbage bag. After a big breakfast for everyone, it was finally time for the adult gift exchange. I shot out of my seat and insisted I present my gift first. I'd been biting my tongue for more than a month now and it was killing me. It took me a minute to find the tiny box under the Christmas tree that was still surrounded by larger presents. Once I finally found it, I walked across the room and placed the gift in my brothers hand. Knowing the exact size of these boxes besides being very keen at guessing what his presents always were anyway, he already knew what it was before he opened it. Even if he hadn't, I suspect the look in my eyes would have given it away. Scott unwrapped the gift in one smooth motion and for the first time, he laid his eyes upon the very thing that had eluded him for years. The thing that his own best efforts, those of his family and fellow NASCAR geeks couldn't seem to track down. The thing that would culminate his collection. It was soon obvious to everyone in the room what Scott held in his hand. Everybody was shocked and couldn't believe that I had not only found it, but managed to keep it a secret the whole time. Everyone began asking questions at once, they all knew what this meant. Scott just stared at me, able to utter only one word:
I slowly walked back across the room and took my seat again. I had been preparing for this moment. I knew that the story would need to be told at this moment and like I often do, I had been ironing out my mind to press out the best way to go about telling it for weeks now.
I decided to begin with how this whole thing started with a thunderstorm, and a day spent on the old disco couch. Then I talked about Scott's collection, his years of compiling it and how the incomplete nature of it just wasn't right. Somehow, it wasn't true. Afterwards I talked about my first NASCAR experience. How Scott had come out to Vegas for a weekend and taken me to my first race. Prior to that day I never really "got it". Strangely, this very race occurred just two weeks after Earnhardt's early departure from this earth. I found out later that Scott had lost all desire to go to that race with me that weekend. Considering the recent events of the time, I can't say I would have blamed him had he not shown up. But the plane tickets were nonrefundable, the race tickets were already in hand and a promise had been made to his little brother. His hero was dead, but he came anyway. I talked about how I could never forget that day. How we sat in the grandstands high up in turn four and watched the missing man formation fly by in honor of Earnhardt before the race started. The sound of the shear power exploding overhead from the four F-16's thunderous engines, combined with the sight of one of them pulling straight up and going vertical until he disappeared into the clouds, symbolic of a fallen soldiers ascent into heaven, brought my oldest brother to tears that day. It's the only time the rare military honor has ever been performed for a fallen civilian. My brother's tears that day made me understand what a hobby I used to kid my brother about actually meant to him. Lastly, I talked about how after picking his name from the hat last year, I immediately knew what I had to find and how my efforts had turned up nothing for months. That was until a chance occurrence one day in the cab lead me to the very person I needed to find. I told the story about my fare that day, and about how Marcia, had made this whole thing possible....And that was when I noticed it. It had probably started long before but that was the moment when I first noticed the tears racing down my face. Clearing them from my cheeks became as pointless as wiping clean the fingerprints off of a well used piano. Thus, I began having a difficult time finishing the tale I had gone through so much and traveled so far to tell. I was overcome with sadness, overcome with joy. I was overcome, for the first time in years. I looked up and everyone else in the room, my brother included were being effected in the same way. Scott walked over and gave me a long hug. Afterwards, the family sat together and talked about what had just happened for some time. We talked about how it's funny how something so seemingly unimportant is actually no such thing at all. In fact at times it can be quite the opposite of that. I think half of this was piqued interest in the event that had just unfolded and the other half was that no one dared be the next person to present their gift. Thankfully, Mom had whipped up another batch of her famous eggnog brew and in no time our tears slowly faded, into laughter.
Two days have passed since I last cried and again I find myself on a plane. This time, enduring the red eye back to Vegas. Another vacation and another Christmas in the books. This year's Christmas was certainly one for the ages. Certainly one that will rank right up there with our family's most memorable moments. Halfway through my long journey home and wanting to make sure I had remembered it correctly, I reached into my carry on bag. I found the scratch piece of paper in order to double check the name inscribed onto it one last time. I unfolded the small, crumpled, hand torn fragment and on it in bright blue ink it clearly stated:
I have no idea what I'll be buying my sister for Christmas next year. This year will be very hard to beat that's for sure. Lucky for me, I still have 362 days and a handful of hours to figure it out.
Happy holidays everyone!