It was a gorgeous autumn Sunday in the Catskill Mountains, the last day of vacation for my wife and me.
We had spent a few days visiting my folks, staying in the little house in the valley where I grew up, a narrow country road out front and a babbling brook out back -- and a big garage next door.
My father lived in that garage when I was a child. He spent his days working as a bus mechanic for the local school district. His nights were lit by buzzing fluorescent tubes and caged trouble-lights as he worked long after dark to make ends meet for our family.
He would take a break for supper, futilely trying to wash the oil and grease from his stained hands. He ate with us at a round kitchen table for four, watched "Hogan's Heroes" or "Get Smart" with me and my kid brother while Mom washed the dishes. And then he went back out into the night to whatever car or truck called to him from the garage.
The routine was the same. Find a salvageable wreck. Haggle. Buy it. Fix it. Test it. Sell it. Repeat.
When the project car was finished, a "For Sale" sign would go in the window and Dad would drive the car until it sold. Looking back, it seems like every family in my hometown drove something my Dad had fixed at one time or another.
Most of the money went to the next project. The rest bought school clothes and shoes in August, and Christmas gifts in December.
Dad kept nothing for himself. Over the years, we had more cars than I can remember -- each for a brief time. Fords and Chevrolets. Pontiacs, Oldsmobiles and Buicks. Chyrslers, Plymouths and Dodges.
The Mopars were his favorites. He bought his only brand-new car the month before I was born. I came home from the hospital as a newborn on my mother's lap in the passenger's seat of a red 1967 Plymouth GTX, a 440 big-block V-8 rumbling under its double-scooped hood.
To this day, it's the only car he regrets letting get away.
When he retired, when both his boys were through with college and out on their own, Dad finally worked for himself, restoring the cars he loved best. In the early 1990s, he bought a '67 Plymouth Barracuda notchback coupe. He found a fastback coupe as a parts car, but it turned out to be too solid to tear down. Next came a '67 Barracuda convertible because, hey, that would complete the set.
Dad's work was slow and methodical and precise. And his cars were beautiful, lovingly restored, better than new.
Now one of them is mine.
On that gorgeous autumn day in 2007, the mountains alive with colors from the turning leaves, my Dad handed me a set of keys and said, "Happy birthday. Take this one home with you."
The convertible. Yellow, with a painted black racing stripe. With a 273 small-block Commando V-8 engine and four-speed manual transmission salvaged from a badly broken Formula S notchback parts car.
I tried to say no. It was too much, especially considering all that my Dad had given of himself his whole life, all to make my family's life better.
But he wouldn't take no for an answer. And my mother insisted he was simply clearing space in the garage for the next project -- maybe even a GTX.
It was a 581-mile drive home to North Carolina. My wife and I took turns driving the Barracuda and our "family car," a 2001 Dodge Intrepid badged to look like Bill Elliott's NASCAR ride.
We turned a lot of heads in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia and finally North Carolina.
It was a long ride, and my cheeks were wind-burned from driving the Plymouth with the top down the whole trip.
The Barracuda's battery boiled in a traffic jam on Interstate-81, but bottled water from a truckstop cured the problem enough to get home.
It was the ride of a lifetime, a ride I remember each time I turn the key, drop the top and take Dad's masterpiece for a spin in the South.