The poignant tale of Hank’s Lincoln
If you’re like me (and I think we’ve firmly established that you are), your house is full of an odd assortment of stuff. Some of it is precious. Some of it is junk. Most of it is somewhere in between. But much of it consists of objects that are touchstones, things imbued with stories and meaning. This is the story of a rather unlikely one.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about helping my 95-year-old neighbor Jeanette with the perpetually-draining battery in her 2014 Honda Accord. That’s actually the iceberg’s tip of a longer story. Or I should say, the story of an iceberg that thawed.
When my wife Maire Anne and I moved here to Newton 31 years ago, we were the first new blood in a neighborhood of people who had lived here their entire life. We bought our house from the son of its original owner. The house on our right had both the same floor plan and pattern of ownership—the elderly original owner still lived in the house with her daughter Jeanette and Jeanette’s husband, Hank.
Hank and Jeanette seemed to be a nice retired couple. So I was surprised when Hank jovially stated, “Some of the neighbors call me Hank the crank.”
It didn’t take long, though, before I found out why.
It’s hard to say exactly what set Hank off. It may have been that, shortly after moving in, I drove my lightly-used Vanagon Westfalia camper all the way down my driveway and into my backyard, as I had nowhere else to park it. It may have been that I transgressed an unwritten law about not parking in front of his house even for short periods; I soon learned that he had absolutely zero tolerance for leakage of fluids of any kind in what he considered his part of the street. Some of it may simply have been generational—me the 32-year-old software engineer with the flashy red BMW 1973 3.0CSi and him with land yacht of a 1992 Lincoln Town Car (hey, maybe he needed dibs on the space in front of his house to be able to turn that barge around). Or it may have been the sheer volume of cars that came and went. Or the fact that, since my single-car garage held the 3.0CSi, I was always wrenching in the driveway.
Whatever the reasons, things deteriorated, and quickly. He accused me of running an unlicensed repair shop and a used car dealership, neither of which was true. He took to watching my comings and goings, paying careful attention to the dates on my cars’ registration and inspection stickers and calling the police on me if I mistakenly drove a car with expired tags after a winter sit. He became aggressive and hostile, calling me “college boy” and swearing at me in front of my children.
The low point came in 2004 when I wanted to build a new garage. The original corrugated metal single-car structure was one foot from the property line, and the town’s zoning requirements required any new construction to have a four-foot setback. My little 6600-square-foot piece of suburban paradise didn’t have enough room, so I applied for a variance, not understanding that Hank knew people on the commission and had poisoned the atmosphere against me.
When the hearing was held, despite my having hired an architect to develop and present plans for a beautiful new stand-alone garage in harmony with the lines of the house, something that would’ve looked worlds better than the rusting, leaning, paint-flaking World War II-era excuse for a garage, the fix was already in, and I received a rubber-stamp denial. The head of the commission solemnly intoned, “No one needs a garage, and certainly no one needs a three-car garage.” Hank stood in the back of the room, arms folded, smiling. I was gut-punched. What could this guy who drove a Lincoln—the poster-child for floaty “same-day steering”—know of my passion for cars?
I regrouped with my close friend and contractor Alex. We managed to design a garage that, rather than being standalone, was attached to the back of the house, thereby avoiding the capricious variance-for-the-setback issue. As long as we were within the letter of the law, there was nothing Hank could do. But when Alex came by with a small backhoe to dig the foundation, he nicked a section of the fence that Hank had put up, knocking it over. Hank ran out of the house, red-faced and screaming. I thought he was going to have an aneurysm. Alex repaired the damage, but Hank was so furious at not being able to stop my garage construction that we didn’t swap a word with him or Jeanette for nearly 10 years.
