You gotta understand about the Pluke Bucket and me in rural King George County, Virginia, in 1963. (Maybe you didn’t know you had to understand this. Well, you do. Life is full of surprises.)
The county was then mostly woods, the high-school boys gangly farm kids who fished and hunted or pumped gas on long lonely summer evenings on Route 301. Towns ran from small to barely existent, and lay far apart. The only way to get anywhere, geographically or romantically, was by car.
By the time a he-child reached fourteen, he could name any car ever made, and some that hadn’t been, by looking at three inches of tail fin. Then he hit fifteen, his skin turned to pizza, and he began to look at girls with shocked reappraisal. Whereupon he bought some smoking, oozing, cantankerous rattletrap of a jalopy that sounded like a tubercular’s last minutes–and fell in love.
It is a biological fact that a boy can love a car. He learns its every quirk, the whirring of unlubricated speedometer cables, the tick-tick-tick of sticking lifters, the dying sough of the transmission. A car–his car–is security in the great dark world after the sun goes down, warmth in winter, status symbol, bar, codpiece, love nest, identity, and heraldic emblem. He may find no greater intimacy.
It was a big feeling to set out at night into those winding wooded roads, alone, skirting adulthood, feeling independent and, however prematurely, manly. My own courser, the Pluke Bucket, was a ’53 Chevy that ran on three cylinders, when it got to three, had no compression at all, and handled in a curve like a wet bar of soap. I didn’t care. The Bucket was mine. I had for that wheel-borne tragedy the affection someone sensible might have for a faithful dog. (“Pluke” was a local coinage meaning roughly “poontang.” “Gittin’ any plukin’?” meant, “Have you had the amorous success attributed to French rakes with the cheerleading squad serially?” The truthful answer invariably was “no.” It was an answer we didn’t much use.)
By age fifteen, a stripling could talk for an hour without saying a thing his mother could understand. Most of what he said consisted of a laundry list of mechanical properties having totemic import for those gripped by car lust.
“Ba-a-ad fitty-sedden Merc, dual quads, bored and stroked, 3/4 Isky, phone-flow, magneto ignition, 3.51 rear, Positraction, glass packs. Goose ‘at sucker, Sceeech!Udden udden udden.”
Decrypted, this meant that the speaker had seen, or hadn’t seen and was lying about, a ’57 Mercury with modifications that would cause the motor to make loud noises and then probably explode. We didn’t have the money to build genuinely fast cars. But we could dream.
The terminology wasn’t without meaning, and embodied the male passion for controllable complexity. For example, “phone-flow” meant that the car in question had four gears, mediated by a shifter on the floor boards, as distinct from threena-tree (three on the tree), signifying three gears with the lever on the steering column. Phone-flow was better, especially a narrow-gate short-throw Hurst, especially for power shifting, udden udden, blap! sceech?.
Just as knights recognized each other by colorful hooha on their shields, so we knew each other by our cars. It was talismanic and tribal. Our moms wouldn’t have noticed if they had passed a flying fire truck, but we, in that instant of passing on a winding night road, instantly recognized each other–Charles with the fitty-sedden Chev 283, Butch in the fitty-three Ford with the bad lifters, Floyd in the unspeakably glorious ’63 Ford 396 Police Interceptor. (He had graduated, and was making big money in a gas station.)
Most of us labored under the delusion that we were racing drivers. I remember having the curious idea that 75 miles an hour was a reasonable driving speed for all occasions. (I know, I know. Teenage boys are dumber than mud walls. If you had taken the aggregate brains of all the boys in King George County, and put them in a garden slug, that slug would have been under-powered.) Reflexes, God, and low traffic kept us alive.
Thing is, hormones don’t take no for an answer. One night I was out driving, just driving, putting gas through the engine, feeling that wild male rush to do something stupid and defiant. In a reasonable age, fellows of fifteen would have been dismembering brontosauruses, or banging on each other with funny-looking axes, or putting cities to the sword. Guy stuff. My family didn’t have much money. I couldn’t afford a sword, or a brontosaurus.
So I started fantasizing that I was Stirling Moss, then a Formula One racing champion. This was late one night on Indian Town Road, a narrow lane shaped like a convulsing python.
The wind poured through the windows like a current of water. Frogs creaked in the swamp and bugs keened in the trees. It’s tough being a bug: You screech in a tree all night, trying to get laid, and then freeze to death. It’s kind of how teenagers look at life. I came toward a tight downhill unbanked S-turn that would have frightened an Alpine goat. I remember thinking, “Only Stirling and I can take this turn at seventy.”
I had overestimated by one.
I remember lying on my back, miraculously unhurt, looking up at the gas pedal. The Pluke Bucket was neatly on her top in the ditch.
Being a practiced teenager, I began rehearsing how to explain it to my father. Space aliens put grease on the turn? Bandits stole the Bucket and rolled her while I pursued on foot? Gravitational anomaly?
Somehow, a week later, I was back on the roads, still dreaming of hot cams and log manifolds, of the smell of gasoline and brake fluid and supercharged big-bores screaming toward high revs, and the quick, sharp speed shift that I couldn’t actually do but craved as a protest against the unsatisfactory nature of existence.
It was meaning. I still haven’t done better.