Harold Geer can see the outline of a cars body beneath the fabric dust-cover on one side of his garage. Summer heat and afternoon sunlight from Wednesday, Aug. 3, fill the garage, a metal building thats as large as a barn and incredibly well-kept.
Harold pulls the fabric cover off, and there it is:
A 1968 Dodge Charger in almost immaculate condition. It could be on the showroom of a dealership for classic American muscle cars, but its not. The Charger is in Harolds personal, combination garage-auto shop beside his home south of Cortez, and it probably always will be.
This was Georges car in high school, Harold says about the hot rod his son, a 1995 Dolores High School graduate, drove.
This is the car that will headline the George Geer Memorial Car Show on Saturday at Centennial Park in Cortez.
Harold lifts the hood. The Chargers engine is nearly spotless, not because its rarely been driven, but because Harold keeps it that way. The big 440 V8 sits in the engine bay like a predator resting before the next hunt. On the drivers seat, a set of keys lies idle, inviting anyone to crank up the beast and listen to it roar inside the metal-and-concrete garage.
The Chargers speedometer goes to 150 mph. Its not there just for show.
It has topped Hesperus Hill at 150 mph more times than you would want to know, Harold says.
Yokohama tires grip the pavement, and two white bumblebee racing stripes circle the Chargers trunk and rear quarter-panels just in front of the taillights. The car has a custom paint job.
Its Georges color, Harold says.
The deadliest cars
Ar Ramadi, Iraq, Jan. 17, 2005.
Two soldiers in the 1st Battalion of 503rd Infantry Regiment are on a foot-patrol mission in this city of more than 400,000 people along the Euphrates River in central Iraq.
A focal point for insurgents fighting U.S. troops in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Ar Ramadi spreads through a flat landscape in which almost everything except the sky, river and scattered palm trees appears in shades of desert brown: mosques, bullet-pockmarked buildings, bare earth, soldiers uniforms.
First Battalion of 503rd The Rock has suffered high losses. Insurgents launch mortar attacks against U.S. troops hunkered down in the outskirts, and the Iraqi fighters wire vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, aka VBIEDs or car bombs, to kill more American soldiers.
One of the two soldiers on patrol, Grandpa, is a long way from home. The Atlantic Ocean and 7,229 miles separate Ar Ramadi, Iraq, from Cortez, Colo. And, although Grandpas hometown in Southwest Colorados high desert might kick the mercury just above 100 degrees occasionally, it doesnt compare to Ar Ramadis brick-oven heat, which averages 111 in July and August. Even in January, the desert air rarely dips below 40.
Pfc. George Grandpa Geer earned his nickname back in boot camp. At 27 years old, the private first class is a real geezer for a 1st Battalion grunt. Geer generally carries a SAW. The squad automatic weapon, an M-249 machine gun, can fire 5.56 mm bullets at 750 rounds per minute and has an effective range of 800 meters. Geers SAW can unleash a hailstorm of death that sends enemies diving for cover. The old man from Montezuma County is a go-to gunner for Rock squads on special missions, and hes seen quite a bit of combat since the 503rd deployed from Camp Casey in Dongducheon, South Korea, to Iraq in July 2004.
Geer and the other 1st Battalion soldier, Thomas Vitagliano, a 33-year-old staff sergeant from New Haven, Conn., arent on a special mission. Theyre on a routine foot patrol. That situation changes when they encounter a suspicious vehicle.
The vehicle explodes.
The Dolores High School graduate standout athlete, hot rod enthusiast, and son of Harold and Lois Geer dies that day in the thundering explosion, smoke, shrapnel, blood and dust of a battleground on foreign soil. The soldier who loved hot rod cars dies from a vehicle turned into a bomb.
Vitagliano, who fought in Desert Storm as a Marine and later joined the Army, also dies. The soldiers become two of the 108 U.S. troops killed in Iraq that month. Neither leaves behind a wife or children.
