Dangerspouse Rides Again

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Garage - Track

Dec. 19, 2014 - 11:13 a.m.


Ok first off, will everyone please stop eating eggs? Rising demand and humane chicken laws are making my morning 12-egg Atkins Souffle Supreme prohibitively expensive. Not to mention my egg tempera hobby. (But the new bedroom fresco looks KILLER. Despite what NewWifey(tm) says.)

Thank you.

Now then:

When I was 17 years old I wrecked my father's 1964 Triumph TR-4.

My dad, half English on his mother's side (Lancaster City representin', yo!), always felt kinda beleaguered by his wife's very extended, very loud, very close, and very Italian family. Italian-American family. There's a difference.

He loved them, the whole boisterous, effusive, arm waving, tomato sauce covered lot of them. But every now and then he needed a break from the bellowing, the grappa, and the fighting. He needed some English, in other words. So now and again he would grab me and we'd sneak down to the basement and listen to old tapes of "The Goon Show" and play some darts and maybe have a Pimm's Cup or Stone's Ginger Wine, or maybe a tiny dram of the Madeira he kept in a decanter next to his boxed Walpole volumes. It was a refreshing respite from the garlicky mayhem upstairs and always bolstered him considerably. He was usually good for 2 or 3 weeks after that before needing another.

The other island of Englishness that my dad took refuge in was his car. We had a Volvo station wagon and a Dodge mini-van in the driveway, but if you opened our one-car garage and lifted the blue tarp inside, you'd uncover a 1964 Triumph TR-4 in pristine condition, British Racing Green, with real spoked wheels and all the trimmings.

That car was the love of his life ("...after you kids and your mom...of course." he'd add if my mom was within earshot). Although it was in showroom condition, it wasn't in original condition. With his background heavy in both racing and mechanics, he couldn't resist the modification bug. Over the years that little pocket rocket got ported and polished, had its head milled, pulled hole shots with a Borg & Warner clutch, breathed through Weber side-draft carbs, stuck better on Koni shocks, and benefited from a ton of other things I can't remember. He used to tool around on nice days with the top down and a leather tonneau cover snapped over everything but the driver's seat. In his mind I just know he was chasing Blofeld down some English country lane, and as soon as he got in range he was gonna flip the switch that opened the Gatling gun ports.

When I turned 16 years old I got my driving learner's permit. That meant I could only drive with a fully licensed driver next to me. At 17 I would be clear to fly solo, assuming I passed the 3-minute state driving test. That was kind of a joke since my dad, thrilled at finally producing a male heir after 4 daughters, had taught me how to use a stick shift before I could walk. By the age of 14 I had not only been racing motorcycles already for 3 years, but I'd been slinging my aunt's cast-off Datsun B210 across the fields around our house for 5. When I was issued that learner's permit I was probably already good enough to trophy at regional rally events.

Nonetheless, the law's the law. So at 16 I puttered along in the Volvo, very carefully, with my Mom beside me pointing out every yield sign and School Zone. I nodded and chewed my lip til it bled, until one day I was 17 and not required to put up with her any more.

By then I'd managed, through ferocious dint of self denial, to amass 800 dollars from my various summer jobs. Even back then though, 800 dollars would not get you much more than a bicycle. So my parents graciously pried open their checkbook and parted with just enough lucre for me to purchase a greatly used, bright orange Volkswagen Beetle. One of the original ones, with the air cooled motor and suspension that folded inward if you took a turn too tight.

I hated it. It had an air cooled motor, and suspension that folded inward if you took a turn too tight. I always took turns too tight. And it was orange. And my friends all had sports cars. And my friends all got girls.

So whenever I could, I took my Dad's TR-4. Usually I asked permission first. Usually. And usually he was thrilled to see his boy following in his footsteps. Usually.

