Posted: July 24, 2010 in cars
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 “You’re getting us animals a bad name in the district by your furious driving and your smashes and your rows with the police. Independence is all very well, but we animals never allow our friends to make fools of themselves beyond a certain limit; and that limit you’ve reached.”

Wind In The Willows

As we slid around the corner sideways, I leaned into it and pushed the gas pedal down hard. We launched out of the corner with gravel spinning from the tires and plums of dust churning and dancing behind us, wild enough to make Mr. Toad grin wildly.

I loved this rumbling, tire spinning, drop-dead gorgeous car. It knocked you back in the seat with tire screeching, muffler growling, scenery blurring torque, and it looked good doing it.

Black leather bucket seats, candy apple red flanks, chrome steel wheels, glass packed mufflers and a 390 cubic inch V8 engine – somebody clearly set out to make some fun. It’s partly the touch thing. The surfaces of cars draw us to them, the soft glossy metal, the shapely dash, the arm chair seats, the glowing red dash lights, the fascinating buttons to push, the plush carpets. It’s home away from home. But at the heart of the beast is the engine, and this particular car was engine intensive. If you explored its full potential, then at some point you might need to pull over to the side of the road, step out of the car, put your hands on the hood and wait for the police to arrive.

But there were no police to get into a row with on the gravel road that summer day, just me driving and my crazy teenage friends in the back enjoying the rush. We went fast, we got there quickly, we had our fun, we felt cool, but on the way home things went south, or north or whatever way it was that I didn’t want to go. The car got away from me on a corner of a gravel road and we went into the ditch with a horrible bouncing and pounding, gravel and rocks whacking up against the bottom of the car with tremendous noise and force. I was Jack Kerouac’s Dean in On the Road, powering across America in my “old jalopy chariot with thousands of sparking flames shooting out from under it.”

When I got out I expected to see crushed sheet metal — nothing, just a beautiful car sitting in the bottom of a ditch gathering dust. We had reached the limit and passed it.

We couldn’t call for help. It wasn’t my car. So we improvised. We built a ramp with rocks, and pushing from behind and spinning the tires again, we drove it out. Not a scratch on it, if you didn’t count the scratches and dents you couldn’t see on the glass packs underneath. I drove home more carefully.

I didn’t tell my dad what happened that day until he was very old and feeble and couldn’t do anything to me anymore for what I had done that dusty summer day with his prize1966 Ford Fairlane GT, two-door coupe.

It didn’t start there. This is too deep; it goes back to my childhood. I loved riding in my stroller — I must have — it is deep in us, this thing for movement.  We moved in our mothers, and kicked too. When we came out they rocked us and carried us and drove with us and pulled and pushed us on wheels. I loved being pulled in my little red, metal and wood wagon. Didn’t we all? When my babies were little and cried, my wife and I took them out for a drive and they slept, then it was “lift her carefully,”  keep her moving, slip her into the crib, tiptoe away – no one really wants to stop moving.  I pushed the girls fast in the driveway in their little plastic Little Tikes red and yellow coupe, sliding them sideways in the turns, laughing hysterically when they screamed with fear and delight.

We took the girls to Disneyland, lots of wheels. They loved Disney’s Autopia. It was the first freeway they drove on. One Christmas when I was little, we got a little electric race car set. The bright little cars rode on tracks, fast. They screamed down the straights and if pushed too hard flipped into the air on the turns and rolled across the carpet. Sometimes I’ve thought that my love of cars came from my dad, but I can’t blame it on him. I think the thing with wheels and speed goes deeper than that.

I saw a deer last week, looking at me steadily from a wooded refuge in the Laguna Mountains as I sat in my friend’s Porsche Boxster watching her. Throwing her head and the front of her body to the left, the graceful doe made a body leaning, leg thrusting turn and in a moment of hide-blurring acceleration, disappeared into the trees. We turned and spun off too and were soon flying down Sunrise Highway with the top down. Living things love to turn and accelerate. Our love of speeds is genetic, deep, the need to flee, the joy of speed, the thrill of the pursuit. Wheels were invented to make work easier, and for fun.

My first skate board was a piece of wood on steel wheels. I remember hitting a rock, I launched, my body continued in the direction I was headed but my board remaining stubbornly behind. I rode it on the huge wooden porch on the back of the chapel at the campground, down the porch the sweeping, body leaning turn, kick the leg and fly again, back the way I had come, not very far from where I kissed my first girl. Wheels and girls have long had close proximity to each other, because girls like wheels as well as boys, and wheels changed the dating patterns of the American teenager. With wheels, they could get away and be alone.

