Henry’s Cars–Martha Johnson


1. There was only one chick magnet.

Finally, in 1998, Henry had the chick magnet he always wanted, a black 5.0 liter Mustang GT. All the cool guys in 1952 had hotrods. They got all the angora-sweater-wearing bobby-soxers.

Making the turn south from E. Harbor onto 101, he sped up and “peeled out”, sure to impress, Addie, his son’s girlfriend riding behind in their brown ’85 Volvo station wagon that served to transport Nick’s double bass to gigs.  Cool cat. The old bag sitting in the passenger seat of the hotrod knitting baby clothes for their grandchild ruined everything. He traded in the hotrod for a new one.

2. There were two dream cars.

The 1971 factory-issue blue and white VW bus he had repainted bright yellow, with a red stripe. The painter from Warrenton called. He couldn’t bring himself to paint the wheels black as Henry wanted. “It’s gonna look like a toy.” Henry planned to install a small wood stove inside. Internal combustion engine be damned.  Then he would affix a faux telescope on top of his Yellow Submarine but he rolled it on Highway 26 one Winter day. Hip. The last time I saw it was in a junk yard on 101 just south of Seaside.

One Christmas morning in 1980 he ran to the front picture window and looked toward the driveway in eager anticipation. He was still in his skivvies and t-shirt. He had been eagerly awaiting daybreak. Crestfallen. Disappointed. The black Porsche with a big red bow was not there. He thought for sure I had plotted in secret to surprise him on Christmas morning. “You called ten people who love me and told each you wanted to surprise me with a new Porsche.” I asked, “Can you send $1000?” They thought it was a great idea and sent the money without hesitation. He had drawn up a list of the ten people that included his sister. “Your sister hates you.”  Where would I have found a big enough bow anyway?

3. And there were three get-away cars.

On a cold late Autumn day in 1968 in northern Illinois he drove me to the LaBagh Woods in his 1965 green and white VW micro bus. No one would be there so late in the season. I was pregnant. I followed him on an uphill footpath to a secluded area. He turned abruptly and looked directly at me. He hesitated. Then he insisted we leave. We weren’t in the forest preserve to commune with nature, Hippie style, as I believed. He was checking out the feasibility of a plan I knew nothing about until much later. He would escape racing east to Detroit and cross the border to Windsor. Home free. He sold the bus for $500.

In 1982 there was another plan to escape to Canada. He marked the back road on the Rand McNally map with arrows pointing the correct direction, North, in case he forgot. As he raced his 1978 yellow and white GMC van as fast as it would go, the police chasing after him fired guns at the van trying to blow out the tires, he would flip the magic switch on the dash. The metal plates he had installed in each wheel well, a Rube Goldberg contraption involving hydraulics and fishing line, would drop down and deflect all the bullets. I could almost hear the banjo soundtrack. “They will probably put down spike strips.” Later I wondered what event, real or imagined, had triggered the fantasy. Joanie came to mind but I had no solid evidence. He sold the van for $800.

In 2020, among other items he left behind, I found the owner’s manual to his 1955 British green Austen Healy. I opened it. A yellowed page fell out. It was his story from 1955.  He drove Maria to Tijuana to dump her off with family. She was pregnant. Casate! Casate!  Her demands fell on deaf ears. He crossed the border and sped north to Santa Ana. The Highway patrol stopped him on a BOLO for a guy matching his description driving the same car. They let him go. Close call. He ditched the Austen Healy on a back road. I couldn’t breathe. I understood the LaBagh woods when he didn’t want to press his luck.



Martha Johnson is a long-term resident of the Oregon coast — a transplant from the Midwest. She holds an MFA from Portland State University and has had several poems published in Words Have Wings. Her new writing will be featured in the Squid.