If the cars I’ve owned reveal anything about who I am, the most revealing was a 1954 Ford pickup and a 1949 Chevy Deluxe Coupe. Neither were restored; they were survivors.
Both were painted a belligerently cheerful yellow, my brother-in-law’s corporate colors. I traded him a 1972 Volkswagen Beetle and a bank loan my father had co-signed. My father wasn’t pleased.
We lived in Browns Valley, a small town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada sandwiched between Marysville, named for a woman uneaten by the Donner Party, and Rough and Ready, named for the forgettable 12th president of the United States. General Zachary Taylor earned the nickname “Old Rough and Ready” in the Second Seminole War. The town named after him seceded from the Union on April 7, 1850, largely over taxes and liquor. The secession lasted only three months but the town still celebrates itself as the Great Republic of Rough and Ready.
The 1954 Ford was a flathead six with three-speed transmission and overdrive. It had the original 20-year-old engine exhausted from hard use. It struggled on the steep grades of the Sierra Nevada. My technique was to get it rolling downhill, pull the button on the dash to engage overdrive, and coast as fast as the bucking frame would allow until the next hill.
I sold firewood while attending Yuba College on the G.I. Bill. It was a hand-to-mouth operation. I cut live oak, loaded it green into the bed of the Ford, coasted downhill to Marysville and tried to sell the load in a parking lot. I didn’t have money enough to buy gas for the return trip uphill. Desperation put me in a poor bargaining position. Usually, some old countrywoman would haggle me halfway down from my asking price and require me to deliver and stack the wood, too. I was never much of an entrepreneur.
We were a small tribe living on the banks of Tennessee Creek—my sister, her husband John and young son Chad, another lapsed Baptist (Don Killam), and Old Bill. Old Bill was a fixture even before the tribe migrated from the Mohave Desert. He was short and dense as a dwarf and always called Old Bill as if it were his given name. He stood maybe five-feet-tall if he wasn’t passed out in the rose bushes. He only had the money to get falling down drunk at the end of the month when his government check arrived. The rest of the month he did odd jobs, weeded the garden, and babysat my nephew.
At the end of the month, Old Bill would cajole me to drive him in the 1949 Chevy to the bar at Browns Valley. The town had a post office at the back of the general store, a gas station that hadn’t pumped gas since Esso was a brand, and a bar where the jukebox played country songs. The only food served at the bar was beef jerky, Fritos, and boiled eggs pickled in vinegar. The light was always subterranean and the place smelled of dank earth. We sat in the eternal twilight drinking Brown Derby and Old Crow. It was problematic whether the Chevy would get us home again.
The brake lines were riddled with pinholes. I had to pump the breaks to build enough pressure to slow the one-and-a-half-ton beast. Slowing became especially urgent when the front wheels hit a pothole in the rutted country roads and began furiously oscillating side-to-side, the steering wheel kicking like a mule.
The windshield wipers were powered by a vacuum created by the pressure differential between the ambient atmosphere and the intake manifold. In 1949 they apparently needed to economize on electricity produced by the car’s alternator. Pressure driven wipers were their solution. Unfortunately, the pressure differential was dependent upon the engine’s RPM. As the engine slowed, so did the wipers. Coasting downhill in a rainstorm, I sometimes had to rev the engine just to see.
It worked, mostly, until one winter afternoon when my roommate Don and I determined to drive to Grass Valley to play fuzzball. Grass Valley was even higher in the Sierra than Rough and Ready. Snow began to fall. The wipers were challenged by heavy rain; snow was insurmountable.
We bought a ball of twine from a hardware store and tied a length to each wiper, running the bitter ends through the side windows. We developed a cadence like rowers in a Roman galley, pulling alternately. It worked, after a fashion. Snow eddied through the open windows, countered by hot air blasted from holes in the firewall. We were frigid above and baked below. As snow accumulated on the windshield, the wipers described a diminishing arc until we peered through gun slits. We were forced to stop, clear the windshield, and began again. Eventually, the snow proved more persistent than we were. We turned and ran for shelter.
Fuzzball also played a role in the death of Don’s VW beetle. More exactly, the beer we drank while playing fuzzball with a friend one night in Marysville. Someone had the dubious idea of continuing to play in Grass Valley. It was decided I was the most sober and should drive. It was a drunken decision. Even worse was the decision to buy a six-pack of Colt 45 tallboys on the way out of town. At 23 years old, bad decisions were common.
The narrow two-lane road twisted through the mountains, edged with cliffs. A cardboard box appeared in the VW’s weak headlights. It was in the middle of our lane. I drove over it, too drunk to avoid it. It felt like we hit a concrete block. The car shuddered violently. Through the rear window, Don could see nothing of the box remaining in the road. We had pulverized it.
It was a measure of my drunkenness that I didn’t even stop to examine the damage but continued driving. The front tires slowly deflated. A few miles further, at the only bend in the road that wasn’t bordered by a cliff or thick with pine trees, I rolled the car 360 degrees. It came to rest on its deflated tires. The rear window was shattered but we were unharmed.
The engine was still running. I even tried to put it in gear but the transmission had turned to stone.
We had just enough wits left to dispose of the remaining tallboys before the police arrived. We decided to drink them.
When the highway patrol officer arrived, he asked if I had been drinking. It was a reasonable question. The inside of the car smelled like a brewery. I denied having more than a beer or two and belligerently demanded a blood test. Maybe it was the end of his shift. Maybe he didn’t want the aggravation. Maybe because only a single vehicle was involved and no one was injured, he decided to drive us home rather than to jail. I had no reason to expect leniency. I was lucky. I suspect our lives are largely the result of luck, good or bad. It could have been vastly different that night. The same could be said about the fire.
It wasn’t actually a forest fire but it did burn almost 1,000 acres.
It began late in the season when the grass was tall and dry as tender. I was burning the week’s trash when a breeze came up. Hot ash sparked the grass. I had a sickening moment of panic when I realized the fire was spreading and I couldn’t contain it.
The fire raced uphill, a flash fire burning through the grass and brush that had accumulated for years. County firefighters soon arrived, then late in the day, World War II bombers appeared over the valley dropping red fire retardant. The valley was too narrow for the B17s to fly level. They banked and twisted as they bombed the fire. In the setting sun, it looked like the sky was on fire, like Ragnarök.
No structures were damaged and no forests burned but a 1,000 acres of grass were incinerated. Someone had to pay. The Yuba County District Attorney decided it was me. The sheriff took me to the county jail handcuffed in the back of a patrol car. A public defender represented me. I appeared in court dressed in a three-piece suit I’d worn to my high school grad night and pleaded not guilty. I was many things—frightened, careless, callow, never before in trouble with the law, but I was guilty. They wanted $100,000.
The arson investigator identified the source of the fire as the spot behind my house where I burned my trash but couldn’t identify me as the cause. Sunlight focused through a shard of broken glass might have sparked the flame. Perhaps the DA recognized collecting $100,000 from a bush vet living in a trailer without electricity or running water was less likely than squeezing blood from a stone. Eventually, they dropped the charge for lack of evidence.
I don’t know how many times my life has pivoted on chance. The outcome wasn’t because of my intelligence, virtue, or righteousness. I was lucky. Others weren’t.