It was a crisp fall day in 1994 when the argument started. It was the sort of argument you’d expect from boys in their early teens- a heated yelling match over weather or not you could hit a guard rail at highway speeds and survive. Certain parties asserted that hitting any kind of barrier at high speeds would be lethal. Others maintained that with the right amount of finesse, one could harmlessly kiss the rail with the side of the car, and drive away as though it never happened.
“No, Stupid- the rail dents and then you hit the flat part in front of you, and then you die!”
“No, dummy- not if you’re good.”
“Don’t call me “dummy,” idiot!” And just like that, the fists would fly.
The argument erupted anew every time we watched an action movie. For years. (It should be noted that as car accidents go, we were quite an experienced bunch of 11 year olds. But our town simply doesn’t have guard rails. Accidents here involve moose, snowbanks, and ATVs in the oncoming lane.)
Eventually, Sam and I drifted apart, as childhood friends so often do, and that argument faded into memory as did our other adventures. ( Ok, well- several are preserved for all time in police reports, but you know what I mean.)
By happy accident, Sam and I crossed paths again almost a decade later, and became fast friends a second time. Shortly thereafter, Sam’s beautiful new truck threw a rod and destroyed itself. He loved that truck, and desperately wanted to fix it, but having been without a vehicle for the better part of a year, he was finally forced to seek other options.
Here in Maine, we have a local publication called “Uncle Henry’s.” It’s the predecessor to “Craig’s list.” The Uncle Henry’s is published weekly, and is available at every gas station in the state for 2 bucks. People sell everything in Uncle Henry’s. Airplanes, tools, assault rifles, cars, slightly used wedding rings… the list goes on and on. It’s a great little book. And much more up-and-up than Craig’s list. So when a thoroughbred Mainer like Sam needs a used car on a budget, there’s only one place to turn.
He tore through the used car section every week as though it were his Job. He was looking for what we call a “beer wagon.” Priced in the 300-dollars-or-less range, a beer wagon has to be good on gas, and reliable. All else is optional. Extra points if it looks legal going down the road.
Several months of searching later, Sam called me one night after dinner and said that he’d found one. It was a Ford Escort made sometime in the 1800’s, with a rotten frame and some patched body work that allegedly ran well. Asking price was 350 bucks. Sam said he intended to offer 250. But it was down in the southern part of the state, six or eight hours away, round trip. He asked me if I was up for the ride.
“when are you going?”
“When can you be here?”
Off we went. What a gem she turned out to be. We inspected it thoroughly, to make sure Sam was getting his 250 bucks worth of car. The body had been patched in several places with roofing tin and pop rivets. But there were only a few cigarette burns in the ceiling, And those holes in the floor were covered nicely by the carpet. There wasn’t much of the frame left, but the clutch was descent. Plus, the smell became bearable with the windows down, and she fired up when you turned the key. We shrugged at each other. The car purred like a kitten. Sam counted out the bills.
We had done the math on the way down- if she got 25 miles to the gallon, and if Sam was able to drive it to work and back for three months, she’d pay for herself in saved fuel. Better still, whenever it died, we could always take it to the scrap yard. It was worth 250 bucks in scrap iron alone. This thing was a steal!
But it surprised us all. A year and a half of mistreatment later, that little car was still running strong. Despite Sam’s somewhat acrobatic driving tendencies, and my habit of hitting it with my truck every time I saw it, “the little escort that could” just kept on tickin’.
Sam works at a boat shop. One day they separated all the ethanol from the gas in all the outboard engines, so that they’d run better. This left them with 5 gallons of straight ethanol. Sam dumped it into the fuel tank. She gurgled her way merrily down the road on it, so long as you kept the RPMs just a bit higher than normal. Y’know- like, up by the redline. What a great little car.
Sam was following me through town one night. It had become his custom to stop his car by rear ending my truck instead of hitting his brakes. Which was hilarious the first five or six times. Then I needed to figure out some way retaliating. So I put some distance on over the next stretch. I stopped like normal. I waited, hand on the shift column, nerves taught. I waited… waited… choosing my moment carefully. He was a fifty yards out, and coming in hot. Now.
I slammed my truck into reverse and floored it, headed his way. I smiled and pressed my head into the headrest so I wouldn’t get whiplash.
I thought for sure that impact would’ve destroyed the radiator on the little car. I got out to survey the damage. My poor ol’ truck had wound up on Sam’s hood, the bumper resting half way to the windshield. The hood had a few new scars, but the car was unphased. Sam laughed as he got out of his car, a fresh steering-wheel-shaped knot on his forehead. “Dude- you got me good.” we stood there laughing in the middle of Main street for a few minutes until Sam wasn’t dizzy anymore, and then we decided we should leave before the cops arrived.
And so it went. We hammered around for months as though the entire state of Maine was our private demolition derby arena. Neither one of us had cell phones, so you never knew when the other guy was in the neighborhood. You’d just be quietly pulling into the grocery store or sitting at a red light, when SMASH. You’d been T-boned by your smiling best friend, who laughed his ass off and backed away at top speed without so much as a wave. It was a wonderful game. It made running errands so much more exciting.
