The Fitty-Sedden Chevy was an American icon, like the flag, Babe Ruth, and McDonald’s. Boys figured that when their time on earth ran out, and they went to the great Southland in the sky, they’d find Elvis and Carl Perkins parked in front of the soda shop in a bad-ass Fitty-Sedden convisible — top down, hair slicked back with eight pounds of Ace-Hold Duragrip pomade, and singing Jailhouse Rock to a gaggle of poontang sweeter than Karo syrup.
My Fitty-Sedden was baby blue, falling apart, and called the Pluke Bucket. “Pluke” was a local coinage from King George County, Virginia, that meant carnal knowledge that you hadn’t really had but could lie about. In those days it was the commonest form of carnal knowledge.
Anyway, it was 1965 and I had become a student, or something vaguely resembling one, at Hampden-Sydney College, a small school in central Virginia. The place was the suburbs of nowhere, green and forested. The Bucket was with me. (Like rural Star Wars: “The Bucket be with you.”) In a fit of mechanical imagination I’d taken out the rear seat and put in a mattress that extended into the trunk. It was so I could go camping. I said.
Now, nothing is more fun than showing off. Well, almost nothing. There’s nothing wrong with showing off. You just have to avoid beating other people over the head with it — do it by overpowering inference instead of waving your arms and yodeling. If you have to tell’e, you’re not doing it right.
For college kids, showing off was all balled up with sex. They were trying to figure out how to be men and women. The boys wanted to swagger and stick their chests out, and the girls wanted to swivel and stick their chests out. (I think today it’s the other way around, but the principle holds.) Love meant looking cool and hoping. It’s why male birds ruffle their feathers and flap a lot.
Shirt was my girlfriend. Actually her name was Shirley, but for evident reasons everyone called her Shirt. She was a cute brunette and nice as the day was long and went to Longwood, the state teachers college seven miles away in Farmville. You probably don’t think anywhere could actually be named Farmville, but it was. It was a drowsing little burg with one street that amounted to anything, a statue of a Confederate soldier, and tobacco warehouses that smelled so good you almost wanted a chaw.
Anyhow, Shirt. This was before girls decided it was empowering to be wildly disagreeable. So when she stepped into the trash can of cold water on the floorboards, she was good-humored about it.
Reason was, the radiator leaked. I had sense enough to know that the Pluke Bucket was the pinnacle of earthly meaning. I didn’t, however, have money enough to maintain it. Only about a third of it worked at any given time. The transmission leaked, for example. The electrical system shorted strangely, and sometimes I had to almost hot-wire it to get it to run.
I put oatmeal in the radiator. That plugged the leak for a while, but it started again. I took the radiator cap off to reduce the pressure. Still leaked. So I got a plastic trash-can, filled it with water, and kept it on the floor on the passenger’s side. I thought it made perfect sense. I had a kind of scoop made out of a Clorox bottle or something that I used to dump water into the radiator.
Except Shirt forgot about it one night when we were going to a dance. And stuck her foot in it. I told her I’d get her some waders for her birthday.
One day the accelerator-return spring broke. I’d step on the gas and the Bucket would go faster. I’d take my foot off and it would keep on going faster. This could obviously be bad if I wanted to slow down and the Bucket didn’t. I tied a string around the gas pedal and pulled up on it with one hand while I drove with the other. Probably I looked like I had a small dog on a leash. When Shirt was along she’d sit with the water bucket between her knees, pulling the string.
Her parents had sent her to college so she could be a return spring.
Come one day in May, the sun was bright and the breeze blew soft as a Yankee’s brains and the whole glowing world called to your hormones. I figured I’d get Shirt and drive down Main Street, pretty much the only street, and look no end studley. Sometimes a stripling wants to get ahead of himself. There’s no harm in it.
For a while it looked as if it would work. Shirt was in a pretty dress and sweet as a dream raised on Moon Pies. I didn’t really have a tattoo that said “Death Before Dishonor” or a pack of Camels twisted into the shoulder of my tee-shirt. I’d tried, but they always fell out. Still, that was the spirit of the thing.
So I cruised down the street, left elbow cockily out the window, Shirt beside me pulling the string. I hoped nobody would notice that string. “Ticket to Ride ” blared from the speakers. Farm boys posed on the sidewalk, and I posed back at them. Shirt looked like a million dollars after taxes. I was unspeakably studley.
Thing was, every time I turned a sharp corner, the transmission went into neutral and the horn blew. I’ve tried to explain it. I guess the transmission fluid was low and the sump didn’t have slosh baffles. Turn, honk!, Swooshhh, dying sough….
Shirt kept giggling. No respect. It probably scarred me for life. But if I were going to do it again, and I would, nothing would do but a Fitty-Sedden. Ba-a-ad mo-sheen.
The South seems steeped in such amazing lore. You capture it quite well, Fred. On film, Robert Mitchum’s 1958 cult classic “Thunder Road” film captured that 1950s car culture, the South, and the revenue-tax-evading souped-up cars running moonshine through Tennessee. My father, a Federal Treasury Agent (evolving into the ATF) busted moonshine stills in the 1940s- 1960s, in the Ozarks, North and South, as well as stopping them on their high speed and dangerous dashes into dry States. He quite liked the Southerners, reluctantly arresting them. Not all were good natured, though. One shot him, in the early 1950s. He survived it.
In the North, the teenage car culture was cursed by road salt. The Northern States use it to keep the roads dry and free from ice in the winters. The hand-me-down cars we bought for a few hundred dollars were usually rusted hulks of metal. My first car, a 1965 Mustang Fastback had a two foot diameter rusted hole in the floorboard that lapped right up to the accelerator. Below me, I could see the pavement whizzing by. But, I wasn’t able to look down much, because I had to hold the quarter panel by hand, because it would not weld, nor apoxy, being 100% pure rust. My car slowly dissolved into rust on the road. Toward its end of life, it looked more like a heap of rust, than a car.
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