MAIZE — Any time a soldier returns from overseas, even for few weeks' leave, it's a special occasion. In PFC Andy Miller's case, his arrival was made even more memorable because his long-term 1972 Pontiac LeMans project wasn't just wearing a fresh coat of paint, it was bathed in a realistic flame job and it was ready to drive.
His wife, Sara, had done her best not to spill the beans before he arrived home. Miller and his father-in-law, Bryan Osborn, had worked together doing the bodywork and prepping the car for paint while the young soldier was stationed at Fort Riley.
They had decided the car should be a metallic orange, but couldn't decide on how to accent the LeMans' crisp body lines with graphics.
"He and I had been fumbling over flames for over a year," Miller said. Osborn had even laid out ghost flames in primer and e-mailed photos to Miller.
"That threw him way off," Osborn grinned.
"We were still trying to decide on what silver to use before I left," said Miller, a 23-year-old infantryman who also served a tour in Iraq.
Osborn had found the perfect metallic orange, Dodge Tango Mango, and picked a contrasting charcoal-silver color for the panels that adorn the hood and trunk and run back along the peaked front fenders. A friend, Bruce Philbrook, helped with the paint and Osborn got Brandon Johnson to lay on the realistic fire that rolls off the nose of the car and down the silver fender spears.
Family and friends pitched in to help reassemble the freshly painted body work in the Osborn family's garage in Maize.
"They worked right up to the last minute... in fact, they put the garage door down so he wouldn't see it when he drove up," said Miller's mother-in-law, Diana Osborn.
"I was very pleased when I saw it. I thought it would still be in pieces," said an appreciative Andy Miller. "He did a lot of the little stuff... that was a good surprise because it was a lot of work I didn't have to do."
Miller's parents, Russell and Susan Miller, had bought the LeMans for her to drive back in 2000. It eventually was handed down to his sister and then to him.
"I did all the maintenance and upkeep on it. I don't think it ever sat in a garage, it's always been a driver. I don't believe in 'trailer queens,'" Miller said.
"The car has a lot of sentimental value. I had a couple of friends who are no longer with us who helped work on it. This is very much appreciated."
He and his wife entered the car in Saturday's big Automobilia Moonlight Car Show and planned to enjoy driving it before he returned to finish his tour of duty in Afghanistan. He plans to pursue a degree in criminal justice after he is discharged from the Army, hopefully before Christmas.
"This will be the car's temporary home until we move back to Wichita," he said, indicating his in-laws' garage.
Having earlier already rebuilt the 350 V-8 under the freshly flamed hood, Miller said the only upgrades he plans to make are an electronic ignition, some fresh tires and a set of charcoal-spoked mag wheels to complement the paintwork.
He was scheduled to leave for Afghanistan this week and is already looking forward to his next homecoming.
"It's kind of hard not to start counting the days," he said.