Geers body the eyes that watched asphalt streak beneath him when he raced his 1967 Plymouth Barracuda at a drag strip in Grand Junction, the hands that tinkered on his 68 Dodge Charger, the arms that grappled high school wrestlers, the legs that propelled him down football fields, and the right foot that stomped the pedal to the metal in his thirst for speed all cease to exist that final day in Ar Ramadi, Iraq.
His spirit doesnt.
Fast as a Bullitt
The Tet Offensive begins in Vietnam. The Green Bay Packers beat the Oakland Raiders 33-14 in Super Bowl II. North Korea seizes the USS Pueblo. Martin Luther King Jr. is shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. Saddam Hussein becomes vice chairman of the Revolutionary Council after a coup detat. Richard Nixon defeats Hubert Humphrey in the presidential election. Elvis Presley starts a concert return with the 68 Comeback Special.
In the fast-car world, an estimated 85,000 people attend the 1968 National Hot Rod Association Nationals and have the opportunity to watch Don Garlits win the Top Fuel Eliminator class. David Pearson finishes third in the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racings final race at Jefferson, Ga., behind Cale Yarborough and Richard Petty, but Pearson grabs the most points in NASCARs Winston Cup Standings that year.
The film Bullitt, starring Steve McQueen, features a black 1968 Dodge Charger and a 1968 Ford Mustang in what many people argue is the most famous car-chase scene in the history of filmmaking. Later preserved in the Library of Congress National Film Registry for its cultural significance, Bullitt helps make a star out of the 1968 Dodge Charger. The 68 Chargers other starring role, as the General Lee in The Dukes of Hazzard, doesnt hurt. The Chargers double-diamond Coke-bottle body design and choice of 230-horsepower, 318-cubic-inch V8 engine or 375-horsepower, 440 V8 make it one of the most classic muscle cars ever to roll off an assembly line in the United States.
The 68 Charger muscles its way onto NASCAR tracks and NHRA drag strips. Considered by some to be the best-looking car Chrysler Corp. ever produced, the Charger also accelerates the hearts of Americans, and one of the 96,100 Chargers that Chrysler sells that year will steer its way into the heart of a Montezuma County hot rod enthusiast who hasnt been born yet.
Harold Geer wears a cap with the U.S. Army seal and the words U.S. Army and E Pluribus Unum Latin for Out of many, one. Harold isnt a veteran, but with the loss of a son, hes more than paid his dues to the military. The Geer family has more than served its country, too. A chain of Geers who served in the military links one generation to the next as far back as the Revolutionary War.
He was very proud of his heritage, Harold says about George while a huge shop-fan thrums at the August heat in Harolds garage.
George joined the Army in September 2002 and went through basic training well before he felt he would get deployed to Iraq, Harold says.
He knew the shit was going to hit the fan. He wanted to be in ahead of time and have a little experience, the elder Geer says.
Harold stands near the Dodge Charger and talks about the son he lost in Iraq. The father gets that expression on his face that people have when their eyes are looking not so much at whats in front of them in the physical world as whats behind them in their memories. He laughs. He cries. He rides an emotional roller coaster.
In high school, George wrestled, played football and competed in track. He enjoyed skiing, elk hunting and horseback riding. After he graduated, he went on a road trip to Michigan, where his family was originally from, to Canada, to Texas, and to Mississippi to see a girl he knew whod moved there. He also drove to the National Hot Rod Association Nationals in Indianapolis to watch some of the nations top drag racers.
George worked at Big O Tires, Four States Tire, Keesee Motor Co. and New Country Auto Center. He was a member of the High Altitude Steel Car Club.
As Harold explains, George could do almost anything with cars. He could work on a motor, paint a body. He even sold cars.
The hot rod fanatic caught the bug for fast cars from his father. You might say Harold was First Geer, and George was Second Geer.
I actually tried out, in 1969, two Dodge Chargers this (Army green) color, Harold says while motioning to Georges Charger. I was a kid in high school and couldnt afford it.
When George bought his 68 Charger, the body was in primer, so he painted it. He drove it, and drove it, and drove it some more.
He drove it through high school, Harold says. It was getting kind of tired, and the top wore out.
