Sociologists and historians have written at length about the impact that widespread access to automobiles has had on American society.  In the time of prosperity following World War II the access to automobiles now enjoyed by millions of average Americans changed completely the patterns of life of men and women in countless ways, too many to record here and it is not the purpose of this author to record them anyway.  I am writing not a history but a story and this story revolves around the influence that the automobile had on one group of American society and that group is teenage children, and within group one child in particular:  Me.

     It is not an overstatement to write that ownership of a car of one’s own was the holy grail of teenage boys in the 1950’s and first half of the 1960s.  Actual ownership of a car by a kid was still something of a novelty then, but the movies in the 50s and the music of the 60s set that ownership as the apex of desire for any American teen.  “Rebel Without A Cause” was a movie which was released in 1955, and James Dean driving a stolen 1949 Mercury towards a cliff in a game of ‘chicken’ made every kid who watched it long for a ride of his own to go with his leather jacket, his comb for that hair held perfectly in place by some brand of pomade, and Old Spice after shave that would make him irresistibly cool. 

     Brad, my brother, is four years older than me and was deeply influenced by “Rebel”.  The first car which Brad owned was a 49 Merc, the car that James Dean was driving in the movie.  Brad was somewhat boisterous in his youth and he and the car fit into the rebel picture very nicely.  Brad’s Merc was not nice and new and shiny like James Dean’s was however.  The car, which was affectionately nicknamed the ‘Taco Wagon’, had a lot of hard miles on it and needed a good deal of maintenance to keep it running.  Brad was up to the task.  I frequently found Brad in the old wooden garage behind our house with parts of that car spread out all over the concrete floor.  I was amazed then that Brad could keep track of all of those parts, knew how they worked and where they went, and could put them there.

     Not only could Brad manage that feat of auto mechanics magic but so could nearly all of Brad’s friends.  It was expected of a teenage boy that he should be able to maintain a car, even if he didn’t personally own one since many didn’t, and the road to any kind of status ran through a greasy pair of hands.  I was twelve years old the summer that Brad had that car, and technically was not yet a teen.  That was small comfort however since my friends Wes and Larry and Hank were my age and already doing tune-ups and oil changes and stuff like that for their brothers or fathers or other older kids in the neighborhood.  I had neither the ability to screw with cars nor interest in learning how to do so, but I could feel the pressure to conform even then.

     That pressure ratcheted up one day when Brad and four or five of his friends had the Taco Wagon torn apart and were planning to grill some hot dogs or something when they were finished.  The price for a dinner of whatever they were going to cook was a pair of greasy hands, and just grabbing ahold of a crankshaft or sticking one’s hands into the oil pan was not what the older guys had in mind.  I stood by the front fender and looked over it into the yawning cavity that was the engine compartment, then looked at the collection of metal parts and wires and hoses which littered the concrete floor, and knew that there was absolutely nothing I could do that would add in any way to the project at hand.  Brad was not all that keen on a little brother getting under foot anyway, so I made a lame excuse and then quit the building, trying not to hear the chuckles and snickers as I left, and climbed into the tall pine tree in our front yard.  That tree was a place where I hid from the unpleasantness of the world on many occasions in my young life, and it was to that refuge I fled on that day.

     A few years passed and the status of the car in teen life changed but became on weaker.  Music was now the medium by which youth culture expressed and defined itself and that culture was filled with cars.  “Little Deuce Coupe”, “I’ve got a thirty Ford wagon and they call it a woody—“,”She’ll have fun, fun, fun, ’till her daddy takes the T Bird away—“.  Even some little old lade from Pasadena had a muscle car of her own, but what could I do?  Not much.  I loved beach sound music but the Beach Boys sang of their car which had a flat head mill and was ported and relieved and stroked and bored and had a competition clutch with four on the floor and even had lake pipes.  Out of all that stuff I knew what ‘four on the floor’ meant, but to this day I don’t know what all of that other crap was.

