Nellie Oscar Sherman - A Tale of My Paranormal Car (non-fiction)
My Car, My Protectress
Nellie and I skimmed through the night, from Colorado through Nebraska and into Wyoming, and twice she instinctively slowed for deer. Their eyes glowed, variable-hued orbs, at both sides of the highway, until a doe startled and shot over the fence into the field next to her. Her companions followed. Once, a black steer, matching the night, had watched us from the ditch. But Nellie knew about his presence, and skimmed like a waterskate to the other side of the empty road.
We had almost arrived - another half hour would end our evening's journey. Nellie's engine sighed as we turned into her favorite gas station at Pine Bluffs, and glided to a halt beside a pump. She really wanted a shot of diesel, as well as her main course of unleaded gasoline, but something whispered to me that I did not have time to mess with two pumps tonight. It didn't make sense - the diesel always made her feel well, not so much her age, and increased her gas mileage. She responded to straight unleaded like a person to watered-down iced tea.
Still, I told her no, moved her to a free space before the door of the store, and went in to pay for her meal. She seemed tense as I returned, and I sat behind the wheel a moment, listening to her engine, trying to sense what was wrong. She said nothing, and, on a whim, I opened my wallet to check whether I dared spare a bit of change for a snack.
Suddenly, Nellie’s headlights weakened. A man in a baseball cap passed us on his way inside the store, and her engine hiccuped. Heeding her advice, I went cautiously out of the parking lot without my snack, and got on the road to LaGrange. The curves appeared abruptly out of the blackness surrounding the Albin hills, and Nellie pulled eternally to the right. Her alignment was off, perhaps from her last unlooked for excursion into a ditch with my little sister. I took courage at the thought that we had only a few more miles to go before we could rest. We reached the Albin railroad crossing, and began the last leg of our journey. I switched on the A.M. radio and “Puff, the Magic Dragon” struggled over the airwaves, following several squeals – the approach and retreat of stations beyond our reach.
The sometime-cowtown of LaGrange looked empty as we veered into the Frontier School of the Bible parking lot, and I wedged Nellie between two compact cars. The nine o’clock freight train shook past the town, and I realized I had two hours to go before the weekend curfew.
Suddenly, my surroundings came alive. The basketball court at the north end of my dormitory was overrun with students, but they were not playing a game. With a guitar and their voices, they glorified the Living God, and the sound carried passionately on the breeze scented with sage and cottonwoods.
I briefly considered joining my peers, but felt weighed down in my spirit with things left undone. So, grabbing my Bible and fiddle case from the front seat, I went into the dorm and up to my room.
Mirranda, my roommate, lay abed, reading a Stephen King novel. She put down the book and peered at me through thick glasses. “Hello.”
I set my fiddle on the floor, plunked my Bible atop it, and slung off my coat. I stood hugging it a moment, then burst, “Hi!
"Wow, what a weekend. The derby was incredible. I should have kidnapped you and brought you with me.”
Mirranda continued to peer, awaiting details.
"Dave got completely run over. Mashed his car up good, and you should have seen Jason roll. Ah - it was wild. One of the best demo derbies I've been to in a long time."
”Good.” Mirranda had a calculating calm gleaming from her eyes. “Well, here, Matt finally decided to leave because of the music rules – he said he’s going to play in a Rock’N’Roll band, and M.J. confused Mr. Buckley again with a question about Christ’s headship of the Church, in Colossians class.” Her last words came out with the rhythm of a full-auto rifle, which was her way of chuckling.
I laughed too, applauding M.J. in my thoughts – no teacher yet had been a match for his deep thinking, and we enjoyed the debates that ensued because of his insistence on finding things out. I wondered if Francis Schaeffer himself, great theologian that he was, would have satisfied M.J.'s questions. The fellow was an odd find in Wyoming anyway, being continuously homesick for his wild Oregon surf, and the sports it offered. Yet I loved his bold, uncompromising attitude, and natural hilarity. He lived on principle, and I knew he would go far, if he did not bend under the pressure of misunderstanding.
“Well, I realized I have some reading to do in Daniel, so…” I settled down with my Bible on my wooden fiddle case, and skimmed the text. Soon I abandoned it and said, “There was a man tonight in Pine Bluffs that Nellie did not like. She put us on our way, while I was counting to see if I had cash to spare for a snack. (I can’t stand any more Ramen noodles.)”
“Why, do you suppose?”
Mirranda knew and trusted Nellie almost as much as I did, and we considered her judgment to be nearly impeccable. She had earned her reputation through nearlyy a lifetime of service in my family, and was worthy of praise. Never mind that, having been manufactured in '69, she was thirty-one years young, and had grown insistent in her opinions of people.
