Auto Enmity

11 Jan

I hate cars. Any remainder of my adolescent infatuation has evaporated and and abiding hatred of all things automotive has filled the void . It started at James Monroe Senior High summer school, June 1966. The first day of driver’s education class I’m waiting for my name to be called as the roll is read by assistant football coach, Cedric Kamper. “Smith, Linda… Smither, James… Stark, Denise… Starnes, Roger…” “Good ole Roger Starnes –he’s been in line in front of me for the last 10 years. I’m next and I’m sure this jerk’s going to mispronounced my name and embarrass me.” “Stuh… Stuh…” (“It’s pronounced Stay War. Stay !War! Idiot!” ) “Stuh… Stuh… Strawberry… Strawberry, Terry… Terry Strawberry here?” Everybody busts out laughing. My face turns as red as a strawberry. I wish I was dead. No, I wish he was dead. I should have known then and there that oil and strawberries do not mix.
Mr. Kamper ploughed through the book stuff –power trains, carburetors, tire pressure, and stopping distances –lickety split. We watched a few gruesome flicks about drunk drivers who end up impaled on steering columns with axles rammed up their noses and mysteriously learner permits are bestowed upon us and we’re ready for the open road.
My driving cohort consisted of Mr. Kamper, Wilburt Jasper, Sandy Richards, and me. Wilburt was a thin nervous black boy who was an excellent alto saxophone player and very mediocre basketball player. He wished it was the other way around. Sandy was more academically inclined but her real claim to fame was that she once wrote a letter of complaint to the Continental Baking Company about how Hostess Cupcake wrappers stick to the icing and three weeks later a Hostess truck pulled up to her house and delivered a free case of cupcakes. Mr. Kamper had earned a reputation as a teacher to avoid. His real calling in life was football and he viewed teaching as a necessary evil. He taught basic science and driver’s education and his lesson plans were pretty much the list of movies he intended to show. He also had a mean streak and would cull out vulnerable students to hound unmercifully I was afraid he had my number after the strawberry incident.
The driver’s education car was a big white Chrysler with a large “Student Driver” sign on top. It had an extra brake pedal for Mr. Kamper to stomp on if it was necessary to save our lives. One late June morning Wilburt was chauffeuring us around a state park when Mr. Kamper says, “Let’s see how you do under pressure.” Wilburt winces but is afraid to avert his gaze from the road. Mr. Kamper produces a 4 inch firecracker, balances it on the dashboard, and lights it. Now, I knew it was fake, being somewhat of an fireworks expert. My dad was a volunteer city fireman and every Fourth of July the city cops would roust local teenagers and confiscate their fireworks. They would take the fireworks down to city hall, where other policemen, firemen, and city employees would take them home for their own kids. Well either Wilburt was no expert or he was already anxious just being in this car full of white people that he was unable to see through Mr. Kamper’s lame joke. As the fuse started sputtering, Wilburt started swerving and only by luck escaped ploughing into the largest man made object in North America, the great Cahokia Indian Mound. Mr. Kamper jammed his brake pedal, delighted to claim another victim and have a finally have an opportunity to use the brake. I felt sorry for Wilburt, but I was really glad it wasn’t me.
As if to make up for it, Mr. Kamper took the wheel saying, ” Now, I’m going to teach you punks something really important.” and winked conspiratorially. He pulled out a cigarette, matches, and a Coke. “Here’s how you light a cigarette while drinking a beer and steering the car at the same time.” Speeding up to 65, he put the Coke can between his legs, the cigarette in his mouth and managed to ignite the match while steadying the steering wheel. He light the cigarette, flipped the match out the window, snatched the Coke, and took a big slug. Wilburt was still pouting over the firecracker, Sandy had closed her eyes, and I was unimpressed. Although Mr. Kamper was good, I’d routinely seen my dad do much more dangerous things in the car and in a much more debilitated condition. Mr. Kamper didn’t even have a suicide knob for goodness sake.
Despite Kamper’s shenanigans, I passed the class, but flunked my driving test. I was terrified of parallel parking, but I didn’t even get that far. I blew it before I even started. I was so anxious that when the license inspector said, “Go.” I took it literally and shot across the parking lot into the street, completely ignoring a stop sign. He said excitedly, “Didn’t you see that sign?” I said “Sure but I thought I was suppose to do exactly what you said and you said go.” He looked at me with a mixture of amazement and disgust like I had just soiled my pants or something. He officially concluded that I needed a little more practice, but the truth is he thought I was too dim-witted and dangerous to drive on public thoroughfares.
I got my license three weeks later when my dad took me to the state driver’s license bureau. The inspector there was more relaxed, probably because he didn’t have to test 35 teenage boys high on driving hormones. The inspector was so fat he couldn’t buckle the seat belt, so one quick spin around the block and I was finally street legal.
