California Dreaming

How It, Well, Almost Was

The Great Custom Lawnmower craze of 1972 caught California unawares. The state is not easily astonished. Still, Mikey Deeter managed it.

Mikey lived in Riverside, one of those pseudo-Spanish Levittowns that dangle like beads from the freeways. He was seventeen. He had long blonde hair, a great tan, and the vacant expression one associates with surfers. His total vocabulary came in at perhaps 127 words, mostly automotive.

It was deceptive. As the world would learn, there was method in his blandness

One afternoon in August Mikey sat in his backyard. He was pondering the unfairness of life, a phenomenon that always takes the young by surprise. All his friends in high school had cars – deuce coupes and '40 Fords, chopped and channeled, with gleaming hopped-up engines and tuck-and-roll Naugahyde interiors and improbable paint jobs. Cars had practical implications. Mikey suspected his buddies were doing the cheerleaders because of their hot mo-sheens. Mikey couldn't afford a car, even a Plymouth. He pondered suicide.

Then a glint came into his eyes. Maybe . . . just maybe . . . .

No. It would never work.

But. . . it just might. Anyway, it was worth a try. He went to the garage and retrieved a deteriorating lawnmower.

All afternoon, and for many consecutive afternoons, he labored over the tired machine. He detail-stripped the beast -- took it apart to the bolts, gunked the engine, sanded the body to bare metal. He sent the motor and blade to Big Daddy Sparkle's style shop to be triple-chromed. Next he painted the body with twenty-seven coats of hand-rubbed Kandy Kolor Lava Mist metal-flake lacquer the color of molten plums. When he finished you could look deep into it, and the little swirls seemed to move. The neighbors thought he was crazy.

Finally he built in an eight-track stereo that played Little Old Lady From Pasadena, added ape-hanger handlebars covered in plastic chinchilla fur and, for ecological awareness, installed a plastic recirculating waterfall he found in a flower store. When he was through the thing glittered with little points of ruby light and the engine shot diamonds. It was wonderful, indescribable, and perfectly useless. He put it into his friend Bungie's pickup truck and they drove it to a Kustom Car show in Los Angeles.

Now, Kustom Cars as understood in California have little to do with cars, and nothing to do with transportation. They are a form of automotive sculpture, having vast supercharged engines that won't start because the gas tank has been removed to make room for a refrigerator. Sometimes they won't even roll: The wheels, dismounted so the car will sit rakishly lower, rest beside it on satin cushions.

Mikey and Bungie pushed the mower through crowds of aficionados to the Free-Style division and found the presiding official. This worthy was beaded and pony-tailed and had grease under his fingernails. His T-shirt said Duke's Speed Shop. He eyed the mower doubtfully.

"It's a Class-A nontraditional off-road experimental," said Mikey with more confidence than he felt.

He turned the throttle and it played Little Old Lady. The official, though puzzled, was charmed. Then Mikey turned on the recirculating waterfall. The official peered intently and said, "Far-r-r-r out!"

"But, I think, you know, it has to be a vehicle," he said.

Mikey countered, "I could stand on it and roll down a hill."

It got in.

To everyone's amazement, it also took First in Class. It was so . . . different. Further, it was the only entry. Crowds gathered where the mower lay on a cloud of peach-colored glass wool, waterfall trickling.

"It's like, you know, sculpture art," Mikey told a bored reporter from the L.A. Times. "Like stuff in museums." The reporter returned to the newsroom, where he mentioned the mower as he might an outbreak of plague. He had been in Los Angeles too long.

Luck had it that the art critic for the Times was on deadline with nothing to write about. He knocked out a piece about how the mower "represented a cross-pollination between the technical underpinnings of modern industrial society and the yearning for a new and meaningful esthetic by the young." He baptized the new movement Kinetic Bauhaus. Then he got drunk to salve his conscience.

The effect was galvanic. Up and down the coast, young males raced to garages. They sandblasted, welded, and painted, surfing on the wave of the new art form. Though few appeared to be repositories of high intelligence, or any intelligence, they were in fact technically adept and imaginative, the kind of young men who had made America whatever it was. They believed instinctively in the Californian principle that if a thing isn't worth doing at all, it is worth doing to wild excess.

Mowerdom flourished. Shows proliferated. Magazines appeared: Kustom Grassblaster and MegaMulcher. They carried articles like, "440-C Blades vs. Polycarbonate Laminates: Which Is Better?" and "Nitro-Fueled Unlimiteds Take On The Elephant Grass of Northern Thailand."

These were halcyon days for Mikey. He was a guru, in demand on the radio. He explained The Movement, which was now generally recognized as representing a fundamental new direction in artistic expression, and perhaps a basic alteration of Western consciousness.

"It's a new thing and all. If you go to an old art museum, the paintings are, you know, like flat. They just hang there That's the trouble with old art. It doesn't do anything"

However, ominous clouds were brewing. What with being a spiritual leader, appearing on talk shows, and clearing up a backlog of cheerleaders, Mikey was sliding imperceptibly down the slack side of the wave. Already his mower was regarded with antiquarian interest, like the Wright Brothers' airplane.

Others pulled ahead. A post-doc in biochem at Berkeley mounted the engine from a Harley Sportster on a mower modified with dune-buggy wheels. For ecological piety it had the now-mandatory recirculating waterfall, in a cage with a gaudy macaw that shrieked obscenities in Spanish. It would have won the Nationals had not the macaw taken to coughing horribly. The vet determined that nothing was wrong with it. It was just trying to imitate a Sportster engine. By them, unfortunately, the Nationals were over.

Mikey didn't have the money to compete. The death blow came when a wealthy proctologist from Anaheim, with extensive holdings in the stock market, announced that he was going to mount a surplus helicopter upside down on wheels, trumping even the Harley with its confused bird.

It was terrible. Mikey's own movement had left him behind.

So did the cheerleaders. Shortly he was again sitting in his backyard, pondering the unfairness of life.