Auto-Biography: 1964 Dodge Dart 270 – The Estro-Dart

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My best friend Jerry in eight grade was one of ten kids (yes, it was a Catholic school). His mom drove a Dart 270 sedan like this one, except for it being bright red. And how did that work? Just fine actually, as it gave me the chance to snuggle up to his sisters when his mom drove us somewhere.  There was one a year older than him, his twin sister, and one a year younger; ideally I’d find myself squeezed between the older one and the younger one in the Dart’s back seat. But it didn’t usually work out that way. The Dart was the women’s car in Jerry’s family, and I was lucky to get in at all.

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They lived in a big old house on a double lot in Towson, which I can show you readily thanks to Google, although back in 1967 it was painted white and the yard was all grass; plenty of room for ten kids and their many friends to run around. But it wasn’t the yard and the little kids that mainly claimed it as theirs that interested me. No, it was that sunroom off the left side of the house, which the three teenage girls (aged 15, 14, and 13) shared. It was very densely girly in there; an estrogen-heavy hot house on a languid summer day.

Walking into their room—assuming I wasn’t shooed right out—I was hit with a heady melange of scents (natural and bottled), the sounds of Martha and the Vandellas playing on the portable record player, and the sight of female stuff strewn everywhere: clothes, magazines, underclothes, posters, and of course the girls themselves, it all gave me a palpable hormonal surge. Testosterone meets estrogen. Except of course that my nascent expressions of testosterone was absolutely no match for their combined hormonal overload. I felt utterly overwhelmed. They sort of put up with me, intruding into their boudoir, but just for as long as they wanted to. I knew when it was time to leave.

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Actually, I did take his twin Jeanie sister to some CYO dances, and I remember riding in the back of the Dart with her to one or two. But Jeanie was the least attractive and most uptight of the three; there wasn’t really any magic. It was just because neither of us had someone else to ask, or be willing to go, so Jerry arranged it; a date of mutual convenience, not attraction. Even the slow dances failed to ignite anything more than the most basic involuntary response, strictly below the belt, nothing in the head.

Why couldn’t it have been her hot younger sister Sam? Because she never really looked at me, just through me, for starters. Well, that and because her strict Catholic parents wouldn’t have allowed her to go; the end of eight grade is when kids were allowed to start going to CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) dances.

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OK; the Dart sedan wasn’t the only car in the family. Mr. J. drove a white ’66 Ford Country Sedan, technically a ten-seater, but I’m sure it carried at least 50% more on numerous occasions. But why he drove the big wagon to work every day and left Mrs. J. with the Dart sedan was a bit of a mystery to me; in my family, my dad drove a Dart sedan and Mom had the nine-seater Coronet wagon. Ah, but then Mr. J. was a bit…rigid, to put it mildly. Actually, he was an uptight, insecure, borderline bully, but never mind that. But he was not going to drive the lipstick-red Dart to Black and Decker, where he was an engineer.

Maybe he just didn’t like me because I would rather insinuate myself into the big girls’ bedroom to hear the latest Motown hits and take in the smells than play outside with the boys. Or maybe he was just perpetually overwhelmed by the results of his annual procreation. Yes, the kids were all one year apart.

But I really liked Mrs. J.; she was short and cute like all the girls in the family. When she drove the Dart, there was almost limo-like rear legroom, since she had to slide the front seat all the way forward. More room for more girls in the back. We got her to drive us to Beaver Dam out in Cockeysville to go swimming. Sadly, the two-piece bathing suits were all mighty modest still in 1967.

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We’d spend hours on the rope swing; back then you weren’t required to drop off on the first swing. The hot thing was the opposite: to jump back and up,and  to get such a strong swing, so that you could land right back on the platform and get off. If you needed it, someone might grab you; or not, and push you in. The highlight of the swing session was when a girl’s bathing suit top popped off as she landed hard. Several guys dove in, all eager to be the one to find her top and (hopefully) help her put it back on. No thanks; I can do it myself!

But the real show-off thing to do was to swim across the lake, climb the 35′ or so tall cliff (now overgrown with trees in the background), and then climb the 30′ or so tall mining tower (it was a quarry) that was still there, but not for much longer. The total height was some 60′-70′, which looked more like a half mile when standing on the edge of it and looking down.

The first time I jumped from it was on a dare from my older brother. I was about 12 or so, and as is my very impulsive risk-taking nature, I swam over there, climbed the cliff and up the tower, walked towards the edge. I instantly realized that I’d never do it if I stood there and actually looked down, especially at the protruding cliff edge half way down. So I just walked back, turned, ran, jumped. And my feet just  kept running the whole time I was in the air, like a person getting hanged. Which I was, sort of, but without a rope.

Wham!! I landed  leaning slightly backwards, which from that height was a hard enough slap on my back to knock the wind out of me and momentarily paralyzed me. I finally gasped for air and started to feel my back again. Wow; That was intense!

I thus joined a quite small club of older guys who would jump the mining tower. Sadly, the tower was razed soon afterwards, and the cliff became off-limits. Even my daring jump for the girls failed to have the intended impact on Sam, although maybe she did warm up just a few degrees. It was my way of jump-starting my testosterone.

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Riding in that Dart with cute Mrs.J. at the wheel with a few of her cuter daughters was about as good as it got, for that summer of 8th grade, anyway, even if Sam wasn’t quite snuggling up to me. No wonder I think of the Dart as a very female car, and not just because of its looks.

