Taking a perfectly good car and intentionally beating it to death for fun is a crime against nature, but if the car you're set on obliterating is already well on its way to that great junk heap in the sky, why not have a little fun with it?
I've told you how my idiot friends and I came to be in possession of one of the most worthless cars known to man, a done-in 1977 Mercury Cougar sedan. Now I'll let you in on how we destroyed it. Day-to-day hooning didn't help the car, but one set piece-worthy flailing hammered the final nail into its figurative coffin. A week of offroading, drag racing, and a 100+ mph flight down an interstate hit the nail right on the head.
(Disclaimer: As I mentioned in part one, this story is an example of what NOT to do in life. If you've already done this crap, hat tip to you. If you haven't, there are better ways to have fun that don't involve acting like a complete dumbass.)
To reiterate, I had somehow talked three of my friends (Jersey Joe, Joe#2, and Psycho Dave) into buying the Cougar for $50 a head from a used car lot/whorehouse in a backwater town on the Rappahannock River just outside of Fredericksburg, Va. our freshman year of college. We had named it the Beast, after Milwaukee's Best, our favorite beer. Well, that and because it was an ugly wreck on wheels.
When we brought the pathetic piece of Detroit ineptitude we'd found back to campus, the first thing we wanted to do, naturally, was show it off to all of our friends. This was in the late '90s, and no one really had cell phones then, but I managed to orchestrate a welcoming committee in the parking lot behind one of the dorms.
A group of about ten or so of my swimming teammates and other curious onlookers had assembled next to a dumpster. To be fair, they were all on their way out to do other things anyway, and weren't all that excited by the prospect of seeing a miserable late '70s beater putter onto campus. So I figured they'd appreciate it if I did something to spice up the event a little. As they came into view, my mind raced to think of something.
Five miles per hour seems slow until you're about to hit something. Then, in the last seconds before impact, everything speeds up and things become, ever so briefly, more exciting. Slowing down to about that speed as I entered the parking lot, I aimed the nose of the car toward a dumpster, making it look like I was going to stop the car in front of it. Only I didn't. I ran into it full force, prompting screams of "Look out!" and "WHOA MAN!" just before the bumper plowed into its grease drizzled blue metal.
The dumpster moved back about six feet, prompting a weak round of skeptical clapping and "you're-a-dumbass-Preston" chuckles. Dave and Joe #2 offered their approval with whoops of delight, and Jersey Joe added to the car's overall disgustingness by pissing himself in the back seat. So I decided to keep the gag going by doing a burnout.
After backing up about 30 feet, I put the car in neutral, applied the brake, and buried the accelerator pedal. The engine made the most obscene high-pitched rattle-howl I've ever heard, and a cloud of blue smoke began to billow behind it. When the motor had picked up enough speed to really get the back tires going, I clicked the shift lever into drive. Not much changed. The engine continued its high-pitched roar, but the car didn't move. The smoke turned a thick black color, the roar continued, and the car still didn't move, so I let off the gas and put it in park. The tailpipe had left a huge soot stain on the pavement.
My teammates stood with their mouths agape, muttering to themselves about what a piece of shit the car was. One of the upperclassmen in the group grinned, then got serious.
"You got insurance for this thing, right?" he asked.
We sure didn't, and we weren't planning on getting any either. He kept hounding us about it for weeks, but by some rare stroke of luck, the forces of nature decided not to check our brash behavior, and we never got pulled over and managed not to crash the thing (unless intentionally, into other uninsured objects like trashcans, mailboxes, small trees and big blue dumpsters).
Spring break was coming, and the crap car owner collective — minus Jersey Joe, whose balls had been lost somewhere in the Pine Barrens before the dawn of his tenth birthday — was discussing taking our new ride on a road trip somewhere. North Carolina? Ocean City, Md.? West Virginia? Florida even? The possibilities were endless (and showed how limited and crappy the scope of our collective imagination was at that point in life). We even took the Beast to a local service station for an oil change. The mechanic, an old guy that looked a lot like Red Fox in Sanford and Son, scowled at us as a thick stream of pitch black, chunky oil gurgled out of the car's oil pan.
"Man, how much you guys pay for this piece-a shit?" he said, looking at the car's cardboard 30-day tags.
We looked at the floor, and someone murmured something about having dropped $200 on the car. One of us wondered aloud what the source of the loudish, metallic rapping sound that came from the engine when it was under load was.
"That mean it gonna fall apart," he said, shaking his head. "You couldn't pay me to take this mothafucka. I wouldn't drive this thang too far outta town, but y'all can do whutya want, I 'spose."
