Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Gangster Car

Mike, the excellent self-taught trumpet player in our high school dance band, loved my 1946 Dodge. He called it our gangster car because, with the humped trunk and the bug-like profile, it resembled those mobster vehicles in the movies. Mike called it “our” car, that is, the band’s, and I didn’t mind. In fact, I felt some pride in being not only the bassist for the group, but the transporter as well.

One summer night in 1957 the Hi Fi’s, as we called ourselves, had a gig in a town about 12 miles from our home. We loaded the drum set into the trunk along with the guitars and amps The other instruments, including my old fashioned bass fiddle, we arranged inside the passenger section. The bass took up a lot of space, almost the entire car, with the body center rear and the neck stretching to the dash. All five Hi Fi’s bunched around and under it like well-dressed contortionists. It was Mike’s idea that we all dress alike--black slacks, white jackets, pink shirts-- and comb our hair like James Dean.

There was a great turnout for the dance, over a hundred people as I recall. We were thrilled to see so many there since we got a good percentage of the house. Our group played such popular tunes as “When my Baby Walks Down the Street (all the birdies go tweet tweet tweet),” “Sugar Blues” (Mike blew that one just like Clyde McCoy), “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” and our theme song, “Blue Moon.” The refreshments were great, the girls were pretty and friendly and the money was right.

After the event, Mike wanted to drive the gangster car back home and, being pretty tired from thumping the bass, I agreed. Mike was giddy from the successful evening and excited about driving like James Cagney, to whom he bore a striking resemblance. I never pushed the old vehicle over 50, since it started vibrating and making threatening noises above that speed. But that night when I looked across the neck of the old bass at the speedometer, it registered 65. Mike ignored the pinging, popping and vibrating, keeping the old Dodge floored, probably pretending to be running from the cops. About six miles down the road, the engine had had enough. It wheezed like a laryngitic banshee, coughed up a rod and threw pieces of blackened camshaft out like candy at a parade.

The mood changed instantly in the Dodge from joy to gloom. Mike was full of chagrin and remorse. All he could say was, “I’ll make this right, Dan.” We caught a ride on in to El Dorado in a pickup truck that smelled like pigs and the next day Mike and I towed the poor old Dodge to my side yard. I ordered and installed a rebuilt engine from Sears with music money. The abused but refreshed gangster car ran fine for another year before the rear end fell out. Mike wasn’t driving then. I sold the noble old vehicle for parts. I lost money but had already garnered many great memories.

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