Aside

M’uncles, Muscle and Merica: Why cars aren’t just cars

 

FarmHouse

That’s the house where we did it, right there. It’s an old Kansas farmhouse, boxed in on three sides by crops and on the fourth by a stretch of US-50 three miles east of Burrton, Kansas. My dad grew up in that house. He’d take my mom on motorcycle rides out to there.

DadPheasant

 

MomTruckFarmKids

That house has always been the gravitational center of Corcoranism as I know it. In 90 or 91 a tornado took the roof off it, Grammy moved into town and my uncle Shaun took over the farm, which made sense. Of all my dad’s brothers, m’uncle Shaun is the one that most evokes the memory of my grandfather, George, who died before I was old enough to know him. When Grammy died my family moved into her in-town house. That’s the house of my high school years. I waxed my old 67 Dodge at that house and took it to prom. My parents still live there.

The car had been sitting in their garage for 15 years. My dad bought it for me for $1,250 when I was 15, and it needed a lot of work. Engine, transmission, paint, interior. This was a project car. We bought it from some stupid rednecks at this dusty salvage yard where these morons would do things like take body panels off a Pontiac and fit them to an El Camino. On the car I bought they had the fuel line running into a Dr. Pepper bottle. That allowed them to start it just long enough to prove the motor wasn’t seized up.

We towed it home using a truck and trailer we borrowed from muncle Kim’s metal fabrication business. My dad has worked for him in Burrton for about 23 years now. On the way, Dad wanted to keep my expectations reasonable.

“Don’t expect it to be done the first day of school,” he said.

Well we started in on it right away. Dad and I re-did the brakes and cleaned out the gas tank and put a brand new set of tires on it – fatter ones on the back.

I cleaned the interior a few times those first few months. I didn’t have any money, but I was too excited to just let it sit there without getting fiddled with. This was my thing. I knew just how I wanted my car to look and sound. I had pages in the parts catalog earmarked. It was going to be those wheels and these valve covers and that intake manifold. What I did all day as a 10-year-old boy was look at hot rod magazines and parts catalogs. I can’t claim that part of my interest in these magazines and the culture at large was totally unconnected to the bikini babes that turned up in these magazines. Consciously, my interest in cars was about the cars, but as I examine it now it seems impossible to remove a sense of sexuality from American car culture without changing that culture in a fundamental way. You often hear rock musicians say the reason they picked up a guitar in the first place was that chicks seemed to dig guys who played guitars. American men have a similar association with cars that sometimes manifests itself in hamfisted ways.

HotRodBinini

Dad worked with a guy who subscribed to Car Craft and Hot Rod and a bunch of other magazines like that. When he was done with them he’d send Dad home with a box of old magazines for me. Well, to me a box of hot rod magazines was a year’s worth of entertainment and a precious source of information. I kept them all in a trunk that filled up in chunks, like a suburb. When I came across an article I thought would help me in the future – painting tips, horsepower helpers, brake jobs – I would clip it out like a recipe and put it in a file labeled “car ideas.”

That was data storage, baby. This was way before the Internet arrived at the Corcoran household.We lived in a 90-year-old transplanted farm house with no air conditioning. It had been built without accommodations for running water, so the bathroom was an aftermarket job. It was a long time before we even got an answering machine. We made do, is how you’d put it.

I owe a good deal of my interest in old cars to my cousins, Torey and Tyler, who lived in Burrton. As kids, an unfair world denied us driver’s licenses, so we souped up bicycles instead. We learned how just by trial and error. You could change the way your BMX performed by changing the sprocket ratio or lengthening the stroke on the pedals. The principles of locomotion reduced to their core. Torey was the oldest, and when he got to be about 12, he started mowing lawns. With that money and a loan from his parents, he bought a brand-new riding lawnmower, which as far as I can remember he used mainly as a loophole in the driver’s licensing laws.

ToreyMower1

Burrton is a zero-stoplight town, so it wasn’t scandalous for three pre-teen boys to hook up a little wooden flat-bed trailer to that lawnmower, toss our bikes on it and go joyriding around town looking for dirt piles to ramp off. Bigger the better. Sometimes we’d drive it up to Phil Hoskinson’s service station and buy a candy bar and a pop. That would cost 75 cents. Phil always jollied with us about what we were up to. Once he told me about the time way back when that he outran the cops in his 55 Chevy. The trick was a switch that would allow you to turn off your taillights while the headlights stayed on. Then you take him down a dirt road.

