Sophomore Driver

Recreating (and advancing) pk’s censored domains: & / Personal / Stories / pk by Age / Teen /
1954-55, @ K. 2002 12 02

& Other Driving Stories

The word sophomore is supposed to be constructed of roots meaning “wise” and “fool.” I calculate that I would have been just about to enter my junior year in high school when I got my driver’s permit, but I choose the above title to suggest that though I believe I was a more sane driver than most young apprentice alcoholics, I also had a full share of rapscallion moments. The one in particular that memory of which inspires me to initiate this file was one of those things that happens to every kid again and again: I survived it: with some skill and a lot of luck. How anyone lives to reach eighteen is miraculous. Given the world’s population, the world is full of miracles.

My buddy Dick was a couple of years older though we were in the same class. He’d been my night ride for some time before I got my license. For some reason I was driving on the double date in question. It was winter time. Fresh, deep snow had just fallen. As we drove to pick up our dates, Dick suggested that a little fear might just make the girl’s a little more anxious to sit close: you know, snuggle up on such a cold night. It might not hurt to make them aware, you know, just how dangerous the driving was that night. We pick up his girl. We pick up my girl. I’m driving us down the snowy lane. Snow is haloed in the head lights. Not just the branches but the trunks of trees are all white. The landscape is all softened curves. The road has narrowed as snow slopes over the buried curbs toward the lighted middle.

thanx thetumordiaries
We were in ‘burbs, not country
but all was masked white.

I hit the brake and yank the wheel. My mother’s car instantly starts a truly sickening skid. The snow covered tree to starboard looms darkly as the headlights point perpendicular to our path. We’re gonna broadside the tree. I spin the wheel, jab the brake. Driver’s ed would soon tell me what to do in a skid, but I was guessing. I’d certainly never skidded before. And this, my first, was a doozy.

The road was of course crowned so we were slewing downhill. But just before the tires ruined their alignment against curb that would be hard, snow or no snow, mere feet before maple bole opened the sedan’s doors like a can opener to crush stupid teen flesh, the car started to climb sideways back up the crown. Over the crest and down the other side. Swishing. Fish-tailing. Sideways we yaw down the other side of the crown, toward some other white-ghosted maple tree with what I didn’t doubt had a very hard spine.

My girl was rigid against the passenger door. She hadn’t cuddled toward me one bit. Fighting the skid had nothing to do with looking. What I could see through the front windshield had nothing to do with where we were going. I check Dick and date in the back seat. My elder buddy was as ashen as his date. Both sat rigid with fear: rigid in the muscles: their rigid bodies were sliding this way and that over the seat: bench seats in the back as in the font.

That car slewed just as close to the trees on the other side of the skid, the crest to our first trough, but our sin wave motion essed onward.

Since 1955

Moving to Maine in 1967 I bought a Saab with front wheel drive, rack and pinion steering. Bombing up to Sugarloaf Mountain sometime seven days a week in a winter that saw two hundred fifty inches of snow fall in New England (as measured on Mount Washington). When that car broke loose of its traction, which it often did as I raced skiward (or homeward), I didn’t worry about it at all. My own tail end could almost pass me before I worried: I didn’t care where the tail was (so long as a big south-bound lumber truck wasn’t going to arrive in the narrow curves near Kingston at the same time as north-bound me. I just steered. The hind end eventually would go back to behaving itself again. I’d skid: and I’d hear my passengers suck their breath as I wouldn’t even slow down. But that was when I was a veteran skidder: with front wheel drive, belted snow radials. Hell, by the time I had my front wheel drive Sirocco, I’d do doughnuts through residential culs-de-sacs: in summer I’d see how much Catskill Mountain gravel I could throw up in a circle. But this time, this time I was a virgin. I’d no idea what I’d gotten myself into. All I knew as we entered the third or fourth complemented pair of slews was two things. 1) I had no control what-so-ever; and 2) we hadn’t yet impacted against any of the curbs let alone the maple trees. I’d crank the wheel: power steering, man! Zero resistance in that snow! I’d stand on the brake. Crank the wheel. Get off the brake. Crank the wheel. I hadn’t had my foot on the accelerator for some time. Yet I didn’t feel us lose one bit of headway.

