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.

Gratuitous predictions for 2012 (and beyond, if you like)

Some director will create a scene, probably in a television show, in which a character is caught dancing and singing to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” while doing something that is only slightly embarrassing and not at all controversial.

It’s going to be a loud crash back to earth for both Lil Wayne and Zach Galifianakis.

You will start hearing people say things like, “…back when Zach Galifianakis was funny” in the course of normal conversations. The truth will be that Galifianakis is no more or less funny than ever, but that won’t matter. It never does.

Someone will develop a musical instrument that imitates the sound of a human voice, and is capable of pronouncing and singing approximately 75 words with enough clarity that an untrained ear wouldn’t be able to tell it was a machine. The machine will collaborate with Kanye West on a song called “ones and heroes,” which will peak No. 7 on the Billboard Top 100 chart.

Intelligent life discovered in New Jersey.

Citing the cost and concerns about protecting its original content, a major metropolitan newspaper will terminate its relationship with the Associated Press.

A 22-year-old Orlando woman will contact the editors at Deadspin claiming to have photographic evidence she had sex with Tim Tebow. The photos show a man who looks like Tebow engaging in sexual acts with a young woman, but they are of poor quality and were taken from an angle at which it is not possible to see the man’s face directly. Deadspin will run the photos under a headline that reads, “This lady says these are picture of Tim Tebow having sex with her.” The majority of the public will believe the photos are authentic until it turns out the 22-year-old Orlando woman is really a 41-year-old male programmer from Atlanta.

Metta World Peace will change his name to Chad Johnson.

The makers of Axe Body Spray will intentionally get their Super Bowl ad banned.

Somewhere, at some wedding, somebody will “make it rain” on the dance floor. He will do this with toy $100 bills, and event he had been planning for weeks. He will perceive this as a “hilarious” wedding gag. Instead, somebody’s father will cry. And by “father” I mean “America.” It will probably be the groom.

Tim Tebow will propose to somebody.

The entertainment media will finally figure out that Jay-Z’s retirement announcements are just ways to get himself on TV, but they won’t be able to stop covering them because if they were to start only covering things that are news, they’d be out of a job immediately. Instead, the coverage will take a barely noticeable turn toward self-awareness.

Ryan Seacrest will start to look a little older.

Adele will lose 35 pounds, appear on the cover of every women’s magazine in the world and suddenly  be lauded as proof that “curves are beautiful.” The irony will be lost on 60 percent of the population, and 100 percent of the entertainment media. Her next album “22” will be panned as “downright cheerful” and “a departure from the soul-crushing Adele of ’21.'” It will be a commercial failure.

With sales sagging, Pringles decides to go with tennis balls after all.

On the first waves of popular culture, wine drinking will start to be considered passe and cigar smokers will be considered “sadly clueless.”

Someone you know will buy an all-electric car and never drive it.

Through TMZ, the nation’s women will learn Casey Anthony has begun dating a “creepy but actually kind of good looking” 34-year-old entrepreneur from Las Vegas.

The sports team in your area will win some and lose some.

Has Lady Gaga made a country song, and if so, what about that?

We can debate whether or not this latest Lady Gaga flashfire is a country song or not. In fact, I had just that debate with the wife on Friday night. She contended that Lady Gaga’s “You and I” was really more of a rock ballad than a country song, and unlike me she is from western Kansas, so she probably knows.

The producer on the track is a guy named Robert “Mutt” Lange, who in addition to being of mixed pedigree has also been a producer for both Def Leppard and Shania Twain. The song samples “We Will Rock You,” by Queen, which is perhaps the least country band of all time.

In any case, the song sounds country to me. Actually, the song sounds so country that I’m pretty sure Lady Gaga is making fun of people from the Midwest. I think the song is partially satirical. How else can you explain the following line:

Muscle cars drove a truck right through my heart.

I want to take a step back here and say that I am not offended by this song. I am not complaining about this song. This is not a 500-word eff you to Lady Gaga, whose work I have come to appreciate on some level. But there are two things about that line that stand out:

1) It is nonsensical. It has no literal or metaphorical meaning.