     But most of the other guys did.  Peter had a Chevy Malibu with a lot of that high performance stuff.  Gabby had a 55 Chevy and Bruce, of all things, had a slightly beat up but still extremely impressive Corvette.  This gave Peter and Gabby a considerable leg up with the ladies at school and in our neighborhood, and also their closer friends who knew what all of those contraptions were and what they did.  Bruce was such a worm and a loser that he could have had a Ferrari and it would have done him no good.

     There was one thing in life that I could count on, and that was that I would never own a car as a teen.  My father would not let me work to earn the money for a car unless I received straight ‘A’s in the academic classes at my high school, and that was going to happen, like, never.  My consolation prize was that I had a fair amount of access to Dad’s 1963 Mercury Meteor.  That Meteor did not have a competition clutch or any of that other stuff but the little car with the little engine and the automatic transmission gave me mobility, and that was worth gold.  But status, real status, depended upon one’s ability to race, to burn rubber in all four gears, and all of that.  That was not going to happen in Dad’s Meteor.  I did get a microscopic amount of rubber one time however.  I put the shifter into neutral and revved up the engine, and then dropped the shifter into drive.  The little bit of sound which the tires made as they broke traction with the pavement was only slightly more audible than the sound of pain coming out of the transmission.  To this day I wonder why I didn’t leave a trail of broken tranny parts behind us as I rolled down the street, away from the scene of my dubious triumph.

     Many of my friends had no wheels at all, and when I could get the car keys they would all climb in, somewhere away from where Dad could see them, and we would act like we were as cool as the guys with hot cars.  One night we wanted to see a movie at a drive-in theater but most of the guys didn’t have the money to buy a ticket.  I finally arrived at a solution to the problem.  At that time guys with serious muscle cars had the front end lowered while gigantic engines which were stroked and bored and blah blah blah would hiss as they sucked in oxygen that would complete the combustion somewhere in its metal innards and make the car go like a bat out of hell.  I had three or four of the guys climb into the trunk of the car, which lowered the rear end instead of the front, and removed the air cleaner which made the car hiss like Gollum cursing hobbitses as he searched for his precious.  The guy at the ticket booth either didn’t notice or couldn’t believe the idiocy of this obvious bit of subterfuge, but we got into the movie and had a good laugh about the whole thing.

     The teenage love affair with cars had changed by the time I returned home from the Army.  The 60s were bleeding, literally, into the 70s and music was pretty much all about peace, love, revolution and getting high.  Cars were not even on the list of accessories needed to achieve coolness.  In fact, the older and more beat up your car, the more pizzaz it had with the trend-setting counter culture bunch that I identified with.  In those days I drove my old gray 1961 Dodge Lancer with the push button transmission and the evil hiss from a leaking hose somewhere under the hood and felt like I had finally, at long last, come into my own.



Sand Trap

1967 was a very good year for me. I had a girlfriend in that year and this was not something which came along often in my young life. In fact, she was the one and only girlfriend I had during the first twenty one years of my life. Rhonda was the friend of one of my neighborhood pals and we used to all eat lunch together at school. I was quite taken by the extraordinarily pretty Rhonda and hesitated for the longest time to ask her out on a date because of the curse of painful shyness which I endured in those years. When I finally found the courage to ask Rhonda out she accepted, much to my surprise, and we began a relationship which lasted a short but very pleasant while.

As I wrote earlier I was very shy, and just the thought of trying to kiss a girl made my head spin; the prospect of rejection was almost too great to bear. On the other hand I had an easy knack for talking with anyone, and with Rhonda it was even easier than with others. We would talk about our likes and dislikes, plans and dreams, our lives before we met, music, in fact just about anything and everything. I eventually worked up the nerve to try a kiss, and to my surprise and delight I met with success.  None of this ever led to more than a bit of innocent teenage necking, but it was heaven to me. Of course all of this very personal conversation and extracurricular activities required a quiet place of solitude, and that solitude was frequently found parked at the top of Del Cerro hill on what was then the edge of San Diego. A street had been paved over the top of the hill in anticipation of houses that would be built later, but at the time the street is all that there was, and we spent a few evenings there talking about life and plans and sharing a kiss or two.

