How We Were

Chronicles of an Adolescence No Longer Available

January 7, 2008

You need to know about how in 1962 I was a half-wild country kid of sixteen in the wilds of King George Country, Virginia, and drove a derelict ’53 Chevy that shouldn’t even have started but in fact went places that would have terrified Rommel’s panzers at their brazenest. (You may think you don’t need to know this. Well, you do. It’s like, you know, real history, and American.)

Now, that Chevy was brown like two colors of dirt. It had six cylinders but ran on three, perhaps saving the others for emergencies. The closest it came to compression was a sort of ancestral memory, and the tires showed more fabric than rubber. But it was built like a tank. It had to be. Kids then were hard on cars.

It is a little known fact that a rural boy of sixteen can bond with a car—can come to love it. His mo-sheen (the correct word, as in “baaad mo-sheen,” which paradoxically means “good mo-sheen” and carries implications of nonexistent speed and virility) represents dependability in a hostile world, at least if it usually starts. It is codpiece, heraldic emblem, home away from home, bar, love nest, salon, even at times transportation. When parked on a frigid January night in the wild woods, it is warmth, safety, and escape if need be. It is independence and manhood, or at least the southern fringes thereof.

The county was mostly woods and fields with towns far apart—King George, Colonial Beach, and Dahlgren Naval Weapons Laboratory on the Potomac, where I lived. Cars consequently were our life. On Saturday nights we drove interminably through the dark forests, just driving, moving, rapt with the night and freedom, without the sense God give a crabapple. The times were different. We’d park for hours with our girlfriends in empty fields glowing with moonlight. We actually liked our girlfriends because we knew we probably weren’t going to get laid anyway, so we might as not do it with someone who was good company. It didn’t seem to hurt us.

We learned things only known to teenagers. Don’t park under a mercury-vapor light because it makes zits turn purple and green. Sheldon’s Country Store would sell beer to an eleven-year-old. Don’t chug a bottle of Wild Irish Rose to impress your friends. It will, but it isn’t worth it. Your father is probably smarter than you think he is: If you disconnect the speedometer cable, he’ll count the bugs on the windshield and know you didn’t really go to the movie three blocks away.

Truth is, the Pluke Bucket—my tired Detroit dragon—was not of high consequence. The best cars had phone-flow. This refers to a gear shift of four speeds, located on the transmission hump. (“Four on the floor” to the uninitiated.) Below in the scale came threenatry--three on the tree--meaning a shifter of three speeds on the steering column. The Pluke Bucket had an automatic transmission, which was prestigious as a venereal disease in a convent. But she was mine.

Our dream car was a fitty-sedden Chev 283, bored-and-stroked, ported and polished, with two four-barrel carbs (“dual quads”), magneto ignition, solid lifters, Isky three-quarter cam, milled heads, Hearst narrow-gate phone-flow, 3.51 Positraction rear end and tuck-and-roll Naugahyde. But this was like saying that Ursula Andress was a hot date. Wasn’t going to happen. Not to us.

A great advantage of knowing about cars was that you could talk for forty-five minutes without saying a thing that your mother could understand. Apart from technical argot, we said things like, Baaad-ass fitty-eight Ford, cam lope wubbwubba, udden-udden, popped it, sceech….tachin’ two grand…” with gestures indicating power-shifting and the like.

Lots of times we got into sort of half-trouble, which is about right for teenagers. Harry Burrell was a farmer noted for being irascible. He lived on the hills overlooking Route 301 and came out with a shotgun after anyone who drove along the dirt road that crossed his fields. I remember that he held his pants up with a piece of rope. He was that stingy.

Anyway one dark night after the spring rains my girlfriend Rosie and I wanted adventure and roared in the Pluke Bucket along his road, blowing the horn. It was like poking a hornet’s nest with a stick, though I guess dumber. If Harry had shot us, we probably would have deserved it, but that was true of most things that the boys did. Anyway, sure enough, the lights came on in Harry’s place and he came after us on his tractor—so help me—just about the time we came to a stretch of serious mud. Our tired chariot began spinning out and fishtailing back and forth toward the ditch.

We began to be scared. Harry wouldn’t really shoot us (we thought) but we might wish he had. He was rough. However, the Bucket and I had been in worse places and I knew how to surf in mud. In deeper places the trick was to speed up, bump, whrrrr, and spin through without quite breaking the axle. We speculated that it would work better if the tires had tread on them, but this was an alien concept.

But Harry had a tractor. We hadn’t thought of that.

We came to where the road, which is an optimistic designation, dropped down the side of a hill to a narrow creek and then went back up. The tractor was gaining. Not good. We shot down the declivity, crossed the creek on momentum, and then…stopped, tires spinning helplessly on the upslope. Things were deteriorating.

Americans are capable people, though without judgement. I leaped out to push, and Rosie took the wheel. Picture it: Cold mud over my shoes, raw exhaust blowing hot over me, tires spraying mud, and tractor lights appearing at the crest of the hill. Darkness. Wetness. Our bodies would never be found. I made a superhuman effort, seeing no plausible alternative. The Bucket moved a little, and a little more.

Rosie was a country girl, and understood mud. She knew that if she stopped to pick me up, the Bucket wouldn’t go forward again, but spin out. She slowed, I ran. I leaped in the door and we went up hill, not very fast but faster than a tractor.

That’s why Americans got to the Moon and occasionally win wars. They never ask whether a thing makes sense until after they’ve done it, and then you can’t take it away from them. I mean, can you imagine a Frenchman in a Lamborghini escaping Harry Burrell? Nah.

This originally appeared in shorter form in The American Conservative