By the time the flank of the car “faced” a sixth or seventh tree it seemed old hat. But once back up and on the crown of the road the tires grabbed a bit of traction. Steering returned to normal. The car tracked. Right down the middle of the snowy lane.

I said nothing. My date said nothing. Dick said nothing. Dick’s date said nothing.

The subject was never mentioned to me. Not by Dick. Not by anyone.

One detail of this story just surprised me in the telling. I didn’t expect to be able to remember who Dick’s date was, but I certainly expected to tell you that my date was Doralee. But now I don’t see how that was possible. This just linked file tells how I’d stopped dating her. Now Dick and I had had plenty of excursions with DoraLee: but they’d been earlier: with Dick driving. Dick and I used to dress up in contrasting suits: his dark blue, mine light blue. But both of our shirts would be identical: dark blue, both of our ties white knit. Both of us wore blue suede shoes with blue leather tassels. I dressed my light suit with a blue handkerchief in the breast pocket; Dick had a white handkerchief for his blue suit. The Bobsey Twins go Mafia. (We meant to be hipsters, but I know I was stuck with what I could do around the suit I already had.) DoraLee would be my date and Dick would chauffer. She would wear one of her gowns and her rhinestone tiara. We’d go to Jones Beach and walk down the boardwalk. Even at fourteen or so, DoraLee’s great leg strength, great dancer’s balance, was entirely adequate to the transparent crystal spike heels she wore. Once I stopped going out with DoraLee (“explained” above), Dick asked her out a couple of times. (Dick was not the only friend (or acquaintance) who leapt at my girlfriends the moment I turned my back.) (I even had an enemy who did that.) (One New Year’s Eve I got ridiculously drunk in ridiculously cut time: the following morning Dick announced that he was going steady with my date!)

Driving By Night Vision

Early ’60s, 1967

Basic Training for the Army was a terrible imposition on a philosopher who had believed that he was a Christian, who had believed mature individuals should be free from government coercion, who didn’t believe in national sovereignties, and so forth, but like anything bad, like anything at all, it had it’s benefits. Sometimes the lectures were funny: once the brainwashing humiliations of the first week or so were done with that is. We were told (more baldly than I had heard on my own) that the center of the retina holds the data that we focus on: that’s our detailed “day” vision. Around the retina are sensors that process vision differently, more fuzzily, but still usefully: our “night” vision as it were. The sergeants told us that to see at night, don’t look directly at the object you want an impression of: catch it out of the corner of your eye.

Just hold that thought for a moment while I prepare to merge with another narrative tributary. I was never a car nut like some of my friends. My friend Rudy had been all excited about some picture book of classic cars around 1950. I’d felt it to be my duty to my then friend to be excited about what he was excited about. I’d dutifully looked at the cars. I’d agreed that the Dalahaye had a beautiful fender line. I adored the leather belt around the front hood of the Morgan. The Stutz Bearcat looked mighty nifty. And after that I never looked twice at a car again: even once I was starting to buy them: and that came relatively late in my life. My friends had all been given cars by the time they were half-way done being sixteen. As mentioned above, some of my friends had been given cars way in advance of turning sixteen. even girls in our class got brand new fire engine red Pontiac convertibles for their sixteenth birthday. (That particular girl had had champagne fountains at the party thrown for her first period!) But then you gotta remember: poor as my family was, my friends were flush. Some of the Jews in class had chauffeurs and even butlers!

Around fourteen or fifteen I’d dutifully joined my friends as they found ways to get to the stock car races. Yawn. Around fifteen or sixteen I found myself visited very little as some of my friends started to build their own hotrods. What was that about? Borny’s father had just bought him his rods: and that black Merc’ with its tuned dual exhausts was beautiful. That was one evil looking, sexy car. What was this building of cars about? If they had any sense my friends would have been listening to Dave Brubeck with me, to Gerry Mulligan. They didn’t: just as they hadn’t given a hoot when I was worshipping Benny Goodman, and Gene Krupa, and Lionel Hampton. No more had they listened to Satchmo, Kid Ory, not even the Fire House Five when I’d first started the first of my “jazz” obsessions.