2) But it triggers two iconic heartland images: Muscle cars and trucks.

This alone doesn’t make it a country song, but that kind of imagery is almost always used when someone is trying to appeal to country people. The following two photos are stills from the video for Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA.” (which we have covered before):

Miley doesn't sing about muscle cars and trucks, she sings on top of them.

Miley doesn't sing about muscle cars and trucks, she sings on top of them.

This is the point where a fan of “real” country music will pipe in and remind me that neither Lady Gaga nor Miley Cyrus nor Billy Ray Cyrus nor Taylor Swift has ever made a real country music song. All of this I’m talking about is just crossover country at best or pop music with a country influence at worst. These are people who like artists like George Strait and Hank Williams (Sr.). They are probably right about this in the same way my friend Rob, a native New Yorker, is right when he says Chicago-style pizza isn’t really pizza, “it’s casserole.”

I would note that one of Williams’ most famous lines is “I got a hot rod Ford and a two-dollar bill,’ but to a purist there are some really important distinctions there. To most of us, though, country music is just music that sounds a little twangy and refers to things like daddies and trucks and the Tastee Freeze and lost love. So to most of us that’s exactly what Lady Gaga has done here. First of all, the setting for this little narrative is Nebraska, and the narrative itself is about this woman who is wearing lipstick and high heels and has come back in town after some time and will not be leaving without her lost lover, who owns a little bar somewhere in Nebraska. He has experienced a lot of lonely nights in this little bar and in a town we presume is not, you know, Omaha. But there is something about this place, and something about “you and I.” That this is a grammatical error does nothing to ruin the country feel.

She then belts this non sequitur:

There’s only three men I’ma serve my whole life, it’s my daddy and Nebraska and Jesus Christ.

I, of course, don’t know what was going through her head when she wrote this song. She says it is actually about one of her own relationships, but that’s only possible in a thematic sense. Lady Gaga was born and raised in New York City. The song, however, was recorded in Nebraska (for some reason). But whether she set out to make a pop country hit or set out to make a satirical pop country hit, she made a hit out of a song that feels pretty country.

And that forces us to ask a question: If Lady Gaga can make a successful country record, does that say more about Lady Gaga or country  music?

Death by Corolla: What is happening to car culture?

You can tell a lot about someone by the car they drive. I, for example, drive a 2003 Toyota Corolla, which tells you I have given up on life.

That was a joke. But I’m serious about this theory. The fact I drive a 2003 Corolla tells you, right off the bat, that I am not driving the car I wish I was driving. Nobody wants a Corolla, just like nobody wants to eat frozen pizza. You settle for it. It also suggests that I am at least somewhat concerned about gas mileage, (probably) don’t have a family, (probably) have some idea which makes are most reliable, (possibly) have a job that involves some commuting and (almost certainly) does not pay very much.

Here, in order, are the cars I drove prior to my Corolla:

  • 1967 Dodge Coronet
  • 1975 Dodge Dart Swinger
  • 1992 Subaru SVX
  • 1992 Ford Explorer
  • 1983 Chevrolet El Camino

The point is, a Toyota Corolla has absolutely nothing to do with my personality and it is slowly murdering my soul.

All of this is a way of saying that I am becoming wistful and afraid regarding the disintegration of American culture as we know it.

That is a photo of something called the T.25 City Car. It was designed be a fomer F1 engineer most famous for the McLaren F1, which goes 240 miles per hour. The T.25 has a top speed of 80, gets 74 miles per gallon and costs $9,000. In no way is it not good that we have this option. Anything that reduces the demand for oil is good. And I can imagine a lot of parents of 16-year-old kids liking the idea of a $9,000 car that can’t go faster than 80*. I think this car is a good thing.

*Two notes here:

1) Inside a contraption like that, a collision above, oh, 13 miles per hour will likely result in instantaneous death.

