Sunday, January 11, 2009

Shoveling out my Gran Torino

Last night, we had a motorcycle movie night, out with the gang, to see Gran Torino, the new movie from Clint Eastwood. I’m not sure of all of his credits (for this movie) but I do know that he acted in and directed this effort. This is an incredible movie, with powerful messages about racism, generational stereotypes and the capacity for change. Wow. What a movie. I won’t ruin it for you but I recommend it highly.

Seeing the “car star” of this movie brought back memories, for me. The visual centerpiece of this movie is a cherry 1972 Ford Gran Torino Sport. It reminded me of the 1971 Gran Torino my family owned, one of many Fords for us. My Dad was a hardcore “Buy American-type” when it came to purchasing autos. True, one of the first memories I have is of standing on his lap “driving” the old Volvo Humpback sedan, but he always bought American, after that. In hindsight, I realize that maybe I was just allowed to have my hands on the wheel while he drove and that we were moving at a speed of less than 10 mph, as we navigated Lakeview Drive. Perhaps my love of all motor vehicles came from that early sensation of speed.

Mom’s new white ’71 Gran Torino four-door was a family car, replete with bright blue vinyl seats, easy to keep clean with four kids constantly sliding in and out of it. It replaced a beautiful (1966?) pale butter yellow Pontiac Bonneville convertible, nicknamed the “Soul Train”. Mom’s car, as is often the case, is the car you live in, while Dad’s car, either the ’69 Mustang Mach 1 or the ’71 Mach 1, were driving cars and no French fries or milkshakes were allowed within. I seem to remember that it was me who DID spill a milkshake in the interior of one of the family cars. It had to be my mother’s Bonnie and I seem to recall it running down from a rear speaker embedded into the rear bench seats and disappearing between the cushions. Dad was furious, Mom shrugged it off. No doubt my father spent time later that day detailing that car to amend my error.

Speaking of the Soul Train, I was perusing Hemmings Motor News a few years ago and I found the Bonneville for sale. I doubt that it was our car but it was damn close. It was available for sale in NY State and I still kick myself for not having the funds or the room for a car that seemed to be longer than the inside of my garage. I learned to drive in Brother Jay’s VW Beetle, one of many. The low hp made it easy to shift, more or less, and how is he to know how many times I ground the gears in the educational process? Once I had driving down, at the age of @ 12, I would lift the keys for the Bonnie, drop the top and drive that car around the neighborhood at idle, sitting atop the driver’s seat, leaning forward only slightly to steer. Seems like that car would coast at @ 8 mph, which is a nice safe speed when you’re nowhere near a brake pedal. One of the neighbors would eventually alert my mother to the fact that a skinny kid was driving in circles in her car perched atop the seat and she would race out to yell at me to put the car away. I can’t tell you how many times I took that ride but it was many.

From the VW Bug(s), to the Bonnie, to the Gran Torino, to the Ford Maverick (pea soup green, no less) to the paint-challenged ’70 Chevy Camaro: these are the cars of my youth. But, there was one more vehicle that changed my life. A small, mini-bike with knobby wheels and a 5 hp Tecumseh engine. Somewhere in my pre-teen years, this used scooter entered our lives. It was too late for my older brother to use, by then he was probably into his first car. My younger brother and I took turns on this thing, riding the perimeter of our small suburban lot, tearing up the lawn and making a perpetual hard-packed dirt track around the yard.

When we were old enough to venture out of the neighborhood, we’d ride to the nearest Esso station and buy a half gallon of gas for a quarter. Then, we’re race it home, on town streets, and duck back into the ‘hood before the cops spotted us. Eventually, we’d ride deep into the woods, traversing the trails and power line roads that joined our neighborhood to another, where our school friends lived. More tales of juvenile delinquency will have to wait for another day.

So, the cars led to the mini-bike, which lead to the motorcycles. Growing up, only one kid I knew had a real bike. His name was John (Jack) Maculitis. We all called him Jack or Jackie, except for Howie, who referred to him as Mackie Ejaculitis. Yes, I learned some new words from the older kid in the neighborhood. He had a quick wit and a perverse sense of humor. In his house, farts were funny and meant to be shared. My Dad would have given him a good beat down, if he could have. None of those shenanigans were tolerated in our house.

I see that the snow has stopped falling and it’s time to get out the shovel. We got another 8” of light, fluffy powder overnight. Last month we set new snowfall records. January is off to a record pace, itself. Personally, I’m thinking of warmer climes and the chance to ride year-‘round. And maybe that’s what I like best about riding, that sensation of the warm sun on your face, wind in your hair, where you’re 12 again, atop the front seat of the most beautiful car in the world.

A low, slow wave,

Joe Rocket

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