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The past, through paper windows

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I first fell in love when I was 5 years old. Under the watchful eyes of the four-star General Norman Schwarzkopf and his daughter Cindy, I learned what it meant to want. With its juicy, candy-apple paint and oversized, knobby tires, Cindy's red, rugged 1991 Jeep Wrangler became the first object of my desires. While my mother attended college at the University of South Florida, the Schwarzkopfs looked after me. I liked them plenty, but what I really pined for (and, if I was on my best behavior, sometimes even got) was the chance to ride in that Wrangler.

Since the concept of a soft-top vehicle was lost on someone so young, I referred to the Jeep's removable plastic sides as its "paper windows." I squealed the phrase with delight so frequently and fervently that everyone soon forgot the term Wrangler. Instead, my beloved became the bulkier, endearingly childish "Car With Paper Windows."

I moved from Florida when I was 9, and rarely thought of the car. I didn't take the Wrangler into adulthood—or so I thought. Last week, my grandmother called. My grandparents joined the Floridian exodus shortly after I moved to North Carolina, secluding themselves in a giant, warm, modern cabin on the side of a mountain in Oregon. Her husband—my grandfather, Gus, six-foot-five and all spunk—lost a long battle with cancer last year.

Before he died, my grandfather had purchased a few vehicles he was "excited to share" with me. During the last visit I would ever have with him, he revealed two four-wheelers and a 1991 Jeep Wrangler. It was as though he were refusing age, which was circling its slimy fingers too firmly around his throat. Gus and I spent the better part of a day tooling around the mountainside, each planted on an ATV. He showed me where he buried his mother and his favorite place to watch the salmon jump during the spring. We careened through the woods, over logs, under trees. But we never touched the Jeep. When I helped him shave his head, strangely patchy from the chemotherapy, we talked about the Car With Paper Windows. The years had aged us both—I called it a Wrangler now, and his head was shiny and bald.

Last week, my grandmother asked if I wanted the Jeep. It's well-known in my family that the car I've had since 16—a bubble-gum blue convertible—aches for retirement. I'd planned on something shiny, new and reliable, a post-college car for this newly minted Young Adult. When she offered the Wrangler, though, I only managed to eke out an "of course" before launching into mental fantasies: I'd get to drive the width of the country inside the cage of that Jeep, and a mobile, rugged memory of Gus would always be with me. I'd have to start doing research on oversized knobby tires and front and rear live axles. And, of course, I'd have to learn the proper care and maintenance of paper windows.

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