Fast Times at Edgemont Jr. High

My post yesterday was just a little introduction to the automotive fantasyland of the past weekend’s car show here in town. Though I wasn’t, and am not, car-crazy, I have always had my own bit of admiration for the beauties of slick automotive design when I see it. I do love design, period. Cars are a clear, clean, highly visible example of the good, bad, and ugly in design. They take practical and ergonomic problems and solve them with both structural/mechanical and visual design choices, and the results present a tremendously varied array of marvels for every taste. Or none, in some cases, if you ask me.Photo montage: Car Show

The little ol’ suburbs where I grew up were not flashy, nor was I. So it’s just as well I had no particular need for speed or passion for fashion, when it came to cars. From when I was old enough to take Driver’s Ed, I was more obsessive about wishing I could avoid the class and the test and what to me were the stresses, rather than pleasures, of driving than about any urge to own and drive snazzy cars. At the same time, from my early teens I can recall having a growing appreciation for what made particular cars special. My first skills at determining the probable vintage of cars came from being able to internally populate and visualize them in use by their original owners, who would in my mental movie be dressed in period styles and occupied with period activities, and so they became entwined with the whole of characteristic designs of each era with which they were so associated. I never saw any of the movies American Graffiti, The Transporter, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, or Fast Times at Ridgemont High until well after their release dates, but I could see the sorts of cars that were on the screen in any of them and guess a fairly close year of the stories in each case, real or imagined.

No matter, that. What really intrigues me about vehicles, as with so many objects that capture my interest, is the stories that they themselves seem to contain. It’s the cachet of the combined looks and capabilities of the automotive machinery, yes, but far more, it’s the history of every scratch, dent, smudge, crack, and well-worn tire (or perhaps back seat upholstery) that makes me look, and think, twice.

I’ll leave you with a few more images to ponder, and just let you drive them around for a while and see where they take you.Photo montage: Denton Car Show 2015

Your Mileage May Vary

Is there any time machine more reliable for Americans than a car manufactured in the years of their youth? I’m not even that much of a car nut, myself, but this weekend’s car show on the square in our town reminded me that a quick trip back to my formative years is only a muscle car grille away. The town’s annual car show is not one of those high end, multimillion-dollar auction deals full of people who phone in their bids from some remote private island and send their Handlers to pick up the two or three classics they’ve nabbed just for parts. This is where you go to watch little kids waddle around and have their tiny, mustard-coated hands pulled away from the chrome at just the last second by Daddy, who had turned around to talk with the next guy down the row about his customized low rider while Mom was off listening to the live music across the street with the lady who is showing her two vintage tractors at the meet.

The local preference, at least this year, seems to be slightly in favor of mid-century muscle cars, which suits me fine. I’m a mid-century model, too, as it happens, and while my gears are hardly a matter for general admiration, I’ve managed to keep my chassis from getting too badly dinged up so far, and my motor still revs a bit over anything from the great tail fins of the late-’50s models that dominated when I was a young whippersnapper to the sleek, hard-edged lines of the amped ‘Cuda or Cougar in whatever dangerous-looking color some daredevil chose in the early ’70s.

I never got to buy or drive one of those—the closest I ever came was the ’58 Mercury I was sorely tempted to buy for my first car because it did have a trunk big enough to tempt a mafia don (“room for the whole Family!”, if you know what I mean). But being a realist, I knew I had better invest my meager savings in a sturdy station wagon with a solid engine, so I could haul all of my tools for the few years I worked as a painter-slash-gofer at my uncle’s construction company between undergraduate and grad school days. It would’ve broken my heart to mess up that sweet Merc. As it turned out, the studly slant-six engine of my dorky looking station wagon took the sting out of the tradeoff pretty neatly, being able to handle anything I threw at it, and I did put some money into a sound system worthy of shouting along with ZZ Top, Van Halen, and Oingo Boingo tapes (depending on my mood) in the car, a fair consolation on the long drives to more remote job locations.

In any case, I was never the most spectacular driver, so practicality would, and will, always win for me. So it’s all the more entertaining on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, to wander around the parked prizes of other car owners’ loves and reminisce just a little about that brief period of my younger days when a car was more than just transportation to me.Digital illo: Your Mileage May Vary

Maybe They *Don’t* Make ‘Em Like They Used To…

Happy Birthday, Dad!Photo: Classic Models

Today is my father-in-law’s natal anniversary. Though I’ve no doubt he sometimes feels his age and then some, as all of us do, he remains marvelously youthful in his wit and charm in general, and like a certain favorite toy car of a somewhat similar production date (one passed around by kids in our family for many happy years), has all the more appeal, truth be told, because of all the stories behind the few dents and scratches.