A month later, Sam’s poor “race-court” started running a little rough. Sam pulled over, slipped it into neutral, and pinned the gas pedal to the floor for a few minutes, letting the engine scream for a while. “That oughtta do.” He said, letting her idle back down. She ran smooth. That little car was amazing.
Oh- I forgot to tell you: She was a standard. Back then, I didn’t know how to drive one. Sam called me one day from work, and asked me to drive some metal to the scrap yard for him. I told him that gas would cost too much in my truck. He told me to take the car. I pondered for a moment. “You know I can’t drive a standard, right?” He laughed a bit over the phone. “Don’t be a wuss. What could possibly go wrong?” There was a certain soundness to his logic that I couldn’t deny. I mean, it was only a hundred miles to the yard. What a great way to learn to drive a stick!
But there was a problem. ok- there were several. But the most pressing one was that Maine is particularly hilly. I decided I’d just have to drive it like Sam. I left rubber behind with every gear change. So what if I rolled back a few miles when I went to start on a hill. Details, details. The radio worked just fine. Life was good.
…right up until I got into town. I hit the first red light. A tractor-trailer pulled up behind me and nestled up to my bumper. Balls. Traffic stacked up behind him. Damn. So much for my great day.
At this point in the story, you all need to know that I frequently find myself on unexpected expeditions that last for days. I often leave with nothing more than the clothes on my back. This means that I have to keep the clothes on my back well stocked with gear. I always wear cargo pockets, and I sort of live out of them. I take LOTS of gear every time I leave the house. But- the point here is simply this: massive, bulging cargo pockets. All the time.
…Including this particular day on the way to the scrap yard. So:
There I was: Sitting in traffic, in a car I couldn’t really drive, first in line at a red light, and the 18 wheeler behind me taking up every inch he can get next to my bumper. Eff.
I practiced my mantra. Slow down. Breath. It’s flat here. You can do this. Screw it- what could go wrong? Gas, clutch, pray… I got this. I pulled the stick all the way over to my leg, and drove it forward into first gear. Ok. I’m ready. Time to face the music.
The light went green. Extra revs now, be sure not to stall. I let the clutch out slow. It started to grab. I gave her a touch of gas. It felt right (for a second or two). The car started rolling forward, gaining momentum. I was getting excited, and then… disaster. The car hitched and bucked violently for a few feet, and quit. Traffic breathed a collective “fuck.”
Damn. And I was so sure I had done my clutch work right that time.
Alright. Nobody died. No big deal. A bit embarrassing, but a traffic jam is a minor thing. Try again. I sighed and started the car a second time. I drove the stick back into first gear, hard against my leg, and tried again.
I quickly failed a second time. And a third, and a fourth, and a fifth in rapid succession. Now I was smack in the middle of the intersection, blocking all four directions of travel. And the light switched back to red. This was no time surrender. Traffic lights be damned. Traffic began nervously flowing around me. The truck driver behind me angrily ground his gears and spouted smoke as he roared out past.
Oh, how I swore.
At this point, I was equally frustrated and confused. I had done it right. I know I had. But the damned thing wouldn’t work. I began to roar.
Well, there’s no quitting now. At the very least, I had to get her out of the road. There was only one thing to do. I’d show this little friggin’ car. I braced myself, gathering the calm before the storm. I checked the stick. Neutral. I drove it into my leg, hard enough to bruise; and screaming obscenities, I slammed the stick forward into first gear. I put the hammer down. I let her tachometer bounce on the red line for a while. I let that little car SCREAM. I was going to depart the intersection, and I was going to leave most of the tires on the road being me. The engine wailed. People stopped and stared. I tightened my grip on the steering wheel and exhaled. I dumped the clutch.
I had been expecting to rocket out of that intersection in a blaze of screeching rubber and road rage. Instead, She gave me ten whole feet before she tried to rattle my teeth out. We came to a violent halt as the light -now directly over my head- turned green again. I was speechless.
I sat there blinking at the steering wheel. Horns honked. I was no longer the only one getting angry. Ok- new plan. There was a parking lot to my right. And it had a slight downhill grade. I lurched my way into it, ten feet at a time, and rolled. Ok. Now I’m moving! I’ll keep my speed up, drive along in circles until the light gives me my turn, and then rocket off into the travel lane! Great plan!
I pulled the stick down into second gear, still rolling down the hill. I held the clutch in and started the car. Still rolling, I gave second gear a try. Bad things happened.
Ok. Well, time to think this through a bit. Perhaps the car had died. I mean, I was confident it wasn’t my clutch work at this point. I mean, even I can’t screw up gravity. The damned thing wouldn’t even go down hill. Perhaps it was time to call Sam and tell him his car sucked. But it was so strange- it was running fine; the clutch was working fine. Were the gears all there? I ran through them with the car off.
1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th… wait a sec. Where the hell had 5th and reverse gone? I leaned over to look, and discovered new depths of self loathing. My cargo pocket had bulged its way over the slots for first and second gear. I had been starting in third! Once I figured that out, turned out I could drive a standard, after all…
Mysteriously, the car lost third gear a few weeks later. I have no idea why…
But don’t you worry, dear reader- Sam kept driving it. Turns out you don’t actually need third gear for anything, if you’re willing to rev the shit out of 2nd and drop her in 4th from there.