2) I have known plenty of cars in my day that could barely go 80 miles per hour, and they cost far less than $9,000.

It’s just that if that’s what cars are going to be, then something I’ve loved my entire life no longer exists.

Like millions of others, I have lived all my life fascinated by cars. I used to sit in my room for hours looking at Hot Rod Magazine, Car Craft Magazine and Car & Driver. I’ve always been a sports fan, but while most kids could quote you baseball statistics, I could give you horsepowers and cubic inches and tell you the minute differences in body style between a 1963 Impala and a 1964 Impala. I would pour through auto parts catalogs daydreaming about the upgrades we could make to our 1967 Ford pickup.

How can we go faster and look cooler? That is the essence of American car culture and, metaphorically, American culture as a whole.

"Throw some Ds on that."

And now, some cultural background. Feel free to skip ahead until after the green Barracuda if you want, although I find this stuff fascinating and perhaps you will too.

Like a great number of American cultural developments, the car culture developed because of the World Wars. After World War II, Americans had money, felt awesome about being Americans and started moving to the suburbs. These three things, combined with cheap oil, created not just a demand for cars, but a demand for cool ones.

This add for a 1957 Chevy says it all.

A few years later, as the space race captivated the country, cars started reflecting that. Their designs invoked spaceships and cockpits and speed.

Incredibly, in a span of just 24 years (1945-1969) — one generation, basically — the United States had won World War II, enjoyed enormous economic expansion and put a freaking man on the moon. We were unstoppable. It must have felt this way. I am not ignoring the numerous and enormous problems we endured in the 1960s. In fact, I think you could make a strong argument that much of the social change in the 1960s, good and bad, was at least in part a product of people feeling more emboldened and less stoppable than they had ever felt before.

Meanwhile, in southern California …

"It's like what Lenin said... you look for the person who will benefit, and, uh, uh..."

…people were using cars for self-expression. You could have called them artists, but that’s not what they called themselves. They were just craftsmen making cool cars cooler.

The '51 Mercury was a classic canvas for these guys.

These kinds of customizations became so popular that it started influencing the way auto manufacturers designed their cars. It all fed off itself.

The late 50s through early 70s was undoubtedly the golden age for American cars. They went faster and looked cooler than ever. There was genuine creativity involved. The cars had soul and spirit and like millions of others, I have always loved them. I have always loved the idea that even if you couldn’t buy a Corvette, you could take your dad’s old ’51 Mercury or ’67 Ford pickup or Honda Civic and make it faster, make it cooler, make it you. Americans aren’t the only people who do that, but there is something very American about it.

They have never made cars like that in Japan or France or Italy. These cars are a part of my personal identity, but also a part of our collective identity.

We won the war, we got to the moon first, we created jazz music and barbecue and Elvis. Our soccer team doesn’t flop. Our 26th president was shot in the arm during a campaign speech and finished the speech before having the wound dressed. Our Olympic basketball players grab their crotches after dunks. Our 35th president shagged Marilyn Monroe. Our 43rd president responded to an attack from one country by bombing the crap out of an entirely different country because it seemed like they were cool with each other. We season our salads with bacon.

Not everything we do is good, but we are who we are. Of course we made the most balls-out cars in the world.

Over time, that brought us to the Toyota Corolla and, eventually, the T.25 City Car. We loved our big, fast, gas-guzzling cars so much that we created the circumstances that made them impractical. That’s the irony.

And that reality is inescapable. This doesn’t spell the end of car culture. You can still drive whatever you want and millions of people still drive cars that get like 16 miles per gallon. This is not the car apocalypse. Millions of gallons of oil are gushing into the Gulf of Mexico every day, and the price of it is barely affected. We are not close to running out.

But a lot of what has happened in the car world over the last five years or so has been unfair. This discussion has been co-opted by political agendas. If you drive an SUV or a muscle car, you’re an a-hole Republican who doesn’t care. If you drive a Prius, you’re a compassionate liberal trying to save the planet. Some conservatives drive trucks just to prove a point, and some liberals drive hybrids to do the same. And if you cringe at the idea of the Smart Car or the T.25, it’s because you’re afraid Your Side is losing some kind of battle.