I was twenty-three or four and in the army before I got my first motorcycle ride. Phil got me to accompany him to Ghost Motorcycles in Port Washington. We take the damn train to the damn island. He’s all nuts to buy a motorcycle. Some guy in a black leather jacket who was arriving somewhere in the vicinity of manhood without a single unrotten and unbroken tooth left in his mouth, took Phil for a spin on a BMW 500. They returned a few minutes later, Phil looking very pleased and his chauffer looking like any white trash that would crawl from under a rock in Faulkner, or poach deer in Steven Hunter. Did I want a turn? Not really. But what the hell. I climbed aboard the BMW behind this asshole and off he sped. I hadn’t spent a lot of time lusting for motorcycle rides, but I guess I had imagined it, at least a little. I expected it to be fast, exhilarating: like a carnival ride. It wasn’t. The BMW was smoother than any car. It was fast, but not fast enough to raise my hackles. Yawn. Phil asked what I thought. Shrug.

What I really thought was that I was sorry I’d been seen riding with the asshole. He whooped and hollered at every female. He rode behind a school bus, blowing kisses to girls who might have been twelve. Jesus!

But then I took up skiing. Then I fell in love with acceleration. Then I visited my old high school friend Brian, one of the guys who’d taken up car building, the guy who moved into my junkie pad with me after he got expelled from Notre Dame (before either of us knew it was a junkie pad). Brian had gone to the Whitehorse Tavern with me. Brian had become a Whitehorse denizen on his own. By the time I was in the army, Brian was seen more often in the Whitehorse than I. Indeed Brian took up living in weird lofts with weird people. For the incident I’m about to include here, Brian had moved to an apartment on Perry Street just off Hudson, a mere block from the Whitehorse. (Soon he would room on Perry Street with a waitress from the Lion’s Head who grew yards and yards of flaxen hair. You can see the handsome couple together in a movie that made it to some theaters back in the ’60s on the occasion of their getting beaten by police with night sticks as the fuzz raided the beatniks in Washington Square, and, once their dander was up, beat on everybody including Brian who was wearing a tie and jacket with vest while the girl was in an evening dress with stockings: teetering on spike heels.) Anyway, on this occasion I ran into Brian and visited him on Perry Street. He showed me how he lived by candle light in those days. And visible down on the street outside his window, wearing a big mother chain, was a huge humping black motorcycle, a Norton Atlas. Meant nothing to me until he took me for a ride on it. Zhoom! East on Bleeker Street. We must have been reaching eight miles an hour between stop signs. Even at the moment of take off in a prop driven plane I had never felt such acceleration. I was at once terrified and exalted. Brian explained that his Atlas had been punched from 750 ccs out to 900. The bike had been tuned with racing carbs. It was a street racer: one serious English twin.

Norton Atlas
thanx classic-british-motorcycles

The next thing you know I’m noticing guys on two wheels. Driving Hilary’s VW through Central Park I watch a skinny black guy weave a small motorcycle through the curves. How that guy laid that bike over in the curves was a thing of beauty. The light would change and Xzuvroom, he streaked away from the traffic. Quick little bastard bike. He wasn’t doing any eighty or ninety or century like the Atlas, but he sure moved away from my Beetle in a hurry. So when I noticed a place renting 50 cc Hondas on 56th Street, I had to try it.

6th Avenue (Avenue of the Americas to those of you who allow mayors and Chambers of Commerce to rename things)in those days was under long term reconstruction: subways or something. There was no pavement; only wooden timbers. I’d never been on a motorcycle by myself before. It’s only my third time on a motorcycle, period. I’m instantly in New York City traffic, Manhattan brand, and I have to tightrope walk the bike on these timbers. The gap between timbers was so great I was sure the little Honda’s wheels would fall in and disappear: while all around me growled the terrible taxis of the Apple. Those cabbies would kill a graduate student on a small motorcycle as soon as drink beer or eat pretzels.

When I next run into Brian I tell him of my adventure, I tell him I’m thinking of going back to the beloved two wheels of my youth: only powered this time. But I want something small: small and light; not a monster like his. Brian tells me that the Japanese are coming out with amazingly beautiful machinery, exquisite like jewelry. Yamaha has a new twin out: the first 100 cc twin ever. He’s heard it has some spirit. If he were buying a new bike, that’s what he’d get. I took it as an assignment. My buddy Anton chipped in with me and we co-owned a two-tone blue Yamaha 100 twin. You needed to let it rev and the power band was narrow, but man did that thing stand up and roar if your treated it right.

