Los Angeles, 1971. I was long-haired, feckless, aimless, jobless, and ready to deliver another car from coast to coast for AAACon, the Driveaway agency. I had about $150 for the seven days of the journey. Assuming 10 miles per gallon, that was 300 gallons at maybe 30 cents each. If I allocated $100 for gas, the remaining $50 would pay for a few cans of beans and tuna fish, a pound of processed cheese, some milk and raisin bran, and an occasional “All the fried chicken you can eat” for $1.99 at a Howard Johnson’s. Credit cards? Long-haired hippie deadbeats such as myself did not have credit cards.
The money seemed sufficient because I wasn’t worried that the car would develop any problems. In those days, people of my age had a habit of not worrying. Going with the flow, doing your thing, groovin’ on a Sunday afternoon–these activities were incompatible with worrying.
This time I would be traveling solo, after a recent unfortunate experience in which I had shared a vehicle. I had tagged along with two members of a Northern California macrobiotic commune who were delivering a Buick Skylark. Because they had absorbed a lot of yin in the cool climes of the Bay Area, they were in urgent need of yang, which meant that as we journeyed through sweltering August heat in the heartland, they absolutely refused to use the air conditioning.
Following the dictates of their guru, their diet consisted almost entirely of rice balls while they maintained a severely restricted fluid intake. By the third day their epidermis had become so dehydrated, I had the perversely interesting experience of watching it peeling off their increasingly scarlet faces. It was like a really bad case of sunburn, without exposure to the sun.
“Would you like some water?” I asked the man of the couple one morning, feeling concerned in case he might suffer renal failure before we reached New York. He eyed the bottle ambivalently. “I’d like some,” he said, “but I’m afraid of what it might do to me.” Such was the extent of cultism in those days. But I digress.
My ride was located in San Clemente. It was a 1969 Olds Delta 88, owned by an elderly Army colonel who had been re-posted to New Jersey but was unable to drive there while recuperating from a brain operation. He had a noticeable dent in his head, and a tremor in his voice. “So you’re the er-um fella gonna drive my car,” he said, as he walked me out to the garage. “Think you can handle it?” He nodded toward the monstrous Olds, which was gold with a black vinyl roof. Utterly tasteless, but I loved it on sight. I especially liked the look of its bench-style front seat. It was about 65 inches wide, which would allow me to sleep in comfort. Motels? I had no interest in motels.
“I’ll give you a bonus,” the colonel told me, “if you er-um get there on time, with everything safe and sound.” He went on to explain that the trunk of the vehicle was packed with priceless watercolor paintings. I assured him that the paintings would be safe with me. He surrendered the keys, and I hit the road.
The Olds had a signal-seeking radio, which was a radical concept at the time, incorporating a small internal motor that turned the variable tuning capacitor while the radio hunted for stations. Another novel option was a speed buzzer that could alert you if you were driving faster than you intended–a useful item, as the Olds was so massive and silent, everything that happened outside it seemed vaguely irrelevant. (True cruise control was still rare in 1971.)
I drove into LA to say goodbye to some friends, and went for a spin along Mulholland Drive. The Olds rolled like a yacht as I entered each turn on the mountain road, and I wondered just how fast I could go around bends that were helpfully signed with a 30 maximum. I managed to get it up to 50 before all four tires started to slide. I was impressed.
Somewhere outside of Las Vegas, I stopped for gas at a self-serve station. Pumps took coins in those days, so I went into the office to get change. The attendant wandered out and noticed a bump like a cyst on one of the front tires. “It’s separating from the casing,” he said. He was right, but since I had no money for new tires, I decided not to worry about it.
As I cruised across the desert, the afternoon sky became almost black at the horizon. Before long, I was climbing mountain roads into those thunderclouds. Snow started falling, turning to rain as I crossed the Great Divide. The sun set, the storm became more intense, and the front-right tire blew out.
The car was so totally sound-insulated, there was just a little “thump” from somewhere. Then came the annoying tug on the steering, followed by that driving-on-a-washboard sensation as I reduced speed. The car started slewing from side to side–very slowly, because it had so much inertia. Trucks overtook me, spraying water across the windshield.
