Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Nowhere-A rough draft of a story I wrote a long time ago.

Excuse the typos. I just redid this story after lying dormant for decades.

Stephen McCarthy

Given the opportunity, I normally avoid these things like a colonoscopy. I’m mean, they are both a pain in the ass, right? At least a colonsocopy has a valid purpose and some benefit can ensue. A full on random, roadside Vehicle “Safety” Check? No way. Not if you’re driving a 1960 Triumph TR3 with a full race cam, Weber carbs, headers, loud exhaust and Brooklands windscreens. All that Go Fast Stuff has been banned for a decade. Illegal as all Hell to get. If, however, it’s on an old car, a really old car, it means that a) you got the car and the Go Fast Stuff long before the Committee for Public Road Safety was created, b) it came on the car in the first place, or c) are gonna have to lie through your teeth to keep your pride and joy. Lucky for me,  choices a and b apply. But still, it’s a pain in the ass and is bound to ruin a perfectly great day for a drive. Not that that’s allowed anymore.
No, since the CPRS took control of all things automotive, it may not be technically illegal to “just go for a drive” but they wield the Great Club Of Morality, and such activity is “frowned upon.” To be engaged in a frivolous activity is tantamount to heresy in this new world order, and although not directly punishable, your life can be made, well, difficult.
So, there I was. Humph. Ever notice how all the best stories start that way? Usually, stories that are not, well, exactly truthful? I swear though, this is all true. Really. I guess it would be good to start at the beginning, to give you a sense of the whole affair. It was May. The rains had stopped a week earlier and there was that special crispness in the air. Not the crispness of Autumn that is a harbinger of Winter, no the crispness of New Life. New flowers, newly mown grass, Love. A prefect day for a drive.
Just after dawn, I rolled the TR out of the garage. Undoing the dzus fasteners, I tilted the bonnet up, propped it and checked the oil, water, and brake fluid. Next the tires, including the spare, followed by the lights. Although I’d done this just a few days ago, as I prepped the Auld Crate for the anticipated drive, I did it again. If pre-flighting an airplane is a good idea, why not a car? Especially an old car. There was enough of a chill in the early morning air to make me grateful for the Nomex driving suit and the leather gloves. The goggles, helmet, and face scarf would also be needed. At least for a few hours. Later that day, layers could be peeled off as the day warmed up. I put the hood down, checking to see that the fasteners locked into place, opened the door and squeezed into the seat. I made sure the gearbox was in neutral, pulled out the choke, turned the key and pushed the starter button. The motor cranked over and I pumped the gas. It coughed to life, protesting the cold, early awakening, spitting back through the carbs a bit, then settled down to that well remembered burbly, rumbly lope. The oil pressure jumped up to its accustomed 75 psi, the amp gauge showed a charge, and it would be a bit before the water temp gauge budged. The gas gauge of course showed close to empty. The night before, I’d primed things and had added just a gallon to the tank. I’d have to endure a trip to the California State Gasoline Dispensing Facility, but that was no surprise. I’d saved gas coupons all winter and had the wad of cash necessary to fill the tank. I’d have to fill again for the return leg of the drive.
As the engine warmed up, I buckled up the shoulder harness and lap belt, adjusted my goggles, and settled my butt into the seat. In with the clutch, over and back for reverse, ease the clutch out and back down the driveway. Into the quiet dawn, streetlights still glowing, first gear, we burbled slowly up the street. Shift to second, nice and easy. Even so, a neighbor’s car alarm split the air, having been frightened by the rumble of a Real Car, its screams of distress doomed to be ignored. Plenty of time to stretch things out though. Now was for the warm up. Just like an athlete, the TR needed to get the juices flowing before doing any hard work.