Getting your license and getting a car were two different things in my family. After a traumatic experience with my older brother, my dad wasn’t about to have his car insurance cancelled or his rates doubled again, so I was banned from the family Impala and began a quest for my own car.
I owned two cars that I never actually drove. The first was a 1957 Plymouth Belvedere that I bought from Burt Franklin for 25 dollars. It looked fine and the motor ran, although it didn’t have any brakes. Burt towed it into my backyard and I worked like a Trojan for two months fixing the brake hoses. Then I parked it on the street next to our garage. This got my mother off my back, who was mad because the brake fluid had killed most of the grass in our backyard. Without insurance, I still couldn’t drive the car, but I could work on it.
About two blocks from where I lived a guy named Dave Sukowski built and raced drag racers. Every evening until midnight there would be a crowd of super cool guys hanging around his garage drinking beer, checking out his Super Stock Dodge Super Bee, and talking about motors. To the consternation of neighbors they would periodically fire up the engine which sounded like Krakatoa erupting. I decided that I would shoot for a piece of this celebrity with the younger and more naive crowd.
Using spacers I jacked the back of the Plymouth three feet in the air, painted on a racing stripe, and fashioned a spoiler from auto body putty. Through Hot Rod Magazine advertisements, I ordered decals for Hooker headers, Thrush mufflers, Valvoline motor oil, STP oil treatment, Holley carbs, Hurst shifters and Isky cams. I plastered both sides of the car with decals (strategically covering rust spots) and damn if it didn’t look like a race car. The Plymouth had a black roof and an antique Egyptian white body with extra wide fins, a hydromatic push button transmission, and a 318 cid engine desperately in need of a ring job. At nigh I would lean over the car like I was working on it and suddenly guys I didn’t even know stopped to talk to me. Daily I would start the 318 and drive 10 feet up the street or back again so the cops wouldn’t tow it in as an abandoned car. Each time the engine started, it produced enough thick white smoke to kill all the mosquitoes for a three block radius. Although it was a good summer, it really wasn’t the same as driving. And then there was that sad winter day when my dad called O’Dell’s Junkyard and had the Plymouth permanently put out of its misery. In my attempt to remedy the smoke problem I filled the crankcase with high viscosity STP which was fine in summer but once the temperature dropped, the stuff solidified and the pistons stuck in the STP like pickled pigs feet in gelatin.
That next spring I acquired the second automobile that I would never actually drive. It was a french import —a Renault (pronounced in the Midwest “Renn’-Alt”). It originally belong to my older brothers’s girlfriend’s parents who sold it to him for sixty bucks and which he then sold to me for 75$. You could use a manual crank to start it — just the thing for a cold Illinois winter.
The Renault was kept in the garage and one weekend when my parents were out of town, I was messing with it with my friends, Mickey and John. We talked about how it was a shame that it wasn’t a convertible so we could put the top down and attract girls. Mickey had a younger brother, Pat, who was kind of crazy and worked for an auto repair shop sweeping up the red stuff they throw on oil stains on the garage floor. Pat stopped by with his equally crazy friend Bobby (who had a head shaped like a football hence his nickname Bobby Footballhead) and tried to convinced us that we could easily convert the Renault into a really cool convertible using only a chisel and hacksaw. We were still discussing the possibility when impetuously Bobby Footballhead and Pat started hammering and sawing away. There was no turning back and within an hour the car’s top was completely chopped. Pat’s knowledge of structural engineering was a bit faulty and as soon as the roof was removed the entire car collapsed in upon itself like a jellyfish out of water. When my Dad got home he called O’Dell’s Junkyard to tow away the imploded Renault, making me 0 for 2 in car acquisition game.
My next car was bought at a car auction when I was a senior in high school. It was a 1960 Chevy Corvair with a three speed transmission. I customized it with two racing stripes, rear hood scoops, and a spoiler. I put baby moon hubcaps on the front wheels after painting them metal fleck blue and chrome reverses in the back. I even had insurance and could drive it. I really loved this car, but right away it started to betray me. On my very first outing I learned three things about Corvairs: 1. A Corvair can really go ninety miles an hour. 2. The Corvair has only one long fan belt that runs the oil pump, alternator, and pretty much everything else, and 3. This fan belt is very likely to break, especially if you are going 90 mile per hour and that’s why you should always have a spare fan belt.
I drove the Corvair to senior high school skip day and after dropping off my friends, I backed up over an abandoned gas pump island ripping a major hole in the oil pan. My friend Larry opined that it looked like a thousand dollar’s damage (I only paid $500 for the car). The car did freeze up from lack of oil on the way home, but I obtained a junker’s oil pan from O’Dell’s and it worked fine. But new complications arose as the car develop an insidious electrical short. The horn honked in cadence with the windshield wiper cycle, the defroster stopped working and the headlights went out whenever you stepped on the dimmer switch.
