Sunday, August 1, 2010
I'll Take You Riding in Somebody's Car Car
The sad truth is it was expected of him. His role in life had been typecast. He was the fowl up and ne'er-do-well. His mother had twice been married. He was the issue of the first go around, which ended in divorce. The Kid didn't know much about that history then, he learned that later from his own mother. How much did the trauma of the divorce and then the remarriage that gained him a step-father have on his school history and his surly demeanor? Rich had half-siblings, Brother and Sister. His step-father doted on the girl, his mother doted on the brother.
Even in front of The Kid and others, Rich would be upbraided by his parents, often with the refrain, "Why can't you be more like your brother?" It wasn't conducive to self-worth, it was debilitating. His brother could do no wrong, he could do no right. What ever Brother did was praised beyond its worth while nothing Rich attempted ever met approval. His interests, no matter how worthy, were never encouraged; in fact, were often denigrated. His ideas and plans were ignored, called stupid or he was told he wasn't smart enough to achieve them.
While the adults practically addressed Brother as Saint, behind their backs he was a sneak and a manipulator. Brother knew when to mock them and he knew when to fawn all over them and in their view he was the perfect good son, respectful to a fault and sweet as saccharin (and just as artificial). Examples were family visits to the grandmother, trips on which The Kid was sometimes shanghaied along. Brother would bound in beaming, full of smiles and hugs, and in return for his mendaciousness, his grandmother always had a special gift for him. Although usually something for Sister as well, never a gift for Rich, she almost didn't even acknowledged his presence. Rich in turn remained aloof in the background, usually silent and sulky. And afterwards, in an adult free world, Brother would smirk and brag about how he was grandma's favorite, Rich would frown and threaten.
Sometimes Brother's taunts would lead to blows. Rich would win, being the older and the bigger, but even this worked against him, for Brother would run to mom or dad and Rich would be banished to his room and castigated. Brother would stand to the side and smile. This act played out before The Kid in more than one instance.
Such constant calling a child bad or dumb has self-fulfilling tendencies. Rich decided if he was the bad guy then, by golly, he would to be a bad ass, a tough dude, a J.D. He walked with a swagger, he cursed royally and smoked out of sight of mom and dad. At Grandmother's he would excuse himself to take a walk and steal hubcaps off parked cars, but somehow he never broke through to being accepted as one of "those guys" by the guys who were. How could he ever truly be a Greaser when his best friend was The Kid?
Rich had his demons, a true dark side that troubled The Kid, but we'll talk about that another time.
The true devil was Brother. Brother constantly worked to get Rich in trouble and he could be irritating to friends as well. There was a mischief in him that he enjoyed just for mischief's sake. Sometimes he was just a joker who didn't know when to stop, other times he was a plain thief.
One day The Kid was home alone. He was lying in the tub reading. He found it peaceful and relaxing to sit covered with the warm water and read. Even as a little boy he had like taking baths. The long running gag is that parents can't get their Dennis the Menaces into the tub. With The Kid the difficulty was getting him out. He loved to take baths. As a child he would happily have stayed in the tub all night, playing with his toy ships, pretending they were pirates on the prowl. Now, at fifteen, he enjoyed soaking for an hour with a good book.
There was a knocking on the side door. No one who knew his family ever came to the front door, it was too close to the highway. They always knew when salesmen and strangers knocked for these came to the front, rapping on the side door meant it was someone known. The Kid got out of the tub, patted himself partially dry, tied the towel about his waist and went to see who was rapping. He went dripping through the living room, through to the dining room to its window and peeked out. The Brother and Sister stood on the top step and Brother knocked again. It was unusual for Brother and Sister to come to The Kid's house without Rich, but here they were.
The Kid went through the kitchen to the enclosed back porch and let them in. He led them back through the rooms, saying it would take him a minute to go get dressed, but part way through the dining room Brother suddenly grabbed and ripped off his towel. The Kid's reacted by turning and grabbing the towel in an effort to pull it away from Brother, but then realizing Sister was standing there staring at him, all of him, he dashed away through to his bedroom to dress. When he reemerged he found the Brother sitting in an easy chair laughing and Sister giggling behind her hand.
Another time somewhat later when The Kid had his driver's license, Rich, the brother and he stopped at a drugstore in the nearby town. He and Rich made a purchase at the counter while Brother wandered about the aisles. After they left and drove from the lot, Brother began displaying the loot he had shoplifted from the store. The Kid was furious. He told the Brother that was never to happen again when they were with him; after all, if the brother had been caught they all would have been in trouble. The Kid and Rich would have been accused of being shills to distract the clerk while Brother did his dirty work.
But in the semester year 1956-57 neither The Kid nor Rich had a driver's license. That minor detail didn't keep them off the roads.
Rich's and The Kid's parents had also become close friends. Both men were truck drivers, although The Kid's dad drove the big rigs long distance and Rich's dad drove a dump truck locally. Still there is a fraternity among Teamsters. Rich's dad hauled gravel during the days from a quarry site to where ever it was to be delivered. In winter he hitched a large plow to the front and worked for the county salting and plowing snow covered roads when and where needed.