I’m sure we talked about girls — Tyler and I spent one afternoon chasing some, though I’m not sure what we would have done if we had caught them — and I know we talked about sports and whatever else little boys talk about, but what I remember most is talking about cars. That conversation always starts, for little boys, with their fathers, and what cars they had. Torey and Tyler knew all about their father, Marvin, and his Plymouth Fury. I knew about my dad’s 54 Ford pickup and 64 Plymouth Belvedere. We were MoPar kids, Ford kids in a pinch, but definitely not Chevy kids. Those are the kinds of allegiances you form at age 8. Other than a sports team, it was the first social group I had ever joined.

Muncle Marvin — muncle, by the way, is Corcoran for “m’uncle” or “my uncle,” I think, although I can’t remember the etymology ever coming up in conversation — had an old four-wheel-drive International truck he’d take us to the lake in. One night Uncle Marvin heard the sound of his truck rapping out in the driveway and found Tyler in the driver’s seat revving the engine. He was probably 8, already known for fearlessness, and he was just desperate for that sensation. Tyler grew up to be a soldier. Torey joined the Air Force.

TylerMe

Their neighbor was a kid named Andy, and I can remember going to Andy’s house and seeing these meticulously crafted Lego creations in his room. They were huge and perfect, that perfectionism no-doubt inspired by his father, Bart, who built race cars. When it came time to build the motor and fix the mechanical flaws, that’s who I called.

They were always Chevy people, and they kidded me about bringing them a Ford. Couldn’t help themselves, either. They fitted my car with a Chevy alternator.

At that time, the 90s, our family car was a 1967 Dodge Coronet that got handed down to me in high school. It’s what we took to church, it’s how I got to baseball practice, and every other week my mom and me and my two little sisters would take it to Wichita to buy groceries at ALDI.  At the time it was the nearest one, and the savings justified the trip. Plus, the knockoff Captain Crunch tasted almost like the real thing. One time the water pump went out on that trip, and Dad left work, drove over and changed it in the parking lot. I can remember fishing dimes and nickels out of the seat cushions in that car so she could buys us some cinnamon rolls at Burger King.

I’d imagine this is part of the reason I took an interest in old cars as opposed to new ones. To me, buying a new car was something done by the sort of people who ate name-brand breakfast cereal. My parents have bought brand spankin’ new cars since then, but I never have.

That spirit roots in American history.

American car culture really started in two places: The South during Prohibition and California after World War II. These guys out there in California – you could call them artists, but that’s not what they called themselves – would take these old boats their parents used to drive and start cutting and bending and painting. Shaping metal into these graceful shapes we now all identify with that era. The lines on the Las Vegas sign, the Fender Stratocaster and the 57 Chevy all have something similar about them, don’t you think?

LasVegasSign

 

FenderStratocaster

57ChevyFin

Well that came from these cats out in California. Poor kids, mostly, who figured out how to make old stuff look cooler and go faster than the new stuff. That tradition is still alive in California.

HotRodders3

HotRodders2

HotRodders

Then there were the liquor bandits in the South. They wanted the cars to look stock but dust a police cruiser. Most of this was done thanks to the cocktail of Scotch and Irish geneology. There is a peculiar blend of bravery and stupidity in that bloodline. People of Scots-Irish decent are highly over-represented among Purple Heart recipients and Navy test pilots. They’re the people took the cops on high-speed chases through wooded areas and invented stock-car racing.

Bootlegger Bootlegger2

So those two ideas started to mix, and these hot rods became such a sensation that Detroit noticed and pretty soon all the cars started coming out of the factory with these California lines and West Virginia motors. It was the space race, too, and that showed up a lot in the cars — taillights that looked like jet engines, fins, interiors shaped like cockpits. People were captivated, inspired — proud.

KN-C23643

“But why, some say, the moon?,” John F. Kennedy said at Rice Stadium in Houston in 1963. “Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, Why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

A year later, at a Ford plant in St. Louis, some union guys assembled a Ford Galaxie 500 XL, painted it “prairie tan” and sent it on its 34-year, 78,000-mile journey to a 15-year-old boy who towed it down the same dirt driveway where he had learned to pitch by practicing curveballs to his mom.

The Galaxie 500 was Ford’s full-sized car, and the XL meant it was a two-door fastback with bucket seats and the good trim. The lines were round and swooping and there was chrome everywhere. That part wasn’t new. American cars had been that way since the War. But then they put a big block motor in it, and that changed everything.

This was the beginning of the Muscle Car Era. This is not to say the Galaxie was the first muscle car, but just that all American car companies seemed to get the same idea at the same time. Execution varied slightly, but almost all the cars were powerful and almost all the cars looked cool (or tried hard to).

Because of World War II the economy and babies were booming. Gasoline was relatively inexpensive (about $2.25 a gallon in today’s money). Rock-n-roll was a new thing and more doctors smoked Camels than any other cigarette.

