Justin Norwood was, as he tells it, “your typical goth kid.” He wore eye shadow, fishnet stockings and black clothing with random spikes and rings attached to it.

So around 2002, when his brother’s girlfriend needed a car and her dad was willing to trade the family’s 1969 Cadillac Miller Meteor hearse, Norwood jumped at the opportunity. He wrangled up a used Honda Civic for about $1,000 and exchanged it for the long, black box of a vehicle that you can’t help but associate with death.

Anyone who spends much time in downtown Gardiner may recognize the aging ride. It now lives in the public parking lot behind Water Street. Norwood, who is 33 and currently sporting an electric green Mohawk, can sometimes be seen doing work on it and showing it at the classic car cruise-ins on the Gardiner waterfront.

The car and the human are a match made in heaven, even if that human still happens to be among the living.

If Norwood gets a kick out of anything, it seems to be the afterlife. After marrying his wife, Sonja Norwood, he got a tattoo on his forearm of two skeletons holding each other tenderly in a coffin. On his calf, another tattoo provides a lifelike depiction of Dr. Peter Venkman, the character played by Bill Murray in the 1984 film “Ghostbusters.” On a recent afternoon, he wore a shirt for the punk rock band the Misfits, whose logo is a skull.

Norwood also has decorated his car with several chrome-colored skulls. One is on the steering wheel; others are on the door locks.

Norwood’s devotion to the vehicle runs deep, though it has been tested several times over the last decade.

After growing up in Manchester and graduating from high school, he entered the security forces division of the U.S. Air Force and was stationed in Bangor.

The hearse was Norwood’s main method of the transportation at the time. It didn’t have a heating system, so when the weather got cold, he cut arm and leg holes in a sleeping bag and simply wore that as he drove. But Norwood’s officers wouldn’t let him take the hearse onto the base, he said, so he sold it.

That separation was short-lived, because around 2004, Norwood discovered the same 1969 hearse was back on the used-car market, and he paid $3,000 for it. The interim owner had made a few upgrades to the vehicle, including adding a new heating system. For a time, Norwood said, he even slept in the car.

Then in 2008, before he was deployed to Qatar, Norwood again sold the hearse. But like a boomerang, it again came back to him several years ago, after he had left the Air Force.

Norwood and his now-wife were chatting about his former ride, and he again looked to see if any hearses were on the market. On the Craigslist classified ad website, he found one for sale in Indiana. Lo and behold, it was same Cadillac Miller Meteor Norwood first had purchased a decade earlier.

Now Norwood is taking classes at University of Maine at Augusta and hopes to become a medical laboratory technician.

In his spare time, he regularly works on the hearse, which includes many of the original parts. He doesn’t have plans to sell it again or make any dramatic changes to its appearance, and he has rejected the recommendations of some that he paint flames or skulls or cemeteries on its exterior.

“I don’t want to overdo it,” Norwood said.

Others have told him that it’s strange he would be working on such a sepulchral machine, but Norwood has a sense of humor about his hearse and laughs off the detractors.

Norwood has helped run many military funerals, he said, and he is now researching the actual history of his hearse: which funeral homes used it, whom it transported to the grave.

He points out that the car is basically an antique.

“These cars need to be saved,” he said.

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker


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