Luckily, the CSGDF was close to home. Even luckier, it was one of only four that was open this early. Most were limited in their hours of operation, and none were open all night. Another lost nicety of civilized life- the All Night Gas Station. I rolled to a stop at the pump and to robotically controlled dispensing arm tried vainly to find the government mandated standard filler neck. No such luck. The TR demanded personalized attention. Having beeped and buzzed in confusion, the robot arm retracted, and as usual, damn near took my head off. Damn thing would never learn. The flashing red gyrating beacon brought out the usual pimply faced, androgynous teen, hair slopped over one eye, and surly of nature, having been pried away from facebook.
“You need help?”
“Yeah, the filler is in the middle of the deck lid. You have to guide the arm into it.”
I’d had to install a dry break filler to make the TR compatible with the new technology, but had hid it under the over sized Moon filler cap.
“You have to open the cap. Yeah, that’s the release there. No, there. That’s right, now just guide it in and fill ‘er up.”
“Fill it? Really?” Momentarily, the youth was drawn out of his self absorbed petulance. not many filled a tank of gas these days. Not at twenty bucks a gallon! Fifteen of which were taxes. Fourteen gallons, two hundred and eighty dollars and half my ration coupons later, and I was off.
The sun was now up, highlighting the Gabriel Mountains (the “San” had been dropped last year. Too religious) and fulfilling the promise of a glorious day. I turned on to the “freeway” (still called free, but there was a scanner that registered your car, which on ramp you took, then which you exited, then sent you a bill) and headed for The Crest Highway (yes, Angeles had been dropped as well). I’d planned the trip to hit The Crest before the driving limit would close it. Roads like The Crest were now deemed dangerous and special sensors and gates limited access. After so many cars, the gates closed. No one knew what the limit was. Most of us thought it was a random number, generated by a frustrated, soulless bureaucrat, knowingly exercising his random bit of Power over a hated world.
Up the mountain, I gave the TR her head, setting up my driving line with care, letting her drift a bit in the corners, then powering out. No heavy braking, just a nice, smooth assault on the laws of physics and gravity. As we flogged up the hill, all my senses were assailed by Nature. The Yellowbroom and Sage were in heavy bloom and their heady, floral scent filled the mountain air. The wind rushed by, battering my face with stinging sharpness. The vibrations of the road massaged my buttocks and back. The mountain side was a riot of color: yellow mustard, gray-green oaks, purple lupines. The light and shadows dappled the roadway, and the rising sun flashed blindingly one moment, then hidden by the mountainside, plunged us into darkness. A quick slide, ice! A flick of opposite lock. Catch her, hold her, power out, WHEW. Gotta watch those dark patches. Even in May, Ice hides in the shadows, ready to trap the unwary.
I was making good time, all alone on the mountain, mostly second and third gear stuff, left, left, right, slide a bit, hold it, then left again. I was becoming one with the car. The TR had become an extension of my body. linked through the steering wheel, the accelerator, the brakes and the seat of my pants. The ultimate interface of Man and Machine. So engrossed was I in this rapture, that I was taken aback by the flashing single headlight in my mirrors. Crotch Rocket! Somebody to play with! Another Road Warrior out to tilt at the mountain. This was the twisty bit, so, by stepping it up, tossing the Auld Crate into the turns, some hard braking and harder acceleration, I could keep my opponent at bay. Four contact patches of rubber will hold the road better than two every time. He was fully laid over, just touching his knees to the tarmac as we swept around the curves. We were definitely Hauling the Mail! All too soon, the road straightened out and I pointed him by. He dialed up the wick and was past in a flash, giving me a brief wave. A noble gesture to a worthy adversary.