Not only am I most fortunate among persons in having found life partnership with a best friend who suits me in ways I could never even have imagined, I got a fantastic package deal, his parents being from the beginning the best sort possible. I knew before I met them that they must be rather extraordinary to have produced such a dandy son who really liked, loved, and respected them, so I wasn’t all that nervous about the meeting, a fact all the more remarkable when you consider that I still struggled with a fairly extreme level of persistent anxiety at the time. I was more afraid of meeting my beloved’s then part-time housekeeper, an old-school German lady who clearly thought anyone hanging around with her adopted charge had better meet her rigorous standards. Maybe Irma paved the way to make Mom and Dad Sparks seem that much less intimidating. In any event, from that first time I met them I was quickly falling in love with them, too. In any case, it turned out that I had attached my heart not only to a great life partner but to a great life partner with great parents, who immediately became my parents along with the ones who gave me my birth.Photo: Elegance on Wheels

Our Dad S is a thoughtful, gentle, good-humored, positive person who served honorably in the Army, who with Mom S raised a pair of superb sons, who worked with computers from those early days when a single one still filled a massive, refrigerated room to when they became ever so much smaller yet far more powerful, and even trained for and had a post-“retirement” career as a Myotherapist. He continues to be curious and dedicated enough to keep taking classes, traveling, and beginning new adventures as a seasoned but lively octogenarian. He is indeed a man of a ‘certain vintage’ by now, having had many adventures and being the repository of myriad stories as a result, but never fails to have new tales to add to the inventory because his spirit is so lively.

Most of all, he has as loving and generous a heart as he always did, and makes me hope that he will have not only a lovely and fulfilling birthday celebration (or ten) for his birthday but as many more as possible. He is, after all, a classic.Photo: Classic Good Looks

Spaceships, Time Machines, Bicycles

Photo: One for the RoadWhen I think about it, I’m amazed at how many modes of transport exist. Contrary to the fantasies popular in the middle of the past century, we’re not all traveling in levitating cars and being atomized and reassembled on opposite sides of the world. But it’s still fiction-worthy stuff that emerges when I realize we’re within reach of fully self-driven cars and can already travel at light speed, drive under the sea, and fly to the moon and, yes—more importantly—back again.

Fiction, however, has always outstripped real-world progress, as well it should. If we don’t imagine it first, how can we build it? If we didn’t travel thus in dreams, what chance would there be of our ever doing so in life?

I have invented an item or two in my time, but my ingenious machinations have never yet been realized in concrete form, at least those unrelated to my art. Still, I hold dear the idea that ideation is the necessary precedent of exciting discoveries and meaningful inventions. As silly as they may seem, then, I’m unlikely to quit developing my odd creations of the imaginary sort.

Who knows what journeys might someday spring from them?Digital illustration from photos: Time Machines

Slow-Moving Cars & Shiny Objects

Distractions abound. One split second of inattention can lead to disaster, whether it’s the roadside wildflowers that make me fail to notice the brake lights ahead of me or the glittery wings of a metallic beetle that keep me from realizing that everybody in my promenading party has walked on ahead without me and I don’t quite know where. Not such great and significant dramas in the grand scheme of things, these, but small indicators to remind me that things could have been so much worse if I hadn’t been so fortunate, and might be yet if I don’t learn from the nudges.Digital illustration: Tripping along the Road

The best fortune in them is, of course, that I’m cautioned before the crack of doom. How much better to be alerted by noticing the swerve I had to make to avoid plowing into the slowed traffic, or by realizing I have to catch up with my strolling companions than that I actually caused a crash or hiked right off the trail into uncharted wilderness alone. A little jolt is an occasion for large thankfulness.Digital illustration: Dyslexic Map

That’s how I travel through life, bumbling along its unmapped corridors with my faulty personal GPS and my avid, easily attracted magpie eye. I bump into life as much as I take a route through it. I’m just relieved to have lived this long without disappearing down any of an infinite number of rabbit holes and being lost forever in the warrens, tripping in them obliviously only because I was too mesmerized by nonessential Other Things along the way.

