When We Were Young
GRAND THEFT AUTO
From the pen of Marsha L Burris
The first time I stole a vehicle, was Junior McLaughlin’s old pickup truck. I was 14 and my accomplice, Joy, was 12. We had the good sense not to drive it out onto the highway. In fact, we had not taken it out for pleasure but for basic transportation. Joy and I needed to get down to the tree house. It was located beyond her back yard and across the field. We were in a hurry and we didn’t want to walk. I can’t remember the particulars or the why-fors now, it’s been forty-five years. But I recall clearly that we were in a rush.
I was qualified to drive us because I had observed my Grandpa Lawson shifting gears on the column in his 1949 Mercury many times. Junior Mac’s truck was no different that I could see. In my daydreams, up to this point, I had confidence in my abilities. After all, my daddy pit-stopped for Ned Jarrett and Darrell Derringer in the NASCAR heydays of 1960s and a part of that surely rubbed off.
Keys were always left in the ignition in those days. Car stealing was not yet a problem in Newell and the rationalization was that, with this system, you never needed to wonder where you left the keys last. Without much forethought, I jumped up into the driver’s seat of the pickup. Joy took shotgun. I dropped the gear shift lever down into first gear and off we punted through the grass. A clutch was employed, but not synchronized. I would have to work on improving my precision in subsequent heists but we were young and the jerking head snaps left no lasting injuries. As we approached the tree house, I realized that in my motoring imaginings, I had forgotten to visualize that, as the driver, it was up to me to stop the vehicle. Perhaps if I had applied the brake in a more timely fashion we would not have hit the tree. Luckily we were crawling along at a snail’s pace (we could have walked faster) and little more than cosmetic damage was done to the tree or the truck bumper.
We reached our destination, but with the truck resting against the tree, it consequently needed to be backed away from it. I already knew before we started off on this adventure that I lacked the knowledge of where reverse lived on the gear shift column which is why I planned to drive down and around the tree in a big arc and basically figure-eight it back to home base. Now we were skunked and I had no idea how to back away from the tree. We had no choice. We walked back to the house and asked Sissy for assistance. Sissy, unlike us, had an authentic and official driver’s license and the acquaintance of Reverse. She extricated the truck from the tree and drove it back to its parking spot near the house. She suggested we leave it there. Joy and I did not get in trouble over this escapade. Sissy keeps secrets.
The next time I drove a car, it was only somewhat illegal. I had permission, but not from the DMV (I possessed only a learner’s permit). I did have permission from the owner of the car. My legality was improving.
I mowed Mrs. Cothran’s yard as one of my summer jobs when I was a teenager. She lived across the railroad tracks from us on Old Concord Road. I had not gauged the amount of petrol required for the two acre job and needed to run up to Clark’s Gas Station to get more. Mrs. Cothran was busy so she offered to let me take her 1965 Dodge Dart GT on the mile and a half trek. So, in my favor, not only did she know I was driving her vehicle, but she encouraged me to do so, even though I had over-stated my skill set. Just a little.
She pressed several dollar bills into my hand for the gas and for chili burgers all around. I dropped myself into the bucket seat and eyed the four-in-the-floor stick shift, complete with a diagram of the gear positions etched on top. My heart went pitter-pat. I gently guided the key in the ignition, depressed the clutch, started the motor, slipped the stick forward, and gave it some gas. A lot of gas. Too much gas. It stalled. I repeated the steps but with less gas. I staccato-putted out of the driveway and onto the road. I gave myself a little whiplash with the stop-start-stop-start that took place between gear #1 and gear #2 and gear #3. I never actually made it to gear #4, but (and I’m not bragging here, just stating a fact) I arrived at the station without incident and back again. Mission accomplished.
In the next auto caper, I involved the McLaughlin family again. Joy’s sister, Denise, was dating the basketball star from the local university. We thought that was kind of cool. He drove a dilapidated old VW bug and that was pure groovy. I’m not sure why. One Friday night, Bob and Denise had gone off in Denise’s car. Joy and I, left to our own devices, had our usual plans of looking for adventure. Adventure on this night took the form of driving Bob’s VW around the block. To be clear, blocks in Newell are not like city blocks – our block measured right around four linear miles.
