Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Journey to Fear

Winston Rand


It was one of those late summer nights when the air weighs heavily on you. Date night was usually Saturday, so those of us who did not have steadies would hang out on Friday nights at Bob’s Dairy Bar, cruise up and down Main Street and around the Court House Square, and make our way back to Bob’s. Drinking shakes or cherry Cokes at Bob’s and sitting in or on our cars or leaning James Dean style against the poles that held up the canopy were just the coolest things to do. Except on an August evening like this that was so muggy. And dusty. The humidity and dust sweetened with the smells of greasy burgers and fries coming from Bob’s grill exhaust conspired to make it almost untenable at times, even for the ultra-cool among us. That’s when we would pile in a car, six or eight of us, sometimes more, and cruise off in search of the excitement we just knew was around the next corner.

A small rural Tennessee town in the late 1950s offered little to quench a teenager’s appetite for adventure and enlightment and romance. The old movie theater on the Square showed films we had all seen in Jackson a year or two earlier, putting it squarely in the category of why bother. So we became quite accomplished at improvising. Take a few fifteen-, sixteen-, and seventeen-year-old kids with uncontrolled floods of hormones seeking fulfillment, and trouble is never far away. We could stand only so many trips down Main Street and around Court House Square before we became bored to the gourd. On nights such as this, the boys might head out to the long straight bottom of the Paris highway to drag race with the family sedans and station wagons. Other nights we might get even more adventurous and make a run over to McKenzie or Bruceton, sometimes all the way to Jackson, checking out the dairy bars and looking for girls that might be looking for us. But this particular night we decided to check out the firetower.

Now the firetower was, well, a firetower. It stood atop a hill a couple of miles out of town. The little metal framed glass cage on top was staffed during periods of fire danger, but only in daylight hours. Never at night. So it was a natural spot for healthy teens to go parking. On Saturday nights there would typically be a half dozen or so darkened cars occupied by sweaty teenage couples engaged in … meaningful conversation, possibly more. Since it was outside the town boundary, there were no unwelcome visits by the local gestapo. Friday night was likely to find carloads of boys or girls, almost never together, up there talking, raising a mild manner of hell, learning to smoke (gasp…), and plotting how and where they could get a six-pack without being caught or recognized.

Winding our way up the gravel road in Marty’s old DeSoto junker — the one with the back seat removed to make room for several more of us sitting on the floor or on wooden Coke cases — we could see there was another car at the tower. As soon as we were close enough to make out details in the dark, I recognized Cuz’s car. Cuz was my cousin Gloria, and her car was her daddy’s bigass black and yellow Packard. Seems it was a '56, loaded with every gadget he could get on it, and it must have weighed in at 10,000 pounds. Nobody in these parts had ever seen such a monster of a car. Cuz was there with a carload of girls — they called themselves the Crazy Eight, though I recall there being nine of them.

For a while we all stood, leaned, or sat around practicing being cool and trying to impress those of opposite gender persuasion. Some smoked. Some of the girls wanted to, but didn’t — scared of momma smelling it I suppose. The girls decided to leave, so with Cuz behind the wheel and the other girls fitting comfortably in her daddy’s bigass Packard, she told me to get off the hood. Grinning like the idiot I was about to prove I was, I refused. She threatened to leave with me sitting there. Grinning like a 'possum that had gotten into some rancid persimmons, I told her to go ahead. The bigass Packard lurched forward. As the car bounced and dipped over the rough gravel road that led down the hill to smooth pavement below, I was holding on for dear life. My butt started slipping over the polished surface of the hood, forcing me to lie back on the hood staring up at what was sure to be my last glimpse of the stars above. I had never before realized just how rough or how long that gravel road was. That three-minute eternity taught me the importance of perspective. And the value of padded seats inside the car.

Slowing to a crawl as the bigass Packard found purchase on blacktop, Cuz once again yelled out at me to get off. This was so much smoother than the gravel, and my brain was already fully scrambled from the last few minutes, so I grinned again and shook my head in the negative direction. As she accelerated up to 100 or 120 … OK, maybe 20 or 30 MPH, I was finding little to hang onto. In a quick, smooth move that I had never made before and certainly not since, I flipped myself over, belly down, spread-eagle across the hood of the bigass Packard, holding onto the windshield wipers, eyeball to eyeball through the windshield with Cuz and a couple of others in the front seat. Marty was following close behind with the carload of boys hanging out the windows, yelling and cheering me on. Thinking back on it, that was the first and last time I ever had my very own cheerleading squad.