When I was in the ninth grade I got out of the house for a Saturday evening with my brother. It was great fun, fueled by alcohol, gasoline and hormones. We cruised through town in my brother’s 327 inch, 350 house power Chevy Malibu. It got crazy when in the zone between cool cruising and an all-out, high speed stomp. I was in the backseat with his girl friend when we crossed a shallow ditch, ploughed through a front yard lawn, exited just to the left of a telephone pole and re-entered the street in the wrong lane. Whooohooo! It was better than bicycles and skate boards. I learned  a lot from my brother.

When I was 16 I got my first truck, an old, classic 1954 Ford pickup. My dad helped me paint it a deep maroon. We painted the steel wheels white. I loved that truck. It had a stick shift on the column and a light rear end. That meant that when you popped the clutch with the engine revved, the rear tires squealed, the truck vibrated up and down, and then it shot off with a wildly mechanically stressed six-cylinder roar. I felt cool in front of the girls that I was afraid to talk to.

My next car was a 55 Chevy two-door hardtop. It was a six cylinder powerglide automatic, a good car for a teenaged boy. My dad helped me split the exhaust manifold so we could put a dual exhaust on it and make it cool. My dad cut the manifold with a welding torch, welded the ends closed, and hooked up pipes and glass packed mufflers to each half. The six sounded sweet with twin pipes, but it was a ruse — no pavement ripping take offs here. The transmission only shifted once. Do the math. But a car is a car and over time you could get this sheet metal beauty up to several dangerous speeds. One day, driving fast because I was late to work at the grocery store, I passed the car in front of me only to realize that when we were side-by-side on this narrow two-lane highway, another car appeared around a corner ahead, coming toward us head-on, in the lane I was in.

I braked hard. The car I was passing shot ahead. I tried to pull in behind it and then I was sideways, sliding down the road sideways at 70 miles per hour, in the ditch, bouncing to a sudden halt, my hands shaking, nothing hurt on me or the car. I drove very carefully on to work, feeling like the car might slide out of control again any minute. That cautious feeling lasted for a couple of weeks. This is how it is with cars, a dance in and out of safety. When Ford first put seat belts and padded dashes in cars people complained. “You’re making us feel unsafe.” Ford took them out.

We drag our wrecks away us and put them in the parts of town we don’t see so that we don’t think about torn and twisted sheet metal. Yesterday, I was down by the wrecking yard in our city. You get there on Nirvana Street. It’s isn’t nirvana. A huge arm could be seen above the fence, bent crooked over a giant pile of fenders and grills. It descended on them with a claw hand, picked up the remains and moved them to another pile with a terrible grinding and crashing. What seduces us one year, repulses us the next. A wreck isn’t fun.

I’ve been in a number of car accidents. In South Africa we practically destroyed one of the mini-vans we rented, small event at a time. We broke the windshield hitting a rock, we ploughed into the back of another car in Mbabane, Swaziland on a rainy night and bashed the front bumper, and we popped a tire while driving through the Pilanesberg Game Reserve in South Africa. We were like Dean and Jack again, bashing the Cadillac in Chicago, hydrants bent over, the “fenders stove in.” We teased that we’d have to buy the van when we returned it.

The flat tire in the reserve was interesting. One of our South African friends told us that some Japanese tourists had gotten out of their car in a game park and gotten eaten by a big cat. It sounded like a game park myth, but we had gotten the point and we knew the drill, “Don’t get out of the car.”

But what do you do? The tire went flat, no one came along. The mobile phone didn’t work. We took action. We looked in the owner’s manual, nothing about changing a tire when the big five are present. So the driver and I improvised and made pit stop work of it. For a safety net we posted our wives at either end of the car to watch. We figured the cats would get to them first that way and we could get back in the car. It worked; we were rolling again soon, past the elephants ripping up a tree, past the graceful giraffes, past the wart hogs rooting in the ditches, past the crocodiles lying by the lake and past a white rhino herding her baby across the dirt road. Now there is danger.

I loved that drive. We came to the end of the park as the sun was setting in brilliant golden racks of clouds. It rained. I love our cars that day. I will always remember rolling through the park in the BMW sedan, the sunroof open, “How Great Thou Art” playing on the stereo, the animals peering at us from the bush. Good, all good.

I’ve had so many good rides, rolling in the back of a big tour bus through the hills of Tuscany, Italy with Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli singing “The Prayer” on the CD player. The Old Road to Rio, the blue water, the green jungle, the white sand beaches, then the freeway in the city where we traveled in total chaos, no observed lanes, no signs, just a huge mass of sheet metal moving through a tremendous cloud of exhaust fumes. Missing our exit we pulled of the freeway into the only place to pause, the front yard of a house. A policeman on a bike gave us a ticket. What a hoot! Then there was the little black taxi in Oxford, England where we threw our bags in the back and climbed into the little bench seats beside them. I loved the cruise up to Idyllwild in my black 300 ZX, scooting around the corners, powering down the straights, t-tops off, engine wound up, CD player loud, it doesn’t get much better than that. Then there were the one-lane bridges in Kauai, rolling past theTaro fields of Hanalei, arriving at the beach in the jungle at the Na Pali Coast to snorkel in the beautiful blue ocean with the yellow butterfly fish. Driving is a tour to and through the beauty. I love the road up to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. I love the drive down through King’s Canyon in Sequoia. We all have a road that we love.