I have always enjoyed variety however, and so one evening I decided to see if we could find a place to get away from the maddening crowd by going to the beach. I selected Mission Beach to be our hideaway for that evening, which proves that logic was not yet my strong suit. The beach, in a large beach city, is never a place to get away from people. In this case however, those people would save my bacon later that evening. We drove down Mission Blvd., past a closed and darkened Belmont Park amusement center. It seemed like Belmont Park was closed more than open back then, or the wooden roller coaster out of commission by fire or things like that.  Anyway, it was dark that evening and as we drove south on Mission Blvd. it got even darker, but still there were people popping up on sidewalks or paths which led to and from the beach itself. Eventually we came to a dead end at a jetty built out of large, jagged boulders. A dirt road led to the left, and there was nothing but darkness to be seen in that direction, so I pulled in and drove a hundred yards or so down that road in search of the solitude which we desired.

There was, however, no solitude to be found. It wasn’t exactly a parade, but it was summer at the beach in San Diego and any solitude found there would be rare and of short duration. I analyzed the  situation and decided that the heights of Del Cerro was going to have to do, and began to make what was called a ‘Y’ turn in the dirt road rather than return to Mission Blvd. in reverse. That was where I made my big mistake.

The road was narrow but I was sure that I had room to make the maneuver of inching forward and backward, slowly turning the car to the right and eventually making a 180 degree turn. Perhaps I did have the room, but the night was dark, my mind was on other things, and my hand was completely out of aces. At ninety degrees in the road I backed up a foot too far and settled gently into the soft sand of that dark bit of beachfront San Diego. Thinking of myself as a resourceful male I got out of the car certain that I could make everything work out just fine. I walked around to the back of the car and sure enough, the tire was buried in sand up to the hub.

I reentered the car and assured Rhonda that I could get us out of this.  I began to try to rock the car gently by accelerating in drive and then backing off of the gas pedal, hoping that my parent’s Mercury would sort of walk its way out of the trap. This plan was a complete bust; if anything at all the tire sat lower in the sand than before. For the first time since I felt that depressing sink of the rear of the car I registered a twinge of fear.  The car was not going anywhere, and I had no idea how to change that fact.

“How are we going to get out of here?” was Rhonda’s reasonable question.  I concealed my annoyance because I really liked Rhonda a lot.  Besides, I wasn’t annoyed by her question; I was annoyed because I didn’t have a good answer.

“I don’t know.  I’m going to have to think about this”.

We got out of the car and stood disconsolately next to the sunken tire. I had never been in this position before, and had no interest in walking a great distance back to the lighted area where I could find a pay phone and call my father. Dad went to bed early and would be unimpressed with his son stuck in the sand off of a dirt road in a darkened section of Mission Beach with his girlfriend. The thought of explaining myself to Rhonda’s parents gave me little cause for cheer as well.

“Do you need some help?”

I was jolted out of my thoughts by an older guy, maybe in his twenties, and his lady friend, who had approached as I was lost in my reverie. I explained the problem, which was pretty obvious to see, and he stood and thought a minute.

“Let’s get the girls in the back seat for some additional weight and you drive while I push” was his suggestion, and it seemed a pretty good one to me.  The ladies, who were not impressed by the ‘extra weight’ comment, nevertheless piled in and I fired up the Merc once again while my new best friend pushed, but the result was the same.  Before we threw in the towel another couple arrived and soon I had two guys pushing while I drove, but still the Mercury squatted obstinately in the sand.  I exited the car and walked back to where my two new best friends stood discussing the problem.

“How about if we jack the car up and then push it forward?” I proposed.  “We only need a foot or two to be on the solid part of the road.

“You’d probably put that jack through your gas tank” came a voice from behind us. The owner of that voice was a single guy of undetermined age who was carrying a paper bag. “Let’s see what we’ve got here” he said.  Our new rescuer placed his bag on the sand and studied the problem for a minute, and then said “I think we can use that jack after all.”