Hey, Baby, Wanna Ride Shotgun in My Pinto Wagon? (Daffy Drivers, Part 2)

I don’t know why it sprang to mind just now. Well, maybe I do. I seem to have been stuck in the previously described drivers’ vortex for a strangely gelatinous trip through surreal-ville lately and I’m thinking of drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists and cars with a certain measure of disdain, loathing, hilarity, terror, and mild psychosis, sometimes in turns and occasionally all in one big deliriously bleary blend. Despite knowing in my heart that traffic in suburban north Texas is marshmallows and candy-floss compared to the traffic experienced in much of the world (just check the all-too-true comments on my previous traffic-related post) I cannot resist a further rant.


Details, details--automotive fanatics do love their detailing . . .

I have seen (three times within two days) the indescribably death-wishful strolls of different (but each time, ahem, male) pedestrians not only on the wrong side of the road but well into the lane of steady morning traffic bearing down on their armor-less backs, all the while with cars going past at 30+ mph in the next lane over, so NO chance of the drivers approaching said amblers’ backsides actually swerving to avoid hitting them. What do we in the cars get to do? Pot along behind a slowly walking person as though theirs were the most ordinary and acceptable behavior on earth, despite this being within blocks of the university, where every dull-witted bipedal being over age 11 knows that college drivers and mad professors are on the loose? Stunningly insouciant, these moseying moon-brains, to say the least, and irritating, too, by gad.

I live in the land of the “free” right turn–where it’s okay legally, if you’ve stopped at a red light, to proceed with a right turn if (a) there’s no one coming from another direction that has right-of-way by green light or prior arrival at the intersection and (b) you are actually in position to take said right turn. I’m all fine with that, despite being still a bit piqued that an intersection camera once got me dinged for a turn where I was positive I had followed all of the rubrics scrupulously. Recently, however, I got to witness two rather egregious abuses of the privilege right in a row and was glad to get home with skin and fenders intact. First there was the intersection where I stopped at the red light and waited to turn left, where ahead of me on the other side of the intersection a minor accident had stopped up the front of the right-turn lane. I waited for my left turn, which I began to execute when the requisite green arrow shone before me, and found myself suddenly front-bumper-to-front-bumper in a very nearly compromising position with an enormous truck (of that variety known in my heart simply as a “big-butt truck”–the sort that is large enough to haul a full load of heavy equipment to the farm but is waaaaaay too clean and scratch-free to ever have tried it). Mr Truck Driver had arrived behind the stalled accident, whipped out around it, and deemed it logical to grab a free right without ever considering that he was both out of turn and entirely invisible to us across the road.

After our close encounter I took a deep breath, released my crushed brake, took two more deep breaths, didn’t say or gesture anything that I was thinking, let the truck get well away from my vicinity, and went along my way. Not a mile later, I was stopped by a red light in the right lane. As it happened, I was first in that lane, so though I had no plans to take a free right myself (being in need of going straight ahead), I didn’t feel it likely that someone from across the way would try to cut me off by surprise again. Which indeed no one did. However, the young and helmet-less (I’m still baffled that that’s legal anywhere, but it is, so I’ll simply note it here as another risk factor the other driver took) motorcyclist behind me felt deprived of his free right turn, and rather than drearily waiting through another boring ten seconds of red light on my behalf, he swung out into the left lane and blasted around to the right in front of me to turn, just about in sync with the drivers coming from across the way who of course were being treated to an actual green light.

How I got home with both an undamaged car and clean underwear is testament more to good fortune than to my skillful driving or the strength of my nervous system, but I shall leave that musing and my temperamental unburdening here for the nonce and move on to what was really renewing my interest in road-tripping, if I may now use it in the more psychedelic sense. It was, you see, about the automotive beauty pageant.

I’m a dull person when it comes to vehicles. In our family, learning to drive required us to learn a couple of additional fundamental automotive survival skills, things like checking the oil and changing a tire, and, oh yeah, filling the gas tank. Like making sure air filters were changed as needed and seatbelts worn and like how to pump the hand brake in case those other brake-thingies just happened to go out of commission (the latter only happened to me once, but it was at 50 mph and the brakes croaked just as I watched a rock-filled dump truck pull onto the road a hundred feet ahead of me, so I am glad I was given that particular bit of useful wisdom). But outside of that, I wasn’t infused with lust for four-wheeled artful luxury. I’m strictly practical about my expectations from a car. Transportation. Carrying capacity as needed. Inexpensive to buy and to maintain. Generally reliable and safe. And I’ve done pretty well in that, too.