But time softens most wounds. As Hank aged, things got harder for him. During the winter, I began to snowblow Hank and Jeanette’s sidewalk and driveway. The first time I did it, Hank opened the front door and yelled, “Robby!” I thought, what, he’s going to chew me out for this? But to my surprise, he thanked me profusely. I kept doing it, and the relationship thawed. That spring, when I took my first drive in my flashy red 3.0CSi, Hank, rather than scrutinizing the dates on the tags, commented on what a beautiful car it was.
When Hank and Jeanette bought their Accord in 2014 (the car whose battery I wrote about replacing), they showed it off to me, seeming to want my approval. I nodded and said, “Yup, Honda builds a great product. You can’t really go wrong with an Accord.”
Then I wondered, “Did you trade in the Lincoln?” I asked. “No,” Hank said, “it’s in the garage.” (Their house still has the corrugated metal structure similar to the one I had torn down).
Then Hank said something startling. “You know, we’ve been thinking … maybe it’s time we built a two-car garage. The guy who did yours seemed nice. What was his name? Alex?” I had to stifle laughter at the irony.
The following fall, I realized that I hadn’t seen Hank for a bit, and asked Jeanette what was up. “Oh, you didn’t know about the accident?” She said that Hank had become increasingly frail and had signs of the onset of Alzheimer’s. He wanted to take a Sunday drive in the Lincoln, but neither she nor her brother thought that was good idea. After a discussion, Hank agreed to let her brother drive. As they were pulling onto the highway, the Lincoln got sideswiped by a tractor-trailer, spun around, and was hit on the other side as well. All occupants were shaken but OK. But the Lincoln was totaled.
The heartbreaking part was that, as Hank’s dementia advanced and he went into memory care housing, he kept asking about the Lincoln, not accepting that it was gone, and wanting to see it and drive it again.
“Gosh, he loved that car,” Jeanette told me. “It only had 20,000 miles on it. People kept asking him if he’d sell it.”
Suddenly it all came into focus. Hank probably bought the car the year we moved into the house. It had vanity plates on it with his initials and birthdate. The guy that I was at war with for nearly 25 years was, in his own way, a car guy. How could I possibly have missed this?
I never saw Hank again—he passed in 2015—but I took solace in imagining that, somewhere along Alzheimer’s winding paths, he would reunite with his beloved Lincoln.
Jeanette and I have never spoken about my adversarial relationship with Hank. And why would we? It’s all water under the bridge and has no effect on whether or not I would help a 95-year-old neighbor. But I was surprised, and touched, when she knocked on my door, and I opened it to find her holding something.
“Robby,” she said, “I found this in the basement. It’s the cover to Hank’s Lincoln. Do you want it?”
Despite my not owning anything it would fit without leaving two feet of fabric fore and aft, I said, with the utmost sincerity, “It would be my honor.”
So there, on a shelf in my basement, it sits. The cover to Hank’s beloved Lincoln. As I’m now the age I was when I met “Hank the crank” and settling into the “get off my lawn” phase of my life, it’s a gentle reminder to be kind, even to people you don’t like. Even to people who weren’t kind to you for decades.
Plus, if I ever jump outside my 1970s BMW comfort zone and buy some 18-foot American luxo-barge, I’ve got it covered.
Rob’s latest book, The Best Of The Hack Mechanic™: 35 years of hacks, kluges, and assorted automotive mayhem is available on Amazon here. His other seven books are available here on Amazon, or you can order personally-inscribed copies from Rob’s website, www.robsiegel.com.
Great story Rob. Time heals all wounds.
Wonderful tribute to letting bygones be bygones and having tolerance for others. Whether or not the Lincoln was a barge and whether or not Hank was a crank, it was a CAR, and it was HIS – so this certainly qualifies as a “car guy” story. And it’s a heart-warming one at that. 😌
I sure was hoping this article was leading up to Rob buying a 90s Lincoln.
