The first car I can remember being in was my grandmother’s ’39 Buick—a big, black tank that rode long and smooth and smelled of her perfume, Pall Malls, and the occasional breath of scotch. I would sit in the passenger seat and watch with glee (and trepidation) as the place where I lived disappeared into unfamiliar streets and strange faces. But when we’d end our sojourn at the pond, swans would glide past us, perfect and regal in their presence. While I enjoyed the time away from my younger brother and the rancorous fits we had, I appreciated this experience because driving was something that adults did, and was therefore knowledge that not every kid would have. It was my first taste of freedom, being able to leave my tiny universe and escape into the great unknown.
Not long afterward, I was rummaging in the unkempt quarters of the unofficial family garage, a dank, windowless crypt. No cars were kept in it. My parents parked our Ford at the curb in front of the house. The garage was rarely used except as a marshalling area for my father’s considerable yard projects. Some of his beautification schemes required gas-fired equipment, so there was always a jug of the fragrant yellow lead-laced liquid in the corner—yeah, right over there by the black widow nest. Like a little junkie, I’d risk death periodically by bending to it and taking a good snootful of those aromatic vapors until one day I couldn’t help myself. I had to taste that nectar, and I did. So then I had gasoline in my veins as well as my brain. I was five.
When I was nine or ten, I reached the next stage of development. We’d moved to the country (circa 1948) northeast of Manhattan several years prior, so there was lots of opportunity for the Old Man to mess with mechanical stuff—not cars, but small engines, farm equipment, things like that. Like any small kid who longs to be near his father, I’d watch him as he worked. He was self-conscious sometimes, and I got the feeling that he didn’t want me looking at what he was doing because maybe he wasn’t sure of what to do. Though I was more interested in the shape and the design of the tools rather than their intended purpose, I discovered that you just didn’t jump into the project, and that every mechanical attack required method and procedure.
Author William S. Burroughs, who was about as far from being a hot rodder as Jupiter is to Earth, devoted a chapter of a book to something he called DE, or Do Easy. DE is a way of doing. DE simply means doing whatever you do in the easiest, most relaxed way you can manage which is also the quickest and most efficient. Consider the weight of the object and how much force will be required to get it from here to there. Consider its shape, texture, and function, and when you touch the part, your fingers are extensions of your mind, precision instruments to perform every movement smoothly and well. Every part you touch is alive with your life and your will. Obviously, DE is meant for living your every day life as well. That’s one thing I learned from my father, too, but I didn’t put it into practice until much later.
When I was 14, I ragged the Old Man until he said yes. On a misty Sunday morning, we got in his ‘58 Plymouth wagon (318 poly motor, pushbutton) and headed for the drag races at the Montgomery, NY, airport. The ride upstate only took about an hour, but the whole time I could barely keep from levitating in my seat. Don Garlits, my Hot Rod magazine hero, was the one and only headliner! By the time we reached the concrete strip, the air was clear and blue, but Big would soon fix that. I can still hear and see his nitro-fired eight-carb Hemi rip the tires from one end of the track to the other. Now, as cool as that was, something much more important occurred that day.
Something in my head was transformed by the indelible wail of an uncorked V8. If sound waves could mingle with molecules of the earthly flesh, then that’s surely what happened to me. I was physically and emotionally addicted to the aura on the spot, and I knew it would never quit me.
A few more years passed and I found that I did have an affinity for the processes, and for the first time in my young life, I felt worthy and at ease with my surroundings. It was a very good feeling indeed.