I wrestled the Olds to a stop and sat there with the flashers on while the rain kept pouring down. The spare tire was only accessible through the trunk, and the trunk–well, the trunk was full of those priceless watercolor paintings. Maybe if I went to sleep, the rain would stop during the night. I punched the signal-seeking radio till I found a weather forecast. It told me I was in the middle of the storm system that was likely to last for a couple of days.
Desperation begot inspiration. Suddenly I remembered an exit about a mile back. There had been an overpass, hadn’t there? Maybe it could shelter me from the storm. Backing up for a mile in that monstrous vehicle, along the shoulder of Interstate 80, at night, in the rain, with a front wheel that now felt as if it was square, was not easy. But it was possible, and my memory had been correct: There was a bridge over the highway.
When I unloaded the trunk and found the jack, it consisted of a vertical rod with notches in it, and a lever which engaged with the notches. If you pushed down really hard on the lever, it would raise the car another notch. I ended up looking apprehensively at that huge car, weighing two tons, supported at one corner by a notch in something that looked like a steel toothpick.
Still, I put the spare on the car, repacked the (undamaged) paintings, drove on through the relentless rain, and stopped somewhere in Nebraska. I ate a can of tuna fish and a can of baked beans while I wrote my daily journal on the portable typewriter that I always carried with me. The radio now warned me that tornadoes were likely, but as a British person, all I knew about a tornado was that it was a strong wind. How bad could that be? I decided not to worry about it.
When I woke the next morning I found myself surrounded by earth-moving equipment. I had inadvertently parked in a construction site. Guys in hard-hats were staring at me.
I drove out of there and stopped at a nearby Esso station. Rain was still falling, of course. A nice mechanic checked the remaining factory-original front tire and said that it was separating from its casing, just like the other one. He recommended two new tires before continuing, but when I opened my out-of-state check book, he slowly shook his head. “You better try the bank,” he said.
The customers and the bank tellers were all chatting to each other on a first-name basis while carefully avoiding looking at me. Here in Small Town USA, “hippie” was still a bad thing to be, and “unwashed hippie” was worse. I had two days of beard, had spent the last couple of nights sleeping in my flower-patterned shirt, and my bell-bottom pants were stained with tuna fish.
“I would like to cash a check on a New York bank,” I said to the teller. Soon I was sitting opposite the manager, who had a brown jacket and a crewcut. He called directory assistance and asked for the phone number for Manufacturers’ Hanover Trust in New York City. “Uh, no, you don’t want to call their head office,” I told him. “You need to call my branch. It’s a big bank. It has, like, forty or fifty branches.”
He stared at me as if he found it hard to believe that such a thing was possible. But, eventually he got through to the right branch, and asked them if I had more than $100 in my account. They said I did, so he cashed my check for $100. There was a service charge of 15 cents.
Back at the gas station, the mechanic took the spare off the front. I stowed it, repacked the paintings yet again, slammed the trunk lid–and realized with dismay that I had left the car keys inside. As I stared at the closed trunk, I imagined maybe tunneling in through the rear seat; but that seat was not designed to come out easily.
The mechanic called a friend who ran a hardware store. The friend said that if he was supplied with the code numbers of the keys, he could punch a replacement set. The mechanic turned to me. “You got those numbers with you?” he asked. I placed a collect call to the colonel and asked him the same question. “Why er-um yes, we have those numbers,” he said. “Hold on.”
Soon his wife was on the line, carefully reading the numbers to me from a little card which their Delta 88 instruction manual had told them to keep in a safe place. As military people, they were conscientious about following instructions.
The mechanic drove me through the rain to his friend at the hardware store, who looked the numbers up in a reference book and converted them into some other kind of code that worked his key-punching machine. He charged me a dollar.
By this time I was dumfounded by the decency of Nebraskans. I didn’t have enough money to tip anyone, so I just thanked them profusely and continued on my way.
The remainder, as they say, was uneventful. I delivered the Delta 88 to the colonel, who had flown to his new home in New Jersey. He gave me the promised bonus (because I had delivered the car on time, with everything safe and sound) and reimbursed me for the new tires. I wondered, briefly, if my torture test on Mulholland Drive had been the cause of the tire problem–but a little hard cornering shouldn’t cause that much damage, should it?
I went home to my New York apartment and took a long hot bath. As I lay in the tub watching a week’s grime rise to the surface, I realized that my life was becoming rather aimless–and also hazardous, as a result of my obsession with seeing the United States by delivering cars. But I decided not to worry about that.