I’m afraid it’s a little more complicated than that, yet a little more simple, too.

The market will decide whether the T.25 succeeds, just as the market decided on muscle cars in the 60s. This isn’t about a political agenda for me. Everyone should root for technologies that improve fuel mileage.

Life circumstances have led me to my Corolla. It is the best thing for me right now, even though it doesn’t feel like me, even though it doesn’t express anything, even though it is neither fast nor cool.

In my parents’ garage I have a 1964 Ford Galaxie. I have mostly rebuilt the engine. The car still needs plenty of work, and for the time being, it sits and I drive my Corolla, even on weekends, even on the Fourth of July.

It is the best thing for right now. I just hope it doesn’t have to stay that way.

Driving fast and getting married; the evolution of manhood (as experienced by me)

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.

A 1975 Dodge Dart. Mine was a lot like this, down to the hood scoop.

Leon's Camaro was just like this, only with fatter tires.

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.

See? It's true.

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.

Coming of age: Thoughts about service stations and newspapers

Ferguson Service looked just like this.

Ferguson Service looked just like this, right down to the curved front window.

The wrenches would come skidding across the floor like a flat rock on a smooth lake, clanging on the concrete to make a noise not unlike the sound of ice cubes rattling in an empty class, only with a metallic tone to it. When they came to rest, they rang for another second or two.

Delmar Ferguson hated seeing the work pile up, the cluster of cars angled into his small parking lot in downtown Hutchinson, Kansas, indicating that either business was up, or efficiency was down. It was always hard to say.

Delmar, a quick-walking, quiet man in his early 70s, would walk into his shop in his white Amoco shirt — the owner was the only one who wore white — and blue trousers that never quite reached his ankles. The mechanic, Carl Zwyckl, he of the rare all-consonant last name, would invariably be at one stage or another in burning a Marlboro Red — lighting, dangling or flicking — with grease up to his elbows, sweat beading on his shiny forehead and dripping down the chest he always left exposed by one extra button’s worth. His blue, short-sleeved uniform shirt would be smeared with the carnage of a head gasket on a Chrysler, a U-joint on a Silverado, maybe a CV shaft on a Nissan. Sometimes, the cigarette butts littering the shop floor would have little greasy fingerprints on them.

I’d be in the back, fixing a tire. Once a tire was off the rim, and before I put on the glue and patch, I would reach inside the tire and grind away the smoothness of the rubber. Tiny burned specs of warm rubber would fly onto my arms, sticking to the leftover oil from the last water pump job, and I would squint and turn my head to shield my eyes from the spattering gore. Occasionally, a drop of sweat would drip off my nose and land inside the tire. That back room got awfully hot.

On days like this, there was no way we were getting everything done by 6 p.m., which was the kind of thing that irritated Delmar. You could just tell, even though he never said much. So he would walk into his shop, probably after a round of golf he’d played in his white shirt and blue trousers, and without saying a word, would take matters into his own hands.

He would grab a handful of wrenches — he always knew which ones he’d need before he even started — and crawl under one of the injured cars littering the drive. That’s when the wrenches started skidding. Each tool he was finished using, he discarded with an irritated fling, sending them 30, 40 feet across the floor. Getting the car fixed and the customer on its way immediately was the only mission. Let the tools rest where they may. He got this way when he didn’t think Carl and I had accomplished enough that day.

These days were dirty. They were July in southern Kansas. They were busting open a knuckle and wrapping it with a shop rag. They were leaving oily residue on the invoices because you didn’t have time to wash your hands before you signed one and moved on to the next job.

I loved them.

Starting when I was 18 and ending when I was 20, I was a grease monkey, a pump jockey, a quasi-mechanic for a full-service gas station and mechanic shop called Ferguson Service in Hutchinson. I learned a lot about cars, a little about business, and a lot about life in those two years.