But then, a few months later, the car also mysteriously lost 1st. So, Sam did what any man would do. He drove it harder, and made it work. Starting in second, revving his way into 4th, and pretending all was well.
Until, strangely enough, the clutch started going. Can’t imagine why…
So one day, my phone rings. Sam was hugely excited about something. “Remember how we used to fight about what would happen when you hit guardrails!?”
“Yeah. What about it?”
“You… Well, I was following my wife home tonight… and… you won’t believe this… I… well… look- How soon can you be here!?”
I made the 60 mile trip to Sam’s in record time.
Sam was still stuttering with excitement when I arrived. We hopped in what was left of the car, and off we went.
It was a mile or two to the first guardrail. It was a long one, though- several hundred yards long. We were doing 65 when Sam crossed the white line and gracefully met the metal on the other side. There was a bit of a bump and a grinding sound, and occasional sparks flying up past my window. We ground down the entire length of the rail. It was shockingly gentle. I have seldom laughed so hard. Sam repeated his performance on every rail for the next 20 miles and back. “I told you.” He said. My face hurt from laughter. We howled.
On the way back, Sam pulled into a detour. “Where are we going now?” I asked, still gasping for breath from the laughing fit “…There’s no guardrails down here”
“No…” he said, casually “There’s something else I want to show you before the car dies.” we drove quietly for a 10 miles or so down the back roads, quietly toasting the car’s achievements and longevity in the face of it’s tortured existence. “hey-” Sam started, breaking the silence- “Can you believe those airbags never deployed?” I was incredulous. “This thing doesn’t have airbags. First of all, it was built in the late stone age, and second, they’d have gone off a million times by now!” “No, really-” Sam said “She’s got airbags. I turned mine off, because I figured it was just a matter of time, and I didn’t want it to go off. I hate driving away from the scene with those fuckin’ things in my face. But the passenger side one? That should have cooked. Maybe we never quite hit it hard enough. These old cars’ bags can be a little hard to set off…” I pondered it for a while, and we fell silent, each meditating on great car crashes of the past.
We pulled into the parking lot for the town boat ramp, which was lined with huge coping stones; massive blocks of rough hewn granite, 3-5 feet square. They must’ve weighed several tons a piece, each of them looking like a not-so-miniature rock of Gibraltar. Sam pulls into the short parking lot going about 25 and smiling innocently. As we pull in, he quietly throws his head over his shoulder and looks at me with a little grin on his face. He pointedly examines my seat belt buckle, (which was fastened, of course.) looks back up at me, and worldlessly goes back to the wheel.
We are now doing 30 miles an hour across a tiny parking lot, and I notice that Sam is also buckled in. Sam never buckles in. My heart sank. Sam line up the approach, never tapping the brakes. I sighed heavily. Coping stones.
The crash was monumental. 30 miles an hour may not sound like much; but let me tell you, dear reader- it’s shockingly violent. I wound up in Sam’s lap, both of us howling with laughter. Somehow, I’d gotten tangled in my seatbelt, which I was still wearing, despite being on the wrong side of the car. It had spooled out comically and done nothing to restrain me. One of my boots was out the passenger window, the other had finally popped through rust hole on the floorboard. My head was resting on the driver’s side arm rest, and the rest of me was sprawled across Sam’s lap (he was laughing so hard I thought he was going to piss himself, so I really needed to get up. I was too wound up in my seatbelt to go back the way I had come, so I wriggled my way out the driver’s side window, kicking the hell out of Sam on my way by. He never stopped laughing. “The look on your face!” he roared, tears streaming down his cheeks.
I stood trying to gather myself, but couldn’t. There had been people on the boat ramp, who now stood slack jawed, watching us. I wandered over to the front of the car to survey the damage, still convulsing with laughter and adrenaline. The coping stone had been slid back several feet, and the hood of the car was nicely crumpled. The bumper stuck out from underneath at a strange angle. Miraculously, there were no fluids. I thought for sure the radiator would have been burst, but no. Goddamned car was amazing. People were starting to converge at the scene. “…we gotta go…” sam said quietly, trying to wipe his cheeks. Finally putting it all together, I staggered back to Sam’s window. “YOU FUCKER!” I roared, pointing a finger and grinning ear to ear. “Dude-” he laughed “…I *had* to check that airbag. I had to know. Can you believe that fuckin’ thing was broken this *entire* time!?” We both had a laugh. “…No, man- seriously. We need to leave. They have cops in this town.” Still not thinking straight, I bailed headlong into the driver’s side window, climbing over Sam again, en route to the passenger side. I was still head down in the passenger seat, my boots out the driver’s window when Sam slammed it into reverse and tore away.
His wife never even asked us about the front of the car. We just pulled in the driveway (in 4th gear, because it was all we had left), and went back to the dinner party like nothing had happened.
And that, dear reader, is why I’ll never own a new car. They just don’t make ’em like they used to…