But at its thumping, pulsing heart best, driving is social. We drive in cars with people we love, we eat in our cars with the people we love, we talk and laugh and point and get bored on long trips in our cars with the people we love. And each time we drive down the road, each and every time,  we are going out with our community, we are mixing it up with all the people who for one choice or another happen, at that precise moment, to be going shopping, going to work, going to eat, going to see their mom or dad or whoever. These dear ones are our fellow travelers, our entourage, our car club, our fellow wheel devotees. We caravan with them, flowing at similar speeds as them, slowing for them, stopping for them, waiting for them to turn, weaving around them, yelling as they cut in front of us, being waited for by them as we make our turn. We endanger the ones we travel with just by being out there and we drive to protect the group that we travel with by staying clear of them. And we trust that every driver we move down the road with will protect us, stay in their space, obey the road rules, do predictable things and they trust that we will. They don’t, and we don’t — some of the time. We say things and make gestures and hate big SUV’s and little sports cars and fight with traffic and hate road improvements that we will later love and drive serenely on. And sometimes we give ground at an intersection, letting the other car go first, and  we offer a small wave and a smile that passes through two windshields, and in those sane moments of wheeled civility we actually care for our community and we love them.

This week while I was driving down a street in an industrial area I saw a good sized rock lying in the street. I rolled by, felt uncomfortable, turned a corner, spun a u-turn and went back. I wanted to keep an accident from happening. I pushed my emergency flasher, got out, and picked up the rock, except it wasn’t a rock. It was a piece of soft foam like you’d find in a couch cushion. I tossed it past the sidewalk and it bounced softly along the ground. Nothing new here. I got it wrong. No, I didn’t, for I was thinking of the other drivers.

Do we, think of the others? We do, and we do not. We are aghast at what British Patroleum has done to the ocean. But if we drive we are confederate in making things like the Deep Horizon event happen. I hate pollution. I love the rumble of a hot V6 or a big V8. I am ruining the world for future drivers.  I am thinking about the next car I want to buy. When I fill up, I pump oil into the ocean. I hate that. I keep doing that. I am growing  disillusioned with the internal combustion engine. I’ll drive an electric car, if it goes fast and far.

A few years I went to the junk yard to find a chrome tip for one of the dual exhausts on my Mazda RX-7. Some things never change, chrome tips, speed, the use of oil, repairs. It was an eye opener. I saw my car there, many times over. The thing is, it didn’t look so good, the deep layers of dust on the hood and the dash, missing tires, a gaping hole where the door should have been, no hood. Missing pieces changes the look of things. One particular beauty had grass and weeds growing out of the rotted floor board, extending out through the opening for the missing windshield. So this is what it comes too, weeds blocking the view out through the windshield.

The guy leading me through the maze of cannibalized cars stopped to speak to an employee. He said very clearly and carefully, “If I hear any more death threats from you I am going to call the police.”

While I was later waiting at the cash register, to pay for my junk, I kept glancing around the room, anticipating something weird would happen. I imagined a gun in the bosses’ top desk drawer. Cars can bring out the worst in us.

It’s interesting, death threats among the junk. “You little rotters!” Seduction then abandonment and rage.  Here it was in front of me again, what I loved was being obscured by danger and dust.

I drove home reflective.

Yet something remains. I will always love to move. Getting old sucks because I wil begin to go slower and then I will stop where there is no stop sign. But even there at that point of motionlessness, I believe I will move on, without the wheels or maybe with them.

The prophet Ezekiel saw wheels.

“As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the ground beside each creature with its four faces. This was the appearance and structure of the wheels: They sparkled like chrysolite, and all four looked alike. Each appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel. As they moved, they would go in any one of the four directions the creatures faced; the wheels did not turn about as the creatures went.”

Strange, wheels intersecting wheels, beside living creatures. This is a picture of the future, there will be wheels, we will keep moving, the way we face. I am in love with the visions of our friend Ezekiel, I love the living creatures and the sparkling custom wheels, I love the four possible directions, the anticipation of the turn and the bound, the wind carressing the body, the blur at the edges of the vision, the quickly narrowing focus forward, the flying to somewhere different fast — I believe and put my faith in just this thing.

It’s the hope for us, the thrilling, soon coming blast forward.


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