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A little romance muscles its way into car lovers' hearts

Sunday, June 29, 2003

Turns out the tie that binds is a Camaro, and the only thing that threatens it is a little rain. A Friday picnic, a Saturday cruise and a Sunday car show unfolded in Mars last weekend, with the all-American Camaro at the center of it all and a romantic surprise shared only by the weather-defiant.

Technically, the three-day event was a celebration of any "F-body" model -- the Chevrolet Camaro, the Pontiac Firebird, the Trans Am and their automotive offspring. Hundreds of F-body owners and wannabe owners showed up at a Richland dealership for close-up car inspections under Sunday's glorious sun, but Saturday's gloomy skies discouraged all but two dozen or so car fanatics -- mostly Camaro comrades -- who joined the cruise from the Bakerstown section of Richland to Mars.

There, on the town square, a secret lovers' tableau planned for weeks sprang to life in front of friends and strangers drawn by nothing more than their love of the Camaro.

"I know a lot of people who, if there's even a hint of rain, won't consider coming out," said Val McClatchey.

But Val was there. She sat near the Mars spaceship. The FBI has a photo of her sitting on the Mars spaceship.

More people know another of Val's photos than know her name. On Sept. 11, 2001, she was in her Somerset County home, having recently helped a Camaro buddy looking to relocate in Johnstown. As a way of saying thanks, the friend promised to buzz her Indian Lake house in a helicopter.

She set her camera by the door, waiting for the sound of his flyover, but what she heard instead was the horrific roar of Flight 93 going down. The impact nearly knocked her over, but she got to the door in time to capture the black smoke billowing above a red barn seconds after the crash in Shanksville.

The photo is in the Smithsonian Institution and all over the Internet and has been used as a fund-raiser for the proposed memorial.

FBI agents inspecting the memory card from her digital camera wondered about the photo preceding it -- a shot of Val atop the Mars spaceship.

"What were you hatching?" they asked.

The founder 10 years ago of the Keystone Camaro Club, Val wouldn't let a threatening sky keep her away on Saturday, but it was Sherry Archer of Atlanta, Ga., who stood nearest Mars' fabled aluminum ship.

Sherry's husband, Andy, had lured her this far north for what she thought was just another rally. He designs the racing car Web site for Tom Henry Chevrolet in Richland. The couple own three Camaros and go to plenty of events like this one, so it's possible that she arrived in Mars without knowing anything was up.

But a plot had been hatched weeks before. Tom Settlemire, who was working at Tom Henry Chevrolet the summer of '68 when the Camaro was introduced, organized last weekend's events from Detroit, where he works as Camaro product manager. He met the Archers two years ago at a huge F-body rally in Atlanta.

While discussing the Mars event, Archer mentioned to Settlemire that June 21 happened to be his wedding anniversary. So Tom, in a stroke of delightfully weird brilliance, arranged for his brother Dick Settlemire, mayor of Mars, to help the Archers renew their vows.

That's how a tearful Sherry Archer found herself, roses in hand, standing at Pittsburgh Street and Grand Avenue while the mayor of "the best damn town in Pennsylvania" urged the couple to "live together as heirs of the grace of life."

Follow all that? The tie that binds is the Camaro. It drew dozens of muscle car fans to witness the marriage celebration of two people they'd never met -- or, as Camaro lovers consider each other, friends-to-be.

Solely in the interest of journalistic thoroughness, I drove a 2002 Brickyard 400 -- a white Camaro with white leather bucket seats, a replica of the pace car from last year's Indianapolis 500 -- in the parade from the dealership to Mars.

My automotive history goes: Ford Maverick, Nissan Sentra, Chrysler minivan, Suzuki SUV. So the Camaro SS was eye-opening. Thrilling. I haven't been that nervous behind the wheel since my driving test 25 years ago.

When it was time to leave, the Camaro owner directing traffic waved me past the orange cones. He leaned over, patted the car door and said, "Before you give it back, take it out on the highway and treat it like a Camaro."

I did. I get it now.

Ruth Ann Dailey is a Post-Gazette staff writer and can be reached atrdailey@post-gazette.com .

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