Dad’s Last Ride

Photos by Stephanie Wallcraft, Jacob Black, and employees of FCA Canada

I lower myself into the driver’s seat of a gleaming red Dodge Charger as the tears begin anew. My husband is in the front row beside me, his hands tightly clutching a small brass box.

As I hit the start button, I take a moment to breathe in the fact that this is the last time I’ll ever be behind the wheel of a Charger. There will be no more Challengers or 300s, either.

I could never bring myself to drive one, knowing without doubt that it had never been touched by my father’s hands.

In a car that’s among the final handful he oversaw from his post on the line at FCA Canada’s Brampton Assembly, we’re taking him to his final resting place.

It’s time for Dad’s last ride.

It was a Sunday in early March when he left us so suddenly, on the night before a day that felt far more grey and dreary than it probably truly was.

Less than a week before, we had celebrated his 64th birthday. Only a few hours before, he was chatting with his favourite cashier at the grocery store about how he had just one year to go until his 30th anniversary with the company and the long-awaited start of his retirement.

Then, overnight, in a turn of fate so cruel that I can hardly reconcile it, in an instant he was gone. And I’ve been a broken shell of a human being ever since.

No other person who has ever lived or will ever live could possibly shape me as much as my father did. He taught me the importance of honest, hard work; he imparted on me the immense value of relationships with family and close friends, and that such affection is best demonstrated through a lovingly prepared meal; and he showed me that great parents are ready to drop everything and run when their children call for help – whether it’s for a skinned knee or a midnight ride home from a party he never knew about in the first place.

But he also gave me another enduring gift: a love of cars. I grew up listening raptly to countless stories about how he tricked out his Datsun B210 and hooned it around town in his younger and more foolish days. And although he stumbled quite accidentally into spending nearly half his life working for an automaker, his career and his passion for all things automotive directly shaped both attributes in me.

We spent the first few years of my childhood in central Ontario, where he had hoped we could settle close to his parents in the rural area in which they had chosen to retire. But steady work was hard to come by, so he reluctantly moved us back to the Greater Toronto Area, settling in Brampton after he found a job at an industrial painting and coating facility.

The experience he gained there provided the stepping stone he needed to get a job working in the paint shop at the old American Motors Corporation plant at Kennedy and Steeles. He was brought on not long after AMC was taken over by Chrysler, and he spent five years there overseeing colour applications on Jeep Wranglers as he quickly ascended in a supervisory role.

Chrysler shuttered that plant in 1992, and my dad was among the group of employees offered a transfer to the much newer and larger facility that was known back then as Bramalea Assembly. He told me that he had taken the opportunity to request a demotion and would be working on the line there instead. I can remember him saying that the added stress and politics of being in management were not worth the extra pay. All he wanted was to competently do his work and earn enough to keep his family safe and comfortable, and to save for the retirement that ultimately never came.

Back then it was true, and it’s even more so today: automotive assembly is one of the last blue-collar jobs left in the world that steadfastly rewards honest work with honest pay.

He started in the paint shop at Bramalea at roughly the same time as the LH platform cars were introduced, which included the Chrysler Concorde and Dodge Intrepid. (I recall him repeating mutterings from around the plant at the time that claimed LH stood for Chrysler’s “last hope.”) After spending years working his way through variously more senior and better-paying positions throughout the plant, he eventually settled on the door line as a team lead. At every stage in his career, he toiled diligently and took immense pride in his work, and we watched as his efforts steadily paid off.

There were hard times, of course. Over the decades, I can remember months-long layoffs, gruelling strike picketing schedules, the arrival and departure of the merger with Daimler, and a stint more than 10 years ago where he thought that working the steady overnight third shift might be easier on his aging body than the standard alternating day/afternoon two-week rotation. (It wasn’t.)

Spending nearly 30 years working on his feet for eight hours a day, often for six and occasionally seven days a week, had taken such a toll on his knees that just a few months ago he finally relented and applied for a special permit so that he didn’t have to end each work day with a long walk across a massive expanse of parking lot.

But he refused to retire early. He wouldn’t even entertain the discussion.

He said he couldn’t afford to take an early buyout and keep up the lifestyle he wanted. That may have been true, but I suspect the full extent went much deeper than that.

Part of me knows he genuinely wondered what he would do with himself all day. But mostly, I think he knew all too well how much he would miss being part of the community that had become such an indelible part of his life.

Because make no mistake: assembly plants form communities. And this takes place in two different ways.