I borrowed my older brother Norman’s car to go on a date I and traded him my Corvair, forgetting to brief him on its eccentricities. Norman was driving down a very dark road when he was confronted by a driver who refused to dim his high-beams as he approached. Norman as was his custom aggressively stomped on the dimmer switch to teach the offender a lesson and terrified the other driver and himself when the Corvair’s headlights went out completely. Norman ran off the road into a horseradish field and spent 15 minutes figuring out that he needed to hit the dimmer again to turn the lights back on. He was furious at me when I returned his car. He said, ” You should take that damn Corvair, paint it black, and use it for a coffin.”
Once the Corvair began making clicking sounds whenever I made a right turn. This went on for a few weeks and then one day I was making a hard right turn in front of Schemers’ Supermarket and the clicking got louder I turned the wheel quickly and suddenly it spun all the way around and the steering column came detached from the gear box and I could pull the wheel up about two feet up in the air. I was heading directly for the front display window which contained a pyramid of Campbell’s Pork and Beans. Fortunately the brakes still worked and I skidding to a halt just short of the window.
The Corvair limped along for almost more 2 years. I finally sold it after I hit some loose gravel and slid into a drainage ditch on the way to school at Southern Illinois University. The president of the student body was driving behind me at the time and gave me a ride in his Corvette. He said he was impressed that I didn’t flip the car over. Having my eyes closed at the time, I wouldn’t know, but I voted for him anyway.
Not being able to part with the chrome reverses when I sold the Corvair, I temporarily stashed them in my mother’s basement. They were auctioned off along with everything else in the house 35 years later when my mother slipped off a new kitchen chair while reaching for a chocolate pie, broke her hip, and had to go live in a nursing home near Chicago.
My next vehicle was a Bell Telephone van that was sold because it had over 100,000 miles in mileage. It burned a lot of oil and always smelled like flatulence. Parking was a terrible problem at college but I found that I was able to park the van anywhere I wanted, as long as it was close to a telephone pole. This lasted until an inconveniently situated state trooper gave me my first ticket for not having a valid truck inspection sticker. The trooper insisted that I cover up the Bell Telephone decals, ending my parking scam. I also had to get the van inspected. I knew the van would never past inspection and for a while I drove around with a counterfeit sticker that I had traced and colored with crayons to look like the real thing. I finally took it in and to my surprise it barely passed (Thank God there were no emission inspections in those days.). I got a can of K-Mart gray primer paint and reluctantly sprayed over the Bell Telephone emblems. To compensate for the loss I stenciled “Stawar Enterprises” on the side in bright yellow letters. People were always asking me what business I was in. A few weeks later I traded the van for a metallic blue 1966 Ford Fairlane which I later sold for three hundred dollars when I went away to college that fall. I got three new crisp hundred dollar bills for the Fairlane and I kept one of the bills in my shoe the whole time I was away at college as a pecuniary security blanket.
When I graduated college and lined up a job, I bought my first real new car— a 1973 MG Midget, that cost $2,700. On the day I drove it home from the dealer I parked it over at my brother’s house. I got into his station wagon to run an errand and backing up, I crashed into my own new car, denting the grill. The dent remained as long as I owned the vehicle as a perpetual reminder of the price of unbridled impatience.
My mother’s initial comment was that the MG, “Looked like a damn roller skate.” But I was too excited about my “sports car” to be discouraged. The car had a clutch about the size of a tea saucer and I found that it needed to replaced semiannually if you habitually rode the clutch as I did. I had successfully changed the Fairlane’s clutch and despite a box of left over parts, it ran, but the Midget’s metric motor was beyond me. You had to be a left-handed, double-jointed Australian marsupial monkey to work on that car. The engine had to be pulled just to change the oil. Three clutches later I became closer than I ever wanted to be with Harold, my English mechanic, although I rather liked telling people that I had an English mechanic and Harold certainly enjoyed taking my Yank money.
One night my friend Al and I took the MG to a dive in Memphis — Bad Bob’s. We saw Jerry Lee Lewis pick a fight with some guy at the bar and decided it was a good time to leave. On the way home I hit a slick spot in the road skidding into a very soggy field. The Midget was buried in mud up to the windows and we had to take the top down just to get out. We woke up a farmer and paid him 10 bucks to pull us out with his tractor. The tractor had a cotton planter gizmo attached to the front which scratched the right front fender of the Midget, but it was worth it to get out of there. My feelings about cars were beginning to change
A year later I moved to Florida and driving the Midget through Tallahassee on my way to visit my future wife, Diane, I noticed rain drops on the windshield. I turned on the wipers and they smeared the drops which were not rain at all, but motor oil. Motor oil drops on your windshield is usually a very bad sign. Suddenly all the idiot lights went on and the gauges went berserk like a slot machine hitting the jackpot. The MG had thrown a rod and needed a complete engine transplant. I was real upset. From at point on autos became objects of fear and loathing.