George pulled the 318 V8 engine that was in the Charger when he bought it, and installed the bigger 440.
He had planned to paint the Charger again on his next leave from Iraq. That leave never came.
We got the first box of parts the day he was killed, Harold says about parts ordered to paint and start restoring the Charger. We decided to redo it and put it back the way it was, just a little nicer, shinier.
Harold brought the Charger back to life as if it were his own son athletic, with a burning desire to go fast.
We rebuilt everything, from tires, Hemi torsion bars, brakes, interior, he says.
Although it appears well restored, the Charger isnt in mint condition and doesnt have all the original parts.
We redid it as George would have redone it to have fun, Harold says.
Next to the Charger in Harolds garage, a 1967 Plymouth Barracuda sits with its hood up. The Barracuda is not in mint condition by any stretch of the imagination. It is in racing form. George bought the Barracuda, another American muscle car, at a yard sale. He raced it in the quarter mile at drag strips in Grand Junction, Denver and other places.
As you can tell, were into cars, Harold says. Hes into speed.
Harold worked on the Barracuda all through this past winter.
I redid this one, he says. I race it now.
Harold also has entered the Barracuda in burnouts held in Cortez a few years ago to honor George. In a burnout, the front wheels are held in position and the back wheels spin until burning rubber pours out in a big cloud of gray smoke. The George Geer Memorial Car show at Centennial Park this year wont have a burnout, but Harold plans to exhibit the track-worn Barracuda in the car show.
Harold says the Charger and Barracuda keep the spirit of his son alive.
I work on his car, with his tools, Harold says.
Harold often thinks about George while working on the Charger and Barracuda. Some of those memories remain in Harolds head. Others stay in a framed collage of photos resting on the Chargers rear seat, in a photo album that Harold has brought into the garage, and in a journal that George kept during his military service. Harold points to a few of the memories on the framed collage and in the photo album.
One photo shows George onstage with a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader during a show held while Geer was stationed in Korea.
If there were 10,000 guys out there, who would you pick to come up and dance? George, Harold says. For a skinny white guy, he could dance.
Another photo shows a group of soldiers in Iraq wearing Army fatigues and clutching machine guns. In the center, one soldier, also holding a machine gun, is dressed in an authentic looking Santa Claus outfit.
He (George) called that morning and said, Santa came in riding a tank, Harold says.
That was the Christmas before George died.
Other photos show George standing beside the Charger, riding a motorcycle, and burning out in the Barracuda not for an official burnout; just for fun.
George Geer received the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Army Commendation Medal, Good Conduct Medal and Infantrymans Badge for his service, and he was promoted from private first class to specialist for his ultimate sacrifice.
Now, Harold has the medals, some photos, a Craftsman toolbox full of auto mechanics tools, and a head full of memories of the son he lost in Iraq.
Harold lost his other son, Chad, in 1989.
I lost my oldest son at 19 in a car wreck, Harold says. I thought, It cant happen twice. But it did.
Harolds wife, Lois, died Sept. 3, 2010.
Lois was a member of the local chapter of Blue Star Mothers, an organization of women who have, or have had, children serving in the military.
In the garage with Georges cars, Harold keeps a 1968 Chrysler Three Hundred convertible. He bought the classy, red car in Phoenix several years before Lois died because it reminded him of the romance they enjoyed during their courtship.
This is what I had when Lois and I started going together, he says.
The Three Hundred is not the same car Harold had all those years ago, but its the same model. He plans to show it Saturday in the George Geer Memorial Car Show.
Harold Geer still has a daughter, Hope.
He helps keep the family hes lost alive through loving automobile restoration, the turn of a wrench, a change of oil, and a rearview mirror full of memories.
Sources: Harold Geer, Cortez Journal archives, Associated Press, The Washington Post, Military Times, YouTube, Wikipedia, ArmyMil.com, Qwikcast.com, MapQuest.com, National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, National Hot Rod Association, edmunds.com.
Reach Russell Smyth at 564-6030 or [email protected]