A Reluctant Rider
Jimmy and I considered the two hundred-dollars our instructor demanded for his 1949 Hudson. The massive automobile appeared to be in excellent shape, judging from its original deep blue paint job. We both became bedazzled by its appearance.
The interior of the car contained a not unpleasant musty odor. I climbed in the back seat where I stretched out on the plush velvet-and-leather, noting that neither feet nor head touched either side, while Jimmy inspected things from behind the driver’s wheel.
The dashboard, constructed from both exotic wood and finely etched metals, sported more than the usual amount of gauges, but the fact that the vehicle had an intriguing wet clutch, a wonder to behold, finalized our injudicious decision. This marvelous machine, we decided, would enable us two young and single Marines a fine way to escape the drudgery of office machine repair classes on weekends. Over the next six months it in fact did.
I lost the coin-toss, so Jimmy drove us back to the barracks after we shelled out a hundred apiece to the pinch-faced elder. A slight hint of a smile worked around the corners of his lips when he folded up the cash and slipped it into his pocket.
While Jimmy negotiated the winding road leading to the main highway, I ran my fingers over the wood veneer and stretched my legs in the roomy front seat. I dialed the radio to search for local stations, and then Jimmy let out a whoop. I looked up to see a stop sign looming ahead.
“Man, this thing is going to need some new brakes!” He claimed, pumping the pedal several times. I couldn’t tell if the behemoth slowed by its own weight or if the brakes themselves had an effect, but we did come to a proper stop.
That turned out to be one of many flaws we two learned to deal with over time. The wet clutch wanted frequent attention. The ancient motor constantly required oil. And from the way the car billowed smoke, we figured the engine needed new rings, but that costly repair was far out of the question.
We managed to save money by using re-claimed oil. Most gas stations in that part of southern Virginia kept a fifty-five gallon drum on hand, where they stored dregs from previous customers’ oil changes. Obtuse attendants assured us (as they dipped an oilcan below the surface) that the impurities settled to the bottom. Jimmy and I felt delighted to hear this, since the product sold for next to nothing.
Then we discovered that after filling the large tank with gas, our now-depleted funds kept us from buying other necessities, such as burgers or beer. We solved that problem too.
An ingenious device known as an Oklahoma credit card fit snugly under our front seat. A six-foot length of garden hose will come in handy when one wants free gas.
We conned compatriots from the barracks to do this chore for us. It seemed to be a fair trade, since we provided them with free transportation. One would climb back into the car, spitting gas and demanding a cold beer to clear his throat.
But locating free fuel required constant vigilance. Late one night, we spied an all-too-easy prey. In the median strip sat a line of road construction vehicles, abandoned for the day.
“Make a U-turn!” Jimmy shouted, so I did. One of the boys jumped out, hose in one hand and a can in the other. Several miles down the road later, the Hudson sputtered into a gas station. There we purchased a full tank of gas, trying to dilute the diesel fuel we had just stolen.
On a pleasant Saturday afternoon, we decided to change the worn brake shoes. The shrill sounds of grinding metal had grown worse, plus a ticket given by a humorless cop had convinced us to do so. Late into the night and half into the next day we struggled getting things put back together, and vowed never to attempt such a dumb idea again. Repairing typewriters was one thing; old cars were something else.
One ideal target that supplied us with free gas was an isolated brick building set far out in the woods. A small Air Force communications group housed airmen there. A filled parking lot behind the building lay next to a thick pine forest. We only visited late at night. Driving from the front of the unit to around back, we cruised slowly looking for personnel. We saw no one. The flat roof held various radar dishes and multiple antenna silhouetted against the night sky, but things looked quiet on the ground.
Behind the barracks we found most of the cars parked in reverse, leaving the rear ends of the vehicles extending over the curb. Jimmy found us an empty stall, backed the old Hudson into it, and then he cut the lights. We sat silent in the darkness until our eyes adjusted before a passenger took the hose and left our car.
(At some point we had obtained a large metal gas can. I am most certain no one paid for this. One of those flat, metal types that are designed for military Jeeps, it had a heavy metal screw-on lid with a short metal chain. We are now about to learn how well noise travels at night)
A grassy bank sloped away from the parking lot. Our volunteer shut his door carefully. Then he crept softly down the hill and behind the car next to us. Completely at ease, what we heard next made us all bolt upright in untarnished horror.
