I had removed the back seat, I had left the gas tank nearly empty, pulled all my crap out of the trunk, mixed the carburetor a little rich and pulled off the air filter for good measure.
I did this because I wanted my 1975 Dodge Dart to be faster than Leon White’s 1976 Chevrolet Camaro. We would be testing our manhood … er, vehicles on about a mile-long strip of flat, lonely blacktop that cut through a wheat field and finished with a cemetery on one side of the road and the Reno County Jail on the other side. I am not making that up. It was as if a concerned mom was on the city planning committee, knew what open stretches of road were used for, and appreciated a good metaphor.
It was perfect for drag racing. Here’s how that would go:
We’d bring up the idea at about maybe 4 p.m., two hours before our workday was over at Ferguson Service, a full-service gas station and mechanic in Hutchinson, Kansas. If there wasn’t much work to do, we’d pull our cars into the double bays and tinker a little. You’d want the fuel-air mixture a little rich, and you’d want to eliminate as much weight as possible. Thus the removal of my back seat. And the second the clock struck 6, we’d take our paper time cards, punch them out, lock the doors and head for the road that led to jail.
Once there, you’d have to do a couple burnouts (to warm up the tires; warm tires get better traction).
Lacking any kind of lights or a third person, we’d toe our bumpers up to a mostly imaginary line, put them in drive and, with our feet on the brake, give the engines as much gas as the brakes could handle. This would push the car up on its haunches, like a cat preparing to pounce, and Leon and I would look at each other, side by side, and hold up three fingers … 2 … 1 … GO!
As soon as you release the brake, the car shoots off (hopefully without a burnout, though that’s probably happening most of the time). We never did mark off a quarter mile, so we’d race to a sign that made the race quite a bit longer than the quarter-mile drag standard. For 18-20 seconds, we’re driving our cars literally as fast and hard as they can be driven, foot mashed on the floor, shifting out of second gear at 65 miles per hour, you know, ruining the cars. By the end, we’d be at about 105 miles per hour. And, although these cars were beasts in the quarter mile, with a three-speed transmission geared the way cars were geared in the 70s, when the highway speed limit was 55, 105 miles per hour is about as fast as you can go.
When I was 20, I traded that car to my uncle for a 1992 Subaru SVX. Most people are not familiar with the Subaru SVX. I suspect this is because they are pieces of crap. The SVX was Subaru’s attempt at a high-end sports car. The company’s target demographic was people who wanted a Porsche, but couldn’t quite afford one, but could still afford to spend $25,000 (in 1992 dollars) on a two-door sports car. In modern terms, they were after the Nissan 350Z market.
Anyway, although this car was the result of the Japanese trying their hand at German engineering, it was very fast, but in the opposite way of my Dart. I had read the SVX could reach a top speed of 135 miles per hour.
I checked, and it could.
Then my dad found out I had checked. With my sister in the car.
What comes next I still consider one of the most profound moments of my transformation into manhood, and one of the most perfect lessons my dad ever taught me. He did not rant and rave. He did not try to belittle me. He did not hit me with a guilt trip. He did not even mention the high probability I would have gone to jail if a cop had seen me. He just said the following in that way only dads can, that way that you instinctively understand.
“What you do by yourself is one thing,” he said. “But you can’t do that with other people in the car.”
And that was it*.
*Well, my mom was there later to remind me I could have gone to jail, but that’s what moms are for, isn’t it? To tell you that you could end up in jail.
Maybe it sounds silly that I needed to be told that, but the fact is, I did need to be told that. The profundity in the way my dad handled it was that he did not offend my considerable hubris. Maybe only men can understand this, but at 20 years old, men are unstoppable and cannot be convinced otherwise.
I knew I could safely* drive my car 135 miles per hour and my dad knew I could do that, too, and he knew he could do that and probably even thought that was kind of cool. This is a man who used to street race Camaros in his Hyundai. This is a man who used to do power slides into our driveway. This is a man who gave me my first pocket knife at six and put me behind the wheel of a 1967 Ford Pickup with no power steering at 10 and sent me out by myself with a shotgun to hunt dove at 12.
*You know, relatively.
This is a man who understood the primal value in men doing manly things.
So he did not offend my manly delusions. But in the most subtle way, he revealed to me that there is another side to being a man.
Seven years later, I got married.
People keep asking me if I feel different now that I’m married. I really don’t. I mean, I feel like I have to do the dishes now, which sucks. But I don’t really feel like a different person, except for one thing.
I feel a greater responsibility to not die. This is not to say I ever felt like dying, but it is to say I was the kind of guy who drag raced to the jail and drove his car 135 miles per hour and chased storms over levees and through creeks.
And that was all fun and manly and maybe even necessary, in an odd way. But there is a different side to being a man.
And there’s somebody else in the car with me now.