“I don’t know why she didn't like him. He didn’t seem strange, or give me bad vibes, but her headlights dimmed, and she hiccupped. So we left. She almost raced at the turn onto the Albin road, too, and we both know she wasn’t that eager to get to LaGrange. Guernsey’s the only one who thinks anything of her, besides us, and that’s only because he recognized her from when Crystal was here.”
After finishing my Daniel project, I went to bed, feeling stiff-minded at the prospect of tomorrow’s classes.
Other Paranormal Cars
While Stephen King's "Christine" may be the most famous "alive" car, she's far from the only one.
Check out this story of James Dean's "Little Bastard."
Also, an acquaintance recently told me about the car in which she learned to drive. This car, named Gladys, tried to kill her on several occasions, by pulling out into oncoming traffic. The girl told her father about this, after it had happened at least three times, and he wrote it off to a teenager's natural carelessness. She explained to him carefully how, always, she would become distracted by something bright on the passenger side - and next thing she'd know, the car would have slipped out into the road, or changed lanes, thereby putting her in serious danger every time. Finally, she convinced her father to trade vehicles with her; she drove his truck, and he drove Gladys. Gladys pulled the same trick on him, and, not only did he come to believe his daughter, but when he chose to fill in an old swimming pool on their property...Gladys became the first piece of filler.
Rest in peace, Gladys - though you were buried alive.
Tried and True...Again
Three days later, some gossip from Pine Bluffs reached the college. The man Nellie had warned me about had robbed the gas station I had stopped at Sunday night. Silently, I thanked God for the car, and went through the day laughing.
“She did it again,” I said to Mirranda that afternoon, while we tramped down the edge of the highway on our habitual walk. “Nellie knew.”
“Apparently so,” said Mirranda, turning in at the gate of the cemetery situated a mile from town. “At least she doesn’t have the temper of Christine,” she went on, grinning. “What would the faculty say about us if they knew about Nellie? If they knew they had a car in their midst that was alive? Oh well – they don’t know.”
“No, and they’re not likely to.”
Facing each other, we settled down under some cedars near the grave of a three-month-old child, and put a cassette player between us. “She doesn’t care for them, you know. She scowled at Mr. Bagley yesterday. I felt it.”
Mirranda laughed. “Good car,” she said. “I wonder why God made her alive?”
“To watch out for us, I guess. But - why aren't there more ‘living’ cars, do you suppose? I’ve only met a handful, and usually they’ve been in one family a long time.”
Mirranda turned on the cassette player, and Savatage’s album “Dead Winter Dead” wafted on the breeze. The cemetary groundskeeper, old and with the same spirit as Ben Weatherstaff in The Secret Garden, was friendly, but deaf, and unlikely to discern our presence. He puttered about near the tool shed, arranging this, locating that, tinkering with something else. Scenes of Sarajevo rose from the music to roam through our thoughts, until I said, “Her alternator seems to be going out again. And she needs new tires. She’s approaching 400,000 miles.”
Mirranda looked at me silently.
“She only gets about eleven miles to the gallon, now, unless I give her a shot of diesel every tank. That ups it to about fourteen. I’ll bet you she has a flat tire as we speak.” I smiled. “Last time I had to change a tire in the parking lot, I had four guys standing around offering help, and not one of them could run the handyman jack.”
Mirranda let out her full-auto laugh mixed up with: “I’ll bet! All the competent ones already found a ranch to work on. The Californians will have to go to Scottsbluff for jobs.” She laid down among the pine needles and stared at the baby’s gravestone. “I wonder what happened to this child…for God to take it to Him at three months.”
I agreed with her wonderings, but did not say so. The cassette tape clicked off. I reached to flip it over. “Maybe Dad will choose to give Nellie one more year’s run.”
Cars as Family Symbols
Nellie Oscar Sherman (I don't remember where the name Oscar came from) served three full generations of my family, and helped my mother, my older sister, and I, all attend the same college.
Dad bought her from a friend of his, when she was almost new. My mother and father had met - lo and behold - at Frontier School of the Bible, and he bought the car for her, so she'd have something to use for her last year of college. He had been traveling a bit, helping to build churches and whatnot, and she could no longer rely on his truck, which they had used together.
From that point on, Nellie became an easily recognizable symbol of our family. My siblings and I were continuously recognized by older folks who had known our parents...on account of the car. Once, while meeting up with her boyfriend in Nebraska, my older sister was approached by a local gentleman, who looked her over, looked the car over, then pronounced, "You must be Barry's daughter."
