Glancing out my kitchen window, which is hard to do because I haven't cleaned the windows in years and they've acquired a nice patina, I saw an amazing sight.
George had a car in his back yard.
I'd been looking at that car for years because he kept it stashed behind the garage against the day when he'd have time to fix it -- but the day never came and the car, like my window, had a patina.
It had blended invisibly into the shrubs, but now there it was -- out.
"I loved that car," George told me sadly, "but I'm gonna put it to rest."
Loved. Already, he was building emotional distance.
After George and his son, Tom, excavated the car, they put it out front, where it sat for a while. I watched, awaiting developments.
George Siegrist, 56, is a nice guy, a good neighbor, a true Prince of the Realm -- and a car nut. An electrician by profession, he's often out tinkering with a vehicle.
Ray Battistelli, the guy on the other side of me, considers him "a mechanical genius -- kind of an artist." George has "affection" for the car, Ray says, making it tough to dump. "You work on a car and you get to know its personality, its quirks, what it likes."
The car is a 1971 Volvo 144S, a sporty four-door sedan George bought in 1982 for $600 to drive to work. At the same time, he picked up a wrecked '71 Volvo wagon for $100 for parts.
That's why one of the sedan's doors is orange, while the rest is of an indeterminate color.
"Dark green," George insists.
At the time, George and his wife, Phyllis -- now celebrating 27 years of connubial bliss -- also had a '75 Volvo wagon as a family car. After he'd driven the sedan to work for a few years, he got a truck and one of his sons drove the sedan to school.
George always saw the old Volvo sedan as "a red badge of courage -- it showed you weren't throwing away all your money on a car."
"But then the engine got messed up -- no compression in cylinder number three. I was going to fix it up, but I never got around to it and the longer I waited the less I was inclined to do it. At this juncture, it's a bona fide antique.
"When I got it, I thought I would drive it forever."
Recently he tried to sell it, but apparently it wasn't the kind of bona fide antique anyone would pay for.
So one day I'm gazing out -- front window this time -- and George drives up with a U-Haul Tow Dolly behind his pickup and starts cranking the Volvo onto the dolly using a rusty winch he's made.
"I'll tell you one thing," he says, cranking, "this increases your strength -- I'm able to put this car on this trailer and I don't have to kill myself doing it. This winch is made out of a jack on a '63 Dodge -- which is the only reason I'm living in this house, because that baby carried me 175,000 miles and then it needed a brake job and my wife got into it and -- " well, they got rid of it. "But by driving a '63 Dodge for 15 years I was able to save enough money to buy this house and have a great neighbor like you.
"Hey, Tommy, we ought to see if that gas tank cap will fit anything we have, because it's a locking gas tank cap!"
Finally, the Volvo's on the dolly.
George opens the trunk for a last look at all the great stuff inside -- a tailpipe, a busted transmission with only 105,000 miles on it . . .
"This place I'm taking the car was almost insulting," George groans. "Not only did the guy not want it for parts, he said we might have to drive it right to his car-crusher.
"Anything you want? You're welcome to scavenge."
On the Beltway with the Volvo in tow, George lapses into a kind of vehicular reverie:
"This is just indicative of the way this world is today -- everything gets thrown away! I grew up where old shade-tree mechanics got things working again. And now people pay $20,000, $30,000 for a car. Why would anybody do that?"
Then another car is mentioned -- an old VW Beetle that preceded the Volvo sedan.
"I drove that Bug until one day the battery fell through the floorboards because the whole thing had rusted out. When that happened, with the engine and gas tank back there with the battery, I realized that baby could have torched! I got rid of it.
"I'd been thinking about a Volvo sedan. A friend had one . . . and I really liked that style. It's got a four-speed on the floor, and for a four-cylinder it was right peppy. I'd put the kids in back and on a winding road they'd get a real kick out of it. It was a sweet car. Yeah, it was sweet."
We exit onto Route 1, in search of Beltsville Auto Recyclers.
"Okay, we're getting close. Actually, now it's time for me to let go of my dream -- which was to drive that car forever, because I loved it. I loved the way it drove. I loved the four-speed."
We pull into the recycle place. Late-model front ends are stacked on racks.
"All right, let's go and see if we can get rid of this damn thing."
"It's an antique," George tells Bill, the guy behind the counter.
"Yeah, right," Bill chuckles. "I need you to sign right here."
George signs. "I haven't had it on the road in 10 years."
"Is that right?" Bill gets on his radio: "I have a gentleman here giving us an old Volvo. I'm just gonna send it over to you."
He gives George directions. "They're not gonna crush it while you're there," he adds. "Make you cry if they do."
In the crusher yard, George encounters Bob.
"Joe's on the loader there," Bob says. "Just pull straight ahead and he'll take it off for you."
George pulls ahead. Joe drives up in the loader, inserts the tongs under the Volvo, lifts it off.
He takes it over to the big yellow OverBuilt Model 10 Crusher, drops it among other cars waiting to die.
George watches, silent.
There's nothing to do now but leave, yet he walks over to the Volvo, tries to open the door.
He wants to leave the key in the ignition as a last gesture of respect to this magnificence that has passed through his life.
But the door is stuck. He leaves the key in the trunk lock instead, and walks away.
"See ya," he says over his shoulder.