Three days after our psychedelic nocturnal arrival in America, my family arrived at our final destination: Iowa City. The transition was a rude awakening: from a fantastic dream straight into a bad nightmare. We’d traded Austria’s alpine vistas for New York’s towering skyscrapers and wide freeways, only to watch the World of Tomorrow evaporate in the blazing August sun, replaced by endless corn fields and arrow-straight gravel roads. I sought and found spiritual consolation in the air conditioned GM dealerships, having traded the stone Church of the Sacred Heart for the glass Temple of Saint Mark of Excellence.
I landed in the US at a critical turning point in Detroit’s styling evolution. The Harley Earl era of gaudy fins and excess chrome was ending, and GM’s new styling chief, Bill Mitchell, was just beginning to exert his artistic influence. The 1960 Corvair was astonishingly clean and lean. The full size 1961 GM cars were smaller, lighter and more graceful, having shed several hundred pounds of fins and bling. I became a seven year old Mitchell acolyte.
I covered every square inch of my new bedroom walls with the dreamy icons of his handiwork, thanks to Life magazine. The Wide-Track Pontiac ads rendered by Art Fitzpatrick and Van Kaufman were the standout; the automotive equivalent of vintage “Vargas Girl” Playboy paintings. I became a chronic sinner, mentally-masturbating at the eye-candy as I fell asleep.
Having been car-less in Austria, I looked forward to our first set of wheels with high expectations. I was hoping for a replication of the his-and-hers matching navy blue 1960 Pontiac Bonneville hardtop and wagon sitting in the driveway across the street. My father, who somehow forgot to consult me, brought home a dull, plump 1954 Ford sedan. On frigid winter mornings, Mom used to pray for divine intervention that St. Henry’s elderly sedan would start. The big Ford’s main compensation: an ample rear sofa upon which the four of us kids could fight.
A year later, in an inspired display of paternal sadism, Pop traded in the geriatric blue whale for a barely mid-sized black hair-shirt 1962 Fairlane sedan. For the coup-de-grace, he bought transparent smooth plastic seat covers, as an additional opportunity to speed our time atoning for our sins in Purgatory. With his hyper-sensitivity to drafts, he barely cracked the windows. Trapped in that stuffy, cramped torture chamber, summer road trips made Abu Grhaib look like the Ritz. Wearing the mini-shorts of the day, we literally had to peel each other off those searing seats.
In 1964, I unwittingly co-opted my family to fulfill my spiritual need for the auto-Hajj. The 6.75 of us (Mom was seven months pregnant) drove three sweltering August days to NYC to join the teeming hordes of hot and sweaty pilgrims in circling (counterclockwise) and entering that most hallowed car-Ka’aba: GM’s Futurama exhibit at the 1964 Worlds Fair. Sacred vows prevent me from revealing the other-worldly experiences of those precious hours in that heavenly temple. Suffice it to say, I was now fully initiated in the cult of St. Mark of Excellence.
On the Sabbath, I would take the wheezing (but GM!) bus downtown to the local Chevrolet/Buick/Cadillac dealer for my weekly worship. I gladly spent the better part of the day just hanging around– especially on summer weekdays when the service shop was open. I sat for hours in devotion, preferably in the magnificent white and tan ’63 Riviera chapel, facing the altar of its heavily chromed and jeweled dashboard, with a stack of sacred scriptures in my lap.
Photographic memories of those heavy-stock bibles flash before me– especially the Cadillac books with the onionskin protecting the impeccable color plates. And like a Sunday-schoolboy reciting the Ten Commandments, I can still regurgitate every GM powertrain detail, including name (“Turbo-Thrift”), horsepower, bore and stroke, compression ratio, camshaft type and carburetion.
The annual high-holy days occurred each fall, when the dealers unveiled the new objects of veneration. Days before, I would poke around the dealership, hoping to catch an uncovered glimpse of the revelations to come. On the appointed day, a pious crowd would gather to partake in communion of hot chocolate and doughnuts. Once the veils were removed, spontaneous hymns of praise to the high-priest Mitchell rang out into the crisp autumn air.
Having passed the test of sitting four straight hours in veneration in the Riviera (I was allowed to alternate between the front and back seats) I became an official altar boy. That allowed me to freely wander the sacristy, where the religious objects were serviced and prepared. I considered cars to be living and breathing entities, and the shop reminded me of the hospital where Dad worked. Cars were poked, probed, and elevated. Bodily fluids were drained and oral medications administered. Watching the mechanic hook up the enormous Sun Engine Analyzer was analogous to the EEG tests my father monitored for crucial brain functioning.
Observing my favorite priest pull the engine out of a ’55 Chevy and disassemble it right in front of me was almost too much, though. A painful memory of having witnessed a hog being eviscerated flashed before me. Watching that Chevy’s small-block heart and soul reduced to piles of parts was the unraveling of a deep mystery and my first religious crisis. But hardly my last.