A highly edited version of the following true story was published in Rod & Custom Magazine
Payback’s a Bitch
Jay and I had a love hate car guy relationship. We were not competitive about sports or girls or any of the other normal things that high school boys could be competitive over, just cars. We mostly ran in different social circles, Jay was a year older and that was a lot when you are in high school. The time and location where we spent (or misspent) our formative youth meant that cars were the most important measure of our teenage worth. The time was the mid sixties, the height of America’s love affair with our own private magic carpet rides. The pop media of the day ( AM radio) played songs about surfing and hot rods and we pretended that we were in the epicenter of both. The small community that was our company town meant that we were really centrally located in the middle of nowhere, that being the central west coast of Florida before anyone had ever heard of a condominium.
The small town that we lived in did not exist until my father and other post war veterans came to the empty acres of an old cattle ranch with a portable concrete plant that provided the raw material for thousands of homes and hours of dusty labor for me as a driver working after school and on Saturdays.
But Jay and I were car guys. Being a car guy in our time and place meant that we both had lots of used-up cars in a never ending quest to go faster over a short distance. With dealer tags car titles and registrations were not in our cash based process. Between us we owned over 25 cars in the 4 years between the start of high school and the end of our innocence.
Jay had more disposable income (fewer dates as well, which may explain having more money) so he had a wider selection of somewhat faster cars while most of mine were in the basic transportation category. We spent endless hours bench racing, which for the uninitiated means talking the talk but not walking the walk. We talked about compression ratios and cam durations, rod length, over-bores,cylinder honing finish, porting and polishing, header length, torque vs. horsepower and any other theoretical approach to producing a faster car without much means to actually convert the talk into hardware. Without the means to build fast cars (or any real knowledge of how to do so for that matter) we resorted to an endless series of trades and purchases in pursuit of our desire to be cool, fast, or maybe someday both. Our collections included every year Chevy from 48 to 61 and a few orphans such as my Henry J, his Jag sedan and a few MGBs. Jay’s father was a European sports car sort of man which explained Jay’s short term ownership of some hand me downs which he could destroy in weeks by “accident”.
I am not sure what Jay’s Dad did when we first meet, I think he might have been retired military, which would explain his weakness for European sports cars instead of real’ cars with V8s and bad brakes. Later on his Dad got a job running the county juvenile correction facility out by the beach and he actually lived at the facility itself. This provided us with insight into where the whole bad boy car guy thing could go if followed to its penultimate destination, followed by the “big house” of course.
Jay and I borrowed parts, tires and even entire cars as needed and depending on what we had and what the other needed to be competitive with someone else. On Friday and Saturday nights when we were without anything better to do (meaning no dates) we would always take the faster car at the time and head to the big city of Ft. Myers for some street action. We were the motley crew from the sticks up against the rich kids from the city whose family’s owned the town or at least the Pontiac dealership. In 1963 the rich kid whose Dad owned the Pontiac dealership in Ft. Myers had the cream of the crop car in town, a 1964 GTO 2 door post with a tune-up from the service shop and fresh plugs every week. He was fast but so were the Mustangs and even the kid whose dad owned an Olds 442. There were sleepers around town as well like the 64 Mercury Comet 4 door with a warmed over 260 that had been upgraded with headers and 4 bl intake and even ran a early version of slicks which were un-grooved recaps that you could get locally if you knew Jimmy “the block”. Jimmy worked at the local recapshop and was also the offensive right guard on the football team. Jimmy would take the tire you wanted directly from the recap mold before it went to the groove machine and you ended up with a“slick” that looked cool but that did not have the soft rubber compound that made a true race tire. These tires were also fun in the rain and would hydroplane at a terrifyingly low speed. They would eventually cause me to lose control of my 57 Dodge that backed into a retaining wall at 40 mph. TheDodged (nicknamed “Ocean”) never drove the same after that.
Before the Dodge, my 57 Chevy was the highlight of my short car owning career during high school; it had a real V8 and a manual transmission. The original 235 straight 6 had been replaced by a previous owner with a 265 V8 from 56 and it had a 4 bl carburetor and a sort of dual exhaust when you uncapped the short dumps on each side that had been welded into the exhaust manifolds on each side.The dumps were short pieces of 2” water pipe with a screw on end cap. The problem with the dumps was that once you took the caps off you were stuck with open exhausts for the rest of the night because it was almost impossible to get the cold screw cap back on the hot water pipe in the dark. This made for interesting evenings of mostly coasting with the engine off interrupted by short bursts of loud acceleration to gain enough speed to turn it off and hope that no one noticed. The car was a 2 door post and it was a model 210 business man’s coupe which meant that it had no back seat. No back seat was even better because you could put 5 or 6 in the broad expanses that were behind the front seat. It also allowed access to the trunk for those with nimble and small frames so you could sneak into the drive-in without drawing attention by having to open the trunk.Entertainment, to our small group of hicks from the sticks, was limited unless we made the 20 mile trip to the big city.
