My first experience behind the wheel was when I popped the clutch on my father's 1964 Pontiac GTO that featured a 389 cu. in V8 with a four-barrel carburetor, dual exhausts and a Hurst manual transmission. I had it up near the orange line when I dropped it into gear and, with gravel flying, tore from where it was parked behind our ski lodge towards Benham Hill, made a hard right going up the hill cresting it a bit like Steve McQueen driving the hills of San Francisco in the movie Bullitt. In my panic, while airborne, I had turned the wheels causing the car to take a hard left as soon we hit the ground scattering gravel towards the first green on the Club's Upper Golf course. I fishtailed down the Wilmington Road towards town.
I made the corner and whipped past Devlin's Northway Motel with the traffic light coming up fast. It was red. Not knowing what else to do I hit the brakes which resulted in my doing a 180 and shooting back the way I came. My eyes were like saucers, say nothing of the eyes of the driver on the other side of the traffic light who heretofore had seen me barreling towards him.
I was 16. I was in the car because we had a beer delivery. The truck driver had asked if I could move the car so he could drive around back and unload. I had responded, "Sure," too stupid or embarrassed to admit that I did not know how to drive. Like all young boys with dreams beyond their abilities and visions of being Graham Hill in their head, I watched my father like a hawk when we went anywhere together. I had seen him shift gears and push in the pedals, but as to which gear did what and in what order I was blissfully ignorant as I soon realized as I went screaming down the road.
1964 Pontiac GTO convertible
As I rocketed past the Northway for the second time, hearing in my head, "through Shady, heading for the Little S," I began experimenting by reducing the pressure on the gas and tapping the brakes. Still we were coming up quickly towards our motel. I shot past, made hard right into the far parking lot, slammed on the brakes and it shuddered to a stop, having stalled out. A light plume of dust floated in the air.
"Through the Finish Curve and down," I thought.
"Ahh, thanks for moving the car," said the truck driver with a bit of muffled snort. He seemed to be quivering all over.
I said, "Anytime." I went into the lobby and collapsed on the sofa my heart pounding and ears ringing.
Young people today missed a certain window of driving experiences that those of us growing up in the 60s and early 70s enjoyed, and that was the coming together of European sports cars and youth in their late teens and twenties.
We went through a Triumph Spitfire (my brother Gerret parked that one about 10 feet off the ground in a tree off Cummins Road), an Alpha Romero Duetto, an orange Opel GT that my brother Chris inherited from my mother, a MGBGT that I painted red, white and blue playing off the design of a British flag, a Porsche (Chris, aka Quickly had that as well as an Sunbeam Alpine), and then there was a metallic blue Stingray, a Camaro Z, and a few others that escape my mind. These latter two were not sports cars in the true sense, but still fun.
All these cars required learning how to tune them, change the oil and filter and constantly tinkering with them to keep them in top form. To own such a car was also to purchase Chilton manuals on how to repair them. Some people participated in road rallies, which required precision driving and the passenger acting as navigator insuring that speeds and time were maintained to know when and where to turn. I just liked driving and using them to meet girls.
Everyone's favorite road to drive was the Whiteface Inn Road. It is perfectly designed for a car built to take curves, which is the whole point and thrill of driving a sports car. They did not have power steering or power brakes as that interfered with one's feel of the road. Later, after those cars went out of fashion because they did not make the new crash tests and safety requirements stemming from Nader's book Unsafe at Any Speed, I turned to the small two-wheel drive Datsan pickup trucks that had a very similar feel.
In 1983 I got an artist-in-resident gig at Weber State College in Ogden, Utah. I had mentioned the fact to the local poet, boxer, former roommate of Cassius Clay at the 1960 Summer Olympics, actor, track star and playwright Jack Kendrick. "Let's drive out in your pickup," he said.
"Us?" I said. "Drive?"
"Yes, I need to see Robert Redford. I know him from the New York Athletic Club. I have sent him some of my poetry. I'd like to talk to him about getting my screenplay reviewed at the Sundance Institute screenwriter's workshop, I know several people along the way we can stay with, will help with the driving and share the gas."
"Why don't you call him?" I said.
"I prefer talking to him in person," he said.
We agreed to leave early a few days hence, which happened to be St. Patrick's Day. We didn't leave in the morning as planned, but 18 hours later at 3:30 a.m. the next day after Jack had hugged everyone he knew and sung Danny Boy in at least 6 bars and 3 restaurants finally leaving The Cottage after it has closed for the night. Indeed it had taken us a good six hours just to work our way in one door, across the porch and out the other. Jack knew a lot of people. He, of course, promptly fell asleep before we even made it to Saranac Lake.
Stay tuned, for Part II, The Road to Redford.