But there were times where I did NOT ask his permission. Times, like, when my parents were away and it was impossible to reach them (this being the paleolithic pre-cellphone age). I figured my intentions were pure. I would have asked had they been considerate enough to be home when I needed them. But since they weren't, I would sneak into their bedroom and grab the key to the Triumph from under the lamp on my father's nightstand and head down to the garage.

This arrangement worked very well for almost exactly 1 year. I got permission to drive the Triumph when I asked, and when I took it anyway no one was the wiser.

That is, until 353 days after my 17th birthday. On that bitterly cold January afternoon, January 15 to be exact, my parents had just left to watch one of my talentless sisters squeal her way through a clarinet recital. I immediately phoned one of my dirtbag buddies and told him I was picking him up in 5 minutes. I snatched the keys, ran down to the garage, yanked the tarp, and took off.

A block and a half from my house I came around a left turn on Evelyn Drive, hit a patch of ice, and wrapped my Dad's 1964 British Racing Green Triumph TR-4 around a phone pole.

I'm still amazed at how fast it happened. One second I was downshifting from third to second, the next I was impaled on the passenger side door handle. The Triumph slid sideways into the pole, hitting it right at the midpoint of the car. The right side collapsed as the front and back ends curled around the pole til they almost touched on the other side. It looked like a giant green horseshoe scoring a ringer.

I climbed out of the horseshoe and looked myself over. Nothing. Just a small welt where that door handle pegged me. God bless 17 year old, 90% cartilage bodies. That car's only safety feature was a lap belt. No shoulder belt, no air bags, no ABS, no cup holder. Not even a full seat. It had half buckets that only rose to just below your shoulder blades. I felt very grateful to be alive.

That is, until I saw my mom and dad coming down the street in the Volvo. They had forgotten their tickets to the recital and were hurrying back to get them.

Needless to say, they missed the recital.

My dad stopped the car in the middle of the street, but he didn't get out. He just sat there gripping the wheel, his forehead pressed into the windshield and his mouth wide open. I can still see it in my mind, the look on his face. It was a combination of wild eyed fear and stunned disbelief. No color at all.

No concern for his son at all, either. That was my mom's job.

She hopped out of the Volvo before it barely even stopped and ran across the ice sheet towards me. How women can stick like glue to any surface, even ice, while wearing heels, is beyond me. My mom was a master at it. She could ride a skateboard in stilettos if she had to.

Anyway, mom ran across the frozen sheet of death and grabbed me by the shoulders to look me up and down and make sure I was ok.

I was, so she let go with her right hand and immediately swung it with all her might against my left ear. "I'm gonna KILL YOU!" she screamed. "What the hell were you doing taking your father's car out without permission? I'M GONNA KILL YOU!!"

And she almost did. I got a pummeling on Evelyn Drive that day that rivaled anything I ever got in the boxing ring a decade later. My mom's Sicilian, and they don't forgive easily. I was just lucky we weren't back at the house or she would have gone into the kitchen and come back with a knife. As it was, she had to settle for the heel of one of those pumps. She stood there in one shoe and one stocking just absolutely flailing away at me for a good two minutes, screaming purple invective the entire time. Every light up and down the street flicked on, neighbors craning out windows to see what the ruckus was.

I'll state the obvious here: I did not hit my mom back. God forbid I should even try to move away from her. She would have run back to the house in her one shod foot and come back with the knife. That is, if my dad didn't kill me first. If he saw me raise a hand to my mother, well...the non-British side of his family is from Naples. If you thought Sicilians were unforgiving....

So yeah, I stood there and took it until her arm gave out and her voice went hoarse. By then the cops were arriving, having been called by one of the concerned neighbors. I'm not sure if they called because they saw a car wrapped around a phone pole on their street, or because they saw some kid getting the snot hammered out of him by a screaming lady with one shoe. Either way, they showed up. And when they did, my mom pointed to me and yelled "HE STOLE OUR CAR! I WANT HIM JAILED!"