First, the cumbersome lid made a high-pitched squeal with each turn. Metal against metal. It reverberated off the brick building, and the noise seemed to echo without ceasing. Every turn seemed to grow louder than the last.
Sound indeed travels better in the dark, especially to those terrified of being caught.
Our pirate managed to go on regardless, but then he saw fit to drop the lid, which resounded like a gong. Someone suggested starting the car up and leaving him there, but our robber inserted the hose before we could agree. We breathed easier when he suddenly appeared at the side window. He stood there in the hushed dark, wiping his mouth on his sleeve and whispering,
“It’s going, boys.”
It would take several minutes to fill, so he squatted down between the two cars and waited. A minute later lights unexpectedly appeared near the end of the barracks. One end of the parking lot illuminated as if the sun had rose suddenly.
Did a flare just go off? Holy crap! What is that?
Everyone ducked down. Then a car came around the corner. It slowly drove toward us. Headlight beams bounced up and down, and for a moment the interior of the Hudson lit up as clear as day.
Five bodies huddled down inside our car – the one standing ducked and froze. The car crept closer and closer. Then the lights went off, and to us things got dark again. The air outside grew death-quiet as the engine shut off. We stayed still. Crickets began to chirp after a few minutes.
Then our outside man stood up slowly. A few heads raised up to look. We saw him peering over the car next to us. Then he whispered low,
“Whoever is over there hasn’t got out of their car yet.”
Several parked cars obscured the view.
“I need to go check it out. That gas is running over.”
You could hear the tension in his voice. We all felt it. We all smelled the gas, too.
He bent down low and disappeared around the tail end of our car. By now you could hear us sweat as we sat and waited. I expected to be caught any minute, but beyond the initial yelling and terrible-but-true accusations, I could only imagine what our fate might become.
Then someone from the back seat spoke up.
“Here he comes!” We all strained our necks. And here he came, confidently walking upright and striding deliberately toward us.
He leaned on the Hudson and chuckled while he shook his head.
And with that he turned to retrieve the full container. After he climbed into the back seat, can in tow, he slammed his door. And then he grinned at the group.
Some guy had brought his date here to park in private, he told us, and they are over there doing what lovers do. So at that, Jimmy laughed and fired the engine, and then we hastily escaped the place.
Jimmy and I planned a long trip for an up-coming weekend. He had relatives in Atlanta, and I had my new girlfriend in South Carolina, so we packed a clean shirt or two and left Friday after classes were over. He dropped me off at her house, took the car on down to Georgia, and then returned late Sunday night to get me, right on schedule. We left South Carolina around eleven that night, and figured to be home by five the next morning.
It began to rain hard while I drove. Half-way across the state, Jimmy spotted a wet sailor standing on the side of the road, so we slid to a stop and offered him a lift. Shivering from the cold, he seemed to be a pleasant enough fellow, and alleged he was headed for the naval base at Norfolk. No sweat, we told him. We aren’t going quite that far, but we can get you close.
The rain continued to fall as we made our way through North Carolina. Then I came up behind a slow-moving car. Feeling the need to make good time, I passed him the first chance I got.
I waited for the moment when I couldn’t see the glows of on-coming headlights through the rain up ahead.
Then on the slick two-lane highway, I swerved into the other lane and floored the old Hudson. She responded with a roar that could be heard above the torrential storm, but as I drew along side the car I realized we were both traveling up a steep hill.
But before I could think or wisely retreat, the sky at the crest of the ridge lit up, and headlights from another car appeared. With a mere split-second to react I edged over to my right, somehow avoiding smashing into the side of the slower car. And there, for the briefest of moments, three cars occupied a space designed for two.
In an instant the thing was over. I shot past the auto and returned to the proper lane.
No one had spoken a word up to this point.
No one spoke for several miles afterwards, the way I remember it.
And I wasn’t about to open my mouth first. My hands and legs shook too much.
Pretty soon the speed limit dropped as we approached some nameless town, and at the first red light, the back door popped open. Then and there our passenger announced he had made a change of plans. He decided to take an alternate route, he explained, although I knew that was unnecessary.
My father had always told me, never explain your self to your enemies for they will not believe a word you say. And your friends – well, they shouldn’t require an explanation to begin with.