I turned off the Crest to the Forest Highway, on my way towards Palmdale. It’s forty miles to Palmdale, and I try to do it in forty minutes. Usually forty-five. Aw shit! I forgot to start the stop watch! Yasee, those sensors that count cars? They also record exactly which car is on The Crest and HOW LONG IT TAKES THEM TO DRIVE IT! Yep, they have an ETA on you IF you are gong the legal speed. According to CPRS, those forty twisty, ever so dangerous and deadly miles must never under any circumstances be driven in anything under One Hour, Thirty Minutes. If you trip the sensor in anything less, you get a nasty letter and an even nastier fine. No appeal. Do it twice, you lose your license. I’d gotten one. Gulp! Now the secret to beating the system is to treat The Crest like a rally stage. Race along, have fun, then stop and wait out the time. The brainiacs in the CPRS think that they can remotely rule the road, “forcing” us to keep to “safe and sane” speeds this way. What they don’t know is that driving like this in not to get somewhere fast, it’s about enjoying the drive and the challenge. The real giggle is that a car/bike friendly entrepreneur opened a cafe on the backside of the mountain. We haul ass, have fun, then take that forty-five minutes we earned to have breakfast. After waffles and bacon, we trundle nice and easy past the sensor, perfectly “legal.” The key is to have a stop watch so you know how much time to kill. This is important because the Parks Service is hooked into this system. Spend TOO LONG, and you get a bill for accessing the “Public Lands!” You’ve only got just so much leeway, hence the stop watch. Uggh. I’ll have to guesstimate and err on the side of getting the Park Service bill. It’s cheaper and they don’t pull your license!
All this was flashing through my brain as I hooked up a glorious, perfectly controlled four wheel drift around a long left hand sweeper, just that hint of opposite lock tires, JUST on the brink of squealing in protest, ready to really open her up at the exit. And there he was, a quarter of a mile up the road. Cones in the road, lights flashing, waving me down. CRAP! Hell and damnation! The gynormous yellow signs screamed “VEHICLE SAFETY INSPECTION!”  “ALL VEHICLES STOP!”  “HAVE ALL DOCUMENTS READY!”
I shut things down in a hurry, adrenaline rushing through my body, my face burning with fear. Luckily, I wasn’t totally on the edge, so could maintain a bit of vehicular decorum. No lock up, no sudden moves, and thankfully, he didn’t have a radar gun on me. WHEW!
I sedately rumbled up to the CPRS Inspector, his silver trimmed black uniform eerily reminiscent of a dark time in history. He at least didn’t have a red arm band! I shut the engine off, and the sudden silence was unnerving. The Inspector slowly approached, the morning sun glinting off his mirrored sunglasses, exercising that ages old ploy of cops and bureaucrats everywhere. “Make ‘Em Wait for You.”
“Hold it a sec, sir, I can’t hear you.”
“Ear plugs! I’ve got ear plug in my ears. Let me get them out.”
I pulled up my goggles, and undid the chin strap of my helmet. I took the helmet off and prised out the ear plugs.
“Sorry about that, sir. I have to where them. safety regulations.”
That line always gets them. Inspectors live for people who obey Safety Regulations.
“That is certainly all right sir. May I now see your documentation for this, this Vehicle.”
The distain he had for the TR was dripping from his turned down mouth. His eyes glinted with expectant rapture. He had a live one! He could just feel the violations!
I started to undo the belts and open the door.
“Please Stay In The Car, SIR!”
They hate it when they can’t stare down at you. Especially if you’re a five foot six inch Inspector.
“Sir, my wallet is in my hip pocket and I can’t get to it unless I get out of the car.”
I was firm, yet polite. I got slowly out of the car. Round one to me. Barely.
“Sir, you should always have your documentation at the ready.”
Round two to The Inspector.
I got out my wallet and removed my driving license, then unlocked the glove box for the inch thick binder of Official Vehicle Documentation. this had everything. I mean Everything! Insurance (full coverage), thirty six separate waivers and exemptions, the whole nine yards. The CPRS figures that if they require reams of documentation, no one will bother to own an old car. HAH!
“It’s all there sir.”
“Let’s see,” he was certain there had to be an omission, “where’s the smog inspection certificate for this month?”
He had opened with a major attack, lunging for the heart straight off.
“Here is the Smog Inspection Waiver for cars, uh Vehicles over fifty years old,” I deftly parried.