I raised the trunk lid and extracted my bumper jack, which was the old kind of jack which stood vertically on a square metal plate and attached beneath the car’s bumper.  This newest member of my rescue party placed the jack under the bumper and began to lift the car up.  “Go and get some rocks to put under the tire he said, and we scattered to find stones of the right size, which was not as easy in the sandy area as I would have liked.  We all came back with what we had found and put them as close to underneath the tire as we could get them. He lowered the jack and I tried once again to advance the car out of the sand. The attempt failed and some of the rocks flew out from under the tire, but some of them stayed in place.

“Get more” said the new quarterback of this operation. We scattered to comb the area for rocks, preferably flat ones of just the right size. Several more people out enjoying the evening pitched into the effort and soon we had a nice pile of rocks under the drive tire and I was ready to try to move the car once again.

“Wait a minute” came a voice from the crowd.  “Let’s get some people on the trunk.”  Guys lifted their ladies onto the truck while as many as would fit positioned themselves behind the car to push.  In a moment I shouted “Ready!” and the throng responded “Go!”  I did just that. The tire bit into the rocks while the guys pushed, and with the agility of an arthritic rhino the Mercury lumbered forward onto the solid dirt path.

A cheer went up as I stopped the car, now safe and sound on solid ground.  People were talking and laughing; the men shaking hands. This was 1967;  nobody hugged back in those days. The quarterback with the paper bag retrieved his cargo and pulled a beer out of it and popped it open, toasting to the success of our operation. I thanked everyone profusely and assisted my lady into the passenger seat. With a last round of thanks I climbed into the driver’s seat, put the Merc in gear, and rolled out accompanied by the waves and cheers of our rescuers.  You’d have thought that it was a wedding.

Rhonda and I knew that little in the way of kisses would be enjoyed that night, but there was no shortage of things to talk about. We drove directly to Oscar’s, a drive-in hamburger place on El Cajon Blvd., and soon the drama of the early part of the evening faded as we returned to our role of two teenagers infatuated with each other. Rhonda got home on time, we shared a good night kiss on the front porch, and I got home just before my curfew. The next morning I was up early vacuuming sand out of the inside of the car and checking it over for scratches or dents. There was no physical evidence that anything untoward had happened with Dad’s car the night before and I chose not to share that tale with him. In fact, Dad died almost forty years later without ever hearing that tale. I hope that it’s possible he’s getting a chuckle out of it somewhere right now.

