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A father, a son and a moment of sheer stupidity

A steel wool pad seemed like a good idea at the time.

Grata Victoria/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The following story has become legendary in my household. It's a tale of heartache, and hope, but mostly one of stupidity.


The year was 1979, and I was a gangly, pimple-faced teenager with an insatiable desire to get behind the wheel and out on the open road to test the freedom that comes with a recently minted driver's licence.

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The only obstacle in my way: my father.

Ah, yes, my old man. He always fancied himself to be a car guy. I don't know if he actually really was (it's not like we had any cool cars in the driveway) but I do know that he was always attracted to shiny bits of metal and the family photo album is littered with shots of him and his cars.

Anyway, the then-current love of his life was a 1978 AMC Matador station wagon – a "burnt sienna" Matador station wagon. No wood trim though. He really, really coveted wood trim, but couldn't afford the upgrade. Hey, I said he was a car guy. I never said he was a car guy with taste.

However, I was in no position to complain, and before he would hand over the keys he would insist that I wash it first. Fair enough.

It was a sunny summer Saturday and he left to run some errands in his other car, a powder-blue 1975 Chevy Malibu. I set off to locate the sponges, soap and a bucket. Found the bucket. Couldn't find the soap or the sponges. I looked high and low to no avail. And, just as teenage frustration was about to kick into overdrive, I came across these tiny, circular grey pads that oozed soapy suds when wet.

Eureka! Problem solved.

I happily set about washing the wagon and was about halfway through when I noticed something odd. The parts I had scrubbed – the hood and side panels around the front wheels – looked faded under the hot sun. I sprayed water from the garden hose over the hood and that made everything better. Until it dried again.

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And then it dawned on me. I was washing the car with S.O.S. pads. Uh, oh. I was a dead man.

My father pulled into the driveway soon after and got out of the Malibu. I approached him, nervously, explained what I had done to his car, and then braced for hell on earth to be unleashed on me.

He looked at that station wagon, the burnt sienna paint faded like sun-bleached curtains, the circular scratches proof that I was doing an entirely thorough job and said ... nothing. Nothing at all. In fact, he looked as if he were about to cry.

And then he just walked away. He didn't say a word. Never did. Even years later, as someone in the family would regale others with my moron moment, he would sit there, silent.

Fast-forward 33 years later, my father has been gone five years now, and I am now the father of two strapping sons, one in university and the other a high schooler soon to be of age to ask for the keys to the car. And often, whenever one of them pulls a dumb move, I take a deep breath, think of that punishment left not only unspoken but undelivered, and realize the true meaning of being a dad never hinges on a single moment.

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