Three weeks and $500 dollars later, I took the bus to Tallahassee to pick up the car. Diane rode back with me to Daytona and two hours outside of Tallahassee the MG started making a roaring sound. I discovered that the muffler had worked its way loose when they replaced the engine. We pulled into a gas station that was attended by a couple of goofy adolescents and talked them in to letting me use the service bay to fix the muffler. It was getting late and I worked frantically on the muffler, burning my arm. A local Lothario cruised by, checking out the MG, and especially Diane who was asleep in the Midget. I was oblivious to everything except the muffler and when the guy walked up and said, “Looks like she’s about had it.” I assumed he was talking about the MG, not Diane and I said, “Nahh, a little tightening and she’ll fine.”
The Midget gave me one final embarrassing moment when I drove my boss to a psychologists’ convention in Washington. DC. Halfway there the car suddenly lost power and wouldn’t go any faster that 40 miles per hour. When we got to DC we were constantly worried the car was going to stop completely and leave us stranded on one of the streets full of hookers and pushers. Prayers and threats prevailed and when we got home, Harold said the MG had a blown head gasket. My boss said a lot of other things and I never lived this down.
By this time my hatred of automobiles had crystallized. In the years that followed this feeling was further aggravated by experiences with other misfit cars. There was the “Cheese Car”. My kids christened it that because of a funky cheesy smell that we endured until the car’s engine burned up two years later. My new mechanic, Chuck, bought the car, replaced the engine and sold it at a big profit. I often wondered if he had anything to do with the engine burning up in the first place.
Next was the “Pumpkin Car”, so named because of its large size and bright orange paint job. One day while shifting gears it gave a cataclysmic shudder and oily pieces of broken gears were strewn about the road. I called the local junkyard and they towed it in giving me 25$ for the remains.
Briefly we owned a large green Chevy van. It lost two side windows while I was driving down a particularly bumpy dirt road through an orange grove. It had chronic carburetor problems requiring the butterfly choke to be forced open once it started. I drove around for three months with an English bayonet stuck in the carburetor. My dad had bought the unsharpened bayonet at the Army Depot in East St. Louis when I was eight years old. It finally came in handy.
This van also had fan belts that slipped and made terrible screeching noises. Once we were driving down a dark foggy street and saw some pedestrians walking ahead. I told my oldest son, Saul, “Watch me scare the crap out of those guys.” I am ashamed to say I snuck up on them slowly, put the van in neutral, and gunned the engine, generating a gigantic squeak which had its desired effect. All ahead squeak factor nine.
Next there was the oil leaking AMC Concord whose engine fire was extinguished by a state trooper who for once was appropriately situated. I drove the car home later when it cooled down, but I had to keep the heater running even in the middle of the Florida summer to prevent the engine from overheating. Once the incontinent Concord overheated and I pulled off the Interstate and parked under the expressway next to a pond. Within minutes a battalion of homeless vagrants were all over the car helping to carry water and giving me the benefit of their automotive expertise. So it seem that all men, regardless of socioeconomic status, are authorities when it comes to cars. The Concord gave way to the Japanese van that could turn on a dime but had to have three alternators replaced in one year.
Last year our station wagon that had its transmission replaced only to burn out again while we on vacation. We were stuck outside of Nashville at a roadside store that specialized in towels and Elvis souvenirs. I called my transmission shop and was told to contact the local warranty dealer. Arrangements were made and we all piled into a tow truck (Diane, our two youngest boys, the station wagon and me) and off we went to see Mr. Transmission. The driver suggested we stay in town a few days to see the civil war battlefield and tour the local machine gun factory. Instead we immediately rented another car and continued on the vacation from hell, like the Pony Express, shooting one lame horse and saddling up another. I thought this year things would be different but the week before vacation the car developed a severe shimmy, prompting Diane to sing “Shimmy Shimmy Cocoa Puff” ever time we bounced down the street. The new tires and front end work wiped out our meager vacation savings and so another reason to despise autos.
God intended for autos to be feared and hated. They are obviously beyond the comprehension and control of most mortals. They are nothing less than malevolent entities bent on mischief and I have the physical and psychic scars to prove it.


2 Responses to “Auto Enmity”

  1. CrybeargeKata May 17, 2010 at 1:24 am #

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    […] See strange here: Auto Enmity « Welcome to Planet Terry […]

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