By the time I’d been in graduate school a few years I was dying to get to some good ski country on a regular basis: and where I could ski, I could ride. I allowed myself to become addicted to the off-road-riding sections of Motorcycle Magazine. I’d never done it, but I really really wanted a trail bike, a hill climber, a stump-jumper. And, by golly, once I’d gotten a part-time job for the summer (prior to moving to Maine to teach) at the very outlet I’d bought the Yamaha from, they sold me a Yamaha single cylinder single lung 100cc trail bike. Bright yellow. Came with an extra length of chain so you could manually switch from road gearing to off-road. The one pot somehow delivered a much wider power band than the excitable twin. You had some torque: in the lower gears especially: five speeds: one down, four up.

The contrast of living in Maine was marked, but easily overstatable. Waterville too was civilized. There were roads everywhere. Everywhere was private property. Just riding roughshod over nature wasn’t as easy as it seemed in the undisciplined imagination. Ah, but once I got a bit used to Waterville’s environs I found unpaved country roads along which woods ran for miles between driveways. And that’s what I want to tell the reader about.

After dinner I’d don my leather racing shirt (or my nylon jacket with the sleeves that zipped down to a narrow taper: for keeping the wind out of your arm pits, check my supply of pipe tobacco, crank up the one pot, and head for open country. This was late summer. I’d set up the house. Hilary was nursing the newborn Brian back in NY. She’d come up before classes began in September. I had August, and the Maine woods as it were, to myself. I’d find a nice stretch of unpaved country road. Kill the engine. Douse the light. Close my eyes while I lit my pipe. I’d stand the bike between my legs, the saddle holding the bulk of my weight, and enjoy my pipe while my eyes got accustomed to the dark. Once I felt my night vision was cooking on its proper (slow) burner, I’d crank back up, but leave the lights off. (In those days the bike lights were manual; these days you can’t turn them off without rewiring.) The soft glow of my pipe didn’t disturb my night vision: and I’d ride the back woods road in the dark.

It was delicious. I could “feel” the road’s pits, pots, gulleys and ripples. I could even “see” night critters in the road and avoid them. It was amazing how many skunks and porcupines didn’t hear me coming. What they didn’t see they somehow also didn’t hear. What porcupines were doing in the road after dark I have no idea — they like to bed down in some tree top around dusk — but I “saw” them.

By the time Hilary and Brian arrived (and classes started) I’d had an adequate (substitute) lifetime of rough riding.


Though my first hill climb was a disaster. I mounted the trail bike into a carrier on the back of the VW bug and drove up to Sugarloaf. I thought the intermediate trail that winds two miles down Sugarloaf’s back side would be ideal for me as a beginning, about-to-teach-myself hill climber. I got myself ready: checked my boots, donned my helmet, zipped my zippers, stalled on the first steep section, dumped onto a rock, broke my clutch lever. Shit. I let gravity carry me back to the car. Realized I had nothing with which to jury rig a clutch lever. Ah, I’ll just try kicking the clutch into gear once the engine is revving. These modern machines have synchronized clutches, don’t they? Not like the old days when you had to double clutch anything going downwards. I got myself into position. Some woman drove her car up right next to me in the parking lot. Well, I can’t help that. I cranked, I kicked. The Yamaha leapt forward more suddenly than I expected (well, I was revved after all!) I wasn’t ready for that surge. I lost the balance of my grip on the handlebars. The Yamaha with me in the saddle leapt sideways into the woman’s driver’s door. Ouch, there go the knuckles on my right hand. Sorry, Lady. And I wiped my blood all over where she might have been scratched.

You know, that woman never got out of her car? Never inspected her door? Never checked to see if she wanted to sue me? Can you imagine her lack of self interest? Assaulted by the bloody body of a madman on a motorcycle, trying to hill climb without a clutch?

I got the clutch handle replaced and tried climbing smaller hills around the Colby campus. I continued to bound through the woods uphill between classes for the remainder of the year. One time I’m “flying” uphill, get some air off a big rock … and see something human coming at me in the other direction. I am helpless mid-air to avoid nailing this descending pedestrian. Or was I? I yanked and twisted, putting body English on my flight. The jump aborted sideways to my left: into the little clearning I’d desperately tried for. I picked myself up and found the pedestrian sprawled into the woods on the other side. We’d both aborted at the same time: and in opposite directions: the perfect complement. Sorry, I said. ‘S’OK, he said. Didn’t you hear me climbing? This thing screams. Shrug, he shrugged.