Although none of us were too concerned about his warning that the car might spontaneously combust and disappear into thin, albeit really sooty air, we were all 18 or 19, and had no money anyway. So no road trips.
For my part, my parents expected me to come home for the week, where I would spend my cluster of free days as a temp, filing things for imaginationless corporations amidst office parks and dowdy suburban homes in humdrum Fairfax County, Va. It felt like a bit of a sentence, but at least it paid. At any rate it was fitting for someone who raised so much hell while off the leash a mere hour and a half away from home to be assigned to something more or less responsible for a few days as a reminder of what normal people are supposed to act like.
So there would be no high speed runs down country highways, late night bouts of drinking with Tennessee hill folk, Panama City beach parties, or chasing girls (and most likely getting beaten up by their brothers) in obscure towns we'd never been to. With the exception of Jersey Joe, who was to travel to an equally boring New Jersey suburb, the crap car owner collective was to transport itself back to our clean, safe, unexciting homes.
Since buying the Beast had been my idea, the responsibility for hiding it somewhere during break rested on my shoulders. So I was the one who had to drive it back to Fairfax County, park it on a side street somewhere, and get a friend to pick me up and drop me off in front of my parents' house so that they'd think I was just arriving from campus. All of us kept the acquisition a secret from our parents — all except Joe #2, whose mother thought it was hilarious as long as the thing didn't spend the week parked in front of her house.
Without Psycho Dave and the two Joes, the car sat on a quiet, wooded cul-de-sac, waiting to be hooned. I was supposed to wait for the other two, and although my days were spent in fluorescent bulb lit offices doing mindless busywork, nights were the province of my scheming 18-year-old mind. My best friend — another Dave — had another year left in high school, was still in town, and was full of ideas, too. Not having any financial stake in the car, his designs were a bit more reckless, but I was into them.
Finally, on the last night before I was to go back to school, I found myself creeping out of my parents' house at midnight, ready for a night of adventure. The Beast was only a five minute walk from home, and my heart raced as I climbed in and turned the key. The engine roared to life, upsetting the suburban stillness, and I trundled away to pick up Dave.
We had no plans, but Dave had a handful of friends with him — three douchebags from another school who were, if you can believe this, even more worthless than we were. But one of them had an uncle who fixed Saabs and bought beer for us, so they were the kind of friends we needed at that time, regardless of whether or not they ever had anything interesting to talk about (which only a precious few do at that age). So everyone piled into the car, cigarettes were lit, beers cracked open, and the marauding began.
With no plans on destroying anything in particular, we cruised over to another neighborhood, realizing it was where the hated high school band director lived. Yes, the same guy who made us, whether we wanted to or not, march around in capes and fuzzy hats like a bunch of jackasses for the privilege of playing musical instruments in the normal, sit down band. It was clear what needed to be done. I backed up onto his lawn, put the car in drive, stepped on the brake pedal, and mashed down on the accelerator.
This time, in addition to black, sooty smoke, the wheels began to spin on the dewey grass, and the back end of the car sank a bit as it dug in and hit pay dirt. Once chunks of sod began to fly, I eased off the brake and pointed the car's long nose toward the road. Looking out the window as we sped away, I could see a brown streak where one of the tires had dug a rut into the grass. The streak turned black when it hit the sidewalk, brown again as it ripped up that little strip of grass the mailbox lives on, then black again as it hit the curb and disappeared out on the road's pavement.
After some more indiscriminate trashcan bowling and other awful pranks peculiar to bored high school students, we thought of something better: we would take the Beast offroading. One of Dave's friends suggested a patch of overgrown land near the Redskins training field in Ashburn, Va. Sounded good to me, and it was only 3 a.m., so off we went. In those days, the space between Ashburn and Dulles Airport was a huge swath of treeless, but still undeveloped land that looked like it was slated for new office parks of the type Northern Virginia is full of — stacks of brick and shiny glass surrounded by parking lots and strategically placed pine trees. The very definition of dull.
Reaching the end of a desolate road, we pulled up to the gate, turning left onto a wide expanse of rank, muddy land that would one day be prim and teeming with Camry driving office park workers. The Beast lurched and groaned as it hit small rocks and raked over baby pine trees, and we stayed close to the road as the car picked up speed. But the guys quickly grew bored of that, and shouted for me to take the car into the middle of the field. It looked wet, but I did it anyway, knowing I'd made a mistake as soon as I turned the wheel.