And we beat those Commies to the moon! Stabbed that big blue hunk of cheese with Old Glory.

ChuckBerry

In a span of about 30 years the United States had defeated:

  • Hitler
  • Japan
  • Prohibition
  • The Great Depression
  • Enforced racial segregation
  • Russia
  • Outer space

Now it was time to spike the ball in the end zone.

And, hey, the United States had its problems in the 60s, but nobody could look at the 60s in this country and say people weren’t inspired. Americans thought they could change the world in the 1960s.

TimothyLeary

I can’t do the 60s justice here, mainly because I didn’t experience them for myself. But there has to be a reason that the music from that era still resonates today, that something about George Harrison’s guitar solo in “Good Morning Good Morning” makes a kid who was born in 1983 feel like someone is saying with a guitar what he wishes he could say with words. There is some reason that when you drive a muscle car 600 miles across the country everybody from the high school girl working the register at the barbecue joint in Oklahoma to the bum on the street corner in Dallas to the Mexican guy in the expensive truck in Conroe wants to talk to you about it. There’s something in there Americans intuitively understand. To me it feels deeper than a preference. It’s more like DNA.

And you know what people want to tell you? They want to tell you what cars they have, or had, or want to have. And they never tell you about their Camry, because they know a Camry and a Corvette are as similar as an iPod and an electric guitar. There is something in there about individuality, expression, adventure.

“When Americans tell stories about themselves, they set those stories in the West. The American heroes are Western heroes. When you begin to think of the quintessential American characters, they’re always someplace over the horizon. There is always someplace in the West where something wonderful is about to happen. It’s not what has happened, it’s something wonderful is about to happen. And even when we turn that around, even when we say something has been lost, what’s lost is always in the West.”

— Historian Richard White, Ken Burns: The West, 1996.

IndianRailroad

The Europeans who settled the American West exhibited the best and worst of humanity. Heroism and cowardice. The story of that settlement haunts as often as it inspires, but it is the American story, and it is America’s story to tell. It’s about moving, usually West, for a fresh start.

People came West from Europe, and they settled and they moved West again, to the mountains, and then through the mountains and West some more. Some in search of fortune, some survival, some because they wore out their welcome elsewhere. Keeping going, westward ho, whether dysentery or typhoid fever. Whether following the Oregon Trail or looking for California gold or Kansas soil, there’s a sense that if you just keep going, you’ll make it. Sometimes the American Dream gets misconstrued as the American Guarantee. It isn’t that, and was never supposed to be, but to me it seems there is something in the blood of an American, for better or worse, that tells him he’s got The Right Stuff, if everyone would just get out of his way.

There are plenty of people who say they hate the internal combustion engine, but most of those people drive gas-burning cars. There are other options, but those options just aren’t as good. They drive their car because their car takes them where they want to go. It takes them quickly and anonymously. No ticket to buy, no driver to talk to, nobody across from you on the train.

Nobody to spoil your alibi.

In Houston, we live next to an elderly couple. The man has lost his sharpness, but his white-haired wife still has hers. Every so often the doorbell will ring and I’ll answer and her little body will be standing there holding a plate of cookies. Just being neighborly, like I suppose she was to the people who lived here before us and the people before that. Our house was built in the 60s.

She has this Louisiana accent I recognize as the city accent from New Orleans — it has the funkiest Bronx quality to it. As I was washing my car she walked over and wanted to look at it and talk about it, have the conversation people always have when they’re standing around a car.

“I awl-ways wonted a red sports car, a convuh-tibul,” she said. “I nevuh got one.”

ConvertibleWoman

Early in the morning, last June, I started the Galaxie to drive it to muncle Shaun’s house, The Farm, where in 1956 George and Louise Corcoran settled down to raise their seven kids. I had learned to fire a gun and ride a motorcycle at that farm. That was where the Corcorans would usually gather on the Fourth of July. Shaun would always have the tractors, four-wheelers and dirt bikes all gassed up for us kids, and we’d tear off into the fields on small adventures that felt big. We were free and unwatched, out on the prairie, finding whatever we were going to find, learning a little bit about ourselves and our limits along the way.

995670_10101424999626289_1862121690_n

When I turned east onto a dirt road, the sun was rising, stretching its dusty yellow and citrus orange across the fruited plain. The air was cool as my left arm cut through it, cool in a way it never is on the Gulf Coast. It reminded me of driving that Dodge into Hutchinson for morning football practice, and then that reminded me of my mom, who drove us kids around in that same 30-year-old, $2,600 car bought from muncle Shaun without ever a hint she was embarrassed by it. The night before I drove out to The Farm, Mom stayed up with me until 2, helping me install the carpet in the Galaxie. A few hours later she got up for work. In front of me on that road was my dad, who used to watch fuzzy Chiefs games with me on our 13-inch TV, take me to junior college basketball games and always made sure I got to play on the traveling baseball team and my sisters got to take gymnastics lessons. I always had a nice glove, a nice bat, and a decent pair of cleats.

