(first published in 2007) Once I crossed the line and became a fifteen year-old driving addict, there was no turning back. Nothing could stop me from using my drug of choice. Like most addicts, I was willing to cross any line to get my fix. If my supply was cut off, I found another. Needless to say this is not my auto-biography’s most innocent chapter.
After my first illicit drive in the family’s 1965 Dodge Coronet wagon, I couldn’t stop. On the day after Thanksgiving, with a load full of classmates, we cruised Towson Plaza. A sale-crazed woman coming out of the Hutzler’s parking garage ran a parking lot stop and hit me in the rear. Panicked, I drove away. It was just a dent, but returning the keys to my parents was not a Kodak moment.
I returned home before my parents, and tried to talk my older brother into taking the hit. But he was tripping on LSD (this was 1968) and just couldn’t muster it. I had to ‘fess up when they arrived in the Dart. It was an ugly scene, and I was officially inducted into the hall of criminality.
My punishment: a two year postponement of my license. Ouch! But did that stop me? Did that even slow me down? Hell no. They might as well have banned me for life for all the difference it made.
I cultivated other sources of wheels. And in a pinch, I still took out the family Dodges. Locked? A Popsicle stick opened any Chrysler product vent window. No keys? A single piece of wire (from the battery to the ignition) and a big screwdriver that crossed the starter solenoid posts and I was ready to roll. Oh, and I also unhooked the speedometer cable; my father had a photographic memory for (odometer) numbers.
I decided I needed more independence, an income, and other sources of wheels. A friend’s older brother worked Saturdays at a tiny two-pump Sunoco gas station on York Road, and I heard that he was quitting. So I walked over there and asked for the job, which was promptly given to me. The good old days…
I worked the Saturday shift solo, opening it in the morning and closing it up at night, recording the day’s sales, and locking the cash in the safe. I was essentially managing a gas station. This was some months before I turned sixteen. Would you give the keys to your gas station and safe to a fifteen year-old?
I only had some twenty customers a day, but many drove high-performance motors looking for their un-cut Sunoco 260 fix, the highest octane gas available. I eagerly popped the hood to check fluids, especially if a Jag 4.2 or 426 Hemi was lurking there. I vividly remember the crackling of a hot 327 fuel injected Corvette engine as I checked the oil and added a quart, and then checked his tires and topped them up to. The guy gave me a $10 tip, which was absurdly large, like $100 today.
It was a great way to spend Saturday: listening to The Doors blaring on the radio, doing the odd oil change, running next door to Smetana’s for a meatball sub, and (mostly) staying out of trouble. AND I got paid.
The boss owned a fleet of taxis (Coronets!), which he parked behind the station. Most had tired slant sixes. One ’67 still had a semblance of vitality, holstering the new LA 318 V8. I always went to work an hour early and treated myself to a therapeutic “wake-up drive.”
In the fall of 1968, I was a sophomore in a Jesuit boys’ prep school (Loyola). It was destined to be my last year at that august institution (I flunked out). The school had a fresh-out-of-college French teacher who drove a ’65 VW bus. He was way too friendly with his students.
I learned to drive a stick shift (car, not tractor) on that 1965 VW bus, on the grounds of the Maryland School for the Blind. It often wouldn’t start for him after school, so I fiddled with the carb (held it wide open because he flooded it) to get it going. One evening he was driving some of us to the Maryland School for the Blind to perform our allotment of community service. Payback time: that evening, my social contribution was to not hit any of the blind students walking the campus roads with their sticks as I mastered the VW’s stick.
Pretty soon, I was the new designated chauffeur of the so-called “Smokemobile”, into which a number of us would pile in order to indulge our nicotine habit as we rode through the neighborhoods around Loyola between classes. As the bus labored up Chestnut Avenue, trails of smoke poured from the flip-out windows.
I ended up driving that bus on all sorts of trips, including a ski trip up to the mountains of Pennsylvania, in fresh snow no less. Nothing like a supple fifteen-year-old brain to rapidly master the various dynamics involved in hurtling a loaded bus through snow-covered winding back roads. Teach ‘em young, even before they get a license.
Mysteriously, the facilitating teacher’s tenure at Loyola was cut short after only about four months.
To honor its name, the smoke-mobile eventually blew up in a cloud of…. smoke. The ex-teacher’s grandfather gave him his pampered 1962 Olds F-85 Cutlass coupe: black, bucket seats, and the four barrel 185 hp version of the immortal Buick-Rover-MG-Morgan-Land Rover aluminum 3.5 V8. Those ’61-’63 GM compacts were sharp looking and light. With the V8, the Olds was no slouch.
We went to Ocean City. Late at night, somewhere between Cambridge and Salisbury, I opened up the Cutlass. The speedometer needle’s progress slowed above 95. I was on my way to my first century. It kept moving: 96, 97, 98…
Damn! Puffs of steam erupted from the front of the hood. The thermal challenges of the aluminum V8 had stumped the GM engineers. “Hot as they go” as in the ad above indeed. Maybe that’s why they sold it cheap to Rover: the weather’s always cool in England, no?
After his dismissal, the ex-teacher (and accelerative enabler) tried out the monastery. Driving back late from an outing, the police pulled me over going a little too fast on the Beltway. I shook the intoxicated sleeping novice awake.
While Maryland’s finest got organized and out of his car, we scrambled over each other and changed seats (no joke in the little coupe). The fogged-up rear window was a blessing. The dazed-looking theologian in the black Olds presented his religious-affiliation ID, and was instantly absolved. Praise the Lord! My, how times have changed.
Even though in 1968 most of Baltimore was still living in 1959 (think “Hairspray”), I embraced the psychedelic late sixties fully. Hallucinogens opened new windows of auto-perception. It was like being five again; cars became living, breathing entities. We communicated, and I gained new insight into their personalities as expressed through design. I almost solved the mystery of the ’61 Falcon grill. I couldn’t understand the Marlin. And I doubt I would be standing in streets today endangering my life trying to get the right shot of a clapped-out Datsun if it wasn’t for Albert Hofman.
Although my fellow mind-travelers were generally freaked out at the idea of dropping acid and driving, I never had problems driving in drastically altered states of consciousness. One just had to know how to talk to cars and ask them for their help, when needed. That always worked for me.