The car began to bog down, so I quickly steered back toward the road, stomping on the throttle to get us clear of the bad spot. The car fishtailed, and rocketed toward the road, nearly making it onto dry pavement before it stopped. I ground my right foot into the floor board desperately, trying to get the old wreck to make it that last few feet, but it was no use. The more I pushed it, the lower the back end sank.
We got out of the car to see how bad a scrape we were in. The car's bumper was on the ground, and its back wheels were buried. We tried everything from rocking it back and forth to digging under the wheels with tire irons and jamming rocks beneath the rubber, to digging a hole for the jack and jacking up the rear bumper (the jack ended up sinking, too, lost for all time in the mire). Nothing worked, it was 4:30 a.m. and we were in the middle of nowhere.
As I mentioned before, no one had cell phones then, and we were miles from anywhere, so there was no way to reach out to anyone. While Dave and his friends continued to try getting the car unstuck, I struck out across the field toward a lighted building about a mile away. Maybe, I thought, it would have a phone, or a security guard who would let me use one.
The light was coming from an office building, which was locked up for the weekend. I walked around its expansive girth, noticing a shoplike entrance on one side. It was a post office, and even better, there was a pay phone in the portion that the Postal Service leaves unlocked for letter deposits. I didn't have any money, and immediately dialed 0 to ask the operator for a collect call. I knew just who to ask for a ride.
"Hello?" the voice on the other end croaked. It was Joe #2's dad, and he sounded pissed.
"Hello sir, it's Ben, and I'm sorry to bother you, but I really need to speak to Joe."
"It's five in the morning Ben, and it's not at all appropriate to..."
"Sir, I'm really sorry, this is an emergency and I really need to speak with Joe."
He sighed, grumbled something about damed kids, and shuffled off to rouse his son.
An hour later, Joe arrived, driving his white early '90s V6 Camaro. He looked at the Beast, sitting forlornly in a jumbled mess of mud and weeds, shook his head in disbelief, and sighed one of those laughs that was tinged with incredulous disgust. It was clear that his old man had given him the business for our
late night early morning collect call.
"Jesus you guys are fucking stupid."
Six of us had to pack into his tiny car, but we were too grateful for the rescue to complain, our elbows jammed into ribs and faces as we sped away from the forsaken Beast. I was soaked from the waist down after tramping through a mile long stretch of overgrown wasteland, and the other guys were covered in mud from trying to get the car unstuck. But we made it to our respective houses without further incident, and I managed to creep into the house and climb back into bed at about 7 a.m., just before my parents woke up. They drove me the hour and a half back to school later that morning, none the wiser regarding the pointless idiocy that had gone down as they slumbered.
There was really nothing we could do about the car, and I had planned to abandon it as a sort of careless offering to the Redskins, a team none of us gave two shits about anyway. But as luck would have it, the guy whose uncle fixed Saabs had a tow truck, and while I was down in Fredericksburg, trying to forget about the whole thing and actually focus on academics for a change, he got his uncle to pull the car out of the mud pit for us. Academics would have to wait. It was time for another trip up north.
Throughout the month of March, Virginia's weather is anything but predictable. It ranges from the chilly and warm sides of cold to the extreme, usually favoring bitter cold. While spring break had been mercifully pleasant, winter's flinty gray skies returned a few times the next week, giving the Old Dominion a reminder that cold and miserable hadn't quite given us permission to take our leave of them. On a warm Saturday afternoon a couple of weeks after my ill advised offroading trip in Redskins country, the two Joes, Psycho Dave and I piled into Jersey Joe's Topaz and headed north to retrieve our battle wagon.
The tow truck driving uncle had left the car just around the corner from my parents' house, within view of my bedroom window, but not the rest of the house. We drove up to it from a side street, doing our best to avoid any encounter with my parents, who would, of course, want to know what the hell I was doing there (I wasn't known for surprise visits home, or any really, other than the ones required by school breaks).
The car looked about the same; its primer gray body and peeling vinyl roof lurking sadly in the gathering gloom. It was clean, though, which was a first during our ownership of it. Dave and his friends had taken it to a car wash, which, as he explained to me on the phone, had washed all of them, too. The window seals didn't really work anymore, and water had poured in around the edges while they were trapped inside the car for five minutes or so. Everyone got soaked.
What he hadn't told me was that the car had been smoking like one of those chimneys in a lithograph depicting a 19th century coal town when they'd parked it. But it didn't do anything out of the ordinary when I turned the key to fire it up, so none of the rest of us even thought to open the hood and check everything out. It clattered and roared to life, a thin, black cloud settling onto the pavement as we rolled away.