Came snowfall, I’d spin doughnuts in the rocky field below the Chapel.

One foolish thing I never repeated: I was rock-hopping in that same field. A few of my students — nubile females — saw me. What are you doing? You want to see? And I gave a rock jumping ride to one of them. However cute her eighteen year old ass was, it didn’t have enough flesh to absorb that punishment. The trail bike has a seat for only one, you see. She had to hang on via the steel luggage rack! Ouch.

I was twenty-eight or nine by the time of those last episodes. Most guys had gotten their foolishness out of their system by that age: or they never had that much foolishness to start. But not me. My proper childhood didn’t really begin till I was twenty-four: when I became the mad skier. (My story about thinking I’d killed a child while hill-jumping on skis occurred the following year.)

I’ll add other driving stories as I find the occasion. Maybe I’ll include a couple of occasions when I was “certain” that in one more second I’d drive the car into an abutment as hard as I could just to be sure that my passenger died a horrible death. Anything to end the torment they were causing me. Such stories are at least two in number and involve more than one particular female as passenger. But no, I’ve never killed anyone, with the car or any other way, whatever the provocation.

Snow Tires, 2014 02 11

I wrote snow radials above. No, I put Pirelli rain radials on my Saab. The Saab guy told me they’d be great as snow tires as well. And were they ever.

I’m gonna patch in some other skiddy conditions memories:

I perpetrated that stupid skid in the snow stunt in Rockville Centre, Long Island: got away with it by a combination of luck and innate ability. I was lucky to have the abilty, I didn’t know I had it, it hadn’t been tested, hadn’t been predicted. I honed my slippery driving skills in Maine, luck still riding with me.

In 1968 so much snow arrived so early in Maine that the road salters were bankrupt before Christmas. The municipalities, themselves broke, could find no new fools to agree to salt the roads by New Years. Soon after Thanksgiving, Maine drivers in 1968, 1969 had to face road in whatever condition they found them, or stay home. I was in heaven so long as the lifts still ran at Sugarloaf. Back south at Hunter, Hilary and I had been shown pictures of the Catskills so snowed under that the ski resorts couldn’t operate, couldn’t open, couldn’t receive cars or run the lifts. I drooled at the idea of so much snow: by experience was all bare spots where I wanted snow. No, I didn’t want an inoperable resort, but I did want deep snow, and lots of it. So, 68-69 I had it, galore. The resorts closed for the summer long before there were any bare spots. Ah, the crazies like me just moved over to Mt. Washington, climbed and camped, skied Tuckermans Ravine: no lifts, few rules, only one cop, never seen.

It was really funny going from Maine where the skilled drove without any road clearance whatsoever back down “south” to NY, to DC … In Washington one inch of snow would cripple the entire metropolis. Three snow flakes, car wrecks in all directions.

But it ain’t just snow. In 1975, December, I was in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, headed for LA. I’m driving my VW bus in Phoenix when it rained. It rained and everyone, instantly, had an accident. I’m driving along the road and some damned Cadillac came speeding through a stop sign and broadsided me. What the hell, I demand of the driver. The brakes didn’t work, he explained, helpless. Idiot had tried driving the same way in fresh rain that he did in the normal dry desert: like an idiot.

Here’s the thing: I knew it and he didn’t. (I’d learned this as part of necessary survival on a motorcycle: NYC or anywhere.) We put down a road, we drive on it. Our cars spray the asphalt with oil, some oil is always leaking, from any car. The oil is absorbed by the asphalt. Fine, normal. Ah, but if it rains, the oil, lighter than water, is floated up out of the pavement and sits floating on top: until enough rain accumulates to wash the oil from the crowned road into the gutter. Figure ten or twenty minutes, depending on the rain intensity.

Thus, for the first ten or twenty minutes of any rain, after a period of dryness, any road with be a hazard of loose marbles, a skating rink, a disaster sure to happen: unless you’ve very very careful, like me. You can drive on oil, just as you can drive on snow, but you have to know how, and have some luck.

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About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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