"Should I know you?" she asked, a bit perplexed.
"No," said the gentleman-farmer. "Did you know your dad helped build our church?"
My sister smiled, nodding, "Yes, I was told about that."
Likewise, when I went to FSB, Guernsey, a friend of that same sister, walked right up and said, "Hey, how's Crystal? You're driving her car." From that point on, he and I were friends, as well.
Having an old car isn't all bad.
The fall semester passed, and Nellie and I skated home to Colorado for Christmas break. We passed two cars in the ditch, but she behaved herself and kept (mostly) to the road.
Within the first 24 hours of being home, Dad looked her over and pronounced her: ill. He sighed. Yet, I had nothing else to drive. He had no choice but to revive her until the summer, when I would come again to work construction with him. He patched three of her tires (one had thirteen patches now), and changed her alternator, which had come through for me at all the crucial moments. He banged shut the hood after checking her air filter, and sang as he grinned: “Well, the old gray mare she ain’t what she used to be, ain’t what she used to be…” He dwindled to a pause like a worn-out music box, then said, “It doesn’t seem like she’s that old. But then I’m – what? A nineteen-fifty-five model, nearly fifty.”
Christmas break passed in a whirl of festivity and family. The warmth of my very traditional family overflowed the house, as friends and relatives came and went, laughing, eating, joking, playfully arguing, and thoroughly enjoying one another.
On the last day before college called me away from all this, I solemnly packed my belongings. After examining my Australian saddle, which had touched my mare’s back but once during the break, I settled it into the trunk, and checked the water and oil jugs stashed in a box for emergencies. The jumper cables snuggled next to the jugs, and the spare tire was in good working order. I checked the oil under the hood, and found it wanting. After adding a quart, my tasks were done.
That night, it snowed. I looked out over the yard, and watched a cat pick its way through the season’s accumulation of ruts. Great, Nellie hated snow. She was a first-class ice-skater, especially good at triple axels. Dad blamed it on her tank-like build, and her anchor of an engine. She was full of inertia. Well, wasn’t that why I had called her Nellie Sherman? Anyway, we’d give the snow a try – school waited, and my GPA was too high to watch it slip without a murmur.
I listened to the weather report, and the meteorologist assured me no snow would fall before dark. The T.V. report didn’t seem so certain. Reluctantly, I got in Nellie and, pulling the shifting lever up and pumping the foot-feed just so, prompted her to start. Her engine sputtered and, with a seeming curse for the cold, died. Three more times I issued her cue, until the smell of gasoline permeated the air. She had flooded. Somewhere I had made a mistake in my handling. That, or she really did not want to return to Wyoming.
At last I got her going, and cranking the engine to a roar to get its blood running, went toward the gas tanks to feed her breakfast. She stuck fast in a drift, ten feet from the tanks. I found a shovel in the barn and scooped her a path to freedom, as Dad ambled toward us from the house, smiling. He maneuvered her out of the snowdrifts and filled her tank. “Now go on, before you get stuck again,” he said, waving us away from the pumps. But at the edge of the road, she spun her tires and groaned. Her engine cut.
“Nellie,” I said, “you know we have to get back to LaGrange.”
No, we don’t, she said into my mind.
“Yes, we do.”
But I belong here, she said.
“Next summer,” I said, “you’ll most likely sit in the yard and do nothing but enjoy the cats sleeping on your trunk. In the meanwhile, I need you to take me to college.”
I began the starting ritual anew, and Nellie protested by spitting and ticking after only one turn of her cylinders, though she was hardly warm enough to tick. It was her signal for wanting to rest.
“No,” I said. “Nellie, listen. Is the road safe, do you think?”
She hesitated, but could not lie. Yes, once we get to the Interstate, it is safe enough.
“Then let’s go.”
She snorted to life and we headed north.
I hardly drove her that winter. She so hated the snow, and January was full of it. The students from California complained of the cold, and a few of us who had grown up in it took one of them, who owned nothing but a windbreaker, into Nebraska, where she bought a real coat at Cabelas. Nellie seemed to glow approvingly when we later walked by, with Lisa no longer shivering. Yes, that’s the thing, she said. Lisa stared at her as we passed, and I wondered if she had heard her.
Spring came with a burst. The snow melted to slush, and transformed the LaGrange streets into wallows, with ruts big enough to swallow small cars. But at last, the wind dried the ground, and walks became enjoyable again. The roses in a yard on the south edge of town began to bloom, and the cottonwoods everywhere shot out new leaves.