One of our customers was Rexann. She had been a single mother most of her adult life; her ex-husband was in jail most of that time. She lived in  a little apartment with her teenage daughter. Rexann loved chocolate and cats. She hated driving and was afraid to go as far as Wichita. She worked two or three jobs most of the time. When she came to buy gas — $10 every two weeks — she brought chocolate for Carl and me, and wanted to make sure all her fluids were full and tires aired up.

She knew we’d make sure she was OK. Seemed like there weren’t too many people that did.

Another customer was Rosemary. She drove a 1974 LTD as big as a parade float, and about as fast. It had a hole rusted in the roof, so Rosemary never drove on rainy days. When she did drive, it was to the grocery store or Taco Tico. Rosemary was too old for much else. She had a son, but she said he never called. Rosemary was sad and angry, and sometimes she would take it out on us. She would curse and blame us for what went wrong with her calcifying car. She would accuse us of overcharging her. She was awful.

But she kept coming back. She kept calling to have us come to her house to jumpstart her (damn) Ford (that we were supposed to fix the last time). Maybe she just wanted to see a familiar face.

There was Kendi. She was a hairdresser who owned her own salon. She wore trendy glasses and drove this huge SUV that hauled her young kids to (no joke) soccer tournaments.

One time, after a particularly disastrous chopping of my bangs, I removed my hat and asked her for advice.

“You’d better just stick with the hat for a while,” she said.

She was always in a hurry and never got her oil changed on time. Maybe she liked that when she came in for gas, we’d remind her. We always knew who’d been around and who hadn’t.

There were the high school girls, too. I think they came because college guys in uniform worked there.

Ferguson Service is gone now. Delmar sold it a couple years after I left and the new owner stopped fixing cars and started selling cigarettes and candy bars. I don’t know who checks Rexann’s coolant or who Rosemary calls for a jump or who reminds Kendi to get her oil changed. The high school girls have probably adjusted just fine.

Those two years were in many ways a coming-of-age time for me. And while I was only 20 when I left to become a journalist in Topeka, I don’t have that same type of relationship with journalism, or the newspaper where I work. It’s not better or worse, just different. I was a different person when I started at both places.

But I think some things hold true for both the full-service gas station and the newspaper. Both offer an experience, a relationship.

Think about all the reasons you’ve ever heard someone give for subscribing to a newspaper. They like to sit down and read with with their coffee. They like the feel of the newspaper in their hands. It reminds them of their fathers. It’s about sitting and feeling and experiencing more than it is about the actual words on the page.Yeah, it’s 50 cents a day they don’t have to pay, but they want to.

I think, to some degree, the full-service gas station was like that. I think people like seeing the same faces, liked knowing that the washer fluid was getting topped off, even if it didn’t need it, liked to chat with the pump jockey (or get flirted with by the pump jockey). Yeah, the gas was 10 or 20 cents more per gallon than it was anywhere else, but that wasn’t the point.

Sadly, both are dying out, often as their customer base does. The newspaper’s fate is much less certain — a lot of people who should know will tell you it’s not as bad as it looks — but a lot of newspapers have closed their doors for good. Maybe the experience wasn’t good enough anymore. Maybe people just want different experiences.

I don’t know why I tell you all this, exactly. I’ve been thinking about my life and my work a lot recently, I guess. Maybe that’s just something you do in your mid-20s, maybe not. I don’t know. It struck me that all of the work I’ve done since I graduated for high school has been for businesses that have been making less and less money almost that whole time. Maybe it’s all my fault.

I began all this describing what were some of the worst days being a grease monkey, and how when I look back, they were kind of the best days. I feel that same way about journalism. The nights on deadline, cranking out a 22-inch lead and a 12-inch sidebar with no good quotes in 45 minutes aren’t all that unlike grinding out a tire in the 110-degree back room at Ferguson Service while intermittently sweet talking old ladies on the 102-degree drive. You get to look back and say, “Yeah, I did that” and feel proud of the work.

