Midsummer’s Night Games

A little over a half-century ago….

hiway

The asphalt was still scorching from the brilliant western Oklahoma sun of the day. July, after harvest and the blistered fields are nothing but stubbles and loose sand. Ten at night and it still could burn bare skin. Under the car was blistering. I hurried to loosen the two big four inch iron dump caps to free the exhaust. Superheated, one by one they come off. Each one is kicked out from under the car to the side of the road.

Crawling out, I wiped my hands on my Levis. The chosen quarter mile track is a straight and narrow two lane side road. On the centerline side is a steady stream of local kids arriving for the race. It had been a long time coming. Anything in the middle of nowhere is big adventure.

***

The Summer of 1964. Graduation at Ponca City High School on May 8. An unforeseen occurrence; I had not expected to graduate. I still remember nervously waiting my turn to go across the stage for my diploma. Would “Bird Dog”, the High School principle, pull me from the line? Escort me to the door assuring my parents undying shame? My course credits were close, razor close to the requirement for the diploma. I needed every grade. My current ones were still borderline. Touch and go.

But, graduate I did. I believe PoHi did no service to it’s societal duty that night. I grabbed the scroll of ribbon-wrapped blank paper, loped across the stage and never looked back. “Thank God, I’m free at last!” I thought years before the good Doctor King spoke it. A day or two off and then to western Oklahoma to plow and harvest.

I packed my brand new 2 door hardtop Plymouth Satellite, metallic blue, with a couple of pillow cases. These contained most of the street worthy clothing I owned. A few hours drive across the endless straight roads. I drove fast, but not so fast. I arrived at the farm of Miles and Nellie Olson. Two finer people never walked the earth. Son Chet was my work partner for the summer.

First, I worked the harvest on Mile’s land and land he had leased from my grandfather, Grand dad was in his 80’s then and never a farmer. I figured that my job was a part of the lease of the wide wheat fields that Miles haggled over. After a few brutal hot and nasty days harvesting the golden wheat, we started the long job of plowing. I was a good hand, though. Daylight to dark we plowed.

We worked till darkness blanketed the fields. Then, to take care of the machines. Done. Off to clean-up and eat from the biggest table of food I have ever seen. Nellie Olson cooked in the old ways. She only fed Miles, Chet, and myself. There was always enough food for ten hungry men.

Big breakfast. Then, around ten, she spread a picnic for us under a shade tree in the field where we worked for a snack break. Enough food for all day. Wet towels furnished to wipe away the accumulated filth. Then, there was lunch under the tree. At four o’clock a welcome munch. It was hard work on those ancient crank-start machines with no air conditioning. The dust billowed around us and the engine heat bathed our bodies. The equipment was big arm-busters to drive and to hoss around. I was up to it.

***

Pick up the dump caps with a rag and toss them into the trunk with the huge pipe wrench I used to remove them. That old pipe wrench still hangs in my barn today. Slam the turtle hull. Now, to talk the rules or, rather, the complete lack of rules. Make sure we got a flagman/woman. The tiny road is barely wide enough to pass. Now are two muscle cars about to vie for space on it. I didn’t care it just added to the excitement.

The kids are crowding around the race cars. They want to be as close as possible to that release of power. To feel the pistons thunder in their ears and their bellies. To smell the raw smoke of burning rubber. To cram themselves into an adventure bigger than us all.

Hyped. That I was. The other driver also. Little David from Perryton, out in the wide Texas Panhandle. He and his beautiful Cherry red GTO. A magnificent little machine with the power of a F105 loaded with napalm. We had taken our time slowly getting here tonight. Anticipation made it so much better.

***

The potential problem of working on the Olson farm was the amazing lack of hours for socializing. Awake prior to the early summer dawn and working until after the late sunset. Had I not been young and a bit stupid, I might have tried to sleep somewhere in there. Nope, soon as chores were done, supper gulped and I cleaned my body, I was on the road.

Waynoka was the little local town. Few kids there. Very little action. I met kids there who were to be strong friends–and some enemies–for years. Two young ladies were of high interest to me. I dated them both, but eventually we wandered apart.