The two Joes rode in the Topaz, and Psycho Dave with me in the Beast. Ideally, we all would have been in one car to prevent the kind of factionalism that can arise when a group of teenagers are separated into even the mostly subtly defined groups. The tomfoolery began in earnest when we stopped for gas about 30 minutes into the trip. Joe #2 jumped out of the Topaz, ran to the front of the Beast, and ripped off its hood ornament with a rusty screwdriver he'd found somewhere.
"Hey what the fuck?!" screamed Psycho Dave. Joe #2 cackled as he jumped into the car beside Jersey Joe, who smiled placidly from the drivers seat of his car.
Before we got on the road, I suggested a shortcut; a wooded stretch of two-lane byway that would take us directly to interstate 95 at a little river town called Occoquan. From there, it was a straight shot to Fredericksburg.
It was fully dark by that time, and as I sped after Jersey Joe down the road, I figured I'd better get in front of him, since he'd probably get lost without Wawas and 7-Elevens on every corner to guide the way. The Beast's engine sounded like a blacksmith's hammer as I sped around him on a blind curve.
I wasn't in the lead for long before I saw his lights wag back and forth a few times, then lurch to the left as he prepared to pass me. I let him get almost even with the Beast before I dropped the hammer. The car spewed smoke and knocked loudly, and for a moment, Jersey Joe's Topaz nosed ahead. But his lead didn't last, and the Beast's tired 302 pulled it gradually forward.
I'm not sure how long we were engaged in this tussle, but on a dark, forested road with a double yellow line down the middle, a few minutes seems like an eternity. So I grabbed my lead and pulled ahead, leaving Jersey Joe to settle in behind me. To his credit, he actually stayed there for a few minutes.
But as these things go, responsible driving was out of the question, and he tried to pass me again. This time, I swung the wheel, pulling the Beast into the left lane to block him. He inched forward, nosing into the right lane beside us and pulling slightly ahead. It was then that Psycho Dave noticed that Joe #2 had moved to the back seat; the gunner's position in a trash filled heap like Jersey Joe's Topaz.
Joe #2 had already gained notoriety as a backseat antagonist on another multi-car road trip to JMU some months earlier, when he had mooned the following car (which was full of other imbecilic friends, and not random motorists) multiple times, chucking fast food trash, papers, and anything that wasn't bolted down out the window at them. We braced ourselves for the barrage.
First came the papers, of which there were a lot. Jersey Joe didn't actually buy into the whole recycling movement, but had turned the back of his car into the equivalent of a municipality's paper collection center. Then came the notebooks. Pages and cardboard stuck to the windshield as we sped along, and Psycho Dave and I did our best to peel them off with the windshield wipers and by sticking our hands out the windows. We knew it was time to fight fire with fire.
There wasn't any paper in the Beast, but as I pulled up alongside Jersey Joe's Topaz, I directed Psycho Dave to feel around under the passenger seat for a loose Taco Bell soft taco I knew was mouldering away down there. He found it, wincing as his fingers dug into the soft, wax paper covered blob.
"Fire!" I yelled, and he chucked it out the window. It was a direct hit. The taco splattered into the middle of Jersey Joe's windshield, its paper wrapper flying off as chucks of
dog food ground beef slid across the glass. We howled with delight as we saw his wipers flick on, doing nothing besides smearing greasy meat back and forth. The Joes fell back, and Psycho Dave and I luxuriated in our small victory.
But the Joes too were back for more a minute later, this time with a cardboard poster tube Joe #2 had dug up. A couple of cars whooshed by in the opposite direction, breaking the road's pervasive solitude for a few moments, then we were back to our battle stations. Joe's Topaz sped by, and the tube danced off of our windshield when Joe #2 threw it, missing its target, which was probably the side of Psycho Dave's head.
I didn't let them keep their lead, and flew past them another time. Sheets of paper flew out the Topaz's back window, largely missing us before they disappeared into the night. Psycho Dave thought we were out of ammo, but I pointed to a small, dark box sitting at his feet; the defunct heater controls, which our stump-toothed friend Forrest had replaced with a control box that now swung from beneath the dash by a few wires. We shot each other meaningful looks, experiencing the sort of grave realization Harry Truman and his staff must have felt when they knew it was finally time to unleash the hell of the Manhattan project and put an end, once and for all, to a foolish conflict.
Backing off on the throttle, I slowed the Beast, and slid into the left lane again. Jersey Joe was still a good 30 or 40 yards behind us.