You just hope there are enough Rexanns and Rosemarys and Kendis out there who appreciate it.

90s Week: Trucks as luxury vehicles

In the 90s, this was a family car.

In the 90s, this was a family car.

For all of history, pickup trucks were functional vehicles only. They were for farms, lumber yards and rednecks. In the 1960s, for example, it wasn’t unusual for a truck to not have:

  • Carpet
  • Seatbelts
  • Air conditioning
  • Power steering

These were unnecessary frills. First of all, the carpet was pointless because if your truck had carpet, you wouldn’t be able clean the floorboards with a garden hose, so that’s out. If you needed power steering or air conditioning, you were a pansy, so those are out. And seat belts were kind of a new idea at the time.

In the 1960s, the kind of people who were buying trucks weren’t the kind that would have worn seat belts anyway, and there’s no way they were paying extra just to have air conditioning or power steering in a vehicle they were going to be using to drag cow manure from one edge of the farm to another.

Although seat belts became standard in the mid-1960s, and power steering quickly became inexpensive and, therefore, standard, that was about all that changed in the truck world, right up until the late 1980s.

And suddenly, for difficult to ascertain reasons, it became cool to take your kids to school in a Chevy truck rather than a Chevy car.

There are some obvious conditions that had to exist for this to be possible. First, gasoline had to be inexpensive, and it was. In the late 80s all the way through the late 90s, the price of a gallon of gas hovered around the $1 mark, occasionally dipping below 90 cents. Secondly, there had to be room for these vehicles in driveways, parking lots and roads. This sounds silly, but in many places around the world, including some of its biggest, best cities,  it would be terribly impractical to own a vehicle the size of a Ford F-150, because it would hog most roadways and would be difficult to park, both at home and about town. Finally, the vehicles had to be comfortable for women, children and pansies.

This is where the auto makers had to make some changes.

Since the late 1970s, the Big Three American auto makers had been getting their butts handed to them* in the car markets by Asian companies, who made cars that were superior in every conceivable way. Naturally, the Big Three decided it was fruitless to just make better cars. Instead, operating on the “Americans will buy anything as long as its bigger than another thing” theory of economics, they just started making big cars, i.e. trucks with air conditioning, carpet and CD players.

* I know a writer who would have used “getting their tits waxed” here. Mentally insert this phrase above if it makes you happy.

It worked out great for the auto makers because all they had to do was add some bells and whistles to vehicles they were already making, which is a completely different process than coming up with entirely new vehicles to satisfy the public’s demand for wasteful driving practices*.

*Probably one of the most hypocritical things I’ve ever written. Until lameness forced me into a Toyota Corolla, I had spent my life among the most wasteful drivers you’ve ever known. I had owned five cars before the Corolla. Three had V8s, two had V6s, one was an SUV.

Whats so creepy about El Caminos? I dont get it.

What's so creepy about El Caminos? I don't get it.

And I did not drive any of these lightly.

I nearly got a detention in high school for doing burnouts in the school parking lot after football practice. In college, I once did donuts in the parking lot, in the middle of the day. I used to drag race one of my cars on a flat stretch of road out by the jail in Hutchinson. I drove one of my cars 134 miles per hour, which helped turn a 16-minute trip from Burrton to Hutchinson into an 11-minute trip from Burrton to Hutchinson. In my SUV, I drove out to Clinton Lake near Lawrence and rather abruptly went off-roading.

I am not the king of conservation.

Thus, at about the same time Americans were Super Sizing everything and walking around with 44-ounce foutain drinks for no discernable reason, they gobbled up these high cars with big tires like handfuls of french fries.

SUVs were already popular in the 1990s, too, but it wasn’t until late in the decade that Americans finally got honest with themselves and said, “You know what? This business about needing the bed to haul things is pretty much bunk. What I really need is more seats to haul the kids I don’t have.”

Which is why today we celebrate the mid-1990s phenomenon of trucks as luxury vehicles.