Road Trip, Part IV

Next morning we were up early because we looked forward to a long day of exploring.  Brad was up and had the coffee going before much more than a hazy zone of gray began eating into the carpet of stars over against the eastern horizon, signifying the advance of the sun from its nocturnal hiding place.  I have never liked rising early and to this day consider it an affront that most of the world likes to get going before ten in the morning.  Good coffee made with water from a snow-melt driven stream and the prospect of exploring new territory were, however, inducement enough to pry me from my cozy cot.  I huddled close to the fire to sip my hot, black liquid incentive mostly in silence while Brad puttered around the camp putting things in place for Ginny’s anticipated appearance. Ginny was not long in emerging.  She looked even more pretty than she usually did on this morning; a fact which I ascribed to her love of the mountains the joy at having a basket full of clean clothes, and having taken a shower the evening before.  Ginny was on full-auto when she got out of the camper; all business about getting breakfast on the table and getting back on the road.  Brad made sausage patties while I peeled potatoes.  Ginny heated up the skillets and set the camp table, and soon we had a decent breakfast before us.  Brad and I could eat a truckload of sausage and eggs and potatoes each, so we significantly toned down our intake due to our smallish cooking utensils which were tailored to fit on the Coleman camp stove.  Brad and I cleaned up while Ginny bagged up chips and nuts and other snacks to nibble on while we drove.  The sun was just peeking over the horizon when we all piled into the Mercury to begin our day’s exploring. All of us were primed to see ‘bufflers’.  None of us had ever seen such a creature although all of us had read about them.  At that time bison were just beginning to be shepherded back from the edge of extinction, and so it was a rare opportunity to see one in the wild.  Brad drove so that Ginny and I could devote ourselves exclusively to seeking our almost mythic quarry.  The bison were not immediately forthcoming however.  We craned our necks to see around every curve in the road, but all there was to see was the beautiful scenery of the Black Hills.  Poor us!  Once Brad hollered out “Bufflers!”  Ginny and I looked quickly towards where Brad was pointing but it turned out that Brad was only pointing towards a group of generously-sized tourists.  Ginny hit Brad on the arm but smiled at his joke, and it was as their horseplay was going on that we rolled around a curve and found ourselves nearly face to face with a small herd of bison. I don’t believe there were more than twenty five or thirty of them, but just one would have been breathtaking enough.  The beast closest to us must have been a male, as he towered over the four or five animals nearest to him.  Short horns emerged from a thick, shaggy  carpet of curly brown fur that covered that patriarch of the plains.  We stopped to get a better look and were glad that a fence separated us from him.  The bison’s huge head hung low, hunched between great shoulders in the front of his massive body, which was highlighted by a huge hump which rose up from his back just behind the neck.  It is said that a male bison can weigh up to two thousand pounds, and I believe that this placidly grazing giant weighed every pound of that. I stared at this wonderful creature and thought of the horrifying travesty which nearly led to the extinction of his kind.  American and European ‘sportsmen’ and ‘hunters’ cut those animals down by the hundreds of thousands every year until they were nearly gone from the earth.  Partly this was for their hides or because their bones, collected after the animals rotted on the plains, were ground into fertilizer; partly it was to clear the land of competition for cattle being raised for the eastern market, and partly it was to deny sustenance to the North American Indians who were being subjected to the same project of extinction as was the bison.  My stomach was churning as I looked at that king of the prairie, just as it is churning now by simply remembering the glory of that old fellow and the immoral obscenity that his near extinction represents.  I believe that we still owe a measure of restitution to the bison for the evil that was visited upon them, and to those who depended upon them as well. More pleasant were my thoughts of the Native Americans who really did hunt the bison and used every part of him but the deep grunt that is his voice.  It is hard to imagine riding on horseback into a stampeding herd of hundreds if not thousands of one and two thousand pound animals running at forty miles per hour with no more than a bow and arrows to bring them down.  Even more impressive is the knowledge that before the Spanish introduced horses into the plains these hunts were conducted on foot.  That is not an experience that I would like to ever have to participate in! We watched for a long while as the star of the show grunted softly and chewed the sweet spring grass that was deep on the plains floor, but eventually climbed back into the Mercury and soon were speeding along to our next stop; the Badlands of South Dakota.  Everyone who has ever read a drugstore western paperback novel knows about the Badlands.  They are a maze of canyons winding through a deeply eroded landscape which is barren, sporting only occasional scrubby growth which not even a goat would find palatable.  Infrequent springs of water pop up in these inhospitable ravines and box canyons, and the Native Americans and hardier Anglo Americans knew which ones were bitter and non-potable alkali pools and which would support life.  A small band of Indians or an outlaw or two on the run could hole up in there for a good long while, while the cavalry or a posse would either give up the chase or die of thirst lost in the labyrinth of the Badlands. We drove through on the upland rim of the badlands and would walk on the tops of spurs which would jut out into the tortured hills and valleys.  