I can admire a beautiful vehicle, don’t get me wrong. I’ve had crushes on a strange variety of cars that struck my fancy at one time or another. When I shopped for my first car (as I was beginning construction work), I was offered a 1957 pushbutton-transmission Mercury that was in nice-but-not-cherry condition for a very fair price. It was a ridiculous Pepto-Bismol® pink and had a more extravagantly fabulous back-end than a Brazilian beach bunny’s, its trunk big enough for Mafia use–or at least for carrying all of the painting equipment and tools I was going to need to haul. But it really wasn’t the kind of car I could seriously contemplate filling with 300-pound paint sprayers and tool buckets and piles of dusty tarps and abusing in quite that fashion. Because it really was more about fashion than about transportation, and much as I could love its ludicrousness I finally opted for the more practical used Volare station wagon with fake-paneled sides and the super-duty shocks that I put in ‘er to hold up my cargo’s bulk. And it turned out I developed a crush on that car’s slant-six engine. Go figure.

There are plenty of supremely handsome vehicles out there, to be sure. A ’29 Pierce Arrow, all decked out. Vintage Bentleys or Silver Wraiths. A perfectly restored period Duesenberg. Not to mention, say, a sleek blue 1967 Barracuda. Flash. Glorious. But any of those beasties would so outshine me that it would seem sacrilegious to even consider such a thing. Not to mention that if I had any sort of spectacular car I would still be unable to support it (insure it) in the style to which it might deserve to be accustomed.


Smile for the camera!

Meanwhile, there are a whole lot of people who do have deep passions or perhaps even rather unseemly romantic notions regarding their various automotive loves. We’ve all seen those whose car, truck, motorcycle, RV or tractor represents (or, in many cases, clearly substitutes for) their identity as a male, female, or Other. The wheeled transport associated with that distinctive breed of guy-hood truly dependent on its vehicle for its masculinity gets from me the designation TPV, or Tiny Penis Vehicle, for that rather laughably desperate form of self-identification. There are lots of levels of vehicular artistry, from true-amateurs’ loving attentions to purists’ slavish restorations to custom trick-outs to the movable museum-pieces that are one-off sculptural artworks on wheels. So many fun options! I’ve seen the fantastic and the phantasmagorical, the happy and the horrific, and many a piece of magic in motion.

Perhaps my favorites are the outlandish and ridiculous concoctions put together by aspiring molto-machismos on a tight budget–whether of the wallet or of the imagination. The jacked-to-the-sky mini-boxes on massive heavy-equipment wheels so high that the driver can barely herk himself up into the driver’s seat. The I-did-it-myself custom paint job with heavily textured brush strokes running through its thick housepaint coat or the would-be designer approach whose flames and pictorials ended up a little closer to junior high graffitists’ than to graphic artists’ work.

Or one of my all-time favorites: it was an early-80s Pinto hatchback customized with massive tires that appeared to be crammed dangerously into the wheel wells as well as making the teeny car precariously high and teeter-y, and was painted antenna to tailpipe in dull metallic gold spray paint, all with a stingy and shaky hand. I came upon it as its young driver was cruising a mostly deserted street in a semi-rural suburb, and I remained unsure for a long time afterward whether it was pure cruelty on my part to have laughed so heartily on seeing it. Surely such effort deserved, at the least, a joyful response, and that I did give without hesitation.

Truth be told, that’s my reaction to car-love in general. I’m glad it seems to give so much pleasure to so many people, but I’m pretty mystified by it too, and mostly the seeming excess of affection just makes me want to fall on the floorboards howling with laughter. Good thing my seatbelt keeps me from any such thing when I’m behind the wheel myself. Hopefully, in a really outstanding specimen of a silvery-blue ’67 ‘Cuda, rebuilt to my own personal specs with eco-fuel conversion, a skillful on-call chauffeur, comfortably glove-fitting heated and cooled passenger seats for my companions and me, a mini-fridge in the trunk full of the day’s edible necessities and the proper libations for the non designated-drivers to sup during those pit stops requisite whilst road-tripping for joy, plus a lifetime’s supply of fuel, parts, insurance and police escorts to clear the roads ahead and find ideal parking spots. Either that or my ordinary, everyday, plebeian, functional, dependable and non-fanciful car. It’ll do me.

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  • I’m just happy if it gets me from here to there and back again . . .