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Chapter 19: From the Bonneville to the PT Cruiser/ The Automotive History of Joe Ely Carrales


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The Automotive History of Joe Ely Carrales


We, historians that is, measure the ages by the tools and implements of the day (i.e. the stone age, iron age etc.). The society of the Industrial Revolution is no different, except with the possible exception of having more tools and implements in faster cycles. If the 19th Century’s popular culture was marked by a railroad culture, then the 20th Century was marked by an automobile culture.

In reading this autobiography, you have seen my history in terms of classical learning, music and by looking at the events as they unfolded. Popular culture, however, dictates that I now measure my triumphs and sorrows with and automotive hue.

When it came to driving, I was a relatively late learner. Most of my friends had been driving since their feet could reach the pedals. Being from a ranch required that a person learn the driving arts as a form of daily life. I, as known to most, was from the city. Had lived in my home on Bernice Street since I was a infant. I had never come close to “needing” to know how to drive, so I was never taught.

When I entered the Junior High years, my father took me for a total of two driving lessons. The first was without incident, the second end with me running a local denizen off the road into a drainage ditch. Both of these lessons were in our red DODGE truck. I never again went on a driving lesson with my dad and my mother soon took over as I entered high school.

The only problem with my mother was her tendency to “side seat drive.” She would alert me to non-existent hazards that would cause me to flinch. I would step on the break or jerk the wheel. I was then yelled at of driving carelessly. Believe me, you would freak out too if your passenger suddenly yelled out at the top of her lungs “A CAR! LOOK OUT ! A CAR!” when that car was still several (more than 3) blocks away and hardly with vision.

My driving was not improving and my only remaining confidence was erased by my mothers ludicrous warnings and superfluous lessons. I had finally reached my junior year and was now eligible to invite a date to the prom. I had asked a girl, she said yes and then no. This brought me down, but my depression had got me a date. I was now going to the prom. “WUNDERBAR! WONDERFUL! MILAGROS!”...but, a problem. I would now have to drive.

Years later, as I became more familiar with the Civil Air Patrol cadet program, I kept being reminded of my 1993 Prom night. You see, a CAP Cadet has to “solo” as a part of their training. I, too, had to solo. My driving was terrible. What I was lacking in maneuverability I made up for with nervousness.

The Prom went well, the driving was a disaster. I was in the biggest, most awkward car we owned. The big brown 1981 Pontiac Bonneville. This was the car to end all cars. I often joked that I was in good shape because, if one engine gave out, I would still have three to reach England. It really was a bomber. It was also a cumbersome vehicle to drive in the crowded streets and one-lane back-roads of Premont, Texas. Added to this was the uncertainty of night driving.

This episode led me to pursue a drivers license and I, as all small town boys and girls must one day do, enrolled in DRIVER’S ED. I should have realized that there was trouble the first night we met as a group. All my long-time friends had gathered with their parents and listened to Mr. Salvador Chapa, our principal and future driver’s ed instructor, talk about the expectations of the class. Afterwards, we returned to our cars and Frank Vera had locked his keys in his truck. I learned what a “SLIM JIM” was.

And so, after unlocking his vehicle, we began our quest to become official drivers. This included some time in the classroom and that we all take a test to see if we had enough wits to be drivers. This also meant that we would have to hone our skills in the old “RED BARON,” a somewhat older version of the classic Driver’s Ed Car. Mr. Joe Soliz was the director of that particular operation. We would have many taquitos form various restaurants as we learned to drive. Mr. Soliz even partook of lunch at my Grandma Stella’s house.

Life after Driver’s Ed was easy, yet still my driving was lacking. I would spend my final High School Days and Early University Years behind the wheel of the Bonneville. My early Cascabel experiences were included in this adventure with the BIG BROWN CAR that had belonged to the Salvador Montemayor family, my Grandparents and finally me.