From observation sites we could look out over the mile after mile of white, chalky terrain, and occasionally hike down a steep trail into the depths of the Badlands.  We never did see a spring, alkali or otherwise, and the area seemed to be devoid of life although the plaques and information boards at the observation sites assured us that life maintained a fragile toehold even in that God-forsaken geography. After a couple of hours of enjoying the Badlands our stomachs began to growl, reminding us of the relatively small breakfast we had enjoyed many hours earlier.  The nearest town to the Badlands is Phillip, South Dakota, and to Phillip we drove in order to find some good country cooking, and that is exactly what we did find.  Even forty five years later I remember the open face roast beef sandwich that I was served; at least half of a cow on a slab of bread with enough mashed potatoes to ski down, all covered with at least a bucketful of rich brown gravy.  I know I gained three pounds in one sitting. Brad and I plowed through the feast that we had been given and even petite Ginny did justice to her portion, and as I sipped the last of my Coke and Ginny and Brad their tea and coffee the pretty young waitress, a college student on summer break, brought us the ticket for the meal and smiled her nicest smile.  Brad reached to take the ticket before I could get it, something we do to this day, and noticed that there was something written on the back.  Peering closely he saw that it was the name and phone number of the waitress.  I thought it odd that she should do that, with Brad obviously sitting next to Ginny opposite myself in that booth, but then I didn’t give it too much thought beyond that.  Brad always was able to navigate relationships with the fairer sex and I was most assuredly not, so I was accustomed to seeing things like that happen. I was always extremely shy when I was young and a bit of that remains to this day, although my friends might not normally be able to see it.  I could not bring myself to indicate to a girl that I had a romantic interest in her lest she decline my advance, which would produce in me the same heart pain that another person might feel at the breakup of a mature relationship, not that I had any idea what such a relationship or breakup would feel like since I had never experienced either.  Still, I knew that it would be paralyzingly painful and as much as I wanted to try, I could never seem to work up the courage to do so until my sixteenth year.  I was in the eleventh grade when I summoned the courage to ask a girl to go with me to a dance.  To my delight and astonishment she said “Yes”.  We hung out together that night and a true boyfriend/girlfriend relationship bloomed.  I loved that time. Patty, a delightful girl from San Diego who had just returned from Texas, where she had lived for a while with relatives, had a soft Texas drawl and was, I thought, the prettiest girl in the world.  For the next couple of months we went to parties or movies or to dinner, and whenever possible made out in the isolated darkness atop the hill in the Del Cerro neighborhood of San Diego. After a couple of months however Patty’s interest in me waned and seemed to orient towards Walter, my best friend, whom she met at a party with me.  Walter was a good friend and would not reciprocate her affections, but it was clear in spite of my attempts to reverse the tide that Patty no longer cared to be in a romantic relationship with me.  It was like a hot knife had been plunged deep into my gut.  I would not attempt any such relationship again for another six years.  The upshot of this sad story is that the possibility that this vital information regarding the pretty young waitress in Phillip, South Dakota, might be intended for me was in my mind such a remote possibility that it did not register on my radar at all.  It was many years later, while daydreaming on a lazy afternoon, that the truth of that event exploded into my mind.  I couldn’t have been more clueless on that day if I had been a rock.  I tried to snatch the ticket away from Brad but he eluded my grasp, and I settled for leaving the tip, or ‘picking up the table’ as we call it.  I am certain that the pretty young waitress was convinced that she had met the biggest loser in the western United States, and, romantically speaking at least, she was right. We had intended to go on to the capitol of South Dakota at Pierre, but at the edge of Phillip we stopped again for gas and again the transmission fluid was low, and this time a little bit lower than it had dropped before.  Brad said that it was still not a problem, but I was beginning to be sensible of the fourteen hundred miles which separated my leaking Mercury from the mechanics I knew and trusted in San Diego.  We decided to cut the day short and return to Wind Cave.  I bought a case of transmission fluid and the special long-necked funnel needed to insert it into where it was supposed to go and we took the straightest route we could find back to our camp in the Black Hills. That evening, as we smoked a couple of joints and quaffed a six pack or two after dinner, I shared my intention to rise early the next morning and begin my journey back to San Diego.  Brad insisted on accompanying me but I insisted with equal or greater force that he and Ginny should continue on their vacation.  They had planned this trip long before I returned from Vietnam and I reasoned that if I survived two years of war I could probably manage a solitary trip back to San Diego.  Brad finally agreed and I know that Ginny, whom I was growing to like very much, was worried for me but glad that their trip would continue.  We had only eaten soup and sandwiches that evening as it would take a four month hibernation to properly digest the inexcusable piles of food that we had slammed down for lunch, and we bedded down after showers to enjoy our last night together on this road trip.