The first thing that should have made us question the good sense of this joy-ride (pun intended) was that there was no front passenger seat. We trooped back into the living room, snatched a couple of cushions off the sofa and piled them on the floor board to make a place for Joy to sit. Seeing out the window was a little difficult for her but Joy is tough. She endured. We edged out of the driveway of Gobbler’s Knob and onto Grier Road toward Orr Road. We bravely passed my house where Rusty reigned. I didn’t toot the horn. I’m not that dumb. But we peered inside the wide open picture window to see if the television was flickering. We continued down to the chemical plant and rounded the curve. Unimpeded by flashing cross-arms, we passed over the railroad tracks and proceeded to the stop sign at Old Concord Road. I had a little trouble here. The Bug slowed, but only imperceptibly. No problem, I had done my homework. I understood gearing down. I geared down. Clutch depressed, gear shifter nudged into third gear, clutch released. Clutch, second gear. Finally, I hit first gear. Employing a California stop as I checked for cars to my left, I made a right onto Old Concord Road without complying with the letter of the law regarding stop signs.
We picked up speed on this two-mile straight-a-way until we came to the Newell-Hickory Grove Road intersection. I braked, but the brake was sloppy, slushy. Same results as before. I geared down again. Still no cars in sight so we bumped over the railroad tracks again and sped down the hill, then back up as we approached Grier Road above Joy’s house. Again, without coming to full stop, we turned right and were back to Gobbler’s Knob on our left. Home sweet Home. As I maneuvered the VW back into the precise place where we found it, Joy and I noticed Denise’s car had returned.
Uh oh, busted. Now what?
We formulated a plan. It did not include using Junior Mac’s truck. I’d learned my lesson there. But not much. We plucked up our courage and chose to face the music. We walked into the house where Denise and Bob were eating burgers and fries and watching ‘Love, American Style’ or something like it on TV. They looked at us accusingly.
“Did you take my car?” Bob asked. He knew the answer so we said yes.
“But…,” I pleaded our case. “We thought you’d gone out on a date and would be gone longer.”
Bob ignored the logic of my argument and grilled us further.
“Do you have any idea why I parked it, and why we took Denise’s car instead?”
“Because Denise didn’t want to sit on the floor board?” Joy and I asked in unison.
“No. Because the brakes are gone and it’s not safe to drive.”
“Oh. So, that’s what’s going on!” I was pleased it wasn’t me or my driving skills.
Bob gave us a good talking-to. There were threats of telling the adults, but blackmailing us to cover some of Denise’s chores worked out better for all of us. I contemplated my actions. They were reckless. I needed to take responsibility for the choices I made in life so I pulled back and cranked down on grand theft auto for a while. A good long while…
…until my brother Robert bought his 1964 Candy Apple Red Ford Fairlane V-8 with high performance parts. I had my own car to drive by then, a 1965 2-door hardtop forest green Ford Falcon Futura coupe with white side panel inset. It was a fine ride. But. It was automatic. Where’s the challenge in that? Robert had invested time and effort and money in souping up his baby. It sounded fast and it was fast. But I wasn’t allowed to drive it. I had no standing in my brother’s world of really sporty cars. Dad had street cred, though. And on occasion, when he got home from work (Dad worked for a Ford dealership – we were a Ford family) he wanted to experience a growl under the hood rather than the purr of the Ford LTD that he drove. He’d tell Robert ever so nonchalantly, “Son, I need to run up the street to pick up some things at the store. I’ll just take your car since it’s already out and in the drive way.”
Dad, let the engine warm up a skosh, then he backed gently out onto the road. Between our driveway and the house next door was the length of a football field and a half. Within that distance, Dad eased out of first gear and transitioned smoothly into second gear. As he slipped out of sight, and by his way of thinking, beyond hearing too, he gunned it. Pedal to the metal, until he had wound through each gear in turn. Well, that looked rather exciting to me. To my credit, I asked my brother’s permission to drive his car. When he declined my request, I had no option but to resort to Plan B. When the time was right, and Robert was out with buddies (and he had left his car at home) I liberated it. I hopped in and did a little three-point-turn, then nosed out of the drive. When I gave it a little gas and began to let the clutch out, my knee flew back from the recoil hard and fast and it almost popped my jaw. The clutch was so tight that it kicked back with a force that would rival any mule-kick. Ow. I limped the car back into its parking spot. Pain made me lose any incentive to drive Robert’s car again. And this was the last job I will cop to…
In the 1960s, we had no Wii, and no Netflix. We didn’t have Nintendo or Atari to virtually satisfy our lust for adventure. We got it the old fashioned way. But we never engaged in self-imposed missions for glory since bragging would have landed us in hot water with the parents. I’m amazed that we survived our shenanigans.