My dad, meantime, was still frozen in place in the Volvo. The same rictus and stare, the white knuckle grip on the wheel not letting up. Finally one of the cops rapped on his window and he rolled it down.

"Your wife says this young man stole your car, but he says he's your son. Is that your son, sir?"

For the briefest of instants my dad tore his eyes away from the mangled metal heap that had previously been his 1964 Triumph TR-4 and glanced at me. He gave an even briefer nod to the cop and practically whispered "Yeah."

"Do you want to press charges? Did he steal your car?"

Again my dad had to pull his eyes away from his beloved car. But this time he looked at my mom. She was still standing there with a shoe in her hand, half raised in my direction.

I'll never know why but, again in a whisper, he said "No."

The cops called a wrecker to pry the Triumph off the pole, and when they did my dad had them tow it the block and a half back to our house, where they dumped it right on the front lawn. Fortunately the phone pole itself was undamaged, or I would still be paying it off now.

The next morning my dad went out to inspect the Triumph, to see if there was any way he could resuscitate it.

There was no way. Just no way. It was U-shaped. The frame was split in 15 places, the drive shaft was now 3 drive shafts, the long Borg&Warner transmission had spewed half its cogs and gears over half the cockpit, and on and on. She's dead, Jim.

After an hour he came inside and called the junk yard to come take it away. They gave him 30 dollars for scrap.

If I thought my mom's beating was bad, my dad's punishment was worse.

He did nothing.

I watched him stare out our bay window as the greatest vestige of his Britishness was dragged onto a flatbed and hauled off to the graveyard. I never saw my father's shoulders slump before. He stared out that window a good minute after you couldn't see the flatbed any more, then he turned and walked past me down the hall. I heard the basement door open, and I knew he was going down to have some sherry, or maybe a few bitters. Without me.

He never spoke of it, never asked me how, or why. Over the years my mom had occasionally let slip that my dad had gone through a bit of a hellion period in his youth, and some of the anecdotes hinted at his own misadventures with mechanized vehicles. So maybe he already knew why I did it, and perhaps even how. But that gave cold comfort. I would much rather have suffered a beating, no matter how severe, if it meant things could go back to normal afterwards. Instead I was sentenced to estrangement.

Oh sure, things eventually got better. Gradually, but they did. In a few weeks I was down in the basement again with him, slinging darts and knocking back bottles of Weston's cider. But I would catch him looking off into the distance during lulls in our conversation. I know it irked him that Blofeld was getting away and he couldn't give chase. And that hurt.

Years, decades, have passed since the crash. I went off to college, bummed around, then settled down. Dad got a car to replace the Triumph, but not a sports car, and not British. He worked at his job, retired, then my mom died. She died 3 weeks before I first met NewWifey(tm) online, in a motorcycle racing forum. Four years later dad drove up to Dangerhouse for our wedding.

In a Sapphire Blue 1972 Triumph TR-6, with the original redline tires on spoke wheels. (That pic is not his, btw.) He found it for sale online and just went for it. It was beautiful.

In the 13 years since, he's modded it out like he did the old TR-4. But it's a lot faster, with its 6 cylinders as opposed to 4, and better suspension and brakes. Strangely enough, I've never been invited to drive it.

And that brings me to the point of this whole, tortuous backstory.

My father is coming up for an extended visit tomorrow. He couldn't make it on Thanksgiving because of the big snowstorm, but now that the weather's broken he wants to make up for it with a 3-day stay. During which time he wants me to recreate the entire feast, down to the last olive. I told him I'd be thrilled.

And the last thing he said before hanging up the phone was, "I just saw your weather forecast for the weekend. It looks like it's gonna be pretty warm up there, huh? Ice certainly shouldn't be a problem."

I think he's gonna let me drive the Triumph!

Now if you'll excuse me I've gotta go buy a turkey, potatoes, butternut squash, chestnuts, some Dark Star Best Bitter, and a dart board. Wish me luck. And dry roads.





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