Mimicking the movements of a World War I bombardier he may or may not have seen on a History Channel documentary, Psycho Dave pushed the metal box over the side of the door, sticking his head slightly out the window to monitor its progress. No lights from oncoming cars approached, so I squinted, turning my attention to the rear view mirror. Sparks appeared as the box danced across the tarmac. Jersey Joe's headlights swayed back and forth wildly as he swerved to avoid our improvised weapon. Luckily, the thing ended up in the ditch and didn't put other motorists in danger. Jesus, how we survived our own stupidity and managed to avoid maiming or killing anyone else will forever stand as one of nature's great mysteries.
Held in check by the spirit of recklessness aboard the Beast, Jersey Joe stayed in the back position until we'd reached the freeway. Then, with four lanes of open road and not many cars around, the race began anew, reaching speeds over 100 miles per hour if the shaky needle beneath a pane of yellowed glass on the dash was to be believed.
But as I buried the Beast's accelerator pedal for another pass, the car made a sickening lurch, and the engine became much noisier. Some grayish pink smoke began billowing from under the rear bumper. Neither Psycho Dave nor I cared, and we looked at each other, shrugged, and I re-mashed the pedal. CACK CACK CACK CACK CACK CACK CACK!!!! We breezed past the two Joes, the smoke cloud thickening, then slowed down to a more reasonable 70 mph cruising speed. It was then that I noticed that the temperature gauge was creeping into its small red danger zone. The car began to lose power, and slowed more.
Jersey Joe took advantage of our reduction in speed to fly by again as the Beast's engine sputtered and died. We honked the horn and flashed the lights hoping they'd slow down, and I cranked and cranked on the engine until the lights were dim. But they were in race mode and didn't take our distress call as anything more than horsing around. We had lost the race. Comeupance, it seemed, had caught up with us as the car rolled to a halt 15 miles from Fredericksburg.
I turned the key again. Nothing. Psycho Dave and I sat there for a while, wondering what to do — remember, no cell phones — and I cursed myself for not checking the car's fluids while we were at the gas station. We'd been too busy fucking around to take the time for this simple, if vital ritual. Since it had been a warm day, we were dressed in T-shirts and flip flops, and began to shiver as the air, no longer heated by the musty fumes wafting from the Beast's radiator vents, sank to late winter temperatures. Standing out on the road next to the car, we paced back and forth, rubbing our goose bumped arms to stay warm in the damp chill.
A few hours later, a state trooper stopped and called us a tow truck driver. We'd been able to restart the car and drive it another three miles, but there was to be no recovery from the second halt. When the tow truck driver arrived, we talked him into letting us ride in the car up on the flatbed, enjoying a nice monster truck view as we cruised the last few miles toward school.
As we sat in the car, watching dark interstate slide by six feet below us, Psycho Dave rummaged around under the seat and pulled out a couple of tire irons.
"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" he said, flashing an evil grin that was the reason we called him Psycho Dave.
Without hesitation, we began smashing the interior of the car with the tire irons, dodging bits of flying glass and plastic and coughing from the moldy dust coming from the freshly perforated seats. By the time we got to school, it was late, and the car's interior was completely wrecked. Don't ask me what kind of problems we had as children, because I think anyone would have gotten some gratification out of that sort of wanton destruction.
The tow truck driver dumped the car, facing the wrong direction, on the side of the road across the street from the Mary Washington College's main gate. The engine never started again. It was all seized up, and most of the oil had leaked out through a crack in the block. When a guy from the local junkyard picked it up a week or two later, six or seven parking tickets lined the windshield. Luckily, I persuaded the police department into voiding them (in light of the car's unfortunate mechanical issues), but I did have to pay back my three friends for the destruction of a group project. The Camaro haired lady at Steve's, upset that they wouldn't see their final $50 installment, threatened to call their lawyer.
"Buena suerte," I said into the phone, laughing as I hung up. That was the last we ever heard of it.
It took several extra shifts at the campus dining hall to get some money to pay back my friends, but all in all, I'd say it was a worthwhile experience. While Psycho Dave and I — plus some friends who weren't really members of the derelict car club — were the only ones who really got to "enjoy" the Beast, we'd really done a thorough job of driving it into the ground. Besides, we got into plenty of other trouble that was more equitably distributed amongst the four of us.
The only regret I have is that no one had the foresight to snap a photo of the deceased car before the junk man hauled it off.
Photo credit: Ford Motor Company via oldcarbrochures.org; motoclassifieds.com