This is a very rough draft of ON HE RODE — Chapter Thirty-Three

One thing about owning an old car is that it gives you a good excuse to spend hours poking around wrecking yards, archaeological sites of great interest and value as repositories of automotive truth. Having just excised two adjectives from that sentence, I’m wondering whether to put them back in and whether I should find a replacement for “truth”? Mark Twain says that regarding the adjective, when in doubt, leave it out. OK then. At least for now. Did Mr. Clemens have anything to say about abstract nouns?

Every one of those rusting hulks piled in careless disarray, oozing petroleum, shedding metal, rotting upholstery and tires has been the repository of dreams and schemes. Remember your first car and how it opened up just about every possibility for an exciting entrance into adulthood? You could go anywhere anytime. You could blast loud rock ’n roll with all the windows rolled down. You could cruise the countryside with your hand spread casually across your girlfriend’s warm thighs. Or chug beer late at night with your buddies heading for some vague, indefinite destination. When you can go anywhere, it can be hard to decide.

“A hundred bottles of beer on the wall . . . hey, where we going anyway?”


“Portland where?”

“Oregon, dumb fuck. Where’d you think, Maine?”

“I meant Van fucking couver.”

“Vancouver, Oregon?”

“No, Vancouver, Idaho, numbnuts.”

“Let me out. I gotta piss.”

“I can’t stop here. Roll down the window.”

“Can’t he wait ’til Portland?”

“Who said we were going to Portland?”

“We all said.”

“I didn’t say. Can’t you piss in a fucking bottle?”

In other words, life as an independent part of an aggregate community didn’t really start until you got wheels. Then it came on so fast you could barely keep up. And then you couldn’t keep up.

Things happened. Girlfriends got pregnant, marriages took place. Cars skidded out of control, funerals were held. Things kept happening so fast in my world that I would be forced to postpone acquiring my badge of successful entry into the adult world, my first new car. Indefinitely, as they say. Which meant I would not be seen as a successful adult. Ever. Even postponement meant failure. Can’t even buy a new car? What kinda man are you?

But wait. I’d do better than that. I’d buy an old car in really good shape and maintain it impeccably, even improve it as time went by with technological and aesthetic enhancements as they seemed appropriate and became available. It would be the only car I ever owned from that time on. Certainly that would be a more responsibly adult way of doing things than calculating the future resale value of the new car you feel obligated to buy every two or three years. What was wrong with the “old” car? Nothin’. It was old.

Anyway, here I am in 1968 guiding a 1951 automobile through sere and solitary West Texas desert at the leisurely pace caution seems to demand. I do not want car trouble in these bad-boy badlands. Bad enough that I’m about the only car on the road, it could very well get worse. Two-way wrist radio might well come in handy out here. Where’s Dick Tracy when you need him?

Poking my way down the long, straight highway at a steady fifty mph gives plenty of room to ponder, even meditate on the state of my adulthood, my manhood, as measured by the state of my vehicle, which seems a bit problematic. Suppose I do manage to nurse her along all the way through Texas, up to Boston, and all the way back across the continent to Puget Sound? What then?

Inside the glove box I do not carry White Ox gloves, a flashlight, a fire extinguisher, or a Swiss army knife, but I do have the original 1951 bill of sale saying my car was purchased new for a little more than twelve hundred dollars, a packet of Riz-La rolling papers, and a small box of wooden matches, not strike-anywheres.

The locking catch on the glove box door came from a light green 1953 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 and, like many General Motors parts, was easily interchangeable among most GM vehicles. I had only to try my Chevy’s ignition key on wrecked Buicks, Caddies, etc. until I found a match, the green Olds. It fit perfectly, giving me the luxury of glove box security. A small detail, perhaps, but not insignificant when one considered that any embellishment I could make would carry with it the gravitas of personal history and the satisfaction of creating my own custom transport, different from and better than anything on showroom floors. Mine, all mine.

Sitting in the musty front seat of that long-dead Oldsmobile, I was struck by the similarity of its windshield and dashboard layout to my cherry Chevy. It had upgraded versions of all the same stuff, speedometer, gas, oil, and temperature gauges, etc. laid out in a similar pattern on the same scale. Would this be the same GM body as my Chevy, and, if so, would its curved, one-piece windshield be the perfect replacement for the curved, two-piece windshield in my Chevy? And wouldn’t that be a subtle but substantial upgrade to the Kustom Kar it would take my lifetime to Komplete? Eat your heart out, George Barris. Your help won’t be required on this job.

As it turned out, I never had the time or the courage to remove the windshield, a job I could see going tragically wrong in a lot of different ways. But so far I had managed to replace faulty locks, install really cool seat covers, mount 7.10 X 15 whitewalls instead of the original 6.70 X 15’s, and replaced the original engine with a stronger Power Glide mill from a ’52 Chevy. Perfect fit.

Who knows what other changes might have taken place if I’d stuck with Plan A? Who knows what this inherently improvisational Plan B might suggest? Whatever it is, I’ll receive it through vision provided by the two-piece curved windshield installed at the factory.

It is through this venerable portal that I now perceive what appears to be a family picnic out here in the heat and sand. Or an emergency potty stop? Or maybe a more serious emergency is revealing itself as I slowly pass the new Ford Country Squire station wagon with its tailgate and passenger doors open, the family gathered around the right rear fender with looks of dismay. Anything I can do to help?

I stop a hundred feet or so up the road and start backing up in the right-hand lane. You can see for miles in every direction. We’re all alone out here.


Mahalo for reading!

Talk story

  1. Fred Peyer says:

    This is good Jim. I want to, no I must, know what happened after you backed up to that new Ford!
    Kind of reminds me of MY first car, a Citroen 2CV. Look it up, it was one heck of a great car. Only two cylinders, but really fast downhill with the wind from the back….

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