Today in tiny Frazee, Minn., Tyler Shipman will do what lots of 18-year-olds love to do. He'll test out his prized possession, a fully restored 1986 yellow-and-black Pontiac Fiero. He'll likely wish he were in the driver's seat, but the plan is for his dad, Jay, to have that honor. This simple drive will be a cause for celebration for people from Frazee to Iraq.
Tyler, "a total Fiero-head" and senior at Frazee High School, began experiencing severe back pain last summer. In early October, he was diagnosed with Synovial Sarcoma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer that primarily affects young adults. After receiving two rounds of chemotherapy in Fargo, N.D., Tyler is home now, on hospice, with his parents, Jay and Daneele, and siblings, 10-year-old brother Carter, and 8-year-old sister Cassidy. He also has a 21-year-old half-sister, Tiffany.
After receiving the diagnosis, Tyler panicked about burdening them with his car-restoration project. On Oct. 29, he posted a plea on the popular Pennock's Fiero Forum website, under the heading "Got cancer now and looking for help."
"Hey guys, I have an 86 Fiero GT that I've been slowly fixing up ... and I'm just trying to find some way to get it restored before I pass. I love this car."
The first person to respond was far from Frazee, population 1,300. He was Sgt. Andrew Weigle, of Pennsylvania, serving in Iraq with an assault helicopter battalion.
"Dude, I am sorry to hear about your situation. And I would have the same feeling about my Fiero ... I am going to have some time off when I get back home from this place in January. I MIGHT be able to convince the wife for a road trip to help you out for a weekend ... make a list of parts you need."
Others jumped in, with money, parts and prayers. "I am an auto mechanic and own a Fiero, so I know my way around cars," wrote one.
"I have a nice Alpine CDA-9851 unit (MP3, Motorized Tilt Face and whatnot) to put in ...," wrote another.
"I hope and pray for the best for you dude," wrote a third.
A plan took shape. Fiero-heads in Minnesota, California, Florida and Texas would collect all the necessary parts, then gather in Frazee, 10 miles east of Detroit Lakes, from Friday to today and restore Tyler's car to mint condition.
One of them was Chris Kliewer of Inver Grove Heights, who arrived Friday. Kliewer, 31, works in I.T. for 3M. Tyler's story (www.tylerstoy.com) touched him deeply.
"I saw all these people willing to reach out and no one really knew how to do that," Kliewer said. He volunteered to handle Paypal transactions, which are now close to $1,500. Kliewer also started making calls to local businesses. The Detroit Lakes Tires Plus offered to install performance brakes. Local motels slashed their prices. Dave and Karen Gray, owner of Frazee Auto Body and Glass, covered the cost of painting the formerly white car yellow with black accents. Tyler felt good enough recently to come to the shop and pick out the paint chips himself, Karen said.
"We're parents, too," Karen said. "If something like this were to happen to one of our children, we would find comfort in the well-wishes of people we didn't know well. It hits home and it hits pretty hard."
The car now sports new interior panels, a keyless entry, new leather seats, tinted windows and a rare original trunk gasket. "Somebody got their hands on the last two [gaskets] and is donating one," Kliewer said. A "Fiero guy" from Iowa is bringing up two newly built headlight motors for reliability down the road, he added.
The "reveal" is scheduled for 9:30 this morning at the Frazee High School garage.
Mother Daneele, 38, said the effort has been "mind-boggling. None of these guys has ever met Tyler, except for online. As many bad things as you hear about the Internet, it's also a really great way of having a bigger community than just what you live in physically."
She laughs, admitting that she doesn't know a thing about cars, but is glad the focus on rebuilding Tyler's third Fiero is making her son happy. Her focus is to keep life as normal as possible for her family.
"We have good days and bad days, but every day we just have to keep stepping forward," said Daneele, who works for a medical transcription company. "There's no way for us to control what's going on around us. We try to ignore cancer as much as we can."
They eat supper together, watch TV, play video games, attend band concerts and wrestling meets, "all those normal things." Last week, Tyler went with his dad to a gunsmith and sports store, using his walker. The outpouring has buoyed him. "I've been doing a lot more in the last week than in the last month before that," Tyler said. "I've been feeling a little stronger. I can walk around a lot easier."
Dad Jay, 40, who owns a tree service, is off-season now, allowing him to spend more time at home. He and Tyler, Daneele said, "are super close."
Today, father and son are set to take a bittersweet spin. But Tyler feels only gratitude.
"A lot of great people out there are helping me, doing all sorts of stuff for me," Tyler said. "It's just awesome."
Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 • firstname.lastname@example.org