There were no “hang out places” as such in our small community, no fast food places or even a pizza joint at the time so a lot of evenings we would meet at a remote location (of which there were plenty) and just hang out, sometimes with the car lights converging and the radios all tuned to WINK, the only station we could all receive. Other times we would have a fire and sit on rocks and tell the normal sort of teenage angst stories about how lame school was or how dumb our parents were. In 1965 Jay was a senior and I was a junior, he had a fairly fast 59 Chevy with a 348, 3 speed manual and multiple carburetors. This was a very nice car by our standards and almost everything worked on it and the paint would shine when it was rubbed out and waxed. Jay had mag wheels and thin white walls and the real dual exhausts had cherry bombs that rat-a-tat-tatted when down shifted, it was a sweet ride.
Unfortunately the week before the prom he blew up the rear-end by dropping the clutch at full throttle on a road that was a little stickier than normal. This resulting in the rare moment of real traction in our day. A heavy car and lots of torque twisting on the rear-end that was expecting the tires to be the path of least resistance was more than it could take that night. The rear was toast so two days before the prom Jay had no car. He asked me if he could use my 57 for his prom date. The 57 was available because I was going double with someone whose mom had a 63 Bonneville convertible. I was fine with Jay using the 57 because I knew that this would mean a complete cleaning and waxing of the car and even a “steam cleaning “of the front seat.
Prom nights, being what they were, resulted in Jay having a slight mishap during the early morning following a long night that involved my car. I never got all of the details of what happened but when I next saw my 57 the front fenders were wider and the front bumper was shorter. The entire front end had been pushed back about 8” and the front looked like a chipmunk with its cheeks full. I did not receive any details, he didn’t really say he was sorry, nor did he make any offer to fix or pay for the damage. This would have been silly anyway because the cost of repair would have exceeded the cost of the car but he could have offered.
This was just one more event on the hate side of our relationship that included other small events over the years including missing tools, broken promises, slights and insults that were too numerous to mention. Some of these slights and insults, besides the wrecked 57, were even committed by him. I stewed about this for a few weeks but then school was over and Jay joined the Army and went off to basic training leaving me without a true car guy to hang out with. It was true that one of my other friends was sort of a car guy but Dennis was a Johnny come lately to the car thing who surprised us all by buying a new Plymouth Satellite with a 383 and a 4 speed after years of driving a 4 door Corvair that was not fast, cool or even practical for hauling a crowd. Dennis went on to become a real car guy when he moved to Milwaukee after high school, hanging in the big pond with a tune up and engine swap at Grand Spaulding Dodge in Chicago, how cool was that. He even had a decal when he came back one summer that documented his membership in the Grand Spalding group.
So Jay went off to train for war and I was a senior now and was driving the 57 Dodge that later meet its end at a retaining wall. The Dodge might have been a faster car if it had not been so heavy and geared so low. It had a larger V8 but weighed two tons and was geared about 2.8 to 1; it would do 80 all day but took a while to get there. This was handy when I dated a girl in Miami and would take to the Tamiami Trail after work and get to her house before 8, then get her home by midnight and be back home by 2:30 the next morning.
Jay came home from basic and advanced infantry training at Christmas in 1965. Jay and I took up our car guy relationship right where it left off even though he didn’t have a car right then. He was driving his Mother’s 60 Ford 4 door while home on leave when she would let him and bumming a ride with me when he could including Christmas Eve when we had a double date together. My date was my longterm girlfriend Diane who had agreed to the night only if I took her to midnight mass. The midnight mass made the night a little tight on time because Jay’s date was in Arcadia an hour and a half from Lehigh Acres. The plan was to drop Diane and me at a movie in Arcadia so that Jay and his date could have a little “private time”. He thought that this was funny because he was of course a “private”.
I don’t remember the movie but I do remember that when the movie was over the theater closed (joining the rest of the town that had rolled up at dark). We found ourselves on the dark street alone with no one to call and nothing to do but wait. The movie was over at 10 leaving 30 minutes to spare to get her to mass but by 11:30 I knew that there was no way that even the mighty Dodge could cover the 70 miles in 30 minutes. Jay finally showed up after midnight but by then I was mad, she was mad and her Mother was even madder which led to our final breakup shortly thereafter. So there it was, car guy hate.
Jay fell back into his bad habits and the love part was becoming an ellusive memory that was now consumed with the hate thing again. Ah but my time was coming, the hate would be repaid and that pay back would be a bitch.