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Although its big headlights did remind me of the girls’ eyes with full make-up. Anything to make them look bigger. And the slant six purred like girl on the make, unlike the macho burble of the 390 V8 in Mr. J’s  Country Sedan. He wanted his little woman to have a feminine little car, and the Dart filled the bill.

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The rides in the Estro-Dart and my visits to the girls’ boudoir came to an abrupt end at the end of summer, as Mr. J had taken a new job in St. Louis. But the following summer I talked my parents into letting me take a solo trip to the Midwest, to visit my old grade school friends in Iowa City and to Jerry and his sisters in St. Louis. I was all of 15, but my parents consented. And the arrangements were all rather sketchy; I wrote a letter to one of my old friends that I would be coming out, and with a date. No further details were arranged, like how I would get from the airport in Cedar Rapids to Iowa City.

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I took an early morning United flight from Baltimore to Chicago on a brand new DC-8-61, and there were no more than twenty passengers that day. It was bizarre, sitting in such a long plane, and only a few heads to be seen anywhere. Such were the days before deregulation.

I hitched a ride from the Cedar Rapids airport to Iowa City. And when I got into town, I just walked to my old grade school friend Johnny’s house, knocked on the door, and said…here I am!  

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Oh boy, did we get into trouble that week. Johnny’s dad had a beautiful Thompson wood runabout on Coralville Reservoir, with a big 110 hp Mercury outboard. And his grandpa had a cabin on Lake McBride, which was a smaller reservoir separated from the bigger reservoir by a rock dam. Johnny, who had an unwavering predilection for trouble, came up with a typical harebrained idea.

A bunch of us drove out late one night to where the boat was docked, thanks to a friend who had a car. It was my job to somehow get the motor running without the key (this was all without permission from his dad). I took off the motor cover, and somehow got it running (I can’t remember how). And I had to stay back there with the exposed motor to control it, as the remote control was still locked out. Or something like that (we were already a bit under the influence having consumed some beers, but were in the hunt for more). I can still hear that Mercury straight six “tower of power” screaming inches away, as I pulled on its throttle linkage right to the stops.

We roared upriver to the dam that separated it from Lake McBride, tied the boat up, and climbed the big rock dam. And then we jumped in with a waterproof flashlight or two and started swimming across the lake to the cabin. Why? Because there was beer in it, of course! Anything for beer! And Johnny thought it would be a good idea to break in and float it back to the boat.

Well, someone sitting out on the deck of another cabin saw the flashlights way out there right in the water, and called the sheriff, thinking that someone’s boat had capsized or sunk. When we arrived at the cabin, the sheriff deputy was waiting for us. Johnny tried to make up some utterly BS story about me having a health issue, but he wasn’t buying it. Mr. Nash got a call, drove out, confirmed that the cabin (and Johnny) was in the family, and the sheriff went on his way. Man, was his dad ever hot!  And the next day we had to retrieve the Thompson and spent the day cleaning it up immaculately and doing other drudge chores. And I was not feeling very welcome anymore.

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So I hopped on a Continental Trailways bus, to St. Louis, to Jerry and his sisters. I snagged the front seat across the aisle from the driver both for the fine views of the Mississippi as well as to watch the driver work the big gearshift and steering wheel. I knew I wanted to be a bus driver someday, a wish I fulfilled some years later.

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The Gateway Arch had just been finished a couple of years earlier, and going up it was highly memorable. I can still feel it swaying gently as I lay on my chest to look down and out of the viewing windows, which angled down some 45 degrees.

There were some other memorable experiences too, with Jerry and his sisters. The oldest one had just gotten her license, so now we piled into the Dart in search of…whatever kids did in these vast and rather sterile brand-new suburbs of the day. The brand new mall was a magnet for the girls, so we tagged along. And in the evenings we’d find ourselves at the usual suburban teen drinking parties; at whoever’s parents were out of town. Or just very lenient.

In some ways, it was racier and more fun. But the innocence of that summer in Towson was gone, as was that wonderful, aromatic three-girl boudoir. The older girls each had little and slightly musty rooms carved out of the huge basement. And although Sam was a bit less cool to me after a few beers, but she still wasn’t interested. Oddly enough, it was his older sister and I that hit it off the best, as we both had shared interests now in psychedelic music and pot. There was a decidedly new smell in her room.

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I flew back to Baltimore on a TWA 707. As I was flying student stand-by, I was last to board. As I got on, I passed the first class lounge at the front of the plane, and asked one of the stewardesses, who wasn’t all that much older than me, if it was ok for me to sit there. She gave me a whatever look and shrug of permission.

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After she was done serving lunch, she sat down there too, across from me, and pulled out a paperback: Love Story. Ali MacGraw looked just like an older version of Sam, and I fancied myself looking more than a bit like Ryan O’Neil. I just sat there and stared into those dark eyes.

I tried to imagine what fulfilled love was like. I wished the stewardess would tell me; but then maybe she was still trying to figure that one out herself. Maybe she’d get to the end of the book before the flight ended and have a good explanation.

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When I saw this Dart a few blocks from my house the other day, I wanted to open the door and take a sniff. There’s no sense more evocative than smell, able to instantly and fully transport one back to when a certain scent first became indelibly connected with an intense experience. I’d like to think this Dart will smell like Mrs. J’s Dart did, of teenage girls, wet bathing suits and towels, Coppertone, unfulfilled desire, and Dr. Pepper.

It’s just as well that it was locked; it was bound to disappoint, especially in our wet climate. And it’s probably been occupied by males.