A Member’s Last Meet, A Special Thermos, And The Friends You Find In A Honda

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Many thanks to Legal Bill for this post in the Vintage Owners section.

I didn’t notice the slight, older man sitting behind the table. The middle-aged woman seated next to him said hello and drew my attention. They were seated just inside a large, industrial garage. The overhead door was fully open and the sign that hung from the doorframe said “Don’s Garage Sale.” The garage was located on the same property as the Don Garlits Drag Racing Museum in Ocala, Florida. We were killing time until the afternoon when we would all visit Dean.

Dean had only months to live and he knew it. I don’t know what I’d do in his position and I’m not sure I’d believe anyone who said they do. Unless you’ve received a terminal diagnosis, why guess? But Dean, who had the diagnosis and the diminished physical capacity to go along with it, knew what he wanted. Dean wanted to live life as he ever did, right up to the end. The pains and limitations of his condition were just problems he had to work around to reach the living that was on the other side.

There were a lot of things Dean still wanted to do, but not many that he could. He was still able to see the people who were important to him and the more of them he could see, the better. Anyone who read his posts could tell both that his Vintage friends fell into the “important” category and that he was wishing he could go to one last meet. He couldn’t. Travel was out of the question. So some of us decided to bring the Last Meet to Dean in The Villages in Florida.

Our first night in town we were expecting to have dinner with Dean and his wife Rori at a nearby restaurant. We arrived to find out he couldn’t make it. Even the short distance from his house to the restaurant was too much and too far. Rori was waiting for us and she was lovely, gracious and appreciative that we all came to spend the weekend. We ate dinner together with some of their friends, speaking quietly and catching up on children, work, travels and cars.

After dinner we followed Rori to their house to spend a few hours with Dean. We filed into the lovely home and all stepped up to say hello and ask how he was doing. At first things were a bit awkward. Then one of us inadvertently stepped on Dean’s oxygen line and Dean himself made a joke about not being quite ready to go yet and the laughs started just like at all our other meets. Ever the stoic, I still think I could read Dean well enough to know he was excited and pleased that we were all there. Deb unveiled the t-shirts and we spent the evening catching up, all of us taking measure of how Dean was holding up. Plans were made to arrive for an early dinner the next day and we left after a couple of hours, not wanting to tire him too much.

That night, back at the hotel, we made plans for the following morning. We didn’t know the area well and we wouldn’t have much time before we had to get ready to head over to Dean and Rori’s. We discussed some options and Mike, knowing the Don Garlits museum was nearby, threw it out as an option. Jim, Ken, Nancy, Barbara and I agreed we would go with Mike the next morning. Angela, Darlene, Jim and Deb stayed at the hotel.

The ride to the museum was a laugh fest. We took two cars and I had the lead. Riding with Barbara and I, Mike fired up his discount, antique GPS and we promptly got lost and found ourselves in farmland. After a few miles my phone rang and Ken, leading from behind, suggested we turn around and try another direction. We did a u-turn, said good-bye to the cows, and eventually saw the sign for the Drag Racing Museum.

The scene was idyllic, just the perfect setting for a car museum. The buildings were set on an open field with acres of room for parking. On this particular day there was a car show on the grounds and a pretty big crowd of cars and people were out on the lawn. I’m guessing this is why Don’s Garage Sale was open: plenty of car guys and gals, all in one place, each with enough money to own a collector car of one sort or another.

I made a beeline for the Garage sale. I’ve had it in my mind for some time to pick up an old style high-rise manifold as a display piece. It would make a fine story to be able to say “this manifold was once owned by Don Garlits,” so I was on a mission. After saying good morning to the previously mentioned woman at the table, I took a look around the garage. It had a few race cars and hot rods, a couple of motorcycles and a project or two that didn’t look complete. In one corner, across from the table and attendants, there were rows of shelves with car parts with price tags on them. So this must be the garage sale!

I wandered among the racks for a few minutes, looking over parts I didn’t recognize and some that I did. Tappets, rod bolts, timing gears and shifters, nothing you’d hang on the garage wall, no matter what it had been through or who owned it. Then something caught my eye. On a lower shelf, in the shadows of the big garage was a dark vinyl case. I lifted it out into the light and opened the top. Inside was a vintage one-quart Aladdin Stanley thermos. The bottom was plated chrome or nickel, the cup looked like it was plated as well. The body was painted a metallic green that an antique boating buff might call Evinrude green and a British car collector might call Austin engine green. It was a great period piece and would go just great in the trunk of my Austin Healey if was heading for a car meet. The case had a few small nicks on it and the thermos itself had a few wear marks and a very small ding. It was all dirty and smelled of stale black coffee that a top fuel drag racer might drink at 6:00 AM while he was trying to wake up for the first qualifying run. There was a second thermos next to it, smaller, older, with no cover and some rust showing. I imagined it was the racer’s first thermos and over time he upgraded to the larger version with the nice carrying case.

The thermos with the case had no price tag, so I took it to the table to ask the attendants how much. By now the place had drawn a small crowd and folks were lined up at the table talking with the older man (who I was noticing for the first time) while the younger, middle-aged woman smiled and looked on. She didn’t look busy, so I asked her how much for the thermos.

“You’ll have to ask Don,” she said, “it’s his.”

And of course you already know what I only figured out at that moment. The older gent was Don Garlits himself, manning the table at his museum’s garage sale. The folks in line were buying copies of his book and Don was autographing them with a personal message if you liked. Every man in front of me knew more about his career than I did. Most spoke of a race they saw him win or a crash they saw him walk away from or narrowly avoid. When it was my turn I said hello and asked how much he wanted for the Thermos.

“Oh, my old Thermos,” he said with a sad smile. “There’s another one over there too. I’ll take $10.00 for it.”

He could have said $50.00, I still would have bought it. I picked up a book and said “this too, please.” He autographed it for me and I paid $30.00 for everything, shook his hand and moved along to make way for the next fan.

We toured the museum and I learned more about Don Garlits than I ever knew. In the following weeks I’d learn a lot more from the book he sold me. He truly lived his life a quarter mile at a time, breaking speed and time records throughout his long career.

Later that day we all returned to Deans. Rori made arrangements for a great dinner and we all ate and drank and talked and joked. We met Dean’s mother and took turns talking with Dean over whatever subject we thought would interest him. Gene brought a bottle of Absinth and a few of us tried the stuff so Dean could enjoy it vicariously. As the night wore on, the conversation got foolish and the laughs got louder and Dean’s smile grew broader. Some folks shared his “special distillation” and Dean switched over to beer. I’m sure you’ve read the thread about the meet and if you were not there you still know it was a lot of laughs. But it was more than laughs. It was a feel. We all felt at home. We all felt that for a few short hours we were five or ten years younger, no one was ill, and no one was worried about tomorrow.

At the end of the night Dean said his good nights and good byes. He made us feel glad we had come and sorry to leave. I shook his hand and wished him the best and said I’d see him on the forum. And then we left. And now he is gone.

The thermos sits by my fireplace and I look at it just about every day. It reminds me of the trip, the man who sold it to me and the man I went to visit before he died. I went to the garage sale that day looking for a manifold and walked out with a thermos. I came to this web site looking for information about the S2000 and came away with life-long friends. I traveled to Florida to say good-bye to a dying man and came back feeling more alive than I have in years. Thank you for all the memories, Dean. I wish we could have gone fishing together, and shared a cup of coffee from Don Garlits’s thermos.

– Legal Bill

In loving memory of Dean Merrill…

Dean and friends

S2KI Honda S2000 Forums > Special Interest > S2000 Vintage Owners > Don Garlits’s Thermos

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