Every Saturday night the parents and a group of their friends met at Rich's house and then went out to some favorite bar for the evening together. Their practice was to all pile into one car and leave the other cars behind, often with the key in the ignition. Rich and The Kid knew this and Rich and The Kid knew the grownups wouldn't be home until after the bar closed at two AM.
What's a couple of teenagers supposed to do?
Not what they did.
About a half-hour into the evening home alone, they would check the autos left behind. There was always one with a key. People were a lot more trusting in the 'fifties. Car doors were never locked. Let the joy ride begin. (Besides, The Kid knew his folks kept a spare key in the ashtray and Rich knew a his dad's spare keys hung on a nail in the kitchen.)
They would take off and ride about the back roads. The "they" besides Rich and The Kid was often Brother and sometimes another friend. Sometimes it was just Rich and The Kid. They might stop at a popular drive-in restaurant called Rock's or they might take a spin through the nearby town, dragging through the gears at each traffic light. Once when it was just The Kid and Rich they stopped late in the evening at a girl's house on the edge of town. She was home alone as well and just gotten ready for bed, calling down from an upstairs window when they knocked. They implored her to take a ride and she did, dressed in her baby doll pajamas as they drove up the main street and stopped at another drive-in for milkshakes. This was called Tropical Treat and was one of an extinct breed where you ordered over an intercom and girls on roller skates came and hung a tray with your food on your side window.
These trips didn't always go smoothly.
Once they took one of the cars and had a nice long ride through the countryside until they decided it was time to get back home. Rich drove this time and he pulled off the road into a narrow wagon trail between a cornfield and a fencerow. That was when it was discovered the car had no reverse. They had to push the vehicle out on to the road.
Another time they didn't take a car, they took the dump truck and drove to a place in town to buy hoagies. Coming back Rich hit a pothole and there was a load thud as something big fell off the truck. They never did find out what.
But these were minor instances, easy to cover up by playing dumb. Not like the night they took the Studebaker.
The Kid's dad had been a loyal Studebaker guy for years. At the time he had a 1953 coupe, blue in color. Studebaker was a car often ahead of its time. The company was founded in 1852 by five brothers from Germany. They manufactured wagons. They built there first cars in 1902 and these were electric. They would be the in-thing today, they only beat the Volt by what, 108 years? They brought out their first gas powered vehicle is 1912 and for the next 50 years were known for quality and reliability within the automobile industry. The brothers were Dunkers (that is Dunkers, not, not drunkers) a religion that didn't believe in war. One of the brothers left the company when Studebaker began building vehicles for the military. The Kid had a 1960 Studebaker Lark when he got married, a car called "ingeniously-designed" when it was introduced in 1959. The company introduced the futuristic Avanti sports car in 1963, but it wasn't enough; they disappeared from the scene in 1967.
The Studebakers of the early 1950s didn't follow the boxy tread of other cars. They had a kind of sporty, low slung, low center of gravity look. A factor that probably saved Rich and The Kid's skin that night.
They had driven up a long hill on Grubb's Mill Road. The Kid was at the wheel and when they crested the hill he was doing perhaps fifty. Now the road was all downhill for a couple of miles and the route featured a series of sharp S-curves, more like a series of 90 degree corners that had drop offs to one side.
The Kid hit the brake to slow the car as they approached the first of these and the pedal went to the floor, but nothing else happened. The car did not slow, instead it continued to pick up speed on the sloping road.
This was not good. The first sharp turn was looming.
The Kid pulled the emergency brake practically into the back seat, but this did nothing.
" Fellows," The Kid yelled (this was a night both Brother and a friend had joined them in their car nabbing) "we have no brakes!" Yes, it was said with an exclamation point at the end.
One of the others laughed. They thought he was kidding.
"No, really!!" (Yes, two exclamation points.)
There aren't enough explanation points for the screams in the car as The Kid whipped the wheel around the first of the S-Turns or fought through all that followed. The only thing that kept them on that road was the Studebaker's low center of gravity.
It seemed like they drifted for miles before the car came to a stop.
But the nightmare was not over. Eventually the grownups would come home and The Kid and his parents would be getting into that car with absolutely no brakes. Rich lived on a hill. The drive from his house took a large dip and dead ended into a major highway at the bottom. There was a steep and deep embankment across from it. The highway curved on one side making it a hidden lane to any traffic coming that way, which was the near lane.
The kid crawled into the back seat and slid down low. He could say nothing for how could he possibly know the car had no brakes? They started off, then hit the dip. His mother was screaming and the tires were screeching as his dad somehow made the turn. No oncoming traffic came, probably because it was nearly three o'clock in the morning and they got home safely.
The Kid never told his parents about that night until 34 years later at their fiftieth wedding anniversary party. The passage of time and gathering of guests made him feel safe in finally confessing.