In the Bonneville, I would...1) Spin out getting on Santa Getrudis Ave. in Kingsville with a full car load of Mariachi Band Members... 2) overheat numerous times in numerous hard to reach places and...3) as a topper, run over a horse on Highway 141 when being late to a gig on West Main Street in Alice.

Let me explain...well...uh...?! Number one, we were late to a gig at the Southgate Mall in Kingsville, it had been raining and the roads were wet. I had a full carload of people Ernie Gutierrez was in the passenger seat with several sombreros, the back seat was overflowing with Figarellis and I stepped on the pedal. We spun...I will never really know what they mean by “turn into the spin,” because what I tried didn’t seem to help.

Number two, the radiator and other coolant systems on the Bonneville were as reliable as a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing. If I was in a hurry, or if it was an important event, it would overheat. All other times it was ideal!

Number three (oh boy!), on our way back from playing an engagement at the Bayfront in Corpus Christi, Texas we were separated from the others. The Bonneville was not a speed demon and we were left in the dust. Tony Moreno, myself and a very pregnant Gracie Garcia were completely lost in South Texas. After remaining in that dazed condition on the front roads of South Texas, we made our way to being lost on the back roads of South Texas. Eventually we made our way to Highway 141.

Sometime in the darkness of the Wild Horse Desert night, a horse had slipped off a trailer onto the road and remained there undetected. It was discovered by my car's left front tire. I had moved into the left lane to avoid hitting a small animal, when I came back into the right lane...We must have passed over the head because we hit it with great force. Force enough to produce an impressive sound and cause the car to list 45 degrees for about 20 seconds. The car then hit the ground with a force enough to make us a groan. I fought to retain control of the car and, somehow, recovered as if nothing had happened. We were all stunned. The Bonneville had preformed a stun only witnessed on the Dukes of Hazzard, it went up on two wheels.

After all these incidents with the Bonneville, alas we had to part with it. My aunt Alma C. Adamez had bought a new car and had agreed to see us her old 1986 Dodge Lancer. It was a wonderful car. Compared to the Bonneville, it was state-of-the-art. It had a tape deck instead of the familiar, yet useless, 8-track player. It also had push-button radio. Truly, the Lancer was a fitting automobile.

The Lancer survived several ordeals that made the Bonneville’s adventures seem like nonevents. The two most remarkable were the flood, the Victoria Crash and the spin-out on 141.

When I first ventured to Kingsville and met Joe Figarelli, he lived in a trailer home in a stable portion of Kingsville. It was located in a trailer park that was next to a creek. This fact in mind, it never flooded there. As the years moved on, the Figarellis moved to a home in, what I would have called a safe-area. This was not the case. One overcast day after a gig, I went to eat at the Casa Garcia with Jessie and Patsy Rios. It began to rain. I paid little attention and continued to eat my meal.

The town had flooded. We were hard pressed to cross the rapids that, just hours earlier, had been streets.

I called the Figarelli house to let them know where I was and they told me that my car was underwater. I laughed. When we actually arrived at the house an hour had passed. My car was, in fact, under water. I cried.

It was soaked. Water was all over the inside. It pooled in the foot areas and the seat was a sponge. A cellular phone I had under the seat was ruined. Water was in the glove compartment and the gear changer. Water even came out of the tailpipe when I tried to start it.

Jessie Rios helped we to deal with the situation. We did what we could. First, we bailed the visible puddles out with several 44 oz. cups I had collected. The water we bailed looked like tea. This was caused by a combination of dirt, dust and rug pigment that had dissolved out of the rug and penetrated into the water. Then we took it to a local car wash and used several dry vacuum cleaners to suck up any excess water. These machines would short out from the wetness, we used a total of three. Lastly, we took the car to one of Jessie’s friends and they dried the engine wiring and replaced every wet part with a new dry one.

My car limped home. The normal 30 minute drive took 2 hours as I tried limp home. The car would drive quite well for about three miles, then start to sputter and then die. I would then coast as far as I could and turn it off, say the Lord’s Prayer and start it again. This repeated itself many times, until the familiar lights of home were on the horizon.

