"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." These words have become a metaphor for life for these two Firebirds and me.
While attending college in 1985 at the University of Alabama, some fraternity brothers and I pulled my first project car from a junkyard. It was a mess of a ’68 Firebird, but the price was college-student right—a mere $50. It sported a non-running OHC-6 Sprint engine, so I hauled it home to Boca Raton, Florida, because my parents wouldn’t allow the distraction of the car in Tuscaloosa. They insisted that getting my degree was a priority, so my restoration was confined to breaks and during the summer.
I repaired the quarter-panels, then stripped the flat-black-over-red-over-green-over-gold paint, and shot it a rich Porsche red. For the next two years, I worked on rebuilding the front suspension. I rewired the electrical system and got it road-ready just before finishing my Electrical Engineering degree. Low on funds, the interior became a mish-mash of used parts, dyed and cleaned as best as I could. It was a low-budget patchwork restoration at best, but it was mine.
After graduation in 1988, I towed the car back to Alabama, where I got my first job. My Firebird was now affectionately named Phoenix, having risen from the ashes of the junkyard. I continued restoring and upgrading it as time and resources allowed, installing front disc brakes and a Muncie M20 four-speed from a '70 GTO, rear springs from a wrecked ’81 WS-6 Trans Am, a 1-inch front sway bar, and reworking the interior.
As all boys do, I wanted to race my toy, so I started autocrossing. Phoenix and I fared pretty well in our class, but I was itching for more seat time. This came in the form of Vintage Sports Car racing. I had dreamed about racing at Road Atlanta and Texas World Speedway, and I got to live those dreams a few times—until a fateful day at Texas World Speedway in 1994. Over-zealous and inexperienced, I misjudged a high-speed turn and rolled Phoenix onto its roof, sending it back to the ashes.
Hauling my pride and joy back home on a trailer, smushed up like a pancake, sent aches through my heart I can still feel today. My head hung so low that only fate could’ve lifted it up long enough to see a lonely, neglected '68 Firebird on the side of the road. It still had a '77 license plate, but it was missing some significant parts, that is it had no engine, transmission, or front bumper. It was an eyesore spattered with Texas patina, but the quarters and cowl panel were solid. I knew immediately that I was meant to take it under my wing. I named it Deuce since it was my second Firebird. Better yet, the word listed after Deuce in the dictionary was Deus ex Machina—a miracle machine to resolve an impossible situation. How perfect!
As I began to strip and restore my new Firebird, little did I know how much my life would be like Phoenix and Deuce, Deuce was quite a bit more in need than Phoenix. For the next five years, I worked intermittently at restoring my miracle machine.
I replaced the floorpans and welded the seat pans further to the rear to create more legroom for my 6-foot, 4-inch frame. I learned how to heat-shrink the metal to fix the numerous dents, I block-sanded it out with over 1,500 feet of sandpaper, and painted it in my garage with DuPont basecoat/clearcoat polyurethane paint, followed by 1,500-grit wet-sanding and polishing. I chose black to contrast with the pearl interior I installed. I transferred the OHC-6 engine, transmission, and suspension from Phoenix, too.
Over those five years, I was blessed with two children and spent more time with them than in the garage. We moved to Southwest Florida from Alabama. Once in Florida, Deuce won Best Firebird at its first show. Though the engine was pretty, it didn’t run too well. I dreamed about putting in a high-horsepower 400.
In 2002, my marriage was ailing worse than the Cammer, and as it disintegrated into ashes, I expended much effort to hang on to Deuce through the equity division. Afterward, little by little, I started collecting parts to rebuild a '72 YS 400 with 7K3 heads. All the while, my life was being rebuilt as well, and I married an amazing woman, Lynda, in 2004.
Remarrying and the merging of four children was a challenge, but nothing compared to what I faced in November 2008. I went to day-surgery right before Thanksgiving to have an ERCP (an upper GI endoscopic procedure). There were complications that led to a systemic infection called Sepsis, which resulted in multi-organ failure. I was airlifted to a trauma center two hours away in Tampa, where I was given little hope of survival. For six weeks, I laid in a coma in the ICU, hooked to countless IV medications, a respirator, and a dialysis machine that ran day-after-day without a break.