Brampton is hardly a small town anymore, but you’ll still find that just about everyone knows someone who knows someone who works at The Plant. Its integration into the community goes far beyond the fiscal: were it ever to disappear, the entire city would lose an enormous part of its sense of identity.

But communities form on the plant’s inside, too. As often as my dad would tell me proudly about the latest cool thing to roll down the line, I heard just as much about the people who worked on those things along with him.

There was the Argentinian friend whose barbecued steak became legend. The attractive lady a few stations down who he said was out of his league. (Actually, there were quite a few of those in his later years.) The one he nearly married. The one he took off to Prince Edward Island with on a whim one year during summer shutdown. The couple he became especially close with and supported as she battled with cancer. He shared a jovial drink with them on the night before he died.

Heck, even family connects there: my aunt’s brother has worked at the plant for years, and he and my father saw each other often and frequently stopped to chat. Frank proudly wore his Unifor Local 1285 jacket as he did us the honour of acting as a pallbearer, the very same one my father wore when we took him to this year’s auto show and was wearing when we sent him off.

It was these people that I had top of mind when I phoned Brampton Assembly’s HR line that Monday morning.

Thankfully, Dad had been scheduled to work the afternoon shift that week, so there was time to manage the situation without having his entire team and management wondering why he had very unusually become an unannounced no-show.

I explained what had happened, and the representative kindly offered condolences and took my details.

“Look,” I somehow managed to choke out, “he’s a long-tenured employee and this was very sudden. You’re going to have some distraught people on the door line today. You might want to have someone out there.”

She thanked me for letting her know and said they would take care of it. I thought that would be the last I’d hear until the paperwork arrived.

Instead, what followed was an incredibly touching display of solidarity and human spirit: the next day, FCA and the staff at Brampton Assembly stopped the line and observed a minute of silence in honour of my dad.

I was so deeply moved, almost beyond words, and his many coworkers who reached out to me afterward told me they were as well.

We were careful to arrange his service for a time later that week when the people on his shift would have a chance to drop by before work. And they did, by the dozens, many of them wearing those same Unifor jackets. They made donations of sympathy, they gave gifts to my daughter, and they left behind hugs and a river of tears. The outpouring of support reminded me about the warmth and comfort that comes from being part of a village. It’s an essential part of the human experience that in today’s hurried and transient world is all too often forgotten.

Now, several months later, I still notice every single Challenger, Charger, and Chrysler 300 that rolls past. Between those models, the Dodge Magnum, the Chrysler LHS, and the many others I’ve already named, millions of vehicles passed before Dad’s watchful eyes, many of them still on the road today. I smile at each one and view it as a small portion of the legacy he’s left behind.

I often wonder whether their drivers give even a passing thought to the fact that my beloved father’s fingerprints may still be present on the insides of their door panels, or to the hundreds of other workers who collaborate to build the cars they climb into every day, all in the name of honest work for honest pay and building a stable future.

And what about the Chevrolet Equinox owners? Do they think about the hundreds of workers who bolted their cars together at CAMI in Ingersoll? Do Civic owners in Alliston drive their cars through town with a sense of pride in their community? Do Toyota Corolla owners even realize that their Japanese-badged cars were built by hard-working folks in Cambridge? And what about the employees in Canada’s other assembly plants, or in off-site engine or stamping or parts facilities? The list goes on and on, and by the time it’s put together, your shiny new vehicle is on your driveway thanks to contributions made by thousands.

My dad was only one of them. But he made a lasting impact on a lot of cars and a lot of people.

This is why we chose to point ourselves northward in one of the last Chargers that went past him on the line as we travelled to lay him in his final resting place.

It’s exactly where he wanted it to be: in the same spot as his parents and his two younger siblings who left us before him, and as close as possible to his father. It’s a beautiful and peaceful place that overlooks the church where I was christened and the boat dock where we set off together so that he could guide me through catching my first fish.

We sent him off with one of his treasured Riedel wine glasses and a bottle of Bibbiano, a tribute to a visit to Italy a few years ago that had been his trip of a lifetime. As we dedicated him, a military plane passed by overhead – aviation was another passion of his, and we were absolutely tickled that he received his very own flyover – and a caterpillar slowly circled the ground around him, a much-needed reminder of life’s inevitable cycle of endings and beginnings.

My dad won’t be leaving his mark anymore. But in his honour, and in honour of all those who have spent and do spend their lives building the cars we love, take a moment as your engine fires to spare a moment of thought for those who do.

A tribute to dedication