Nellie loved the sun, and basked in it like a cat. I went out to her one day with homework, intending to finish a project I had put off for far too long. I watched the clouds and distant pastures a while, then, leaning against her back windshield, promptly fell asleep. I awoke knowing this was Nellie’s last year. In my sleep, she had told me she would retire when we returned to the farm.
“But I wanted my grandchildren to be able to drive you,” I said quietly, still perched on the trunk. A pair of students, holding hands, came around the corner of the dorm from the dining hall, and I got off the car. The couple ignored Nellie, and I turned back to her. “That’s what Crystal and I have always told you.”
Maybe they will, she said. But I am finally wearing out. I’m hardly fit for the road.
“But all your parts are replaceable,” I said. “You can live practically forever. I mean, we might have to machine a few that are hard to find, but...”
No, said Nellie. I may know your grandchildren, but I will not go through another overhaul, nor even receive new tires. She seemed to smile, recalling her right hind, with thirteen patches.
Nellie Resting at the Farm
The Next Chapter of Devotion
At semester’s end, I drove her home, past the coyote silhouette up on the hill near Potter, Nebraska, past the truck wash at Sydney, past the grove of stately, ancient cottonwoods near Chappell. We left the Interstate there, and went past the abandoned gas station, and the tired-seeming farms between there and home. At the last mile, I waved to the neighbor’s cows, who were huddled in a corner of their pasture, twitching for flies. Nellie’s engine thrilled, and she snuck up to eighty miles an hour, skimming over the road as if she contemplated flying. At last I noticed, and brought her gently back down to 60. "Not that I care," I reminded her - "but this gravel can be treacherous." She arced toward the driveway without being told, and came to a halt in front of the house. There she rested, ticking and cooling, with the air of having won a victory. I nearly kissed her, as I might have my horse after a long, pleasant ride, but skipped into the house with only a pat to her hood.
I found it good to be in the quiet of the farm – a different quiet than LaGrange, with its village-like population – and to settle into a non-academic routine. Nellie basked in the sun in the yard, and the cats napped on her trunk. The world seemed right, and I smiled each morning when I went to feed the horses and milk the goats.
Dad and I started a remodeling project for a woman in the nearest town, and Nellie continued to bask in the yard. It seemed to me that she spent more time sleeping than was her wont, and dreaming. What do you dream about? I asked her in thought. But she did not stir enough to tell me.
My brother started a scrap-metal business, and hauled off great loads of junk – decrepit machinery, and cars without transmissions or engines, and piles of sweeps from plows that had not seen a field in twenty years. Yet, Nellie basked. Dad moved her away from the house and nearer to the machinery, which sat in soldierly rows during its off-season, but he placed mothballs in her glove box and over her floor.
Eventually, Nellie faded in the light of a new interest for me – a man came a-courting. At the end of September, he gave me diamonds, and in December, I was married with all the state of a medieval duchess. As I prepared to go back to college, my husband presented me with a car, an ‘85 Buick. I studied it, but it had no life in it. It responded with the soulless activity of a machine. Sighing, I thanked God for transportation, and hoped that, maybe, in time, this Buick could gain my trust.
Within a year, the Buick (still nameless and soulless) gave out, and went back to the junkyard where my husband had purchased it. By then, I had finished with college, and had leave to dream deep dreams for the future. Among my dreams were fantasies of buying Nellie from Dad. A realistic aspiration? No, not in my financial state. Buying Nellie would be like buying an unrideable horse…like purchasing a friend off the auction block. Dad had not sold her to my brother, to haul to a crusher, and yet, she atrophied where she sat. She slept a great deal. At last, I knew her spirit itself slept, and the thought of waking her brought misery to my soul.
I found the 3”X5” card on which I had written my dreams for her, and put it away, in a stack of similarly failed fantasies. “Nellie Oscar Sherman,” I thought, “rest in peace.” A photo I would take of her, for the grandchildren, that in time – No, they would never know her worth, unless through my stories.
That summer, my husband bought a 1976 Jeep, as a work-truck for his construction business. It came with a five-gallon bucket of parts, and fitting them was like working a puzzle with no accompanying picture. But the longer we worked on it, the more awake the Jeep seemed. At last, I knew it lived. It offered me no name, and showed habits attesting to a life of jouncing over rough pasture ground, but it proved faithful.
For months now he has kept us company, showing almost religious devotion to our business, and to his especial business of protecting and organzing tools and supplies.
I wait for him to speak, perhaps...to offer me a name.
And maybe, just maybe...when Nellie has had her rest, she'll submit to be overhauled, and my nephews will have her at their sides as they learn the rules of the road.
Maybe my children will know her as Aunt Nellie.