When I was starting high school and learning to drive, my dad and I drove all over south-central Kansas looking at old project cars. He knew that’s what I wanted. Most of the cars in our price range were too far gone, of course. One night we were driving back from having looked at a 71 Charger. It was shot-out past the point we could realistically restore it, but it’s difficult for a 14-year-old boy to see it that way. He must have sensed my frustration with the search. “If I could afford it, I’d buy you the nicest car you could find,” he told me, and I knew that was true.

But really I didn’t want to be bought some $25,000 trailer queen. I’m not saying I would have turned it down, but it would have felt like someone else’s car and someone else’s life. The day we finally dragged that crusty old Galaxie home, I guarantee you I was the happiest boy in all of Kansas. I told my parents they could just buy me car parts for every birthday and Christmas, and I meant it.

Well I chipped away at it — a camshaft here, a set of pistons there. Machine work. I had the motor halfway rebuilt in my basement when I left for college, and that’s how things stood for about 10 years.

After high school I worked at a service station in Hutchinson for two years while going to the juco. Tire repairs, alternators, brake jobs, pumping gas for old ladies. The owner had a friend named Bill, who as I understand it had been the coolest man on the face of the earth for most of his life, the kind of guy who flew airplanes and drove Corvettes and made risky bets on the stock market. But he had gone blind from a car accident and as a result began spending his days at that service station. He took an interest in me, and pushed me. He wanted me to be a really good pump jockey, to see the big picture of what I was doing. The business of it. When he found out I wanted to be a sports writer, he had me bring him some things I had written and he sent them to his nephew, Kurt, who was the sports editor at the Topeka paper.

Kurt thought I was good enough to take volleyball scores over the phone, so when I moved to Lawrence for school, I had a job waiting for me in Topeka.

I have, in so many ways, moved on from the kid I was when we bought that car. I lived in a liberal college town for eight years, and Kurt eventually hired me to do a job that took me all over the country. New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Miami and half the college towns in between. That job led to a book project on another small-town Kansas kid, a project that got me the hunk of cash I needed to finish the Galaxie. Now I live in a big city and I do big city things and, on the whole, I’d have to say it’s all about as exciting as 15-year-old me would have expected it to be.

But nobody ever looks happy behind the wheel here.

When I got to The Farm, muncle Shaun was drinking coffee on that old porch my dad had surely jumped off, the way kids do, on the way to grade school. Shaun’s dog, a stray he found at a landfill, came out to make sure I wasn’t an intruder. A little while later muncle Marvin came out. He was out there every day, helping, just because he wanted to. When we needed to cut off the bumper, we called a guy named Mark Danner, who built race cars. He brought out his plasma cutter, and we tried to pay him for the trouble but all he’d accept was breakfast.

So for five days we sanded and filled, sanded and filled, sanded and filled, morning to night, ending with primer and paint. It’s achy-body work for me, and I had only just turned 30. We did in five days what should have taken five weeks. One night, right as we were finishing up for the day, a storm came in. One of those good, strong Kansas thunderstorms that makes you close all the doors and run inside. So I stayed out at the farm while it passed, my uncle and I drinking tomato beers and playing guitars as the rain pounded the windows and the wind knocked down branches. He showed me a new way to play an A-chord on a Fender Mustang he got long ago in a trade for a car.

19898_10101426022411619_69571915_n

Muncle told me he was selling the farm. The buyer was going to be tearing the house down to make room for more farmland. He’d be moving into Burrton, and his business, Southwest Wheels, would be moving to Newton. A new beginning. I’ve since learned he needed that. “No more ghosts,” Marvin said.

What do I owe you, I asked when we were finished. “Not a bloody thing,” he said. “That’s what M’Uncles are for.”

1000481_10101436057760699_1319470439_n

So I bumped the key and that old car with the new beginning answered loud, like a dog barking at a train. And I started driving south. No radio, no cell phone charger, no GPS. Just a little Kansas kid and his car, pushing across America toward the coast and a life that has gone better than I expected, carrying with me a piece of everybody who has helped make it that way.

I had to baby it for 500 miles to break in the motor. When I got south of Dallas, and I knew she was ready, I punched the pedal, and the engine took a deep breath and shot me into the galaxy, and I never felt more at home.

Advertisements