New Year’s Eve was different when you are a teenager; it might be a party night for adults but for the teen crowd it was not as if you got invited anywhere or went to a ball room in a tux and danced the New Year in. When you are a teen in the sticks your choices are even fewer and we were left to fend for ourselves.
The word spread the entire week after Christmas; huge bonfire at the race track on New Year’s Eve! Jay was the guest of honor, he was off to become part of the war. The race track was really a series of empty roads on the edge of the new and growing community. Someday soon it would be filled with cookie cutter block houses built on concrete and terrazzo floors finished by my construction friends in rubber boots and delivered by me or some other dirty and sweaty cement truck driver to the middle of the newest nowhere.
For now the race track was a twisting series of turns and long straight-a ways. It seemed to us to be just like Sebring where we went to see a real race every year. On this night the party started with a dried out palmetto palm in the middle of the road as a starter fire and was fed by fallen live oak branches and dried out palms. We were mostly a beer crowd but having a real soldier home on leave, in uniform, stepped up our game to the hard stuff that night. In our time, in our place you didn’t need no stinking ID to buy good booze if you were in uniform with a buzz cut. Jay joined the party late, what with the booze run and all to Ft. Myers. He also had the look of a guy who might have made a side trip to Arcadia. Now that I think about it, he always had a smug sort of“Eddie Haskell” look about him that made you want to race him for money if he challenged you at at a red light in town.
Jay then set out to show us how to drink the hard stuff like a man going to war. Two hours later we could all see the result of this demonstration of an all American kid coming of age. When he passed out the first time we wrote him off as a cheap drunk but he was only getting warmed up and soon he had acquired a second wind so to speak. At midnight he was still standing, unable to speak but still standing. Ten minutes later he was in the back seat of his Mothers Ford and having an issue of keeping all of the hard to come by good stuff inside. An hour later he had not emerged from the Ford and the crowd of 20 was down to a remaining group of 5, four of us were still standing.
Because of the love/hate car guy thing it fell upon me to see that Jay got home, all safe and sound and asleep in the back of the car. I left Jay in the back, more as a pile in the floor than a lump on the seat and drove the Ford back down the long straight-away with my soon to be ex girlfriend following in my car. She was still mad about Christmas and would remain so the rest of her life to the best of my knowledge.
Although I was not falling down drunk, I am sure that this represented the high-water mark of my drinking experience. The 4 door was a six cylinder slush box but I got it up to almost 90 on the long straightaway that dead-ended into the main highway through town. Across the street from the deadend was the green to hole #2 for the 18 hole championship (was there any other kind) golf course that was the centerpiece of the county club and of our little community. I did get it slowed down to about 40 miles per hour as the white 4 door Ford went through the stop sign and onto the closely cut green, sideways by then and throwing dirt and grass high and far . I remember thinking about a job that I had one summer getting up really early and going out to this very green and others just like it with a long bamboo pole. I took the pole and used it as a squeegee to remove the morning dew before the first tee times, only the best of care for the greens at the country club. I didn’t really get stuck and I was able to continue through the green and onto the next hole’s tee box,rejoining a connector street and then back to the main highway without stopping or even braking. The Ford drove fine so on we went.
Diane keep going and was waiting for me at Jays house, growing more disgusted by the minute. Jay never awoke or even made a sound as we drove the last few blocks to his Mother’s house. When we got there he was still out and so I left him in the back seat of the car on the car port. He was safe now and I had fulfilled both my love and my hate obligations to Jay that night.
Oh sweet revenge….you are my bitch.
The next morning his Mother found the car in the car port but no Jay in the house. She waited until 7am to call the local Sheriff to report him missing. Lee County Deputy Sheriff Olsen responded to the call and he went by to take the missing Jay report. He had just left the mess that someone had made at the #2 green overnight so when he arrived he noticed the finely cut bent grass in the hubcaps of the Ford and matching tire track pattern of the Ford. Police work was way too easy when it just fell into your lap like this. Jay heard Deputy Olsen talking to his mother in the car port and soon emerged from the Ford smelling like a brewery, looking hung-over and guilty! When you did bad things in that time and place your punishment was often forced enlistment in the Army or Marines. Jay was lucky that the process was already underway. Between his Dad and the fact that he was headed out the next day, the only punishment was monetary which I figured made us even for my 57 Chipmunk Chevy.
My final encounter with Jay was a few years later when I returned on leave from the war myself and started looking for Jay. I had heard that he was discharged and I finally found him in a run down rental out at the beach, a drugged out paranoid who keep the curtains closed and never even told me the name of the girlfriend who was passed out on the couch. With nothing left in common and the love/hate thing settled I never saw Jay again. The good times were gone, left in the jungle where young men found out that no one gave a damn.