When I awoke, I was blind in my left eye, barely able to walk, and had lost 70 pounds. My muscles were so atrophied that merely lifting a water bottle was a challenge. I had lost my right kidney, and my feet lost most of their feeling. I also had hearing loss in my right ear.
Each day in the hospital, I watched car shows and dreamed of being in my real garage. It was the way I escaped and survived for a month-and-a-half after I woke from my coma. After three months in the “garage,” I took my first ride home. I was broken and rusty, though thankfully not left on the side of the road. Deuce had me. I had a team of doctors, an advocate in my wife, and a miracle.
The abdominal damage from the surgery in November 2008, coupled with the fact that my immune system had been compromised for so long, had allowed polyps to aggressively grow in my small bowel. This forced my doctors to perform a radical surgery called a Whipple Procedure in October 2009.
It wasn’t until January 2010 that I was feeling well enough to get on with my 400 build. I started to get back into local car shows and began to drive the Bird around town. I even used it at my church’s Car Care Ministry to attract volunteers who could change the oil in the cars of single mothers and widows.
The re-ignition of the rebuild fizzled out again in November 2010 when I was diagnosed with a sarcoma in my leg. (A sarcoma is a rare cancer, [which medical science] treats with brutal chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, and has a long recovery period.) The chemotherapy was administered in-patient for four days, and then I went home to recover. Within five days on each of the six rounds, my blood counts dropped so low that I had to be hospitalized. I would spend another four to six days in the hospital, have another week to recuperate, and then start all over again in three-week cycles. Then the tumor was removed, followed by six weeks of daily radiation. All during this time, I was researching online how I wanted to build Deuce’s new engine. Just like during the sepsis, I escaped my infirmity with dreams of my car.
By June 2011, I was finished with treatment. The cancer was gone. I had once again risen from the ashes, just like my Bird. I bought a set of 455 pistons and a friend cleaned out his garage, handing me the matching 455 crank. I would turn my 400 into a 462ci torque monster! I took the engine to the shop to bore the block to fit the oversized pistons and cut the mains of the 455 crankshaft.
While they were working on the block, I went for a routine exam to follow up on my sarcoma. Fortunately, the sarcoma hadn’t returned; unfortunately, a new cancer was identified. The next three months were a blur of tests and biopsies. I drove to the shop to check out my engine periodically, but I couldn’t focus on my rebuild. I was fighting another battle. This time the cancer was an adenocarcinoma, and I had developed 16 lesions in my liver. Not only that, but it had spread extensively to my bones. The primary lesion could not be found. The diagnosis? Cancer of unknown origin. The life expectancy given the stage of my disease? Six months. The shock was unimaginable.
I emailed my fraternity brothers, friends from church, car-show friends, and Firebird forum buddies and told them the grim news. I began treatment at the beginning of March with my chemotherapy cycles two weeks apart. The weakness and shortness of breath kept me relatively sedentary. My engine rebuild was halted. I had to focus on cancer again, until two neighborhood car enthusiasts and friends Eric Pearson and Chris Wiley got together to realign my focus and to finish the rebuild. They vowed that if I only had six months to live, they wanted to see me in my car not under it.
They amassed financial support from friends all over the country. The response was overwhelming, and after a month, my engine was completed (see specs box). I found a new 400 hood and a local body shop donated the painting.
The day it was delivered is forever etched in my mind: me with my chemo port pumping poison in my veins and about 20 friends sharing in my joy.
I couldn’t be more proud of my bad black Pontiac. At this writing, it has been six months since my diagnosis. My most recent PET scan showed an almost complete reduction of the cancer in my liver and bones. In medical circles, this is unheard of.
As I travel to car shows and events at church, if someone asks about Deuce’s history, I always show them what it looked like when I rescued it. They marvel at the finished product, and I can’t help but add that I am not much different than my Bird. I truly believe that it doesn’t matter what condition you are in when you are found—you can be restored to better than new. All it takes is a lot of hard work and a lot of God’s grace.
Me and Deuce? We’ve been restored!