“Ah, I see,” he hated to admit defeat this early in the match, “How about the secondary road tax certificate?”
“Page sixty four, in triplicate, as required.”
This guy was tough, he knew all the weird ones. The ones almost everyone let slide. I knew better. I had a friend who worked for the CPRS and now, having seen the light of reason, counseled old car guys on everything necessary.
Having lovingly gone through every page of the documentation, like a VoPo on the east side of Checkpoint Charlie, he turned his attention to the Triumph. His mouth ticked up on one side in a self satisfied smirk, his hands practically washed themselves like a melodrama villain. Laser beams of light hit my eyes, having bounced off his shades. How do they do that? They’re like a weapon those glasses. He began a slow walk around the car, ruefully shaking his head at the insanity of anyone idiotic enough to own,let alone drive such an obvious Death Trap. His first actual test was with the standard ride height block. It is inserted under the car at specific locations to see if a car is dangerously low to the ground. This is really why I got out  of the car. My extra 200 pounds might just make the car too low. Round Three to me!
This guy checked everything. Lights, horn (that made him jump, no polite toot comes out of those giant Lucas Windtone horns! A proper HONK, in harmony no less), turn signals, third brake light (I mounted one to the top of the roll bar), you name it, he tested it. He also seemed to deflate visibly as the TR passed every test. then he finally spotted the Booklands windscreens. He lit up like Times Square used to do on New Year’s Eve.
“THAT’S NOT A LEGAL WINDSHIELD!”  He was giddy with delight. A Major Violation.
“No, sir, it is well within the legal definition.”
“Those things are TOO SMALL!”
“No, sir,” I countered, “the Vehicle Code states quite clearly that al that is required is a quote- Adequate Windshield mad of approved safety glass. You can see the approved symbol on each, and I assure you, they are legal.”
“We’ll see about that! Supplemental Committee for Public Road Safety Regulation 356.75 states that the tops of all windshields be no less than .82 meters from the floorboards of a vehicle.”
I was sunk. I’ve never measured the damn things. He went to his Inspection Trailer for a tape measure. I noticed that the windscreens were raked back a bit as was customary. I quickly tilted them upright and prayed. I don’t know if he saw me adjust things, but the scowl on his face was not friendly. He unrolled the tape and stuck it down to the floor boards. Using a straight edge, he leveled off the top of the screen.
“Damn,” he muttered. His steely demeanor was about to crack. His shoulders visibly sagged.
“Eighty Nine Centimeters!”
I tired not to grin.
“Ok, I guess you passed. I’ll sign your Certificate of Compliance.”
Softly I asked him, “Please also include a date and time stamp. In time as well. We don’t want to upset the Parks Service, now do we?”
He glared at me.
He filled out the necessary paper work and handed me my copy. He looked the car over again, and as he did, his feature softened.
“This is an old TR3, isn’t it? My Grandfather had one. But that was before.”
“Really, pretty cool.”
“I remember it and the ride he gave me. Would you mind if I...sat in it?”
“Nah, go ahead.”
He opened the cut down door and settled into the bucket seat, feeling its sides grip him firmly. He reached up and held the steering wheel gently, his right hand falling to caress the shift knob. He sighed a bit, then struggled to get out. Always a challenge, even for me. I got in and did up my belts. I was about to put in the ear plugs when he asked me softly,” Where ya headed?”
“WHAT? Nowhere?”
The outrage had returned. No one went “Nowhere!” Everything had a specific purpose or destination.  The very idea of driving for the sheer joy of driving was completely Alien to him. It shocked him to his very core.
“Nowhere?” He asked again, a bit more softly, almost wistfully.
He slowly removed his reflective sunglasses, revealing melancholy brown eyes. The eyes of a Basset Hound. A sad Basset Hound. He took a deep breath and asked the question he never would have asked an hour ago, in a soft, human voice, filling with the possibilities of a whole new reality.
“Hey, buddy, how do I get to Nowhere?”

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