From the flood, the car made a full recovery. It was without major incident until we played a gig in 1998 in Victoria, Texas. Every year, the Victoria Chamber of Commerce hosts a large Cinco de Mayo celebration in its downtown park square. As always, we were asked to play there. My Future Godson, Humberto “Bert” Saenz, had become a member of Mariachi Cascabel and was soon a regular source of transportation for the group members. I tried to take my vehicle from time to time as no to appear to be mooching off the others. One such trip was this Victoria trip.

Victoria is a 2-hour journey from Kingsville. We had taken three vehicles in regular convoy. In the lead was Mando Botello’s blue Mighty Max Mitsubishi, the Lancer was second and Bert’s Ford Taurus was in the gunner’s slot. As we entered Victoria, to the sound of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass’s Zorba the Greek, we were stopped by a red light. The blue truck stopped, I stopped and Bert’s car continued to grow larger in my mirror. Soon the sound of tires screeching began to grow more and more audible. I threw it into drive as soon as I could and ran the red. Due to this quick action, my car was spared major damage. I had a crushed tailpipe and a bent bumper. Bert’s car was not so lucky. My jolt forward had spared us the impact, but Bert’s car had gone under mine as I drove off. As a result, his front end was more wreckage that automobile. Steam was escaping from the ruptured radiator and glass form his shattered headlights filled the street.

None of us had paid attention to the two Semi-trucks that nearly broad-sided me as I went through the red light, nor the hubcap from Bert’s car that slammed loudly into an object before us. We were in trouble once more. We played the gig and I traveled home with a full crew of sore and injured mariachis. Again the car made a remarkable recovery.

The fatal incident for the Lancer came on the Highway 141. Maricela Amaya and myself had agreed to give vocal and violin lessons to the Premont High School Mariachi. One day, when I was driving with Maricela to the lesson. A large vulture swooped down on the car and we spun out of control. Since the car had no air conditioning, we had the windows down. One minute we were on the road, the next minute we were in the ditch covered with grass and dust. I drove the car until it was hot, then pushed it. Finally, we were within enough distance to use a cell phone to call for help. My Grandpa Cat came and got us.

Driving the car hot spelled the death knell of the Lancer. This had caused the heads to crack. Like a lame horse the Lancer would have to be sold or shot. It would cost more money to repair the Lancer than it took to buy it. We sold it and I began to use a 1991 Ford escort that had belonged to my Grandpa Cat. Thus, the “Silver-streak” became my vehicle for 1998 and 1999. But it too was defective and soon I would be forced to take a bold step. I would by a new car.

My first new car was a Pontiac Sunfire that was gold in color. It was a big bold step indeed. I felt the need to return to my Pontiac roots, but large cars like the original Bonneville were not to be found in the late 1990’s. My parents had scoped out several vehicles as I taught my first half year as a history teacher at memorial. One was a 1999 Sunfire. I loved it from when I first saw it, tested it once and purchased it. It was great. It was a bachelor's mobile.

Despite the numerous vehicles that I had had, I paid special care in treating the Sunfire with respect. I washed it more time in the first month that I had washed the Bonneville and the Lancer combined. I vacuumed the seats and had the oil changed regularly. All was well.

The only damage to the car was a large scratch... oh, and I nearly forgot, the New Years Day Dog that nearly destroyed my life. All this was fixed, however, by the results of the last accident. I lent Norma the car on afternoon before our wedding and she returned it with a gash. This was fixed by a miracle of modern automotive genius, FULL COVERAGE!

This is the point where we return to the regular chronology of this autobiography. As you may well remember, I was awaiting the arrival of the PT Cruiser. It finally arrived on April 23, 2001. It was glorious. The students loved it, other teachers loved it (and were asking for rides) and, best of all, I loved it. It was the car the world had built exactly for me.


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