Now, there comes a time in even the bravest lad’s life, that no matter how macho he wants to appear to be with the girls, it is time to give up, to wallow in the agony of defeat. This was not such a time. With floods of adrenaline now forming an explosive mixture with the vast pool of testosterone that had welled up inside me, I was determined to ride it out — literally. It took every ounce of strength I had to hang on while making a herculean effort to make my grimace, my mask of fear, appear to be a confident smile. Thankfully, Cuz took the shortest route to Court House Square. We were indeed fortunate that our teachers and parents and friends of our parents were all safely tucked away in darkened houses and missed this awesome display of teenage bravery and stupidity.

As we rolled onto the Square and came to a stop, I slid, slithered, hopped off the hood of the bigass Packard, glad to have lived to start getting my land-legs back. That’s when Calvin greeted us. Calvin was the town cop. Big man. Big heart. Rough voice. Probably not Rhodes Scholar material, if you know what I mean. He had probably not been issued a bullet for the pistol hanging from his belt. Think Barney Fife in a bigger body and with a deeper voice. He hung out around the Square in his black-and-white patrol car, a sure deterrent to high crime. Must have worked, too, because the town had never seen anything more serious than petty theft, a few beer induced fisticuffs over at the poolroom, and, of course, mischievous hijinks by teenagers juiced on cherry Cokes and testosterone. Calvin had been taking in the whole scene as we rolled onto the Square — with me plastered across the hood of the bigass Packard.

As he sauntered over, he looked at Cuz and said, “Your daddy’s not gonna be real pleased with the way you’re treating his brand-new biga… uh, great big Packard, Miss Gloria.” As she tried in vain to hide behind the cloud of darts her eyes were throwing my way, Calvin turned to me and said, “Whadda you think you’re doing riding up on the hood of that biga… uh, big Packard, boy?” Looking around for support, I realized that Marty had stopped a good distance away so as not to be charged with complicity, no doubt. All I could muster was a weak “I dunno.”

Seeing my pitiful condition, Calvin softened up a bit, which I could tell by his voice sliding up an octave or so as he said in a mournful whine, “Lord, boy, I don’t want to have to go down and tell Miss Louise about this. She’ll kill me and you, too!” The plea in his voice was so clear that I regained a bit of poise and looked him straight in the eye for the first time. If he knew my momma well enough to know that she would not just tear into me, but to him also, just for being the carrier of bad news … oh, my, I’m in deep doo-doo.

Still in his voce falsetto, Calvin whined, “That was a mighty dumb thing you did, riding up there on the hood of that biga… uh, big Packard. You coulda been kilt.” With all the humble sincerity I could find at the moment, I came back with, “Yes sir, it was. I learned my lesson and I’ll never do that again.” Looking at me askance and thankful all at the same time, Calvin said, “Well, I’m gonna take your word on that, and we won’t go down and wake up Miss Louise tonight. We’ll just keep this right here between us.” Regaining his usual gruff voice, as if to convey the authority his badge should have afforded him, Officer Calvin closed with “But if I ever see or hear of you pulling a stupid stunt like this again, we’re marching down the street to see yo momma, boy. You understand me?”

“Yes, sir.”

That was one promise I have kept for forty-some years now. But you know, it’s strange. Packards long ago vanished from the American motoring scene, but every time I see a bigass automobile, I have this odd urge to throw myself prostrate across the hood for one more joyride.

DEDICATION: This essay is dedicated to Bettye Margaret, one of the Crazy Eight group, who left this world on January 22, 2007, in search of new adventures in the great beyond.

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Winston Rand, BSEE, MBA, provides network support for small businesses around the Nashville area. His blog, nobodyasked.com, displays a pleasing balance of serious and humorous material covering a wide range of topics, from politics and war to observations in a local pub, from religious roots to rooting for the Tennessee Vols and Titans.

© Winston Rand

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012