Another year passed. Summer of 1965. A blown year at college. Ronnie Bickle and I spent winter setting tombstones over the recently deceased. Anything for gas and a few bottles of booze. We lived in the once splendid, now abandoned, apartments over the downtown theater.

Alva, was another bird. Probably twice the size of Waynoka, or more. It had a regional college. Northwestern Oklahoma State University; a place of higher learning were I tried to learn, and failed. No, really, I never even tried. I registered and received my draft deferment and did not punish them with my physical presence after a couple of weeks. They were just as happy as I.

***

Doug Gourley. Bless his brave, but a little bit wide, ass. He volunteered to flag the cars off which would pass within scant millimeters of his plump of cheeks. I had the big car, the proven winner. The experience; I’d had it at the Woodward Drags. And I could drive. Not a brag, folks. I had the fastest speed shift of anyone on the roads back then. Any number of people would attest to that. The sound between gears was one smooth acceleration. I was proud of that. Something like a Beachboys song.

***

Alva had provided several opportunities in the way of girls. The first I chose was Vicky Perfect. Perfect…I guess I just wanted to know. She wasn’t, but she was plenty close to fill-in between tombstones. Her brother was a city cop at Ponca City. That gave me a little inside when I was back over the now and then. We got along fine. He was an ex-Marine and kept telling me what to expect when the draft board caught onto my little game and I got my butt sent to Vietnam.

He was a little prophetic in that. But, it was months and months down the road. Another lifetime in my own mind.

Some local Alva football jocks and I gravitated together over the summer. Good guys; lots of fun. Larry Richie had just broken up with a great looking cheerleader and encouraged me to take her out. Which I did. Beautiful, built, from a good local family. Kathy was great. I was even allowed to spend time with her clique of friends and own her family. Heady stuff for an outsider.

***

Popping the hood, I removed the breather and cover. Not an entirely great idea as a backfire could clean the top of an engine like a forest fire sweeping across the plains. It meant a tiny more power however. And, against Dave’s GTO, I would need each and every edge.

Slamming the hood, I turned back to David. “Ready?”

“Ready to lose, loser?” he said with a big grin.

No money rode on this effort. It was purely entertainment. For us, for all the kids lining the blacktop all the way to the end. From were I stood, I could see a crowd on the road, at the far end of the quarter mile. They were illuminated by car and truck headlights.

This is competition. A big one with expensive machines. There’s Davy and I, our cars, and the crowd with it’s expectation. We’ve all got roles. In other words, the adventure is bigger than any one of us.

“Let’s do it!”

****

Kathy was the girl I dreamed about. Why hell, all teenage boys dream of her or one just like her. However, she had plans. She wanted to be an airline stewardess. Boys, she thought, we game pieces on the board of life. She managed her world pretty well and eventually made her goal; good for her. I was a sweet summer adventure along the way and I appreciate that. Mostly, it was better the way it all worked-out.

I remember when we broke up. I was down a little. Not so much all things considered. Jane Farris spent some time keeping me up on Kathy’s new beau, not that I cared. What I cared about was Jane. She was a gorgeous girl. I wanted to date her bad. He stock reply was that “You are on the rebound from Kathy and she’s my friend.” I never overcame that objection. And, I regretted it long afterwards.

***

I had a pair of road slicks on the back of the Satellite. Bought them in Ponca City from a man who cooked them special. When hot, they gripped the road like adhesive. So, before each race, I would spin them up into a cloud of acrid smoke. Back and forth to the starting line. Until I could feel them digging into the asphalt. Only then did I give the nod to Doug standing tall in the center of the road. Probably scarred shitless that he was about to die. Ah, but, a glorious death.

Doug’s hand signals lined the cars up perfectly on the line. He steps back a step or two. Left hand raised, he twirls the index finger upwards. I pump the throttle and set the tach to 4000 RPM, exactly. He does the same with little Davy. I nod, Davy nods. Doug looks once again with arms held high.

Then with a flourish, he drops both arms and turns sideways between the two front fenders leaping at him.

***

I worked farms every year since I was tiny. First on my uncles ranches. Then my cousins dairies and hay fields. Finally, out on the western Oklahoma plains in the wheat fields. I had no idea what I wanted to be or do when I grew up. No idea at all. I was completely floating these post high school summers. I ran wild and chased fun up every tree in the forest.