Rob, maybe Hank was not so much a car guy as the Lincoln was his retirement gift to himself for a life of work. I do not know what people do for a living in Boston but maybe your neighbor had to put up with 40 years of bad bosses, changing shifts, bad hours at work and when he retired all he got was a plague so he went out and bought a Lincoln. I know that Florida is filled with Yankees that have retired and purchased Lincoln’s and Cadillacs, or F-350 King Ranch or Chevy High Country. They are parked under the car port of the double wide in the Senior Living Communities. Just a thought.
Oh and maybe Hank had a reason for being cranky, remember you were his neighbor. 🙂 🙂 🙂
Man, I sure am glad I didn’t retire in Boston. Those East Coasters are tough! I’d have been given a plague? I much prefer the plaque I got here where I live! 😋
Great Story Rob! I’ve got quite a few myself. Better to become a mensch than a crank!
Nice story Rob. Would be delighted to have you for a neighbor.
Hank is waiting for you. And you called his pride and joy a ” luxo-barge”. tsk tsk
When I lived at home with my parents there was a neighbor the husband abused alcohol and his wife’s mental illness. Some of the same negative examples you listed, happened to me also. Thirty-four years ago I purchased my home. I was the youngest neighbor and eventually helped many as they aged. Now at 62, one next-door neighbor is very unfriendly after repeated attempts to be social and helpful. I remember a coworker saying decades ago “they will die someday” about negative neighbors. Now that I’m the oldest maybe it will be me to be gone next.
Not gone soon, I hope, Pete! Like Rob, you’ve set an example of what it means to be a good neighbor. Not everyone gets it, but that’s their loss.
I feel we all have, or will have, dealt with a neighbour like this at some point. Your parting words are very accurate. It falls inline with being the change you want to see in the world.
My current house I acquired in 2018. My neighbour is a daughter looking after her aging parents. Their yard is a mess of clutter as Pops is suffering from dementia and changing the yard is a recipe for disaster.
The previous owner of my house was at war with them constantly. Forever calling bylaw and arguing over the property line (of which there is no fence, it’s all flat grass).
I’ve been getting along amazingly with them since we moved in, with the “live and let live” attitude. They give us all kinds of food and gave me the tarp to cover my roof when a storm did it in. Putting out kindness and understanding more often than not sees it returned in spades.
As a bonus, they never complain about my various project cars that come & go.
Great story. Glad time could heal those wounds. A good reminder we are only here for a little while and after we are gone most of our petty battles will have accomplished nothing. Better to try and be a good neighbor whenever possible.
I’ve read all your story’s since I joined Hagerty years ago and this was the best by far. I hope that doesn’t hurt your feelings, ‘Robby’!😁
You’re a good man.
I still have my dad’s baby blue car cover. I don’t think he ever used it. It was a gift from me to him because his Celebrity wagon sat under a carport. Now, it sits on top of my 2014 Harley TriGlide and almost fits. BTW, if this was CT, I lived in Danbury for a spell but had no time at that portion of my life to be a car guy. Loved the article, the people, and how the relationship healed.
man…what a cool story. NOT the kind of car story I had in mind. So there you go…took me out when I wasn’t looking.
Our hobby has a LOT of humanity interlaced within it.
Great story and great lesson. And you don’t have to wait to buy a barge to use that cover. I haven’t had a C5 FRC in nearly two years, but I’ve used its cover on my E36 M3, DA5 and even my Citroen SM. A poor fit on every one, but it helped get through a couple bad snowstorms (or just rain, for the leakers).
Rob that was a fantastic, heart warming story, and one that all of us can (or will someday) relate to. Like a previous reader I was rather hoping that you bought the luxo barge. Life is too short to hold grudges or act the way Hank did, (though sadly dementia was a factor well before his diagnosis?). Your behaviour was exemplary. While generally not a fan of Euro cars, I read your columns and always find some common ground there. Yes, you provide expert opinions on the servicing of automobiles but there are other aspects to being a “car guy” which were also noted in this article. Certainly it was “Firing on all 6” as they say. Well done Rob.
Great story, Rob. And now you are prepared to “upsize” when the time comes. 🙂