I did a lot of bad things during those years. Not horrible things, but things which should not have happened. Vietnam was starting to hang over every unambitious, unattached male. It was a whispered place of hell. A place to steer clear of. Couple of friends had been there and brought back dark stories and tales of pain and senseless death. I ran faster.

***

My Plymouth leaped from the line on the soft rubber tires. Doug flew by like a grasshopper in the fields. No thought of him at all. No thought of anything except the screaming thunder emanating from under my hood. The sound is deafening. It vibrates through ever fiber. It is a wild primal force only marginally under my control.

The explosions of pistons filled the night air for miles. I could see the GTO in my rear view and intended to keep him there. Shift! First gear down to second. “Wham”, the rear end bottoms out on the rubber bumper above it. The entire front end of he car leaps towards the sky. Headlights streak into the night air weaving into the stars. The tires slip and smoke a bit. The car is high geared. The race is nearly done when it’s time to slam into third.

The solid line of kids along the roadside are a colorful blur. Dangerous, hell yes. Care? Hell no. As I flew by their clothes were sucked around their bodies, their voices a constant scream. Some must take a step to brace against the wind. Right about here, my blood transforms into a gaseous state. Adrenaline-laced, my veins burn like fire.

***

That was only one of several races that summer. I won most of them. A really big disappointing loss in Ponca. A Shelby Cobra, a real one, not the garden snake variety available at the local Ford dealer. One that had road raced. It ate my Mopar like a little frog on a lily-pad. A little loss is good for the soul.

A 409 Chevy eked out a win one night on the Interstate. These losses weren’t enough to sully the endless summer. The races were constant; the girls beautiful and aloof as they should be; the parties without end. Adventures at night and through the hot days. Even a fine late night fight to top it all off.

How could things get better? They didn’t.

***

When I slapped the Hurst shifter into third, the race was over. The Satellite blasted over the finish line. With the race won, I couldn’t shut it down. For another quarter I let the beast burn across the land. Finally, my foot backed-off the peddle. The screaming roar tapered back to an angry growl. I turned the car about and headed back to life.

A welcome back and then everyone loaded up and went back to what they were doing before they came out here. I hate the end. The better the race, the worse the let down. But, back to town and relive the race over and over again. Wait! I left Doug in the ditch. Race back to get him. Some girl talks in a constant stream in my ear. I have no idea what she is saying. The car is full, dumps still roaring. Doug, back aboard, is in his own universe. We all are.

And, then, we are back in town. Parked among a crowd. Everyone reliving their own part in the event. I don’t want to talk about it…I want to do it again. Davy comes by and shakes hands. We brag on each other’s cars. We recall how much fun it was. Even now, it is history.

***

I did get drafted. Inducted into the US Army in Oklahoma City, 6 Dec 66. Sent us home for Christmas and then caught a flight for Fort Bliss, Texas about the second of January. An all military flight. Some old cargo plane that flew low and slow over the Texas flatlands crammed new recruits. All at night. A full moon illuminated the plains below in a strange and mysterious glow.

Some fool has a radio which endlessly plays “The Green Green Grass of Home” by Tom Jones.

The plane was packed when I ducked through the doorway. Most places are taken by pairs of friends, old school buddies. I had none there. I had noticed a pale haired sullen faced kid. Athletic, I thought. Stay clear was the consensus. Most thought him a powder keg looking for a spark. I plopped down beside him in the double-seated row. He wasn’t talking. I took a shot and asked him where he was from.

“Perryton, Texas. Ever hear of it?” it was a challenge.

“Why hell yes. In fact I got a good friend there, David ___.”

The sullen neighbor immediately lighted-up. “Davy, he was my friend. Played sports, ran around together.”

“We were buds over at Alva when he was in class there.”

In an unexpected tone of soft reminiscence, he said, “Little Davy the Giant Killer. That’s what we called him. Got in a fight with a real big tall guy. Whupped him down….Little Davy did.”

“I can see that in him. He was always a good friend though.”

“You hear what happened to him?”

“Happened?”

“Davy’s dead. Died in a car wreck late one night outside town. Miss him.”

 

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